Packing is perhaps the least enjoyable part of trip planning. “What should I take? How is it all going to fit in this bag? Am I really going to need this?” Most people seem to ask similar questions, yet many still over pack, or pack the wrong items for their trip. Packing seems easy at first – just grab your stuff and go. However, in practice, packing is deceptively hard. Most people believe that they are doing just fine taking all of the things that they anticipate needing. Then, they leave on their trip and realize they’ve made a mistake. The end result: carrying around a heavy bag full of stuff they won’t use, and then discovering that they actually need something that they didn’t think to bring.
So, how should we pack, then? We reached out to some experienced and expert travelers to find out how they do it. Many of these folks have traveled for long periods of time, ventured out on multiple trips, and have turned the art of packing into a science. If they can manage to pack for multi-month trips, or even multi-year trips in some situations, then their advice should help other inexperienced travelers prepare for anything from a career break to a few weeks at the beach or a short weekend getaway.
When I reached out to this intrepid group of travelers for their advice, one key theme emerged: take only what you really need. However, this obvious advice is not necessarily good advice, because different people need different things, and some people think they need more than they actually do. “Need” means different things to different people. Also, I asked them about the common concept of “packing light.” I asked these travelers if they pack light, and most said they do, but many still struggle with the concept.
Packing light is essentially the practice of only putting just a few things into your bag. This bag is usually small, and for many experienced travelers, it’s merely a carry-on. But it’s not easy, as the panel of travelers mostly agreed.
So why is it so hard to pack, or even pack lightly? One would think that packing light would be easy, because it actually requires less effort. The truly lazy should be able to pack light by just grabbing some shoes and a camera before hopping on a flight for their six-month sabbatical to Africa, right? Right….? Now here’s the root of the packing problem: any sane person who read that last sentence would say, “You’re only taking shoes and a camera? Are you crazy? You’re going to die!”
Packing, as it turns out, is more psychological than physical, and more emotional than practical. “What if I need this? What if I need that? What if I run into trouble? What if I get stuck? What if it snows? What if I get robbed? Is the food safe? Are the toilets clean? Do they have toilet paper? Do they have towels? I’d better bring some, just in case….”
The real driving force behind over packing is fear. The classic Boy Scout’s motto of “always prepared” repeats in our brain like a warning siren as we gather various items that might end up saving our life in some extreme situation. What if we get a stomach virus, get hit with abnormal weather, lose some of our clothes, or otherwise end up somewhere not on our scheduled itinerary? Fear drives us to pack these extra supplies, but these extra items weigh down our bags more than clothes ever could. And it’s all because we don’t know what to expect. Fear, after all, comes from the unknown. But that’s why we travel, so that we can visit the unknown. It’s the travelers paradox – we must go forth into the unknown looking for adventure while carrying enough stuff with us so that we’re comfortable when we get there.
Research is our main weapon against this fear of the unknown, this fear which leads us to over pack. We must understand a destination and learn from other travelers who have blazed the trail before us. Knowing what to expect will help us to only pack what we actually need, not what we think we need. The goal of packing light thus becomes finding the proper balance between having what you need and being able to carry it in comfort.
So, then, how do we actually pack light?
“The task of planning will have to start with the destination: Hot/Cold, Winter/Summer, Rainy/Dry, Short/Lengthy trip, Civilized/Remote. The trickiest bit is deciding what to pack when you’re on a long trip to multiple destinations,” says Bard of Sandalsand.net. He’s been traveling off and on for over 30 years, and has visited over 60 countries. His advice is echoed by others, too. When it comes to clothes, know the weather and pack items that are versatile. One of the most important questions I had asked to this group of expert travelers: What is the most difficult part of packing? Knowing which clothing to take was a common answer.
As we travel a lot during the shoulder season and off-season, packing an appropriate amount of clothing to cover the wide range of weather we expect to encounter is challenging. Packing swimsuits and shorts for the summer, or pants and layers for winter is somewhat straightforward, but when the trip includes a full range of sun, rain, wind, and possibly snow, our clothing needs to be flexible.
Calli and Travis of Have Blog, Will Travel – budget conscious travelers and backpackers
Shoes and layers for varying temperatures/weather conditions are the things that tend to add bulk to my bags. I would say packing light means packing clothes that can be worn in a variety of contexts (ex: a long black sundress is comfortable for sitting on a bus all day but can also be worn out to dinner, and is very packable).
Katie Marti of If I Were You – “I usually travel on a budget and try to get as authentic a feel for place and people as I can.”
The most difficult part of having everything you own fit into carry-on luggage is dealing with multiple climates and scenarios. Best to stay in warm places, for more wardrobe variety!
Nora Dunn, who writes at The Professional Hobo – on the road since 2006
I have to force myself not to pack every item I own. For my last trip to Russia, the latter was the bigger issue. I was travelling to Moscow, the Sochi Olympics and Prague, so I had to have enough winter clothing for Moscow and the mountain events at the Olympics plus bring some lighter clothing for Sochi, since it was a sea port city so I knew it would be warmer. Packing light, is that possible? I TRY to follow this advice but it doesn’t always work out. I’d rather have a bit heavier suitcase than forget something I will need. I have forced myself to pack fewer clothes and either stop by a laundry-mat or wash it myself in my hotel sink. Packing light to me means bringing my smaller or medium-sized suitcase.
