Some things about traveling really suck. Like packing. (Unpacking, however, is kind of fun.) Which is why I tend to leave it until the last possible minute, not always the best strategy. I always start off a trip with a nagging feeling in my head – what did I forget? So I’ve developed a few crutches to help myself through this menacing task.

The Right Tool for the Job

Packing involves making a lot of decisions – which is probably why I dread the whole process. The first decision is what you’re going to be packing in.  On a true adventure, going place to place with no home-base for weeks at a time, I want a pack which can sit comfortably on back. Obviously, the lighter it is, the happier I’ll be. And I’ve learned that I can carry everything I need in a daypack.

On the other hand if I’m going to be staying with friends, why not have wheels and be more comfortable in the airport. Choosing the right tool for the job, and investing in quality gear, luggage etc. is the first step in successful packing. Next is figuring out what goes inside.

The all-inclusive packing list

The all-inclusive packing list

The List

Was I this list-dependent before reaching middle-age? Can’t remember. But my packing skills have definitely evolved over time an I’ve learned a few things from experience.

Make a list. And start making it ahead a few days in advance. You’ll think of things over time. Be thorough. Nothing is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be put on the list. Trust me, more experienced travelers than you have forgotten their underwear. Write it down. The list can be in whatever format works best for you. I had an excel sheet with every possible travel item listed. Then I could just check off the ones that were appropriate for that particular trip. This worked great as long as I had a printer. These days I just have a list hand-written on a piece of cardboard. I re-use the same list over and over. Another possible format is a photo, as in the example below.

The main thing about getting the list right is to think in categories. If getting there is a long haul (i.e. five hours on the plane, four hours in the airport, eight hours on another plane), then the plane is one of your destinations and you should pack with it in mind (blanket, eye-shade, earplugs, etc.). These are some of the categories that typically show up on my list:

  • Documents
  • Toiletries
  • Clothes (two categories- warm and cool)
  • Recreation (swimming, diving, camping, etc.)
  • Entertainment (books)
  • Sleep (PJs, earplugs, sleeping bag)
  • Travel Stuff (pocket knife, laundry kit, guidebook)
  • Health (medications, extra glasses, First Aid kit)
  • Food (spork, re-useable water bottle, tea bags)

Once you’ve got the list down. Packing becomes a simple matter. It can also be helpful to keep previously assembled kits (laundry: soap, clothesline, sink plug) in a bags or pouches that are ready to go at a moments notice.

cmor15's packing

Organized packing means not too much! And the right gear. Checkout cmor15’s photo in Flickr for a complete pack list.

Other Packing Considerations…

For traditional traveling, the stuff that really is traveling, the content of your pack will stay more or less the same throughout your trip (other than accumulating dirt and BO). But some trips have special circumstances.

If I’m going somewhere where I know I want to purchase a bulky souvenir, I may pack clothes that are on their last leg. Then when I can buy that fabulous weaving the day before I leave, deposit some well worn and ready to retire pants in the trash bin and have room to spare in my pack.

You may make regular visits to friends or family and have the luxury of leaving stuff “there”. The problem is remembering what you left when you make the next trip a year later – ripe opportunity for taking way more than you need. Help yourself out. Make a list of the items being left (or take a digital photo) and put it somewhere you can find it.  I make regular visits to family in Hawaii and keep an “Already in Hawaii” list the drafts folder of my email, also home to “Get in Hawaii” list.

Finally, there are the really weird packing habits of expats . Seasoned travelers, we’re usually pretty good at packing light for an adventure. But going “home” is another story which typically involves a small empty suitcase packed into a large empty suitcase on the way there, and two overstuffed-with-our-favorite-groceries suitcases on the way back.

eyesogreen's photo of successful packing

Relaxing after a job well done! Photo by eyesogreen.

A final word – After packing, I always hang out all the clothes I’m going to wear to the airport/bus/train station (money belt included) before going to bed. The fewer decisions I have to make before an early departure, the better.

1 reply
  1. Judy
    Judy says:

    Great Post! This is such an art!!! I guess everyone has their own way of doing this and I spend huge amounts of time trying to get it right! I hate those folks who just throw things in the bag the night before and never feel they missed anything. How can that be?? I have maintained a packing list over 20 years of time and it serves me well…. until I go somewhere colder/hotter/more remote.. Yes, this is extremely important to everyone, ’cause as you know (i;.e. with underwear) you can’t always buy what you need at your destination.


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