How To Pack Light & Pack Right

I’ll be the first to admit it. I am a horrible, wretched, awful, and inexcusably appalling packer. It’s not that I can’t physically pack, or make things fit (I leave that job to my boyfriend, who can make mountains out of the smallest molehill of items). No, that isn’t the problem at all. In fact, I can make things fit all too well. This is not, per say, such a bad talent to have. It only becomes a curse when I use it to fit every last item I can possibly imagine and ever conceivably need into my semi-soft travel pack. There’s probably a good many of you nodding in agreement right now, acknowledging your same talents. But believe me when I tell you I am one of the absolute worst; I can truly fit more crap into a confined space than any person I’ve ever known.

Two years after a clammy, draining walk through Madrid’s International Airport (they didn’t choose the abbreviation MAD for nothing) with a 54 pound suitcase and massive backpack, I began to plan another trip to Europe. Not only was I planning and much more extensive trip, but my aim was to do so without ever having to check luggage, instead fitting everything I need into a back-pack and carry-on roller bag. I started doing some serious research into remedies for my seemingly incurable pack-horse disease, and I quickly learned that I was most definitely not alone, and that there truly are limitless suggestions and possibilities out there to help even the most notoriously dreadful packer make improvements. Although the trip eventually fell through, I had learned tons, and found that once I started reading about the ideas that others had, I started coming up with even more of my own. The following guide is meant as a starting place, and to get you thinking on the right track for reinventing your packing strategies once and for all.

Honey, I Actually Shrunk the Suitcase!
Some General Suggestions

First and foremost, STOP THE WHAT-IFS! This is excruciatingly painful for people out there like me, but it is the ultimate first step in learning to pack light. I know, I know, what if that painfully handsome Italian you just know you’re going to meet just happens to ask you to an upper-class, elegant ball? Whatever will you wear? Have no fear, Cinderella, because stores specializing in rentals of fine evening wear abound, and, if all else fails, you can have fun shopping for a fabulous gown on your trip. The bottom line here is, quit thinking about “what-if” situations. If you do, your luggage is doomed.

Make sure that you are capable of handling, maneuvering, lifting, and toting your luggage all by your lonesome. Unless you are planning a week at the Hilton with complete with bell-hops and room service, plan on only packing what you alone can carry.

Check the weather. It may seem ridiculously obvious, but check the weather predictions and general conditions of the region you’re going to be in. If nothing but sun is in the forecast, you should pack mostly for that, with only a few “extras” that will take care of any alternate conditions.

Plan your laundry stops, if you’ll have any. If you’re going to be gone for a week or more, make sure you check into when and where you’ll be able to get any laundry done. If you’ll have access to laundry even once during your trip, you’ll be able to significantly cut down the amount of clothing you need to bring.

Be reasonable, and suppress your inner fashionista. Acknowledge (and accept) that you’re going to wear the same items at least twice if not several times on your trip. Don’t get sucked into an “I need a new outfit every day” mindset, and your suitcase will thank you.

Think layers. That one nice thick designer sweater may look great and keep you warm, but two thinner sweaters or similar pieces will keep you equally as warm, in addition to offering more options both for different climates and different outfits. Think thin, think versatile and think layers.

Clothing Couture
Winning the War on your Wardrobe

You know better than anybody what you do and don’t wear, what you will and won’t use. Keep this in mind as you pack things, but aim for a diverse arrangement something along the lines of the following;

  • A blazer or jacket. You want something that is comfortable, yet will dress an outfit up or down depending on accessories.
  • Dress pants. Nothing too fancy, just a good pair of slacks.
  • Khakis or jeans. Keep in mind, however, that khaki is a lighter color, and in some regions it will brand you as a tourist. Darker colors are usually safest. If you opt for jeans, make sure they are a clean, respectable pair; you want something that looks put together but is functional as well.
  • A nice, simple shirt or turtleneck (depending on expected weather). This should also be a neutral color.
  • A button up shirt or blouse.
  • If you have the space (or want more diversity) add a skirt to the mix. Stick to ones that are narrow and shorter (knee length rather than full length) to save on packing space.
  • If you have space for even more, try to pick more shirts instead of more pants. Shirts are smaller, and the extras will take up far less space while still offering a wider selection.
  • Pack no more than three pairs of shoes (including the ones you wear on the plane). They take up far too much space. Make sure you bring something appropriate for your own trip; if you plan on extensive sight seeing, make sure you have a clean looking pair of comfortable loafers or similar. Remember that tennis shoes usually scream tourist. For evening, pack a low-heeled dress shoe, or choose a sandal you can wear in both daytime and night. (Close toe is best, as many churches and other locations do not permit open toed footwear).
  • A large scarf and/or a sarong. A colorful scarf takes up almost no space and can add just what you need to brighten an outfit. In addition pack fun, inexpensive jewelry and accessories to spice up your outfits. Clip-on earrings make a wonderful addition; you can put them on anything, from your collar to your sandal straps, and voila, instant dressy!

With all of these items, make sure that everything you pack matches virtually everything else! That is to say your jacket matches both your jeans and your dress pants, and your sweater works with both the jacket and any pants. You want to keep your colors simple and basic; darks, which hide dirt and stains, are a traveler’s best friend. Pick one of these items in a fun color or pattern (but be tasteful) that you can use to spice things up.

