Roll or fold? How to pack and the art of travelling light

Lee Abbamonte is known as the youngest American to have visited every country in the world. His second claim to fame should be "most efficient packer." Unless he needs expedition gear or a suit, the 36-year-old New Yorker totes a 22-inch Osprey Meridian wheeled bag and a North Face backpack. The two pieces accompany him on trips short (a long weekend in Dewey Beach, Delaware) and ultramarathon (two months circling the globe).

"Bring as little as possible," Abbamonte said a few days before departing for Madagascar and Mauritius, "but cover all bases."

Go to any airport ticket counter and you will see overpackers. Bags bulge like stuffed chipmunk cheeks. Towers of luggage lean precariously and sometimes come tumbling down. Panicked passengers reshuffle items last-minute to avoid the airlines' extra-weight surcharges.

"It's a suitcase," Leslie Willmott, a packing expert, admonished, "not a closet."

Fortunately, you can teach an old traveller new packing tricks.

Packing strategies

Willmott lives out of a 56 cm TravelPro rolling suitcase, which she has pulled all over Europe, including weeks-long trips to France and Italy. By travelling light and compact, she can move like a pronghorn through airports, navigate narrow train cars and fit in spatially challenged elevators. She indulges her maximalist side only on cruises, a static vacation.

Her first step to packing starts with a blank calendar page and pen. She jots down the places she is visiting, the forecasted weather in each destination (with updates as needed) and the planned activities for each day. She bases her wardrobe on these categories and never strays down the dark road of speculation.

"You really need to avoid the . . . 'But what if I am asked to this event,' " said the founder of the website Smart Women on the Go.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the idea of repeat wears. Tough love moment: Get over it. Unless you are visiting Cannes, you can don the same articles of clothing several times per trip. To avoid looking like Pig-Pen, carry a stain remover to erase spills and smudges, hand-wash items in the sink or use a laundering service.

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Willmott builds a capsule wardrobe of separates centred on a neutral colour. She recommends medium and dark shades, and is partial to black and tan. She picks versatile pieces (comfy favourites, never new and untested) that she can combine in a variety of looks. She sticks to a formula of two bottoms (pants or skirts) and four to six tops (tank, T-shirt, light sweater, etc.) for a one-week trip. The algorithm, by the way, is unisex.

Because of advances in fabrics, you can mothball the heavy coats and sweaters. Instead of chunky woollens, pack lightweight merino wools and microfibres. Also forgo the hot press with iron-free shirts. Pile on - or peel off - the pieces as the temperature dips and rises.

"You don't need to go bulky for warmth," Willmott said. "Thin layers will keep you just as warm."

On a 16-day Baltic trip, Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today's Traveler, stayed toasty in Patagonia's ultralight down jacket. Abbamonte relied on Icebreaker's gear to stave off the chill of the South Pole. For her Italian escapade in October, Willmott stayed warm in a Heattech T-shirt from Uniqlo and cool in a Hydro-Dri golf shirt from Lady Hagen.

The fabrics, however, aren't foolproof. In tropical climates, some high-tech wicking textiles can feel like plastic on the skin. Iron-free shirts, meanwhile, don't breathe well in humid environments.

"I saved my no-iron shirts for cooler weather," Willmott said of the two-week Italy trip.

For outerwear, Willmott favours blazers and a trench with a removable liner. Abbamonte eschews coats for a hoodie. However, during a recent trip to Scotland, the rain and wind drove him inside - to a store where he purchased a wind- and rainproof North Face jacket.

Remember that buying a garment to fill a gap in your wardrobe is not a sign of failure.

Sporty meets stylish

Not so long ago, tootling around foreign countries in athletic attire earned a tourist badge of dishonour. Now, the sporty style has its own portmanteau, "athleisure," a sure sign that workout attire has advanced in the fashion world. Leggings and yoga pants are chameleons that can be trotted out for a city tour, hike or dinner. (See Athleta for inspiration.) Sneakers are now statement pieces on and off the street.

For many packers, footwear is an Achilles' heel.

"You need the shoe police," Willmott said. "You have to exercise control."

