Arts, Music & Culture Travel book club: How to Pack: Travel Smart for Any Trip

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

We all love travelling, but hate packing — and anyone who has ever puzzled over the contents of their luggage knows that the difficulty of it often goes far beyond the realm of the merely practical.

Not to sound melodramatic, but the yawning maw of a half-filled suitcase has occasionally reminded me of nothing less than the gaping existential chasm that threatens to overwhelm us all. With zipper teeth and a T-shirt tongue, it asks not just how many pairs of underpants we’ll need for a week away, but who we are, who we want to be and how we’d like the rest of the world to see us — big questions, especially when you have a flight to catch.

Seriously, though: why is packing so hard? We all love travelling, but hate packing — and anyone who has ever puzzled over the contents of their luggage knows that the difficulty of it often goes far beyond the realm of the merely practical. Though infrequently acknowledged as such, packing can be oddly emotional. It’s a First World problem, sure, but editing down your possessions for a spell away can be bound up with your anxieties and sense of self as much as the ins and outs of weather and activities. 

“You are what you pack was the first travel lesson I learnt,” writes Hitha Palepu in her new book How to Pack: Travel Smart for Any Trip. A New York businesswoman who mastered the art of packing via frequent work-related travel, Palepu has “always packed for the person I wanted to be”, whether it was as a teen moving from the US to London with a case full of fashionable clothes or a young woman trying — and sometimes failing — to project an image of competent professionalism.

Palepu astutely observes that “we often fear the unknown, and we use the items we pack as ‘security’”. She acknowledges the extent to which figuring out what to pack for her work trips boosted her confidence: “My suitcase shrank, my packing time decreased, and I became more confident in my role at work,” she writes. “I had figured out who I really wanted to be and how I could pack for achieving that.” 

As designer Diane von Furstenburg once put it, “when you figure out your suitcase, you figure out your life”. 

How to Pack, which is based on Palepu’s blog HithaOnTheGo.com, outlines four “packing personalities” to help under-performers identify our weaknesses. I am unequivocally what she calls an “anxious overpacker” — fearful of not having something I think I’ll need, telling myself I need options “even if the options are all similar to one another”, and taking checked luggage even on short trips. Indeed, so dedicated am I to the latter than I never miss a chance to dismiss carry-on-only travellers as irredeemably smug, even as I quietly envy them breezing past the anxious wait at the collection carousel. 

According to Palepu, I need a confidence boost. “You know what you need and you should feel empowered by ruthlessly editing your suitcase,” she writes. And though matters of personal empowerment — like existential dilemmas — are somewhat beyond the scope of even the best how-to-pack guide, Palepu’s book has solid tips on practicalities. There are tips on choosing the right luggage and accessories, keeping clothes clean on the go, what to wear on the plane and techniques for rolling and folding clothes in your suitcase. 

It remains to be seen whether following Palepu’s advice will transform me into one of those perfect packers that I simultaneously so admire and disdain. In the meantime, her book has packing lists for me to fill in, ample advice for me to absorb — and even a handy equation for knowing how much underwear to take.

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