12 Packing Light Tips from a Traveling Pro

4.30.2014

By Michelle Garcia

You can go anywhere with a 30-liter backpack and some elbow grease.

I was invited on a trip with other journalists to traipse around Paris for a day and then hit the slopes of the French Alps. The first question I had after replying, “Hell yes, I’ll be there with bells on!” was “What should I pack?”

After a little research, I did my typical routine, loading all of my gear for a six-day excursion into my trusty 30-liter Deuter Futura backpack (it’s about the size of an average carry-on suitcase). I’ve used the same bag for a three-city trip through Europe last year, and will use it again for another three-city, 14-day trip this fall. I always pack light, and I carry it all on my back, like a reverse kangaroo. I just prefer a backpack beacause it's easy to maneuver quickly with them in busy airports and train stations, and they're easily collapsible.

Some people scoff at the idea of using such a backpack, especially when staying in “nice” hotels, but I really don’t; it’s all about what you pull out of the backpack, anyway. In fact, I think it’s a little amusing to roll up to a big, beautiful boutique hotel with a backpack, because the bellhops crinkle their eyebrows and offer to carry it for me (I usually decline because I’m gangster like that).

When I got to Paris, and met up with my journalist colleagues, I was asked multiple times, “Where is the rest of your stuff?” And then I pointed to my backpack and a shoulder bag and said, "That's it." I'm not going to lie, it felt pretty cool.

Here’s how I managed to fit everything in my bag, and look decent for 6 days:

1) Many hotels come equipped with shampoo, a blow drier, and a clothing iron, so unless you need particulars, there's really no need to bring those items. Call ahead or scan your hotel's website for other things you can borrow like a flat iron. Or just stop being so high-maintenance, dude. You're traveling.

2) Pick clothing that works together. There are a few methods to doing this; you can start with your shoes, and see how many outfits work with each pair. I gathered a ton of different things that I generally wanted to bring, and then whittled down the final selection of items to two pairs of jeans, two t-shirts, a pair of yoga pants, one long-sleeve t-shirt, and five tops in the same color family that would work in an evening setting, with my brown boots. In some cases, you can mix and match my tops to create different outfits. There are guides all over Pinterest to help you figure this out.

3) If you're worried about how to dress while you're in Paris, the one constant style note I gathered about Parisians was that they followed the philosophy of effortless chic. There's no need for sparkly tops or Ugg boots (yes, all things you still see in America on any given day). No Parisian is trying to look stylish, they just are. When in doubt, just wear black.

4) I brought my trusty black Converse, and a pair of flat, brown boots that I have been living in all winter. Both pairs of shoes are versatile, and I can walk around forever in them. Aside from that, I rented a pair of snow boots from the resort for hiking and snowshoeing. Some may think my traveling shoe wardrobe is absolutely bonkers, but most people wear 20 percent of their wardrobe 80 percent of the time anyway, so I really don't think it's so blasphemous. Besides, every pair of shoes you don't bring will leave room for souvenir bottles of wine.

5) The only thing I always overpack is underwear. You never want to suddenly run out of underwear or socks with no time to wash them. Besides, a few extra pairs won't cause your baggage to burst open at the seams.

6) Had I stayed any longer, I probably would have done some laundry. I don't think travelers should rule out doing a load of laundry if they're on a trip lasting longer than eight or nine days. It might take a little time, but it will save space. And sometimes handing your sack of dirty clothes to the hotel laundry service is a worthy splurge.

7) Obviously check the weather and your itinerary to determine what you really need to bring. Will it kill you to buy an umbrella while you're there? No. Do you need that extra ball gown or military-inspired jacket? If you're going to be at a pretty chill ski resort, there will be little need for formal wear and your entire collection of shoes.

8) The shoulder bag I kept with me during the flight included: fully charged iPad, phone, chargers, two magazines, a small bottle of lotion, headphones, some gum, eye shades, tissues, a bottle of water, a pen, ear plugs, extra socks, an apple, and Tylenol PM.

9) First-time skiiers can survive with the following items (most of which I was able to pull from my closet): my first layer was essentially a tank top. The second layer were clothes from my winter track and field days: a technical longsleeve top, and running tights on bottom. The outer layer was a Columbia winter jacket that I purchased years ago at the behest of my Oregonian then-boyfriend, and a pair of windbreaker pants that I proudly purchased at my neighborhood sporting goods store for $12, thanks to a fortuitous end-of-winter clearance sale. I also suggest a pair of sunglasses and real ski gloves, though my knitted mitten-gloves worked fine enough in a pinch. Fortunately going to a resort like Club Med Valmorel was especially helpful because I could rent a lot of items like hiking boots in addition to skis, a helmet, and boots. And don't forget to swipe on a generous layer of Chapstick before hitting the (bunny) slopes.

10) I will admit to my one cheat: I used a compression bag. I got a large Eagle Creek compression bag that does not require a vacuum to suck all of the air out. You just seal it up and roll your clothing items, and little vents at the bottom of the bag do the work. I didn't bring my entire armoire, but I only own a 30 liter backpack, so I needed something to wedge all that stuff in and give me space to return with a bottle of 2010 Rhone region wine (which I picked up for €6 or $8.25! The same bottle at my local wine shop would have cost me, at the very least, about $40).

11) The only items that I packed but ended up not using were my bathing suit and two pairs of underwear. Oh well.

12) My packing regrets: I failed to bring Drammamine (I didn’t think about having to drive around in the Alps), and floss, because I’m trying to develop better dental habits, and I started going crazy without the ability to floss at night, all of a sudden. So I bought floss in the Alps. For €8. Yes, my wine cost less than my floss.

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