“If you can figure out your suitcase, you can pretty much figure out your life.” — Diane von Furstenberg
I’m ready to travel for the foreseeable future. A question many people ask is how I can possibly take everything I need with me. What if I’m gone for a year? Where does one even start? When I say I travel with only carry-on luggage (or checking in what can definitely pass as carry-on) the response is always amazement. What, where, how?
I should add that despite my keen interest in it, removing excess is a frustratingly ongoing practice. I have to talk myself out of numerous scenarios. Like when I considered packing my beloved 8kg kettlebell.
But I keep things as minimal as possible because once I’m on the move, I immediately see the palpable benefits of travelling light.
I love how, on the road, I become a self-sufficient entity with everything I need at hand. I love not having to keep track of hundreds of belongings, each demanding time and energy. The more things I have, the longer my To Do list fills up with boring chores – fix, mend, clean, tidy, store. Stripped of excess when travelling, I open up space. To put it a bit more grandly: when I’m on the move, I’m being more than doing.
Some of my earliest and biggest lessons on packing came when I went to study for a semester in Florence at age 20. Before that, I could be found loafing around the college darkroom in sweatpants (the excessively unsexy kind). A fellow student who’d lived in Italy told me Italians cared a great deal about their appearance; I would feel more comfortable there, she said, if I took only my best clothes.
So I packed two ballet tops, a couple of flattering t-shirts, a cardigan, jeans, a skirt, a coat, tights and my Doc Martens (it was the 90s) – and left my sweats behind. Everything was black, forest green or burgundy. Everything mixed and matched. I wore the same clothes to my painting class as I did when I went dancing. I was dressed and ready for life at all times. It was definitely the best packing advice I ever got.
This was also a year before I’d bought my first laptop. Mobile phones at that time were only used by drug dealers. And even though I was majoring in photography, I purposely didn’t carry my bulky, heavy camera with me because I was determined (with foresight, really) to experience life directly and not just record it. I did take along a small hardback notebook and pencil for sketching and writing down my thoughts. All my belongings fit into a small-ish backpack. With my passport and cash stashed in a flat moneybelt under my jeans, I wasn’t paranoid about loss or theft.
Some months later, while travelling around Europe I got kicked off a train in Switzerland (long story). The very first thing I did was go to the women’s loo, open my backpack and discard anything that was not absolutely necessary. Even now, I remember leaving behind a trail of vitamin bottles, spare batteries, extra socks, two t-shirts, shorts, shoes, books.
That lightening of the bag was so viscerally liberating, that was the moment it clicked how amazing it was to be uncluttered and therefore unburdened. I didn’t know how to get out of Switzerland at that moment, but I knew I could rely on myself and not be dragged down.
All this to say: I learnt to pack lightly but stylishly, and not be attached to Stuff I had previously been convinced were necessities. I learnt I needed less than I thought to not just get by but to thrive. Way less. I felt dramatically free.
I would expect with current technology, we would be travelling even lighter now. We can carry gazillions of songs on an ultralight device the size of a pinky; thousands of books in an e-reader weighing less than a paperback; a whole life in what is no bulkier than a large notebook. Luggage has become superlight and heavy-duty. Clothing has become high-tech and multi-purpose. Yet our bags have become heavier.
I think we pack more crap now because there are specialist companies telling us we have to buy their products to stay safe and secure when we travel. We pack more because the news tells us the world is a dangerous place. We pack extra because we think we can be ready and prepared for the unforeseen. We imagine scary What If scenarios (the same reasons we hoard stuff at home) and try to pad ourselves against them. We pack to be protected, ready, armed. Our bags are heavy because we pack our fear.
It’s actually not a stretch to say how we pack shows us how we view life.
Having now moved as often as I have, the only true true thing I know is: travel light. To do this most effectively means: don’t pack your fear. Instead, pack your know-how, pack your instincts, pack your brain and pack your heart. Be disarmed because you can trust yourself.
On a practical level, this means: pack what you love but be willing to leave some space to try new things.
One reason to travel is to experience another way of living. To see the world through different eyes. To stop assuming that the way things have always been done is the best way to do them. So to take along everything to live the way one does at home defeats the purpose of going away.
