You know the scenario:  you’ve arrived at your destination, and are perhaps a day or two into your trip, and come to the realization that you’ve brought way too much clothing.

How does this happen?

There are several ways: perhaps we get a bit careless, or worry about running out of clothes, or just fall prey to sloppy thinking.  Whatever the reason, the end result is the same:  too much weight to carry or drag around,  little extra room in our bags for purchases or gifts, and worst case, you have too much of one type of item and not enough of another!

It needn’t be.  With a little bit of planning and thought, you can pack like a pro.

What I do is create a simple “map” or outline of my trip.  You can do this on a piece of paper (recommended if you’re a novice traveler), or in your head (trickier, but certainly possible).

At the risk of inducing brain damage or eyesight strain with my handwriting (my apologies!), here’s what my plan for this week’s trip looks like (click for a close-up):

I list the days of the trip at the top, and immediately beneath each day list the day’s major activities. On Tuesday, I’ll be in the office in the morning, travel to Vegas in the afternoon, and will go out for a casual dinner that night.  Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll be at a trade show/expo, and will go to dinner each evening, usually wearing a sports jacket or blazer.  Friday, early AM departure, back in the office at about 1pm, and it’s Casual Friday of course, so jeans are ok.

On the next couple of lines, having consulted Accuweather, I jot down the weather for home and my destination.  As it works out for this trip, the temps will be about the same all week long.

Next, I take a pass at what I’ll wear each day. At the show, it’ll be a pair of khakis or semi-dressy slacks, oxford shirt, and a sports jacket or blazer.  I may wear the jacket to dinner each evening.

Having gone through this exercise, I can map out what I need to pack.  I should quickly point out that the above example is just a draft.  If you look at my notes at the bottom, I was initially thinking I’d bring two sports jackets.  This is – how can I put this? – insane, and I came to my senses at some point after drafting the list.  I only need one jacket, and I’ll opt for the most basic of choices – a black blazer. This is one of the benefits of mapping things out in this manner; it affords me the opportunity to perform a sanity check on my choices.

This is my final packing list:

  • Oxford shirts – 3 (Weds., Thurs, 1 extra in case I change before dinner)
  • 1 pair stone khakis; 1 pair grey slacks
  • 1 black blazer
  • Golf shirts: 2  synthetic, washable, should I need to wash one out during the trip (Weds & Thurs, I may opt to change into a golf shirt after wearing an oxford all day)
  • Socks, underwear, undershirts (will bring Ex-Officio UW and US – can wash out if necessary; will only bring 3 pair)

Of course I’ll bring all the usual stuff: 3-1-1 bag, “dry” toiletries bag, ear buds, ear plugs, iPad, padfolio, business cards, pens, notepad, book to read (how retro!), magazine, show badge, travel docs, BlackBerry charger, aspirin/meds, etc.  I added a couple things which are not normally on my list:

  • iPad charger
  • Bluetooth keyboard (Note: both of these will go in my “seatside” bag – for this trip, a Tom Bihn Synapse backpack

This is what I’ll wear on the plane on the way out:

  • Jeans (why pack jeans? – they’re heavy!), LS golf shirt, lightweight shell. I can get away with wearing jeans to work on Tuesday – I’ll only be there for the morning, and it’s no big deal anyway

On the trip back:

  • Jeans, golf shirt or the extra oxford shirt, lightweight shell

A few notes:

  • No extra shoes – one comfortable pair will do it
  • In this case, no workout gear or sneakers – keeps things light, and I’ll walk miles at the show anyway
  • With this trip, the temperatures will be about the same at home and at my destination.  Were a day to entail a significant change in temperature, I’d accommodate that by utilizing layers that I could either take off or put on as the day progressed; no need for that here
  • Neutral tones rule:  choose clothing that you can mix and match for maximum flexibility
  • No laptop, no netbook.  I can check emails, work in our CRM system, perform basic tasks with the iPad.  If this trip was longer, I’d consider bringing along the netbook instead
  • Always, remember the old adage:  pack fewer things and bring extra cash. Even with this sort of quick in-and-out trip, if needed, I could always buy an extra shirt or even a pair of slacks

A couple of quick shots as I packed:  I packed everything but the golf shirts in one bundle:

(This bag is the sub-5 pound Landor & Hawa IT-0-1, by the way.) My blazer, carefully folded, went on top.  Note that there is extra room on the left; I folded two golf shirts and they fit in the available space(s) perfectly:

The bag, with my 3-1-1 and toiletries bags, weighs 14 pounds (6.35 kg).  The Bihn Synapse, by the way, weighs 6.6 pounds (2.99 kg) with all my stuff loaded.

That’s how I approach determining what to pack. It’s not a foolproof method, but it’s helped me greatly, and I rarely overpack. How about you? What system do you use for developing your packing list? Please share by commenting.

