A Global Rucksack Revolution: Thru-Hiking, Bikepacking, and Traveling 15 Countries with One Rucksack

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Gossamer Gear | Apr 07, 2020

By: McKenzie Barney

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When your dreams speak to you, you have two choices: ignore them, or act on them.

I found myself approaching a new decade on this planet with an unresolved list of passions that I’d always wanted to pursue — another exotic country whispering its invite, only to be chewed up by the calculated responsibilities of my subconscious, eclipsed by a work deadline, and spit out into the intangible abyss of “someday.” Somewhere at the intersection of denial and discovery, I began to grow tired of these dreams edging the line between endangered and extinct. A restless energy took hold, and I deliberated incessantly about the truth of the world.

Aware of the right thing for me to do, I realized it was exactly what society advises us not to do. It’s not that I was jaded by conventional direction, just autonomously disillusioned. I dared to know more about the experience of other humans across the planet, and to learn this through my own personal human experience. My thoughts drifted toward far off corners of the world. These thoughts turned into persistent daydreams, which turned into a fervent question: “When will I go and find out for myself?”

This question had a ripple effect that grew with each sign that called me toward the open road. Eventually, it manifested itself into a monumental tipping point in my life. The message was loud and clear: get brave and get out into the world.

As the mystic yogis in India would explain to me in many months to come, this awareness I manifested was the first step, but awareness alone doesn’t get you anywhere. Consciousness is when you begin to move your inner tectonic plates and choose to intentionally act. Once you are aware of what stirs your soul and magnetizes the fiber of your being, consciousness is when you weave it into existence.

This story is about how I connected the dots. Thru-hiking planted the seed. Bikepacking flipped my world upside down. Organic farming, art, and yoga relit my creative magic.

This is the tale of my inner revolution through 20 months, 15 countries, and 5 continents — all with 1 rucksack and no plans.

Taking the First Step: Thru-Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

As my first step — well, I guess my first hundreds of thousands of steps — I decided to start with a summer’s walk from Mexico to Canada, otherwise known as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). My partner, who I’d met through my previous thru-hike project on New Zealand’s 1,800-mile Te Araroa, had the PCT on his horizon. I had just finished a month-long solo trek on the wild and vast Greater Patagonian Trail (GPT) in Chile, and still had some inner dialogue left to untangle. As every thru-hiker knows, there’s no better sanctuary — or therapy, if you will — than a spirit walk. I decided I would sort out my next moves northbound on this footpath of desert, mountains, and forest.

Oftentimes, people have asked me what the main difference was between my first thru-hike in New Zealand, and the 2,650-mile PCT. The answer for me is easy — my pack.

My evolution of rucksacks started with a beastly 75L pack. Thankfully, on the Te Araroa (TA), I met fellow American hikers who introduced me to Gossamer Gear. Immediately, I swapped out “the beast” for a 60L Mariposa. The Mariposa changed everything. It opened my mind to the magic of lightweight backpacking.

But, on the PCT in 2019, I knew it was time to dial it up a notch. It was time to try out superlight. Enter: the Kumo 36L.

In an all-or-nothing move, I reduced my pack size by nearly half and went superlight. The key here was to cut weight wherever possible to increase maximum hiking enjoyment. And yes, this approach also equates to moving more quickly. While the advantages of a lighter backpack will be endlessly debated in the long-distance hiking community, for me, the PCT was a perfect opportunity to attempt the next lightest evolution of gear.

First, you take the dive into a new pack. Then, you find every way possible to condense your “needs.”

Cutting equipment wherever necessary meant sacrificing the stove — instead, we would cold soak oats for breakfast and ramen for dinner. This meant no hot coffee, no warm dinners, no heat. Which isn’t a big deal in California’s desert, but once you get to the snowy Sierra Mountains, you start to miss warmth. This also meant swapping out a sleeping bag for a lightweight quilt, which proved to be a key ingredient in clearing space and weight from my 60L set up. Food was mostly bars, and layers became the clothing strategy. Everything in our packs had to have two or more uses — a well-known trick amongst thru-hikers. My partner and I also split up our tent weight between the two of us, which helped immensely.

