Thursday, August 8, 2013

Packing light for the stuff-averse

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A rapture of traveling for me is the illusion of having no stuff. When we pitch the tent in the backyard and sleep out there, it's so calming for it to be just be our bodies and some blankets under the tent frame. All our things may be 10 steps away in the house but we can't see them so maybe they don't exist? Like, maybe this is our new reality. Just you and me and a tent. Finally.

I like to travel perilously light, especially when I fly. Nothin' like stepping off the plane and heading straight for fresh air.

This weekend, I'm flying to D.C. for my sister-in-law Varu's baby shower/birthday. I'm going to bring her baby shower gift (somewhat bulky) and her birthday gift (baked goods that would do well not to be flung around by a well-meaning, I'm sure, baggage handler) already wrapped since I'll be staying with her. The gifts plus my purse will go in one large department store type bag. ("Personal item" carry-on.)

If I'm to avoid checking a bag, all the rest will go in one carry-on. In this case, my 6 gallon Osprey Flapjack day pack . I basically have romantic feelings for this bag. It's my gym bag, my overnight bag. I carried it 26 miles from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. I've also commuted with it every day for 2 years and it looks new, though I've not exactly been gentle with it.

As I was setting out some things to pack this morning, I realized I have developed my own little approach to minimal packing. So since I always like reading lists like this, I thought I'd share some strategies. In shitty Instagram collaged glory. This list skews lady-specific, though only one dude reads this, I think. (Hi Engelsman!)

Knit dress or skirt. Pajama-like comfort but you look like you tried.
The bulkiest shoes that you're bringing. Save on space in your bag. If I'm bringing knee high boots, I wear them on the plane. Usually with tights and a knit dress. Since you'll have to remove them at security (in the United States), maybe leave the lace-up boots with a million buckles at home. I have to violate this rule for this trip since I'm bringing my running shoes and I don't want to wear them to fly.
Oversized lightweight pashmina. Workhorse on a long flight. Shawl, lap blanket, pillow, eye mask. I suppose you could also swaddle a baby, set a sprain, use as a towel, use as a tourniquet!! if things got really wild. Once at your destination, it dresses up your outfits. (Remember, you packed hardly anything so this can take your "look" from "day to night" in annoying women's mag parlance.) I am ditching the scarf this trip since it's just an hour flight and I am heading to the swampy mid-Atlantic in August.
Any jewelry you're going to wear. Jewelry is tricky to pack and gets lost in luggage. Bring a minimal amount and wear it all. If you're not checking anything, you might have to fish it out of your bag at security anyway.
Freshly painted nails. Personal preference. Helps me feel pulled together all weekend when I'm wearing dubiously fresh clothes (we'll get to that..)

Book. So you can win that pizza party for your class.
Journal/something to write on/"non-juicy" pen. For musings, sure, but comes in handy for practical, unromantic purposes all the time. And make it a pencil or ball point pen. I love a roller ball pen but they always explode on me at altitude.
Phone and charger. This exercise prevents me from forgetting my charger at home ("I think I put it in my other bag already..") and lets me charge at an airport if needed without riffling through my tightly packed bigger carry-on.
Gum. I drink a LOT of coffee. I am never the handy person who carries gum in everyday life, but I travel with a fresh pack. Also sometimes your welcoming committee kisses you right on the lips! unexpectedly and you're like hi wow, okay, this is fine, we're fine.
Cash. I use cards for everything in "normal" life in Ohio, USA but I always carry cash when I travel so I'm not stuck hunting for an ATM at the airport. We're trying to get to the fresh air as soon as possible, remember? This way I am not worried about whether the Metrocard machine will decide to hate my cards, or whether I will have small bills to tip a shuttle driver, and I can more easily share the dinner bill or contribute to parking costs, etc. if I'm visiting friends or family. It's lame to spend the first 2 or 3 days telling your hosts you can square everything up after you find an ATM, not that I have any experience being such a slouch (I do.) If I'm leaving the country, I order the local currency from my local bank branch (over the phone to save a trip). They are happy to do it, there's no fee, it arrives for pick-up at my local branch in a day or so, and again, walk right from Arrivals into the sunshine. Or downpour, if it's Costa Rica in the rainy season.
Sunglasses with case. I look like hell after long flights. My skin turns gray and my mascara crumbs off under my eyes and my bangs get all greasy. Then I put my sunglasses on and pretend I'm Debbie Harry. I don't know. It helps me.
Small tin containing foam earplugs, ibuprofen, sleep aid, and few days' worth of my daily meds. In case I sleep somewhere besides where my big bag ends up....(doesn't usually happen anymore haa)

Backup copies of my passport or flight information or much logistical info at all :( (Not my style. I'll get there someday.)


Where: Washington, D.C.
When: August
Duration: 3 days/3 nights
Dressing for: celebrating Varu's birthday out?, lounging around their apartment, hoofing it to museums and monuments, brunch, going out to dinner, running, a baby shower.

