I recently took my first trip in almost two years. My last travel experience had been in October 2019, when I went to Lake Tahoe (Nevada) to visit my family and celebrate my brother’s fiftieth birthday. My recent trip was also to Tahoe, this time for my nephew’s high school graduation. I was originally supposed to be gone for just five days, but I ended up staying an additional three days to help my mom with a few things. Since I was out of practice with traveling, I agonized over what to pack, especially in terms of my clothing.
Before I left for the trip, I spent my final pre-travel “sit in the chair” session writing about the difficulty I always experience when deciding upon which clothes, shoes, and accessories to pack for a trip. (I’m still writing for at least an hour a day, although I take one weekend day off now and didn’t write while I was away.) I originally planned to publish that essay prior to leaving for my vacation, but I ran out of time, so I’m sharing a slightly edited and polished version now.
Packing – The Struggle is Real…
I know many of you can probably relate to the difficulties I encounter with packing. While there are some people out there who seem to have packing “superpowers,” that’s definitely not me! I’m notorious for overpacking and often packing the wrong things. I’ve improved over the years, but I believe that packing is a “muscle” that can atrophy when it isn’t being used. Because travel was placed on the backburner for most of 2020 and the first half of 2021 (for pretty much all of us), I’m having to rebuild that underused muscle now. And let’s face it… I wasn’t exactly using my packing muscle all that much before the pandemic anyway, so I still have lots of room to learn and grow in that arena.
In my next post (which will go live in a few days), I’ll debrief how I did with packing for my recent Tahoe trip, but for now I invite you to read the thoughts I had as I was preparing to leave. I’m putting these musings out there for the same reason that I share much of what I post here: to let those who are struggling know that they’re not alone. If packing is something you dread on a very deep level, I’m right there with you!
Other than leaving my kitties behind (and this time, my husband as well), packing is my least favorite part of traveling, even ranking below navigating crowded airports and being squeezed into an airplane like a sardine. It’s a necessary evil, though, and despite some “hiccups” along the way, it usually works out okay. At the end of this post, I’ll reveal a few of my packing mishaps, but first, here’s what I was thinking on the eve of my Tahoe trip.
Pre-Travel Thoughts – Late June, 2021
I leave tomorrow for my Tahoe trip and I’ve already spent hours trying to figure out what to pack. I’ve been to Tahoe many, many times, and I even used to live there for a year and a half before moving to San Diego nineteen years ago. However, it doesn’t really matter how familiar I am with the place I’ll be visiting; I always seem to struggle tremendously with packing.
It doesn’t help that June weather in Tahoe can still be variable, and I’m also out of practice with getting dressed in out-and-about outfits, especially for warmer weather (we’ve still have “June gloom” in San Diego). Whereas I used to put together out of the house ensembles three or four times each week, it’s been much less often over the past fifteen months due to the pandemic and “sheltering in place.” I’ve grown even more accustomed than usual to wearing mostly loungewear, and I’m not at all certain which clothes I enjoy wearing enough to take with me on my trip.
When I have places to go at home, I usually manage to put together outfits that I’m at least reasonably happy with, but I have my entire closet to work with in those instances. When I travel, I’m always so nervous that I’ll pack the wrong clothes, end up hating what I’m wearing, and enjoy my trip far less as a result. For travel and at home, I want to be able to get dressed, feel good in what I’m wearing, and basically forget about my outfit and get on with the activities of my day. I’m not always successful in this pursuit, but I stand a much better chance when I have the option of trying on a number of pieces before settling on my look for the day. When I travel, I’m working from a small capsule wardrobe, so there’s a lot more hinging upon my making good choices for each individual piece.
Which Black Pants?
As one example, I’m not sure which pair of black pants to pack, and if I should perhaps take two pairs instead of just one. The same is true for my black toppers and black shoes. I always wear a lot of black, but I rely on it even more so when I travel because it pairs well with pretty much everything. But because I wear so much black, I own a lot of black pieces, including multiple choices in many wardrobe categories.