We touched the border wall of Mexico in Campo on the evening of May 10, and arrived at the border of Canada on the morning of September 4. For four months, we journeyed with all our belongings on our backs. We chose stories over stuff, feet over an engine, and wild instinct over planned itineraries. Our journey throughout my west coast United States homeland was just as much an inner journey. As we neared the finish line, I felt refreshed, recharged, and re-centered by Mother Nature. I was ready to take this energy internationally.

Finding the Rhythm of Long-Term Travel: Thailand, Indonesia, and New Zealand

As we drove to the airport to fly to Bangkok, I couldn’t help but feel I was forgetting something. I usually traveled with a checked bag on international flights, but thanks to the Kumo, I was getting used to packing everything in a limited 36L. I had a system of how to pack the Kumo for the PCT — quilt, sleeping pad, then form the clothes around the food and other accessories. As I prepared for global travel, I did my best to harness my rediscovered minimalism tendencies from trail life.

Thailand was a smooth transition into our long-term traveling voyage. We spent a month learning the art of slow travel and living as the locals do. On the day-long train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, I again realized the advantage of traveling with a small pack. I didn’t have to stow my luggage at the front or back of the train car. Instead, I always had it right under my feet for safe keeping. Having a light pack also helped for scooter travel when we wanted to explore around the village town of Pai.

After one month in Thailand, we flew over to Indonesia. We wandered coffee plantations, rice fields, temples, and world-renowned surf breaks in Bali. I went scuba diving amongst a depleted coral reef — an eye-opening experience of the fragility of our natural world. A ferry ride with the locals took us over to Lombok, where we fell in love with the peaceful surf village of Kuta. Our month in Indonesia flew by, and before we knew it, we were bound for New Zealand, my partner’s homeland, for the holidays.

Arriving back in the “Land of the Long White Cloud,” New Zealand was a reunion for me. In 2015, my inner compass navigated me to this country for both my first visit and my first ever thru-hike. I tend to think of my life as before the TA and after. My inaugural thru-hike was a tipping point in my life, where after everything changed, and returning to this region for the first time since that hike filled me with reflection and appreciation. This time fueled me for my next chapter around the globe.

Gravitating to Human-Powered Adventures: Bikepacking the Length of Vietnam

To ring in the new year, I launched into a completely foreign country and type of adventure. I’d always been a fan of cycling — one of my favorite ways to explore a new town, transport to work, and get into nature. But, I’d never voyaged out on a long-distance bike tour. This was as good a time as any to give it a try, so I headed into this next journey solo with a bicycle as my vehicle and Vietnam as my destination.

I flew into Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), found a bike, and started the 1,100-mile quest to Hanoi. I was exhilarated and nervous all at the same time — a concoction I’d come to know as a perfect recipe for adventure. I quickly learned about the power of a smile and how to pack for proper bikepacking. For me, wearing a lightweight pack like the Kumo was clutch for snacks, valuables, and on-the-go items.

This pedal journey took me 22 days. I rode through mountains and oceansides, busy towns and far off-the-beaten-tourist-track wonders, ancient history and sacred hidden temples. I enjoyed spicy local concoctions of Pho, elaborate Banh Mi roadside sandwiches, and all the unexpected turns in between. Most of all, I was overtaken with connection. The trip entwined myself, a novice bikepacker, with some of the friendliest, most hospitable and welcoming people I’ve come across on this planet. Without question, I was invited to meals. I was looked after. I was given free drinks in the boiling hot sun. I felt a reacquaintance with the alchemy of movement and the fulfillment of solo feats. Realizing I was the only person I could rely on didn’t mean I was alone in this journey — the Vietnamese people took me in time and time again and treated me as one of their own.

