How to Pack (or Extreme Packing, Episode Three)

Almost every travel book you read, especially those of the “traveler” rather than “tourist” bent, will have a section on packing. And the collective message of those sections is “pack light.”

Chapter 4 of Rick Steeve’s Europe Through the Back Door is titled, for example, “Pack Light Pack Light Pack Light” and begins:

The importance of packing light cannot be overemphasized, but, for your own good, I’ll try. You’ll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags “Every year I pack heavier.” The measure of a good traveler is how light she travels. You can’t travel heavy, happy and cheap. Pick two.

As detailed in this space before, this was my year to experiment with “Extreme Packing” — that is, packing light, packing light, packing light.

And after three trips — San Francisco in the spring, Boston in the summer, and Europe in the fall — I am ever more the “pack light” zealot.

In my kit for the 10-day European trip were:

  • Two changes of clothes (two shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear). Plus the set of clothes on my back.
  • One pair of North Face Journey Pants. Light, warm, and impervious to dirt. Zipped pocket on front.
  • One REI-brand Polarfleece jacket with zip-pockets.
  • One black T-shirt, one pair of light pyjama bottoms.
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, electric shaver, small bottle of shampoo, small travel deodorant. All stored in Ziploc bag.
  • iPod, earphones and charger.
  • Cell phone and charger.
  • Canon PowerShot S100 digital camera and charger.
  • European travel plug (shaver, iPod and cell phone were all dual-voltage, so only needed a plug converter).
  • One Moleskin notebook, two ballpoint pens.
  • Printout of travel plans on one sheet of paper.
  • Rough Guide to Croatia and Paul Theroux paperback.
  • Neck wallet for passport, credit cards, plane tickets, etc.

I packed all of this in Kelty Redwing 2500 backpack.

If I was packing again, I would have left the Rough Guide (it was heavy, and mostly useless because it didn’t cover the areas of Croatia we were visting at all) and the paperback (never opened it). I might also leave the iPod at home, although it was nice to have a couple of times on long air or train travel legs.

Otherwise, I had what felt like the perfect amount of stuff on my back.

Dad and I washed out our clothes in hotel sinks three times: I had lightweight clothing that always dried overnight (indeed my cheap Zellers socks dried better than Dad’s high-tech Tilley travel socks). I did end up wearing the same shirt a couple of times, which didn’t seem to be a problem (for me, or for others).

Truth be told, I can’t imagine what else I would bring with me. And watching my fellow travelers check their giant rolling suitcases in at the airport, both Dad and I wondered what on earth they could be carrying in them: television sets? hair dryers? curling irons? Unless you’re moving to India for six months, or need to dress in formal business attire, I can’t see how filling up more than the roughly 2000 cubic inches that I did will make your trip any better.

The advantages of packing light are numerous:

  • You can carry your bag right on the plane and train with you: no lost luggage, no wait at the airport (you clear customs first).
  • You don’t have to worry about finding a place to store luggage when you arrive early or leave late from a city (I did end up storing my pack several times, because Dad stored his luggage, but I would have been comfortable with it on my back).
  • Everything is with you, all the time. You can always brush your teeth, jot down some notes, make a phone call, change a shirt, without worrying whether you have the right suitcase with you at the time.
  • Trip psychology is improved: when you’re packing light, you feel more mobile, more nimble, more flexible, more spontaneous.

When Catherine and Oliver and I went to Spain last year, we packed light. But there’s only so much you can pare down when you travel with a young child: car seat, strollers, backup diaper and outfit supply, etc. make for quite a pile of stuff to drag around. We had it down to an art (car seat on Catherine’s back, Oliver in stroller, small pack in back of stroller, large pack on my back, day pack in my hands), and we were pretty nimble, all things considered. But we still felt like a small army moving around. Next time we go, Oliver will be toilet trained (touch wood) and we might even be able to leave the car seat and stoller behind. Three small packs, and we’ll be ready to fly.

The problem with trying to pack light is that what “light” works out to in the pleasure of your bedroom is drastically different than what “light” will feel like out on the moors. Slinging a backpack on and walking around the house is not a reasonable test for determining whether there’s too much in the pack or not. Better to take a 2 mile hike. Or a 5 mile hike. In the sun.

