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The Psychology Behind Over- (and Under-) Packing

Trip destination, previous travel experiences, and luggage type are some of the factors that influence how we pack.


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If you find yourself at an airport, you’ll likely notice two types of travelers. There’s the person struggling with the overstuffed suitcase (or three) right alongside the traveler handling little more than a light duffel.

Of course, they might be heading to totally different destinations for totally different lengths of time and under totally different circumstances, but it’s clear that a person’s packing style — whether they pack light or pack heavy — is a distinctive personality trait.

no matter how hard i try, i ALWAYS overpack

— lil angg (@angelatrannnnn) January 9, 2020

It turns out that how much we pack has more to do with our personal travel experiences, including our destination, luggage type, and even social standards. Packing, whether it be for a weekend trip or a two-week vacation, is a highly personal act and can create a fair amount of pressure. We’re expected to be effective and efficient travelers who can determine the most important items we need for the entire length of time we’re away from home. I personally find comfort in bringing more than I need, just in case.

“When we’re traveling, our emotions can feel more polarized since we’re experiencing a stressful situation,” Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood, told me. “Our stress levels increase because we’re not in our comfort zone, and [because we] are surrounded by uncomfortable, different people.”

A popular travel stereotype is that women tend to pack more than men, which is an old cliché that Fielding suspects originated nearly a century ago, when women wore more elaborate outfits. Women are also more accustomed to carrying some sort of bag, since women’s clothing tends to have small, inadequate pockets. Although those expectations have changed, it takes awhile for these stereotypes to dissipate, Fielding added.

From Fielding’s point of view, how a traveler chooses to pack ultimately comes down to their past travel experiences. A person’s behavior is influenced consciously or subconsciously by what they’ve encountered before, and most people are “aiming to cover their butts when they pack.”

There are plenty of smart packing and self-help guides for overpackers, but Jan Chipchase, founder of the design firm Studio D Radiodurans, says luggage design can also influence a person’s packing behaviors. Chipchase, who also designs and sells lightweight luggage at SDR Traveller, classifies himself as a “no-wheels traveler” and has spent the past decade studying people’s packing behavior around the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Chipchase believes wheeled luggage is not a convenient invention for travelers, but rather constrains them during their trips. “People see wheels as a way to get their luggage from point A to point B, but the moment they’ve chosen wheels, they’ve cut down the travel options that are open to them,” he said.

For example, it would be much harder for a tourist to navigate a new city’s public transit system with a wheeled suitcase than it would be with a small backpack. A backpack also allows for more spontaneous travel, Chipchase argued, since a person only has to worry about what’s on their back.

The first wheeled suitcases were sold in 1970, but the concept faced resistance early on — salespeople didn’t think men wanted a suitcase with wheels. In the decades following this invention, however, designers fine-tuned the standard model of rolling luggage we’re familiar with today: a suitcase with two tiny wheels and a retractable handle.

Wheels give the illusion of weightless luggage and, according to Chipchase, lead people to pack more. In a 2015 blog, he wrote that when people are packing at home, they’re focused on fitting everything they need within the bag. “Only after the trip has started, when the drawback of that extra bulk is apparent, is the desire for remedial action, the clear-out, triggered. By then it is too late.”

His reasoning makes sense to me, a chronic overpacker. For a recent weekend trip to San Francisco, I unnecessarily packed a full suitcase and ended up trying to make the stuff I brought fit alongside whatever else I accumulated during my two-day stay.

As a frequent traveler, Chipchase is on the road anywhere from six to nine months a year, a lifestyle that requires him to be minimalist and intentional in his packing. In manifestos and blogs online, ultralight packers say this preparation method helps them think more deeply about the trip on which they’re about to embark.

In an essay for BuzzFeed News, reporter Alison Willmore wrote that the real trick to traveling light “requires only that you accustom yourself to leaving things behind — things that you bought because you thought you needed them, but now know you can get by without.”

In a way, packing light is counterintuitive to what most of us have been conditioned to feel about entirely new environments. “Even if you’re an experienced traveler, you’re likely to have a higher stress response, and the desire to make yourself more comfortable intensifies,” said Fielding, the psychologist.

This is a mindset that most seasoned travelers, like Willmore and Chipchase, have attempted to overcome. However, Willmore wrote there’s a reason for our attachment to heavy suitcases, that the amount of excess stuff we carry is an attempt to cope with the distance from home: “The emotions carried in that heavy suitcase remain — the desire to bring something of your life to a new place and to take something similar back.”

There’s no right answer to whether a person should pack light or heavy, although the travel industry is encouraging fliers to travel with less. Checked-bag fees are on the rise, and airlines have adopted less-expensive ticket tiers like basic economy that limit travelers to only a small bag.

It’s difficult to find that sweet spot if you’re an infrequent traveler, but whatever your default packing behavior, it likely isn’t a personality flaw, Fielding told me: “It’s a safety prediction based on your needs for whatever lies ahead.”

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This post originally appeared on Vox and was published January 16, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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