with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Packing Tips and Techniques

flight oregon to alabama out window of airplane mountains snow by brent vanfossenAll our friends who travel with us rely upon Lorelle to handle the packing organization. In fact, our best buddy, Duane Hansen, explains that Lorelle can do what scientists have never accomplished: violate the laws of the three dimensional universe. Somehow, she fits it all in and there is still room to spare.

Packing isn’t hard. It’s just a matter of thinking of things as three dimensional puzzle pieces. You have to find the way they all fit together. Sturdy and hard things go on the bottom. Smashables get pressed around the hard things and into small crevices as you find them. Everything has a container or is tied together. The things you need most, keep handy.

The Carrying Case

In the “good old days” you had a choice of a duffle bag or a hard or soft style box called a suitcase. Today, you have many choices from sophisticated suitcases within suitcases with wheels, pop-out work desks, and security alarms, to backpacks designed for the weather on Mt. Everest. More and more traveling nature photographers are choosing backpacks for their ease of carrying. Whichever way you go, here are some tips:

Carry It/Test Drive It
Put all of your typical travel gear together at home and weigh it. This will give you a starting point. At the store, ask the backpack specialist to put weights into the pack or case you are considering that match your travel gear weight. Haul the thing around the shop a few times. Does it carry the weight well? Does it tip over or do you struggle akwardly going up stairs or around corners? Experiment with different cases and packs to see which fit you best and make the effort of lugging your stuff around effortlessly – or as easy as possible. When you make your decision, check on their return policy and take the thing home, load it up, and walk your neighborhood (or at least around the house). As a backpack “warms up” it will fit you better. If it is still feeling good after a few laps, then you got a great buy. If not, take it back. Professional travelers estimate that you should be able to carry your own luggage at least a half mile (1 km) with some ease.
Go for Volume
How big should you go? We tend to go really big, often fitting one case inside another, just in case. But then we often travel for long periods of time. REI recomends about 3,200 cubic inches for a weekend, 4,000 cu. in. for one or two weeks, and 12,100 cu. in. for trips lasting a month or longer.
To Wheel or Not to Wheel
Today, even backpacks come with wheels, making the race through the airport a lot easier. Yet, wheels add weight. If you will be traveling a lot by car, staying in hotels and easy-to-access lodges, then wheeled packs make sense. If you are planning on hiking or hauling your pack around for hours on end, skip the weight of the wheels and spend your money on a sturdy frame and excellent back support.
How Do I Find My Stuff?
Whether you decide on a traditional form suitcase or backpack, examine your zippers. Figure out how it opens and closes and how you will store your stuff inside. Is it easy to get access to the things you want? Does it have the right compartments for you? Backpacks are no longer limited to loading only from the top. Many feature middle and side openings. Experiment to make sure you can easily get to what you want without taking everything out to find anything.
Carry-on Angst
Brent VanFossen flies with his guitar strapped to the seat next to him in the airplane.

Brent VanFossen flies with his guitar strapped to the seat next to him in the airplane.

The ease of carrying all your camera gear on the plane is long gone. There are now serious restrictions on carry-on luggage size and weight. Once the airlines only worried about size, making sure the thing would fit under the seat. Today, they are weighing every gram. Check with the airlines you will be traveling on for specifics, but in general, carry-on luggage is restricted to no larger than 22x14x9 inches (55x35x22 cm) and 40 pounds in the USA, though much less on most other non-US airlines. We are now putting our tripod in the middle of our suitcase for padding, and packing flashes, small lenses, and other “non-essentials” into our case instead of carrying it with us.

Roll and Stuff

The main trick to defying the three dimensional universe is rolling. By tightly rolling up pants and shirts, even underwear, you compress them in size and shape to fit together like a honeycomb in your luggage. Press clothing items out towards the edges and corners of the bag to create insulation and padding for the more vulnerable things in the middle.

Space Bags are excellent for shrinking down clothing for travel. They hold a good quantity of clothing and reduce down to easily fit in a suitcase with room for other things. Space Bags are airtight plastic bags with a valve, and you remove the air with a vacuum, or by simply rolling them. They are available in a variety of sizes. But you don’t have to be limited by the expense of customized compression bags, you can also use ziplock bags. These come in a variety of sizes and can contain underwear, scarfs, socks, and a multitude of small things. Roll the item up in the bag and zip it part way. Compress the air out and roll it up the rest of the way, getting all the air out, and zip it. They usually stay tightly sealed and change a slightly space-consuming object into a controllable small roll.

