To check or not to check?

Here is a crazy question, what would you pack into only carry-on luggage, to last say, a year? Could it even be done? I mean, it can, of course. These travelling nomads on YouTube do it all the time. But they are young guys, for the most part. Or just young, maybe not even by age but certainly by the way they are.

If you strip everything away, though, what do you really need? I mean there are very few essentials. If you look at the hierarchy of needs, most of us were satisfied a long time ago. We have easily moved into the non-essentials by any definition. Yet, when passing through any airport you can see the whole gambit of what people pack with them. From a rather small rucksack ranging up to needing a porter to assist with many cases. 

I always wonder about the people who can thrive out of a tiny number of things. I know what it is like to need help, lugging my stuff around, on the other end of the spectrum. On our first family trip to Mexico, for 3 1/2 weeks we had 7 check-in bags for our quartet. It would have made sense if we were musicians, lugging along instruments. Alas, we were not. When I think back and remember how much we brought and did not even use! Just unpacked stuff and then packed it away again to come home. Always too many clothes, particularly when there is an option to wash. Like at home, we continually rotate through a handful of favourites.

Let’s give it a go, what do we need? How small of a space can we pack everything into? Each of us can take one standard article and one personal article. These are Air Canada regulations, pretty consistent with other airlines, but it pays to double check.

Carry-on airplane personal article – 43cm X 33cm X 16cm

  • Wallet including: passport, credit card, bank card, currency of first stop
  • {Email scanned copy of cards and other important documents to yourself}
  • Noise cancelling headphones, inflatable neck tube, eye mask and ear plugs
  • 500ml S’well water bottle, (my personal favourite)
  • Tablet and computer
  • Phone, with key for SIM slot
  • Charging cables for all devices
  • Camera and/or GoPro with selfie stick and all required cables
  • USB back-up battery
  • High protein snacks
  • 1L clear plastic bag containing all liquids and gels, nothing bigger than 100ml containers
  • Mini bag of other essentials: gum, tissues, lip balm, & pain reliever
  • Small notebook and pencil
  • Prescription glasses
  • 1 small airplane sock knitting project

The stuff in this bag should be the things needed on your person at all times, or otherwise requiring easy access, (liquid and gel bag). 

Carry-on airplane standard article – 55cm X 40cm X 23cm

  • Other toiletries bag: toothbrush, floss, razor, cotton face pads & swabs
  • Hair dryer
  • Jewelry
  • 2 set pyjamas
  • 7 pairs socks, (mix athletic, warm and light)
  • 7 pairs underwear
  • 1 bra
  • 2 Bathing suits
  • 2 Cover up/dress, (double duty)
  • 1 folding beach hat
  • 2 long sleeve quick dry knit shirts
  • 3 quick dry tee shirts
  • 2 tank tops
  • 3 pair shorts
  • 2 skirts
  • 1 pair trousers
  • 1 belt, (if needed)
  • 1 fancy outfit with shoes
  • 2 large scarves that double as sweaters
  • 1 pair flip flops
  • Prescription sunglasses
  • 1 work out kit & shoes
  • 1 pair good walking shoes
  • Rain shell jacket
  • Knitting needles, random sizes

What does it look like in real life?

Watch this little video, detailing what I packed for a 10 day trip to Rio Verde, Arizona in March.

Can it be done?

Not really well, at least not with the bags I purchased. A few problems that need to be addressed, which can make this possible.

  1. The ‘standard article’ bag itself is terrible. It was cheap and the perfect size. Those were my criteria for selection when shopping on Amazon. But it is super flimsy and not at all waterproof. I had forgotten how rainy it can be enroute to the airport. If I was forced to check this bag, it would not survive the experience, neither would all my stuff.
  2. My packing cubes, purchased on the same Amazon shopping day, did not arrive in time. I think they would have been great, no matter how inexpensive. They will have to wait for my next trip. Instead I used a bunch of Ziploc bags. This secured my stuff, so at least I could relax knowing things were not going to slip out.
  3. The backpack I bought looks good from afar, but it is far from good. Some no name thing from China that actually smelled like petroleum when it arrived. I still think it looks great, but the capacity is too small. The pockets don’t expand, etc.
  4. My SLR camera is huge. And heavy. It wouldn’t fit in my backpack. And if it could, my pack was going to be extremely heavy. I need to rethink the camera situation. I should probably have a camera which shoots video as well as taking decent photos. Maybe I can sell my current set-up and fund some of this purchase.
  5. On the first test trip, I didn’t pack all the items on my list above. That means the capacity and packing technique need improvement. But, I have time to work on this.

How much stuff do I need?

I think this question needs to be answered first. It is one thing to make a list, pack it all in a bag and go. No matter what size of bag, I have not taken any time to consider my stuff while I am away. I probably need to make notes and complete a trip post mortem. I know that sounds a little over the top, we are on vacation after all.

There is probably some psychology behind the reasons why we feel the need to bring so many things along with us when we travel. It might be linked to the quantity of personal belongings we have left back home. If that is true, I should be moving in the right direction, as I have slimmed down my life a great deal in these past few months.

Is less really more?

Maybe we have it backwards. With the phrase, “less is more”, some people seem to encourage others to have less, but they often don’t practice it themselves. Or the reference means that something could be more elegant or simple in design or aesthetic. But rarely does it refer to the practice of going into one’s home and getting rid of the overwhelming amount of material possessions. 