I agonize over which pieces to pack in general, and since I haven’t been wearing most of them very often for many months, I don’t have as much information available to help me make the best choices. I can’t remember which items are comfortable, which may be “fussy,” and which have me feeling most confident. I struggle a lot with confidence and body image issues, so there’s a lot hinging upon my clothing selections.
Another issue I have is that I almost always overpack, mostly because I’m a “mood dresser” and like to have as many choices as possible. But I also worry about potential weather changes (it can snow in Tahoe virtually any month) and uncertain activities. I like to be prepared for anything that may occur, but I also know that’s not really possible. I always keep an eye on the weather forecast leading up to my travels, and I also consider the types of activities I see myself doing, but I can’t be completely certain about either of these variables before I leave my home.
Contributing Factors to Packing Stress
I can’t help but think that this would all be much easier if I had a smaller wardrobe. I would at least have fewer possibilities to consider and it would be less overwhelming. I cursed my moderate to large-sized wardrobe multiple times over the past few days, but I also cursed my body and the fact that it doesn’t look the way it used to. It used to be so much easier for me to get dressed back when I was slimmer, firmer, and younger. I used to like the way I looked in clothes so much more than I do now.
Yes, I’ve struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember, but it mostly hasn’t been as bad as it is now. I never used to worry about the way my arms looked; that was a part of my body that I was happy about and liked to show off. Whereas it was previously just my lower half that I fretted about and endeavored to hide, it’s now pretty much my entire body that I’m self-conscious about. That makes the whole getting dressed and packing for travel proposition that much harder.
It Will Be Okay…
I know that I’ll figure it out, and I also know that it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t make the absolute perfect packing choices. I’ll have clothes to put on my body that will work for my activities, and I can even repeat outfits if necessary. I know the people I’ll be with don’t care all the much what I’ll be wearing, and they likely won’t even notice my outfits. Even if they do, they probably won’t remember what I was wearing by the next day. I often remember other people’s outfits, but most people aren’t as obsessed and concerned about clothing as I am. It’s kind of my “thing,” and other people have their own things that I likely don’t pay much attention to.
My rational mind knows that it will be okay and will all work out fine. That part of my mind is happy that I’m taking packing seriously, as we all tend to fare better when we plan for things. I’m probably overdoing it, but that’s better than the alternative in this situation. I remember years ago when my husband challenged me to pack for a trip in fifteen minutes and offered to pay me $100 if I could do it. I had given the whole thing some thought prior to accepting the challenge, but I actually rose to the occasion and earned the reward. My packing for that particular trip wasn’t exactly stellar, but I was able to dress myself decently while I was away, and I was also able to enjoy my time with my friends (I had taken that trip with one friend to visit another friend). The world didn’t end because I may have forgotten a few things or packed a less-ideal pair of black pants.
Past Packing Mishaps
The above were my thoughts prior to my recent Tahoe trip, but I promised I’d end this post with a few past stories of packing mishaps. Believe it or not, I actually had two occasions when I forgot to pack underwear when going away! Both of those trips were to Tahoe, which made the situation more challenging than it might have been if I had journeyed to a metropolitan area.
While there are a few boutiques in the small town (Incline Village) where my family lives, the nearest mall is about twenty-five miles away over a winding mountain pass. So, it wasn’t exactly simple for me to pick up a few pairs of underwear at the store. Fortunately, the Tahoe air is very dry, so I was able to wash my one pair of underwear in the sink each night and they were dry and ready for me to wear in the morning. I couldn’t believe that I forgot to pack underwear a second time just a few years later! Why didn’t I learn my lesson the first time around? I guess I devoted so much attention to selecting my other garments for those trips that I let my undergarments be an afterthought… So far, I haven’t made this grave error a third time – and hopefully I never will.
Another big packing mishap I had was when my husband and I took an Alaskan cruise in 2005. In that instance, I didn’t dedicate enough time to planning which clothes to pack, so I ended up packing probably half of my wardrobe! I was stymied by the fact that cruises include a wide array of occasions to dress for, such as formal dining evenings, shore excursions, and various on-board activities. I was lucky that my husband and I flew to Seattle, where the cruise embarked from, in a small plane (my husband has a private pilot’s license and is part of a flying club), so I wasn’t beholden to standard luggage weight limitations. But it was pretty ridiculous how much I packed for that trip, especially when compared to my husband’s more minimal and sensible travel wardrobe.
