Packing It In

One of the reasons we’re going away for a year is to learn to live more simply, with less stuff. I’m in the process of dealing with our stuff — that is, deciding what to bring and how to carry it, and what to leave behind and where to store it — and discovering why packing is so complicated: It forces one to take stock of one’s life. Past, present and future collide while standing before an open closet. Each piece of stuff stirs memories from when it was acquired and the feelings attached, while questioning whether we need it triggers deliberations about priorities and daydreams about where we may go.

Every day I try to pack a little and end up making a mess. Take the bathroom cabinet, for example.

On it rests a first aid and toiletry checklist, divided into columns of items we’ll need every day and things we’ll need only in case of illness, and further subdivided into items for  individual family members. The deep cabinet holds junk to throw away (e.g. smeared Halloween makeup, sticky cough syrup bottles with a quarter-inch of liquid, absurdly thick and long pads sent home from the hospital after childbirth). But what about all those lotions and cosmetics — what will I really need? Moisturizer and bug spray for Colorado camping, a certain hair clip and lipstick for Barcelona … should we take ibuprofen and acetaminophen, both the adult and pediatric kinds?  What about the unopened ipecac purchased when the kids were babies? They managed to avoid accidental poisoning during the past decade, but who’s to say they won’t eat a bad berry when we’re in the boonies of Patagonia, and then what would I do? The mind flirts with worst-case scenarios — from swine flu to chopped-off fingers and snakebites — and pretty soon I’m sitting on the toilet, bent forward and clutching my stomach while further puzzling all the possibilities revealed by the half-emptied cabinet drawers, until I exit the bathroom and vow to deal with it later.

At times like that, it helps to have a guide. I have discovered several and want to recommend a couple here (more recommendations to come in future postings):, “The Art and Science of Traveling Light” — my twentysomething nephew who recently trekked around India and China turned me onto this site. It’s built around the belief that you can go anywhere, for an indefinite amount of time, with a single carry-on bag — a philosophy more suited to solo travelers than families with young children, but extremely useful and inspirational nonetheless. Thanks to this site, we have downsized the number and changed the type of bags we plan to take.

We used to pull along two big rectangular bags on wheels — one for Morgan and me, a slightly smaller one for the kids — plus a third duffle loaded with shoes and bulky items. The 28-inch Tumi Alpha that Morgan and I shared retails for $950 and weighs 16 pounds empty. Often we would end up lugging the thing over stairs and curbs rather than wheeling it, and then paying an oversize-bag fee because it’s so heavy. After spending time on and realizing how much weight a wheel frame adds to luggage, we decided to use smaller convertible packs. We also decided each child should be responsible for his or her own bag and therefore be able to carry it.

Morgan and I each bought one of these Osprey Porter 65 convertible packs (click on link to purchase). We're limiting the clothing we bring abroad to what we can carry on our backs.

After a lot of research and a trip to to REI, we settled on four from Osprey — two Porter 65s for Morgan and me, a smaller Porter 46 for Colly and a Sojourn 40 for Kyle (a small pack with wheels — he’s still too small to carry a pack of significant size). My new Osprey Porter weighs 3 lbs., 5 oz., costs $129, is small enough for carry-on and converts to a backpack. We’ll check all four of our packs while flying because we need to carry on these five other bags: a small suitcase that will hold school supplies, technical equipment, toiletries and Morgan’s laptop; my daypack that doubles as a purse and holds my laptop; Morgan’s daypack with his camera; and a small pack for each kid.

So, it comes down to this: We are challenging ourselves to fit all our stuff for nearly a year into just 4 packs, 1 carry-on-sized suitcase and 4 daypacks. (The first leg of our trip we’ll bring more stuff, since we’re driving to Colorado and taking along gear for camping, extra grubby clothes and the dog — but we had to think ahead to pare down for going abroad in early October.)

An essential guide for a year away (click to view on Amazon).

The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide to Living Abroad with Your Family by Elisa Bernick (The Intrepid Traveler, 2007) — I read this book cover to cover and marked many pages with Post-Its for easy reference. Her checklists are essential and her low-budget but highly fulfilling lifestyle is inspirational. All four of us took her advice to list the “three most important things” we would want with us while traveling — those comfort items and quirky things we wouldn’t want to do without. The exercise made us realize how little beyond money, plane tickets, passports and some medicine we really need. (It also made me realize we sound like an ad for Apple, which we don’t mean to be!)

Morgan’s three things: Iphone (which has an app that lets him read books loaded onto his Kindle), camera and running shoes.

Colly’s three things: Ipod, sketchpad with pencil (if Morgan can count his IPhone with Kindle as one, she can count the paper plus pencil as one!) and her favorite red Fred T-shirt.

Kyle’s three things: Ipod, sketchpad with pencil, and a small assortment of Star Wars Legos.

And mine: MacBook laptop, running shoes and my running log. The last item doubles as a diary; it’s a small calendar in booklet form I buy annually and have kept since 1994. Each day I jot down a sentence or two not only about miles run but also about mood, weather and whereabouts. Thumbing through past years and making an entry each day is my way of staying grounded and keeping track of how far I’ve come. It’s my life in shorthand, and I know I’ll want to preserve the 2009-10 editions.

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