It's all in the bags: packing like a pro

April 11, 1993|By Thomas Swick | Thomas Swick,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

If you're a magician, I suppose, people ask you how you get out of a straitjacket while hanging handcuffed upside down over rows of flaming spears. When you're a travel writer, people ask you how you pack.

This surprised me at first, since I always considered packing to be the least interesting part of my job. Let me amend that. It is the second least interesting part of my job. The least interesting is unpacking. I have been known to let my bag sit, half-emptied, for weeks in a corner of the bedroom, which is not that bad an idea because when a new trip comes up I sometimes have the pleasure of finding I'm already half-packed.

But I had to rethink my packing philosophy recently when Outside magazine assigned one of its writers to interview inveterate travelers about what they pack. Their responses were predictably eccentric -- Paul Theroux insisted he often carries a small bottle of Tabasco sauce -- but the one item they almost unanimously agreed upon as being essential on a trip was a good knife.

I have never packed a knife. And on some of my more recent trips I was very pleased about this omission because knives, along with firearms and explosives, were the very things security people searched me for. Instead of knives, they found wads of jockey shorts.

My conclusion after reading Outside magazine is that I am an unexceptional, if somewhat minimalist, packer. I never take more than an old-fashioned shoulder satchel and a carry-on bag -- a 5-year-old leather valise that is already handsomely showing the scars of countless overhead compartments. This means that I never lose luggage, never wait for luggage, never wander about with no free hands.

First the valise. I layer the bottom with, at most, three pairs of pants, folded at the knee. (Note: This recipe works for trips of any length.) Next comes a soft mountain of half a dozen folded shirts, a T-shirt or two, a sweater or two, and a tie. (A tie is to the urban traveler what a knife is to the explorer.)

A thin green trench, rolled into a sausage, enters next. Half a dozen pairs of socks pad one side, half a dozen pairs of underpants the other. My toiletries bag jackhammers its way down the least congested end.

My traveling clothes -- neophytes often forget that what you wear is as important as how you pack -- usually include a pair of black jeans (comfortable, and rugged enough to be worn for long periods of time, yet dark enough to look almost dressy) and, along the same lines, sturdy black loafers with rubber soles.

Sometimes I wear an old sport coat (the inside pockets are handy for quick removal of tickets and documents), but I don't enjoy wearing it on a plane or scrunching it up in the overhead compartment.

Recently, I've started stuffing a small, collapsible bag into the valise to carry new acquisitions and dirty clothes. (I also stash a packet of detergent for doing wash in hotel tubs.) So conceivably, I could come home carrying one bag more than when I left. But if I can still squeeze it back into my valise, I do.

My satchel, an old-fashioned book bag purchased a few years ago in Poland, is the one thing I will never leave home without.

Despite its small size, it has a pouch for my notebook, a pocket for my pens, a back sleeve for a newspaper and a zippered compartment for tickets, passport, address book and keys. The main body easily carries my camera, film, sunglasses, books and -- sliding in perfectly behind -- magazines. Should I wish, there's usually room left over for a knife.

Not only is the bag practical, but it also serves as a valuable disguise. Walking with it slung across my shoulder, I have been stopped by locals and asked for directions in cities as diverse as Genoa and Cairo. This of course meant that I didn't look like a tourist and wouldn't be an obvious target for terrorists and thieves. You can't ask much more from a bag than that.

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