People extol the virtues of a concise packing list, but after years of trying, our columnist is ready to throw in the towel (and five pairs of shoes, three hats, two cameras, binoculars, a travel steamer…).
Credit: 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.”

I guess that’s my excuse for bringing an entire wardrobe department’s worth of clothing on each trip, from swim trunks to yoga pants to poncho to cummerbund: as a travel reporter I typically shift places and purposes every other day. A single city might have scores of disparate milieus, each requiring a different ensemble. In London you could go from thrift-shopping in Shoreditch (plaid hipster shirt; skinny jeans) to a ramble on Hampstead Heath (Gore-Tex boots; Patagonia), from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Knightsbridge (Paul Smith suit and tie) to an underground dance club in Bermondsey (DayGlo tracksuit; baby rattle). How could anyone accomplish all that with just a carry-on?

Yes, overpacking is primarily about vanity. But it’s also about the pragmatism of blending in, with the hope that you might disappear into a place. Backpackers and business travelers have it easy: the former can wear the same batik pants for months; a businessman could pack one suit for a 10-city trip, merely rotating his shirt and tie. Even Tintin, the greatest traveler of all, crisscrossed the planet in just a polo and plus fours. But for today’s global nomad, different contexts mandate different personas, and more costume changes than a Beyoncé show.

Of course, clothing is only half the story. I also bring a hefty stack of guidebooks, maps, and phrase books; a dozen magazines; a notebook and sketch pad; a box of pens and pencils; a mini watercolor set (I know, I know); a travel steamer; three varieties of sunscreen; an oversize Dopp kit; and a gallon Ziploc full of pills (Chinese herbs, temazepam, vitamins, Clarinex, melatonin, Advil, fish oil, Xanax—I could go on but let’s not). Then there’s the mandatory tech packing list: dashboard-mounting GPS unit; two cameras (SLR for landscapes and Canon S90 for snapshots), including lenses, filters, and seven-inch tripod; noise-canceling headphones; digital voice recorder and lapel-clip mic for interviews; key-chain USB drive; MacBook; iPhone; iPad; iPod Nano for the gym; spare Motorola cell phone (for foreign SIM cards); high-powered binoculars; plus all the attendant chargers, batteries and battery packs, USB cables, mini-USB cables, Y-splitters, and foreign outlet adapters.

On paper, my packing list looks like overkill. But while I regret having to hoist half my body weight in luggage up the stairs of my brownstone every time I come home from a trip, I have never regretted any single item I packed. (Okay, except for the nine-pound voltage converter I once carted around for my electric razor.) I can, however, recount plenty of occasions where I’ve regretted not bringing something—like, say, a pair of wellies for a spring wedding in Ireland, or a bottle opener for a camping trip in Sonoma, or those noise-canceling headphones for an overnight Mexican bus ride.

All that said, I do envy my unencumbered fellow travelers, answering only to the whims of wanderlust. I see them sailing through airports, sashaying into hotel lobbies, hopping off trains like so many nimble bunny rabbits, and I think, That would be nice. I can’t answer to the whims of wanderlust, because I’m beholden to My Stuff, forever looking for a place to put it down. If only I could alight from the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, jump on the Métro, and breeze over to Le Comptoir in time for lunch, tucking my modest overnight bag discreetly under my chair. But no. For the overpacker, every relocation must be plotted like the invasion of Normandy; you need load-bearing vehicles, patience, a clear plan of attack. So I’m left schlepping three outsize bags to the taxi stand, joining the interminable line, paying 23 to ride a mile in traffic to my hotel, checking the bags at the bell desk, sprinting to the nearest Métro, and finally arriving at Le Comptoir only to be told, “Désolée, monsieur, lunch service is over.” At which point this whole “keeping my options open” concept has completely backfired.

So I’m making myself a deal. This weekend my wife and I are going to Montreal—a quick little jaunt, four days and three nights—and for the first time in my adult life, my packing list will be restricted to fit in just a carry-on.

Yeah, you heard me.

I’m leaving my binoculars, travel steamer, and snorkeling set behind, and will try to make do—maybe even have fun—with just my iPhone, a few essential toiletries, and exactly four outfits’ worth of clothes. I’ve resolved to follow the lead of my friend and T+L colleague Adam Sachs, whose travel motto is Underpack, overdress. I’ll wear my suit coat on the plane, and I’m taking only the shoes on my feet. (For guys, bringing a second pair of loafers is like packing two extra canoes.) I’ve already squeezed my liquids into three-ounce containers. I even dug through the back of my closet to find one of those Flight 001 compression bags for my shirts—turns out they really are quite ingenious. It all adds up to 15.9 pounds of overhead-bin-suitable hand luggage. I know this because I’ve already packed and weighed it.

I’m ready, willing, and quite possibly able. But if anyone can tell me where I can buy a good watercolor set in Montreal, I’m all ears.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.