I’ve had the great fortune of doing a lot of traveling throughout my brief existence on this planet, which has come with the necessary step of packing for said travel.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is looking at the same task from different angles. Packing is one of those areas that I’ve enjoyed experimenting and constantly searching for ways to increase my world-traveling fun and decrease my sojourner’s stress (and really, aren’t those different sides of the same coin? or the same side of two different coins? or something). Like many other aspects of my life, the answer that resonates for me the most is, there is no single answer for all things at all times. Different approaches work in different scenarios at different moments. Yet again, nature seems to love diversity: the more I’ve enhanced my packing style portfolio, the better I’ve been able to rise up to my wandering of choice and maximize my bliss.
I’ve gathered a few different approaches over the years, by virtue of mimicry: trying on the styles of my various traveling companions and reaching for the appropriate one as the circumstances of the trip dictates. Here’s what I’ve learned — take what you like, and ignore the rest.
1. Everything Must Go
There’s nothing quite like the ability to pack your entire closet into a suitcase, you know, to avoid regret. You don’t have to worry about wishing you had brought that one sweater or that awesome dress because, it’s in there! No need to predict what mood you’ll be in, or even check the weather report (because when have those been any good at preparing you anyway?) — just throw it all into your ginormous bag (or three). Finding room for all your items is never a question in your mind. You don’t even have to have any spatial knowledge, or be any good at folding. You can just throw it in, and likely leave room for all those lovely souvenirs you want to pick up while you’re at your destination.
When This Works: I have to admit, this is a super fun way to travel, when you can get it. In my world, there are two major components to said “getting it”: wheels and other people. Wheels are THE answer for folks who have to pack their entire wardrobe and three alternative outfits for each day in case their mood shifts or there is a slight breeze, because despite how heavy your luggage is, you or your designated servant (or very, very nice companion) can help you wheel the bags where they need to go. There are several suitcase sets that attach together, which keeps your options open to go ahead and fill those three or four bags, snap them all together, and still just have one handle to push or pull. Of course the wheels will help to the degree that there are ramps and elevators (and if you’re really skilled, you can master the escalator with this small mountain of baggage in tow). So if you’ve checked ahead and confirmed that your path is smooth or barring that, fully staffed (so someone — or someones — else is tasked with this somewhat herculean burden), this is lap of luxury awesomeness.
I used this approach when I went to Japan to teach English to high school students in Shiga-ken. The entire process of going via the JET Programme was “for dummies”, as they say. Between shipping items and bringing multiple bags on the flight with me for my year-long contract engagement, I left very little behind — as a recent college grad, I was still at a time of my life where I could fit most of my worldly goods in my car — and had practically zero issues getting all my stuff from here to there thanks to all the spoon-feeding that they did for new Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). Neither your body nor your brain needed to work that much (which is great, because the jet lag is a bear) — just go where all the nice people waving their yellow flags tell you to go, and leave the heavy lifting to them. Don’t you worry about a thing. Ah, so nice.
When This May Be Trouble: Having everything you might possibly need at your fingertips is great once you’re settled into your room, but it’s critical to make sure you can get it there. If you can’t afford to hire a goon to help you out, your suitcase has to be transportable by you and you alone — and wheels won’t help you when you have to navigate stairs because there are no other options, and your train is on the other side of the rail, which requires not just one but two flights (one to get up to the crosswalk and the other to get back down to the correct side of the tracks). Spoken from experience, after packing way too much for my brief visit home for the holidays on said JET Programme adventure. Gone was the spoon-feeding, and the lovely helpers with yellow flags were nowhere to be found. Just a very sweaty, nervous, exhausted, anxiety-ridden me.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever packed like this again — too soon — but I commend those who pull it off. It’s absolutely a valid choice, PTSD risks notwithstanding.
2. Free Spiriting
I admit, I romanticize the kind of wandering where you are the least burdened you possibly can be, and can focus 100% on the adventure in front of you (and not on the weight of baggage behind you).
