mad in pursuit travel notebook


Packing Principles for the World Traveler

1990 was the last time I packed a big suitcase for a vacation using public transportation. Since then, I've figured out that -- within some basic parameters -- a woman can travel forever out of a single carry-on bag, plus a roomy shoulder bag.

Two parameters: (1) How many different types of activities will you engage in? (2) Who is looking at you?

In other words, if you are going to your sister's wedding followed by a few days of camping, the challenge might be overwhelming. Too many clothes changes and cameras flashing in Activity 1. A completely different wardrobe and small equipment demands for Activity 2. (Faced with squeezing binoculars into an already packed bag, a grown woman can have a serious meltdown.)

Here are my principles:

For civilized places (e.g., San Francisco), pick a color scheme to allow lots of interchangeability without much pre-trip visualization. Black works. On the other hand, if you are going strictly backwoods, then who cares? We traveled through Thailand with an English women who packed her ugliest outdated clothes only and threw them away as she went along. This made room for souvenirs.

Two or three pairs of pants. Dark colors are better. While your khakis might never show a spot of dirt in suburbia, tramping around ruins or prowling the antique shops of smoggy world capitals is dirty work. Third pair is really just a back up in case of torrential rains. Most hotels provide laundry service if the trip is long and grunge sets in. Alternating pants with a skirt works if you can wear the same shoes with either.

Tops. Minimum of 5. Extravagant to my husband's two. Layer from short sleeve to long sleeve. Washable (and fast dryable) t-shirts for the underlayer.

Shoes. Important decisions here. Wear your big comfortable walking shoes on the plane. Pack squashable sandals or flats. I have found myself wearing army surplus jungle boots at fine restaurants in Indonesian 4-star hotels. But, per parameter #2, how much do you care?

Socks. Thick cotton most comfortable, but forget about waiting for them to dry hanging over the hotel shower bar. Go synthetic. 3-4 pairs.

Underwear. 3 sets. Washing out with hotel bar soap is easy. Waiting for them to dry is the issue. My mother gave me the hint of washing the crotch only, which almost guarantees their being dry by morning.

Cold weather. Avoid having to pack sweaters. I have a microfiber pullover that has gotten me through many chilly climes.

Rain. Tiny travel umbrella that will also fit in shoulder bag during trip. Raincoat -- a smashable shell is a great warmth layer.

Sleepwear. Long t-shirt. More depends on who your companion is and your tolerance for nudity.

Sarong-like scarf to wrap around waist on walk to swimming pool, or around neck if cold, or around head in the vicinity of holy places.

Men's suit jacket (for cities) or travel vest (the kind with lots of pockets, for who-cares-if-I-look-like-a-dork areas). Can't have too many pockets. Bulky, so wear it on the plane.

It is the extras that challenge my one-bag rule.

Dop kit. The usual -- toothbrush, tiny shampoo. Remember to restock painkillers and blister-perfect Band-Aids. Corkscrew. Single-serving instant coffee and packets of Sugar Free Kool-Aid can bring sunshine to a cloudy day. Make-up -- goes back to parameter #2: who are you trying to impress? One tube of lipstick might provide the needed illusion of make-up.

Tiny flashlight on a chain for around the neck. Chain can also be used for keys of various sorts.

Compass. Sometimes I forget, but compasses are not just for jungles. When you are arguing with your husband on that cloudy day about which f*cking direction you're walking, a compass is a great peacemaker. It also helps when a taxi driver has decided to take you on the scenic route -- or has completely misunderstood your instructions.

Toilet paper. This I learned on my first trip -- Spain, 1968. Save the last 1/4 to 1/2 inch of your toilet paper rolls, work the cardboard center out and flatten them. Keep one in your pocket at all times. Saves you from... ugh, try not to think about it. You might think carrying around those mini-packs of Kleenex will do, but no, there is nothing like good old U.S.T.P.

Books. We usually need 2 guidebooks so we can each pore over one at breakfast. Birdwatching books are nice if you are in an exotic locale. But be careful. We lugged a giant bird book through all of Indonesia only to find that, well, the birds were gone. Eaten. Afraid of being eaten. Same for Thailand. Pleasure reading: it's fun to bring along stories that relate to the environment -- they add interesting depth and texture, especially when the onslaught of sights threatens to dissolve everything into a meaningless blur. If you can find relevant reading on Amazon's Kindle, the reduction of weight is worth the investment!

Sealable plastic bags. Essential for keeping organized. Even more essential for packing away leftover cookies, crackers, candies, etc. that always come in handy. I spare no expense on good ones ever since we were in Thailand. Jim stuck a couple cookies in a little plastic wrap in my backpack and when I pulled them out, the swarm of ants they attracted fell into my sleeping bag. I don't need too many lessons like that. Speaking of food, packing some of those little non-refrigerated cheese triangles can be the perfect canapé when you are hours from the next meal.

Notebook + pens. I always keep a trip journal and hope for creativity to strike. (See entry on setting up a trip notebook>>>)

Electronics. Oh, I hate being tethered to my electronics, especially those with rechargers. When will someone come up with wireless electricity? I've switched over to a digital camera. Now I have a digital camcorder. A cell phone. A PDA. And all their bloody rechargers. Sometimes I bring along my slender notebook computer, but I think I need to decide whether a trip is going to be verbal or visual -- computer or video camera, pick one. Jim just carries his pocket-sized film camera and laughs at me for all my devices.

I can't think of anything else.

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