How to pack light and smart – lessons learned from a chronic over-packer

As a seasoned road tripper, my packing skills rely on the presence of multiple nooks and car crannies where I can squirrel away all the non-essential, but I don’t want to be without, items like head lamps, biodegradable wipies, spare pairs of gloves, etc. While preparing to embark on my first airborne adventure in over two years, I came upon the startling realization that I am a chronic over-packer.

But I’m always prepared! On climbing trips, I am the go-to gal for all the random camping ware, spare socks, and mismatched supplies that everyone else leaves at home. My purse is always loaded with everything one could possibly need, and my backpack is the heaviest damn thing to tote on hikes – but I’m always prepared.

The thought of cramming everything that I’m going to need for the next four weeks of traveling into one small suitcase and one carry-on backpack is overwhelming. Thus, as I learn from my own attempts at becoming a smarter packer, I’ll share my pre-trip preparations in hopes of providing the packing tips necessary to help some other over-packing schmuck overcome their compulsion to carry everything.

Let’s Begin: Prepare the packings! Do all your laundry, wash your smelly shoes, sort through your camera equipment, and lay everything you think you’re going to take out on a flat surface, like your bed. Hm, all that junk is never going to fit in your modestly-sized luggage, eh? Here comes the tricky part:

Now get rid of HALF of what you planned on packing.

Don’t worry, this sent me into a panic too. You mean I can’t bring four pairs of leggings, three different pairs of boots, my tri-pod, and fourteen pairs of socks? It’s time to prioritize – and remember that washing machines are available at your destination, so you don’t actually need enough clothes to last through the duration of your travels. It’s time to prioritize, and honestly, when it comes to clothes, this is simply going to help you weed through the ruckus to find your favorite wardrobe items – so take solace in knowing that you may have to do a load or two of laundry along your journey, but you’ll look damn good throughout the trip.

I’m encountering the issue of packing for varying climates. I’ll begin my journey in freezing cold Denver, Colorado, then I’ll fly down to sweltering South Florida, and finally, I’ll be heading out on a climbing trip to a chilly southeastern mountain destination. So how do I prioritize and find room for both bikinis and wool socks, plus all my climbing gear? Here’s what my bed looks like with my to-be-packed mess spread out on it:

For jackets and bulky clothes, consider investing in those sweet vacuum-sealed bags that suck all the air out of your fluffy jackets, making them much more manageable. I was lucky enough to inherit a bundle from my doting mother, but budget-minded vagabonds can also use gallon-sized plastic bags. Just fill ’em up, seal the zip most of the way, sit on the back to squish out all the air, zip that sucker up, and voila! I recently read a blog article about a woman who uses plastic bags to create an outfit a day when she packs – but my adventures are too spontaneous for that kind of planning.

Other great tips include:

Roll your shirts/tank tops up as tight as possible.

(My suitcase has two metal bars going through the bottom of it,
so rolled up clothes and tights fit perfectly into the small spaces that would otherwise be wasted.)

Fold wisely – think Tetris.

Save the small stuff for last.

(Small, especially rolled up, items can be crammed into the
various little pockets of space created by your larger items.)

Put liquid items in a plastic bag.

(Seriously, there is nothing worse than an exploded bottle of moisturizer all over
your favorite flannel. Quickly popping your liquids/oils in a little zip-lock bag will contain any mid-flight eruptions).

Pack chronically.

(For instance: I’ll be in Miami before I head to colder climates,so my bulky zip-locked
sweaters are positioned at the bottom of my suitcase, since I won’t be needing them for a few weeks.)

With a little bit of planning, execution, and burly arm strength, any over-packing schmuck can transform into a zipped-up, ready-to-roll travel expert. Honestly, if I can fit all that junk on my bed into two small bags, anyone can. I ended up taking just one big jacket, a lighter jacket, one sweatshirt, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of leggings, two flannels, my thermals, a few tank tops, a pair of shorts (okay, maybe three pairs of shorts – but I’m excited about this warm weather, okay?), one dress, one pair of sandals, one pair of boots, one pair of Toms, and the usual under garments. And I will confess, I had to take four pairs of my favorite wool socks – I’ve become a sock fanatic.

Here’s my end result:

There you have it, advice on packing lightly, or at least light enough to fit it all in a reasonably-sized space – and proof that is can actually be accomplished. The biggest obstacle standing between me and my 6:00 AM flight has been conquered.

