Packing Light – Strategies to Lessen Your Load
What you decide to pack is what you commit to carry for your entire trip. Here are some strategies to help you trim some unnecessary pounds and pack light.
Disclaimer: None of the products mentioned or photographed in this post are sponsored. In other words, we received no compensation or any other benefit for including them.
We just ticked off the most important task on our World Travel Asana to-do list: DO BAG PACKING DRY RUN.
With weeks to go before we embark on our yearlong journey through South America (and beyond?), it was essential that we nail down our packing list, leaving time for any last shopping trips or Amazon orders.
While we always aim to pack light, a trip measured in months, not days, seemed to merit a more scientific approach. Reducing my load pound by pound is like shedding ankle weights I won’t have to wear for an entire year. Each possession eliminated becomes one less item to search for when it comes time to leave our temporary dwelling. Each bag eliminated is one more hand available to restrain a child that’s running around on a sugar high.
My penchant for packing light does not come from a moral ideal to live with less. Nor am I trying to make life hard for myself. On the contrary, it’s pragmatic and comes from a desire to move with comfort, care for less stuff, and have more mental and physical resources devoted to the travel experience.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, I wrote a fictitious cautionary tale to put you in the shoes of someone who, well, probably packed too many shoes. Feel free to bypass my little creative writing piece if you just want to skip to the tips.
A Family Packed to the Limit (Fictitious, But True to Life)
The taxi arrives at the bus station. You, your spouse, and your three kids pile out of the back of the black SUV.
The air is humid and smells of exhaust. Lightly swaying palm trees remind you that you are on vacation. The melting pot of vehicles — buses belching smoke, cars weaving and honking, small motorbikes zipping through any space they can squeeze through — reminds you that you need to stay alert.
The cab driver opens the trunk and methodically unloads your luggage like a ship worker unloading sacks of grain. You quickly play a game of Tetris, stacking the smaller carry-ons and loose items onto the full size roller suitcases. You want as little contact between your luggage and the damp, grimy asphalt as possible.
The youngest kid drops his backpack, about to initiate a game of tag. But before the others join in, you bark at them to keep their stuff off the ground and stand still!
You think back to the evening you were packing and came to the seemingly happy realization that each family member, even the littlest ones, were entitled to a full-size suitcase, a carry-on suitcase and a personal item! No need to make hard choices. So, you packed right up to your rightful limit.
But the airline never warned you that the moment you yanked each bag off the carousel, you were on your own.
As you wrestle your way backwards through the smudged glass doors of the bus station, the ruckus outside gives way to the cacophony of vendors selling snacks and hordes of people purposefully hustling in every direction.
Showing up and finding the right carrier’s ticket booth seemed trivial when you researched it online, but now you scan the hall with billboards of every shape and color and wonder where to start.
As you tentatively pick a direction, the youngest already refuses to walk. You scoop him up with one arm while still gripping the duffel bag in hand. The other hand is pulling the triple-piled suitcase on wheels, which wavers and threatens to topple. Your spouse, whose hands are also tied up, is scolding the oldest child who is running his hand over every bench and surface within reach.
Several yards in, child number two announces she has to go number two…
“It’s your turn,” you tell your spouse matter-of-factly.
“Fine.” The bathroom is close by. Your spouse insists that all three go, hoping to make this the last pitstop.
You stand with the luggage fanned out around you like a rock star in the middle of an amphitheater. But you don’t feel like a rock star. You feel conspicuous. Your luggage screams, “Tourist alert! Come get your helpless, immobilized tourist!”
Just as you feared, a man homes in on you and your anchored state and offers his services. He’ll carry your luggage for $5 USD. You’re tempted to take him up on the offer, but there’s something you don’t like about him — or more to the point, your inability to run after him if he bolts with a bag — so you decline. He has a captive audience, so persists. You decline. Around and around this goes until, thank god, your spouse exits with children in tow and says, “lets go!” You happily obey, eager to disengage.
It isn’t until you are loading your luggage into the underbelly of the bus that you realize the duffel bag — the one with the kids clothes and the extra wad of cash — has vanished.
The Science of Packing Light – Strategies To Lessen Your Load
Even for those who prioritize a light load, deciding what to include and what to cut is fraught. There are so many flavors of desire and necessity with so much gray area in between. Is a special pillow to sleep better a need or a want? How many shirts or pairs of shoes crosses over from necessity to indulgence? Complicating it even further, there are multiple people with their own take on all those questions.
There are no definitive answers, only competing priorities. Nevertheless, the following tips are intended to help you work through the process of minimizing your luggage in a way that works for you.
1. Set an Ambitious Goal, Then Gather Your Items With That Goal In Mind
You have likely heard of Parkinson’s Law, that a task fills the available time to complete it. This law also applies to luggage. The stuff you take with you will expand to fill the suitcases you plan to bring.
Choose and lay out the bags that you think would be reasonably comfortable to carry. You might think you’re cheating the universe with a roller (the ground is taking most of the weight), until you have to climb a flight of stairs. My own goal was one backpack per person. (And not packed so full that everyone has to sit on it to get the zipper closed!)
