The Universal Packing List, Part 1: Things You Wear

[Charlie Williams is a former classical pianist turned app developer, and former Midwesterner turned expat. He now lives in London with a Canadian novelist-musician (and fellow GGG contributor), and of course they met while traveling.]

Where this thought experiment began…  (c) Charlie Williams

Riding a cable car down a Japanese mountain on my last trip—one of these mornings that dawns frosty and then is almost-swimming weather by lunchtime— I had a thought-experiment: What would you pack if you didn’t know where you were going? Say you were going somewhere, abroad, for two weeks, tomorrow? What things would be the most difficult, expensive, or time-consuming to pick up on the road? What things do you just need to continue having your own personal version of? What’s the most flexible way to have what you need and not become one of those people— lugging around a suitcase on what should obviously be a backpack holiday?

Our rules for the experiment: One backpack, plus what you can reasonably wear/have in your pockets on a plane.

Here’s my list. Some of it is, of course, groaningly obvious. Other things are “travel hacks” that I’ve come upon recently, or that I’m particularly proud of having incorporated into my travel routine. And, there are a few commandments here which I would have liked to have followed, but only really figured out on this last trip. Here, then, a snapshot of what must necessarily be a never-complete document. And yet—if you want to challenge me, I will happily accept your plane tickets, pack what’s on this list, and report back upon my return.

1. Swimsuit. Obviously. I will swim in Antarctica. Emma (my travel partner) would swim on the fucking moon. If you don’t swim on your holiday, you have probably lost. But at least the swimsuit didn’t take up much space in your bag.

2. 5 pairs underwear, or 1 per day, whichever is fewer. Any trip longer than five days will give you time to do some hotel-room hand-laundry. That, or just wear each pair twice—which I’ll admit is a controversial practice probably deserving of its own post.

3. 3-4 pairs normal socks, 1-2 pairs running socks (It is easy to buy socks. On the other hand, you always need more socks. How risk-averse are you? Adjust if you must; socks are small.)

4. Sunglasses. Duh. Unless, that is, you want to get hilarious ones where you’re going. Everywhere in the world sells sunglasses of dubious quality for about $5. This can be a souvenir of some utility.

5. 1 pair, and one pair only, shoes suitable for running and normal use. I ordered a pair of these before leaving, which could work as One Shoe To Rule Them All—in this thought experiment, if I ended up in a hot place I’d get some sandals, so that the shoes got a chance to dry out a little, and if I was somewhere really cold or muddy I might want something a little more heavyweight. In a real-life travel situation you’ll probably have some kind of clue what climate you’re heading to and can mega-slim down your total weight and bulk by finding the willpower to not overpack shoes. (Because these didn’t arrive in time, what I did instead was bring an old pair of running shoes I ditched partway through, after our main mountain climb and before I hit the Tokyo thrift stores. In real life if I were going somewhere that I definitely didn’t want to buy shoes from, or if I had to look actually proper-nice and do some hikes, I might bring a nice pair of shoes in addition to the runners. Sssshhh.)

6. Two t-shirts. (One t-shirt and one tank top if you wear that sort of thing.) You will definitely, anywhere in the world, have an opportunity to acquire a good local t-shirt for next to nothing. But first, of course, you will have many, many opportunities to acquire a horrible, tacky faux-local t-shirt for approximately $45.

7. Jumper or hoodie. A jumper is a sweater, you Yanks, but it’s often a little bit nicer-looking. This you wear onto the plane. It will help you sleep.

8. 2 pair trousers (One of which you have no emotional attachment to, would throw away, cut up, stain, trade away, etc. when you are packing to come home and have to sacrifice something to bring back whatever cool thing you bought in the bazaar. Or when you realize the place you’re going to is extremely hot and you need more shorts.)

9. Running shorts.

10. Running top. What, you don’t run? Start. It is the best. Two of the many things running will cure include a crippling lack of self-confidence and jet lag.

11. Light/waterproof jacket. There is no such thing as a waterproof jacket. But you know the type.

[Tomorrow: Things you don’t wear!]