travel packing guide

Smart Pack Hacks: A Guide to Avoid Overpacking

TRAVEL PLANNING

Pack smart, look chic & stay organized on your travels

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I wanted to write a packing guide for myself, as much as anyone else. The truth is I love to travel, but always seem to overpack. This compilation of “pack hacks”  are tips I’ve gathered through trial, and a lot of error on my own travels. It’s what works for me, and what doesn’t.

Overpacking has caused me a lot of headaches. I am still recovering from seeing a porter at a train station in India carry my large bag on his head. I felt terrible and wanted to immediately take him for a chiropractic adjustment. 

At the other end of the spectrum, in a fit of determined minimalism, I once took a tiny carry-on for a week in France: trés practical on the TGV and Metro, but I felt blah in the same two outfits all week, and Paris is not where you want to feel frumpish.

I am striving for the packing sweet spot. The “Goldilocks Principle” of packing, the just right. I want to pack light, but have everything I need. I want getting dressed on vacation to be simple, and to look chic and feel comfortable. I need smart packing hacks. 

A porter carries luggage stacked on his head at a train station in India
A station porter in India carries my luggage on his head - it's the one on top

Why do I overpack?

I’ve thought a lot about this. I think there is something in wanting to be ready for anything, that leads me to overpack. Especially with big overseas trips when I don’t know exactly what to expect. I don’t always know what I will need, ahead of time. If I am invited to dinner in Jaipur or go to a country fair in the Loire Valley, will I have the right outfit? The unknown leads me to bring too much. 

If you want to stop reading here, and get your advice from someone who knows what they are doing, it’s probably not a bad idea. If you want to muddle through this together, here are a few packing hacks I’ve started to use, that might be helpful for other women who hate packing. 

Packing Hacks... How to Avoid Overpacking

I start a list on my phone notes, well ahead of any trip, and every time I think of something I want/need to bring, I add it. At this stage, anything goes. This list is the only place to overpack. Paring back comes later. 

Susan Heinrich, bistro dinner paris

Pack Hack 1 - Plan Specific Outfits

Sometimes the right strategy starts with what doesn’t work. I have learned that throwing my favourite things into a suitcase, and hoping they will magically mix and match themselves into lovely outfits, is misguided.

Let’s call this packing delusion. I used to do it. When I packed that way, getting dressed was more stressful and I was not as happy with the result.  Or I didn’t have the bra that worked with the off-the-shoulder blouse. 

Let’s call that packing delusion – I used to do it

It’s only when I try things on, exactly as I will wear them, that I remember to bring everything.  If I am bringing the potato sack that needs the wide belt, I will have the belt. 

It also makes getting dressed on the trip much more relaxing. Some people even take photos of their outfits. That’s packing 2.0 – I’m not there yet. Although I do occasionally take photos when I am deciding whether I like an outfit or not (as below).

Susan Heinrich trying on her outfits before packing for Paris
My least favourite pack hack: Trying clothes on ahead of time.

Pack Hack 2 - Try Everything On

I try everything on, and I mean everything. If I discover my favourite white pants have a stain, I can get them to the dry cleaner. If I need a new bathing suit, and don’t we all hate shopping for those, I have time to find one I feel good in. 

By the way, I really love swimsuits by Athleta and Summersalt. They are supportive and comfortable, and Summersalt has long-torso suits, ideal for long-waisted, short-legged ladies like me.

Pack Hack 3 - The CapsulePlus Wardrobe

Capsule wardrobe: Can we agree that the name is ironic? Any capsules I’ve seen are tiny.  My friend Clemencia and I have travelled together in India and Southeast Asia and she travels with a suitcase small enough to be called a capsule, and she always looks great. 

She’s my packing idol. When it’s time to leave a hotel, she is packed and enjoying her second cup of coffee while I’m still in the room cursing the packing gods. 

Midlife Globetrotter visits Angkor Wat, Cambodia with her friend Clemencia
Clemencia and I visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I will never be like Clemencia, but I am now using a method which is getting me closer. Let’s call it the CapsulePlus. The idea with a capsule wardrobe is that individual pieces are mixed and matched to create a number of outfits that is greater than the sum of its parts. I like it when math works in my favour, so tried it out on my last overseas trip to Southeast Asia.

I chose a wardrobe based on a limited colour palette: neutrals of grey, white and black and added items with the colours orange and pink.

I did allow myself to bring a couple of extras, a flowered dress and a green linen jumpsuit (pictured above). That’s why it’s the CapsulePlus – I don’t want to be too hemmed in (haha).

I still brought more than I would have liked, but less than usual. And I did wear everything I brought, and was happy with most of my outfits.  Limiting the colour palette was very helpful for me. I’ve done this on shorter trips as well.

Midlife Globetrotter in Laos, wearing a flowered dress from her capsule wardrobe
In Laos, wearing a dress from my capsule wardrobe

If you don’t know where to start, pick one thing you absolutely love and must bring. Look at the colours in that item, or pick something else that goes with it and has colour – that’s your palette. Now fill in with some neutrals that work best, navy, grey, black, white. 

Add a few more things with the same colours as your inspiration item, solid or pattern. Every piece you add should be able to mix together to create various outfits. And try it all on first so you know you like the way it looks together.

Pack Hack 4 - Simplify Jewelry

I used to bring a lot of fun jewelry on my travels, thinking I wanted different necklaces and earrings with each outfit. It was too much trouble and I didn’t end up wearing them. Now I bring one or two necklaces per trip and two pairs of earrings: a small one for day, small hoops or studs, and one dangly for evenings out. 

Less jewelry is less to keep track of and makes getting dressed simpler for me. If you love jewelry ignore this advice and have fun with it.

