Erin J. Bernard / erinjbernardphotography

Packing for the Apocalypse: Advice for Overloaded Travelers


I have seen a good bit of the world, which for some reason has cultivated in others the mistaken impression that I might be a good source of counsel when it comes time to pack for a trip.

Let me assure each of you that this is not the case.

I know full well the brand of traveler these advice-seekers are conjuring up when they come to me for help, because I conjure her, too, each time I pull my backpack out of the closet and begin to stuff it full in anticipation of a forthcoming adventure: her clothes are color-coordinated, wrinkleless and moisture-wicking. Her polyurethane travel towel measures six by six inches, dries in eight-point-five seconds, and fits into a pouch the size of a hard-boiled egg. And she adheres unsentimentally to that old Buddhist mantra of traveling light, bringing little more than a few changes of clothes, a polycarbonate spork, moisturizer of conservative SPF and a pocket-sized travel guide.

I am not this person. In fact, I’m one of the worst over-packers you will ever meet, mostly because I’m sentimental and fearful and overly imaginative. When it’s time to hit the road, I conjure up every possible travel scenario that might befall me, good and bad, and I attempt to prepare for each.

It never works. I pack too many things, but inevitably, they are the wrong things. I stuff extra items into the crannies of my bag at the very last minute. I tote along piles of books. And I must have been a trash picker in a previous incarnation, because I also amass incredible quantities of glorious junk over the course of every single trip. Rocks, seashells, sand, bottle caps, matchbooks, maps: I’ve got ever-growing collections of each lining my shelves. If you can name it, and it’s lying on the ground somewhere exotic, I’ve probably stuffed it into my already overflowing rucksack at least a dozen times.

That said, I do have a few meager scraps of packing advice to share, even if I’m completely incapable of following any of these mandates myself.

Take heed, and happy travels, friends.

Less Flotsam, more jetsam. In common parlance, this term of nautical art is used to describe a random assortment of objects, but in fact, these sister words have specific and totally opposing meanings.

Jetsam is debris that a traveling vessel throws overboard on purpose, usually to lighten its load in a moment of distress. Flotsam, on the other hand, is the stuff that goes overboard by accident. Think: broken-off ship parts or other items lost during a wreck or a storm. When you pack, think jetsam all the way, and select items you can easily cast off as you go.

This will lighten your load as a trip progresses, but it requires that you bring along things you don’t really like. Things that are ill-fitting, ratty, and/or just about used up. Things you could toss to side of the road or pass on to a new owner without a single twinge of regret.

A few years back, I traveled through India and Sri Lanka with a friend who’d gone out of her way to stuff her backpack full of items she no longer needed: ruffled dress-up shirts that had never fit quite right, fruit leathers, little sheets of stickers. Each time we’d land in a new town, she’d eyeball the locals, searching for just the right recipient for her cast-offs. As our trip progressed, her pack got lighter and her heart got bigger. She made friends, young and old, and she introduced dozens of little Indian kids to the wonders of the fruit rollup. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

In order to succeed at this spare mandate, of course, you must also consent to abandon contingencies. So much can happen in a week or a month. If you stop and think about it, it’s truly anxiety provoking! So don’t stop, and don’t think. Don’t envision the torrential downpour or the muddy scree or the swarm of killer bees. Envision the spare necessities, and focus on those.

I once had a boyfriend who I swear to you packed along nothing more than a toothbrush when we went away for the weekend. Yes, this means he regularly didn’t change his socks or underwear for two days at a time, but I was always terribly impressed when he’d hop into the car with nothing more than a blue Oral-B hanging out of the front pocket of his T-shirt. And a little funk adds character, besides.

Don’t bother envisioning, either, all the fun you could have in in the various outfits you’re trying to convince yourself you ought to pack. You will have just as much fun and meet just as many exotic, swarthy men in your ratty old leggings as you will in those silky Lulu Lemon yoga stretchers. Or you will catch bone-break fever, get robbed by a hooker, and expire in a filthy Bangkok hotel room instead. Either way, your choice in travel apparel will be categorically irrelevant.

Erin J. Bernard in Egypt

Erin in Egypt, 2007

You might pay more, but you can probably buy it there. Once, while on tour in Egypt, I messed up my birth control pills and started my period weeks early. And this meant that I was faced with the unpleasant business of asking my devout Muslim tour guide, Hani, to point me to a pharmacy.

“What do you need?” he asked.

“It’s private,” I said.

Hani looked stymied, offended, even, so I worked up a bit of third-wave feminist pluck and confessed: “I’m on my period. But I want tampons, not pads.”

He looked momentarily nonplussed, but he nodded dutifully and led me to a nearby chemist. Inside the cramped, dimly lit store, he described my predicament in low Arabic tones to the two mummified pharmacists seated behind the medicine counter. One jumped up, trotted into the back room, and returned with a little pink box in hand. I can’t quite recall, but I think it must have had flowers on it. He put the box into an opaque plastic shopping bag, handed it to me, then grinned conspiratorially at the other man, he held his pointer finger to his lips, and whispered, “Shhhhh! Secret!”