But what if you just don’t know what to expect? Should you then take everything and give up on any hopes of having a lighter bag? Well, not exactly. Many of the travelers I questioned also had another key piece of advice about packing light: be prepared to buy more clothes and supplies at your destination. This is especially true if you are planning to visit multiple destinations or are traveling for longer periods of time.
If you need something out there, chances are very high you are going to be able to find it, and usually fairly cheaply.
Michael Hodson, long time traveler and author at GoSeeWrite.com – “I left home at the end of 2008 in an attempt to circle the globe without getting on a single airplane. I succeeded and just kept going.”
We knew we’d be doing a lot of trekking, which meant hiking shoes and clothes. When we got to New Zealand, we basically had to buy a whole new wardrobe because it’s freezing here. We miss summer!
Rob and Lina from Erohisms- their latest trip began in February 2013 and is still ongoing
The point is that they sell clothes in other countries as well, you’ll often get cheap laundry too. I have turned to packing thin garments, “breathing” type. It is better to have three thin garments on your body, than one thick woollen sweater.
Some of our favorite travel memories come from trying foreign toothpaste or shampoo for the first time. The experience is always a fun one.
Calli and Travis
Packing light does not have to mean “unprepared.” In fact, this group of seasoned travelers offered up one more universal packing tip: the clothes you pack should be usable in many situations, able to be layered, and very washable.
Packing light to me equals only the necessities: do you need that extra dress or shirt “just in case?” It depends also how long your trip is, but for longer journeys and ladies, stick with a neutral base so clothes can be mixed and matched. And layer!
Hayley from hayleyonholiday.com – a budget traveler who likes her money to stretch out for as long as possible
I usually try to stick with a common color scheme (black or brown) to limit shoes and accessories. Also, I pack clothes that can be layered and re-worn easily. If you run out of clothes, you can always do laundry or buy more.
Angela from AngelaTravels.com – her style includes most things outdoors with some city travel mixed in
Now that you’ve planned your trip and gathered your clothes and supplies, how do you go about getting them into your bag? How do you prioritize? How do you know if you’ve prepared to take too many items? As a general rule, many travelers follow the “cut everything in half” advice when packing. Some of those we spoke too repeated this advice, and offered even more.
Lay out all of the clothing and other items you plan to take. Halve the amount of clothing – you can purchase things on the road if you need and laundry is always an option.
Becki of backpackerbecki.com – full-time on the road for 2 years
Collect all the items on your packing list, lay them out on the floor and then try and reduce the number of things by half. Be ruthless.
Charli & Ben, Wander Lusters – “We utilize house sitting assignments to immerse ourselves in the places we visit and subsidize our accommodation costs.”
Never buy a bag that is too big because the odds are you will still stuff it. The less space you have, the less you will want to fill it, and the less weight you will carry.
Marianna Jamadi, Nomadic Habit – budget traveling through 20+ countries
Put everything you want to take in your bag, put your bag on, and then go for an hour long walk around your city/town. If you’re beat by the end, your bag is too heavy. If you felt awesome, then your bag is just right.
Rob and Lina
After getting an idea of what travelers should not be stuffing into their bag, I then asked the expert what they can’t live without. The vast majority mentioned their cameras (an obvious choice), and many also stated that they travel with a laptop or tablet. A few had some other travel and packing tips for fellow travelers planning a big trip:
For me, the most important items are my iPod and my iPad. I do a lot of long transportation rides and I need something to entertain me during those dozens of hours on the road. Good music, podcasts, and books are a life saver.
A smart phone, tablet or small pc comes in handy, especially if you have been wise and placed a copy of your vital documents (passport, tickets etc.) in the “cloud” (Like OneDrive, Google Drive or Dropbox).
I have found that rolling my clothes, as opposed to folding them, creates more space and keeps them from getting as wrinkled. Also, don’t forget to leave space for the things you’ll buy while travelling – nothing makes me feel like more of a bumbling tourist than when I am forced to buy a new bag in which to carry all the extras I’ve amassed en route!
Do not pack the night before (been there, bad idea); try to give yourself a few days and practice a couple times. You will remove quite a few items from your luggage if you pack early. I also roll my clothes: I can fit more into my luggage and they aren’t wrinkled. I have also used compression bags which saves space in your luggage. Both work well.
Packing isn’t just about material things, though. Any wise traveler will tell you that you also need a great credit card so that you can pay for what you need all around the world while also maximizing airline miles, discounts, and points. You can find a great breakdown of most major credit cards and their amazing benefits on the effectify.com website.
Finally, I’ve summarized a short list of “must pack” necessities suggested multiple times by our expert travelers. So, you can pack as light or heavy as you like, just don’t leave home without these helpful items:
- Comfortable Shoes
- Two different credit cards (such as a Visa and Mastercard), stored in different places in your body or luggage
- A travel surge protector (especially if you’re taking a camera, laptop, smartphone, etc)
What do you think, fellow traveler? Do you have any packing advice to share? Do you pack light? And what is on your “must pack” list?
Bryan has visited exactly one more country than his wife, and she won’t let him forget it! Also an avid photographer, he enjoys entrenching himself within the local culture in order to learn more about the people of a place. He is the co-founder of Budget Your Trip and loves a good adventure, an exotic meal, or a passionate conversation about global events.