Poet and musician
Sharrif Simmons recalls a trip to Paris when he lugged around what he dubs, “a small apartment.” His suitcase was so overstuffed and unmanageable, it induced belly laughs among travel companions.
Most of us have a similar story—usually more than one. We can laugh at each other’s trip packing failures and we can also learn from those mistakes, like Simmons who now says “essentials only” is his motto.
After all, it only takes a few times of hauling around clothes you don’t wear and items you don’t use to learn the importance of precision. Packing smarter is a continual process. An exercise in refinement.
For advice, we turned to pros in the field: fellow Paste Travel writers and world explorers. A common thread in discussion was packing in advance. Almost every expert described a similar technique. A week before travel, gather together each item you plan to take. Then, every day leading to the trip, remove at least two items. In other words, distill.
Golden rule: Know it’s a proven winner before awarding space in your bag.
Start from the Ground
Whether your days are spent walking up mountains, climbing church stairs, or staggering between pubs, the right footwear is crucial. Style is important, but opt for a workhorse. Shoes that function well for a range of activities, plus long hours of wear. For most of us that means a sensible walking shoe, sneaker, or sandal, with good support and no-rub straps or flaps. Plus, a dressier evening shoe. To lighten your bag’s weight, wear the heaviest pair during transportation.
Consider transition potential. Closed-toe options for men and women are best for going from day to night and outside to inside.
Travel writer Sarra Sedghi cautions, “Never use a trip as an opportunity to break something new in.” She learned the hard way when a pair of adorable pink loafers purchased for a trip caused not-so cute blisters. Sedghi then spent precious time and money shoe shopping during vacation.
Embrace Travel Uniforms
When librarian Amanda Borden planned her first trip abroad she spent weeks obsessing over what to pack. Then the airline lost her luggage—for over half the trip.
Now with a couple dozen countries under her belt, she avoids checking bags. “I challenge myself each trip to pack lighter,” says Borden, adding she relies on simple mix-and-match separates.
Feng Shui expert Katie Rogers agrees, simple is best. She applies a passion for de-cluttering at home to packing for travel. “Even if you’re going for two weeks or two months, it’s smarter to pretend you are going for four to five days,” she says.
“I find that I end up wearing the same outfits over and over, and it’s usually the simpler, most comfortable, with the cleanest lines.”
Challenge yourself to develop “travel uniforms” based on pieces you wear often at home. The concept may seem boring, but it’s actually liberating. Having a series of go-to pieces that work for multiple activities allows for less focus on what to wear, more on exploration.
Choose blends of natural fabrics like cotton with an infusion of nylon, polyester, or spandex for a mix of breathability, lightness, and wrinkle resistance.
A good rule of thumb is to select color-coordinated separates to mix, match, and layer, based on 50/30/20: 50% neutrals, 30% complimentary solids, 20% patterns in the palette.
Remember that darker colors camouflage stains better and small, practical items like hats and scarfs can instantly transform “uniforms.”
Looking seamless is no easy feat when traveling. Sedghi says she rolls clothes when packing to save space and limit wrinkles. She also recommends taking along a small bag to separate clean and dirty clothes.
Jeff de Graffenried’s role with the U.S. Agency for International Development has taken him around the world. He recommends quick-dry garments that are easy to hand-wash and suggests taking the destination’s culture norms into account when choosing appropriate wear.
Even when unplugging during travel, most of us tend to stay hyper-connected. Pack a phone, laptop, chords, chargers, batteries, and camera, then there’s hardly space for anything else.
Determine your top-three must-have travel devices, then research the most light-weight, durable options. I failed in this area for years by lugging around a ridiculously heavy laptop to save money. Upgrading to an ultra-light option was worth the investment.
Also consider what may or may not be available in your destination. Photographer Jason Bagby goes light on clothing and shoes to create more space for camera equipment, pointing out, “You can always buy clothes locally but can’t always get the technology gear needed when traveling.”
Seek double-duty items. Multi-device adapters and smart phone covers that serve as battery chargers are smart choices.
Rogers recommends a designated spot for each item. “A special pocket for the phone, a zipper for the phone cord, etc.,” she says. “This will help you quickly identify whether you brought it with you or left it in the hotel before it’s too late.”
Any item that’s too important to lose should always be in your carry-on and all items of value should be insured, because let’s face it, shit happens.
Scale for Family
Can family travel and packing light coexist? While packing for family trips isn’t for the faint of heart, parents say organization is key to keeping everyone happy and appropriately clothed.
For Rob Casey’s family of five, packing for international trips from their base in Ningbo, China, has been an adventure. “In the beginning, we would haphazardly match outfits and lose track of how many things we packed,” he says. “It was very frustrating and we always over-packed.”
During a recent trip to Tokyo, Rob and his wife Julee got strategic. “We labeled extra-large ziplock bags with a name and day. That way we were able to pack the right amount of clothes – no more and no less than what was needed,” he says.
“It also helped us to be organized at the hotel when we landed. Being able to quickly get everyone’s clothes ready with minimal time was HUGE.”
Forget the What-Ifs
Don’t stress about contingencies. It’s impossible to pack for every single scenario you might encounter.
When Austin-based adventure traveler Prentiss Douthit began planning a multi-destination trip to Spain he knew packing for different climates and activities would be a challenge.
His answer was multi-purpose layers. “A sarong is my must-have,” he says. “It’s a scarf on the cold plane. A towel when needed. A sheet at a hostel. And, a beach wrap.”
If the weather is colder or wetter than his planned layers can handle, Douthit says he will worry about it then. His mantra: “forget the what-ifs.”
Writer Lane Nieset recommends packing multiple (reward-rich) credit cards along with a second form of identification, in case of theft or loss. With that contingency covered, you can buy what you need if travel throws a curve ball that your meticulously-packed bag of “essentials-only” can’t handle.
Image: Drew Coffman, CC-BY
Jess Simpson is traveling the world with only what fits in a medium-size backpack (currently weighing in at respectable 21-lbs,) a yoga mat, and a comically large shoulder bag. She is still learning. Every day. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.