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The Unbearable Lightness of Packing

packing-voyageMy journey is into the unknown. There is a starting point — I know the name of my destination. I do not know what will happen there, though I must prepare for it. Thus begins that ancient traveler’s ritual: packing. (One grey wool sweater goes in.) There is supposed to be scientific method behind the tradition. Centuries of advice and reams of blogrolls persuade me that there is a perfect wardrobe for every circumstance. (Sweater comes out, hiking boots go in.) They deceive me. Packing is an art as unreliable as that of ancient divination; a search for certainty based upon weather forecasts, geography, and political situations that has as much validity as seeking omens in thunder clouds. I stumble blindly forward making up correlations like a soothsayer, hoping at least one of them will stick. (Umbrella goes in, raincoat goes in.) 

packing-duffelsThe packing process becomes futile as I fritter over details. (Umbrella comes out, sweater goes back in, wool socks go in.) What is essential? What is necessary? (Toothbrush, toilet paper, soap.) The questions take on metaphysical significance and become difficult to answer. Now it is not utilities I am stuffing into my luggage but also expectations, prejudices, and fears. (Toothbrush, soap, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots.) “Money,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” “is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” True, yet I need it to board the plane, cross borders, and pay for my shelter. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, soap, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots.) His command was to simplify, however, the more items I take out the more I begin to panic. My least favorite phrase, “What if,” attacks me. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bandages, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots, bacitracin, antihistamine.) The clock ticks loudly and my semi-full bag asks, “Is this enough?”

packing-trunksIt would be wise to provide for every emergency, I convince myself. Medicines, extra underclothes, overcoats, and multiple changes of clothing pile onto the floor. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bandages, thread, needle, flashlight, compass, sweater, raincoat, winter coat, vest, hiking boots, wool socks, cotton socks, gloves, hat, umbrella, bacitracin, antihistamine, decongestant….) The hands of the clock grow louder and my suitcase resembles the aftermath of a hurricane center. I turn from the muddle and sit with my head on my knees. I desire to be calm and efficient, to take stock, to know I can do much with little. A list, that is what is needed. (Currency, passport, toothbrush, sweater, raincoat, socks, hiking boots, shirts, pants.) Writing down the indispensables is supposed to soothe me. Instead, I feel vulnerable and turn indecisive. Should I bring more sweaters? Have I got enough money? What if I get sick?

packing-luggageParalyzed by confusion, I retreat into a search for what other globetrotters brought with them on their travels. Ernest Hemingway, whose adventurous life took him to Paris, Spain, and Kenya, jotted in one of his notebooks preparations for a fishing trip to Cabo Blanco, Peru. Rods, hooks, two harpoons, flannel trousers, three chamois vests, and a blue windbreaker make up part of his record. Joan Didion taped a list to the inside of her closet which she would consult before jetting off on one of her assignments. Among her vitals were bourbon, a typewriter, and a pullover. When Nellie Bly readied for her race around the world, she carried along cold cream, a small flask, a drinking cup, three veils, and a pair of slippers. My water bottle, journal, and sweater seem stale when compared to the romance of Hemingway’s, Didion’s, and Bly’s portmanteaus. It is not the things they lug which tempt me but the confidence with which they lug them. Their catalogs bespeak conviction about their weapons of choice for the treacherous road. In comparison, my vacillations express the discontent of a peevish child, unwilling to make a decision or abide by it. “Choose and be done with it!” I chide myself.

packing-portmanteauAccording to the Buddha’s legend, Siddhartha Gautama took only the clothes he wore in his search for enlightenment. To be so weightless feels both liberating and frightening to me. Where do I find the courage to let go of my consumerism, to abandon my sense of the world through what I own? Perhaps this is where the other half of packing plays out, the part where I inevitably lose my possessions or abandon them along the way. The torn shirt, the broken strap, the peeling shoe, they force me to reevaluate my belongings. I would like to believe that each time I discard a personal effect to travel’s vagaries I gain back one of those necessities of the soul Thoreau insisted we cultivate. I hope that with every tortured experience of putting into my baggage and taking out of it, I am learning to relinquish my fierce need to hold and to have. One of these expeditions I will finally renounce my possessiveness and, like Siddhartha, venture out with only the indispensables. (Hope, generosity, curiosity, raincoat, hiking boots.)packing-train


The Materials Economy is the life-cycle of “stuff.” Watch how the goods we buy and make affect us and our resources in “The Story of Stuff.”

