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How to Pack Like a Pro

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Cara Lane-Toomey

As we begin to head out the door and travel again, one of the needs that comes to mind is how to pack. When we think about organizing our items for travel, we might feel a mix of emotions: joy, frustration, excitement, intimidation…Check out the tips below for advice on how to keep your packing light and versatile and to calm fears about needing the perfect gear. 

Once upon a time, I found myself a recent high-school graduate answering phones for a Senator in Washington, D.C. After many months of the chaos of managing insistent blinking phone lines and angry constituents all day long, I couldn’t help thinking that there had to be something better I could be doing with my accidental gap year (a story for another time). 

So, taking advantage of the Congressional Library, I started checking out books about faraway places and eventually found myself signed up for a gap semester in Southeast Asia. I lived on ramen and fundraised for months to pay for the trip. The hard part was done! 

Or so I thought. Then I received a packing list for my gap semester abroad in the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Nepal. My mind started to spin. “What the heck is an internal frame backpack…definitely not my JanSport?” “I don’t see Doc Martens on this list….” “Um, is Gore-Tex sold at Target?” On that first big trip of my life, I was more stressed about packing than about leaving the country for the first time to places where, only months prior, I couldn’t have pointed out on a map. I probably packed and re-packed my bag no less than 20 times. 

In the years since, I have taken countless trips abroad – including those I led as a Dragons instructor in Morocco – and moved abroad for extended time periods to Northern Ireland, Egypt, Morocco, and, most recently to England with my kiddo, partner, and dog. I have learned a lot about packing: what to pack, what not to bother with, and how to actually do the packing. Am I a pro? No. Am I getting better at packing with every trip? Heck, yes. 


People Keep Telling me to Pack Light

Less is more. If you remember nothing else from these musings, please file away this piece of advice that many share (and struggle with)! The first time I traveled abroad, I bought the only large backpack I could afford. What I ended up with was something that made me look and feel like one of the giant Galapagos tortoises I took care of during my summer jobs at a reptile zoo. And, while it might have been funny looking, the bag was perfectly functional. The problem was not the bag, but what I did with it. Which was to stuff it so full I could hardly walk down the street.

There are so many reasons to pack light when traveling abroad. On my personal travels and as an instructor for Dragons I constantly was lifting my bag on the top of shared taxis, mules, and transits or carrying my bag for long distances. Having a manageable bag is something your arms and back will thank you for while you are traveling. Beyond manageability, packing light saves you space to add a few things from the places you visit and also makes it much easier to keep your things organized. I try to aim for keeping my bag at least 25% empty, as it makes everything easier to manage. 

There is also something to the mind-pack connection. Ok, I made that up. But, in my experience having a lighter pack also leads to an ability to be more focused on the place and less on your literal baggage. 


The Container Matters, Kind Of

Can you live with just a backpack? Yup. For a trip of anything less than 1 year, I recommend bringing one large bag and one ‘carry-on’ that is small-to-medium-sized (think big enough for a water bottle, layer, book, notebook, and camera). More than one larger bag is difficult to manage in many situations. That’s right, all your belongings are in basically one bag. See above about keeping it light.

Choose a piece of luggage you can easily manage. On our summer and gap semesters, we recommend a large backpacking-style (internal frame) backpack as the primary piece of luggage because it is easy to carry around, especially when not in an area with sidewalks. 

The size of bag depends on the length of your trip, your confidence in packing light, and your ability to handle the bag. For long-ish trips, I usually try to opt for a bag around 55 liters. You can go bigger, but I find this size helps me keep to my light packing goals and it’s easiest for me to carry. For 1-2 week trips, I always start with a smaller bag (30 liters) to see if I can make it work. When I can, I feel like a real champ. 

Does the bag need to be new, fancy, and the bestest-thing-you-can-buy? Definitely not. Your luggage/bag, again, should be comfortable to carry; but a used or lower-end version will very likely be just as effective. 

domestic gap year program where there be dragons colorado utah

Photo by Jeff Wagner, Instructor.

