Originally published in Travel + Leisure, September 2011
I AM A TERRIBLE PACKER.
Fact: Not once in my traveling life—whether for a two-week tour of Asia or a two-night jaunt to the country—have I ever packed just a carry-on. “Just a carry-on”? You must be joking. I can hardly keep my hand luggage to regulation size, let alone my checked bags. (And yes: it is almost always “checked bags,” plural.)
Fact: I have a problem. I’m speaking to you as someone who goes away for a living, who knows his way around the corridors of Chek Lap Kok airport, the backroads of Bahia, the subways of Budapest—yet who, after umpteen years and a minor fortune in excess-baggage fees, STILL can’t get his luggage below the airlines’ allotted weight limit, not even for a weekend in South Beach, where no one wears clothes.
I’d like to say I was different in youth, carefree and light on my feet. But I was a terrible backpacker, too, just pathetic at the job. For a Eurail trip in college I stuffed my entire dorm room into three, count ‘em, three giant Eagle Creek duffel bags. None of the bags had wheels; for all my failures I was determined to stick to the spirit of backpacking, which seemed to be about Suspending One’s Belongings From One’s Person. And so with yards of strapping and considerable effort I secured all three bags to my body, front rear and side, until I resembled a bomb-squad technician, or a human battering ram, and the simple act of entering a train compartment was like giving birth to myself. For eight weeks I endured the smirks and taunts of proper backpackers—not least the Aussies, those smug walkabouting bastards, roaming the earth for 18 months with just a three-quart knapsack on their lean shirtless backs.
I’ve known, ever since, the ignominy of the overpacker. The cruel judgement of the gate agent. The cabbie’s furrowed brow, the bellman’s weary sigh. The sidelong glances of other, more streamlined travelers, whose profile of you is clear: Can’t keep it together, lacks self-control. In the travel world, a suitcase is never just a suitcase. It is an earthly manifestation of your emotional baggage, a ballistic-nylon-coated box of shame.
Kinder people have tried to help me. They’ve suggested I lay out everything I plan to take a week before my trip, then gradually put two-thirds of it back. (Actual result: Each day I remember three more things I left out, until by Day 7 I’ve added a whole other bag.) They’ve gifted me with organizer cubes, compression bags, and other purportedly ingenious “packing solutions.” (Actual result: Yet more detritus for my already overwhelmed closets.) And, in more delicate moments, they have ventured that perhaps, possibly, just thinking out loud here, a psychotherapist might have insight into my problem.
“I think there’s a deeper issue at play here,” said mine, when I asked. “You’re like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, filling their sarcophagi with all their worldly possessions—except you’re dragging your sarcophagus through the airport. And why? Because, like the pharaohs, you fear death!”
Well….duh. But I also fear being caught in Tegucigalpa without the charger for my electric toothbrush.
As far as I can determine, there’s no official DSM diagnosis for overpacking, unless it’s just a mobile version of Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome. For me the best explanation is that, as much as I love traveling, I loathe leaving home. Unlike those hardcore globetrotters of legend—Paul Theroux, Attila the Hun—I’m equally content in my apartment, surrounded by my things, which to me are not “possessions” so much as “possibilities.” Having options makes me happy. Keeping those options open to me when I travel makes me happier still. What is travel if not a joyful surfeit of possibilities?
This is more true now than ever, it turns out. With airfares (and vacation days) at a premium, travelers are squeezing several experiences into a single trip, says Fred Dust of the trend-spotting consultancy Ideo. “People want to combine work with a quick change to leisure,” he notes—following up, say, a business conference with a family biking trip or a weekend at a dude ranch. “When you’re packing for multiple purposes and multiple destinations, it’s impossible to travel light,” says Dust.
I guess that’s my excuse for packing an entire costume department’s worth of clothing on each trip, from swim trunks to yoga pants to rain gear to riding boots: as a travel reporter I tend to shift places and “purposes” every other day. Furthermore, even a single city might have dozens of disparate milieus, each requiring a different outfit. In London you could go from thrift-shopping in Shoreditch (plaid hipster shirt, skinny jeans) to a ramble on Hampstead Heath (Gore-Tex, Patagonia), from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Knightsbridge (Paul Smith suit and tie) to an underground dance club in Bermondsey (Day-Glo tracksuit, baby rattle). How could anyone accomplish all that with just a carry-on?