The two of them giggled uproariously at this witticism, stroking their beards in piggy glee as I exited the shop and returned to my tour group. Their mirth was inconsequential. A line or two of crude, sexist banter was indeed a small price to pay for a dozen of those miraculous little cotton rockets, especially when the temperatures hit 110 two days later.

Seriously. Unless you are tearing through the Darien Gap or joining up with the Peace Corps, you can really and truly buy it there. At a markup, sure, and perhaps in exchange for a thin slice of your Western pride, but you’ve already committed the unspeakably extravagant act of dropping $1,000-plus on a plane ticket, anyway. All tertiary costs will pale in comparison. Relax.

Don’t be such an emotional packhorse. There’s an argument to be made for your literal baggage becoming a metaphor for your figurative baggage, tired a trope as it may be. Just as I was finishing grad school back in 2009, the economy collapsed, taking all of the last good journalism jobs with it. Like many of my j-school contemporaries, I felt ill prepared for the struggles ahead. But while most of them smartly got busy writing grants and hitting up hometown weeklies and reapplying to long-abandoned barista jobs, I panicked and spent the rest of my student loan money on a last-minute ticket to Guatemala, gunning to ride out the worst of the recession somewhere warm and cheap, or at least to stave off the shitty, shitty future for a few months longer.

I packed in a fretful hurry, stuffing scads of dresses and tank tops and scarves into a good-sized lime-green rolling suitcase. I additionally packed books and shoes and jewelry and a small pharmacopeia of medicines and potions, trying to fortify myself against a growing unease — a tough trick to master, I was coming to realize, as my worries were legion: I was anxious about my future as a writer, feeling haggard and malformed after two years of Midwestern dating failures, and desperately clinging to the dregs of a misspent youth. Nowhere did those neuroses parade themselves more conspicuously than in my packing choices.

Oh, I lugged that stupid lime-hued bag across four countries that summer, yanking it up nearly vertical cobblestone streets and down endless dripping stairwells, ollying it over curbs and uncovered manholes until the wheels came loose and the zippers jammed. It rode atop countless chicken buses and in the backs of rattling pickup trucks, attracting the disdain, laughter and suspicion of every single person I met.

A Dutch girl I traveled with started called the bag “Mr. Green,” heckling me so long and hard that my embarrassment turned to a dark mirth. I embraced the ridiculousness of it all: my suitcase, my chronically low sense of self-worth, my bleak writerly future. In the fullness of time, I’ve come to see that long, strange trip as a gold mine of hard personal lessons, chief among them: matter how many layers of things you surround yourself with, you still must occasionally come to your fate desperately underprepared. It’s humbling, terrifying, even. But don’t think you can pad yourself against the hard-knock lessons with the cushion of gross materialism. When the layers fall away and life slams into you full force, you finally get to find out exactly what you’re really made of.

Erin J. Bernard in Belize

Erin in Belize, 2004

Dance in hiking boots. I am shamelessly cribbing this bit of advice from an old travel guide I took to Thailand with me a decade and a half ago on my first solo trip in the developing world. In the “what to pack” section, the author argued memorably for minimalism, posing the following challenge: “You decide which is easier: dancing in hiking boots or climbing a volcano in high heels.”

Did I heed the warning on that ill-fated voyage to the east? No. No, I did not. Instead, I was dressed to impress, albeit in my own, backpackerish way. Others had chosen differently. While hanging out in a guesthouse in Northern Thailand, I met an Eastern European girl who had clearly taken the jetsam mandate to heart: her hair was a mass of frizz, and her stained, misshapen shirt and high-waisted safari shorts were frumpy even by former-Eastern Bloc standards. She looked dumpy as hell, and she cared not a whit.

“I packed all my ugliest clothes so I could throw them away before I go home,” she told me proudly, lifting her foot up so I could admire a clunky, masculine trekking boot. “These are the only shoes I brought.”

I, on the other hand, was wearing a pair of fakey Converse picked up in a night market in Chiang Mai, plus a coconut-seed necklace and a pair of cute purple pajama pants. Ironically, most of my things, including the Converse and the necklace, were stolen from me in the jungle a month or so later. The thieves spared me my purple pants, but one fateful night soon afterward, I left them atop a smoldering mosquito coil while I slept. When I woke the next morning, my hotel room smelled like melting synthetic fiber, and the pants had a perfect spiral burned into one leg. They were ruined, but I knew enough by then to thank my stars that the whole bloody building hadn’t burned with them. Three weeks, two Western Union cash infusions and one very expensive last-minute replacement airplane ticket later, I was on a plane home, dressed in the scorched pants, hungrily devouring a tiny tub of Hagen Das in the first class cabin.

Now it was my turn to look dumpy as hell and care not a whit. What did it matter? I was going home, and at least I had pants at all. I held on to those purple jammies for years afterward, just as a reminder to myself that dancing through life’s hard knocks, whether you accomplish it in hiking boots or shitty Converse and a pair of melted pajamas, is always to be commended.


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