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20 Comments on Avoid overpacking with a simple trip plan

  1. Jack Norell says:

    Great packing list/tips. I’m a notorious under-packer myself, but I should do this exercise with my wife. She, very much in line with gender stereotypes, does tend to pack a few extra things ‘just in case’!


    Kevin Reply:

    Thanks, Jack. Anyone can follow this approach, but it does require a bit of discipline.


  2. Megan says:

    You could easily get rid of the weight of the book (and the magazine) by utilizing your iPad. Seems like a waste of space to me.


    Kevin Reply:

    Of course. Unfortunately, the book is not available as an eBook. As for the magazine, I subscribe to the print edition.


    Paul Reply:

    It may be worth noting that an iPad or other e-reader has mandatory downtime during takeoffs and landings. Some people can close their eyes and relax during those times, but others might still need a distraction. Real books and magazines meet that need. Whether the entertainment for those 20-40 minutes each flight is worth the extra weight is up to the individual.


  3. Michael W. says:

    Running “scenarios” can start to get so complicated it’s sometimes worth just overpacking….

    On the other hand running scenarios keeps me busy between trips.

    Boring people who always dress the same have the easiest time travelling, btw. Start to introduce variety and it’s easy to go bonkers.

    Yes I’ve done checklists like this. I used to use Google Docs now I use Simplenotes and open a note for each situation….

    The article is great. Hardly anyone delves into this stuff like this.


  4. reeder says:

    I do sometimes pack my jeans and wear Chinos/Kahki’s if I’m going to be on a long flight or redeye. Jeans aren’t as comfortable to sleep in but they are an easy alternative to casual dress pants when you want to dress down a bit or put together an easy outfit. It isn’t ideal but I’m short, so my jeans weigh less and take up space.


    Michael W. Reply:


    The size of the traveler is often disregarded – but truth is, the smaller the person the more you can pack.


    reeder Reply:

    Very true. Being short is beneficial for knee room as well. I have had to be careful not to make it weigh too much, though, since I can’t lift as much weight or as high as others.

    Yes, as a shorter woman, I appreciate the courtesy when fellow travelers offer to put it in the bin. It is a nice polite gesture; in general, using our “company manners” makes flying a bit more pleasant for everyone. But I try to make sure I can lift it myself and only pack so much that it doesn’t endanger anyone when I hoist it up there. Too heavy and I might drop it on someone’s head.

    So my scenarios usually specifically try to leave out extra shoes and paper books. I sometimes plan thinking about little used special gear and how to leave it out.

    *less space


  5. Adriano says:

    Thank you Kevin for this article!
    It is true that training shoes take up a lot of room. Last year mine travelled literally all over Europe, without being used…
    I keep on bringing them with me, and this year I went jogging more often!

    Another thing: blazer could be worn. Tried it on the last few journeys. Less wrinkles (as long as you hang it on the plane) and it could help appearing smart at the customs control. What do you think about that?


    Kevin Reply:

    Adriano, Absolutely. I do that all the time. In this case the bag wasn’t all that full, and I opted to wear the Mountain Hardwear jacket.


  6. Gary Williams says:

    I must have a packing list, but for a different reason. The way my mind works (or fails to), I’m going to forget something critical, like my medications (once I didn’t get my underwear into the bag), unless I not only read my list as I pack, but do not go out the door until I see a check mark by each item. Somehow I’m far more likely to forget to put something in the bag than to forget to put it on the list.


    Adriano Reply:

    Gary – It has also happened to me to forget some critical stuff (socks, once, but not only). What I do is, starting from the feet, checking if I have something to replace what I wear while I am packing. And it works flawlessly… unless you are naked…

    Also, having a ready-made suitcase (with a double of what you also use at home, such as the phone charger) helps a lot.


  7. Tara says:

    I have a self-designed packing list, separated by categories: travel documents; clothes, toiletries; electronics; etc. I have colour coded it between the things that go in the 3-1-1 bag and that stay packed in my carry-on. Depending on the airline, I may be able to take more items, but for 2 weeks or less can do it easily with the carry on, including my kettle – tea is best with boiling water, not coffee-flavoured warmish water. I am able to due this due to some amazing Tilley clothes and a never-ending quest for super-small versions of whatever I need. One amazing find was the cough-syrup strips for kids. That means I can take some along just in case without the 3-1-1 limitation. I also learned the hard way to always travel with photocopies of passports and credit cards. They stay in a sealed envelope in the bottom of my carry on. I live in the perpetual hope that someone will come through the office and say who can go to (insert location here) today? I will be ready.


    Kevin Reply:


    Thanks for a great comment. My 3-1-1 and (dry) toiletry bags remain packed and ready to go 24/7, 365 days a year; ditto the copies of passport and credit cards, although mine are electronic.


