What are you packing? by Keith Lyons

You can tell a lot about a person when they travel.

I am not sure if it is because we are all in a strange, new environment where we are more observant of difference, or because of the boredom of travel induced by long, slow-moving airport check-in queues. Our exposure to throngs of people from places far and wide, coupled with the annoyances and frustrations of long-haul travel make it an ideal place for watching, comparing and categorising people.

One of the most telling features is what people travel with. The luggage and baggage they carry. Over last three decades, there seems to be two major trends in packing and carrying.

The first is the move away from backpacks to suitcases with wheels. Now, most people don’t haul their belongings strapped to their back. They wheel it. And while in the 1970s people explored the world with canvas hiking packs, sometimes carrying tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, today more travellers seem to travel for leisure with wheeled-suitcases packed with clothes, technological devices and souvenirs.

The wheeled suitcase was invented more than four decades ago by an American Bernard Sadow after he saw an airport worker using a wheeled skid to move a heavy machine, and wondered if he could create the same to make his two heavy suitcases glide. He took casters off a wardrobe trunk and added a strap to create the prototype of the modern wheeled suitcase. Airline hostesses became the early adopters of this ergonomic solution.

Personally, I can see the advantages of using such rolling suitcases, but having lived in an old town in China for a decade, the sound of those tiny wheels over uneven cobblestone ranks just as annoying as the guttural sounds of folk clearing their throats with two-part spits.

The second trend, bucking the first shift, is minimalism. For every tourist pushing around a metallic suitcase loaded with 30 kilograms of Hawaiian beach shirts, fluffy white towels stolen from resort hotels and complimentary bottles of hair conditioner, there is a traveller who has reduced his or her baggage down to carry-on.

Two factors have driven this trend towards less. The most obvious is economics. Many airlines have started to charge for checking-in bags. It started with the budget no-frills airlines, and has extended to the main carriers, many who sell just a seat and require additional payment for anything that will be stored in the plane’s hold. Typically, you can pay anything from $10-30 extra to have a 20kg bag checked-in, sometimes more for longer-flights. Other transport providers have followed the trend, charging additional costs for sporting items, a second bag, or more than a check-in sized bag.

This cost-cutting and penny-pinching has led to other behaviours. In a recent survey, one quarter of leisure travellers indicated they travelled with just a carry-on bag that could be stored in the overhead locker or in front of them under the seat.

Travellers who don’t want to pay for check-in baggage have had to find ways of getting on board with bags and items which are over the 7 or 8 kilogram limit. There is even some shrewd inventors who have come up with clothing to carry additional items to go under the radar of the airline weight limit Nazis. Andrew Gaule came up with the Rufusoo (www.rufusroo.com) to best the budget airlines, essentially a light jacket with large, strong pockets sturdy enough to store laptops and other items. Some airlines have become so stringent that staff patrol boarding gate lines, hauling out those suspected of carrying more than the weight or size limit allows.

But if economic reasons have meant travellers are penalised financially for taking more than a small bag and laptop, there’s the other factor which has contributed to the ‘less’ trend. That factor is more personal. It is linked with downsizing, minimalizing, and the mantra that ‘less is best’.

In the last decade or so, more people have realised that more is not better. More belongings, more material possessions, more baggage does not equate to happiness, success status, or satisfaction.

For many travellers, the minimalizing comes from life experience. In my case, when I first set off on my first trip to Europe, I did what I thought I should do. I purchased the latest Macpac Gemini backpack. The Gemini was the status symbol of the serious world traveller. In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of the multi-purpose backpack ventured around the world on the backs and shoulders of intrepid Kiwis and Aussies.

The Gemini combined a hiking pack with a suitcase. You could swing it on your back, its tramping pack harness and padded adjustable shoulder straps meaning that huge weights could – and were – traipsed all across Europe and South America. The Gemini has a capacity of 85 litres, meaning you could theoretically carry more than one-third of your body weight. A handy, detachable 15-litre day pack zipped off for day use. There was more to this iconic bag. It you turned your beloved Macpac on its side, you could stow away the hip harness with a zipped cover which turned your backpack into a soft suitcase which could be carried (with some difficulty) by its handles or attachable shoulder strap. Gemini. Genius.

