Tetris level: Expert

Tetris level expert
Shared on Facebook by George Takei

When I saw that picture, my first thought was: Yeah, I bet I could do that.

After 6 years of road trips from Indiana to Ohio, New Jersey, and countless other destinations, I am a packing ninja. I have a natural talent for fitting things into small spaces. My mom and I lived in some pretty tiny spaces (speaking from a small-town Midwestern perspective, where 500 square feet is unbelievably tiny for an adult woman and her teenage daughter). One place we lived required me to get a new, stripped-down bed frame for my twin bed! I used to credit those experiences for my tight packing, but I realize now that it’s something I’ve always been able to do.

My first job was working under my mother in a custom Western/Equestrian clothing company, and tracing trim because my signature task. I fit those pieces every which way until I squeezed every square inch out of leather. I performed minor miracles with odd-sized remnants and scraps. I was anxiously perfectionistic at the time, and I thought I kept getting that task because it was one of the least important things to do. Yes, that was part of it, but looking back, I realize that I was actually better at it than anyone else!

It’s been important for me to realize that I have a knack for arranging things. Whether I’m arranging a storage shelf, making room for new groceries in the previously-consider-packed freezer, or loading our hatchback, it just makes sense to me. Things look full, but I reassure Hubs that I can rearrange for more room. He’s reluctant to believe me, but lo and behold, I make everything fit — often with more apparent room than there was before!

On our first few road trips, I get extremely frustrated with his packing style. Why on earth would anyone do (insert perfectly innocent misuse of space)? I thought it was the man’s job to pack the car (oh, early-twenties-me who thought myself so liberated and feminist, who knew that getting married would bring out so many gender stereotypes?), so I repeatedly let Hubs pack the car while I did other things. (I don’t know why, but I always have a million things to do the morning of a trip, especially now that we have the guinea pigs, and Hubs is always waiting around for me.) And then I got mad about how the car was packed, and usually repacked it myself.

After so many trips together, Hubs and I have reached some understandings. I drive first thing, because he can nap anytime but I can never fall asleep until mid-afternoon. I also drive after meals, because he gets “the itis” and needs a nap. He doesn’t eat full meals when it’s just him, but I can’t go without, so I let him take a nap (but sometimes switch out after only 45 minutes or an hour if I’m sleepy, too). And, no matter what else is going on in the morning, only I can pack the car if we have more than 3 bags. (And even then I usually re-arrange them a little.)

Unfortunately, ninja packing skills come at a price. Namely, I can fit so.much.stuff into my bags. I have debated about getting the beautiful but pricey packing cubes for the Tom Bihn Aeronaut bag I have promised myself for graduation. Some bloggers (of course I can’t find any to link to at the moment) say that packing cubes are actually one of the lease efficient ways you can pack. But if my goal is to start packing more lightly…well, let’s just say, some external packing constraints aren’t a bad thing. Ninja out.



First-night bag

We recently had dear friends stay with us for the night. They had just gotten married and were making their way cross-country to their new home in California. Their car was packed. Our neighbor happened to have the same model car, so we could see just how weighed-down their car was!

We met them in the parking lot so we could give them our parking spot (after all, they had most of their earthly goods in their car!) and move our car to street parking. They brought in a few bags then, and assured us they’d get the rest later. When we got in for the night around 10:30, they dug around in the car for a big suitcase (one of several) and a few more bags. They started asking each other “Do you remember what bag my hairbrush is in?” and “Is this the one with my pajamas?” I remember those days.

The drive from our grad school town to Hubs’s New Jersey hometown is 13 hours, plus stops. We have made this drive about a billion times (seriously, at least 10 times in 5 years). The first several times, we were like our friends. Packed car. Everything was in there somewhere. And we’d get the suitcases later, which meant that no one could shower the next day until someone went out to the car in pajamas (or whatever we found to sleep in) and dragged all the over-packed bags upstairs.

And my Ohio hometown is along the way from grad school to New Jersey, so we used to stack those trips. Meaning that the suitcases would get haphazardly re-packed (as long as it zips, we’re good!) and the drama would repeat. I’ve slept in driving clothes because I was too tired to care, and I’ve reworn clothes to avoid dragging the suitcase in. Not pretty.

So if I had been there when my friends were packing, I would offer this advice: Pack one bag (duffel or carry-on) for your trip. Only things needed for the roadtrip go in this bag. Things like toiletries and underwear, you’ll probably have more packed elsewhere, but this bag is just what you’ll need for the next week. If you can’t fit all your clothes in a carry-on, don’t go to a bigger bag! Instead, use Ziploc Space Bags, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, packing cubes, grocery bags, or any other kind of bag to designate the next “batch” of clothes to pull from. Put all your batches of roadtrip clothes and some clothes for unexpected weather in one bigger suitcase, and keep it in an easy-to-reach spot where you can find things and get them out without taking the suitcase out of the car. If you run into unexpected weather or go through everything in your carry-on bag, then open your bigger suitcases, get out extra clothes, and stash your dirties (we like Space Bags for this).