What are your favorite tips for packing? What is essential for you to have on your travels?


27 replies »

  1. I just happened on this in your archives….it’s timely becasue I’ll be going to northern Europe for 3 weeks, in April. So: camera, underwear for a week (then wash), jeans and pants, tops, phone, batteries, patience, comfortable shoes, toiletries, an openness of spirit, the Irish tea I want to begin with each day, the perfect lens that isn’t too bulky but is versatile, the mind that doesn’t weigh me down and stays flexible….

    • 🙂 Sounds like the ideal list, my friend. I find the perfect lens to be the trickiest these days…I always have the feeling that the one I’ve packed won’t be the most versatile. Wishing you a safe and marvelous journey around Northern Europe.

  2. I love the adventure of travel, even when it is nearby, your final list of hope, generosity and curiosity are surely the most important things to pack- I would add my camera too, there is something about seeing through the eyes of my lens that keeps me open to the real world. I seem to take more time seeing things and people as they are. It is hard to explain, and many times it isn’t til I run back thru my photos do I understand why I took the time to capture it. I always liked the notion of not packing the life you live at home, leaving preconceptions behind, to experience what travel has to offer.

    • I think being open to life serves us travelers well. I love that the camera allows you to soak in a place and focus on details you may otherwise have missed. For me the act of jotting down my thoughts in a journal about my experiences helps me digest all the newness and appreciate all the lessons I learn while on the road. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on travel packing with me!

  3. Long ago I read ‘Blue Highways’ by William Least Heat Moon. In this book he makes a trip though the US on, well, blue highways. He spends a page or 45 on what he takes with him. I might be overdoing this a bit, but this is what I recall. It somehow struck me with great pleasure, the list of all the little things he brought. I tend to bring way to much on my travels, so it’s fun te have someone that even takes more.

    • 🙂 There are definitely two camps when it comes to travel packing. The ones who boast about how much they can do with the little they take with them, and the others who love the luxury of having everything at hand. Unfortunately my skills put me somewhere in the middle, wishing that I brought certain things I did not and wondering why I brought the ones I did. “Blue Highways” sounds like an intriguing book and I am looking forward to searching it out to read sometime. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with me!

  4. Over the years, I’ve seriously lightened my travel load. I make sure the place I’m staying at has a laundry service or facilities. It’s intimidating, at first, to leave on a two week trip with a small back pack and a carry on suitcase. Talk about an OCD trigger: I check and recheck to be sure I’ve got what I need over and over again.

    • You must be an expert on packing by now! The funny thing about packing for me is that regardless of how many times I recheck to make sure I have what I need, it isn’t until I am halfway to the destination that I realize I have forgotten something I should have packed!

  5. I’ve traveled quite a bit, so I know I can get by with very little… Thoreau perhaps says it best “Currency, passport, toothbrush, soap, sweater, raincoat, hiking boots” with the only addition I would add ~ CAMERA 🙂 Everything else will come your way when you need it. It sounds like you are already on your way to a lot of insights, understandings and of course adventures. Safe travels.

    • 🙂 Being on the road for long periods of time does tend to put the matter of lugging unnecessary stuff into perspective. These days we can buy most anything on our travels. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Freya Stark or Roald Amundsen as they prepped for their treks. Thanks for your comment and safe travels to you as well!

  6. Wonderfully written!

    I’m a traveler at heart and when I’m not traveling, I’m dreaming of where I should be or planning my next adventure. Indeed packing is a horrible chore that is necessary. I sometimes wish I can just go at a moment’a notice with just my passport, telephone and my wallet with cc cards and cash and buy what I need when I get to my destination. It sound so simple and yet so incredibly difficult to do!

    • I so agree with you: leaving on the spur of the moment with only identification and money sounds so easy and yet I have not dared to attempt it yet! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us on this story!

  7. My favorite tip for packing: If possible, count the days for the trip, if the trip is over one month, pack enough clothes for 9-10 days assuming you can get to a laundry facilities but always carry spare clothes in case of emergency, and max the usage of pants during the winter to 2-3 days a pair, that way, your luggage can be lightened.

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