It was on a cold winter's day that he delivered the words that would change my life. He inspected the band of gold studded with diamonds that had recently found a home on my left hand, and looked me straight in the eye. Uncle Dick has eyes like no other man I know - clear and piercing, with a defiant, been there done that look. He held my hand, and passed on sage wisdom:
Remember the Seven P's: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
He meant for the wedding, of course, but over the years I've found more applications for the Seven P's; not the least of which is in planning a major adventure.
We meet so many people who dream of epic adventure. They don't lack in the dream department. What they lack is the boots-on-the-ground sense of how to make that dream happen. Of course, there is no one pattern that everyone can follow to turn her big dream into a mai-tai sipped from the deck of a boat in the Aegean sea. There are, however, certain things that every traveler is going to have to wrestle with - and trust me when I tell you it's easier to wrestle through these things before you're on the road.
1. Why exactly are you traveling, anyway?
Not nearly enough people consider why they're traveling; for a weekend or a year long trip. The epiphany of What am I doing here? usually hits somewhere in the middle of a journey, sometimes too late. There's no one right answer, but the answer is not Why not?
There are always reasons that we do the things we do and it's important to apply the Seven P's to this thought process. Sometimes we travel because we need to escape and rest. Sometimes we're on a learning journey. Other times we're hoping to broaden our experience and our minds, or maybe to teach, or serve or change the world in some way. Knowing why you're traveling will make all the difference in the destination and the journey itself.
Knowing why is the essence of intentional travel. The surest way to avoid disappointment and let-down in your epic adventure is to clearly define your why up front. Give it at least week of serious thought, and it will change how you experience the world on your journey.
2. Where you're going isn't the most important question, but it matters.
When planning a trip, the first thing folks do is look at the map. Where are you going? is the first question friends and family ask. After a few years on the road, you'll find that destination isn't what matters most - but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter at all. If you're planning your first major adventure, destination matters tremendously - and a little Proper Prior Planning is in order.
What factors should you consider in the where of your journey? Who's going, for starters. If you're a female traveling alone or for the first time, Iran may not be the best choice - but a train trip around Europe might be perfect. If you've got four kids under the age of five you will be looking for a different adventure than if you're 26 and a mountain climber.
Consider the experience levels of the travelers, their interests, whether someone speaks the languages necessary for basic communication, and define carefully what sort of adventure you're looking for. The best stories come out of catastrophes, to be sure... But we're not aiming for catastrophes, now, are we?
3. It's not sexy, but you've got to consider the funding.
We all know of a guy who cycled the perimeter of the continental USA with only ten bucks in his pocket (my friend's husband, in this case), but few and far between are the people who make that happen with good stories to tell about it. How do you afford your life? is the most common question we're asked of living on the road full time with four kids, but I don't know how anyone can travel for any length of time and not consider the funding.
If the Seven P's apply at all, they apply to funding a major adventure. Failure to plan properly for the financial aspect of a trip will result in sleeping under hay bales in German fields (we met a family of four in this predicament), embarrassing calls home to family members requesting a plane ticket - or worse.
In no arena is Piss Poor Performance more likely for a new traveler than funding. Forecast your backpacking budget, then double it. Seriously. Then add $10 a day for fun money. You're going to need it. Put enough money for your plane ticket home in an account and don't touch it.
There are lots of ways to fund a major adventure. The most obvious one is to save money and live below your means. That's where most people start. There are, however, other ways. Becoming location independent in your career is one. Find a way to take what you do on the road. Teaching, writing, computer work, migrant field labor, and child care are all highly available forms of work worldwide.
Now that you have the money for your trip, do some Proper Prior Planning about how you'll manage it on the road. Living across three continents, we've found on-line banking to be the only way to go - Orange and E-Trade accounts for investments, a Paypal account, and a solid brick and mortar bank with excellent customer service are a must. Carry traveler's checks, but treat them as emergency funds only. Pay attention to what sort of PIN numbers will work at ATMs where you are going (four digit numerical, exclusively in Europe, for example.)
Pay a couple thousand bucks forward on your visa card so you have a positive balance when you leave (yet another emergency fund). Never neglect to have at least $100 in small US notes, which are happily accepted anywhere in the world in a pinch. Nothing will ruin your day faster than finding your ATM card not working in Bamberg, Germany on a Saturday (nothing's open Sunday) with no back up. Trust me on this.
Carry at least two different credit cards and let them know you're traveling. It is highly irritating to be trying to book Mediterranean ferry crossings from Civitavecchia to Tunis only to find your card continually declined for out of the ordinary purchase attempts. Mention to the service person at your card company that you plan to redefine out of the ordinary and kindly request that she make note of it on your account.
4. Getting the right gear is critical.
God help us, gear is the bane of the traveler's existence. Get it right and life is good. Get it wrong and it can ruin your trip. 90% of travelers (especially the young ones) carry too much crap and the wrong stuff altogether; that's why everyone throws out half of their stuff three months into the trip. Proper Prior Planning is key to gear selection.
A few notes concerning gear:
- Gear is extremely important.
- You don't need half of what you think you need.
- With a few notable exceptions, everything you need can be had almost anywhere in the world, if you'll adjust your expectations.
When planning a major trip (3+ months) give careful thought to your gear. Consider where you're going, the climate and weather you expect while you're there, and the comfort level you're willing to live with. Do not buy gear and then plan the trip. Plan the trip, then buy the gear.
If you're backpacking for 4-6 weeks then that weekend warrior tent from Wal-mart and your Boy Scout mess kit might be fine. If you're going to live in your tent for a year and you really like to be dry, may I suggest spending the big bucks on a Hilleberg? Consider what your bottom line is: Weight? Comfort? Durability? All of the above? Spend the big bucks on what really matters and do without everything else you can.
