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.

Beware the Expat’s Suitcase

Returning to Mexico after visiting family in Hawaii, I was not surprised to see the slip of paper indicating that TSA had inspected my luggage.  But it did make me wonder what they thought.  Among other odd items, my carry-on-sized suitcase held a piano stool.  Part of my strategy of moving to a new country one suitcase at a time.

It’s not just me.  A friend of mine recently returned from Florida with brass plumbing fixtures in her luggage.  Expats are like that.  We don’t waste precious space on mundane things like clothing.  Stateside visits are opportunities to stock up on those items from home that we miss.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Luggage! Photo by Katy Warner.

Can’t You Get the Same Stuff Everywhere?

What with globalization and all, isn’t everything available everywhere? Yes and no. I live in a relatively small city (around 150,000 inhabitants) that is nestled in the mountains.  Roads are narrow, windy and frequently underground.  So there aren’t any triple-tractor-trailers bring in loads of goods.  Reaching the convenience of a Big Box store (Costco, Home Depot, etc.) means going to a larger city about an hour away.  I don’t have a car, so this doesn’t happen often.  It’s just as easy to pick things up when I’m visiting family in the US.

Language and culture can also be challenging.  Asking for something means knowing the word for it (or at least being able to describe it), and presumes that your new culture deals with the problem the same way your old one did.  I once brought fireplace bellows down for a friend.  She hadn’t seen any here in Mexico, and was considering having some made.  Imagining her explaining that she wanted a leather and wood apparatus to help her blow… well, it just seemed like a better idea to throw them in my suitcase.

Then there’s the cost/quality ratio.  Some big life items – housing, education, health care – are relatively more affordable here in Mexico.  But stuff, the kind of stuff George Carlin talks about – costs as much as it does in the US and is often of poorer quality.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t we all get the same cheap crap made by some poor exploited worker in China? Yes, but I’m convinced that the best of that cheap crap gets sent to first world countries and the worst of it to other places.  In my experience, the same product, of the same brand, will likely cost as much and be of poorer quality if I buy it in Mexico.  A sort of global, commercial discrimination on the part of the manufacturers.

What Makes the Cut?

So, aside from freak items like bellows, what makes the cut? Often enough, it’s something from the kitchen.  My most important US item is lemon juice.  I’m sure lemons could grow quite well in Mexico, but they are not part of the cuisine and I can rarely find them.  Limes are ubiquitous, small and sweet.  But when my recipe calls for lemon juice, I need sour, not sweet.  Frijoles, beans, are also abundant.  White beans, black beans, Peruvian beans.  But no red kidney beans.  A friend had her sister send some down from Gringolandia so she could make chilly.  After many attempts to make cornbread from masa (the corn-based dough which is used for tortillas), even going so far as taking fresh corn to a mill and asking them to grind it in a courser texture, another friend carried down cornmeal.   So there you go.  We bring corn and beans to Mexico.

Among non-edible items, nothing is more precious than books.  A good portion of my suitcase represents a successful trip to the used book store or literature I’ve managed to inherit.  Books in English might as well be bars of gold.

So that’s how I pack.  I’m planning a visit to see my father in February.  There’s a band saw collecting dust in his garage.  Maybe I’ll relieve him of it…