How I Pack
America! I love being back. There are so many things wrong with this place, just like any other country, but it is my home and it is one of the best places on earth. Yeah, um, Rest of the World? Can you please ignore the whole ridiculous election we’re having as I make this statement? Digressing, digressing…
China is amazing, but every once in a while it is time to return to my home base to recharge. I think there is certainly such a thing as cultural fatigue, where no matter how much you integrate, part of you is just slightly and permanently off-kilter. So, Chinese New Year rolls around, and I migrate back to North Carolina for family, burritos, craft beer and my sanity.
Oh, and if my pack needs updating, it’s the perfect time. This is basically my Christmas as I replace gear that’s been beaten up, didn’t serve its purpose well enough or there is just a better option out there that’s cost effective to replace. Because I made quite a lot of additions and switch-outs this time around, I figured I’d tell you guys how I pack the damn thing.
How much is enough?
This is a fairly obvious question, but I don’t think it’s really covered that much in a lot of packing guides. How long are you going to be out of the country and how much are you comfortable living with during that time? These choices are the first steps to figuring out one of the trickiest things about packing - your pack’s total volume vs. how much you want to fit in there.
It’s all very personal. I could probably fit everything I travel with in a single backpack, but I’m not backpacking at the moment, they’re annoying to lug around and I don’t want the unnecessary negative connotations that backpackers get in some parts of the world. So, I’ve divided everything into two bags. One has got everything essential for life and the other is my mobile workstation.
This is what works for me, so it goes without saying that you may have a better way that works for you and some of you are probably already pissed off about my backpacker comment.
Organization is king
How you pack what you’re bringing is almost as important as the gear itself. I used to think it didn’t really matter, that as long as it fits, bravo. That was before I traveled extensively. That pack ain’t there to just look pretty on your back; you need to get stuff out of it on the move! That is why you need to determine some sort of organizational system, ideally before you’re on the road.
Are packing cubes really necessary? I didn’t think so in the past, but I am a convert and evangelist now. They just make sense. For those who aren’t familiar with these, on first glance they look pretty gimmicky. I mean, what kind of idiot needs to pack stuff in bags to pack in another bag? This kind! I’m all for a bag version of Inception.
I’ll talk a bit more about them below, where I’ve laid out my entire hierarchy of what goes where, along with some photos. Maybe I’ll even add a video later!
Eagle Creek Packing Cubes - I have three cubes that are part of Eagle Creek’s Pack-It system. Two of them are on the larger side and I can divide all of my clothes between them. The smaller cube holds all of my winter gear other than my down jacket. In Daqing, this cube is necessary, but it frees up a lot of extra space when I can just leave it at home. I’ve laid out everything that goes into the cubes and how I pack them and you can read the specific descriptions of most of these items here.
Tom Bihn Spiff Kit - You don’t normally think of a lowly toiletry bag as impressive, but Tom Bihn’s Spiff Kit is quite a piece of kit indeed. It is just the right size for my few grooming things plus any toiletries I have while in China. Any bigger and it would be superfluous; smaller and it would be impractical. When you strip away the zippered pockets on the inside, it is basically a packing cube as well.
Sea to Summit Dry Bag - I reserve this little bag for any tiny, loose things I have in my pack. Things like my headlamp, coins, extra cash and Apple adapters are at home in here without creating a mess in my bag. It’s also good if I’m going on a short trip somewhere and just need a small bag. These things are necessary if you're doing anything outside in crummy conditions.
Loose Things - Although I love bags within bags, it begins to get borderline ridiculous of you apply that principle to some things. My journal rests loose in my bag for quick access, as does my Loop universal adapter and playing cards.
Small Compartment - I leave this one empty for small souvenirs, snacks or things that I pick up while going through an airport. I never keep anything too important in this pocket.
Back Compartment - The Maxi is able to expand from 18L to 27L, although I haven’t needed to do that yet. It does have an extra pocket that I can use for my important documents even when it’s not expanded. If I only want to carry one bag on a trip, this can also work as a laptop compartment.
Main Compartment - This is a wonderfully slim laptop bag perfect for the essentials - any smaller and it would be a sleeve. The main zippered compartment holds my MacBook Air and my digital drawing tablet. There’s still a bit of space left in there for a magazine or small book, but I usually don’t carry more than those two things in there.
Secondary Compartment - This zippered compartment on the outside has just about everything else - pens, notepad, headphones and chargers.
Zippered Pocket - This pocket is very, very tiny and you can really fit no more than a phone without a case. My glorious, new iPhone 6S+ is a bit too chunky for it. I usually just keep my flash drive in there.
Outside Pouch - On the back of the bag is rather large pouch with a magnetic clasp. It's the perfect size and shape to quickly stuff some documents, a book or newspaper.
Freedom of the bag
There it is, that's my system. Systems are implemented with an end goal in mind, so what is mine when I pack my bag? Absolute freedom! In the end, stuff beyond what we need just becomes mental clutter. Where do I put it all? Oh, now I need to lock it down so nobody takes it. And if I move, I need to rent a truck to take it with me. What should I wear today? Let me look through the hundreds of possibilities and stress out about it. I'd really like to travel someday...too bad I have all this stuff weighing me down. Maybe next year. When you confine it all to a bag, it's not next year, not next month, sometimes not even tomorrow, it's right now, the moment in time that matters most.