Full disclosure: I hate packing. More, even, than the first whiff of aviation fuel, getting out the suitcases makes my stomach flip over. I regard those unruffled business travellers, with their capsule wardrobes folded into tiny, carry-on wheelie bags, as an alien species. Admittedly I am a nervous flyer, so while I’m packing there is always a corner of my brain wondering what my belongings will look like hanging from a tree on the television news. But that’s far from the only reason packing is stressful.
There is plenty of advice in the cybersphere and declutter-your-life books about packing. There’s the luggage itself. Hard- or soft-sided? Four wheels or two? Then there’s whether it’s better to roll your clothes or pack them flat. People with naive ideas about how suitcases are treated at airports swear you must pack your shoes at the “bottom”. Others will tell you to put everything into plastic bags first – true, I think, only of sponge bags, which are prone to leaking at altitude. On arrival, if your clothes are creased (perhaps you forgot to interleave them with tissue paper?) you can supposedly transform them in a bathroom filled with steam. And so on, and on.
There is less analysis of what makes packing so stressful in the first place. It seems to me that the combination of rigid constraints – the deadlines, weight- and size-limits on luggage – and the unknown variables of different climates and unfamiliar dress codes is tailor-made to induce anxiety.
Travelling light to faraway places is a result of the democratisation of travel, which began in the late 19th century, and the ascendancy of the aeroplane. In the days when only rich people travelled for leisure it was a process more akin to moving house, with porters and staff to do the carrying and the packing, and dozens of pieces of luggage each with a specific function, from vast trunks to hat boxes. The suit case, then two separate words, was simply the one dedicated to holding men’s dress suits.
Coincidentally, one of the few times I envy men the simplicity of their uniform is when faced with an empty suitcase (one word). Men don’t, as a rule, need to pack tights as well as socks, or different underwear for different outfits, or make-up and heels for evening. Women don’t actually need these, we just feel we do. Because clothes are a kind of camouflage, they are about fitting in. When we travel – indeed one of the reasons we do it – our routines are broken. So we can’t know exactly what we’ll have to fit in with. The trauma of packing is about squeezing the infinite possibilities of elsewhere into a couple of pieces of luggage.
It’s not all in the mind, though. There is also the practical matter of packing things that are fit for purpose. Clothes can open doors: in some countries you can’t visit religious sites unless certain parts of your body are covered (again, women get the short straw here). Shoes may turn out to be unbearably hot or give you blisters after a day of sightseeing, but you won’t know that until your feet swell under a southern sun. One of the joys of ageing, you might think, is that packing gets easier because you’ve learnt what works for you. But the flipside is that it’s harder to make do with the wrong kit. I doubt I could climb Ben Nevis in wellington boots as I did when I was 20. But at least I don’t travel with my favourite pillow. Yet.
The only rational way to prepare for the unexpected is, like a prosperous Victorian, to take everything with you – which is impossible unless you have the same bag as Mary Poppins. We know we own too much stuff, that we’re too attached to material things, and that it would be good to ditch most of it. But we fear being ill-equipped. At this time of year it’s traditional for a newspaper article to point out what we already know: that we use only 50% of what we pack. But the thing is, we don’t know beforehand which half it will be. Perhaps on a business trip you can predict exactly, boringly, what you’ll need. Otherwise packing is a kind of spread-betting: the extra 50% is to cover the possibilities, as well as ourselves.
Deciding what to pack means trying to foresee every possible eventuality. You have to pre-imagine your trip, so that in your head you’ve lived through it before you even set off. If mindfulness and meditation are all about trying to focus on the present, then packing – a purely anticipatory activity – will by definition be stressful. It robs travel of some of its promise, its spontaneity and adventure. That’s the real reason I resent packing so much: it spoils my holiday.