The last mishap I’ll share today goes back almost twenty years ago, when my husband and I took a belated honeymoon to New Zealand. We got married on July 4th, 2001 (yes, we celebrated twenty years of wedded bliss two days ago!), but we delayed our honeymoon until February so we could experience New Zealand during their summer season. What we didn’t realize was that summer in the land of the Kiwis isn’t as warm as it is in California. We ended up needing to purchase warmer clothing during our travels, as our shorts, t-shirts, and sandals didn’t provide the insulation we needed in many parts of the country.
Don’t get me wrong… I loved our time in New Zealand, and I still consider it my favorite place I’ve ever visited. But I wouldn’t call it a warm place, at least not that year. Much of what I packed for that trip wasn’t worn much, but we had to lug it all around the country for a full month! Yes, I have some photos of me wearing shorts and t-shirts on my honeymoon, but there are just as many pictures of me bundled up in warmer clothing.
New Zealand Memories
Just for fun, here are a few photos of me (and one with my husband) in New Zealand back in February 2002. I highly recommend visiting New Zealand (post-pandemic, of course), and I hope to make it back there again someday myself. I have many, many fond memories of the month my husband and I spent in that gorgeous country (shout-out to my Kiwi readers!).
I hope you enjoyed reading my pre-travel thoughts, and I hope my past travel mishaps made you smile or chuckle. I also hope you liked seeing a few photos from my New Zealand honeymoon. It was fun looking back through those images almost twenty years later!
I’ll be back shortly with a recap of my packing for my recent Tahoe trip. I’ll share what I packed and how well it served my travel needs. In the meantime, if you want to chime in with some of your own travel mishaps or offer a packing tip or two, you’re welcome to do so. Feel free to also share your packing challenges and/or commiserate with my experience. If you have a trip coming up, good luck with your packing! I know that it can be frustrating and challenging, but if I can make it through two trips without extra underwear, I’m sure you’ll be fine.
22 thoughts on “Why Does Packing for Travel Have to Be So Hard?”
Happy Anniversary to you both.
I’m glad and a tad sad that I’m not the only person who frets so much about packing. So much so that I delay doin it until hours before I’m leaving and then overpack in my haste.
Lifting the luggage requires Herculean strength.
It also means I loose sleep pre trip.
Once returning home from a trip I was charged €80 euros excess baggage.
When I arrived home and unpacked the additional cause of the weight was a large bottled water I’d hastily packed.
I made sure I drank that expensive water.
I’ve forgotten underwear once.
I forgot all my swimwear for a week long beach holiday.
Once I had so much stuff I left a bag containing all my toiletries, make up & hair products at the airport and only collected it again on my return flight home.
I used to have to sleep away from home as part of work duties and instead of an overnight bag I’d end up with 2 or 3. As well as clothes I’d pack toiletries, bedding, food.
I like the idea of having a packing muscle and working on it.
Practicing editing my choices, preparing enough time to pack leisurely for my trip. Packing adequately. It sounds much more relaxing to me.
Good to see you commenting here, Rizzle, and thanks for sharing your packing mishaps. I get what you said about being both glad and sad that you’re not the only one who frets a lot about packing. I chuckled a few times reading your comment 🙂 When I look back on my various packing mistakes, I realize that despite it all, I usually enjoyed my travels, even if I forgot something really important (like underwear or swimwear for a beach vacation). But I think those who have a more developed “packing muscle” probably experience much less stress, so I’m going to keep working on it…
I’m on a five day vacation in Maine right now and I packed TERRIBLY! Two pairs of too-tight jeans and some workout leggings that aren’t comfortable as loungewear. I’ve traveled a lot throughout my life- and it’s still so hard!
