There is one kind of travel, say, on the Titanic, where packing means steamer trunks, tasteful hatboxes, and a hard-shell case for your Stradivarius. Then there’s the kind of travel I do for work. As a magazine writer, I don’t travel every day, but when I do travel, it’s often to strange places on very short notice. Last year, I spent a weekend on a boat in the canals of Central Florida. There was another time when I spent a week at a nudist camp in rural Pennsylvania. When you’re leaving in a hurry and sleeping in strange places, it’s crucial to have a good packing system in order. Over the years, I’ve come away with a few nonnegotiables—this is all of the gear I swear by.
These packing cubes have been mentioned before, but they’re worth bringing up again. If you’ve lived out of a suitcase, then you’ll recognize this struggle: It’s raining out and you have a jacket, but it’s buried at the bottom of your bag under your clothes. I’ve learned that packing light is worthless if you can’t get your things in and out when you need them. I bought these packing cubes nearly ten years ago. Once, when I was staying in a hostel for a story in New Orleans, these were especially useful for corralling my things (in a shared space, the last thing you want to be doing is rummaging for your underwear). I use one for my tops, one for my bottoms, and one for socks and underwear and bras.
I used to travel with a tote bag as my day pack, but I’ve learned that a strap digging into my shoulder can make the difference between leisure and hard work. I believe that packing light is a virtue, but not at the expense of having the right tool for the right job. A lot of my reporting, like what I did on a makeup convention in Los Angeles, demands that I pack clothes for both daytime and night. This foldable backpack barely takes up space and allowed me to add something fancier for nighttime.
Anything that’s precious and small will always end up at the bottom of a suitcase. This goes for expensive things—jewelry, gold coins—but also practical, invaluable things like bobby pins. After one too many games of needle in a haystack, I appropriated this plastic pillbox as a solution. I’ve saved myself a lot of rummaging by combining my small things into one much larger thing. It’s also good for things like actual pills. It’s annoying to stop at a drugstore on assignment, so I tend to load it up with an assortment of allergy pills, antacids, and ibuprofen.
Sometimes—no matter how well I plan, no matter how many souvenirs I don’t buy—I still end up with a pile of stuff that just doesn’t fit inside my suitcase. After paying one overage fee at bag check, I started packing an extra bag inside of my suitcase. I like these plaid bags because they are cheap, virtually indestructible, and fold into a nice and tidy rectangle. For those who wish to travel with more subtlety and dignity, this packable duffel will work just as well.
OK, this one’s a bit of an outlier, but hear me out. While I love when hotels lavish you with overly large bath towels, sometimes you have to make do with whatever’s on hand. This is a compact piece of fabric that uses dense microfibers to soak up moisture, doing as good a job in half the space. At the nudist camp, I used it after my shower. I’ve used it to wipe my sweaty brow. In chilly cabins, I’ve even used it as a second blanket. It’s also 30 by 60 inches and folds into an 8-by-8-inch carrying case.