Packing for Travel: Know Thyself

Packing for travel has one certainty, one hard and fast rule: there is no certainty and no hard and fast rule. Packing is an evolving science and art for every person who explores our world, whatever their mode of travel.

Online advice about packing for travel will blow your brain cells and your budget. I took 10 minutes out of my busy schedule (learning the two-step, inventing a new whiskey drink, and wishing in vain that politicians would Just. Shut. Up) to check out some of those tips. There went 10 precious minutes that I will never get back. Amidst suitcase-loads of what passes for packing guidance are a few nuggets worth poaching, but mostly the ideas out there are crap and some will cost you hard-earned cash which, in my own expert opinion, would be better used for actual travel.

Example of crap advice: “Always pack a few balloons. Blow them up and drape your wet laundry over them.” Balloons? A travel blogger seriously suggested this. What happens after your clothes dry? The balloons go into the trash and never, ever biodegrade. Exactly what the world needs; more rubber and plastic floating around forever. Please, my friends, don’t pack balloons.

Here’s the thing: everyone is a bloody expert, on their own style of packing for travel, but not about yours. That’s a clue, Grasshopper.

Packing for travel: know thyself ©BGabriel,

So why take my advice on packing for travel? Because I’m here to show you how to find your own inner expert so you can stop wasting time online searching for that elusive, magical method and spend those 10 minutes inventing your own delicious beverage, instead. Also, some people asked me for advice. Okay fine, just one person asked. But they asked nicely. Anyway, I’ve got my own methods and some of those might contain a kernel of expertness that is compatible with yours. Not all of my ideas will work for you. That’s cool, my ego can take the rejection. Especially if I have a glass of Irish whiskey heavenliness at the ready.

When the ancient Greeks inscribed Know Thyself on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, I’m pretty sure they had you in mind. If you haven’t traveled much yet, or have spent enough time on the road to know you need a change in the way you’ve done things, speak that phrase aloud: Know thyself. Because when it comes to packing for travel, one size and style does most definitely not fit all.

There are two ways to get to know yourself in order to pack smarter. The first is to answer a few questions. The second way is to go ahead and jam whatever the hell you feel like packing into your bags, regret it a day (or an hour!) into your trip, and learn from the experience. I’ve done both of these methods and I guarantee the first way is cheaper and smarter.

Start by asking yourself these 3 deceptively simple questions: 


  1. Why am I traveling? Are you traveling to learn about culture and history? To revisit your (or your ancestors’) past? To lie on a beach and drink technicolor beverages? Fleeing a broken heart or crummy job? Going for the joy of a staggeringly awesome experience? Every trip you take is unique and your reasons for taking it are too. Same idea goes when packing for travel.
  2. Of all the stuff I could pack in my bag, which are important to me? What can’t I live without? Do I value looking good or feeling comfortable? Okay, I snuck in more than one question here, but they all fall under the topic of What’s important? It’s easy to shrug these questions off when you’re packing for travel, but if you don’t answer them, you won’t know yourself well enough to pack smartly. Think about: Fashion or comfort? Point-and-shoot camera or digital SLR? You really want to bring a hair dryer? I won’t judge you; in fact, I’ll recommend one that I’ve used on trips where that was important to me.
  3. What activities do I enjoy? Hikers need the right shoes. Photographers bring a camera. Folks who enjoy immersion in the local food and drinks scene need to bring money. Having an idea of what activities you might participate in narrows down what you need to bring. Use a list. Under-planning leads to overpacking. Choose items that double duty. Example: My go-to travel footwear is a pair of over-the-ankle boots by Teva. They are water-proof (so far, anyway) with great tread, work well for horse riding, cycling, and walking the streets of a city all day. They look good with trousers or skirts, and are really comfortable. If my travel plans involve more than just casual hiking, I might leave the boots home and bring my sneaker-style trail shoes. In hot weather locations, I switch either of those out for hiking sandals. I even wore those sandals horse riding in Cuba, which experienced riders would probably be aghast at, but I survived.

By now, you know your traveling self better than you ever have. You know why you’re traveling and what you need in your bag. You’ve figured out what you enjoy doing when traveling, and to plan ahead to avoid overpacking.

