The old man sneered disapprovingly. He spit the words, “This is ridiculous,” at me, kneeling on the floor, then claimed his boarding pass and stalked off. I’m a good packer. I’ve taken a nine-week road trip with just a large duffel bag. Gone away for long weekends armed with only what fit into my purse. So you can imagine my mortification as I desperately attempted to lose 12 pounds in the middle of the San Diego airport.
We had just finished a(nother) two-month road trip and were headed straight to Cuenca, Ecuador by way of three flights in 27 hours. It was still dark out. The ticketing agent looked like she had gotten as little sleep as we had. A security guard flicked on the terminal’s fluorescent lights. “Leave them off,” she called back to him, and he obliged.
She had wrestled with the system, made some calls, and finally leaned over to tell me that my second free checked bag, twelve pounds overweight, would now be an additional $225 ($75 for each flight). Which is how I came to be heaped on the floor, digging through a suitcase of precisely rolled clothing and loose tampons, frantically pulling out shoes, books, anything heavy for its size. When it was done, I had stuffed exactly twelve pounds of mismatched accessories in the spare pack I had brought, destined to be dragged through every waiting area, maneuvered around in every bathroom, and crammed into every overhead compartment until we reached our apartment in Cuenca.
I’ve forgiven myself. Frankly, my logic was flawed. Packing for a two-month cross-country road trip, from dinners in Austin to primitive campsites in Utah, in weather ranging from 15 degrees to 115, is ambitious. Taking that same gear across continents to a single temperate location is lunacy. Dear traveler, do not allow this to be your fate. Everything you bring with you will become a burden at some point, even more so for the things you packed “just in case.” With a little planning (and a smidge of self-control) you can be prepared, comfortable, and, most importantly, mobile for any two-month trip with a single bag.
What’s Your Baggage?
Having decent luggage is one of the most important acts of self-care you can do for yourself as a traveler. I prefer a soft bag, as they can be checked for long trips when at full capacity or be used as a carry-on when left with some room. A long strap is invaluable, as it allows you to wear it across your torso when navigating cities, crowds, or airport terminals. Wheels are nice, especially if hauling 50 pounds for extended periods of time is not part of your typical workout. Bright colors, patterns, and luxe fabrications make luggage stand out and are lovely for inspiring Instagram moments, and become impediments when they are too precious to place on gravel, slush, or muddy roads. If you want to enjoy your trip, I suggest eliminating any fantasies of chicly strutting through an empty terminal, double-handled leather tote casually on your arm.
A myriad of smaller bags within the main case can help ensure things stay organized and easily accessible. A laundry bag for depositing soiled items keeps your clean items fresh and makes doing a load that much easier. Bonus if your suitcase has a separate compartment for storing it. Small bags that nest inside each other are my go-to for personal items like makeup and jewelry, and can double as a clutch if the occasion for one arises. A foldable nylon bag takes up almost no space, can be used as a carry-on for hauling new purchases, and pays for itself the first time it saves you from $225 in overweight fees. Compression bags are great for heavy gear and sleeping bags, but add an extra process to using anything stored within. Ultimately, you need to decide whether the effort of unpacking and repacking those pieces is worth having a few more choices of outfits.
The bag you carry your laptop in should be your personal item. This means it should either be a messenger style or bookbag that can accommodate everything you need to have at your disposal, or your laptop should be in a slim case that fits into the purse or bag you prefer to carry. While boarding a plane in Miami, a woman stopped us to ask for our help. She had a purse, a tote, and a carry-on, and had been surprised (somehow) by the two item limit. J recommended she stuff her purse in the tote, or the tote in the carry-on in order to save herself the trouble of checking one. She asked him to hold the tote, which he did. We stood for a few moments waiting for her to start manipulating the remaining bags, but she just stared at us blankly. Finally, she said, “No, you hold it for me, just until I get on the plane.” Needless to say, we did not. Nor did we hang around to listen to the undoubtedly entitled conversation that must have ensued when she attempted to board. Do not be this woman. Having all personal items stowed in one carry-on leaves space to add another when the unexpected occurs (and gives you a shoulder to switch to when the first one gets tired).
Everyone has different items that help ease the anxiety of travel, but one person’s never-thought-of is another’s can’t-live-without. In addition, certain little luxuries just don’t make the cut when each hour spent lugging a bag exponentially increases the weight of its contents. I carry hand salve with me at all times, but forego it when flying by plane due to the security hassle. However, some strong recommendations are a charger (and adapter, if necessary), headphones/earbuds, chapstick, travel pillow, sweater/scarf, and change of undergarments in case your primary luggage doesn’t arrive with you. An empty water bottle is handy for refilling once you have cleared security. Obviously, your wallet, identification, some cash, a pen, and any important flight/hotel/ticketing information should remain on you. Some people print out copies of this information, however, I will resend any emails so they’re easily accessible and take screenshots for use when service is unavailable.
