Winter sunlight through the trees at Highgate Cemetery, London.

On packing your bags.

What do we pack when we go travelling? What can’t we live without, and what do we leave at home without a second’s thought? What do we regret not taking with us? What does it all say about who we are?

“Who lives in a house like this?”

If, like me, you spent the nineties watching the BBC with the kind of religious fervour usually found among Doomsday cult followers, then you’ll be familiar with the phrase: “Who lives in a house like this?” That immortal question comes from the primetime hit Through The Keyhole, a gameshow in which we are shown around a celebrity’s house and asked to guess who the celebrity is. It plays on the key idea that our houses hold so many clues about who we are, even a complete stranger could identify us solely from our belongings. The only snag was that so many items in the houses were often red herrings, meaningless items that added nothing to our understanding of the mystery celebrity – the underlying problem being that houses were just too big and too full of stuff to make any kind of accurate guess.

That problem effectively disappears when we tweak the Through The Keyhole format, and apply it to luggage rather than houses: “Who travels with a bag like this?” The act of simply owning things in our everyday lives isn’t interesting; we didn’t put enough thought into buying each individual item. What we pack for travelling, however, is much more revealing: these are things we have obsessed over, made lists of, packed and unpacked and repacked once more for good measure. Arriving in 2014 it would seem logical that after decades of mass global travel, we’ve finally worked out how to pack the perfect travel bag – after all, how much can a list of basic essentials vary from one person to the next? To put it into perspective, there are more Google hits for the phrase “what to pack” than people living in North America and South America combined. Maybe our packing list says more about our personalities, priorities and fears than we’d like to admit.

Some items are so tightly tangled with our own personal confidence that we consider them essential, even if they are clearly a luxury.

Whether we’re packing three suitcases or a tiny daypack, the initial list we write is always far too long. We assess each item in turn, considering whether or not we can live three days, two weeks, six months without it. We visualise the last time we used it and we try to imagine what our lives will be like without it. This is where some items will surprise us, those to which we’ve become emotionally attached without even realising it. These are items so tightly tangled with our own personal confidence that we consider them essential, even if they are clearly a luxury. For a close friend who regularly travels Southeast Asia with just a carry-on, it’s a 100ml bottle of organic artisan rosehip shaving oil. Completely inexplicable to anyone else, but without it she can’t travel, won’t travel.

Just as intriguing is the list of things that haunt us for the duration of the trip the very minute we realise we don’t have them, those little items that we repeatedly berate ourselves for having forgotten. These objects often represent the parts of our lives that we take for granted, hugely important and emotionally powerful but so much a part of the furniture that we no longer give them the full attention they deserve. A certain fiercely independent travel acquaintance confessed to going precisely five days without internet connection in Patagonia before kicking himself for not bringing along a single photograph of his family or girlfriend. He wasn’t any less independent the next time he travelled with a picture tucked into his wallet, but he did understand himself a little better.

Travelling allows us to find out who we are without the usual external influences.

At the other end of the scale, there are belongings that don’t even cross our minds; things we might use every day but that ultimately mean very little to us. For those of us who use travel as a kind of escapism, this category bares the largest portion of our souls. The dual nature of travelling is that while it requires us to leave who and what we know behind, this also gives us the freedom to find out who we are without the usual external influences; we develop a stronger sense of self. People love to ask us what we would save from a burning house; maybe we should also wonder what we wouldn’t want to save, and which aspects of our personalities those items represent.

Of course, the more we travel, the better we get at packing our bags, understanding our destinations and knowing what the word “essential” really means to us. Nevertheless, there’s still something to be said about that spur-of-the-moment mental list that presents itself so naturally. So, before you leave on your journey of discovery, see what you can find out about yourself from your own bags. Don’t bother wasting your time on online psychological tests or vague personality-type indicators; all the answers you were looking for are in your 25L Berghaus backpack, or your 4-wheel upright spinner, or your vintage Louis Vuitton trunk.

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4 thoughts on “On packing your bags.

  1. I was actually just thinking this the other day. I watched a video on you Tube on “how to bag your bag”, no idea why, I was just on the weird side of You Tube. And this guy packs his bag to with an inch of it’s life, it took him ages too. It’s a fairly small bag, but I imagine it would be VERY heavy. Not to mention that you when you are leaving a hostel / hotel, you just want throw everything in your bag, not spend all morning packing it properly.

    1. So true! I know people who pack all their clothes first, then try and fit all their tiny toiletries individually all around the bag, anywhere there’s a pocket of space, then you get to the hostel in the dark and you’re already in bed asleep while they’re still trying to feel for their toothbrush.

      I suppose it’s just personal preference!

      1. Hahah. Yeah, I have been guilty of that, but lately I have been trying to see how little I can pack. My flatmate just doesn’t care, he takes carry-on with toiletries, two tshirts and a pair of shorts. nothing else! He says, if he needs something he will wash his clothes or buy something cheap. I can’t do that. Haha

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