Packing for travel: more time at the bar. ©2016 BGabriel,

Less time waiting for baggage = more time at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana, Cuba

Let me pause here to disclose a bit of my own packing style.
  • I am not a minimalist. I don’t saw the handles off my toothbrush to save weight, nor do I wear the same shirt and pair of trousers for 14 days in a row so that all of the photographs my husband makes me pose for end up with me wearing the exact same clothing wherever I went, looking more wrinkled and disheveled each day.
  • I carry an electronic device for writing (a super-slim, ultra-light laptop), and a travel journal plus pens for making handwritten notes illustrated by very bad drawings. For photography, in addition to my iPhone, I carry a digital SLR camera and 2 lenses.
  • My 3 ounce steel Jameson’s whiskey flask is always in my zip bag of liquids. If I was a celebrity and had a rockstar-wages-style travel contract, my flask would be written into that. (Plus, in its big-hearted, Irish way, my flask allows me to switch things up by carrying rum or tequila on occasion. Very useful.)
  • So I’m not a minimalist packer, but unless there is a super-duper important reason, like a self-imposed requirement to bring a case of wine and a bottle of whiskey on a retreat with my writing tribe (you know who you are, women) I never check a bag. One carry-on bag (read more about my travel pack here) and one shoulder bag (for my camera, passport, travel journal, money, debit and credit cards) is all I bring.
In addition to knowing yourself, a few key questions need addressing.

Where are you traveling? Understand cultural sensitivities before you pack. Bring that headscarf or long skirt if you’re headed to a conservative culture. Pack a swimsuit; don’t plan on going nude at just any beach. I once saw an American guy get whacked upside the head with a board by a local man because the American insisted on strutting on a Caribbean beach with his jewels–the family kind–dangling. Turned out that clothing wasn’t so optional there.

What is the season or local climate where you’re headed? Unless you’re traveling to vastly different weather systems in the same trip, you can leave stuff at home. Very occasionally I’ve realized that I need something I didn’t anticipate when packing for travel. One unusually cold, early Irish summer found me in need of a heavier coat. I snagged a leather jacket for 10 euros at a thrift store in Waterford. Problem easily solved and I was able to leave the jacket with another traveler when I left Ireland.

Do you have special needs or requirements? That might mean a medical condition requiring medication or paraphernalia. Bring copies of your prescriptions and all the medication you think you’ll need. Or, maybe you’ve got a serious hobby that calls for bringing gadgets along (scuba gear, golf clubs, bondage equipment?) In most of those cases, you’ll need to check a bag.

“Excess baggage is a symptom of something we are missing on the inside – a fear that we won’t be accepted for what we are, as if our selves are not enough. We bring too much of our past experience, the clutter of our emotions. These things get in the way and keep us from getting close to others. Then we are left with the task of having to find someone else to carry it, whether it is our luggage or our loneliness.” ~Mary Morris


When I tell folks my personal no-checked-bags rule of packing for travel, I inevitably hear, “Oh, I could never do that. I must bring…” and then I hear the list of stuff they cannot do without. Fair enough; the resistance to light travel is strong in you. I can feel it from the beach bar where I’m lounging. But hey, if you’ve given it sufficient thought and still think you need 5 pairs of shoes, that’s your business. Everybody has stuff that’s important to them. I’m not judging your choices, but want you to be aware of the ways you’ll pay for that.