As for guidebooks, instead of schlepping the whole two-pound tome around in a manner that screams steal my camera, I'm a tourist! why not cut and paste the pertinent parts from your guidebook into your Moleskine journal and create a unique keepsake for years to come?
This is the gear we consider must haves from our life on the road:
- An excellent tent/sleeping bag combo with light-weight therma-rest mats. When you're well rested, you can endure a lot more.
- A high quality cook stove that burns anything and everything flammable.
- A lightweight tarp. Two months before we launched on the year-long tour Uncle Dick, with the same piercing eyes, asked the seminal question: Do you have a tarp? A tarp? You have to be kidding me, I thought. Uncle Dick just raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair. He'd been there done that on a grand scale. We bought the tarp. And proceeded to bless him in our dinner prayers every night for a year.
- Extra tent stakes. Pointed out by our children, whose job it is to put up the tents every night and who have learned most of their best curse words from listening to their Dad and I struggle with rocky ground.
- Spare parts. This cannot be overstated. If you are carrying any specialty gear at all (such as the fancy burn-anything cook stoves, or high-end tents, or adventure-grade touring bikes) then be sure to pack the extra bits and pieces you will need to affect repairs on the road. Include zipper pulls, tent pole mending sleeves, waterproof patches with heat sealing adhesive - and duct tape, naturally.
- A good multi-tool. Do not buy this at Wal-mart and do not get it confiscated in the first five minutes by packing it in your carry-on.
- Versatile clothing. Pack three outfits: two everyday and one dress up. Everything should be micro-fiber or light weight, wrinkle free, quick dry fabrics. Trust me on this one. I hand wash for six three times a week. I know.
- One extra memory card for your camera. You'll use it, and it's tiny. More than one is a waste, you can buy them anywhere cheap.
- A thumb drive and portable apps. Internet cafés are the norm for connectivity worldwide. You'll find your experience much less frustrating with a thumb drive preloaded with your applications.
5. Health and safety are no joke.
If there is one application of the Seven Ps that should be non-negotiable it is in the health category. Preparing for a trip includes more than plane tickets and hostel reservations. It includes insurance, immunizations, emergency plans and maybe some physical training up front. It's all fun and games until you've got kids puking in a tent outside Washington DC, or you lose a filling in the Czech Republic.
A little Proper Prior Planning in the health category can save you a lot of pain, huge medical bills, or - worse yet - a trip cut short and an emergency flight home. At the very least, every traveler should be properly vaccinated as per the CDC recommendations for her destination. Typhoid and Yellow Fever are no jokes. Traveler's health insurance is a must. It is inexpensive and carries the added bonus of often supplying some coverage for your gear and trip plans.
An adequate first aid kit and training is essential. Intentional travel, responsible travel, includes being prepared physically and mentally to meet any emergency. Piss Poor Performance could mean a dead friend. Do the Proper Prior Planning, in this category if no other.
6. Even less sexy than funding is paperwork.
If you're 20-something and own nothing but your boots, maybe this just means organizing your bank accounts, making copies of your passport and travelers checks and hitting the road. For the rest of us, the Seven Ps apply to managing investments, post office boxes, paying bills, renting out houses, getting wills in order and a myriad of other document-related details that aren't part of the romantic dream of margaritas by moonlight, but can destroy a trip faster than you can say, The stock market crashed while I was camped on the Adriatic and all I've got left is this T-shirt.
Been there, done that.
This is often the area of pre-trip planning that seems most daunting to those of us old enough to have a life and the acoutrements that make breaking loose for a year or more on the road seem impossible. Take a deep breath, let the Seven Ps guide you.
Consider the following categories:
- Wills: If you own anything at all, or have any dependents, you need to have a will. A will simplifies the process of distributing your worldly goods (or your kids) in the unlikely event of a water landing on your ultra-cheap Taca Airlines flight to Peru. Cheap will-writing software from Staples is better than nothing. Write it, sign it, stick it in a lock box, and forget it. Then update it every two years.
- Bank Accounts: This was discussed in the funding section above, but it is important to be sure someone back home is collecting the paperwork associated with your bank accounts. You'll need those bank statements in one place come tax time as well.
- Passports, Visas and Beyond: Make color copies of everything. One copy goes in the secret pocket of your bag, one copy goes in your lock box with your will, and one copy gets stored at Mom's house. Beyond passports and visas, carry multiple copies of your driver's license. Nothing is more frustrating than finding you've left the only copy you have at a campground in Delft and then going eight months unable to so much as rent a car or drive a friend's - just ask my husband. Getting a second copy is easy, just declare your first one lost and ask the DMV to reissue it. Ours cost ten bucks. If you're driving, carry color copies of your car registration as well (this avoids having to hand the real thing to the questionable officer of the law who pulls you over on an official stop in the Chiapas Mountains in Mexico...) Copy everything you think you might regret losing. It's cheap insurance.
When in doubt, think of Uncle Dick.
There is always more that can be said on the topic of intentional travel and trip planning. Each person's details will be as different as the trips they are anticipating. The key in preparing for any adventure is to remember the Seven P's and cover as many bases as possible, thereby minimizing the potential for crash and burn upon take off.
If you need help, just call my Uncle Dick - he's been there done that and won't hesitate to tell you where to go, and how to get there. Tell him I sent you.
photo credits: #3 by Muffet, #5 by kyle simourd, #6 by gregoryjameswalsh - all the rest by Jennifer Miller