How Creative Packing Made Trips More Interesting

My desire to become an efficient packer grew out of frugalness more than anything. As a childhood packrat, I never put much intention into packing. Six t-shirts? Sure. Nine hardcover books? Naturally! Sandals and tennis shoes? But of course. Everything went straight into a massive suitcase that I’d drag behind me on my travels. This changed, however, when airlines started charging passengers for checked bags.

With money now at stake, I began turning a careful eye on each item before placing it into my bag. My trusty green suitcase, unable to fit into the plane’s overhead compartment, took a hiatus, and I fished my high school backpack out from storage.

Gone are the days of packing everything. The majority of my travel is to fly home to see family and, when I do so, I cram what I can into my backpack, often wrestling one last t-shirt into a forgotten pocket. Whatever can’t fit in the backpack doesn’t deserve to join me on the journey, I rationalize.

This rule has worked surprisingly well with, of course, a few exceptions here and there. During the Christmas season, I can usually be found sweating profusely in three layers of clothing so as to ensure my backpack can accommodate both presents for the family and warm winter clothing. On more than one occasion, a pair of tennis shoes has dangled unceremoniously from the straps of my filled-to-the-brim pack. At check-in counters, I’ve become adept at scanning my ticket with lightning speed before the flight attendants have time to take in my backpack’s bursting seams.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” an attendant will call out as I take off for the jet bridge, tennis shoes swinging behind me. “Is that… I mean… Is that bag really going to fit in the…” At this point I’m so far down the jet bridge that I can’t quite make out the rest of the sentence, but I’m sure it wasn’t terribly important.

I’ve learned that I am (usually) fine with the basics and that I favor items that compress easily. A pair of black jeans, folded and rolled tightly, has become my go-to clothing piece. I get creative with how I store items and have discovered that, once out of its box, Settlers of Catan fits neatly into a medium-size Ziploc bag. Though I will never skimp on dental floss, I do skip full-size toiletries and the formal toiletry bag in favor of travel-size items and a plastic grocery sack, which easily slide into a tiny side pocket. Perhaps one day I’ll enter the 21st century and purchase a Kindle, but for now I’ll settle for an overly-long book and an empty journal.

What started as a way to save money when flying has carried over to road and backpacking trips as well. While these types of trips afford at least a little more space, I also have to account for less resources along the journey. As it turns out, my packing rules for airline travel transfer pretty well to road and backpacking trips.

Leading up to a trip, I set items on my bed and thoughtfully ponder the purpose of each one. Items with dual purpose—my puffy jacket doubles as an excellent camping pillow—make the cut. So do emergency items, such as the first aid kit and extra batteries. Socks, on the other hand, can easily be washed, meaning I can usually get by with two pairs. Similarly to when I pack for a flight, I try to take along only the clothing basics—one of each item usually does the trick. Dental floss is, of course, a must.

In whatever space remains, I sneak fun items. Decks of cards pack easily. A handful of dice liven up any trip. A few years ago, a friend showed me how to Sharpie classic game boards (checkers and backgammon, to name a few) onto the tarp that sits under my tent and use rocks as pieces. Thanks to Little Free Libraries, I bring just one book knowing that I can probably swap it for something else somewhere along the way. Everything gets shoved into my camping pack until it, like my green pack, is bursting at the seams.

My traveling style hasn’t changed much, but my packing style certainly has. If anything, focusing on the essentials has made my travels more enjoyable—and a whole lot lighter. As it turns out, it’s easier to run through airport terminals with a small backpack than a 49-pound suitcase. I’ve come to realize that, at the end of the day, taking a trip is less about what I bring and more about the people I travel or visit with and the experiences we share together.

And I know, no matter where I go, a small green backpack, bursting at the seams with a full container of dental floss and shoes dangling from the straps, will faithfully accompany me on the journey.

Originally published March 14, 2019.

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