Packing for travel: don't wait for baggage

Nimble travelers don’t wait for baggage

I travel light because it:
  • Saves money. Extra baggage fees are common on airlines with much tighter weight restrictions than you’re accustomed to. Air Asia, for example, has a cabin baggage limit of one bag weighing no more than 7 kilograms (15 pounds). That’s on the low end of normal carry-on allowances, but the point is, excess baggage costs money (often lots of it). Money that comes directly out of your travel fund. I’d rather spend 50 bucks on a really cool experience instead of paying to have my bag checked.
  • Saves time. I arrive at the airport, go directly to security (because I’ve already checked in online), and get to my gate area in plenty of time to enjoy a pre-flight beverage. I feel like a super-smartypants winner.
  • Saves my back and neck muscles from carrying bags overstuffed with stuff I may not need. I carry my own gear, prefer to be independent, and don’t want to require help to lug around excess baggage. My travel pack holds 46 liters which, if packed smartly, is more than enough for a months-long trip. It has padded shoulder straps and feels great on my back but can also be carried by a hand or shoulder strap.
  • If I’m carrying my bag, an airline can’t lose it. In 30 years of travel only one checked bag of mine has been lost or delayed, but when it happened, it was a problem. The time spent wearing a sexy, man’s extra-large white t-shirt from Scandinavian Airlines, and begging other travelers to share their phone charger was a lesson learned.
  • Let’s me be a nimble traveler. I can more easily change my mind and my itinerary on the fly if the opportunity arises. I don’t waste time at the baggage carousel. I (and my stuff) are safer, because it’s easier to look after just one carry-on and a shoulder bag. Plus I don’t look like a fool fighting with a big roller bag that refuses to glide smoothly over cobblestones that looked so damned quaint in photographs.

Packing for travel: plane interior

You get my drift. It’s about priorities.

Travel is a great teacher. Maybe, despite faithfully answering the questions I’ve asked and packing accordingly, you messed up. Brought along too much stuff or left a scarf on a hook in your bedroom closet that you needed when visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Or maybe you chose the second method to know thyself. The one where you packed first and asked your questions halfway through your trip. The one where you dragged the extra large roller bag over a mile of cobblestones and across the breadth of Ireland before shoving it off the Cliffs of Moher. Don’t beat yourself up; you travel, you learn, your packing methods evolve.

Packing for travel: Cliffs of Moher, ©AlexRanaldi

Cliffs of Moher, ©AlexRanaldi

Finally, one important question I always ask myself:  How do I want to feel at the end of my trip? Relaxed or energized from what I’ve seen and done, or crabby and practically witless after hauling a bunch of unnecessary stuff throughout the entire journey?

Resources for packing for travel:

So how do I unify my theory of one carry-on bag with not being an ascetic minimalist? Since you ask, here are some practical tips. [Important note: I bought every item that I recommend and no company paid me to endorse them.]

  • Easy-to-launder, quick-dry clothing. I pack Ex-Officio underwear. They wash well in a hotel sink and dry fast. I bring 2 pairs of underwear, 2 bras, 1-2 pairs of socks.
  • Organizers:
    • Packing cubes (something new in my travel bag of tricks. I  mocked this idea upon first hearing of it, because honestly, what moron can’t keep their pack organized? Well that moron was, you guessed it, me. I tried packing cubes on a trip to Europe a couple of years ago and they are now part of my packing for travel routine.
    • Compression bag: I experimented with one on a trip to Cuba. Consider me sold on the idea. Compression bags work to save space by packing clothes and squeezing air out. I’ve done something similar in the past on motorcycle trips using 2-gallon zip-bags, but these bags are far hardier and don’t suck air back into them when you’re not looking.
    • Don’t go crazy about packing organizers. There are lots of them for sale and many are, frankly, stupid. Do you really need separate bags labeled “Tissues” or “Panties”? If you do, let me buy you a drink while you tell me that story.
  • Bag:
  • Clothing:
  • Toiletries:

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


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  2. Some great tips and links! Thanks Barbara. 🙂

  3. So much wise advice! To me, an essential item is flip-flops. Not only useful in place of sandals, or lounging around the room, but at the spots I stay in, who wants to step into the shower barefoot?

    • Yes, flip-flops are great for showers all around the world. Maybe I could talk Brian into bringing his and borrow them?

      • I agree with the flip flops- and I just got my hair dryer in the mail! Thanks for the tip I had finally decided to buy a travel one, since most of my pictures of me are when I am traveling. Might as well make that hair look it’s best.

        • Great! Most of my old travel photos are of me in a sort of, “Who cares what I look like, I’m a traveler!” mode. As I’ve matured and look back on those, I realize that my look was more vagrant than world traveler. Looking forward to hearing about your travels.

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