Now start gathering the items you think you need. As you scavenge, you’ll have in back of your mind the space available. This will force you to filter items right from the start.
Nevertheless, you will most likely end up with a pile of stuff that won’t all fit. Don’t give up! Time to move on to the next tips.
2. Bring Multi-use Items
To reduce your pile of stuff, get creative and think of items that can solve multiple problems at once.
For example, think of articles of clothing or pairs of shoes that work for multiple occasions. Sometimes this means buying a cleverly engineered item intentionally made for travelers trying to reduce space. Depending on how long you are traveling, it might be worth making such purchases even if you’re on a budget.
As much as I like to keep things low tech, I have to admit a smart phone or a tablet is the quintessential multi-purpose tool. A single smart phone can substitute for a multitude of essentials: camera, maps, books, music player, newspaper, recipe binder, just to name a few.
Shoes are especially important to look at, because a single pair of shoes can waste a third of your backpack space, especially if you’re a big foot like me (yes, I know, you can hang them off the back).
I have this notion that I’ll start running again once we’re on our travels. Should I bring running shoes? After agonizing about this for a few minutes, I realized that the chances of me sticking to a running routine are in the single digits, but… there is no law of physics that says running shoes cannot be used as walking shoes. So, all I really need to pack are the sandals, since I can just wear the running shoes all the time.
3. Find a Lighter Version of the Same Item
Look at the items you’re bringing and ask yourself whether a lighter version exists. It usually does.
4. Don’t Bring Anything You Might Use
If you’re not absolutely, 100%, sure you’re going to use it, try going without. You can probably buy it when you get there. Most likely you won’t miss it, so don’t waste energy lugging it around everywhere.
5. Don’t Bring Things Just to Save a Bit of Money
If you are a budget traveler, you’ll have to weigh this one carefully (pun intended). It depends on how much money you can save by bringing the item and what kind of budget your trying to hold yourself to. But sometimes the money savings isn’t worth hauling more stuff around.
For example, I initially wanted to bring my hair clippers, which would save us on hair cuts for myself and the three boys. However, it’s one of my heavier items. Haircuts in South America probably aren’t that expensive, and chitchatting with the barber is part of the fun, right?
6. Focus on the Biggest Items
Focus on the heaviest items (or the biggest person’s items), first. That’s where you’ll score the biggest reductions. In my family, I’m the biggest person with by far the heaviest clothes, so most of my reduction efforts focused on my stuff.
Full disclosure: I weighed every single item we packed in ounces and logged it to a spreadsheet using a Google Form (I’m a recovering engineer).
It is not necessary to be that precise. But the upside is that it made it easy to pinpoint our heaviest items. That allowed me to narrow my creative energies to the highest impact items, rather than having to consider all 95 items we planned to bring as if they were equal.
The smaller the item, the more you can bend your rules and make exceptions with little consequence. Do I need to bring a round of cold tablets? No, but it’s a convenience if someone suddenly gets a sniffle, and it weighs next to nothing.
7. Don’t Bring Books
Books violate tips two, three, four and six. So if you followed all the tips but are still trying to cram in a few books, let’s break it down:
- Tip #2 — Bring Multi-Use Items: You can only do one thing with a book, read it. A book only covers one topic or story. You will probably only read it once. So unless you plan to slap mosquitoes (or your in-laws) with it, it is the exact opposite of a multi-use item.
- Tip #3 — Bring a Lighter Version: The lighter version is called a smart phone. You can purchase the eBook or audio book. You might not realize it, but many libraries nowadays allow you to check out eBooks for free. (It pains me to give this advice because I’d rather read a physical book any day of the week.)
- Tip #4 — Don’t Bring Things You Might Use: You might think you’re going to read that book. But more times than not, when I’ve brought a book, I haven’t had the time.
- Tip #6 — Apply Tips to Heaviest Items First: Even though books take up little space, they are dense. Books top the list of heaviest items every time.
8. If You Must, Add Baggage
Once you’ve exhausted all ideas for shaving off ounces, now it’s time to add a bag if you haven’t reached your goal.
Goals Versus Reality
While we didn’t exactly reach our goal of one backpack per person, we came pretty close (see photo at the end). And we certainly didn’t follow our tips all the time. As I said at the beginning, there are competing priorities to contend with.
These tips should have helped you reduce your load for the sake of your own comfort. But I can’t tell you what’s worth more than its own weight. That’s for you to decide.
My wife is disgusted by the prospect of throwing away loads of single-use bottles in order to drink clean water while we travel. That is why we are packing the heaviest water bottle you could possibly find (violation of Tip #2).
And we brought books. BOOKS!!! The books are for the boys’ homeschooling. Sure, most of our curriculum can be found online. And being out in the world is its own curriculum. But there’s something to be said for practicing the dying art of handwriting.
At this point you’ve likely shaved as many pounds as makes sense for your situation. If you met your initial goal, congratulations! If not, you still probably knocked off a decent load from what you would have brought if you had unthinkingly packed everything that came to mind. So congratulations, you earned yourself on more bag!