WorldBuilding: What’s in a Traveler’s Pack?


“The thing is, almost anywhere in the world you travel, you can always find people’s trash.” –Les Stroud

 

How many stories have you written where the protagonist, or another pivotal character, was on the road a good portion of the tale? Chances are it’s a decent number, and that stands to reason. They say all stories are either about someone leaving home or a stranger coming to town, and both of those require leaving the trappings of home for the wider world. Virtually every story is going to find itself on the go at some point, and what self-respecting character would waltz out into the wilderness without some provisions?

I dislike stories that read, “Character A went into the shop to get some supplies” because I want to know what supplies are being purchased. I want to know the thinking behind each item. The generic “supplies” oftentimes also appears to be a cheesy cop-out when the character later pulls out the perfect item to save the day, and readers didn’t know said item was in the bag all along.

Having said I dislike this approach, I’ll also say that I’m guilty of doing it myself. So before your protagonist hits the road, stop and think what they’re carrying. Consider the following:

  • Character—different people are going to choose different items, even when given the same options. Consider what it says about the traveler who always carries a garbage bag vs. a multi-purpose tool.
  • Climate—this one is obvious. If it’s gonna be cold, bring a coat. Keep in mind that environments do change though, over distance and from night and day. Blistering desert heat will often become killing cold when the sun sets.
  • Anticipated needs—travelers who set out with the intent to be on the road a while are going to bring more than those who anticipate a couple days’ hike. Things like more food, a tent and extra clothes are standard thinking, but take it a step further. If your character is carrying a weapon or has an animal along for the ride, think about how she’s going to be maintaining these.
  • Creature Comforts—are there things your character might not necessarily need, but would pack if given half a chance? I’d pack some soap, personally. These items will help show what your character values.
  • Space—is your traveler carrying a backpack or something more like a knapsack? Does he have a horse or a mule for extra space? Sometimes a tent would be nice, but heavy canvas and poles might be too much to carry, especially over a long trek.
  • Knowledge and attitude—these aren’t physical items, but can be just as important as an all-purpose knife or fire starter, especially in situations that get out of hand. Not all travels are going to go as planned, so determine ahead of time how flexible and fast-thinking the protagonist will be.

 

Here’s an example from one of my own works-in-progress: Rysa is always on the road. Her people are nomadic by nature, and have traditionally shunned horses as a lazy way out of a good day’s travel. She carries a small pack, which generally contains food items such as salted meat, bread and cheese, a knife, flint and steel, any extra clothing she happens to have acquired and a small pot for cooking. Her bedroll wraps up in its own little pouch, which is usually over her shoulder next to the pack. Recently though she’s come into two rather awkward items—an ornate great sword and a horse. Initially she wasn’t happy about having to carry around the sword because of its weight, but when she was given the horse as part of payment for a recent project, she offloaded the thing. But of course, now she has the cost and maintenance of another living creature.

So what do your characters carry when they’re out an about?

Provisions

  • Trail rations
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Dried or salted meat
  • Ale, water or something alcoholic
  • Water treatment system

Tools

  • First aid
  • Fire starter (flint and steel, magnesium stick, matches, etc.)
  • Hemp rope
  • Knife
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Compass
  • Saw/hatchet
  • Shovel
  • Lanterns/torch
  • Mirror
  • Whistle

Misc.

  • Spare clothing items
  • Tent
  • Bedroll
  • Cooking ware
  • First aid

Animal Needs

  • Blanket
  • Feed
  • Tresses for birds, horseshoes for horses (consider though, that unless your character is a blacksmith, he’s not going to be shoeing his own horse out in the wood)
  • Medicine and vitamins
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6 Comments

  1. I would add a word of caution.
    If you want to convey everything going into the pack, find a way to keep it feel like the story’s still moving, instead of grinding to a halt while Character stuffs his/her sack for too many paragraphs. It can be broken up with dialogue or introspection, for example; or if you’ve got something witty or ominous to say about each item, that could work, too.
    If you’re going to take the time to list everything, take the time to keep it from being dull. (:

  2. Very helpful! These details have always tripped me up, being a suburbanite in modern America, and I sometimes take for granted the kinds of things I have easy access to. I also agree that a certain level of detail can definitely help concretize a story in the reader’s mind, and little details like these sprinkled throughout will make the story come to life.

    1. Brandon, thanks for the feedback. 🙂 I was a little unsure about posting this particular article as I felt it contained mostly common-knowledge things. I grew up and live in the country though, so my personal experience colored that feeling a little bit.

      1. I think many people who have this kind of knowledge believe that everyone else must too, so it’s something that many people don’t think needs discussion. Which is why I’m glad you did. 🙂

        When next I write a scene about a character going into a shop to buy supplies, I’ll keep this post in mind and try not to be so vague about what it is they’re actually buying (as I’m sure I’ve been doing thus far).

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