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I originally wrote this article for the September 2004 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the links in the article, you'll find yourself at Wide World's gear site where you can purchase the items mentioned. -Terrell


Lose That Excess Weight

Packing Light Advice from the Travel Sages

So did it happen again this summer? Did you throw some things in a suitcase for your vacation and then find that you were lugging around too  much weight? Did you throw your shoulder out of joint carrying that heavy duffel bag? Did you not buy that fabulous ethnic carving because there wasnít any room in your luggage? You have seen the error of your ways and are ready to learn the secrets of packing light, but where to begin? Fear not, gentle traveler, the Travel Sages of Wide World Books are here to enlighten you so that your future journeys will be unencumbered.

The First Secret: Choose the right bag. We know itís easy to just use whatever luggage you have on hand or can borrow from a friend, but it is amazing how bad the wrong bag can be. A bag thatís too big can cause lots of problems. It encourages you to pack more than you really need. It can be difficult to lift on to trains or up stairs. It probably needs to be checked on the airplane, which opens up a big nasty can of worms, which weíll talk about in a minute. On the other hand a bag thatís too small may cause you to leave behind things you really do need.

Here are some things to think about when choosing a bag:

  • Do you want wheels? Itís great to be able to roll your bag but they do add weight. Consider whether youíre going to be carrying that bag for any reason.

  • Do you want back pack straps? If you decide youíll need to carry your bag a lot, being able to convert a suitcase to a pack can be wonderful. If youíre planning to carry a lot of weight or go a long way, make sure there are also interior supports and a waistband in addition to the shoulder straps and forget about the wheels.

  • Does the bag suit your style of travel? Many bags are designed for casual travelers who donít mind rolling t-shirts and jeans into a duffel. If youíre packing suits and dress shirts, look for more structured sides and a book-style opening for easy, stay-in-place packing.

  • Quality vs. price? Your bag is not the place to skimp. Pay the price for a quality bag. Youíll be glad you did when your zippers donít break, your wheels donít crack and the handle stays where it should. As I heard someone say recently, youíll remember the quality long after youíve forgotten the price.

The Second Secret: Prioritize. You really donít need to take everything, but there are some things you really will need. Trying to figure out what these things are may require some tough decisions. Sage Nadia tells me that itís so important to her to have art supplies with her that she sacrifices clothes to make room.

Here are some guidelines for setting priorities:

  • Decide on your upper weight limit. Fill your bag with something heavy and weigh it. Try carrying it. Remove weight until it feels comfortable. Now carry it around the block. Adjust your thinking and the weight in the bag. If you have kids carrying their own bags, make them do it too. When everybody is comfortable with the weight, you can start planning what to pack.

  • Decide if you are willing to check luggage. All of the Sages prefer to 'carry on' going there and check some things on the way back. Losing checked luggage can mean staying several days in your arrival city waiting for it to show up, being stuck without clean clothes, maybe even having to do without for the duration of the trip. Checking may be a necessary evil, though, under current security regulations or if youíre staying a long time.

  • Make a pile of the things you really canít live withoutómedicine, underwear, camera, Tommyís teddy bearóso you can see how much room you have to work with. If youíre checking a bag, make sure these items go in your carry on.

  • Decide what activities youíll be participating in. Donít take clothes for the opera unless you really plan to go to the opera. Donít put your hiking boots in the Ďmaybe pileí if youíre heading to the Australian outback. This doesnít mean that you have to plan every minute, just rule a few things out.

The Third Secret: Practice makes perfect. The Sages do know what to pack from long experience, but thatís not what we mean here. We mean that you should actually practice packing what you plan to take. When I was little, my parents would take six or seven kids on month-long car trips. My mom managed the packing by having each kid lay out all the things they planned to bring a week before packing commenced. Then we had three or four days to change our minds or be overruled by a higher authority. Once the suitcases were packed there were NO last minute changes.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind while you practice.

  • Take lots of underwear. Most of the Sages gave this as their first response when being interviewed for this article. Even if you wind up wearing dirty clothes, youíll feel fresher with clean underwear.

  • Stay as organized as possible. Whether you choose to use packing aids like Eagle Creekís cubes and folders (and yes, the Sages all use them) or go low tech with ziplock bags, keeping things together helps especially if you are moving from place to place, packing and unpacking a lot.

  • Weigh things. Trying to decide between two pairs of shoes? Weigh them. A few ounces here and there can add up to pounds.

  • Blue jeans are bulky and weigh a lot. Think about learning to love wash and wear khaki slacks instead.

  • Plan to do laundry. Take a sink stopper and small packets of soap (and fewer clothes).

  • Take coordinating separates. Everything should mix and match.

  • Do you really need to straighten or curl your hair on vacation? Leave behind the electrics if you can.

  • Bring a ďpackableĒ bag to fill with the things you buy over there. Then check the extra bag on the way home.

  • If youíre planning a long term stay somewhere (more than a month), consider mailing bulky items to yourself. Definitely mail bulky items home. It may take a while to get here but itís a lot better than carrying them.

There, my brothers and sisters. You have learned the secrets of the Way of Traveling Light. Peace and happiness will be upon your travels always.