Packing. It’s just about the least-enjoyable word that has anything to do with traveling (aside from its fraternal twin: unpacking). This is especially true if you don’t travel regularly and haven’t quite fine-tuned your packing skills. This post is an amalgamation of the habits I’ve developed and the helpful tips I’ve collected over the years that will, hopefully, make your packing experience a little less stressful. Every trip is different, but this is a good basis for efficient packing.
Before you start packing:
1. The culture
Hopefully you have already looked into the customs and traditions of the places you are visiting (that may even be what fueled your choice), but if you haven’t done so, now is the time. You want to wear clothing that is both appropriate for the culture and doesn’t make you stick out like a tourist. This varies by country, by city, even by whether or not you are in the city center or if you’re out in the country. You don’t wear the same thing in San Francisco that you would wear in San Diego (even if the temperatures are similar that day). The short of it: you want to dress like a local.
2. The weather
You may think you know what September weather is like in San Francisco but, trust me, you don’t. Unfortunately, the same goes for any place you visit so don’t rely on almanac temperatures or averages (unless, of course, you’re going to be traveling for more than a month). Find a local weather source and put it to good use – no one wants to be wearing a white t-shirt dress in a midday downpour.
3. Your activities
If you followed some of my planning tips from this post, then you have a pretty good idea of what you will be doing from day to day. Use your activities in combination with the weather outlook to prepare outfits ahead of time. This is especially useful if your visit will include rain or a day of hiking because you won’t have to worry about putting together an outfit that is both clean and stays opaque.
4. Your bag
Unless you’re backpacking across the entire continent in one trip or traveling for an inordinate amount of time (lucky you!) there is no reason to bring any bag bigger than a carry-on. I recently finished a month-long road trip toting only my grey 22-inch HIGH SIERRA AT3 Carry-on* without wearing the same outfit twice (we will get to how that is possible in a bit).
Now, you may already have a carry-on that you love, but if not, here are some key components to look for:
a) Versatility. I can wear mine as a backpack (great for hopping around train stations) or I can roll it (airports). The AT3 also has a zip-off front backpack that is the perfect size for day trips.
b) Durability. Carry-on luggage doesn’t get as banged up on flights as checked baggage, but if you plan to roll the bag through cobblestone streets or use it for the next several years this is key.
c) Weight. You’re going to be lugging it around more than just from the car to the airport and back again (hopefully), so you don’t want it to be too heavy. Mine is slightly on the heavier side – it weighs 10lbs when it is empty – and while I wouldn’t suggest it for a traditional “backpacking experience,” I had no trouble hauling it around on my back through the cities and train stations.
d) Price. Find a price that is comfortable for you and then shop around for the best deals. I searched Amazon, eBags, Wayfair, and local stores before making a decision.
*I ordered my charcoal and lime-trimmed bag from Amazon, but this specific style is no longer available at this time.
1. Make a list
List your current favorite items (the ones you wear most often, not the ones you think you like the best) and separate them by category (tops, bottoms, dresses, etc.) all the while keeping the research you have done in mind. Then, map out how many times you can wear each item from one category with one from another without repetition. If you can’t wear a single item at least 3 different ways, don’t bring it (see image for an example list). Keep your list and take it with you – you never know when your brain will misfire and you can’t remember what to wear.
a) If you’re stuck, start with the items you know you will need: pajamas, hiking apparel, toiletries, etc. It will make your brain less anxious so that you can focus.
b) Don’t list anything brand new if you don’t know how it washes or stretches.
c) Avoid anything region-specific, i.e. alma maters or favorite sports teams, because they draw unnecessary attention to your being a tourist.
d) Try to choose items that won’t become see-through or stuck to you in the event of a sudden rainfall. I tend to pack lace (skirts, dresses, tops, you name it) for this reason. Also, I just own and wear an obscene amount of it.
e) Don’t list too many shoes. Sometimes it is easiest to decide which shoes to bring and format your outfits around them. I only bring a pair of cross trainers for hiking/exercising, my ankle boots, and a pair of slip-on flats (or a pair of sandals if the destination warrants them).*
f) Leave all the extra gadgets (fanny packs, laptops (unless for work purposes), iPads, etc.) off the list and at home. As far as electronics go I bring my phone (unlocked), my Nikon, and my Surface (with keyboard) because I work from it.
g) You don’t need to bring several handbags. Bring a structurally-sound cross-body bag that can work for both day and evening (solid black leather has worked the best for me). It should have a thick enough strap that it cannot be easily cut or pulled (i.e., broken).
*I spent nearly a decade in fashion merchandising wearing four-inch heels while carrying 50lb mannequins, moving fixtures and climbing 15-foot ladders for twelve hours a day. Unless you have been doing some variation of that, I suggest you stick to flatter shoes or at least thicker heels while walking on cobblestone streets for a day of sightseeing.
2. Try it all on
You want to make sure everything fits the same and works the way you expect before you get to your destination. This also tends to help with the jewelry (if you wear any; I tend to stick to my rose gold watch and stackable rings) and shoe decisions.
3. Note care instructions
If you’re gone for more than a week (or thereabouts), you’ll end up washing some of your clothing by hand in hotels/hostels/flats. In other words, don’t bring dry clean only items unless they’re absolutely necessary.
1. Arrange by outfit, not day.
2. Use smaller bags (either packing cubes or even flat zip-shut casements, like small clutches or some toiletry bags) to separate undergarments and items.
3. Leave room for souvenirs.
4. Have all of your travel documents ready to go and on your person. Place relevant copies (of your passports or even an itinerary) into the zippered lining of the carry-on in the middle of the bag. This way they don’t get crumpled and they can’t be easily filched.
5. Your toiletry bag should go about a third of the way up from the bottom of the bag with a layer below it (shoes) and a layer behind it (tees) to protect any of the bottles from getting smashed or breaking. The bottles themselves should be in Ziploc bags for easy maneuvering through airports and as an extra layer against leakage. You could also opt to use a non-liquid shampoo/conditioner (they look like bars of soap and come in tins for easy packing).
6. If your bag is pulling at the zipper, you don’t need to pack tighter, rearrange, or get a bigger bag. You need to re-think some items and start over.
Hopefully these tips will get you started on a more pleasant packing experience, but if I didn’t address a concern you can always contact me via email or twitter to the right of the page.
-M. Ray Hall