Follow my escapades through Denver, Atlanta, Florida, and beyond in real time on Twitter @themorningfresh
and check out The Morning Fresh on Facebook for additional updates – join in on the conversation!

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Categories: Travel Planning & Tips

Author:Katie Boué

Katie Boué is the voice of TheMorningFresh.com - a travel lifestyle blog focusing on climbing, Airbnb life, and the outdoors.

6 Comments on “How to pack light and smart – lessons learned from a chronic over-packer”

  1. December 24, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Nicely done. I see that you heeded my suggestion of using gallon size zip-lock bags. my packing list for omaha was very similar to yours: 2 pants, 2 flannels, 2 t’s, couple of wool undershirts, underwear (long and short), 3 pairs of wool socks, 2 beanies, an insulation layer (primaloft jacket), and a hard shell ski jacket.

    And I too have become a wool sock fanatic (try to Smartwool PhD Outdoor sock btw, they are the shiz!). Merino wool is the greatest fabric in the world for traveling and anything else. It regulates temperature brilliantly (even when wet), breathes/wicks well, resist odors, and can be worn days in a row between washing. Try some merino wool base layers if you ever have some spare money to throw at clothing or can convince your mom that you are too poor to afford clothes and you desperately need some base layers ;). You can live off 2 shirts and 2 pairs of socks for a good 2 weeks or so without washing them. 150 weight is good for short sleeve summer shirts, and 200 is a bit warmer for long sleeve shirts/long-johns. Icebreaker makes some nice shit if you’re looking at long sleeve shirts, Smartwool makes good accessories (balaclava…MUST have for cooold weather, glove liners, socks), and Stoic has a really nice and affordable ‘merino 150’ line. And I don’t know how you feel about underwear, but ExOfficio makes sick travel oriented undergarments. They are super comfy, anti-microbial, fast drying, etc. You can bring 2 pairs on a trip, wash one (in a sink) while you wear the other, and have them be dry in a few hours. Or you can wear one pair for a week straight as I have done and be fine as well… hahaha

    Keep an eye on steepandcheap.com for deals on icebreaker and stoic (only way to afford them imo). Cleansnipe and SACalerts can help you out by letting you know when an item you are looking for goes up for sale (b/c they are only up for 30min at a time). SAC is owned by Backcountry btw, which has AMAZING customer service! You can return/exchange anything you buy and are dissatisfied with, any time, even if you used/wore the product.

    • December 25, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      Wow, Tim! Thank you for all the wonderful feedback, advice, and suggestions. I’ve been meaning to start paying attention to steepandcheap.com, but I didn’t know about cleansnipe or SACalerts, very cool.

      To be honest, I totally packed in excess – and I totally brought like 8 pairs of wool socks. I couldn’t help myself, I have a problem. BUT – the point is, I made it all fit, haha. Thanks again Tim, I truly appreciate your readership! Can’t wait to climb with you next week.

      • December 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

        Hey man, all that matters is that it all fits! Well… the better test is gonna be whether it all fits on the way back (after Christmas and all)! With each trip you get better and better at packing. You’ll always inevitably forget something or think of something handy to bring next time. And you’ll always learn ways to slim down your packing, whether it be lighter/smaller alternatives or things you don’t need to bring.

        I’ve been on so many flights that air travel is no big deal for me anymore. I’ve gone from carry-on, to duffel, to messenger bag, and finally to a 170 liter pack. My carry-on lives in Omaha since there is no space in my precious storage room (aka closet), and since you can fit more in a bag that doesn’t have hard edges/rollers – but lugging 30-40 lbs on one shoulder (duffel or messenger bag) throughout an airport isn’t fun either, so – I turned to my trusty new backpack for this trip and it has served me well. Needless to say, I think I’m gonna take notice to any back pain I’ve had and sell my ginormous Chrome Metropolis Messenger bag now…

        Camping trips are a different story though. I always take way more shit then I’ll ever need – and still of course always leave some of the most important things behind. But that’s not to say that I haven’t gotten better at packing – I’ve since downsized from a Suburban’s worth of shit to half a Passat Wagon’s trunk worth of shit, but – my plan is to be able to go ultralight by summer for a week-long hike on the Vermont Long Trail with my 14-year-old cousin. It’ll be my first hike – if I don’t get another hike in before then as I hope to – so I’m super psyched; both for the hike and the mountain biking/ climbing we’ll get in before then ;)

        PS: Is my use of dashes correct? I’m not an English major, but I’m trying to fine tune my writing a bit. I find that I use far too many commas and ellipses and such.

