There are two elements to the art of packing: deciding what to bring and figuring out how to get it all in the bag you have.
I decide what to bring based on some simple principles:
1 Colors matter: Everything needs to match everything else. Easiest to stick to one neutral color (black, brown), then pick one or possibly two others (blue, green) for everything else. If all the shorts and skirts and shirts you bring are in within this color group, then you should be able to mix and match things pretty easily.
2 “Bring Layers!” : everybody says this but it’s still good advice. Instead of bringing that big winter coat that you might need, make sure you have a couple cardigans and a trenchcoat. You might end up wearing four layers of clothes one day, like I did on a recent trip to Stockholm, but heck: you’re warm.
3 Who cares: Guess what? These people in Bangkok, or London, or Monteverde, they don’t care what you’re wearing. You don’t need to impress them. Even more importantly, you’ll never see them again, so if you are wearing the same thing you wore two days ago, who the heck will even notice?
4 Avoid formal occasions: Once in a great while I feel like I have to pack “special” clothes for a “special” occasion, and every time I regret it. Either it never happens and I’ve brought extra clothes for no reason, or I end up someplace fancy where the surprisingly casual dress of the other diners makes me feel like a rube.
5 Don’t skimp on shoes: Always bring more than one pair of walking shoes. Rain, mud, blisters, aching feet — they happen. Having an extra pair can really make a big difference. I’m amazed at how just switching the shoes you’re wearing can give a new lease on life to aching feet at the end of a long day. Oh, and those “fancy” shoes you want to bring? The cute ones? Forget it. Leave them at home. See #3 above.
6 Socks and Underwear: I make no attempt to be one of those preening “light packers” who manage to pack for a week in a tiny knapsack – I just want to pack efficiently and make sure that everything I bring actually gets used. Therefore I’ll often pack a whole week’s worth of socks and underwear just so that I don’t have to do any sink-laundry while traveling. I mean really, do you really want to wash clothes in a bathroom sink after a long day of sightseeing? I don’t.
7 Finally: The little bits and pieces: depending on where you’re going, you may need:
- nail clippers
- headlamp (instead of a flashlight, they’re much more useful)
- dental floss (can be used for so much besides teeth!)
- gallon size ziploc bags (I use these all the time, for everything)
- an extra luggage lock (in case one goes missing or you buy so many souvenirs you have to bring home an extra bag filled with your dirty clothes)
- an extra bag – see above (you can get cheap sturdy pack-in-a-pocket duffels from REI that are perfect for this)
Now, how to get it all in there:
Eagle Creek pack-it cubes: it took me a long time to warm up to these… they do seem a bit precious, and might seem like a waste of money, but they do one really important thing: they keep things from shifting around in your bag and getting wrinkled. They can also make figuring out the geometry of bag-packing easier: they fit together better than hodge-podge stacks of clothes and once you’ve worked out how they best fit in your bag, you can pack them the same way next time. I also utilize ziploc bags a lot, for keeping smaller things organized (and to keep shoes from dirtying things up). It’s especially useful to pack this way if you’re going to be living out of your suitcase and moving around a lot. If you’re staying at one hotel the whole time then it really doesn’t matter that much.