The Gemini weighed just over 3 kilograms, and it had all the bells and whistles. Every few years Macpac would bring out a new model with more compartments, organisers, and features. Not only did it have the utility of a waterproof backpack and suitcase in one, plus the convenience of a day bag, it also had zips. Lots of zips. Zips which could be locked for safe storage. Zips to open up the bottom compartment where you had your sleeping bag so you didn’t need to rummage down from the top. Zips which bulged when you crammed another jacket in, or added a folk textile from a Polish village to your collection.

The Gemini was adjustable and could be tinkered with to suit. My mother sewed on an embroidered New Zealand flag, and I was good to go on my first foray into Europe.

But something happened on the first day of my trip from the UK into Europe proper. I’d taken the ferry across the channel, and then a train to Paris, but I foresaw problems ahead on my month-long railpass tour. I simply couldn’t carry the whole Gemini with me. It was too heavy. It was too bulky. It was too much hassle. Even just the carrying of it from airport to bus station to train station to hostel to train station had exhausted me. It wasn’t because I was weak or feeble either. I was fit and healthy, and had regularly hiked with a heavy backpack carrying my supplies for weeks. But urban travel with a heavy backpack was different.

My shoulders ached. My arms felt like they would fall off my torso if I carried the beast again. I dreaded the maneuver to get the Gemini from the ground up onto my back.

Outside the Gare du Nord train station I sat down and pondered my predicament. I took out every item I had squeezed into the Gemini and laid it around me. I sorted out the things I really needed, and the things I could do without. I ditched clothes. I put my sleeping bag in the pile of items I would store. I tore off parts of my guidebook that I wouldn’t use on this trip. I unzipped the Gemini day bag, and made this the bag I would carry. After an hour or so, I walked back into the train station, put my main Gemini into storage for about the price of a week’s dormitory accommodation, and I walked out, feeling lighter. Literally, a load had been lifted from my shoulders.

I no longer had the unwieldy backpack attached to my back. I no longer had to plod along city streets or up and down stairs with the monstrosity weighing me down. I no longer had to be careful not to bump pedestrians when I turned around trying to get my bearings.

With my newly acquired status freed from 20 kilograms of burden, I felt a new freedom. I could explore the place more easily, less hindered. I could go to accommodation further away from train stations or bus lines. I didn’t have to check in my bag when visiting attractions or waste time trying to find suitable storage.

This change also changed my identity. I saw other travellers – from Australasia, North America and Scandinavia – encumbered by big packs. None looked happy. By leaving behind my big bag, I realised that my mission was not to courier around Europe a bag of mainly useless items. I figured, if I really needed something, I could probably get it in that place.

It was a decision I didn’t regret. Over the years, I’ve retained that wisdom, and endeavoured to pack and travel light. Central to my travel ethos is the idea that having less is more. It is not just about avoiding baggage fees or the risk of lost luggage, or even about the struggle to carry heavy bags. For me, it is more about a mindset of being frugal, non-materialist and free. With just a small bag, I have been able to run to catch a departing bus, squeeze onto a packed subway carriage, hitch a ride on a pickup truck loaded with pilgrims, and fulfil one of the dreams of travel fantasy, to be able to jump onto a moving train.

There’s something else that happens when you adopt this attitude. It makes and creates room in your life and your travel for other things. More engaging experiences. Meeting, and interacting with, new people.

How does that happen? It is more than the advantage of not having to wait around for your bag to finally arrive on the luggage carousel. I think by traveling light it makes you less of a tourist, less of a self-centred hedonist, less of a status seeker. Admittedly, you are still an outsider, but when you are not so overloaded with things, you have more time to be in the place.

These intangible rewards are not so easy to define as extra frequent flier points. But I think traveling light gives a convenience that makes travel less about travail, and more about simple pleasures and the freedom that comes from greater mobility. There is less to worry about. You are less likely to lose items, or your bag. With your bag with you on your lap or under the seat in front of you, you are more mobile, and less encumbered. You are more in control, and less likely to have anything broken or stolen because it is always with you.

Which is why often the Number #1 piece of advice for travellers is to pack light. As travel guru Rick Steves maintains ‘ you can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two’. He says you will never meet a traveller who will want to pack heavier.

When I am met at the airport, train or bus station by my host, the first thing they will do is look at my bag, and ask ‘is that all?’, and then say ‘you travel light’.

So how do you reduce the weight and size of what you are carrying? That’s for next time.