Traveling Lighter


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am the queen of packing light.
For years, I’d show up for a summer visit of a month of more with only an L.L. Bean backpack, then enjoy the incredulous looks on my hosts’ faces when they realized there was no checked suitcase. “Just this,” I’d crow, “and I probably could have packed it lighter.”

I am so famous for minimalism that friends and acquaintances regularly ask me to pop by before a trip to organize their luggage. Invariably, they end up with a suitcase half the size and thank me afterward. “I realize I didn’t need all those things,” is a frequent refrain.

While I’ve written about my packing strategy before, in the past year I have radically refined the technique — both to comply with ever-more-cutthroat baggage routines and to lighten the load on my ever-crankier joints.

My trip to Norway in May, though, was a veritable marvel of strategic light packing. It was my personal Mona Lisa, my chez d’oeuvre. I honestly do not think it can be improved upon.

I was just recovering from a nasty bout of ankle tendinitis when I was invited on a multi-city jaunt through Norway — an itinerary I was assured was gentle, no hiking or climbing required. Still, I thought carefully about how I could minimize strain on my still-iffy ankle. The trip would involve two flights within Norway, various bus and train trips and at least one cruise, so I’d have to schlep all my luggage repeatedly.

A few years ago, I traded in my longtime travel staple — a lightweight nylon L.L. Bean Deluxe Book Pack in canary yellow — for the scaled-down Original Book Pack, which weighs a mere 16 ounces. That move was prompted by the increasingly frenzied competition for carry-on baggage space. While I loved the comfort and multiple compartments of the Deluxe, it was too large to fit under an airline seat, and since its packed-out shape was round (rather than long and flat like the more-common roller bags), it didn’t usually fit into those annoying carry-on bag testers — though in cubic inches it was probably smaller than most.

I started worrying that a particularly officious clerk might give my bag the fisheye and consign it to checked luggage. One time it actually happened, on a full flight with no overhead storage left. Being left without any carry-on at all — no medications, cosmetics, change of clothes — was traumatizing enough that I decided to downsize.

The Original Book Pack, intended for children seven and up, perfectly fits my tiny frame and accommodates everything I really need: a cosmetics case, a few changes of underwear (and tights for winter), maybe four or five dresses, and miscellaneous items.

There are several principles I live by to maintain this pared-down rigor. I never pack a change of shoes (one comfortable pair — boots for winter, sandals for summer — suffices for a week or two; if I need something else for a longer trip, I’ll buy it there). I wear the heaviest items while traveling: jeans, boots. I call ahead to make sure there’s a hair dryer where I’m staying.

Shedding weight means making compromises. On the road, I use whatever shampoo and soap is provided. I pack the tiniest toiletries and replace them if I run out; I prune cosmetics to the bare essentials (which, alas, are more numerous the older I get).

For 11 days in Norway, I adopted an all-black, radical-minimalist style appropriate to the land of Edvard Munch. I took two jersey dresses, one fitted (so a sweater could layer over it) and one a loose shift (so a long-sleeved black T could layer underneath for added warmth). Three changes of underwear and socks, a hairbrush, hairspray, cosmetics, medication, an ACE bandage and chargers rounded out my luggage. I wore one of these outfits, plus sturdy shoes and a navy wool jacket, on the trip over; I only carried one outfit in my backpack at any given time.

Varied layering allows you to wear items more than once. Every two days or so, I washed a pile of black laundry in the sink and dried it overnight on the radiator (without a radiator, you could hang laundry on the shower bar, then blow-dry it warm in the morning). Five minutes of hand washing is a small price to pay for the freedom of a feather-light bag.

But when your goal is radical lightness, every half-ounce counts, so there was more to be done. Before the trip, I emptied my bag of the detritus that inevitably collects during travel: receipts, business cards, extraneous pens and tissues. You wouldn’t think that tiny slips of paper make a difference, but it all adds up.

In transit, I remain vigilant against creeping weight gain. I save souvenir purchases for the last day; any brochures I collect either get read and tossed, scanned into Google Docs from the hotel business center, or mailed home. Mail is also my preference for taking home the spoils of a shopping spree.

I’m not immune to the siren call of fashion; I simply would rather dress up in New York than schlep an exciting wardrobe around Europe on my back.