Travel Writer Mark Moxon Shares His Best Packing Light Tips and How to Stay Organized While Traveling

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Climbing Mt Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia (1997)

My name is Mark Moxon, and I’ve been a web-based travel writer since 1995, some four years before the word ‘blog’ was invented. I was a digital nomad for three years back in the mid-1990s, before anyone knew what a digital nomad was, and I’m still travelling, walking and writing, though at a rather more sedate pace than back in the day.

When I’m not travelling and writing, I’m a programmer. I’ve been bashing out code since 1981, so I must be doing something right.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark’s internet-savvy palmtop computer, complete with acoustic coupler for attaching to public telephones (1995)

How and why did you get into traveling?

I got into travelling when I woke up one day in 1995 and figured that there must be more to life than the admittedly enjoyable career I had in computer journalism. I wondered what it might be like living on the other side of the planet, and once I’d thought that, the thought wouldn’t go away… so eventually I decided to do something about it and bought a one-way ticket to Australia.

The original plan was to go away for up to a year, but three years later I’d not only explored a huge chunk of Australia, but I’d also driven around New Zealand, sailed halfway across the Pacific on a 36-foot sloop, and wandered overland through southeast Asia and into India, where I spent six months exploring what is still my favourite travel destination by far.

I got into long-distance walking in Australia and fell in love with it in New Zealand, which led to walks like the Annapurna Trail as I headed into Asia. But the big one was walking from Land’s End to John o’Groats in 2003, which gave me a whole new way of looking at my home country… and I followed that up by walking the entire London underground network in 2008, above ground, and station to station. That was some experience too.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Tracking down the family name while walking the entire London Underground network (2008)

How do you prepare for your adventures?

Actually, I’m a bit rubbish at planning things these days, as I learned how to do it when everything was paper-based – thick travel guidebooks, paper trail maps, that sort of thing. These days everything is digital, and even though I work in the field, I find the sheer amount of information out there for travellers and walkers a bit overwhelming.

But Google is still the main tool for my travel planning. It’s all out there, you just have to wade through mountains of rubbish to find it.

How do you finance your adventures?

I’m a programmer in real life, with my own consultancy business. It pays way better than writing in English, so I leave the travel writing on the ‘hobby’ pile and make my living buried up to my neck in code.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark keeping clean while exploring the rainforests of Indonesia (1997)

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

It depends. I tend to go on two different types of trip these days. The first isn’t travelling, it’s holidaying, and it normally involves a beach, sunshine, lots of books on the Kindle, and utter laziness. The traveller I was in my twenties would be pretty horrified to see the middle-aged me slacking around on a sun lounger when there’s a whole country outside the hotel gates to explore… but I work hard, and that means that sometimes I just need a holiday. And for me, that means doing as little as possible in the loveliest location I can find.

The second type is proper travelling. Most recently my wife and I spent six months travelling overland from Mexico to Colombia, and we stayed in a whole variety of places, from absurdly basic guesthouses to luxury hotels (though mainly the first type, as it was a long trip). We ate local food throughout, mainly from small restaurants and market food stalls, though I have to say the food didn’t really grab either of us, especially when compared to somewhere like southeast Asia or India.

These days I don’t take camping gear with me, as the countries on our bucket list are not really good places for tents. Camping in El Salvador, anyone? Perhaps not.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Falling in love with New Zealand on the remote Hollyford-Pyke Route (1996)

How do you bring your things with you?

I have a trusty Macpac travel pack for travelling, though for dedicated long-distance walks I have a top-loading Macpac Ascent Classic that is much kinder on the spine and shoulders. I got into Macpac packs when I started long-distance walking in New Zealand, and I’ve stuck with them ever since – they suit my back shape and have a great harness, which really matters.

The travel pack has a detachable day pack, and the main pack zips along the side rather than the top, which is way more convenient for travelling than the top-loader. You just zip the back off and there’s your stuff, so it’s easy to grab anything fairly quickly. With the top-loader, if you need something from the bottom of the pack, you have to remove everything above it, which is a real pain… but on a long walk, that’s not such a problem, as you tend to need very little during the day, and everything when you set up camp. The trade-off is worth it, though, as you can pack the top-loader with weight at the top, so your shoulders don’t get pulled back and strained. When walking over 1100 miles from Land’s End to John o’Groats, that kind of detail makes quite a difference.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark walking Land’s End to John o’Groats with his hat and Macpac (2003)

How do you organize things in your bags?

I wrap things in plastic bags, to keep everything dry, and then stuff the plastic bags in the correct spot – for walking, weight distribution is key, but for travelling it’s a bit more random. As time goes by, each bag finds its perfect spot, and from that point on everything goes back into the same place. I’m a really careful packer.