  8. Lee says:

    I now have packing lists for trips of different lengths. For a trip up to 2 nights, I have a laptop bag with 2 main compartments, one holding my netbook and power cords; the other with a plastic zip bag with a change of underwear/socks and a 15″ packing folder with pants, a dress shirt, a polo shirt, and a cashmere sweater that all coordinate with my travel clothes so that I don’t need extra shoes or belts. Small electronics, USB drives, pens, pads, etc. go into a front pocket as well as a 3-1-1 bag and a second plastic zip bag with my toiletries. I dress, as for all of the trips outlined here, in a dress shirt, dress pants, slip-on black/brown shoes, and a blazer. I generally wear tech-type underwear and socks that may be washed and dried in the bathroom in case “overnight” becomes two nights.

    For three or four days, I use an REI Zip daypack (discontinued but apparently now reissued as the REI Stuff Travel Pack–34.5 linear inches, smaller than almost any airline’s definition of a “personal item”) and the laptop bag packed as above. The Zip holds a pair of shoes that contrast with the pair I wear to travel, placed in cloth shoe bags and stuffed with two extra pairs of underwear and socks, a second packing folder with an extra dress shirt, a polo shirt, and a cashmere sweater and long-sleeved merino wool polo sweater (or, if it’s too warm to need either or both sweaters, an additional polo shirt or two, made either of cotton or tech fabrics). Also rolled up and slipped into the bag but not in the folder are a tech fabric t-shirt and a pair of convertible, tech fabric pants that unzipped, can become swim trunks. Packed this way for a trip to San Francisco last fall, I was able to have dinner at Gary Danko, hike the Marin headlands, and go to a Giants game. The friends I visited were surprised at how little I packed.

    Up to a week, I pack the laptop bag and an eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible with the folder as above and a third folder with shirts, pants, and sweaters matching the weather and anticipated activities. I can squeeze in more clothing but may not to leave room for items I might pick up on the trip. Anything over a week is packed the same way–I’ll drop off cleaning at some point or if a washer/dryer is truly conveniently at the hotel, I’ll do laundry there.

    I’ve found that such a pyramidal packing scheme along with consideration of the type of trip I’m taking and the anticipated weather rarely causes me to forget…


    Kevin Reply:


    Thanks for a great comment. What laptop bag are you using? – just curious.

    Although I’m not a fan of top loading bags like the REI Stuff Pack, I have to admit I love your technique for 3-4 day trips. Ingenious and adaptable: well done!


  9. Lee says:

    The laptop bag is remarkably inexpensive and made by a company I’d never heard of, CalPak: I decided on what I needed and then searched around the Web for the bag. Although it’s not very different from a lot of laptop bags, it’s fairly straightforward and minimalist, much like my packing.

    The great thing about the REI bag is that I never feel that I’m going to whack anyone with the bag as I walk through the aisle of an airplane. The eBags Mother Lode sometimes gives me that feeling, which is why I’m considering using my 3-4 day plan for a 17-day trip to Scotland this summer.

    I agree that a top loading bag of much more size would be a pain, but with this approach, I’ve only got a few minor things on top, such as an extra belt, the folder beneath that with the tech fabric items at the same level but outside the folder, and then the shoes on the bottom. Any more layers, and I think I’d find the regular hassle of digging through the bag too much to handle.


  10. Michael W. says:

    Lee, if those are the only two bags in your closet you win the minimalist traveler of the year award imho. Well three bags including the Mother Lode. Many of us have gone through MUCH more experimentation to get to the simple, efficient level you have attained. The CalPak looks like a real gem.


  11. Lee says:

    No, no, no. Lots of experimentation here, and there are some other bags in my arsenal I might consider using–I bought an A. Saks 16-inch expandable tote that stays under the maximum carryon limit and generally does not need gate checking on regional jets. As with the other A. Saks bags, it’s light (less than 2 pounds) and measures approximately 16x12x8 when generously packed but not expanded or overstuffed. I might use this tote on the Scotland trip if I decide I need a little more than the REI and a little less than the Mother Lode. And before I got any of these bags, I purchased a Lands End Flightwise tote that I’ve found mostly useless, although well constructed, simply because its dimensions become so unwieldy when fully packed (like 21x16x10) that I definitely smack it into passengers when walking down the aisle of a jet because I generally carry it over the shoulder. And I have a 20-inch rollaboard that I stopped using as soon as I realized it was always doomed to checking on the regional jets that the carriers regularly use from my airport.

    Experimentation has taught me that any soft-sided bag is likely to expand well beyond its stated dimensions when packed. The REI does that–although listed as 34.5 linear inches, when packed as I’ve described it, the measurements are more like 21x11x6. That’s one of the reasons I settled on the CalPak since the stated dimensions gave me an inch or two within the “personal item” definition. I know that airlines in this country don’t really enforce that limitation, but I think the day is coming–Spirit Airlines, do I hear you calling?–that they will, and a lot of us will need to reevaluate our packing once again. Plus, I really like keeping my packing weight down in case I have to walk around with all of my stuff for awhile as I did on the last day of my San Francisco trip after checking out of the hotel and before heading to the airport. It’s also nice not having to think too much while packing because I’ve thought it through well in advance.


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