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Ode to the Never-Ending Packing List

An overstuffed suitcase.

Photo: Dmitry Rukhlenko/123RF

I am a terrible packer. Fact: not once in my traveling life—whether for a two-week tour of Asia or a three-night trip to the countryside—have I ever packed just a carry-on. “Just a carry-on”? You must be insane. I can hardly keep my hand luggage to regulation size, let alone my checked bags. (And yes: it is almost always “checked bags,” plural.)

Fact: I have a problem. I’m speaking to you as someone who goes away for a living, who knows his way around the corridors of Chek Lap Kok airport, the back roads of Bahia, the subways of Moscow—yet who, after umpteen years and a minor fortune in excess-baggage fees, still can’t get his luggage below the airlines’ weight limit, not even for a weekend in South Beach, where no one wears clothes.

I’d like to say I was different in youth, carefree and light on my feet. But I was a terrible backpacker, too, just pathetic at the job. For a Eurail trip in college I basically stuffed my entire dorm room into three—count ’em: three—giant Eagle Creek duffel bags. None of the bags had wheels; for all my failures I was determined to stick to the spirit of backpacking, which seemed to be about Suspending One’s Belongings From One’s Person. And so with yards of strapping and considerable effort I secured all three bags to my body, front, rear, and side, until I resembled a lopsided bomb-squad technician, or a human battering ram. The simple act of entering a train compartment was like giving birth to myself. For eight weeks I endured the smirks of proper backpackers—not least the Aussies, those smug walkabouting bastards, roaming the earth for 18 months with just a three-quart knapsack on their lean shirtless backs.

I’ve known, ever since, the ignominy of the overpacker. The cruel judgment of the gate agent. The cabbie’s furrowed brow. The bellman’s weary sigh. The concerned glances of other, more streamlined travelers, whose profile of you is clear: Can’t keep it together. Lacks self-control. For a suitcase is never just a suitcase. It is an earthly manifestation of your full-to-bursting emotional baggage, a ballistic-nylon-coated box of shame.

Kinder people have tried to help me. They’ve suggested I lay out everything I plan to take one week before my trip, then gradually put two-thirds of it back. (Actual result: each day I remember three more things I left out, until by day seven I’ve added a whole other bag.) They’ve gifted me with organizer cubes, compression bags, and other purportedly ingenious “packing solutions.” (Actual result: yet more detritus for my already overwhelmed closet.) And, in delicate moments, they have ventured that perhaps, possibly, just thinking out loud here, a psychotherapist might have insight into my problem.

“I think there’s a deeper issue at play,” said mine when I asked. “Imagine you’re one of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, filling their sarcophagi with all their worldly possessions—except you’re dragging your sarcophagus through the airport. And why? Because, just like the pharaohs, you fear death!”

Well…duh. But I also fear being caught in Tegucigalpa without the charger for my electric toothbrush.

As far as I can determine, the DSM offers no official psychiatric explanation for overpacking, unless it’s just the mobile version of Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome. For me the simplest diagnosis is that, as much as I love traveling, I loathe leaving home. Unlike the hard-core globe-trotters of legend—Paul Theroux; Attila the Hun—I’m equally content in my cozy apartment, surrounded by my things, which to me are not “possessions” so much as “possibilities.” Having options makes me happy. Keeping those options open to me when I travel makes me happier still. What is travel if not a joyful surfeit of possibilities?

Apparently I am not alone. With airfares soaring and vacation days at a premium, travelers are now squeezing several experiences into a single trip. According to Fred Dust, of the trend-spotting consultancy Ideo, “People increasingly combine work with a quick change to leisure”—following up, say, a business conference with a family biking trip or a weekend at a dude ranch. “When you’re packing for multiple purposes and multiple destinations,” Dust says, “it’s almost impossible to travel light.”

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