Minimalism. The whole world’s gone overboard about under-doing and under-having in every aspect of life.
How about you – do you dream of a minimalist lifestyle, or have you nailed it already? Good for you if you’ve managed to suck all the extra tidbits out of your home and closets. But what about when you pack for a trip?
Maybe you abandon all minimalism and pack like your going overland in a covered wagon? “Throw it all in and strap ‘er down!” Hey, my overpacking tendency exists at the cellular level, so no packing shaming here. You probably just haven’t thought about using a minimalist mindset for packing.
Well, I embrace zero minimalism in my life – except in packing. Take a look at my real life closet.
Not a shred of minimalism lives here. But I don’t pack like I closet!
I mean, I USED to be a severe over-packer, but that changed long ago. I pack like a minimalist now – or at least that’s my mindset while I’m packing. It’s a trick I use, along with some alcohol-related rituals, to get around my extreme hatred for packing. I don’t know why it works – but I won’t question anything that helps me scale my packing brick wall.
Full transparency – this always happens. I’ll be waist deep packing for a trip and pause to mentally tie all the clothes in my suitcase, thus far, to my trips’ agenda. That’s when things start to get a little foggy, and I start reaching for just two more of these…and maybe a couple of those…
No that’s not the mindset of a minimalist packer, but someone who practices the art of doing it – imperfectly. Here’s what I do.
One Bag Travel
The first step is to take only one bag. There’s no reason ever to bring more than one (unless it’s a road trip and you’re stuffing everything into the trunk of the car.) Lightly packing one bag for air travel isn’t difficult when you know the basics.
Note – you still have the escape hatch of packing miscellaneous things into a tote/small backpack and purse. (sigh of relief)
Here are the basic cheats I use, followed by an explanation for each one:
- Plan on wearing items multiple times.
- Make sure the clothes you take can recombine into a minimum of two outfits.
- Use a two-sided suitcase.
- Pack “hard” items together (shoes, toiletries, blow-dryer.) and clothes mostly together.
- Fit small clothes items in the nooks and crannies of the ‘hard’ things.
Embrace Repeated Wearing
Buried in my DNA is a mutant gene causing extreme sweat and anxiety if I try to wear something twice in one week. Serious as death here and it’s probably ground zero of my overpacking tendency.
But I was forever cured of over-packing by a trip I took in my mid-twenties.
I was traveling with my best friend, who (to this day) practices ‘costume dressing’ – when everything you wear is part of an ensemble. Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and hair – all essential to the look. She would love to have packed it all in a steamer trunk.
The sheer quantity of her daily costume changes on the trip was epic. I do not want to downplay this. For breakfast: cute jammies, robe, slippers, hair tie. Walk to town after breakfast? Great earrings, hair tie, matching shorts + top, a shoulder draped sweater and cute loafers. Beach time? The suit, coverup, beach bag, adorbs straw hat, and – different hair tie and earrings.
All before 10 am.
It was an embarrassing and stressful experience. Everyone on the trip waited out the long costume changes and searched for a large vehicle and extra help to get her jumbo suitcase to the hotel. And no one cared what she was wearing from one minute to the next. It made a big fat negative impression on me that’s never faded.
After that, I vowed to travel light (and check my bag.) It took years for me to understand the trick is to re-wear things when traveling. So simple. A pair of jeans, shorts, or a skirt combined with a few tops can handle about anything you tackle while traveling. (Uh, go ahead and throw that versatile dress in your bag, too.)
Make sure you can create a minimum of two outfits out of everything you pack. One pair of pants can combine with at least two tops, or the top can combine with at least two bottoms. The absolute ideal? Go for the trifecta – one top with three different bottoms, etc.
But shoes? Yeah, that’s a problem. More about that later.
My personal preference is to use a hard-sided suitcase that lays completely flat when open. Each side comes with a strap to lock down your load and, even better – a cover that zips closed. Designate one side for packing shoes, toiletries, and blow-dryer (the “hard” items.) The other side is for clothes you roll to pack.
There’s more than one school of thought on clothes packing, but the most common are packing cubes or rolling your clothes. I love me some little organizing things, so when I learned about packing cubes, I had to experiment with them for a trip to Europe. I bought cheap ones at Marshall’s but threw most of them away when I arrived.
I’ve been rolling my clothes to pack for years. They fit well in a suitcase that way and come out with few wrinkles. If I can completely unpack when I get to my destination – wrinkles are pretty non-existent. I’ll bring a lightweight, portable clothes steamer for those ‘clothes-stay-in-suitcase’ trips.
But cubes can also minimize packing induced wrinkles, plus keep your clothes well organized and easily accessible. So why did I leave them in Europe and ‘roll’ home? I found them an extra step and a hassle without a huge benefit. When filled with clothes, they fit like puzzle pieces and fill your bag. There’s no space for those little extras that roll and squish into nooks.
What I liked were a few small sized and one medium-sized cube. I used small cubes for underwear, bras, Spanx, and socks. I could also use one for jewelry, hair ties, and other small items. The medium cube was perfect for t-shirts and tanks, but those are also items that roll down very small and smoosh into nooks well. It’s a toss-up.
In the end, I had to go with the fast-packing clothes rolling.
