The Psychology of Packing
Why the way you pack shapes your journey.
For many travellers wheeled luggage is the most efficient way of getting from known-A to known-B. The reality is far from elegant, but that’s fine, it’s airplane-travel-as-commute and it has its place in the world. Perverse as it may sound to the wheeled hordes, carrying your own load makes for better travel.
Most hardened travellers have a hand-luggage only policy. In our studio we go one step further — we have a no-wheels rule for field work travel. We operate in environments where a week can span the seedier side of New York to upscale Delhi and pretty much everywhere in-between. For us, wheels represent tethered travel: the body is present, but the mind remains elsewhere.
There is a better way to travel regardless of whether it’s a weeks-long business trip or an extended weekend away. The most rewarding travel has enough breathing room for serendipity, the uniqueness of the locale, and a nuanced appreciation of journey. Chance encounters that won’t appear on any itinerary.
The dilemma of what to take and what to leave behind is as old as travel itself. The mistake that hits rookies and the experienced alike, is in packing too much stuff. How much do we really need to take? Why do we always take more that we need?
To understand why we need to unpack the psychology of packing.
People pack in anticipation of future events, with varying degrees of clarity to what that future holds. The purpose of the trip dictates packing choices: business meetings, a conference; visiting family; city breaks; mountain treks. So far so obvious.
Over the past decade, with colleagues Fumiko Ichikawa, Raphael Grignani and Younghee Jung I’ve run over a dozen projects that have delved into carrying and packing behaviours — from Accra to Seoul, NYC to Tehran. Research participants often rationalised the choice of what to take in terms of: necessities; good-to-have; luxuries; buy-on-the-way; and not-needed. The less that is known about the destination, the more we put objects in the good-to-have category. Use can be imagined, but the contextual barriers to use, the reasons why the objects remain untouched, are not yet understood. At the other end of the predictability scale the lack of concrete anchors frees us to pack for convenience.
Women are arguably more sophisticated packers than men because day-to-day they far more likely to use some form of bag, whereas men are far more reliant on pockets. This heavy use of bags is partly down to clothing and physique, partly societal roles, including a bias towards being the day-to-day primary carer for children. Women’s achilles heel is that, like any bag carrier they are highly likely to carry more than they need. Prior to the journey, in the comfort of the home the cost of managing what is inside a bag is greater than simply adding more. 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. The same process applies to digital storage — most people don’t think about managing their hard drive or cloud storage account until it is close to overflowing. Content will expand to fit the container. Women are more likely to face this everyday, men are more likely to confront it on longer journeys.
Wheeled luggage leads us astray. During packing wheels promise weightlessness, which then leads to luggage filled to capacity, and heavier items being packed. While we’re still at home, in our idealised, airport-smooth-surface view of the world this isn’t a problem, but in the real world it rapidly shapes what the journey can become: from airport escalators that don’t work; to hitching a ride on the back of a motorbike; to, at the last minute, enjoying a nearby mountain range for the weekend.
The disconnect lies between the moment of packing and when the impact of those choices become apparent. How do we prioritise what to take? We rationalise the value of things in terms of practical considerations such as “it will keep me warm”; or psychological “I feel more comfortable knowing its there” or “I’ll be on top of my game at the meeting”. But here too our packing strategies fall flat: we pack on the assumption that we have perfect visibility on the objects we carry.
The reality is that humans have fleeting memories: objects that don’t trigger our senses are far less likely to be used. Things that were important at home, are deprioritised once you land in Cancun, Cleveland or Kabul. Much of what we carry is not used, or even considered for use.
Every object we leave behind is one less predetermined outcome. If you want your heart to leap at the possibility of what the journey can hold, park the wheels, pack less, and enjoy every ounce of weight.
I’ve spent much of the last decade travelling for work. I’ve learned the hard way what not to pack, and what my ideal luggage should be. Aside from clothes I usually travel with high end camera gear, and sometimes payroll for the the local crew — I need something light, robust, that will deflect prying eyes. For what its worth, here’s how my luggage enables me to make the most of every trip.
- Steer clear of wheels. They are the loan-sharks of weight and space. For a little up-front joy, you’ll be paying back for the rest of your journey.
- Limit luggage to one piece that fits into a business class footwell or under an economy class seat (about 42 litres). The impact is two-fold: if it’s weighed at check-in (and with that size it rarely is), the overhead weight limits don’t apply; and if the overheads are full it doesn’t leave your side.
- Leave 10% of your luggage space for what the journey has to offer.