The Secret to Packing Light: One “Weird” Trick and One Huge Advantage

(Roscoe the dog asking, “can I come too?”)

“That’s all you have?” The crew member was clearly puzzled when I checked-in for my Boston to Bali adventure. Yes indeed. All I had was a small day pack and a larger convertible backpack: one item for under the seat and another for the overhead compartment. This was in the dawn of prehistory when hardly any airlines charged for checked bags. “And you’ll be gone how long?” Two and a half weeks. But it could have been two and a half months. Her expression grew more perplexed. “How?”

There’s a lot to be said for packing light–the more you bring, you more you have to lug around. And a lot’s been said about packing light–entire books have been written on the topic. But there’s one trick that will get you most of the way toward packing light success. I don’t know how weird it is; but I get a kick out of those ubiquitous “One Weird Trick” Internet ads. The only trick worth following there, most probably, is to not to click on that variety of ad. So here we go. What’s the trick to packing light? Wait for it:

The Secret to Packing Light: bring few clothes and wash appropriate items in the sink

Finis. It’s that simple. The rest is elaboration. Most of the total weight and bulk of the average leisure traveler–the items, not the person–comes from a preponderance of clothing. Jeans, t-shirts, undergarments. All add up. Here’s how my wife and I handle laundry while abroad. We:

  • Bring less than a small bottle’s worth of peppermint Dr. Bronner’s Miracle Soap (a little goes a long way)–but any camp soap will do. I say less than a small bottle because liquids add to packing weight more than you’d expect. Bring only as much as you think you’ll need. No guarantees here, but I bet hotel shampoo could work in a pinch. If any of this damages your clothes, that’s on you. We’ve never had issues but YMMV.
  • Bring far fewer days worth of sink-washable, air dryable clothes than total days in your trip (presuming a week or multi-week trip). For me, that number hovers between three and four days of clothes for any length of trip.
  • Favor synthetic t-shirts over cotton ones; the former wick perspiration away and are lighter than cotton. And cotton t-shirts take forever to air-dry–so do Jeans; prefer tropic weight convertible pants. Or allow several days for jeans to dry. Don’t forego comfy clothes; but do consider the ratio of easy to clean ones versus those less so.

Miles and points aficionados don’t necessarily know how to pack light. If you’re a beginning traveler, it could pay to learn both crafts simultaneously.



Drying Tips

Once you’ve let your clothes soak in hot water and soap and rinsed in cold water, wring out as much liquid as you can with your hands. A great sub-trick here is to place your wet items in a large hotel room towel, roll up the towel, then squeeze. The towel will absorb most of the water. Then, use whatever you can find to let the clothes air dry. We start with shower curtain rods and move on from there, depending on how much we have to dry. If you need something dry sooner than later, consider using a hotel room hair dryer set to low. Do so at your own risk in case you damage your clothes. Don’t burn yourself either. But we’ve found hair dryers to help especially with socks.

Much thanks to budget travel guru, and One Tall Dude, Rick Steves. His book Europe Through the Backdoor is a treasure trove of packing and other advice; and where I first got the packing light fever. Another rule of thumb he suggests (but one I’ve never used) is as follows: take half of what you think you’ll need and twice the money. But I’ve always found the rub to be what I think I’ll need. YMMV.

To me, packing light is a game I enjoy. How little can I get away with and still be comfortable (and clean-smelling)? Some put me to shame by traveling with nothing more than a toothbrush and a smile. But again, it’s a game more like Solitaire and not a contest. You’re competing only against yourself (or your spouse). And You learn a little more each trip what works and what doesn’t. Speaking of spouses, Mandy has learned almost reflexively to ask when I’m going to inspect her luggage. We joke about it, and I still do quick inspections to see how much lighter and leaner we can make her luggage. But she’s gotten pretty pro, and I find myself having to inspect less and less.

One final tip from Rick Steves that comes to mind is this. Want to know if you’ve packed too much? Strap on that convertible backpack, along with your day pack, and walk around your town or neighborhood for a while. Then imagine yourself doing the same through long train stations, airport walkways, up narrow hilly streets, etc.


One Huge Advantage

The one huge advantage to packing light, and thus not having to check luggage, is the flexibility to fly standby. The one question they always ask when you inquire about flying standby is if you have any checked luggage. We can cheerfully say no, and this has gotten Mandy and I home earlier on flights departing before our scheduled departure. Evidently, having checked luggage flat out precludes one from flying standby at a moment’s notice. While I’m not entirely sure about this, I do know the question has always been asked. And it’s always a relief to say no, then hop on an earlier flight.

Other advantages to packing light, and thus not having to check luggage, are:

  • Quicker exit from the airport; you race by those waiting anxiously by the carousels
  • Zero chance of your luggage being lost
  • Cost savings from not having to check luggage (unless you’re on Southwest)

Final Thoughts

Clearly this won’t work for everyone: business travelers having clothes that must be dry cleaned; perhaps families with more kids than overhead space, etc. I can only speak to leisure travelers who travel like myself and Mandy–just the two of us; her and I. But you can make it if you try. It could become a benign addiction.

Do you have one or more “weird” packing tricks? If so, post in the comments section.

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