Notes for packing:
- No velvet, no linen. Clothes that work for multiple climates are far more handy.
- No sweats, no pyjamas. Single-purpose clothing is limiting. Unless you’re an elite athlete, it’s fine to work out in shorts and a t-shirt, and sleep in them too.
- Layering is more useful than carrying a bulky coat. Such as: thermal layer next to skin under regular clothing (required if very cold; can otherwise be skipped), warm layer like a fleece, and an outer layer for rain/wind. If the fluctuations are mild, I layer a vest, then a full-sleeve top, then a t-shirt, discarding layers as the weather warms up during the day.
- While clothing can be found all over the world, shoes and bras are more tricky if you’re an unusual size, so pack an extra pair if this is you. Otherwise three of each is the magic number, including what you’re wearing.
- If you have unworn clothing in your wardrobe, don’t pack those convinced you’ll wear them when you travel. You almost definitely won’t.
- If you have something akin to a uniform at home (like Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums – thick kohl, hair clips and a tattered fur coat) then definitely wear it on the road. Always be you when you travel.
- All tops should look good with all bottoms.
- Always pack more tops than bottoms, as tops need to be washed more frequently. Jeans, on the other hand, can go unwashed for weeks. (If you are a jeans person, take your jeans, though some consider them too heavy, bulky and difficult to dry.)
- Consider the maths for 10 items:
5 tops + 3 bottoms + 2 dresses = 17 outfits
7 tops + 3 bottoms = 21 outfits
6 tops + 4 bottoms = 24 outfits
(You could pack only 10 items of clothing, but I find that too restrictive for long term travel because it means you have to do laundry more than once a week.)
- I do take advantage of new design and technology, such as packing cubes, which help organise your belongings into neat parcels inside your luggage. My favourite place to buy travel gear is Japanese company Muji (hanging zipped toiletries bag, mini sewing kit, lint remover, small containers for decanted toiletries).
Here’s a packing list of everything I’m taking with me:
- The above list includes items I wear while flying as well (that is, a few of the items are being worn instead of packed).
- My jewellery is not precious and I won’t be upset if anything gets lost or stolen. Aside from the tech stuff, nothing is expensive.
- Tech gadgets can break down, or get stolen or lost. So: back up like a m@!£$%f%^&*r. I back up my phone to my laptop, and back up my laptop to a cloud (you can try Backblaze or CrashPlan). Don’t rely solely on hard drives.
- Clothes go through an awful lot of wear and tear while travelling. I’m expecting quite a few to fall by the wayside over the next several months and will decide at the time what needs to be replaced with local purchases.
- The only untried items I’m carrying are for drawing as I’d like to experiment with it again. It’s been 25 years!
- Toiletries are bulky, heavy and messy. I keep dry/solid versions (tooth powder, deodorant, shampoo, body lotion bars) for travel days and the few days after, and buy liquid versions when I arrive where needed.
- There are still a few (vanity) habits I can’t yet drop, though I may when I’m on the road –nail polish, some makeup, etc.
- My first aid kit contains very low quantities of items I use about once a year when I need immediate relief – antihistamine, anti-diarrhoea, rehydration sachets, painkillers, band-aids. For anything else, I’m fine tracking down a local pharmacy.
- My “luxury” items are two silk pillowcases. They’re featherlight and pack tiny, and feel amazing when I sleep.
- I’d never thought to carry a sentimental item before – always being far too pragmatic and, well, unsentimental. This time I’m happy to carry something from a loved one.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
“Most importantly, never take along anything on your journey so valuable or dear that its loss will devastate you.” Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist was adapted into a film by director Lawrence Kasdan. It tells the story of Macon, a reluctant traveller who, following a family tragedy, is looking for order in a world of chaos (hi me!), when the unlikeliest of strangers helps put things right side up again in his life.
Clara Bensen first wrote about meeting Jeff in this short piece The Craziest OkCupid Date Ever for Salon. After meeting only once, they went travelling to 18 countries in 21 days – all the while wearing the same clothes. Bensen has now written a book about their adventures titled No Baggage.
Writer Joan Didion kept a packing list taped to the back of her front door. It remains my inspiration for its glamour and cool. Vogue magazine wrote about it here.