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How To Pack Lightly And Still Have What You Need

Justin Steyer
How much stuff do you really need when you go on vacation? Not that much, says KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley.

As a tour organizer, Matthew Brumley routinely arrives at a destination a day or so before his clients, and then meets them at the airport. Recently, he was in Johannesburg to greet an arriving flight.

“I was sitting there with South Africans, and we could pick out every single American,” Brumley said. “They were coming off the plane with every single gadget and they were overdressed to the point where you would think they were going on a survival mission.”

You don’t need to pack everything. In fact, you can probably get away with packing much less than you think.

“All you really need is two pairs of jeans and one pair of slacks, so you can go out for a dinner and feel like you’re dressed casually smart,” Brumley said.

That works for Brumley, and probably most men. Does it work for women?

“No,” said Brumley's wife, Danna Brumley. 

“We have more options,” she said. “You bring lots of earrings and scarves and you can change things up. They don’t take up any space, and you have, presto, a different outfit from yesterday.”

For women, Danna Brumley recommends bringing a black dress (if you wear dresses) and black slacks, along with a few tops, and lots of scarves, earrings and other things that can easily change an outfit. Two pairs of shoes: One for walking, one for dressing up, if you’re going to a place where you’ll want a nice dinner out.

Of course, these are ideas. The bottom line is this: Pack what you need to be comfortable, and don't feel like you have to take the whole house with you. For Matthew Brumley, it's now a science. Here's how he does it.

Here are the Brumleys’ other tips:

Start with a small suitcase: A carry-on sized rolling suitcase is usually plenty, even for 10 days.

Credit Justin Steyer/KPLU
Special garment compressors can help you maximize the space inside your suitcase.

Roll the bigger items, and leave no voids in your suitcase: Put socks inside shoes, for example. You can also buy a garment compressor. It's a piece of synthetic fabric and plastic that will help collapse your clothes down to a smaller size in the bag. 

Carry a detergent pen: It’ll work wonders on shirts, especially.

Pack neutral colors: Black, khaki, cream and white make it easy to mix and match. For men: A handful of shirts and just a couple pairs of slacks will do the trick. For women: Black slacks or a black dress will come in handy almost anywhere. Add color with accessories like scarves or jewelry. 

Wash your socks in your hotel room: The other stuff will last a few days, but socks will probably have a shorter shelf life. Washing them in your hotel sink is pretty easy, and socks usually dry quickly on a shower curtain bar.

Leave a few articles of clothing behind: Take some things you’re willing to part with and donate them to a local charity. It makes the suitcase lighter on the return trip, and leaves space for souvenirs.

Take some things back out: Danna Brumley says she packs her bag, then removes four things. 


Matthew Brumley is the founder of Earthbound Expeditions, which organizes group travel to destinations around the world for various clients, including KPLU. "Going Places" explores all aspects of getting from Point A to Point B, what to do once there, and in between. 

Have good packing advice we might have missed? Tell us in the comments below.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.