I used to be a stereotypically over-packed American tourist.
I was convinced I needed a huge suitcase AND a roll-along to carry everything I needed for a two-week vacation.
And what I thought I needed — well that’s another story! Call me Ms Overkill, but I would pack for every contingency known to man, and then some.
(Remind me to tell you of the time I packed a heavy winter coat to visit Colombia in the summertime. That’s right…THAT Colombia. In South America. On the Equator. Or, on second thought, don’t ask. It was too embarrassing!)
If that wasn’t enough luggage, I also used to bring an empty suitcase or duffel for the souvenirs I planned to pick up during my travels.
And please don’t get my husband started on my carry-on. Yes, I was one of those people we all love to hate…the one who thought she couldn’t survive eight hours on an airplane without a carry-on that was only moderately smaller than her suitcase.
Everything changed in January, 2008. I was sitting at my desk, trying to decide what to do with some money I’d gotten for Christmas. The giver had suggested that I use it for the month-long trip to Ireland I was planning for June.
“Maybe some new luggage or something like that,” she’d suggested.
All of a sudden, just as I was sitting there staring at my computer, a vision flashed in front of my eyes: Me, staggering around Ireland, getting on and off of buses, walking blocks and blocks through Dublin, loaded down like a donkey with a very cruel master.
(Not to mention sending a message to every pickpocket in Dublin and Galway: “Here I am! Overloaded American tourist at your service! Come take my money!”)
I got up from my desk, went downstairs where my husband was watching TV, and announced “I know what I’m going to do with my Christmas money! I’m going to buy a backpack!”
He looked at me a bit dubiously and said “OK…”. I must admit, at 40-something and pudgy, I didn’t exactly fit the image of the athletic young college student backpacking around Europe.
After talking about it, though, we both agreed that I’d have a much better time if I could discipline myself to get by with what I could carry in a backpack and a small carry-on (my husband didn’t exactly SAY “it’ll be good for you,” but he definitely had that look in his eye…the look of the man who’s been that overladen donkey a time or two!)
Adventures in travel shopping
The very next weekend saw me at the REI in San Jose, in the capable hands of one of those athletic young college students who also happened to be a whiz at helping people choose the perfect backpack.
After an hour or so of trudging all over the store, upstairs and downstairs, carrying pack after pack filled with sandbags, I put on one last pack and suddenly it all clicked.
My new treasure was a light blue Gregory “Deva” that fit as if it had been custom-made for me and rode as lightly as a feather, even heavily laden with sandbags.
If you’re thinking of buying a backpack, I can’t recommend this process highly enough. You’d be amazed at how different packs can be. One that your friend “just loved!” can be excruciating for you to wear. Go to a reputable sporting goods store and put yourself in the hands of someone who knows how to help you choose the perfect pack.
On my athletic young friend’s advice, I also bought a duffel (which folded to about the size of a map) to keep my new pack from being shredded by airport baggage conveyors and a rain cover to keep my stuff from being soaked should I get caught in a sudden rainstorm (yes, Virginia, it does rain in Ireland!)
Our next stop was our local travel store, where I hoped to find a replacement for my oversized carry-on. I left about 20 minutes later with a Baggallini messenger “bagg” that would hold everything I absolutely needed on the plane (and absolutely nothing else) and would fit under the seat.
My new obsession
Now that I’d put strict limitations on the size of my luggage, I became obsessed with packing light.
Aside from my own comfort, I wanted to make sure that I would have plenty of room in the backpack for all the books and CDs I planned to buy in Ireland.
Shipping books from Ireland to the U.S. is expensive. Since I was going to be there anyway, I figured I’d save shipping costs and just bring whatever I wanted back with me. I decided that I needed to leave at least half of my backpack empty to accommodate all the goodies I planned to bring home with me.
I spent the next several months haunting travel sites and blogs, learning everything I could about how to travel light without sacrificing comfort. In the end, I left for Ireland that June with the smallest (and most portable) amount of luggage I’ve ever taken anywhere, and I had an absolute blast!