Emotionally and psychologically, you toss away such silly concepts as an “itinerary” — all you need is your map, your phone, and some way to get around (rental car, Vespas, trains, buses, taxis, so many choices). You’re free to choose each day as it comes — no need for any set plans. Physically, you contribute to this open-minded state by what you bring with you — or perhaps better to say, by what you don’t bring with you. You sport a travel belt, a washcloth, a tiny bag of travel-sized toiletries and laundry soap, a spare outfit (one outfit to wear, while the other one is in the wash), and a notebook and pen, of course, because writers gotta write. But otherwise, you remain as unencumbered as possible.
Stuff? We don’t need no stinkin’ stuff.
When This Works: If you’re planning a journey for consenting adults (/snark) who can let go of schedules and just explore, I highly recommend trending toward the lighter “stuff” approach. It’s also helpful when you’re going to visit a place like Europe where the vehicles are smaller, and you plan to move around from location to location throughout your stay.
I didn’t see it all by any means, but I suspect Ireland is perfect for this kind of traveling. It’s such a casual, fun, natural beauty place to visit, and fashion isn’t what makes it so. There is so much to see, it’s a shame to be bothered by bringing too many artifacts of your “normal life” with you. Bring enough to be comfortable, then just let your self-consciousness and vanity go, and give in to the experience.
We had one night where we dressed up, but otherwise my Women’s Walkabout with my fair friend was all about exploring, writing, and just being. I didn’t go so far as to only pack two outfits, but I had a handful of light tops and two bottoms, a couple of layers for the chill, and a wrinkle-free dress. Everything was super easy to smush into a small case that could fit into the super-tiny trunk of the car, and leave enough room for my traveling companion’s (significantly larger) baggage.
When This May Be Trouble: Note my comment above about adults. Do not try this if you’re bringing young children with you, and even if they are teenagers it’s a bit of a crap-shoot. Not only because they may not be as open to leaving behind their creature comforts, but whenever I travel with the family, I need to do a little more planning — a little more itinerary — and this mindset comes with its own stresses, so then I need to bring a few more self-care items (books, an extra outfit or two so I can dress up a bit for a couple evenings of “Mom Time” while they relax in the room, etc.) — and then before you know it, you’re bringing stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.
This is also a tough move if you’re traveling in a climate with drastic temperature changes, and you plan to be outdoors walking around for much of it. Your quest to be “minimal” will quickly intersect with your sensibility about not being annoyed and cold, and the whole two-outfit strategy dies a sad little death before you can even get started … or worse, you stick with the plan anyway and wind up having a miserable time. No, thank you.
Also the ever-important caveat, if you don’t feel good about yourself without your favorite clothes and vanity items, I don’t know that it’s helpful to try to force this style on yourself, even though lot of people (like me) attest to how lovely it can be. Know thyself, and all that.
3. The Middle Way, aka Packing Boxes
As much as the above two methods represent opposite ends of the spectrum of minimalism vs materialism, most of my packing strategies have lived somewhere in the middle. I typically want to have a few clothes to choose from (mainly so I don’t have to do laundry every forking day). I want a book to read. A notebook and pen to write down my thoughts, poems, and stories. I want my camera phone (and these days, I also want my camera). I hate not having a case for my regular glasses when I’m wearing my sunglasses. I like having sandals and dress shoes as well as my walking sneakers. I hate going without a spare sweatshirt, even in warmer months, because my metabolism is completely whacked that way.
Because of this propensity, I was completely blown away with bliss when a friend introduced me to the miracle of miracles for wanderers: packing boxes!