Two wheels allowed me to travel fast enough to reach my goal within my 30-day visa, but also slow enough to see places, meet people, and immerse myself in the culture. That’s what led me to become so fascinated with bicycle travel. I felt a grounding nostalgia with the non-motorized past as I rode into the future. I discovered the magic that lies on the path of human-powered travel.

Settling into Vagabonding: Asia, Australia, Morocco, and Europe

After Vietnam, I slowed down and found the rhythm of travel once again. When humans travel, there are many routes and modes we can take. I gravitate toward two modes of travel, and they seem to come in waves. One is human-powered, long-distance travel, usually hiking or bicycling, that allows me to co-exist in local environments and nature more closely. My other preferred way to travel is vagabonding, or long-term traveling, where you immerse yourself in the local culture and interact in a slower, mindful manner. By living as the locals do, you bond with the places and people on a deeper level.

What connects us as humans and binds us together with all living creatures and plants on our Earth? This question drove my travel. That’s when it hit me — what’s a deeper connection with our planet than the food we choose to eat daily? As humans have evolved, this simple relationship with Mother Nature has been pushed aside for convenience. I wanted to know more about our food, where it comes from, and how to grow it.

From soil to soul, this journey first led me to Malaysia where I helped on an organic regenerative farm in a small rural village. The farm was started by Xin, a world traveler who once decided she wanted to bike from her doorstep in Malaysia to Nepal. After that journey, she became passionate about environmental sustainability, and worked on several regenerative farms before returning home to start her own farm project on family land.

It was here that I was welcomed into a Malay, Chinese, Egyptian, French, and Welsh family of travelers, farmers, and beautiful souls. It was here where conversations dove deeper, from energy and spirituality to sustainable living and agroecology. It was here where I learned simple, sustainable rituals and practices on how to work alongside nature, not against her. Surprisingly, it had less to do with the productivity of yield and more to do with the presence of the people working the land. I found that the purification of the land and the purification of the human spirit are one process.

My love for farming continued in Australia at an Ayurvedic meditation center and organic farm in the rural Hunter region of New South Wales. Every day of working with the earth, I learned more about the humbling ways of nature, building with natural materials, and gardening without harmful chemicals. I learned the rhythms of the sun, rose with Mother Nature’s alarm clocks, and met some of the most beautiful humans who have created a life alongside nature, thriving off an existence where less is most definitely more. I approached things here similarly to how I would pack the Kumo, boiling life down to the pure essentials.

In a blur of a few months, I next found myself in the saltwater paradise of Sri Lanka with my partner, and then to Spain to travel with my sister. I headed to Morocco for a solo week through the mazes of markets in Fez and Marrakech. I met with past teammates in France to watch the U.S. Women’s National team win the Women’s Soccer World Cup, and then ended this voyage through Europe with a bicycling wine tour in Austria and wandering historic castles in Prague. All the while, the Kumo made my travel light and easy. Without excess weight, I was free to journey through so many places and meet so many people. And now, it was time to get back on the trail.

Trekking the Himalayas: India and Nepal

For five months, we traveled in India and Nepal. We flew into the chaotic madness of Delhi, and three day-long, nauseating, river-fording bus rides later, we arrived in Kaza, the main town of Spiti Valley. A remote, high altitude desert area in the Himalayas, Spiti Valley is home to many hiking routes through Tibetan monasteries. Along our 7-day trek here, we stayed in local villages along the way and savored the remote path, delicious home-cooked cuisine, and Tibetan way of life.

We continued a few day-long bus rides north to Ladakh, one of the highest regions in the world. Using Leh, the capital, as a basecamp, we set off on week-long excursions. First, we explored Pangong lake that stretches from India into Tibet. Then to Nubra Valley, not far from the Pakistan border, cradled by rugged mountains, sand dunes, and hosting the last remnants of the Silk Road trade in India: double-humped camels. After leaving Leh and the northern Himalayas of India, we took busses all around the subcontinent.