I also try to put the valuable stuff in my daypack, so the main pack can get tossed around by the crazy bus boys or thrown into the back of the desert flatbed truck without me wincing. The laptop, camera, paperwork, they all go into the daypack. I worry less that way.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
In the Sahara just outside Timbuktu (2002)

How do your bags and gear hold up?

Pretty well, actually. I’m only on my second travel backpack – I bought a new one in 1995 that lasted all the way through my first three-year trip, as well as a tough journey through West Africa a few years later, but it started dying on that trip, so I then bought my current Macpac, which is still going strong. They build ’em well in New Zealand.

That said, I always carry a needle and thread to sew up any rips and tears. They might start out small, but they don’t tend to stay that way.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark sitting amongst the rubbish on Amanu atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia (1997)

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

For travelling, I probably took too much to start with, but that’s such a long time ago that I don’t remember. I soon started keeping a list of things I had with me, not only as part of my travel writing, but for any insurance claims along the way (I got my stuff stolen twice on that first trip). I still have that list and use it as the basis for all my trips.

For me, the most important thing to pack when travelling is my writing system, whether it’s an ancient 1995 palmtop, a 2002 handheld, or a modern laptop. The whole point of travelling for me is to capture the memories, and I prefer to do that in word form (though I also take lots of photos, of course).

For walking, I nearly broke myself when I set off from Land’s End with far too much stuff in my pack. After a couple of weeks I injured my ankle, so I posted a load of stuff home, reducing my pack weight by half and making the rest of the walk not only possible, but much more enjoyable. As a result, I’m much more of a minimalist in terms of pack weight than I used to be – though that’s also got a lot to do with me getting older!

My favourite walking gadget is my trusty Katadyn Mini ceramic water purifier. I bought my first one in Australia over 20 years ago, and having access to pure water without having to rely on chlorine tablets is a wonderful thing. I was devastated when my first one finally died on me in a remote area where I couldn’t buy a replacement, but luckily the same model is still available today, so I soon got another one. I can’t recommend them enough.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark and his trusty bush hat in Mexico (2013)

What has been your best adventuring purchase below $100?

My Australian bush hat, though strictly speaking the first one was a present rather than a purchase. I consider him to be a friend rather than a possession.

I first met my hat on Christmas Day in 1995, when I was in Melbourne. It was the best Christmas present a traveller could have. Folded up inside a cotton bag bearing the name ‘The Great Australian Bush Hat in a Bag’ was a brown, leather bush hat with a spring around the inside of the wide brim. When I took it out of the bag it sprang into shape, but it was floppy enough to squash up into a little bag with no ill effects. It was perfect for my backpack-based travels, and I wore it constantly throughout Australia and New Zealand; it might be a clichĂ©, but wherever I laid my hat, that was my home.

I was devastated, then, to find that when I pulled my hat out of my luggage after sailing halfway across the Pacific, the salty sea air had dissolved the rim, and had turned half the leather into a hard, brittle mess. There was nothing else for it; I gave my hat a burial at sea, wondering what I was going to do without him. It was like saying goodbye to a dear old friend, but at least I was going back to Australia, so I could no doubt get something else there.

In the event I found an exact duplicate in Brisbane, complete with the same cotton bag and the same moniker. I snapped him up faster than you could say ‘reincarnation’, and I was a happy man with my hat once more. We stayed glued together until I got back home in 1998, and we’ve travelled together ever since. My hat is a friend rather than a piece of clothing, and he’s been keeping me away from sunstroke for all of my travelling and walking life.

Second place goes to my acoustic coupler, which I used to use to attach my 1990s palmtop and modem to public telephones all over the world, so I could dial into Compuserve and publish my writing on the Internet. I looked like a spy and got a lot of strange looks as I hooked up to the Internet… but I’m pretty sure that cost more than $100, so perhaps it doesn’t count.

Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark exploring the megaliths of the remote Bada Valley in Sulawesi, Indonesia (1997)

What is your best advice for other adventurers?

Be nice to everyone out there, even the idiots. Respect other cultures, wear appropriate clothing, don’t get angrily drunk, and try to get your head around the concepts of empathy and respect of other cultures. There are two good reasons for this:

  • First, as travellers, we are ambassadors for our countries. It shames me to see some people treating locals like they are dirt. It happens, it’s astonishing when it does, and it really isn’t acceptable. We in the West are the rich, privileged few compared to the countries we backpack through, and I think being polite is the least we can do;
  • Second, being nice is how you meet the best people, discover the best things, and have the best experience, so it makes sense. Politeness goes a long way, everywhere on the planet, so always pack your smile. It’s the most important thing to bring.
Travel Writer Mark Moxon
Mark on the top of Volcan de Santa Ana in El Salvador (2014)

What will the future bring?

Retirement, I hope. Then I can really get started on the travelling… 🙂

Visit Mark Moxon on his website

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