Packing Light

“And we are going to need an extra suitcase for you”, the man smiled deceptively. Years of marriage had taught him to snark with a smile. Years of marriage had not taught me to walk away from a challenge. Suckered, I snapped back, “Of course not! I can live for a month out of hand-baggage allowed on a flight!”

And there we were, off for a month with little access to washing machines or even friend’s homes and all my luggage in my pull along suitcase and handbag. No more than a strict airline would allow. We were going to be on the road with the boys cycling the Rhine with occasional visits to colleagues whose towns fell along the cycling routes. That meant clothes for cycling, trekking, sightseeing, visiting and dining (think shoes people, just footwear for all this takes up a whole suitcase!). Oh, and weather – it might rain, or be colder in the mountains closer to the origin (we were tracing a river after all) and warmer in the valleys.

No, I did not repeat clothes, did not wear them again without washing. Nope, no compromises on ensembles – I was not going to wear a yellow top with purple trousers because that’s all fit in the suitcase. But yes, oh yes, a lot of shopping over the years made this happen. And learning from mistakes. Think light, think materials. Think combinations. Think essentials. And try not to think synthetics, though one cannot really avoid that completely.

So here are my ten rules for packing light – and that’s your shopping list too. It took me twenty years to assemble this, with online shopping it may take you no more than twenty minutes.