After two months in India, we took two overnight busses to the Nepali border. We’d both been to Nepal before and hiked the Everest Base Camp trek. This time, we set up in Pokhara and had our sights on the Annapurna Circuit. Starting our hike at the end of a long-lasting rainy season meant a soggy beginning. Some days, we would hike up to 8 hours through the lush jungle region. Other days, the rain would soak us to the bone, and we would stop early at a teahouse. We could have hopped in a private Jeep to avoid these stretches, but we found that less crowds meant more untouched nature.

After 13 days on the beautiful Annapurna Circuit, we took the bus back into Pokhara, ready to swap oatmeal and granola bars for steaming chai and the delicious rice and curry Nepali staple of Dahl bat.

After a few weeks in the lakeside paradise of Pokhara, we bussed back to Kathmandu. While we considered volunteering on a sustainable farm just outside the city, we both felt a pull back to the Himalayas for one last trek. We decided to bus to the Langtang Valley, a 7-day trek up a river valley into the heart of the Langtang mountain range.

It was along this trek that I read Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, a novel that had always whispered its invite, but that I only now made time to read. As we set up in the basecamp on the foothills of the higher Himalayan day hikes, my thoughts wandered to the novel’s subtle teachings. It would go on to inspire my very own rucksack revolution manifesto. Wandering among our earth’s highest mountain range at the top of a roughly 5,000-year-old ancient civilization of eastern mystics and sacred teachings humbly reminded me of this simple approach to life and where it can take you.

Finding Spiritual Awakening: Yoga in India

I celebrated the end of my 20 months of travel by studying the ancient art of yoga in the yoga capital of the world: Rishikesh, India. For one month, I deepened my spiritual practice with classes in hatha yoga, meditation, philosophy, alignment, pranayama, anatomy, naturopathy, emotional blockage healing, and many “satsang” gatherings on the roof for bonfires.

I learned alongside yogis from all over the world. We instantly formed a tribe of kindred spirits, mentors, and friends who became family. It all came full circle when I realized “Alakh,” the name for my school, is a word meant for “that which cannot be described” — the same feeling I had after my travels.

So, What Did I Find on My Global Rucksack Journey?

Throughout 20 months and 15 countries, I was slowly embedded with a new philosophy that simultaneously paralleled my gear selection: Less is more.

The less you carry, the more you will see. My transition to superlight gear shifted my daily lifestyle around this simple, yet powerful mindset. Less stuff means more freedom for movement and possibility for adventure. Less expectations, judgement, and fixed plans equates to an open-ended latitude of choice and serendipitous horizons.

For us wild dreamers out there who crave connection with humans beyond our own borders, the treasures in these uncertain endeavors are infinite. We meet people along the way who serendipitously help us reach our goals. And, unbeknownst to us, we also inspire those exact people to push their perceived limits. It’s a contagious rhythm, the act of exploration, because within the human experience lies an unawakened dream within all of us. We are all born with seeds of untapped potential, no matter where we live on this planet.

What fascinates me is humanity’s innate ability to tell and pass down stories, and the ripple effects these have. These exploratory tales have the power to change lives. Stories are medicine. They have the power to connect us all, no matter what country, passport, or border may separate us. These visions can empower the next person to explore even more.

As Jack Kerouac wrote, “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks… giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”

And I give thanks to my rucksack — the rugged, trusty Kumo — for having my back through 15 countries worth of thru-hiking, bikepacking, and beyond.

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McKenzie Barney is a global storyteller, filmmaker and explorer who is fascinated with the human experience and our interconnectedness to the natural world. Her human-powered voyages have included New Zealand’s Te Araroa, the Pacific Crest Trail, Nepal’s Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit, Chile’s Greater Patagonian Trail, the John Muir Trail and a bikepacking journey of Vietnam. For more of McKenzie’s projects and adventures check out her Website and Social Media.