The Writer on the Road

My grandfather (here) was famous for his ability to pack. His parcels for mailing were works of art: methodical, compact, secure.  It’s a knack I inherited, and used to impress my husband when I could take his suitcase apart and re-pack it with half as much again inside.

When I was in high school, back in the Jurassic age, I adored The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher.  I pored over it as previous generations had done with the Sears catalogue.

It wasn’t the poetic descriptions of the purity he felt on distant hikes, or his practical tips on conditioning; it was the fantasy of self-possession, coupled with his minute fascination with the Stuff.  Particularly his near-religious dedication to paring down every possible gram of excess load.

I’m now channeling my inner Colin Fletcher, as I stage my possessions for five weeks in Europe, mulling over the paring-grams process.  My customary burden when I’m on the road doesn’t vary a whole lot whether I’m gone for a weekend or a month: a carry-on rollie suitcase, and a generous, light-weight backpack that slips over its handle.





This means few luxurious extras, and many things with multiple functions. A tiny Nook reader instead of actual books. A decorative light-weight woolen shawl for either dress-up or warmth.  A rain jacket that looks like a normal coat. Trousers and shirts that all go together. Fast-dry clothing for rapid repeats—and yes, by the time I get home, I’ll be so sick of every single thing, they’ll go into the back of the closet for months.

Not everything is multi-purpose, such as the business jacket I probably won’t wear other than meetings. But the thing I deeply resent is shoes. I can’t do with less than three pair: comfy black Merrell clogs for travel (and yes, those clogs are as formal as I get: when it comes to a night out or a business meeting, I’m an artist, dammit Jim, not an actor.) (where was I?) (oh right—), some sandals I can walk in all day—and a pair of proper walking shoes.  With laces.  And (following a trip to rainy, be-tiled Lisbon) slip-resistant soles.  Lord, I hate those. Why did I have to be saddled with size 10.5 feet? The accursed shoes take up half the suitcase, even when I stuff their insides with socks and such.

So what do you do for travel? Anyone out there found the ideal answer to the nomadic life?

And my greatest conundrum at the moment: Why doesn’t Nalgene make their excellent containers in 3-ounce sizes?

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  1. janet on August 25, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    Yes, shoes are the bane of the compact traveler’s existence! I found a pair that works for both casual and relatively dressy. And they’re comfortable. But I always have to take a pair of tennis/athletic shoes and then either hiking boots/sandals/Topsiders. I think I inherited my packing genes from my mom and I can get quite a lot of things in a small space (including repacking my husband’s things.) 🙂 I have an old Kindle which, like your Nook, is wonderful (including a number of Holmes & Russell books) and an over-the-shoulder-hang-in-front purse. Just found a new one of the latter at Target which has RIFD blocking throughout the entire purse, just right to house my RIFD-blocking passport holder and zippered holder for my cards. I’ll be going to France soon, too, but I’ll be taking a bit more luggage. In the US, I fly Southwest whenever possible, so bags fly free, an enormous money-saving bonus.

    Have a safe and enjoyable trip!


  2. Suzanne Portello on August 26, 2018 at 10:06 am

    This was a fun and provocative post. I liked the link to your grandfather’s history in SF at the time of the earthquake – it was good to be reminded of the “backstory” behind Locked Rooms. My grandfather also lived in SF for a time in the early part of the 20th century, as did my dad. I appreciated your mention of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher – makes me want to go back and re-read the book. My husband used to tell a story about a college class he took (on backpacking or nature-roaming, maybe), where the professor urged his students to cut the handles off their toothbrushes to save weight/space. Dedicated, huh? Finally, I was deeply amused by your references to “the Jurassic age” and the standard disclaimer of “Bones” to Kirk – “I’m a doctor, Jim…”

    I, too, am embarking on a major excursion in the next few weeks – mine is coast-to-coast around the not-totally-contiguous U.S. Many of the same packing concerns apply. Varying weather, varying rurality/urbanity. My usual default is to be hot, if anything, so always a small spice jar containing cornstarch. Shoes less problematic – black mildly stylish sneakers with non-skid soles. But my very favorite footwear (much to my daughters’ consternation) is black surfer-brand flip-flops with socks (!!!) – in my case, size is not the problem, but controlling heat dispersal is.

    The thing about packing – and travel in general – to me is that it is a balance, a process, a revolving cycle of compacting/conserving and expanding. The main reason to pare down at the beginning (both physically & mentally) is to leave room for serendipity along the way. Good travels to you!

  3. Nikki on August 26, 2018 at 10:12 am

    My “sandals I can walk in all day” are already sort of proper walking/hiking shoes. Velcro, no laces, but fairly supportive. I wouldn’t climb the Pennines in them but with the addition of decent socks to protect my skin i can cover a lot of ground.