I even had plenty of room in that backpack to bring home all the books and CDs I wanted, as well as a great Aran jumper (sweater) and a few souvenirs for the family.
More important, I became a confirmed “pack-light” aficianado.
I’m about to set off for my second trip to Ireland. The Gregory and the Baggallini are already sitting in my bedroom while I plot just what, exactly, I absolutely need to take with me THIS time!
Wanna pack like Audrey?
Here’s my packing list for my trip to Ireland in 2008. This year’s packing list has yet to be finalized, but will look similar:
In the half-full backpack:
- Two pairs of hiking pants. If you haven’t discovered these yet, you need to. More comfy and durable than jeans, these wrinkle- and stain-resistant pants are incredibly lightweight and breathable; pack down small; protect from rain, wind, and sun; look great; and, in the unlikely event that you encounter a hot day, convert to shorts. They also wash well in the sink. What’s not to like?
- Three thin, light, short-sleeved, cotton shirts. The goal was to have things that were as comfortable as T-shirts, but that would look a bit nicer, would pack down to a small size, and would be easily washable in the sink.
- One long-sleeved shirt. Just in case we had a cold day or two.
- One pair of pajamas. I was going to be sharing rooms with other people, some of them strangers. These were necessary.
- Six pairs of the thinnest, lightest, “footie” socks I could find.
- Six pairs of the thinnest, lightest, underpants I could find.
- A spare bra.
- A six-pack of AA batteries (For my camera, flashlight, and alarm clock. These are expensive in Ireland, so worth carrying with you).
- A small “Mag Light” flashlight (power outages happen)
- A small, battery-operated, travel alarm clock.
- A lightweight, collapsible, walking stick from REI.
- A microfiber travel towel (These are really wonderful! They fold down to nothing, dry incredibly quickly, and won’t mildew!)
- A clothes-washing kit (This included a drain stopper, a clothes line, and several sachets of laundry soap meant for washing clothes by hand).
- A bottle of Benedryl (I’m allergic to the world, and you can’t buy “sleepy Benedryl” over the counter in Ireland).
- Small, trial/travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner (You can buy this stuff easily in Ireland, so there’s no need to carry more than you’ll need for the first couple of days).
- A small travel hair dryer that converted to European current at the flip of a switch (I had long hair back then!)
- A three-prong outlet adapter.
- A spare pair of glasses.
In my carry-on:
- An REI raincoat that fit into a 4″ stuff sack.
- A foldable brimmed hat (I hate umbrellas, and rely on brimmed hats to keep the rain off my glasses).
- An inflatable neck pillow.
- ONE book.
- A pair of compression socks (I’m a prime candidate for DVT, but these socks are hot to wear for just running around the airport, so I carried them)
- A notebook and pen.
- My camera.
- My cell phone.
- Another bottle of Benedryl, as well as my few prescription medications.
- My TSA liquids bag, filled with small sample sizes of deoderant, mouthwash, toothpaste and hand lotion and a small travel toothbrush.
- My passport, boarding pass, and checked luggage tag
On my person:
- One pair of really comfy walking shoes.
- One pair of those thin “footie” socks for running around the airport in (and the corresponding underwear, of course!).
- One pair of those great hiking pants (with a few Euro in the pockets)
- One of those thin cotton, easily washable, short-sleeved shirts.
- My regular glasses.
- A light Polar Fleece pullover (I get cold on airplanes)
- An under-clothes money belt containing my cash, credit/debit cards, U.S driver license, insurance ID card, an index card with necessary phone numbers, and another index card with “in case of emergency, please contact” information.
Not much, for a month!
This may not seem like much, but I was comfortable and happy for an entire month in Ireland! I washed my clothes, when needed, in the nearest sink and dried them on the line or over a radiator.
I looked just fine, and felt comfortable wherever I went.
Most important, I was easily able to carry my own luggage, with no strain whatsoever, wherever I wanted to go. AND I had plenty of room left over for those books and souvenirs!
Do you enjoy packing light?
Please share your travel tips below!