3 lightweight tops. 1 is dressy-ish. Hard to tell here but it is a silky, flowy material.
1 maxi skirt.
1 pair cut-off jorts. Forever and ever, amen.
1 romper. Controversial! Baby shower get-up. Made of silky material that resists wrinkling so I can hang it up in the bathroom while I shower that morning and it won't look like it was shoved in a backpack the day before.
1 cardigan. My upper lip is sweating just thinking about it but you never know.

Leggings. I'll sleep in these plus the shirt I wear the first day.
Running gear. Ankle socks, sports bra, tank, shorts.
Bikini. Takes up no room and you also never know!

Jesus sandals. Comfortable for walking all day long yet not orthopedic-looking.
Gold flats. Not comfortable enough to wear all day but dressier than the sandals.
Running shoes.

Let's subtract the running "clothes" including shoes since it is actually gear. All the tops go with all the bottoms and both pairs of shoes go with any combination of those outfits. Dress up or down depending on skirt/shorts and flats/sandals. They have laundry machines so if I really needed to, I can just wash something. Pictured above: my running "bundle", my plane clothes separate from the rest, my backpack, all the clothes that will go into it, the tote bag that all the clothes will slide into, my toiletry bag. My toiletry bag, if you're interested, contains blush, small eyeshadow palette, mascara, two small makeup brushes, mini sunscreen, comb for ma bangs, deodorant, barette, bunch of bobby pins bundled with a hair tie, medication, toothbrush. I'm staying with family so I'll borrow the rest (normal in my family, yours too, yeah?)

All the clothes go into a tote bag to keep them together in the day pack. Then you can slide extras like an umbrella beside the clothing parcel. At your destination, the tote bag can be used to carry groceries, shopping, snacks, on day trips, etc. When you go home put all the clothes back into the tote bag and put the tote in the backpack.

Pack things that go with everything else you packed. It helps that I have super specific taste and in my closet, you could spin a wheel for tops, bottoms, and shoes and it would basically all work. I gravitate toward black, brown, black and brown together, stripes, ugly prints, and lately, a little neon. And gray t-shirts.
Avoid packing things that require other things. Don't pack a top that requires a special bra. Don't pack shoes that only go with one thing. Don't pack a dress that requires Spanx.
When in doubt, don't bring it. You can't anticipate every situation. Traveling necessarily means you give up some control. Doesn't it feel nice? Now order a drink with lunch. You're on vacation.
Pack a swimsuit. Any destination, any time of year. Packing a swimsuit is Chekhov's gun. You introduce a swimsuit in the first act and all of a sudden a pharmacy clerk mentions a swimming hole around the corner or a building turns out to have a pool on the roof. Of course, you don't strictly need a swimsuit to enjoy swimming....

I never once wish I'd packed more things on a trip. It helps that I tend to lean "continental" when it comes to how many times it's okay to wear something before you wash it. You'd be surprised what you can live without, and most everything else can be washed or bought.

What say you, internet?


  1. I am terrible at packing light. I usually want to bring all my newest/cutest clothes because I finally did laundry to prepare for the trip! And then my bag weighs a billion pounds. I always regret packing too much.
    But I never regret packing a bathing suit.

  2. I always overpack and I never regret it. I try to hone enough, but usually I come home and I've worn everything I packed. I spill on myself too much to not pack extra clothes, and I've dropped my underpants on the floor of too many hostels to not bring spares.

    1. Yeah, I always pack a few extra pairs of underwear since they take up hardly any space. I just didn't want to get too detailed with my underpants preparedness in this post.

    2. My favourite thing about being a woman is how tiny my underpants are. The husband and I are both carry-on-only fanatics, and I can casually throw in a month's worth of underwear that take up the space of a single t-shirt. He's washing boxer briefs in the sink every three days like a sucker.

  3. This post is amazing.

    My thought process leaving the house for a short (<5 day) trip is "Do I have a toothbrush and toothpaste? My sleeping bag?" (b/c we're usually camping) "Food? Water? Wallet? Okay, I'll be fine."

    And yes. Underwear is not on that list. Washing in a sink or going without will not kill my trip.

    1. Yeah, I would be comfortable stretching these items into a week of travel or more. Since I figure we'll change activities a lot during the course of a single day, it's good to have options.

      I am also pretty okay with hitting the road with just a toothbrush and my wallet.

  4. Gah! I have a post very similar in nature just sitting in my drafts folder, haha. I love reading ones like this-I also pride myself on being good on packing light. Although I differ from you in one respect-the nails thing! I always try to make sure I'm nail polish free before travel, unless I'm also willing to pack the polish along with me. Otherwise I'm a chipped up mess almost immediately and I can't stand that. Also, I generally fly in leggings/skinny jeans and flowy top with scarf rather than a dress-I find I get too cold otherwise.To be fair, most of my flights these past few years have been between 8-16 hours though so...yeah.

    1. Ooh I'd love to see your thoughts, especially since you have a lot of extended stay trips under your belt. The polish thing - I guess I don't have problems with chips usually, but I always assume that I can get polish remover at my destination if needed.

  5. This "order currency for the other country in your bank ahead of time" is GENIUS.

  6. For casual travel, yes. Bottom line: get to the essentials; the stuff that will account for your general well-being, wherever you go. I guess, the other thing is to store and box them up real well.

    Clay @ World Packaging Co.