I learned a thing or two about packing after being on the road for three months. Fitting outfits appropriate for meeting Maharajas alongside ones for trekking with a Bushman in Tanzania is no easy feat. And then hauling that load – for three months – up and down endless airport escalators will make you curse the day you thought to add that extra pair of heels to your bag, no matter how good they make your butt look. To this day what can strike the most fear into my well-traveled heart is the thought of ill-sealed shampoo bottles tossed unwrapped into a suitcase. I know some of you are breaking out in a cold sweat just reading those words, and this post is for you, my plastic-bag warriors.
My daughters manage to pack for weeks away travelling in their school backpacks, living on a handful of underwear, a couple t-shirts, and (I imagine) a lot of hope. While that level of asceticism is neither necessary nor practical for my travels, I pack in a duffel-style suitcase that is by no means the fridge-on-wheels that many tourists seem to favor.
These are my best secrets on how to pack smart for a quarter-year trip, travelling in a group of mostly middle-aged women, 3 different climatic zones, with temperatures ranging from low single digits to high 30’s °C, and activities from formal dinners to hunting in the afternoon heat.
Ditch the hairdryer/iron – most hotels supply these, or borrow. Or embrace the ‘fro and do without! Do carry hair gel (in a small container) for taming frizz. We once ventured to Australia, a land devoid of hair gel, save for some wacky hair wax that the kids use to shape their mohawks. I burned all the pictures of me from that trip, so don’t even ask.
Pack ½ of what you think you’ll need and leave ½ your cash behind too. You’re travelling, not entering solitary confinement – there’ll be ATMs and clothing stores somewhere along your path, one of the marvels of capitalism. Exhale.
On that note, beg or borrow what you haven’t packed – chances are someone packed too much (probably because they didn’t read this blog post! After you’ve appropriated one of their extra bottles of conditioner – and only after – direct them here.)
Exception: if you’re travelling to an especially hot country or on safari, throw in a couple of extra shirts and pants. Safaris are dusty!
Carry as many pairs of underwear as you can. Scrubbing your delicates in hotel sinks is no fun, second only to being gouged by hotel laundry services. Extra underwear hardly adds any weight or bulk, but it adds immensely to well-being not to have to play Cinderella when the exotic is beckoning you outdoors.
Make friends with zip lock bags – the ones they hand out at airports are great for compartmentalizing stuff in your toilet bag last-minute, and bigger ones for dirty laundry. (See: my irrational highly justified fear of exploding shampoo, above)
Use small containers – the ones shop assistants hand out cosmetic samples in work well – to store your everyday toiletries. Stash these in that ziplock bag. Now put it in your toilet case to separate it from less frequently used stuff, like anti-allergy cream.
Packable down jacket – a godsend
Squashable hat. I vouch for my Tilley.
Really comfortable slip-on footwear with orthotic supports
A warm shawl or stole of the light, acrylic type. Airplanes usually ice-box chill their cabins (hoping to cryogenically freeze us all before landing?) and their blankets have a nasty static designed to singe off your eyebrows. Besides, a shawl comes in handy in a number of situations (another post coming soon about the multipurpose magic of a good shawl!)
E-reader – the jury’s out on this one. Poll the group as to their reading preferences and set up a group book exchange while on tour. Otherwise, lots of hotels have little libraries culled from the lost-and-found.
Yoga Mat – never leave home without it! My trick: roll and secure with a hair scrunchie.
Love rollie bags but only while navigating through airports? Once you are on the plane, they can be a pain because you can’t easily access them in an overhead compartment. What to do?
Consider packing an inner shoulder bag (sling) with a fastenable top. Store flight essentials in the shoulder bag (e.g. book, laptop/ipad/e-reader, cell phone, blankie, mooshy pillow, travel socks, moisturizer) and put the sling inside your rollie bag. Once on the flight remove the sling and stow it under the seat in front – makes a nice foot rest – and stash the rollie on the overhead compartment. Here’s why this works:
Picture this. You’re checking in at domestic and airline staff gets snarky about your checked in bag’s weight. Okay. From your bag, remove shoes, which usually weight a ton, and put them in your rollie. Remove the shoulder bag from your rollie and sling it over your shoulder. Voila. You just saved a whack. Now head to duty free and splurge!
Why carry around additional weight on your shoulder in cavernous airports? Let the rollie-wheels do the carrying!
In the (likely) event you end up shopping more than expected, transport shopping in your rollie. Check it in, given your 2 bags allowance on international flights.
Travel forces us to relinquish our everyday control-freak, prepare-for-all-eventualities-including-the-nuclear-apocalypse mindset. It allows us the space to admit that life is a little bit out of our control, and that’s ok – and that no amount of l’Occitane hand cream or stilettos can fix that. We can go with the flow, let our hair frizz up a bit, wear those ugly-comfy shoes, and no-one will think any worse of us. It won’t matter, because we’ll all be too busy staring at the sun setting over the African savannah.
The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to packing is exhausting and unnecessary, perpetuated by a culture that tells us to seek comfort and contentment in our belongings. But when you’re in the middle of the Maasai Mara surrounded by a herd of wildebeest, if you still find yourself itching for your pedicure kit, or worrying about getting dust on your silk blouse, something’s wrong. Travelling is about the experience, and taking with you whatever will allow you to engage with your surroundings best – not clutching vainly at Western comforts that shield you from the culture you’re trying to immerse yourself in. Take with you the things that are worthwhile, that make you feel good about yourself, that bring you comfort, but don’t ever make your experiences secondary to your belongings.