Even if you’ve booked a trip and are ready to embark on a new travel adventure, you’re not going anywhere without at least a few items to your name (unless, of course, you’re Rolf Potts).
I pack small and smart. A lot of trips I take require a variety of different clothes, but my key rule is that I always pack small enough to carry my bag onto the airplane. Yet it is possible to pack clothing for the beach, a conference, formal evenings, casual settings and the gym—plus appropriate shoes for everything—all in one small bag.
So … open your drawers and browse your closet. Below are six basic tips to help you pack appropriately and concisely the next time you travel. This list is in no way exhaustive and is not meant to provide an actual packing list for your travels. What it will do, however, is get you thinking about a way to pack smart and small on your next trip.
1. Consider the local dress code and habits. To avoid feeling like an outsider or dressing inappropriately, research your destination ahead of time to ensure you’ve packed the correct type of clothing. In some parts of the world, travelers will be required to cover certain parts of their bodies. In many Middle Eastern countries, women should dress modestly in skirts that are at least knee-length, and entrance into some religious sites may require women to cover their heads with a scarf. This is one of the reasons why I always travel with a sarong. Though not strictly a dress code, it is not uncommon for people in many European countries to far outdress Americans, even when they’re just running to the store for something.
2. Think about the weather. General weather patterns can help dictate what you need to pack. If you’re headed to Canada in the winter, leave the shorts at home and don’t forget to pack a heavy jacket. Likewise, countries surrounded by water and near the equator can get awfully humid in the summer. As you get closer to your departure date, make sure you keep an eye on the weather at your intended destination. If it’s been a particularly rainy or dry year, take those things into consideration. Temperature, precipitation and humidity should all be factored in to your packing choices.
3. Take planned activities into consideration. Will you be spending most of your time indoors at a conference? Are you going to be kayaking, hiking and cycling? Will the activities on your itinerary leave you dirty or sweaty? How will you be getting around your destination? On foot? By taxi? In overnight trains or buses? Consider how you’ll be spending the majority of your time while traveling, then think about the clothing and shoes that make the most sense for your activities.
4. Pack everything then get rid of at least half. Set out everything—and I mean everything—that you plan to pack. How many pairs of underwear and socks will you take? Is more than one pair of socks necessary if you’ll be spending most of your time in sandals? Everything you take should work with more than one other thing in the pile. If you have a pair of shoes that only matches one evening outfit, leave them at home and find a pair that will serve you well for multiple occasions. Can you leave those three pairs of earrings at home and just choose a single pair that matches everything? Consider washing some clothes partway through your trip so you can wear them multiple times. Any time I am staying somewhere for two nights or more, I wash all my dirty clothes in the sink. After you’ve laid everything out, get rid of half. Now you’re on the right track for packing smart.
5. Pack versatile shoes. Choose shoes that can be worn for multiple purposes. I’ve found that a sturdy pair of sandals that can be used for hiking is one of the best pairs of shoes to pack. I use a pair of Tevas; I know several people who prefer Keens. Flip flops are good shower and beach shoes, and if they’re basic and black, you can also use them for an evening out. Avoid packing hiking boots unless you are specifically hiking. I have a pair of low-top Merrells, which I can use hiking or for long walks, but I’ve also used them in a pinch to run a last-minute 5K while traveling. Leave the dress shoes at home unless you’re spending a considerable amount of time at a conference or similar event.
6. Choose a primary color theme. When I travel, I choose a primary color theme and everything I pack matches it. The theme is usually brown/green or black/gray. This means I only have to take one belt and my choice of shoes is drastically narrowed down right away. I pack a few plain-colored shirts and tank tops that match everything, but never any graphic t-shirts. I also always take a scarf with me, which can dress up a brown or black basic t-shirt at night.
Smart packing is an art that can take time, but the more you travel, the easier it becomes.
If you have other basic packing suggestions, please share them below.