After years of long road trips ended by too many bags, I’ve developed a first-night bag system. If I’m going somewhere with more than one bag, I make sure that our smallest (and easiest to reach) bag has the following:

  • Pajamas
  • Toiletries
  • Underwear/socks/bras
  • Next day’s clothing

Suddenly, getting in at night is easy. We know that we only need to grab one bag, and it’s a light one. Everything else can be dealt with the next day, after we shower and put on clean clothes, I get breakfast, and Hubs gets coffee. (But sometimes we still leave our big bag in the car until we’re completely out of clothes…planning can only help lazy so much) If we’re going on a one-bag trip, I make sure to pack the pajamas and toiletries on top or in a side compartment. The goal is to make the first night and morning of the trip go as smoothly as possible, so I try to anticipate what we will need.

Other things to consider for your first-night bag:

  • Layers (sweatshirt, shorts)
  • Slippers or flip-flops
  • Shoes for the next day
  • Swimsuit
  • Medications
  • Granola bars
  • Laptop or tablet
  • Travel guide
  • Travel binder
  • Book, magazine, Kindle
  • Water bottle
  • Jewelry

Even if you carry all your luggage into your destination the first night, it still helps flow to have one bag with everything you need for the night. And if you plan to leave the rest of your things in your car or another questionable location, make sure all your valuables are in your first-night bag.

My packing goal

From Car Gurus. This is a near-exact replica of my first car, a 1990 Plymouth Acclaim, which I got circa 2003. Mine had the rain-guard upgrade…after-factory.

As a teen, I (sort of) lived out of my car. That’s a pretty generous packing area.

I had lived with my mom, but after she died of cancer, I bounced around a few different houses. I changed locations to start taking college courses and settled into living with a wonderful couple who are now second parents to me, but I still visited my dad often. And a weekend visit would mean the trunk of my car would be packed.

I was afraid to miss something. I wanted all my entertainment, and as many outfits as possible, at my disposal. I didn’t use suitcases often; instead, I would just fill up a few laundry baskets and totes. I would bring huge bags of makeup and hair tools, even though I’ve always been one to wear the same products every day and my hair always ended up in a ponytail within half an hour. But who cared? I had a huge car to stuff.

When I moved to grad school, I would have my car slam-full for 3-week trips home to Ohio. Then Hubs and I started doing joint trips to both Ohio and New Jersey. Around our wedding, we would literally have an entire hatchback filled to the brim; the passenger seat wouldn’t even recline.

I was so worried about being bored. Or not having the right clothes. Or shoes. Did I mention that I wanted all my crafts and hobbies? And I needed to take tons of books and papers, because I was going to be super productive. And with all that packing…I rarely crafted, almost never studied, and still ran out of clothes and shoes.

I’ve slowly gotten better. I’ve started flying places, and as a cheapskate, I have yet to pay for checked luggage. Our 9-day trip to India in March 2012 was a crash-course in dragging stuff I don’t need halfway across the world. I started experimenting with leaving things behind. At the same time, I started simplifying across my life. I gave up on crafts like scrapbooking and  glass mosaics. I enjoyed them but rarely worked on them because they take too much space (and, because I wanted each thing to be perfect, too much time). I fell in love with the Kindle and have sold off all but a handful of sentimental books and a shelf or two of professional resources.

Most importantly for packing, I weeded out my wardrobe, time after time, layer after layer, until I became ruthless. I didn’t miss the clothes I gave away or threw out, because they all had issues. They didn’t fit well. They had stains or holes. They weren’t my style. They didn’t match anything. They were never right for the occasion. They didn’t work. 

It turns out that when you pack mostly clothes that don’t work, you end up “running out of things to wear” no matter how heavy your suitcase is. Same thing with shoes; when none of them are comfortable, or they only match this one outfit for this one occasion, you’re going to be packing a lot of shoes to get by.

I’ll talk more in the future about my downsizing (rightsizing?) process and how I’ve learned to pack (and live) with less. But for now, I want to show you my packing goal:

The Aeronaut, from Tom Bihn

One “maximum carry-on” bag with stow-away backpack straps. Without wheels. For me and Hubs. If the size doesn’t limit me, the weight will. (I imagine that Hubs and I will trade off carrying this and his camera bag.) I’m tired of being tied to bulky suitcases, even carry-ons. If we get to a city early in the day, I want the option to just go about our day, with our weekend suitcase in hand if we don’t want to swing by our hotel to check our bag.

And yes, Tom Bihn makes lots of custom-sized packing cubes. Yes, I want them. Especially the one that converts to a lightweight backpackI can’t wait to graduate so I can get this as my graduation gift!