How to Pack Small, Think Big

“‘I think,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘that we ought to eat all our Provisions now, so that we shan’t have so much to carry.’”

Christopher Robin gives this very efficient advice to Winnie the Pooh, Rabbit and the other animals shortly after beginning their “expedition” to the North Pole. The suggestion is enthusiastically taken up by the creatures of the Hundred Acre Wood and they promptly eat all the food they brought along for their journey. 

In the nineteenth century, a real-life version of this was enacted by children each autumn in the Alps of Savoy. The wonderful Discovery of France  relates how little groups of boys (and some girls dressed as boys) would, on their own, march out of the mountains with their broad-rimmed hats, a little money, a couple of shirts wrapped in kerchief, and some dense, black bread their parents had made for them. They were walking to Paris to work as chimney sweeps for the winter. Along the way they slept in barns, filched apples and eggs and learned the songs and street cries they would use in Paris to drum up business. 

While not quite as extreme as Christoper Robin or the Savoyard chimney sweeps, in recent years savvy travelers have been advocating for a “small bag” approach packing for a trip. Tim Ferriss, for example, has numerous blogs and videos demonstrating the “ultra light” technique which is a mix of being very realistic of what you actually will need paired with some techie-oriented solutions (such as extra-light technical clothing, easily washed in a sink).

This is a version of the first light packing advice I ever heard: lay out everything you need, then take only half of that. That worked well, but you realize after another trip of hauling too much around that you could perform that trick again. Take half of that half. Eventually you end where Tim is. 

The advantages of a small bag are many: you don’t have to check luggage on an airplane, you are not always hauling multiple suitcases up some unexpected stairs or over cobblestones, and its very easy to pack and unpack at each stop. Experience will tell you that if need something you can borrow quite a bit or buy it if absolutely necessary. With a light pack or a small bag you are nimble and able to pivot with more ease. 

You are—potentially—more open to adventure. 

This is the most important gift a small bag can give us: room to think big. Packing light does leave us open to adventure. The French humanist philosopher, Gaspard Koenig, (who I wrote about recently) rode in 2020 (!) from Bordeaux to Rome on horse with only his saddle bags—a thousand mile journey.

I once dropped an acquaintance off for a trip to South America. His “bag” was a flannel shirt, a passport and a Hank Williams III CD — he would get into adventure no matter what! 

But packing light can also allow us to be present, to follow our curiosity, and to go deep. When we pack with deliberation, when we de-clutter our suitcases and rucksacks we set an intention for our journey. 

A small bag signals that you are willing to have less of a wall between yourself and the world. 

We travel for all sorts of reasons, but a small bag can remind us of a forgotten mode of travel: for the travel itself. To be present is to know that each moment, each stage of travel is the adventure. It readies you to experience situations like a wait in a train station a flat tire, a diner lunch, even an airport as the point of traveling. 

These are not necessarily always joyful moments, but, in becoming what my college Şirin Köprücü, calls comfortable in being uncomfortable, our overall sense of inconvenience is lowered and our pleasure heightened. 

Being present and accepting each stage for what it is allows our curiosity to open up. We begin to wonder about the stranger sitting across from us. We wonder how the building we are in was built and for what purpose. We strike up a conversation, or take a short walk following an unusual pattern, or ponder how a system operates as workers make strange gestures. We make friends with a pigeon. We make an unexpected turn, we sit and watch the sky. 

Curiosity is a powerful tonic to the stress of travel that awaits like a trap at every turn. 

In cross-cultural communication, pack light, think big, is metaphorically crucial. When we encounter difference, meet the unexpected, the less we are burdened with pre-conceived notions, our own cultural bias and ethnocentrism, the more we are open to being present and curious. 

We are open to new opportunities and means of connecting with new colleagues in business or new strangers in the street. We are ready to pivot, adjust and be nimble with much greater speed and effectiveness. 

A (proverbial) giant suitcase signals destination. It embodies not the journey (where it is often a profound physical and psychic inconvenience), but the arrival in the hotel room where it will be unpacked. It speaks of the weight actual and of expectations: We expect the journey to be full of stress and unworthy of our attention. 

We are burdened with our pre-conceptions and often miss what is in front of us or mistake it for something else. 

Of course goals and destinations are built into travel, even with a small bag. But because we tend to reproduce the pattern of destination-focused thinking even at the purported destination (we think, before I can be present I have to get to the museum, I have to get the tickets, I have to check my bag, I have to get to get a map, I have to find the famous painting), we only rarely give ourselves permission to admit that we are “here” as we stand in front of the well-known painting. But even then, we are not ready to be present. The room is crowded. Everyone is taking pictures. We are taking a picture. We are exhausted. 

A small bag allows you to think big about those destinations. If the famous painting is important, you can enjoy each stage of your approach like a pilgrimage. You will have had the mental capacity to go deep. You have read about it, pondered its importance to you and the world. You have let you curiosity orient you to the painting. You are open and less stressed when you finally stand before it. 

You are ready to be present and encounter the thing as it is. 

Or if that famous painting was never that interesting, you are then ready and nimble at each moment to turn off the path, to stop and spend the afternoon people-watching in park, to follow the bank of a river, to turn off into an empty gallery and encounter something unexpected. Or perhaps you will keep following that village, your bag over your shoulder, and walk on to the next village. After all, traveling on foot is our most primal and wonderful way of traveling. As Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote (after walking from Holland to Istanbul)  “On foot, unlike other forms of travel, it is impossible to be out of touch.

The actual size of your small bag will always be relative to your journey, to you and your needs. But it will always be “small” because you have chosen to make room and space for thinking big: being present, being curious and willing to go deep. 

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