Minimalism Is Always Fashionable
I attended fashion design school in New York. Before deciding to pare down and travel indefinitely, I owned 120 pairs of shoes. That’s six times the American average. Clearly, I enjoy options. Which is why it may sound counterintuitive to hear that having more items to choose from when traveling actually makes the trip less enjoyable. A lot of research has gone into proving that we are only capable of making a few good decisions each day (some fewer than others), after which we become overexerted and receive diminishing returns. Despite how enjoyable traveling may be, it is still a near constant barrage of foreign stimuli to your system. Why use one of your decisions on what to wear? Having a carefully curated collection of essentials that are comfortable, layerable, and suited to the weather conditions allows you to dress without considering what is clean or whether things match. Part of what makes a trip an adventure is spontaneity. Embrace it.
Following a few rules can significantly aid you in compiling a capsule collection that will get you through two months without feeling like your wardrobe is anemic. Items should be added with comfort as a primary consideration. Two pairs of pants are easily enough to get you through a trip, if one of them doesn’t squeeze uncomfortably when you’re seated or ride down when bending over. Pick a neutral base color. As I have already admitted to living in New York, you may have correctly guessed mine to be black. Monotone colors in classic shapes are your friends. Limit prints to one or two pieces, and keep those to stripes, polka dots, or a floral in your neutral color family. As someone who has never felt dressing to be merely perfunctory, I can admit it seems boring. However, not only is having interchangeable outfits incredibly freeing, but it will improve your photographs. In a world that has become increasingly picture-driven, wearing flat colors (which photograph better, look more expensive than prints, and are more flattering) will help to complement any setting and create pictures that look timeless.
Certain items are weather or activity specific, but the following is a basic list that should work for just about anywhere.
Three pairs of shoes, all of which are comfortable to walk in – Two should work for every day with a specialty pair (sandals, heels) dependent on what activities you will be participating in. I bring a pair of sneakers, low-heeled booties that can be dressed up for evening, and hiking boots or rubber jellies for the beach.
Seven basic tops – Two or three tank tops, two or three short sleeve tees, and two long sleeve shirts that can be layered over a tank or under a collared shirt.
Four woven tops – A sweatshirt, a sweater, and two collared shirts in cotton, denim, or flannel (or a lightweight jacket)
One medium-weight jacket, even better if it’s rain-resistant
Two pairs of pants
One dress or skirt that can be layered with the tops, or a third pair of pants.
A set of loungewear that is cozy enough to sleep in, and prudent enough to not be embarrassing if you step out to grab ice
A bathing suit and travel towel (if not staying in a hotel)
Underwear and socks for a week
A scarf – It can be used traditionally, but can also fill in as a beach coverup, or be placed over shoulders or on the head to respect customs in more conservative locales.
Sunglasses (with a case) and a belt are optional conveniences.
Find a printable version of this packing list here.
You Woke Up Like This
Toiletries and levels of grooming are not only personalized, but highly dependent on things like weather, region, and availability of hot showers. Some people need a particular type of shave cream, some do away with applying makeup when traveling, and some never bother with deodorant. Regardless of how much time you wish to devote to a routine, I have found a few items to be universally useful. Sunscreen is a necessity for most of us, and can often be found in single-use packets which can be tossed to prevent messy leaks once opened. Wet wipes have been a savior, providing a means of washing hands at primitive campsites, wiping a sweaty face post-hike, or as a freshener when a shower just isn’t an option. A kit with bandages, Neosporin, a pain reliever, and any allergy medications can provide basic first aid on the go. Mine also includes a band-aid friction blister block stick. Feminine care products are not always easy to come by, and are often expensive, or lacking in variety. Bringing your own will not only save you the hassle of searching them out, but will provide endless entertainment when exposed at ticketing.
Toiletries should be placed in a sealable waterproof bag, and in an outer layer of luggage when possible. A bottle of shampoo which exploded due to altitude had me claiming baggage that was ridiculously hiccuping bubbles on a trip to Israel, but the situation would have been ruinous had all my clothes for the week been covered in suds when I had no access to a washer.
A Little Extra
Some intelligent extras can effectively solve a multitude of issues and are great additions if you have the room. A good multi-tool is priceless, even if you’re planning on staying in hotels. Look for one with a knife, tweezers, flashlight, and corkscrew to cover a variety of common needs. A pair of gel inserts makes long days exploring a little easier to recover from and takes up no space when tucked right into your shoes. A bluetooth speaker is convenient for use in hotels or around a campfire.
In a world where our music, movies, books, and maps can all be downloaded to our phone, it has never been easier to lighten our loads. I spent 27 hours schlepping a pack full of accessories, none of which could help me keep warm when an automatic door was stuck open during an 8 hour layover in Quito. When we settled in Cuenca, I found the locals to dress demurely. Wearing fashionable clothing, or even jewelry, felt gauche. Traveling is exciting and enlightening and also taxing and maddening. I carted my second suitcase full of “just in case” clothes through four airports in 20 hours on Christmas Eve, and it took me a day (and three drinks) to be able to speak to people again. I can confirm nothing weighs more than the clothes that were never worn. I hope you learn from my mistakes and wish you safe travels.