Another consideration is whether you have a lot of very worn clothing that’s halfway to the donation bin. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a little stash of clothes in that closet with say, an ink stain that has to be covered up by a jacket or sweatshirt, and, even though you rarely wear it, (if ever), you just haven’t been able to bare parting with it. Or, perhaps, you’re beloved family pooch thought chewing your underwear was the most fantastic game imaginable when she was a few months old, and you’ve yet to fully depart with all those wearable-but-not-date-worthy briefs. Well now is the time to raid your closet for these goodies! In addition to the sensible wardrobe described above, pack extra items like these in wherever you can; you’ll be able to wear them, dirty them, and then throw them away as you go! Plus, in addition to thinning your closet and cutting down on laundry time, as you throw them away they’ll free additional space in your luggage for all things you want to bring home! Definitely a win-win situation.

Plastic Please!
A Trip to the Cleaners

Many people know that carefully folding your clothes with tissue paper between folds/creases/layers can help cut down on wrinkles and general unsightliness. While tissue paper is a tried and true method, you’ll do well to give plastic a try instead. Head to your local cleaner and ask if you can buy several dozen plastic garment covers off him (or a whole roll, which will probably last you a lifetime). Try to get ones without ink, but if you can’t, just make sure you turn them inside out as it sometimes will run. Then roll, fold, or interlock clothes the same way you would with tissue paper, using the plastic instead. It offers the same crease-fighting power of tissue paper, but, since it is slippery, it will move slightly during travel, reducing creases and wrinkles even more!

It’s in the Bag
Basic plastic zip lock bags, in all shapes and sizes, are going to be your new best friend. You’ll use these to pack and organize all different categories of things. For added strength, pick ones that are freezer-duty, as they’re thicker and more durable than regular baggies. Then, as you pack, group similar items together to create “category bags.” For example, you can make a laundry bag, with detergent, dryer sheets, line, and clothespins (depending on your needs). Consider putting together a bathroom bag, with toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. You can throw this bathroom bag into another larger bag, which will include more extensive shower supplies, like shampoo, conditioner, and soap. Then, create a pharmacy bag, with anti-nausea meds, pain killers, and all your prescription needs. Organize as you see fit so you will have an easier time finding and accessing the things you need, and always bring extra baggies in the bottom of your suitcase. The will come in handy for storing dirty laundry, wet bathing suits, soiled shoes, and anything else you can think of.

Size Matters
Miniature Must-Haves

Whether you’re heading out for a days, weeks, or a month and more, paying careful attention to your toiletries and their size is one of the most efficient ways to save space, and make more as you go (don’t deny it; even if you try not to, you’re going to come home with at least a few more things than you left with!). In addition to the clothing tips above, you’re going to raid the heck out of your local pharmacies, mini-marts, and other stores who carry travel-sized goods. (My all time favorite has to be Target). If you’re traveling for a few days, you won’t need more than one travel size version of your essentials. And if you’re traveling for a month, instead of lugging a big tube of toothpaste, which will be half gone by the end, you can take several smaller ones, throwing them away as they become empty, freeing additional space.

If you can’t find your favorite brand of shampoo, conditioner, etc., scope out small bottles, pumps, and sprayers at your local drug store, and fill them with your favorite products, again filling say 3 small shampoo containers instead of 1 large one. Continue the throw-as-you-go motto with these packages as well. If you’re less picky about what you use, consider picking up products at your destination or using what your hotel supplies (if anything!) so you can pack less from the get-go.

To figure out how much you are going to need of each toiletry item, consider one of these approaches. If, for example, you were going on a three week trip, pick a date about a month before your departure. Mark the calendar, and start with all new, full sized bottles of everything you use. At the end of three weeks, check how much of each product is gone. You’ll want to pack that same amount (give or take a little) for your trip, and you’ll have exactly what you need. You can also do the same thing, but instead of starting with fresh products, start with trial-sizes of everything you use, and track how many trial versions you use up in the same period. Or, rather than buying new stock, mark the level on all your products with a sharpie at the start of the test run, and mark the level when you finish. The amount in between is how much you’ll need to bring. If you don’t have the time before your trip (i.e you’re leaving in two weeks for a month), monitor your consumption over one week, and multiply the amount by four. Though slightly less accurate, it will give you a pretty good idea how much you should bring, and will save you space on overly generous estimates.

If you’re a perfume addict, or have a favorite brand of designer moisturizer or makeup, try hitting your local mall and tapping sales clerks for several of their free trial-size bottles. Often your favorite fragrance is available in a teeny spray or dab bottle, and, if you’re nice (and the sales rep is, too!) she’ll give you quite a few if you explain it’s for a trip. (If all else fails, try asking different people on different days, going to different stores, and even visiting different malls!). You’ll get to keep the little luxury of perfume, while saving the space a bulky full-sized bottle would fill. Plus, you can take this time to experiment with new travel-sized fragrances of all kinds! The same idea applies to moisturizers especially, and some make-ups as well. Most of all, use your imagination!