Useful Stuff to Know » article » The Urban Nomad: Portable, Mobile, Compact Lifestyle » Dec 31, 12:13 AM

The Urban Nomad: Portable, Mobile, Compact Lifestyle

Moving to a new apartment or house can be a real pain. Multiple trips, renting a moving truck, having to call friends over to move the heavy items, stacking boxes after boxes…

Wouldn’t it be great if you had less “stuff” to move? Imagine being able to pack up all your belongings and be gone in under an hour or two.

That’s exactly what I have done for years, after moving around the country quite a bit. You learn to downsize and optimize the essentials. It paid off in Florida when evacuating from hurricanes meant packing and leaving as soon as possible. You never know whether a natural disaster, social upheaval situation, or other trouble might force you to split.

My philosophy is this: Everything durable that I own must fit into my car. One car, one trip, one lightweight lifestyle. Here’s how I did it:

  • Use a laptop/notebook computer, not a desktop – This is an obvious choice. I prefer 13” – 14” screen sizes. It’s amazing the amount of space this saves.
  • Ditch the subwoofer – Use decent 2.0 desktop speaker system if necessary (that means two speakers to handle everything), or just get some good headphones. It’s ridiculous lugging around a big boxy subwoofer.
  • Get an air mattress or Army cot – I had enough of shoving heavy mattresses up narrow stairways. An air mattress collapses and folds small enough to fit into a shoe-box. There are larger ones to hold two people if needed. Cover it with a white waterproof mattress liner/cover to protect it against mildew and punctures. Avoid air mattresses with air cells that run length-wise, rather look for ones with vertical cells. Coleman mattresses are decent, and you can buy a D-battery-powered air pump from Coleman that fits their nozzles. If you are single, an Army cot is a more permanent and hassle-free solution. Folds up small. Get the wooden ones, as they are sturdier than aluminum. Check local Army/Navy surplus stores. For comfort, you can use a foam or blow-up camping mat with it.
  • Mobile Office – Instead of a big desk, you can get away with four milk crates and a 48” by 16” white laminated particle board normally used for shelving. Stack the crates two by two to form the columns, lay the board over it. This way you can use the crates for moving books and other items in the car, or use them as bookshelves when set up as a desk. A sturdy padded folding chair completes the rig.
  • Get used furniture when you arrive, sell/donate before you leave – You can get chairs, desks, and other items for cheap at Salvation Army, Goodwill, college surplus stores, etc… wherever you can later donate/sell them back. This way you don’t have to rent them, pay lots of money for new, nor be stuck with them when moving, nor have to throw them away.
  • Cook like MacGuyver – be creative with your kitchen accessories, using one tool for multiple jobs. You don’t need an egg whisker when a fork will do. Avoid the useless bulky gadgets unless they’re expendable or absolutely necessary. Forget the clunky salad spinner, just strain the stuff. No George Foreman grill if you have a stove and pan. All you really need are: cups, mugs, plates, bowls, flatware, chef’s knife, paring knife, small cutting board, cheap tupperware, medium pot, saucepot, medium pan, and small pan.
  • Donate unused clothing – If you don’t wear something during the course of a year, you don’t need it. Get rid of those unused clothes that are not in your regular rotation.
  • Go for quality, compactness, and durability – It’s true that paying more means paying less in the long run. When you buy cheap, they aren’t that durable and you end up with extra bulk from old semi-functional junk you tend to keep around. Better to buy it right the first time instead of upgrading later and having the old thing taking up space. This goes for shoes, computers, and anything that you intend to use often and for a long time. The more often and longer you will use it, the better quality it should be. If you’re looking for maximum durability with lowest price, you’ll have to seek out used or military surplus goods, or get lucky on ebay.
  • Ditch the TV, microwave, and fridge – Yup, turns out you don’t actually need to own these. Most apartments come with a refrigerator already. A microwave is bad for your health, and it’s better to lug around a smaller toaster oven than a microwave. As for the television, that’s what your laptop is for. No separate dvd player, amplifiers, plasma screen, huge speakers necessary… no, just the laptop and its two external speakers to watch movies and online videos.
  • Sleeping Bag – If you’re single, this one is easier to pull off. Instead of the big comforter set, just get a single 20-30F sleeping bag and a fleece liner. It will keep you warmer, is more compact, and can be used for camping. Pillows are cheap and disposable, although they cram well into spaces in the car, so get whatever pillow you wish.
  • Folding Chairs/Couches – They make decent replacements for that heavy couch. These are bucket chairs, casual leaned-back chairs, etc… that go into a living room and fold up nicely. Try them out first to make sure they are comfortable, otherwise you’ll end up not even using them.
  • eBooks – Unless you absolutely cannot stand reading on the computer, it’s better to have a collection of eBooks than several boxes of heavy hardcopies. I keep in hardcopy only my most frequently referenced, beloved books, while the rest have been digitized or downloaded to read on the laptop. Books can make up a significant portion of one’s possessions in weight, so it helps to reduce the paper as much as possible.
  • Tools – For basic jobs, you mainly need a mutitool like a Leatherman or Victorinox Swiss Army Knife for every-day-carry (EDC), and a compact power tool like a Dremel. The Dremel has cutting wheels, grinding wheels, can be used for polishing, sanding, routing… lots of things that would take ten times longer to do with a hand tool. Of course you can have your tool bag with wrenches, hammer, etc… as well, but my point is that if you need to be compact, you can go far with a few hand/power tools, without needing a full workshop with drill press, vice, circular saw, table saw, and the other big-bulk items. That’s what neighbors are for :)

It’s important while doing this to keep your psychological state from feeling constricted, poor, or self-pitying due to the restriction on material possessions. It’s not about shriveling up, materially starving, and withdrawing from the world, rather think of it as converting quantity into quality, becoming more honed like the edge of knife, going for zen-like simplicity and efficiency, becoming more skilled with a fewer number of higher quality items. You are merely trying to reduce your inertia, become more aerodynamic and flexible in life, and create more space, time, and energy to be filled with non-material pursuits.