Updated: Jun 4, 2022
It doesn't matter if I'm travelling for months or days, I pack the same amount, I just have to plan to do laundry on longer trips. When I first started travelling, I carried waaaaaay too much. I often arrived home to realize I had carried some clothes all over yet had never taken them out of my case! I always arrived home with a bag of dirty, stinky clothes. A good rule I now follow is to plan to do laundry about once a week and to try to bring home clean clothes. There will be post coming up about laundry in the coming weeks.
Suitcase or Backpack? Your first decision is whether to use a suitcase or use a backpack. I have both and choose which one to use based upon the travel I'm planning. When I'm going to be mainly in an urban setting with decent sidewalks and roads, I will bring my hard-sided rolling Samsonite bag (seen above). It is carry-on size for most North American airlines but is considered checked luggage in other jurisdictions. Look for a suitcase that has strong wheels with full rotation and a sturdy pull handle. Make sure you can lift it over your head when full for placement in those overhead bins. I use a cover on my suitcase for several reasons: 1) theft from a bag while travelling is discouraged: Snatch & Grab thefts are crimes of opportunity. The suitcase cover makes my suitcase more of a pain than someone else's, 2) easy recognition and identification when collecting from a carousel or storage place, 3) protection from scrapes and bumps and, 4) because they are cool and there are a ton of designs to choose from. I own 2 different designs.
A backpack is a good choice when train-hopping or in rural areas where pulling a bag becomes a challenge. The soft sides of a backpack make it squishable: easier to stow away but with less protection for the contents. My experience suggests that most people get much bigger packs than they need and then they overstuff it. It isn't unusual to see young people with huge packs hung both front and back. What seems like a reasonable size and weight in the store quickly becomes unreasonable when it's on your back when you are doing something active. I have a 30L bag from MEC that has been abused by both myself and my son for over 12 years. It appears to be indestructible. When road-tripping with Wanda, I don't need a case or large backpack but I do take along the same clothes and use packing cubes in my onboard clothing cupboards.
Packing Cubes Are The Bomb!
There are not enough words to describe how much packing cubes can change your travel life. These nifty little zippered pouches help organize and compact everything. There is a size for everything. It makes finding and separating clothes a breeze. Pack one with grooming supplies and it's easy to grab on your way to the showers. Pack an empty one for dirty clothes. I have a few cubes that are always pre-packed and ready to throw into my bag, including ones for first aid, international adapters and power bars, and laundry supplies. For chronic overpackers, there are even compressible ones! Once you start using packing cubes, you will never be able to pack without them again.
Create Your Capsule Wardrobe
This is the modern fancy way of organizing a co-ordinated wardrobe where every piece can work with any of the other pieces. A flexible wardrobe would generally include a couple of pairs of trousers, some leggings/sweats, several tops, a couple of cardigans/hoodies, perhaps a skirt or dress. Stick to a very neutral palette with just one or two accent colours. Walking shoes (hiking boots?) and maybe another nicer pair of shoes are important. Don't forget pajamas, swim wear, undies, socks, and a water resistant jacket!
Think hard about the activities you have planned or are very likely to do. Don't pack for a trip that you aren't on. I'm a casual, solo traveller. I really don't need "just in case" formal clothes. If I'm honest, I probably don't even need "let's look like I made an effort" clothes. I usually wear hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes. Should the Queen suddenly invite me for tea the next time I'm in London, I can buy something appropriate. You, on the other hand, may be a social butterfly who attends grand events whilst travelling. Your "just in case" would be very different than mine. Plan on wearing your bulkiest clothes and shoes rather than packing them in your bag. Bring a wrap/poncho style scarf. That poncho will serve a lot of purposes as an outer layer and blanket. It's also an extra layer of protection from pickpockets when you drape it over your daypacks and/or purse while wandering around crowded areas. With pickpockets, your best protection is to be a harder target than those around you.
My Favourite Travel Clothes
There's a few items that I really value when travelling. I don't use them except when travelling but I truly would not travel without them. Over ten years ago, I bought two pairs of black water/wind resistant, quick-dry hiking pants with zip-off legs by Eddie Bauer. They have held up to some very rugged wear. It takes several hours for heavy rain to penetrate the fabric. The trousers are completely dry in a couple of hours. Dried dirt brushes off. Buy one pair in a larger size to wear leggings or sweats underneath for extra warmth. As I post photos of myself, do NOT take a drink every time you see those black pants -- it won't be good for your liver. I previously mentioned a blanket wrap/poncho/scarf/cape. Whatever you call it, you want one. A warmer one is good for cooler evenings or as a blanket but a lighter weight scarf is also great to have in warmer climates. When visiting some religious buildings, women are required to cover up to enter. Having a scarf handy can be a gesture of respect. I have purchased wraps from several countries and they are much appreciated by guests on my patio at home or with Wanda.
I don't want to travel without my BauBax jacket. It literally has a pocket and every travel thingamabob anyone could ever want. It's comfy, warm, and allows me to keep everything within reach. I've had mine for about 4 years and it's holding up very well and I think it looks good. I won't try to describe all it's features, you can have a good look at the illustration!
My favourite travel purse is a backpack style. When worn, the zip for entry is against my back. It is virtually pick-pocket proof. I'm also impressed with it's roominess. The one I bought is no longer available, but this one by Vicon Chic is very similar in style.
Planned Clothing Dumps & Donations
I always pack some crappy clothes and I leave room in my suitcase to add purchases along the way. It's a point of honour not to expand my bag until the journey home and only then if it's really necessary. We all own some less-than-stellar pieces of clothing. The shirt that is stretched or the trousers with a wee stain that we keep for couch and house cleaning days. They are comfy old friends that have seen better days but as I notice them throughout the year, I start putting them aside ready to pack for camping or other active trip. These are the clothes that I will leave behind at some point in the trip. No matter how I'm travelling, I always accumulate things. I get a fridge magnet and a Christmas ornament at every new destination. I often buy local art, sometimes clothing. My suitcase starts getting filled. If I absolutely have to make room, then something is left behind.
hint: if you are in accommodations, talk to housekeeping -- they often know locals who would appreciate a donation.
They have stores there, too!
Lastly, chill. It really is better to underpack than to overpack. If you forget something important, it can be purchased at the destination. If you are staying in hotels, they provide soap, shampoo, lotion, hairdryer and towels (often toothbrushes, toothpaste and razors are available upon request). Shopping for ordinary items in unfamiliar cultures can be very educational, and gives you a glimpse at real life for locals. Some of my best travel memories have happened in marketplaces, away from the tourist areas.
What are your best packing hints? You'll note I avoided the whole "roll vs fold" controversy. What's the best advice you'd give to someone about packing for a long trip?
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