Yes, overpacking is primarily about vanity. But it’s also about the pragmatism of blending in, with the hope that you might disappear into a place. Backpackers and business travelers have it easy in that regard. The former can wear the same batik pants for months; when they get dirty they can just sprinkle on more patchouli. A businessman could pack a single suit for a ten-city trip, merely rotating his shirt and tie. Even Tintin, the greatest traveler of all, crisscrossed the planet wearing only a polo and plus-fours. But for today’s global nomad, different contexts mandate different personas, and more wardrobe changes than a Beyoncé show.
Of course clothing is only half the story. Me, I usually bring a hefty stack of guidebooks, maps, and phrasebooks; a dozen magazines; a notebook and a sketchpad; a box of pens and pencils; a mini-watercolor set (I know, I know, how pretentious); a travel steamer; three varieties of sunscreen; an oversize Dopp kitt; and a one-gallon Ziploc bulging with pills (Chinese herbs, Temazepam, vitamins, Clarinex, Melatonin, Advil, fish oil, Xanax—I could go on but let’s not). Then there’s the mandatory tech: dashboard-mounting GPS unit; two cameras (SLR for landscapes and Canon S90 for snapshots); lenses, filters, and seven-inch tripod; noise-cancelling headphones; digital voice recorder and lapel-clip mic (for interviews); keychain USB drive; MacBook; iPhone; iPad; iPod Nano (for the gym); spare Motorola cell phone (for foreign SIMs); high-powered binoculars; and the swollen bag of attendant chargers, battery packs, cables, Y-splitters, and foreign outlet adaptors.
On paper, my packing list probably looks like overkill. But although I regret having to hoist 70-odd pounds of luggage up and down the stairs of my building every time I leave town, I have never regretted any specific single item I packed. (Okay, besides the nine-pound voltage converter I lugged around in my backpacking days—for my electric razor, naturally.) I can, however, recount plenty of occasions where I’ve regretted not bringing something—like, say, a pair of galoshes for that wedding in Ireland, or a bottle-opener for a camping trip in Sonoma, or those noise-cancelling headphones for an overnight Mexican bus ride.
All that said, I envy my unencumbered fellow travelers, answering only to the whims of wanderlust. I see them sailing through airports, sashaying into hotel lobbies, hopping off trains like so many sleek and nimble bunny rabbits, and I think, That would be nice. I can’t answer to the whims of wanderlust, because I’m beholden to My Stuff, forever looking for a place to put it down. If only I could simply alight from the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, jump on the Metro, and breeze over to Le Comptoir for lunch, tucking my modest overnight bag discreetly under my chair. But no. For the overpacker, every relocation is like the invasion of Normandy; you’ll need load-bearing vehicles, patience, a clear plan of attack. So instead I schlep half my body weight in luggage to the taxi stand, join the interminable line, pay €23 to ride a mile in traffic to my hotel, check the bags at the bell desk, sprint to the nearest Metro, and finally arrive at Le Comptoir, only to be told desolée, monsieur, but lunch service is over. And now this whole “keeping my options open” concept has utterly backfired.
So I’m making myself a deal. This weekend my wife and I are going to Montreal—just a quick jaunt, four days and three nights—and for the first time in my adult life, I have resolved to pack just a carry-on.
Yeah, you heard me.
I’m leaving my binoculars, travel steamer, headphones, and watercolors behind, and I will try to make due—maybe even have fun—with just my iPhone, a few essential toiletries, and exactly four outfits’ worth of clothes. I’ve decided to follow the lead of my friend and travel-writing colleague Adam Sachs, whose motto is “Underpack, overdress.” I’ll wear my sportcoat on the plane, and I’m taking only a single pair of shoes. (For guys with size 11 feet, bringing a second pair of loafers is like packing two extra canoes.) I’ve already squeezed my liquids into 3-ounce containers and aligned them in a quart-size Ziploc. I even dug through the back of my closet to find one of those Flight 001 compression bags for my shirts—turns out they’re really quite ingenious. All of which adds up to 15.9 pounds of overhead bin–suitable hand luggage. I know this because I’ve already packed and weighed it.
I’m ready, willing, and quite possibly able. But if anyone can tell me where I can buy a good watercolor set in Montreal, I’m all ears. •