With all fairness, we are not encouraged to have less. There seems to be a propensity in all forms of public communication to encourage consumption of more stuff. Media directs us towards perfectly crafted sales pitches, both online and offline. The grocery stores are set-up to maximize impulse buying. The very essence of marketing is grounded in human psychology, playing off our natural tendencies to consume. For all that effort around promoting the act of buying and then the billions of dollars spent, one would assume that people are made happier.

Things do not make people happy.

Studies seem to show that happiness is not greater in someone who have more things versus fewer. In fact, organizational experts agree that people with hoarding problems are not happy at all. Their stuff can make them physically and emotionally ill. Too many possessions can impact the quality of life in many ways.

I came of age at a time when conspicuous consumption was a good thing. In the 1980’s acquiring material wealth was a game almost everyone was playing. There was no such thing as a minimalist. We were all keeping up with the Jones’s. The quest for more was non-stop and always unfulfilled. You could easily look around and find someone who had more.

For many years, I kept thinking that to be a proper adult, one needed a certain amount of stuff. It didn’t matter so much, the quality of the items, either. That was simply a placeholder for when I could afford the better, upgraded, designer purchase. Combined with the fact that I had not moved in 15 years, my house, albeit small by local neighborhood standards, was pretty full. What I mean is that there are likely much larger houses which are not containing as much as I have, (had).

The reality suddenly became clear to me. I was going to spend the rest of my working years struggling to obtain dizzying heights of material acquisitions. Then spend an inordinate amount of time arranging and rearranging my personal space. Not to mention the care and cleaning of all these things. In fact, I could spend an entire weekend simply cleaning, organizing and tidying my house and my efforts would barely be recognized. For the time spent, I couldn’t even spot the improvements, let alone my husband and children.

Side effects.

The real casualty of all this effort has been my creativity, and maybe my bankbook. I was also not very available to my family. I can get pretty frustrated that I have no time for myself. When do I play all the board games with my kids which take up a whole shelf in the closet? My studio can be set-up with a project for weeks, I’ll make no progress and that is normal. So maybe there are a bunch of side effects, I had not previously realized.

I would have never thought that having too much stuff was such a problem. I’m not a hoarder, but I’m certainly not a minimalist. So where is the healthy line between the two? Could it be as simple as asking myself if every item is useful or brings me joy, as described in “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up“? In some ways, the suggestions in that book do help. But I found myself having to dig deep into my thoughts about possessions in order to truthfully answer if an item should stay or go. In the process of self-examination, I realized some interesting things about myself.

  1. I was holding onto things out of habit. 
  2. I wanted to fill every empty space – and then some!
  3. I wanted stuff to be saved for my children that they didn’t want anymore.
  4. I over estimated how useful some stuff really was.
  5. I felt super guilty for the money spent, sometimes very recently.
  6. I was keeping gifts that I had never used.
  7. I had many things that once reminded me of something that was not important anymore.
  8. I kept tools in the kitchen that I once used a lot but don’t anymore.
  9. I was trying to hold onto the past with stuff that reminded me of it.

As I worked through all the above reasons, sometimes having to address them all with a single item, I felt more and more free. I felt physically lighter. Instead of wondering what to put in a place, I congratulated myself on the emptiness of it. I freed up so many containers which once held stuff.

The biggest added benefit was that I finally got organized. For the item’s I kept had a specific place to occupy. It made sense when I put things away. As I used once neglected items, I was also able to realize that some of those things were in poor repair or also didn’t suit me anymore. More stuff went away to good will. 

While I was once living the adage that “more is more”, I now understand how “less is more” really works. With less stuff, I have more life. I have more time. I have more creativity. I have more happiness. I have more freedom. All the things I was looking for having more of that eluded me when I had too many other things to look after and wade through in every room and every closet.

Give everything away?

Santiago, the shepherd boy in “The Alchemist”, by Paulo Coelho, had to give away everything he had in order to, ultimately find his treasure. I feel like I am going through the same process. And what I am finding is that I already have so many treasures. They are being uncovered and highlighted to me as I get rid of the layers of clutter and noise which have clouded over these gems.

This is a journey as much as an exercise in organization. Because each time I look at a closet, a shelf or even a whole room I am able to let stuff go. As I pack up boxes headed for goodwill I know that someone else will love these things as much as I once did, maybe even more.

Part of our year away is packing everything we own into our detached garage for storing. We are packing the lives of 4 people into a pretty small space, furniture included. Curiously, I wonder if it can even be done? If I can so easily over-pack for the size of a suitcase, I wonder if we can compress our material life into such a small space. When we come back, after living without these things, will we still care about them?

That will be the essence of the question, each of us will have to ask ourselves as begin to pack up. What must we bring with us? What do we love enough to pack away? Everything else kind of needs to go. As strange as that will be to do. I feel we have held onto so many things because they exist.

A final thing I am itching to do is take a full inventory. As we pack up, it is the perfect opportunity to do so. A complete manifest of each piece of furniture and every item in every box. I think this will be an enlightening process. If we can’t be bothered to take a moment and catalogue an item, if it doesn’t even hold that much value to us, why are we keeping it?

Hopefully, by the time I take my next trip, after I have taken another pass at downsizing, I’ll feel more at peace. Until I can shed this last chunk of weight, I still feel heavy and burdened by it all.

I’m hoping that one day soon, I will have more empty space around me. More room for my mind and imagination to wander. I seeking the peace and serenity to create a life for myself which is not based on the foundation of physical possessions. I would rather it be rich in shared experiences and connection to like-minded people.

I welcome:

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Christine Westermark

Chief Creative enjoying life with family and friends. Wholeheartedly in loving relationships and developing amazing projects. Gratefully reading, writing and creating everyday!
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Could you love travel with only hand luggage?
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