Packing for a Big Trip

As National Geographic Traveler senior editor Norie Quintos readies for a family trip to Kenya (with a stopover in London), she shares her packing tips in this posting, the fourth in a series. Click to read posts one, two, and three.

I hate packing so much that I’m procrastinating by writing this post on packing. Putting the necessities of your trip in a suitcase is a tedious chore that at the same time requires Mensa-level mental discernment: Does the camera charger go into the carry-on or the checked bag? Do I pack a separate suitcase for London? Will I be hand-washing clothes during the trip? (which of course affects how much underwear I should bring). And, especially for women, what shoes do I bring? Tough, head-spinning stuff.

But good packing is vital to a good trip, allowing more time for exploration, engagement, discovery, and less time looking for a store that sells bathing suits, tracking down a pharmacy for allergy meds, calling home for a copy of your passport, or nursing blisters because you brought the wrong footwear.

Start early: I keep a cardboard box in my bedroom in which I put items I will need on my next trip as I think of it. This passive activity is easy and painless. When I received my travel insurance documents by mail, I immediately popped them into the box. And just-washed shirts I knew I wanted to take went straight from the laundry basket into the box.

Know the rules of the game: Airline baggage rules are constantly changing, so I always check the websites of all the airlines we will be using. Our transatlantic flight on Virgin, for instance, allows each of us to check in two bags with a maximum dimension each of 62 linear inches (that’s the combined measurements of height, width, and depth) and weight of 70 pounds. Very generous. But we will also be on small Kenyan air charters with a weight maximum of 33 pounds. That probably means the kids’ Dungeons and Dragons hardback manuals and my Kenya and London guidebooks won’t be making the trip.

The airlines’ carry-on rules force hard choices as well. My camera, laptop, phone, important documents, malaria meds, and other prescription drugs are no-brainers. Hopefully there’s enough room for a change of clothes; drugstore remedies for headache, upset stomach, and the like; electronic chargers and cables; and a book. Most airlines allow a “personal item” such as a purse or briefcase. I’ve chosen the biggest “purse” I can find in my closet.

Print out a packing list: There are many out there on the Web. Download one you like and customize it for your preferences. Save that file on your computer and use that as the template for future trips.

Keep your important documents together: Itinerary, tickets, passports, credit cards, debit card, driver’s license, insurance card, cash should all go in a document/passport case. Put a copy of your itinerary in each suitcase, and hide a copy of the first page of your passports in a side pocket of your checked luggage. I believe in giving older children responsibilities such as safekeeping their own pocket money and keeping track of their belongings, but vital documents such as passports and tickets are safest with me.

Group items: Looking for a pair of socks in a duffel bag can be like the proverbial needle in the haystack unless you find a way to contain similar items. I have folders, cubes, and sacks specially made for packing by Eagle Creek and the like. But you can also use plain old plastic bags–the larger-sized Ziploc bags work well. Each pair of shoes should also have its own bag. Some eco-minded outdoor clothing retailers such as Ex Officio sell shoes in reusable cloth-like packaging ideal for travel.

Choose travel-friendly clothing appropriate to your destination: You certainly don’t need to buy an entire new wardrobe, but a few well-chosen items can cut down on weight and volume. For an African safari, we needed clothes that protected from the sun, bugs, dust, and at the same time didn’t attract the attention of toothy mega-fauna (ergo, no bright colors). Outdoor retailers such as REI and Hudson Trail Outfitters and Patagonia will have everything you need. New-tech materials, while not absolutely necessary, can be useful. Insect Shield clothing is bonded with insect repellent that lasts through multiple washings. (Cheap alternative is to spray your clothes with the insecticide permethrin.) And while Stanley Livingston, Beryl Markham, Ernest Hemingway and other  explorers of yore wore cotton, there’s a crop of new synthetic and natural fabrics with quick-dry, odor-absorbing, wrinkle-resistant, moisture-wicking properties. Check out fabrics such as merino wool, activated carbon, chitosan, soy, and bamboo from brands such as Icebreaker, Ibex, GoLite, and Travelsmith.

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Make the kids work: Customize a packing list for each child and have them fill the suitcase. Tell them it’s a game (though my teens are too old to fall for that trick).

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: That is, don’t put all your clothes in one bag. If you are traveling as a couple or family, consider dividing your clothing equally among all the bags. That way, the loss isn’t so great when a bag is delayed or misdirected. I always do this on big family trips requiring an airplane ride. It complicates packing, but reduces the anxiety of losing a bag. Once you reach the destination, re-organize clothing back to original bags. And there’s no need to repeat this tactic for the flight home, because a delayed or lost bag shouldn’t create as big of a problem.

Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear your favorite packing tips.

Photo: Istockphoto.com

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