I’m sorry to hear that you packed poorly for your current vacation, Emily, but I hope you’re still managing to enjoy yourself. It was years ago that I went to Maine, but I remember it being beautiful there. Wishing you a relaxing and fun remainder of your time there.
Such a good topic … I hate packing too. In the past, I have packed too early and ended up undoing all my careful work looking for that special cardigan I wanted to wear the next day or rifling through everything to check if I remembered to pack my address book or not. I have also packed too late, got incredibly stressed, and ended up taking too many things I never wore. Once, I spent a week in winter with a well-dressed family while I had only the clothes on my back because my bag got left on the bed. … But I have improved. I used a suitcase app to make a list of everything I might ever need to take away with me: from matches, BBQ, tent pegs and torch to snow boots, bathers, international driver’s licence and cocktail dress. I go through every item on that list for every trip. Camping supplies get checked off as they go in the car, toiletry items as they go in the toilet bag, and underware as they go in their packing cube. I lay out all my clothes and accessories on the bed and try them all on! I remove unnecessary multiples and anything I could not bear to lose (treasured earrings, perhaps). With my packing list, I’ve managed 6-week trips around Europe in a camper, 5-week trips around the world with a carry on backpack, and 1-week conferences requiring fancy clothes and electronic devices. Packing is still not my favourite pastime but at least now, I feel like I can be ready for anything.
Thanks for sharing the good, bad, and ugly of your packing experiences, Sue. It must have been challenging to be on a weeklong vacation without your bag! The suitcase app sounds very intriguing. If you see this comment, please share the name of it so that I (and others) can check it out. It seems like you’re a packing pro these days – good for you!
I certainly don’t recommend forgetting your bag! … I looked for the app I made my packing list from – My Suitcase, I think it was called – but it appears to have gone. I purposely chose a free and simple app that allowed me to download, share and print my list so that I would not lose my data (I still have my list in Word, so I am very happy about that!) I highly recommend anyone using a packing app to check that they have this feature. If I were to try a new (Android) app, I see that PackPoint comes highly recommended. I just downloaded it. Looks looks like fun and appears to be quite functional.
Thanks for your reply, Sue, and for the app recommendation. I will check out PackPoint and see what I think. My Suitcase sounds like it served you well, and it’s good that you were able to download your list so you didn’t lose your data when the app went away. Hopefully I can use PackPoint for my next trip and use it to build packing lists for my travels to Tahoe and other places.
Oh, this is timely!
I’m already thinking about what to bring for an upcoming short trip to Northern Calif.
I hope you enjoy your trip, Chris! I spent over 30 years of my life in Northern California (SF Bay Area) and I love it there. I’m glad this post was timely and I wish you the best with your packing!
Well, I think you have hit on a topic that is familiar to many of us. I am laughing as I think of the trip we just took to Breckenridge, CO for a small, family wedding. I used to travel A LOT with kids tournaments, dance competitions, hubby’s military years, etc… BUT, I didn’t realize how out of practice I was at packing. This recent trip was the first flight in a long time. I kept remembering things at the last minute, toothbrush, hairbrush, etc.. so I kind of threw some extra things in at the last minute. I had initially made piles and when it came time to put everything in the suitcases, I thought – this is nuts so I ended up picking a color (blue) as my main color and mixing/matching things to go with that. I had one long pair of jeans, 1 capri, 1 skort and two pairs of shorts. Tops had to match with the color scheme. One of my big issues is the number of shoes I bring. I kept pulling pairs out and then thinking, too many…so I picked two pairs that would match with everything in my travel wardrobe. Also brought a pair of sneakers and pair of hiking boots but still ended up throwing in an extra pair of sandals, ha, ha… If we travel by car, I will have a small tote just with all my shoes! The weather was something I had to anticipate. We knew up in the mountains, might be cooler but CO had record breaking heat for two days (99-100 degrees) so lighter and cooler was definitely the best choice. I brought some lightweight cardigans that could be rolled up but that matched (I think one was a shade of blue and one was cream). My carry on had my wedding outfit, shoes and accessories with one change of clothing in case luggage got lost. Overall, I think I was pretty on target. The jeans and sweatshirt on the bottom of the suitcase never got used…but sometimes you just don’t know what the weather could change to. My other issue is that I will pack books/magazines that I end up hardly ever touching but what if…. I was making welcome baskets for the five rooms at the house so I had packed half of one suitcase just with those items. I stopped at a Walmart once we got there to get drinks and chocolates but ironically, I still had full suitcases on the way back even after disbursing all these items. The airport was the worst part of it for me. Denver airport was a zoo and Pgh airport had delays and other issues. It was a wonderful week and great trip but I was so glad to get back in my house. I told my husband no more traveling (yet)….until the next trip.