Men should aim for two pair: a walking or fitness shoe and a loafer or brogue for more polished occasions. Abbamonte typically packs sneakers and flip-flops. If required, he will "jam in a nice pair of shoes."

Woman can get by on three pairs. Comfort and support trump flair, says Willmott. For daytime touring, consider a lace-up flat, Mary Jane style or sneakers - basically, a solid strolling shoe. Add a cushy inner sole or foam arch support for an extra boost. If your activity schedule includes long treks on rough terrain, upgrade to a sturdier version by such travel shoe darlings as Ecco and Rockport. The second pair can be a slip-on, such as a ballet flat; wear it on the plane and for casual evenings out. The final pick depends on your itinerary. Perhaps heels for the Vienna opera, bedazzled flip-flops for St. Bart's or Hunter boots for the Cotswolds.

One loophole: If you are visiting a beachy destination, feel free to sneak in an extra pair of wafer-thin sandals.

To top off the entire look, pile on the accessories. Leave behind irreplaceable keepsakes but stock up on costume jewellery and scarves. Alternate your baubles and neckwear to create the illusion of a new outfit - the magic of deft packing.

Folding vs rolling

"There are your rollers," Willmott said, "and there are your folders."

Most people, however, are hybrids. Abbamonte, who admits that "rolling annoys me," will break tradition to roll his socks and wedge them into his shoes. Willmott also combines the two approaches. She rolls her knit shirts, nightgowns and workout wear and tucks smaller items into the nooks and crannies of her luggage.

For larger pieces, she practices the art of interfolding. She layers pants and shirts like a parfait and then folds them over to create a bundle. The technique saves space and also prevents creases. Travellers concerned about elephant wrinkles in their clothes can wrap them in plastic dry-cleaner bags before folding or place plastic between each piece.

Travel product companies promote packing aides, such as cubes, folders, mesh bags and compression sacks. The inventions help travellers organise their garments and eliminate wasted space. Eagle Creek, a travel goods supplier, runs a blog dedicated to packing tips. Sample entries: '7 Ways to Save Space When Packing for Women' and 'What are the Best Uses of Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes?'

But Willmott embraces plain-old plastic. She covers each shoe with a supermarket vegetable bag and seals her undergarments in zip-top plastic bags. For larger apparel, she uses Ziploc's Space Bags, which compress air and flatten the parcel.

"The goal is to keep things light," she said. "Plastic is the way to go."

To load your luggage, place the heavier pieces on the bottom (by the wheels). Also, don't stuff the lid with weighty items or the bag could tip over.

Abbamonte keeps his toiletries within easy reach. He only brings body-care products that might not have a close substitute abroad, such as toothpaste, deodorant and pain medication. He uses hotel freebies, adding, "If you are staying at a hotel that doesn't offer them, then you need to get a new travel agent."

Willmott purchases travel-size versions and collects free cosmetic samples. For beauty kings and queens who must have their salon conditioner, divvy up and conquer: Pour smaller quantities into mini-containers and place a square of plastic wrap under the cap. With a limited wardrobe, you can't afford a leak.

Two bags allowed

Only Snoopy (and travel writer Tim Richards) can manage one piece of luggage; the rest of us need two.

The secondary carrier is for high-priority objects, such as passport, wallet, medications, smartphone, chargers and in-transit entertainment. But don't treat the supplementary bag like a toy chest. For electronics, select the gadget that combines all of your communications, mapping and Internet needs. Also, reconsider that camera that hangs like a kettleball around your neck.

"With the new technology and picture quality of the iPhone, I find bringing a big camera imprudent and bulky," said Abbamonte. "The only downfall to iPhone cameras is the zoom. For African safaris or Antarctic expeditions, I will bring a fancy camera."

You can further slim down your bag by recycling or donating your books, magazines and newspapers. As you gain room during your travels, flaunt your bag's lightness by swinging it in the air - or slowly refilling it with souvenirs.

The Washington Post

See also: What you should pack in your carry-on luggage: The essentials
See also: How to travel with only carry-on luggage

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