Susan Heinrich in Laos with a scarf - scarves are an important part of the travel packing guide
With one of my favourite scarves at the Wat Xieng Thong temple in Laos

Pack Hack 5 - Scarves are Your Best Accessory

While I don’t care too much about jewelry, I love scarves and think they are a traveller’s best friend. I usually travel with two or three, heavier or lighter, depending on the weather where I am headed.  

They are smaller to carry in your bag than a sweater, can protect you from the sun, wrap around your neck if you are chilly, and you always have something to cover your shoulders if you are entering a church or temple.

Also, a pretty scarf makes a simple outfit instantly more stylish. They are also a fun thing to buy on your travels, and easy to pack and bring home.  

Susan Heinrich wearing her favorite OluKai sandals in Maui, Hawaii
Wearing my favourite sandals in Cambodia
Wearing my OluKai Upena sandals on a tour of Tonlé Sap Cambodia

Pack Hack 6 - Smart Shoe Packing

Another friend of mine, Cathy Thomson of Rack Star Shopping, is a packing pro –  literally. She is a stylist and capsule-wardrobe expert. She teaches people how to pack well and always looks lovely on her own travels. 

Cathy said that the average woman takes eight pairs of shoes on a two-week holiday. Wow! Even I know that is excessive. I think she and I would agree that shoe choice is critical because shoes take up a lot of space, and the right pair of shoes can serve multiple purposes. 

For example, one of my favorite travel sandals are the Upena Sandal by OluKai, a Hawaii-based shoe company. (I’m wearing them in both photos above). I love them so much I have them in two colors. They have great arch support so are comfortable enough to walk around in all day, and pretty enough to wear in the evening with a skirt.

I think we can agree eight pairs of shoes is excessive 

I also wear them to the beach and don’t worry if they get a bit wet. They do the duty of three pairs of shoes: beach shoes, day sandals, evening sandals. When I went to Asia for 18 days last fall, they were one of three pairs I took, and I wore them the most.

A woman in a skirt, only her legs and feet are pictured; she's wearing slide style shoes from Rothy's
Wearing my Rothy's to Union Square Park
Susan Heinrich in the Lower East Side of Manhattan
Wearing my Rothy's to cocktails in NYC

The point is that you want shoes that do double or triple duty. I love my Rothy’s slide sandals for the same reason. They can go to the beach, look chic with a skirt and are comfy enough that I wore them walking all over New York City on a recent trip (photos above). They are also made of recycled material, so environmentally friendly.

The point is having shoes you can wear in many ways on your trip goes a long way to preventing overpacking; shoes take up a lot of space in your luggage, and are crucially important to your comfort. Spend the time getting the right shoes for your trip, so you can take as few as possible. And take fabric bags along for storing dirty shoes.

using packing cubes as portable drawers
Small packing cube for cords/headphones and a medium for socks and underwear

Pack Hack 7 - Packing Cubes

It’s interesting to me that two little words “packing cubes”  can divide people. I’ve had well-travelled friends scoff when I ask if they use them. The implication is if I need packing cubes, I am some sort of amateur. It’s as if I literally need fabric cubes to keep  my life together. 

If you haven’t ventured into the land of packing cubes, I suggest buying a few and trying them out.  I find the small and medium ones very versatile. On shorter trips, I’ll take a small cube for my charging cords and a medium cube for my underwear (photo above). 

If I am going all in on the cubes, which I usually do for a trip of a week or longer, I use a large cube for my tops, another for my bottoms and a third for single pieces such as dresses and jumpsuits. 

Even if I am settling in somewhere, I can leave some of my clothes in cubes which then function as little drawers. This is great in situations where you don’t have access to a dresser. 

clothes and travel items are laid out to be packed

Pack Hack 8 - Leave behind 1 in 5 items

If you are a chronic overpacker, I suggest that once you lay everything out, consider removing 1 of every 5 pieces you plan to take. If you can’t remove 20%, remove 10%. If you really don’t want to, remember that you will probably want to buy something and you need space for it. 

Or, if you are going to India, now is the time to imagine that poor guy with your giant suitcase on his head. The “leave behind” really works and is an alternative to the CapsulePlus method. I lay it all out and remove the items I love the least. And I’ve never wished I had them. Ok, I have, but that is inevitable. 

Plan a trip to India with a group tour. This is our G Adventures Group in Jodhpur, Rajasthan
On a group tour in India - we were packing and unpacking every two days

Pack Hack 9 - Pack for your Trip Type

How efficiently you pack and are able to keep your suitcase organized is much more important if you are on a two-week tour of Peru, than if you are going to a beach resort and only unpacking once.

The need to unpack and pack multiple times is one of the things I dislike about the pace of organized tours.  You will easily be staying at seven different hotels on a 14-day tour, as I did on a trip to India. I found it very hard to stay organized, and that trip was the reason I started using packing cubes. (I’ve also written a guide to choosing an organized tour: How to Select a Small Group Tour). 

So do yourself a favour: Pack in a way that you will be able to maintain throughout the trip. You don’t want to be cursing at the packing gods, while your friend is ordering another cappuccino. 

Hooray, we’re packed, and not overpacked, let’s go have fun.

I would love to hear your packing tips! Please share your “pack hacks” in the comments below. 

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Luggage by Monos

A Monos carry-on bag in a pretty hotel room in Los Angeles
My new Monos Carry-On bag at the Hotel Erwin in Los Angeles

One way I pack more efficiently is by using luggage that is really well designed. I just purchased a carry-on roller bag after extensive research. The brand is Vancouver-based Monos and I absolutely love it – it’s durable, well-designed, and well-priced. It comes in lots of lovely colors as well; I went with the terracotta but it was a tough choice.  The bag I bought is here: Monos, the Carry-On.

If you would like to learn more you can read my Monos Luggage Review.

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

Susan

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