        You’re blogging (and all the gear review blogs I’ve found myself stumbling upon lately) has got me thinking about doing some blogging of my own. It’d be travel/climbing/biking related of course, but I think I could throw in a couple gear reviews, some photography, and a healthy eating portion (since I’ve been on a sugar-free, low FODMAP diet to try and help some gastrointestinal problems I’ve been having). I hope to be able to generate a following of some sorts for two reasons – 1: to generate some ad-revenue and fund my adventures and 2: to have a network built up for when I decide to drop one of my web-based business ideas. Do you think that it would fly? Like would it be feasible to pull everything together and actually make money? Or even just gain a following for business related reasons? I mean either way, it would be cool to just voice some of my ideas to people who may care rather then boring people who don’t ;P

        Thoughts, ideas, pointers, criticisms, and concerns would all be greatly appreciated. We can talk more in person when you get into town, but did Niko mention the trip I want to go on Jan 1-3?

      • December 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

        Hey man, all that matters is that it all fits! Well… the better test is gonna be whether it all fits on the way back (after Christmas and all)! With each trip you get better and better at packing. You’ll always inevitably forget something or think of something handy to bring next time. And you’ll always learn ways to slim down your packing, whether it be lighter/smaller alternatives or things you don’t need to bring.

        I’ve been on so many flights that air travel is no big deal for me anymore. I’ve gone from carry-on, to duffel, to messenger bag, and finally to a 170 liter pack. My carry-on lives in Omaha since there is no space in my precious storage room (aka closet), and since you can fit more in a bag that doesn’t have hard edges/rollers – but lugging 30-40 lbs on one shoulder (duffel or messenger bag) throughout an airport isn’t fun either, so – I turned to my trusty new backpack for this trip and it has served me well. Needless to say, I think I’m gonna take notice to any back pain I’ve had and sell my ginormous Chrome Metropolis Messenger bag now…

        Camping trips are a different story though. I always take way more shit then I’ll ever need – and still of course always leave some of the most important things behind. But that’s not to say that I haven’t gotten better at packing – I’ve since downsized from a Suburban’s worth of shit to half a Passat Wagon’s trunk worth of shit, but – my plan is to be able to go ultralight by summer for a week-long hike on the Vermont Long Trail with my 14-year-old cousin. It’ll be my first hike – if I don’t get another hike in before then as I hope to – so I’m super psyched; both for the hike and the mountain biking/ climbing we’ll get in before then ;)

        PS: Is my use of dashes correct? I’m not an English major, but I’m trying to fine tune my writing a bit. I find that I use far too many commas and ellipses and such.

        Your blogging (and all the gear review blogs I’ve found myself stumbling upon lately) has got me thinking about doing some blogging of my own. It’d be travel/climbing/biking related of course, but I think I could throw in a couple gear reviews, some photography, and a healthy eating portion (since I’ve been on a sugar-free, low FODMAP diet to try and help some gastrointestinal problems I’ve been having). I hope to be able to generate a following of some sorts for two reasons – 1: to generate some ad-revenue and hopefully be able to fund my adventures and 2: to have a network built up for when I decide to drop one of my web-based business ideas. Do you think that it would fly? Like would it be feasible to pull everything together and actually make money? Or even just gain a following for business related reasons? I mean either way, it would be cool to just voice some of my ideas to people who may care rather then boring people who don’t ;P

        Thoughts, ideas, pointers, criticisms, and concerns would all be greatly appreciated. We can talk more in person when you get into town though, but did Niko mention the trip I want to go on Jan 1-3?

  2. July 24, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    I think that I am almost the opposite to you, and a chronic under packer. Even though I manage to be possibly better prepared to travel then most other people that I come across.

    I have not left home yet with a bag that is over 30 pounds. I also managed to make it back home on the last trip of 80 days with the bag still under 50 pounds, and no need to unzip the expansion.

    The only problem I have now is that I want to get these numbers down, but I don’t know how to do that on a fairly minimal pack anyway.

    • July 25, 2012 at 6:48 am #

      Wow, that’s impressive! I can’t even imagine downsizing an already minimally packed bag – my issue is usually easily solved by cutting the amount of clothing I pack in half. Four tank tops becomes two, six pairs of socks becomes three, etc. Seems like you may end up nixing things that you’d actually need, given how lightly you already pack!

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