The best trick I’ve found is to pack so that your backpack seems absurdly empty — say half to 2/3 empty in the large main compartment. If you can get things down that light, then the inevitable expansion that will occur — dirty clothes larger than clean, neat clothes, souvenirs gathers en route, etc. — will have lots of room to grow into.

The other technique is to pack what you think you need, then remove half of it. If you get things down to where you’re thinking “there’s no way in hell I can travel with that little” then you’re getting close.

When talking about Extreme Packing in San Francisco this spring, Bart, one of “the Mozilla guys,” claimed to have travelled to Belgium with only a toothbrush and a paperback book. I’m not there yet, but at least I have something to aspire to.

Need inspiration? Here’s a photo of Kevin Kelly’s backpack, about which he says “In the 1970s my possessions fit into this backpack and included a change of clothes, a toothbrush, mosquito netting and 300 rolls of film.”

Pack on.


Pete Prodoehl's picture
Pete Prodoehl on October 20, 2004 - 19:11 Permalink

Besides packing light, you need to pack tight. How do you do this? Usually I like to put on the theme music from Tetris, start a timer, and then see how quickly I can fit everything into place. It works for me!

oliver's picture
oliver on October 20, 2004 - 22:40 Permalink

I think something that might unite the mystery of why some people bring so much and the slightly mysterious why you’re more the traveler if you bring so little has to do with the extent of your seeming intent (measured in cubic centimeters) to remain the person and set of habits that you are versus how much you remain open (unoccupied volume of your pack, free hands) to whatever a place hands you. There’s more or less no advantage and no selective pressure exerted on us at home in suburbia to live with little—in fact, it’s the opposite with respect to lots of things, like commuting. If you’ve been living under such a circumstance then, to the extent you have any “habitual inertia” and/or “I-am-the-brand-of-shoes-I-wear”-ness about you, there’s going to be a lot that it occurs to you to put into the suitcase. I used to criticize this instinctive urge in myself as conservatism or lack of openness but nowadays I don’t take it as a reliable indicator of anything. That said, I agree, one should pack light.

Clark's picture
Clark on October 21, 2004 - 12:39 Permalink

I can’t agree more. My Tom Bihn Brain Bag carry’s just about everything I need to take for any length of trip.
Even with business attire it is possible to carry everything in a carry-on. After all, hotel’s will wash your clothes for you.

Nick Burka's picture
Nick Burka on October 21, 2004 - 18:23 Permalink

Inspired by the tale of your tight package (and your amazing packing skills on our trip to San Francisco) — Iva and I took up the torch and tried it out for our trip to Italy. Check out the photo of us ready to go. One small bag each with just the basics + a laptop for archival research (fits into one of the bags). Not bad for our first try I think…

Nick Burka's picture
Nick Burka on October 21, 2004 - 18:24 Permalink

Oh, and I’ll post an update on how things went when we get back a week from now.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 21, 2004 - 18:59 Permalink


M's picture
M on October 22, 2004 - 02:24 Permalink

I was also “Inspired by .. your tight package” in San Fran. I love that city.

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on October 22, 2004 - 21:12 Permalink

I’m in favour of heavy packing myself. You can all pack light if you want. Then you can thank me for bringing the bottle opener and the bandaids and the Vill

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on October 23, 2004 - 20:36 Permalink

threat — a security threat, not thread

Fraudian slip, I guess.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 23, 2004 - 20:54 Permalink

I was worried, in a mild way, about the “no checked baggage to Europe” flag that might be applied to me. I didn’t encounter any evidence of it, though.

Nick Burka's picture
Nick Burka on October 31, 2004 - 15:56 Permalink

Back from a week in Italy and now a solid endorser of “Extreme Packing” (despite its lame name). I don’t know if we could have left anything else behind, but we definetly weren’t missing anything essential. Washing socks in a hotel sink is easy enough — and well worth the advantage of not having to lug a big heavy bag back and forth from the train stations.

Thanks for the advice R&#363k.

reggis's picture
reggis on December 15, 2009 - 18:44 Permalink

You really are a champion of packing. What a great idea, making a contest where the winner would be the one who will pack more things in a smaller luggage… It would a thematic contest, of course. I could use any help on packing as I am moving soon and I really want to keep all my stuff in order so that’s why I think way I pack can save me time with unpacking and reordering my stuff. Any tips for me?