There’s also a trick to loading the side with your hard items. My toiletry bag always goes on the bottom of the compartment because it takes up room, it’s somewhat bulky and not squishy. The ‘bottom’ is the part of the bag just above the luggage wheels. Right next to the toiletry bag, I put my make-up bag and round hair brush + curling iron (Shhhhh, ok yes. I bring it.)
At the top of that side, I put shoes. Keep reading – I’m putting off my shoe discussion until a little later in the article. Packing shoes at the top creates many nooks, and they’re separated from my toiletry bag by my ever-loving-blow-dryer. I put my universal plug adapter in this area too, and any small cubes I’ve filled with camera equipment, extra cords, jewelry, and extra snacks for my food allergy intense lifestyle.
Packing in the Nooks
At this point, it might sound like this is irrelevant. Why would you need to put any clothes in the nooks and crannies of the hard items? Well, if you’ve packed any bulkier items that you can’t wear on the plane, they take up room. If you roll blouses and t-shirts and put them in your nooks – you’ll find room for those awkward, bulky things in the clothes side. (P.S. with packing cubes – that’s not going to be easy if you can even figure a way to do it.)
Using the nooks is sometimes a much more efficient way to pack than using small cubes and bags. Some items – like make-up are a no-go for the nooks. But think about grouping some small things in Ziploc bags and stuffing them inside shoes and between heels.
The Problem With My Damn Shoes
This is a hard one for me. In a perfect world, I would love to wear a pair/pack a pair but that never happens. I want to wear easy on/off shoes that are UBER comfortable for travel days. My remaining shoe choices rely entirely on a combo of my destination, the climate there, and my agenda.
If I’m walking and hiking outdoors, I’m going to bring some running shoes (those are plane worthy potential but not my first choice.) I’ll bring a feminine and sexy pair for day or nighttime wear. If there’s something on the agenda that I would look/feel stupid without heels – they’re going in the suitcase. And if there’s a beach involved – in go the flipflops.
That’s my shoe dilemma. If my suitcase is heavy – it’s the shoes. The best way to keep me from overpacking shoes is to be RIGID about not sacrificing comfort for style. If I’m holding the perfect pair of ADORABLE shoes in my hand but honestly know they will bring pain and blisters within 1-3 hours – it’s a hard no. They’re not coming.
But shoes are the kind of thing that create nooks – so in a situation where I know I’m going to pack more pairs than a minimalist might – I put a pair or two on the clothes side of my bag. Then I roll my clothes into the nooks they create.
Minimalism is a Mindset
A key point of minimalist packing is to pack what you NEED, not what you WANT, but this is where I veer off. I don’t need to pack a lot of clothes, but there’s going to be what I WANT in that suitcase.
For instance, I won’t stick to one color just because it minimizes what’s in my bag. And, if I need to bring a nice dress, I’ll try and take one that can be casual or dressy. But if I can’t – I’m taking the extra dress. Likewise, if part of my trip is a special day of hiking and it’s the only time I’ll need certain clothes – they’re coming with me. I won’t make do with other items.
I also pack things that work for multiple uses – like a pashmina for a wrap or a travel blanket. Or a blazer as a light jacket combined with a pashmina for warmth. Or just worn over a t-shirt or blouse.
I do not bring stuff that sounds like cool travel toys I don’t need. Like a ‘special’ travel towel. It’s HIGHLY unlikely I’ll stay anywhere that doesn’t provide towels for me. Unless I’m headed to a beach on my trip – scratch that off my list.
What MUST Go in Your Carry-on
While I check my suitcase, I always bring a tote/small backpack on the plane with my purse. My goal is to put my purse inside the tote/backpack, only taking it out on the plane and at my destination. But I’m willing to sacrifice that goal for a great reason.
That’s stuffing my carry-on with a change of clothes (clean undies), medications, toothbrush+paste, contact lens paraphernalia, and allergy safe snacks. And the reason is changing planes.
Is it just me or do direct flights seem to be occurring mainly on red-eyes these days? Red-eyes are tough to bounce back from as you get older, which I am, so I hate them and opt for plane changing routes.
That means it’s possible I’ll make the connecting flight – but my luggage won’t. So having all these things in my carry-on is non-negotiable. And yet…I ignored this rule recently – and it bit me immediately in the butt.
I was traveling to a conference and needed more ‘work equipment’ than I’d typically bring. So – I packed contact lens supplies, snacks, my laptop + notebooks in my carry-on. No change of undies or meds. Queue the disaster.
My first flight was late and I became the frantic sprinter through the concourse to my connecting flight. Although I made it – the last one on – my suitcase did not. I’ll never put my laptop in my checked bag, but a whole lot of other stuff could have migrated there on that trip. Lesson learned once and for all.
NOTE: if this happens to you – most airlines have the information for tracking a suitcase right on their mobile app. Make sure you keep your baggage claim ticket, log on, and input the number there. You’ll see exactly where your bag is and when it’s going to be on a flight to meet you. I arrived at midnight and, before the airline called me, I knew the exact flight my bag was coming on the next morning.
The bottom line in my packing is that I think like a minimalist without sacrificing the things I want and need. If I didn’t approach it this way, I don’t know if I could get over my extreme hatred of packing.
Plus there are many clever packing hacks out there! Every time I find a new article, like this one you might enjoy, I make a few changes to my routine (hence my packing cube experiment.) I shared my secrets to toiletry packing here. If you have any go-to tricks, please share them in the comments here!
And what’s your vote – soft-sided or hard-sided suitcase?