  4. Nancy Batty on August 26, 2018 at 10:39 am

    What nicer walking shoes with no slip does everyone recommend? As a size 10 gong to Europe next year I’m on the hunt for new one to break in now for the trip.

  5. Terry Odell on August 26, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    I’ve just discovered packing cubes, and also, because we were going on an Alaskan cruise and it was going to be *cold* requiring bulky items, I got two of those compressible bags; one for me, one for the Hubster. Saved a LOT of space. But I agree–shoes are the issue, even with my size 6 feet.

  6. Barbara Cantwell on August 26, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    One trick I use is to place shoes around the edges of the suitcase sole side out.fill with anything small that can be rolled up. Mine are size 10 and I don’t have any problem getting two pairs in and wear the third!

  7. Erin on August 27, 2018 at 1:37 am

    I spent the afternoon packing for my trip to China next weekend. It’s a hiking trip, but not backpacking, so I’ve got my usual carry-on sized hardside roller case and a small backpack. Boots, sandals, trekking poles, rain gear, and hiking clothes for five days and city clothes for four. With a bit of room to spare!

    New favorite is the packing cubes from ebags. And the roll method that my mom taught me from girl scouts forever ago.

  8. Lois L Simpson on August 29, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    Travelers’ laundry tip: instead of washing clothes by hand in the sink, I use the “grape stomping” method of laundry in a bathtub while I take a shower! That way I can do both hubby’s and mine at once. Then I roll as much of it as I can in a microfiber bath sheet, and sit on the bundle for a minute to press the water out, before hanging overnight.
    I’d appreciate any ideas for my upcoming 3 week trip to China. I’ve already pared down to three changes of clothes. I use only a roller carry-on. With an arthritic spine, backpacks don’t work for me, and it’s hard to manage multiple pieces. I have to take a CPAP and a Battery because the planes don’t let me plug it in. Although US planes allow CPAP as “an extra personal item” the smaller Chinese airlines don’t. Any advice to how to pack something the size of a loaf of bread into my 22 lb allowance will be greatly appreciated!! I can’t use the mini-travel sized CPAP for medical reasons.

    So basically I need to fit it all in 20 x 9 x 15 bag and a personal item bag no bigger than 16 x 6 x 12. I’m having trouble finding a “personal item” bag that size. Suggestions? Help!!!! And Thanks!!

  9. Jane Steen on September 5, 2018 at 4:13 am

    No good asking me for traveling advice–I’m hopeless at packing light! But I’ve added The Complete Walker to my buy list–now that I live in Sussex I really want to get into long-distance walking (a favorite English pastime). It’s not as easy as it sounds when you’re talking about walks of 15 miles or more.

  10. Catherine Muir on September 6, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Make sure you don’t enable the WiFi on your Nook while in Europe
    You may find certain its vanish into the cloud and refuse to reload (until, presumably, you return to the USA.). I still prefer Nook to any other ereader, but B&N quit Europe, and I gave in and got Kindle.
    Still use Nook for side loads, though.

  11. Meaghan on September 11, 2018 at 5:52 am

    As a fellow 10.5 wearer, I sympathize. I found the perfect travel shoe a few years ago, and stocked up before Merrell stopped making it:

    A few years ago Merrell made the “Angelic” ankle boot. it came in 10.5, has a grippy sole, and is waterproofed – I can walk a full day on cobbled hills in Edinburgh without my feet getting wet or sore. It’s black leather, with a one-inch wedge, so looks appropriate for any event where I can wear trousers or an ankle-length skirt. And best of all, it zips on the side rather than laces, so it’s easy to get on and off at the airport. Those boots are a life-saver; I wear them on the plane, pack black trousers or skirts to go with the boots, and (at least for city trips) I don’t need to pack any other shoes.

    These current Merrell styles look like they have similar characteristics:

  12. Tracy Latimer on September 24, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    I’m getting caught up on posts made over the past 2 months, which is why the comments thread is littered with all my musings!

    Travel: DH and I have gotten travelling light down to backpacks and a duffel, if we are going to be out for more than 2 weeks. Each backpack (mine is a venerable Jansport from my college days, DH’s is a newer Osprey Mk 22) will hold at least a week’s worth of travel accouterments. The duffel is reserved for things we would be annoyed at losing, but not crippled, like gifts for people we visit. We also have gotten into the habit of packing several articles of clothing we intend to get rid of by the end of the trip if we are hiking or not needing to impress anyone. A shirt with pinholes or underwear with bad elastic may be discarded with a clean conscience, and leaves room, as someone said, for serendipity. Ideally, we will have given or thrown away enough by the end of a trip to roll up the duffel and pack it as well; worst case scenario, mail home if in the US.

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