It sounds like you did quite well with your packing, Susan, despite the stress surrounding it. Choosing a primary color scheme helps a lot, but I can relate to your struggles around shoes (you’ll read about that in my next post). Great thinking to include your wedding outfit and a change of clothing in your carry-on. When my mom was helping me pack to return home, she told me to put my medication and jewelry in my carry-on bag, which I plan to continue doing. I think I’ll also follow your lead in packing a change of clothes. There was only one time when my bag didn’t arrive right away, but it was delivered to me later that same evening. One time when my mom came to visit, her bag didn’t arrive until the next day and we had to scramble a bit to make sure she had what she needed until that time.
I rarely read the books and magazines that I pack, either, as I’m usually too busy being out and about and visiting with others. I don’t pack as many such items, but I still include a few options. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip! I’m always glad to get home, too. I was surprised at how crowded the San Diego airport was. I guess people are fully back into traveling now.
Happy anniversary, and what a wonderful trip that must have been! I would dearly love to go to New Zealand but I’m not sure that a 20+ hour flight is something I can do at this stage of my life.
I did have one memorable packing error – for my first trip to Hawaii I spent weeks putting together dressy outfits with matching shoes (possibly thinking of the French Riviera? 😂) and ended up taking two large suitcases. This was way back when travel was easy, you got actual meals on planes, and you could bring any amount of luggage. When I got there and unpacked I discovered that I had not packed any swimsuits. This was quickly remedied at a mall in Kahului, but as you might imagine, the price of a swimsuit in Hawaii was at least three times what I had paid for any of the ones I forgot to bring with me.
For the last 20 years my only trips have been to Northern CA. Having lived there for half my life, I am well acquainted with the climate: cold almost all the time except when it’s not, and then it is sweltering. It’s funny that I never noticed the humidity while growing up there, but now that I’ve lived in the desert for decades, I can really feel the effect of all that water in the Bay Area. Anyway my packing is down to a science and in fact I just keep a bag packed all the time. Since I only ever see family and am usually engaged in cleaning, gardening, or repairing things, I don’t worry about not having the right thing to wear. Apparently I don’t differentiate between out-and-about and at-home on these trips, probably because I would not subject my family to the sight of me in shorts or sweatpants. In any case my suitcase currently has two pairs of jeans, four tops, a pair of athletic shoes, a jacket, and a week’s worth of underthings. The one thing I have added recently is a pair of slippers as I found that this makes a huge difference in my comfort during a stay away from home.
I look forward to your post-Tahoe packing assessment. I expect you were well prepared as the weather has been absolutely gorgeous there over the last few weeks.
Yes, the flight to New Zealand was pretty major, Katrina, especially since I’m unable to sleep on planes. Being on a plane for that long was much easier to do at age 35 than it would likely be now. I remember well when traveling was much easier, with unlimited luggage allowances, meals on planes, and fewer security issues. Those were the good old days! It’s great that you do well packing for your trips to Northern California. I should do much better packing for Tahoe since I’ve been there so many times, but the weather is definitely more variable there. Good idea to keep a bag packed all the time if you travel to the same place frequently (and making sure there are always underthings in there is another brilliant idea!). I like to have slippers with me when I travel, too. My Tahoe packing debrief will go live tomorrow or Saturday. Yes, the weather was gorgeous there and warmer than the weatherman had predicted, which made things a bit more challenging for me but not too bad.