  1. Choose a colour palette for your holiday – My coolest #protip is to choose a set of 2-3 colours for that holiday so that you can mix and match to create the look of the day. Incredibly useful in case of that inevitable wardrobe mishap – you can easily wear another from those at hand. The most useful colour palette that has worked all over the world for me is red, black and ivory. All three of them go well with each other, and individually. With 3 pcs of each, I get 27 outfits right there! That’s enough for a month!
  1. Layering – The secret to being prepared for everything is layering. Snowing outside? Sure, 5-7 layers on. Sunny and warm – let’s go with 2-3 layers. Beach? Shall we start with 2 layers? The trick is to shop wisely for layers that can work well as beachwear or boardroom wear. No compromise on quality here. The standard set of layers in addition to underwear (choose them wisely, they are more essential to your wellbeing than any other layer) would be a camisole, a tight shirt(look for fine cotton Tshirts), another (T) shirt, a warm layer, a tight jacket with pockets, an outer rain proof jacket. And a stole or a shawl. #protip The perfect semi-pashmina. Carry it everywhere in your hand, around your neck or strung on to your purse. It’s your blanket on the flight, your stylish wrap at the party, your only friend at the top of the snowy mountain and of course your casual cover for whatever trouble you find yourself in that day. Mine, of course, is red.
  1. Sturdy essentials – Invest in sturdy essentials that you can rely upon. A good pair of shoes that are not heavy. Unless you are professional runner or lumberjack you can manage for ages with simple walking shoes. The heavier ones are tiring after a while and remember, we are allowed just the one bag this time! A lovely pair of walking slip ons does for most parties and visits. I pay four times the market price for these simple beauties but they have lasted me over eleven years now (only to be ruined by the local mochi who put nails through the worn out soles). Resole them, polish them, look after them. They will keep all your stories safe. Invest in a good jacket, tiny torch, zipped wallet, and the other lovely gizmos they keep advertising. Just invest in quality, something you can trust for twenty years else you’ll only be traveling with unreliable rubbish. My #protip? A sleeveless waterproof stretchy jacket (gilet) with at least five pockets, one passport sized. It has been my constant companion.
  1. Quick dry materials – Pack only materials that dry quickly and don’t need drycleaning. You can easily wash them in your hotel sink if you don’t find a laundromat. If you must and can handle them, do take synthetics. I personally love muslins, fine cottons and simple silks, even crepè, that wash and dry really fast on a hanger over the bathtub. Desi of me, you say? Uh-aah-nope. Sensible. And the whole world does it, just ask. Why do you think many hotels have that string pull thing over the tub? Yea, just don’t dry wet clothes on upholstery or wood, you don’t want to stain or damage your hotel room. #protip After wringing out the water from washed clothes roll them in the hotel towel to half dry them. Then place them in hangers where you can see them flutter in the fan/airconditioning or in the bathroom. Oh, and if you see a 4 hour laundromat that will fold your clothes too, just do it! Even if more than half your stuff is still fresh.
  1. Shop small, shop sturdy – Build your collection of small versions of essentials. The folding toothbrush, the miniature perfume bottle, the interlocking cutlery set, the tiny silk top that stretches when worn. There’s so much fun stuff out there. It is tempting to buy a lot of junk too, but that is a strict no no. The rule is – would you show this off to your granny and not be scolded for wasting money? Multifunctional stuff is cool too, I swear by the mini-money belt though its not money that I keep there -I keep essential medicines to hand in case of a coughing fit or allergic reaction etc. The tiny toothbrush stays in one of the jacket pockets – gotta stay shiny in long haul travel.  #ProTip Keep a mini version, or a part of all essentials to hand in various pockets on your person, just ensure you keep coins in your jacket pocket not trouser pocket. You’ll figure out why 😀
  1. Roll pack – Packing techniques are as important as the stuff you pack. I am a firm believer in the roll packing technique though I have been known to use the daypack method as well. If you roll each item of clothing it does not need ironing when you take it out and a tight roll means less space in the suitcase. #proTip Fill up trouser pockets with essentials for the day such as socks before you roll them up. This way, no hunting when unpacking for the day!
  1. Don’t waste space on boxes and bags to sort stuff – you know those fancy ‘toilette’ bags they sell in gift and pharma stores. The ones you see in the movies. Total waste of space. Use tiny stretchy mobile phone covers or tiny click-purses to sort miniature versions of your essentials. Really, how many can you have that are really essential and not already in your inner jacket pocket. If you did not need it on a 10 hour flight, it is not essential. Don’t pack it. #protip A tiny bag for 3-4 essential meds/first aid might be a good idea as it helps to find them fast. All the rest can be packed without casing, or in a tiny polythene. Hey, we are showing off our one suitcase here, not the cabbage roses on toothpaste bags!
  1. Go generic – Let’s not be fussy for the holiday about eye-creams vs. lip-balms vs. neck creams. A salve is a salve and a simple chapstick does equally well everywhere and comes in its own handy twist up packaging to boot. Same with soap. Any soap will do even to wash your essentials. The hotel shampoos foam well, so better for the larger clothes. If you read the ingredients of the fancy brands and your generics, they are about the same. On a budget holiday I’ve been known to use dishwashing liquid in a washing machine (in reasonable quantities) – and yes the kids in my group laughed at me then. But no one was laughing when I had freshly laundered everything and no extra soap to pack for the next destination! One lipstick is enough if it is ‘your’ shade. Minimise. And for the guys: A deo is an essential. It’s minimise, not compromise. Super #protip Take tiny bottles of talc/powder if you are not planning to check in your bags.
  1. Estimate how much you can afford to buy on the go – that’s risk management. What could go wrong if I did not pack my whole room, my wardrobe, my bookshelf and all that I keep around me everyday?! It’s anxiety that makes us over pack. Calm down. You can always buy stuff locally. It is likely that there are some people who do live along your travel route and destination. They might be different cultures and may live differently but they do have all the essentials one needs for human survival available to them. Try it their way for once. Suddenly cold? Buy a shawl from the local street market. Warm? Try a local dress. Out of toothpaste? Try soap (again, read the ingredients, its almost the same). Toilet paper vs. water? Go local!!! Before leaving home just check local supermarket prices. I was shocked to see how expensive phones were in Toronto – because I was so used to picking up a cheap set and sim for calls on other holidays. Obviously we did not buy and managed for four whole days like it was the 1990s – yes tough times :D.  Pack what you cannot afford to purchase out there. Here comes the #protip: In an expensive country ask the hotel/hostel staff where they shop for essentials. (Though one day I will tell you the story of how that led us to the local hand-weapons market!)
  1. Gifts, Sweets and Snacks: Do we travel anywhere without gifts? Again, buy locally. Exotic stuff isn’t really useful across borders. If you must, then buy gifts that are really tiny to pack. For the past few years all I have gifted is jewellery to those I visit in other countries. One gets it in all price ranges, and it is all really pretty. So some will get glass beads and some pearl strings, depending upon what is appropriate. Simple silver chains, bracelets – they are all lovely presents and do not take up as much space as a book. Which they could buy locally anyway. Sweets from your country? Ah, here is where I break the one suitcase rule without really breaking it. Buy it at the airport so it does not have to go into the suitcase. You’d have bought it after it was weighed, and it is in an airport shopping bag anyway. Doesn’t count that way :D. It is impractical to buy sweets for anyone past the first destination, it would surely go bad. Surely, I said. Right. It will. No arguments there. Oh, and snacks for yourself for that after party when you were so pleased with yourself at having had an early dinner? Here comes the #protip for those hunger pangs – Dates, chocolate (1 slab max) and almonds. You’ll be surprised at how far they take seasoned travellers.

And a Bonus (xi) for my dear friends who asked about light packing if you are going to be travelling to a wedding. Slinky silks, my dears. And strappy sandals. They are easy to pack. And accessorise with as much or as little as you please. If it is an Indian wedding you can pick up matching bling in any city, its fun to get out and shop a bit! And for anywhere else, just pack those three strings of pearls for layering if you need to go euro-bling. That’s as much as anyone ever needs to stand out and travel tall.

Oh, as for the challenge I took on? Of course I won. A whole month in one suitcase. For once, I traveled lighter than the boys. No, not telling you of the stuff I snuck into their bags. If they did not notice it, it doesn’t change the win.

(C) Meeta Sengupta

Meeta Sengupta is a writer who has traveled a lot, on all sorts of budgets and with a range of people. She is infamous for her ‘back-up’ packing, and has been known to produce the right type of spork for feeding a child in the middle of a precarious drive through distant moors.