Monday, August 24, 2009

Inventory Control

If you are constantly on the move, a major concern is keeping track of your "stuff"—i.e., your most important equipment, supplies and documentation. When you travel, there’s always a chance your stuff will be stolen, but the far greater risk is simply leaving things behind through your own dimwitted lapses. It’s not the fault of a thief that you keep losing your car keys or you forget to pack a power adapter. Maintaining control of your stuff is mostly a matter of organization and discipline, not security.

Even if you travel light, there are always objects you can’t live without. Your passport is at the top of the list. If you lose it overseas or just before an overseas trip, you’re screwed. Only slightly lower on the scale is ones laptop computer. Even if you have everything backed up (a topic for later discussion), your laptop is not something you should idly leave behind.

In all, I find there are about a dozen essential “trip killers”—items whose loss would cripple me. Some of the surprising ones are relatively cheap in monetary terms: for example, my computer’s AC power adapter. There’s no use in carrying a laptop around if you can’t get any power into it. It’s cheap enough to buy such a part on eBay, but just try doing that from a youth hostel in Europe! If you can find the adapter at a retail store, you’ll end up paying almost as much for it as the laptop is worth!

To keep track of all your stuff, you need an “inventory control strategy.” That’s a set of procedures you always follow regardless of the circumstances. If your procedures are sound and you faithfully follow them, the chance of losing important stuff are greatly reduced.

Here are some elements of my own inventory control system....
  • Conceptually, I divide my stuff into essentials and non-essentials, which I treat differently and pack separately.

  • Essentials include “trip killers” like my passport, BlackBerry, credit cards, laptop, power adapter, camera, camera battery charger, etc. I try to carry all of these items on my person at all times. They are concentrated in my backpack, which I get properly anxious about whenever I am not directly touching. I would never put any essentials in my checked luggage. It is true that my backpack could be stolen, but strangers don't know there is anything valuable in it. If it came down to a choice, I am prepared to give up my wallet to save my backpack. (However, I am not prepared to give up my life to save it, and if I did lose it I would find a way to recover.)

  • Non-essentials include clothing, bedding, toiletries, food and various cheap tools. If I lose any of these, I can usually reproduce them quickly. The chief reason I hold onto them is economic: If I already have these things, it’s cheaper to carry them with me than to have to buy them new at my destination. These are the things I can put in checked luggage or cache in the bushes when I need to. If someone steals my socks and underwear, no sweat, I’ll buy more.

  • Whenever I leave my “supply base”—like my storage unit or my home when I had one—I have a checklist I go through to make sure I have packed everything I need. It’s just like a pilot’s pre-flight checklist. The checklist is stored in a text file on my laptop or BlackBerry, and I look at each item on the list and check it off mentally just before lift-off. Earplugs: check. USB cable: check. I have honed this list over the years, and I know that everything I need is on it, so when the checklist is done I know I’m ready to go. As an additional safety procedure, I may devote about 10 minutes to meditation, thinking about where I am going and what I may need. The checklist makes my departure a breeze. I don’t need hours to pack like most people do. Usually I can do it in a half-hour, and with more self-confidence. I never have to ask myself, “Did I leave the iron on?” because that would have been included on my checklist.

  • When I am checking out of someone else's property, like a hotel room, hostel, campsite or rental car, I don’t have to worry about the checklist. Why not? Because all the stuff I took out of my bags is right there in front of me. I do a “security scan” of the area before I leave to make sure nothing of mine is still in the room or the car, but I don’t have to inspect my bags to make sure I have everything. If it is not in the room, then it must be in my bag, my reasoning goes. I may double-check my “trip killers” to make sure they’re still viable, but checking out of a place that’s not mine is generally a breeze.

  • A major worry is leaving things behind on airplanes, which I have done on several occasions. Have you ever put anything in the overhead bin and then forgotten it? Yup, it’s all the rage these days. The first line of defense is to put only non-essentials in the overhead bin. Essentials should always go at your feet where you can’t forget them. (Always avoid a bulkhead seat with no under-seat storage.) And you should NEVER put any book or personal belonging in the seat pocket in front of you, since that’s a synonym for leaving it behind. After the plane lands, you shouldn't try to rush off the plane but take plenty of time to check under your seat and any crevices where your belongings might be lodged.

  • A major venue for losing possessions is when you mingle your own belongings with those of others, like on group trips. When you leave these events, you have to allow plenty of time to disentangle your stuff from your companions’. You almost need to go through a mental checklist at this point, assuring that you at least have your trip killers.

  • I may use a hidden breast pouch on rare occasions when I am traveling in dodgy areas. I might keep my passport, a credit card and some of my cash in travelers’ pouch around my neck, under my clothes. The risk, however, is that this security system in itself becomes the problem. Maybe the strap breaks or you lose track of the pouch when you change clothes. Since my nervous system is already connected to my backpack, I prefer to use that for most things.

  • The risk of deliberate theft is relatively low compared to the risk of your own stupidity, but one should always prepare for theft anyway. Thieves generally prefer cash and will go for your wallet when they can. Thus, you should avoid carrying a lot of cash there—just enough for your daily needs and to satiate the thief. If you have multiple credit cards, don’t keep them all in your wallet in case it is stolen. (BTW: My only recent experience with attempted theft was a pickpocket on the Paris Metro.)

  • In general, you avoid losing things by being very deliberate about how you put them down. I don’t set my wallet or BlackBerry down on a counter without making a deliberate note: “Why am I doing this, and how will I remember to pick it up?” People lose their keys and glasses because they don’t have a deliberate “detachment” policy. Whenever you detach yourself from your belongings, you should do it in a certain way according to tested procedures. You don’t simply put your keys down on the table but put them in the same special place every time. “There’s a place for everything, and everything has its place.” If the proper conditions aren’t met, then you don’t detach yourself.

  • Finally, the best way to avoid losing stuff is to have less stuff! The less stuff you haul around with you, the less taxed your nervous system will be in keeping track of it. Rely on disposables when you can, and don’t take something with you unless there’s a high probability you will actually use it. All those creams and lotions, the extra clothes—just leave ‘em behind. The best way to travel is only with the luggage you can comfortably carry. If you need a team of porters, you’ve packed too much.
Retaining control of your stuff is all in the rules: inventing good ones and then obeying them. It doesn't matter where you are: London, Paris or 20,000 leagues under the sea. If you do things the same way every time, you are less likely to trip yourself up.

©2009, Glenn Campbell,
Released from Missoula, Montana.
You are welcome to comment on this entry below.

1 comment:

  1. I've never been on a plane in my life but find your blog a captivating read. I happened upon your blog while Googling a source for a cheap sleep study. Serendipity for sure! I am now following this and your Things You Don't Need blogs. Thanks for sharing your journey and such great tips.