There is No Such Thing as the “Right” Gear

On this last point, try to avoid ruminating about identifying and finding the perfect or right gear. Everyone has (or will develop!) their list of ‘must haves’ when traveling. You will figure out yours, but beyond a few clutch items; don’t worry about having everything from the outdoors-y stores in town. Especially for clothing, bring things you feel comfortable in and already like to wear. Case-in-point, I wore an uncomfortable pair of zip-off pants for months in Asia during my first travels simply because I thought I needed to have trekking pants to travel. 

I don’t believe you need new, specialty, or expensive items to travel. For things you might need to buy, I recommend thrift stores or websites, such as the following, where you can get highly-discounted used outdoor gear. 


Sure, Sure. But What are the Essentials? 

The travel essentials are….well, as I said, you will figure out your own and, of course, it depends. I like to think about utility and versatility alot when I consider the essentials. So when packing, I’m wondering if I can use something in multiple ways or if a piece of clothing can be layered. If something only seems to have one-single use, I will often reconsider. 

But for me, I always have the following stowed in my bag when I set off: 

  • 1-2 slim notebooks
  • 1 headlamp with fresh batteries
  • 1 watch 
  • MANY packing cubes 
  • 1 small bag of toiletries
  • 1 good book and 1 travel guide for my destination
  • 1 stainless steel water bottle
  • 2 hats (sun and cold)
  • 1 scarf (to wear, use as a pillow on the plane, mop up spilled coffee, or any number of things)
  • 1 Compressible puffy jacket and 1 sweater
  • Minimal clothing 
  • 1 pair of shoes and 1 pair of sandals 
  • My “uh oh” bag: extra glasses, first aid kit, and some cash
  • Thank you cards or nice paper for people I meet/stay with along the way
  • 2 waterproof stuff sacks/dry bags: 1 for general laundry and 1 for things that aren’t dry by the time I need to put stuff in my bag
  • A portable battery if bringing electronics 
  • A bankcard for an internet bank with no ATM fees and cheap-o currency conversion
  • 1 foldable tote


The Actual Packing

I start with a list. I’m a list person, but even if I wasn’t I think this step is key. I have multiple saved lists for different kinds of travel; the list helps me remember key items and brings some intentionality to the planning process. I then collect all my items over a day or more and leave them in a designated spot in my house. I pack in advance; at least 2 days for a short trip and a week or more for very long trips. I do this partially to make sure I don’t need to go and buy things and also to give myself a chance to reconsider items.

When filling my bag, I mostly use packing cubes to keep things organized and roll my clothes in the cubes to save space. I like having small cubes to separate different kinds of clothing. It is so tempting to pack a ton of clothes and/or shoes and I try to limit myself to just a few shirts, pants/shorts, and other things. Usually, I only bring 50% of what I initially pull out of my closet. You don’t need an outfit for every day of your trip, or even for every day of one week. I also stick to 1 pair of pajamas and bring only the barest minimum of toiletries (ok, plus too many earrings, but that’s my Achilles heel).

I also pre-pack my carry-on (making sure it’s not too full to fit the inevitable snack I’ll buy en route to my destination). I set out the clothes I will wear on my first day of travel; making sure to leave a warm layer out. And, lastly, I make sure to have key items I’ll need upon arrival like sleeping clothes and toiletries at the top of my bag (or, even better, in my carry-on if they fit).

Once I’m done, I carry the bag around a bit and then give myself a day or more to think about what I’ve planned to bring on my travels. My goal in reconsidering is almost always to reflect on what I can live without or what I can bring that is simply less bulky. I know that no matter where I travel there will be chances to buy almost anything I might need and that I can usually do laundry. 

Sometimes I take apart the whole bag and try to find several items I can leave at home. It’s extremely common for people to add in lots of items that you think you might need. “I mean, probably I won’t need it, but better to be prepared!” While it might feel initially comforting to bring these items, I encourage you not to. I have found that the “what if” items rarely get used and just take up space. Give those things a little Marie Kondo thank you and leave them behind. 


More Packing Tips, Please

For those of you who want to learn more tips, tricks, and secrets for packing for a Dragons summer and semester programs check out this recorded Packing 101 Webinar or reach out to us to get connected with a Dragons staff member to chat specifics. 


Cara Lane-Toomey has been working with Where There Be Dragons since 2007 and is the current Director of College & University Programming.  

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