My organized sister-in-law has lists for each of their destination categories. I do not, but I usually have what I need, but I so admire and want to take up her strategy. Often I just put almost everything I own into the suitcase. If an airplane is involved it is harder because we like to use only carry-ons. I found your article amusing and so human, Debbie! Thank you.
I wish I were as organized as your sister, Gail! I’m sure it’s MUCH easier to pack when one has a very small wardrobe like you do, though. I’m glad you enjoyed this article and found it amusing.
I created a master packing list that I go through for each trip. It includes special activities as well (formal wear, ski wear, hiking, swimming). Forces me to at least address and exclude each item and/or activity.
I start my packing with shoes and try to limit to 3 pair: hiking shoes or sneakers for all day hiking or walking (wear these on plane), nice comfortable flats (usually my Rothys), and pumps or heeled sandals for evening. I may add sandals as well if it’s a warm weather trip.
I pack outfits for any specific activity (ie wedding, formal dinner) and the rest of the clothes are on a sliding scale of things for cold to warm/hot weather, and casual to more formal wear. Often adding a nice jacket or heels can take an outfit up a notch.
We always do carryon only (and mine is an 18 inch bag). Carryon has saved a number of trips: we’re out of the airport quickly and can switch flights or jump on an earlier plane if possible.
You sound SO organized, Pam! I like that your list includes special activities and what to include for those. I always start with my shoes as well, as you’ll see in my follow-on post. I’ve never tried Rothy’s, but I’ve heard good things. I’m always impressed by those who are able to pack effectively using only a carry-on bag. Maybe if I traveled more often, I might get to that point, but for now, I’m happy if I don’t have to pay the extra weight charge for my bag. My bag by itself is already quite heavy. It’s from a much earlier time and probably should be replaced, but since I travel fairly infrequently, I keep using it. Thanks so much for sharing your tips!
When I did a lot of solo travel, this is how I packed https://abrightspot.blog/2019/01/26/travelling-with-hand-luggage-only/
It took a while to get this brave and admittedly by the end of my trips I would be ready to have a change of clothing but the relief of not having to worry about my luggage was well worth it. I find layering works well for overseas travelling and felt dressed well enough for, say dinners out, but didn’t have anything for a fancy event. It has taken a while but my small wardrobe is pretty much organised so most things go together and everything is comfortable.
Thanks for weighing in and sharing your blog post! I’m impressed by how light you were able to travel, especially how few tops you packed. I can imagine that if one already has a small and cohesive wardrobe, packing is much easier, as one knows how well everything works together. I like what you wrote at the end of your post about “what ifs” being based on fear. “Just in case” is what often leads us to overpack, as well as just not traveling very often and not having worked it all out. I think that if I traveled more often, packing would definitely become easier to do. I bookmarked your post for future reference.
I keep a “pack list” under notes on my phone. As I prepare for a trip, I copy and past that note and give it the name of my destination. I delete what I’ve packed as I go. Of course, items such as pants, shoes, tops require a great deal more thought than something like mascara… For those more complicated items, I check the weather, consider what we’ll be doing and go from there. Usually one pair of pants per two tops.
I’m going to start keeping track of what I actually wear and use for future trips that I take repetitively. I’ve also recently received a tip that I thought I’d try–to focus on comfortable shoes first and build from there.
Once we adopted our beloved mutt, we began driving to our destinations, I’m less limited in what I pack. Still, I do try to be efficient and consider myself very organized. Yet, last year, on a weekend trip to one of my favorite cities on Lake Michigan, I discovered I’d left my undies on the dresser at home! Fortunately, my husband had brought extra…
Great idea to keep a pack list on your phone, Jenn! I love your process and I will keep it in mind. I still tend to be “old school” and write out my lists by hand, but then I have to re-create them the next time around. I like your ratio of one pair of pants per two tops. On my last trip, I think I did more like 1:3, but I found myself wishing I had packed another pair of pants (or at least a DIFFERENT pair, as two pairs of black pants felt limiting). Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not alone in forgetting to pack underwear. I never thought about wearing my husband’s underwear, but that could work, especially if the style is basic (and even if not when one is in a pinch).
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