I loathe packing. Whether I’m heading away for a long weekend or a weekslong excursion, I inevitably find myself staring at an open bag in a cold sweat. The night before a vacation I’m vowing that I’d rather CANCEL THE WHOLE THING than be forced to evaluate which swimsuit or sundress I will want to wear six days from now. If there are more than two climates or any sort of formal event to account for? Pass the smelling salts.
The DSM-V hardly includes “packing anxiety” as a diagnosable illness. But after another agonizing experience prior to a four-day trip to Miami, I started asking around, and I quickly realized that packing anxiety is definitely a Thing and that I’m hardly alone. As we head out on spring break trips and long-deferred vacations—thank you, declining COVID numbers—packing anxiety will quietly but surely suck the joy out of travel for many of us.
Emotional baggage (groan) about our literal baggage haunts even the most well-traveled amongst us. According to a 2019 survey conducted by OnePoll for Nordstrom’s Trunk Club, 62 percent of people admit to having real difficulty when it comes to packing for a trip. Respondents said getting through airport security is the only thing more stressful than deciding what to include in luggage. Trunk Club might think this information benefits them—putting together outfits is so stressful, and it, a styling service, can help! But after speaking to fellow packing anxiety victims myself, I can confidently say our problems go far beyond pairing the right top with the trendiest wide-leg pants.
Juno DeMelo, a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, in her late 30s, freely admits that packing “torments me and is among my topmost hated things in life, dreaded as much as throwing up.” She chalks it up to being a control freak. “Travel is inherently out of control,” she realizes, “and when I pack, I’m trying to nail down things that can’t be nailed down.” If the contents of her suitcase don’t end up being exactly right, “I get this loop in my head that says that the trip would have been better if only I’d been a better packer,” she says.
Kebra Check, 44, who co-owns a fitness boutique in Brooklyn and takes a few beachy vacations a year, has, like me, threatened to bag a trip over prepping the bags. “I always worry I might need all sorts of things and I won’t have them. Inevitably, the night before we travel, I call it quits and scream about how I’m not going on the trip and I’m NOT KIDDING THIS TIME. Then I go on trip and as usual, I have packed way too much and use a quarter of it, and I VOW to never let that happen again. And then … cue the next trip.”
That there’s-no-room-for-error feeling is very common, says Lara Fielding, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood: Going Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up—and often “triggers worries that making a mistake or an omission of certain items will bring about future discomfort.”
For people (cough, it’s almost always the woman) in charge of packing for others—i.e., for kids—there’s the added pressure of making sure that you’ve remembered an emergency thermometer, that the most-loved lovey makes it into the suitcase, and about 10 million other details. That’s a big part of what Lydia Elle, 41, a business owner in Los Angeles, frets over before her half-dozen trips per year. “Packing for kids adds a whole other layer of stress. Like, what if THEY need something and I can’t provide for them. That burden lurks for me, almost like an app that I can never close in the background of my brain. I have forgotten important things for her and I feel terrible I may have messed up her experience.”*
Bearing the baggage brunt rankles Vanessa Milne, a 39-year-old writer in Toronto: “Packing seems to be one of those things that, if you’re in a cis-hetero couple, the woman does the packing for the kids. Why am I the default packer? And you sort of ‘get in trouble’ if you forget something. I’m less angry about the packing and more about the expectation of perfection. When my husband does it, he usually forgets some things, too, but it’s just like … whatever, we just roll with it. So, I’ve started making my husband pack for one kid while I pack for the other.”
And it’s not just the suitcases that weigh heavily on minds. “For me, packing for a family trip starts days or weeks beforehand,” says Lauren Rubin, 47, a mother of three in New York City. “Making the lists, doing the laundry so all the clothes you need are clean, getting the suitcases—like, if they’re in a storage room or at my mother’s apartment.”
Kate Carpenter, who lives in Pelham, New York, felt like she had finally kinda-sorta-maybe gotten the hang of packing. “And then I had kids and started over,” she says. “I hate packing with the heat of a thousand suns. It never gets easier. In fact, as I get older, I feel like I forget more things, even as I take more bags. I am basically the Woman in Charge of Packing at my house—I pack myself, both children, the dog, the snacks and waters for the car, the cooler of food if we’re going somewhere longer term. And my husband? He packs his suitcase.”
Carpenter also feels like packing pushes right into the Achilles’ heel of her personality: “I think my anxiety stems from being both a scattered person in general and being someone who wants to take everything I may possibly need with me. Thus, I’m not a light packer. What if it rains? What if we need that allergy medicine? What if someone spills something on their one pair of pajamas? Do you think I could fit a kettlebell in the car?”
But even when you’re only packing for yourself, it can feel like some sort of perverse test of one’s powers of prognostication. No matter how accurate or detailed of a weather forecast or itinerary I have in front of me, I fail to be able to predict what “future me” will want to wear to dinner four days from now, two time zones and more than 40 degrees away. How could I possibly divine?
“If it’s the fear that forgetting something will ruin everything, check that thought for accuracy,” advises Fielding, the psychologist. Chances are, you CAN get what you need at your destination and even if not, nothing is ever RUINED because you lack the “right” pair of shoes, she notes. That makes sense—but when I’m hours away from takeoff, my lizard brain takes over and I overpack, so I have every possible option. (According to that OnePoll survey, about a quarter of the items in the average suitcase remain untouched at the end of a trip.)
The truth is, the very nature of travel is just fundamentally tricky for people who have a hard time going with the flow, says Jean Kim, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University: “You are going somewhere new and different, where you won’t be able to predict or control everything. If you’re someone who is used to a set routine, this kind of planning can be quite anxiety-provoking.”
The blank slate offered by a trip can be downright overwhelming. Figuring out what to take feels almost like a quasi-existential question about how you want to feel and “who” you want to be on any given trip, says Lauren Goldberg, 46, a middle school principal in Brooklyn, who’s got a spreadsheet for every trip. What goes in the spreadsheet depends on the vibe of the getaway: “Do I want to re-create home? Or is the purpose of travel leaving all of that behind?” And then there’s “the aspirational aspect of packing: Do I bring running clothes? What is even the purpose of the trip? To relax? To become a better version of me?”
The vacation itself offers but a brief respite from packing hell. Because when you come home, you have to unpack. Here, people seem to be divided into two camps: those who can’t bear to unpack and tend to leave smoldering suitcases in situ for days on end, and frenetic folks like me, who can’t get everything unpacked, laundered, and put away fast enough. Alexandra Owens, a 33-year-old travel writer in New York City, sometimes puts it off for days or even weeks until her fiancé guilts her into it. “It’s a drag to come home from a long trip and perform a chore,” she explains. “And closing the suitcase feels like the door is official closed on vacation. So anticlimactic.”
Correction, Feb. 22, 2022: This piece originally misquoted Lydia Elle as saying, “I have forgotten important things for them, and they never let me forget it.”