At the risk of sounding like I’m being paid to write this (I’m not), WOW, are these things amazing. I’m not going to link to anyone’s particular product line here (see previous comment about not being paid), so you’ll have to open up another window and google this, but it’s so worth it. Packing boxes (and envelopes) are such a game-changer in the game of fit-lots-of-stuff-into-small-spaces-in-the-name-of-freedom-and-happiness-everywhere. Based on the physics of compression and the psychology of compartmentalization, it’s an instant Marie Kondo-esque power move — except instead of organizing your homelife, you’re organizing your travel-life.
It’s a beautiful way to combine the desire to bring a lot of things with you, but not have to lug around multiple large bags and hope they fit into very small spaces (I see you, Europe). It’s opening up your suitcase and being able to pull out exactly that box that has your toiletries, or that one pair of pants, or those shoes. And because everything is contained in its own little storage space (and securely zipped), when you grab what you need, that’s the only thing that comes out of the bag. Everything else stays put, perfectly packed, undisturbed.
I know. I KNOW.
But before you go out and get, like, a hundred of these gems, don’t buy a hundred. Six medium-sized boxes / envelopes will fill a large suitcase. Yeah. Six.
When This Works: Full disclosure, all of my travels post-packing-box-discovery fit into this bucket. Part of me is a minimalist, yet I have another very real side that likes to be prepared for any material whim I might have, and the ability to reach into my bag and meet said whim. In a super-organized, neat, and efficient fashion. (I love these boxes SO much.)
When This May Be Trouble: The first time you use the boxes, there is a learning curve. Folks who struggle with folding laundry may have some initial issues. There’s a certain way you have to fold your garments so they fit and don’t get weird creases (there’s an easy-to-follow diagram that comes with most of these products). It takes patience, and a little bit of practice to get the muscle memory established.
You also have to approach your packing with a bit of planning. Specifically, it’s important to identify what you want to take, assign categories, then pick the appropriate sized box and pack accordingly. If you’re the kind of person who likes to throw things into the suitcase like it’s a dresser, the boxes may feel like an extra unnecessary step. Much easier to just grab that second bag and keep tossing things in.
Also, as much as these boxes work well for most articles of clothing, large, thick, layered garments (like a ballroom gown or a heavily-sequined jacket) may require something more customized, or you simply might not be willing to risk folding your item in any way. I’ve also yet to find a box that works well for anything fragile, such as an oddly shaped souvenir that you want to drop off with someone at your destination, and I never use them for my beach hat. (Although using them clears up plenty of space in my bag to place these things separately.)
Your Methods May Vary
Those who know me, know that I don’t give a whole lot of advice. You be you, because nobody else is.
I hope that this post has given you some ideas based on my experience and perspective, and invite you to share your points / counterpoints in the comments. I’m excited to learn from others about more fun, creative, awesome ways to make the most out of wandering while we’re planning for said wandering.
I mean, that’s basically what packing is — that final space of time when you’re imagining all the amazing places you’ll see and people you’ll meet. The final step of the Travel Plan.
And I guess you could say, we’re currently in a packing mental space, in a way. Waiting for the current pandemic crisis to rise, crest, and fall. Imagining, dreaming, planning, so that eventually, we can GO. Choosing our boxes, and placing our future joys inside of them, ready to pull them out as the opportunities arise, believing that this will make our future lives as blissful as possible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some packing to do.
6 thoughts on “Packing Jujitsu”
We must talk “packing boxes” when we connect again. I have been struggling with over packing for years. so looking forward to that challenge soon.
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I love these boxes for exactly that reason – you can still be an overpacker, and simply use less space for your stuff. I look forward to showing you my set the next time we visit.
Great stuff here! Thanks! I feel completely seen by your first approach description. I have also tended toward over packing during many of my travel adventures. However, I feel that I have learned a thing (or three), from traveling with you, and I am eager to try out the packing boxes!
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Your choices are valid!! I hope you love the boxes as much as I do — patience during your first “use” will go a long way, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Sells itself, as they say. So on that note: where are we going next?
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Where and when? Those are the pressing questions for sure. Hopefully we’ll find those answers much sooner than later.
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