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Traveling light: 'It's a suitcase, not a closet'

iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com
Published Sep. 16, 2015

Lee Abbamonte is known as the youngest American to have visited every country in the world. His second claim to fame should be "most efficient packer." Unless he needs expedition gear or a suit, the 36-year-old New Yorker totes a 22-inch Osprey Meridian wheeled bag and a North Face backpack. The two pieces accompany him on trips short (a long weekend) and ultramarathon (two months circling the globe).

"Bring as little as possible," Abbamonte said days before departing for Madagascar and Mauritius, "but cover all bases."

Go to any airport ticket counter and you will see that we are a nation of overpackers. Bags bulge like stuffed chipmunk cheeks. Towers of luggage lean precariously and sometimes come tumbling down. Panicked passengers reshuffle items at the last minute to avoid extra-weight surcharges.

"It's a suitcase," Leslie Willmott, a packing expert, admonished, "not a closet."

Fortunately, you can teach an old traveler new packing tricks.

Packing strategies

Willmott lives out of a 22-inch TravelPro rolling suitcase, which she has pulled all over Europe, including weeks-long trips to France and Italy. By traveling light and compactly, she can move like a pronghorn through airports, navigate narrow train cars and fit in spatially challenged elevators. She indulges her maximalist side only on cruises, a static vacation.

Her first step to packing starts with a blank calendar page and pen. She jots down the places she is visiting, the forecast weather in each destination (with updates as needed) and the planned activities for each day. She bases her wardrobe on these categories and never strays down the dark road of speculation.

"You really need to avoid the ... 'But what if I am asked to this event,' " said the founder of the website Smart Women on the Go.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the idea of repeat wears. Tough love moment: Get over it. Unless you are visiting Cannes, you can don the same articles of clothing several times per trip. To avoid looking like Pig-Pen, carry a stain remover to erase spills and smudges, hand-wash items in the sink or use a laundering service.

Willmott builds a capsule wardrobe of separates centered on a neutral color. She recommends medium and dark shades and is partial to black and tan. She picks versatile pieces (comfy favorites, never new and untested) that she can combine in a variety of looks. She sticks to a formula of two bottoms (pants or skirts) and four to six tops (tank, T-shirt, light sweater, etc.) for a one-week trip. The algorithm, by the way, is unisex.

Because of advances in fabrics, you can mothball the heavy coats and sweaters. Instead of chunky woolens, pack lightweight merino wools and microfibers. Also forgo the hot press with iron-free shirts. Pile on — or peel off — the pieces as the temperature dips and rises.

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"You don't need to go bulky for warmth," Willmott said. "Thin layers will keep you just as warm."

On a 16-day Baltic trip, Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today's Traveler, stayed toasty in Patagonia's ultralight down jacket. Abbamonte relied on Icebreaker's gear to stave off the chill of the South Pole. For her Italian escapade in October, Willmott stayed warm in a Heattech T-shirt from Uniqlo and cool in a Hydro-Dri golf shirt from Lady Hagen.

The fabrics, however, aren't foolproof. In tropical climates, some high-tech wicking textiles can feel like plastic on the skin. Iron-free shirts don't breathe well in humid environments.

For outerwear, Willmott favors blazers and a trench with a removable liner. Abbamonte eschews coats for a hoodie. However, during a recent trip to Scotland, the rain and wind drove him inside — to a store where he purchased a wind- and rainproof North Face jacket.

Remember that buying a garment to fill a gap in your wardrobe is not a sign of failure.

Sporty meets stylish

For many packers, footwear is an Achilles' heel.

"You need the shoe police," Willmott said. "You have to exercise control."

Men should aim for two pairs: a walking or fitness shoe and a loafer or brogue for more polished occasions. Abbamonte typically packs sneakers and flip-flops. If required, he will "jam in a nice pair of shoes."

Women can get by on three pairs. Comfort and support trump flair, says Willmott. For daytime touring, consider a lace-up flat, Mary Jane style or sneakers — basically, a solid strolling shoe. Add a cushy inner sole or foam arch support for an extra boost. If your activity schedule includes long treks on rough terrain, upgrade to a sturdier version by such travel shoe darlings as Ecco and Rockport. The second pair can be a slip-on, such as a ballet flat; wear it on the plane and for casual evenings out. The final pick depends on your itinerary. Perhaps heels for the Vienna opera, bedazzled flip-flops for St. Bart's or boots for the Cotswolds.

To top off the entire look, pile on the accessories. Leave behind irreplaceable keepsakes but stock up on costume jewelry and scarves. Alternate your baubles and neckwear to create the illusion of a new outfit.

Folding versus rolling

"There are your rollers," Willmott said, "and there are your folders."

Most people, however, are hybrids. Abbamonte, who admits that "rolling annoys me," will break tradition to roll his socks and wedge them into his shoes. Willmott also combines the two approaches. She rolls her knit shirts, nightgowns and workout wear and tucks smaller items into the nooks and crannies of her luggage.

For larger pieces, she practices the art of interfolding. She layers pants and shirts like a parfait and then folds them over to create a bundle. The technique saves space and also prevents creases. Travelers concerned about elephant wrinkles in their clothes can wrap them in plastic dry-cleaner bags before folding or place plastic between each piece.

Travel product companies promote packing aids, such as cubes, folders, mesh bags and compression sacks. The inventions help travelers organize their garments and eliminate wasted space.

But Willmott embraces plain old plastic. She covers each shoe with a supermarket vegetable bag and seals her undergarments in zip-top plastic bags. For larger apparel, she uses Ziploc's Space Bags, which compress air and flatten the parcel.

"The goal is to keep things light," she said.

To load your luggage, place the heavier pieces on the bottom (by the wheels). Also, don't stuff the lid with weighty items or the bag could tip over.