Here are a few more specific tips:

Make Your Own Travel Gear
The book, Travel Gear and Gifts to Make: Accessories for Trips Around the Corner or the World, by Mary Mulari, offers a wide range of make-it-yourself travel gear. From rain ponchos to carrying cases, her examples are easy and quick to make. Other items include a portable ironing board, jewelry cases, fanny packs, and map carrying cases. Available through Mary’s Productions, Box 87, Aurora, MN 55705.

NEW NEWS! Mary has a great new book and video called “Made for Travel.” It features 50 easy-sew accessories for everyday travel. It is a must have!

Keep what you use frequently on top
Keep toiletries, wash cloths, towels, and head lamps where they are accessible. Put them on the top of suitcases so they are the first things to come out of the bag.
Sleeping bags
Replace your old bulky sleeping bag with a down-filled bag which squashes down practically to purse size. Sleeping bags can be laid flat underneath things, taking up little space, but that makes them difficult to get to unless you intend to take everything out first. So drape them over your gear, or cover the seats to keep them cool. Sleeping bags are great pads for wrapping around tripods in a suitcase. Who said they have to be nicely rolled up? Because of their flexibility, they can be shoved in and around almost anything.
Double Duty
Everything should have at least two purposes. Hopefully more. A big plastic bowl can be used for making salads and then for washing dishes. We drink all liquids from insulated coffee mugs instead of bringing extra glasses. Non-disposable plastic dinner plates can be used as cutting boards. Think through each item thoroughly and try to find as many uses for it as possible. Eliminate the redundancies.
Bag everything
Store toiletries, cooking supplies and liquids in plastic sealable containers and plastic sealable bags. They prevent spills and the messy cleanup afterwards. Keep cooking supplies in your car in a large plastic storage box. A removable lid doubles as a serving tray, too.
Water bottle containers and resealable baggies
Empty water bottles make great Graphic of a water bottlecontainers. Rice, cereal, liquid and crushable items can be put in sealable plastic bags, compressed and rolled up inside the bottle. When empty, fill with water.
Don’t Forget the Weather
When planning what to take with you when you go, here are some questions to take into consideration. First of all, consider the seasons and the location. What temperatures and weather conditons do you expect to find? How much time will you spend inside or out? How flexible does your clothing need to be? Do you need nice and elegant or will just baggy and comfy be good enough? Once you have a handle on the dress code and the weather, it is time to get serious with your suitcase.
Can You Get It There?
travel bottles gotoobDon’t forget, there are plenty of things you can buy when you are there, and when you have more space to put things. If you are staying in hotels, you don’t need shampoo, soap, or a hair dryer as they usually provide those items. Renting a car? You can buy things like shampoo, towels, soap, toothbrushes, hair brushes, nail files, and other inexpensive items and toss them in the car. You don’t have to take it all with you, just buy it if you need it, and then toss it when you don’t need it or you are returning home. Items that can spill in your case, especially when banged around in an airplane, are best purchased when you need them at your travel destination, saving you the grief of opening your suitcase to find fingernail polish remover everywhere.

Do You Really Need This?

Don’t wait until last minute to pack. We open a suitcase a couple weeks before a trip and start tossing things in. Whatever we think we may need goes into the case as we go. It never seems to fail that if you think of something at last minute, you can’t find it. As you find the item, stick it in the case.

Beyond Weekend
For trips lasting more than four days here are a few things to consider.

  • Bring clothes for 3 – 4 days. We often wear the same pants for 2-3 days, changing shirts more often. Air them between washings.
  • Bring enough underwear for five days.
  • Bring bathing suits and shorts no matter where you are going. You never know when a swimming pool may show up.
  • Toiletries are usually replaceable and expendable.
  • Make room in your suitcase for an extra duffel bag or collapsible suitcase for the return trip.

A few days before we leave we take it all out and put it all together again in the suitcase, ready to leave. There it sits, fermenting, for a day or so and then we unpack the whole thing and re-pack it again, this time with feeling. We go through the questions again. Do we really need this? Is the trip a disaster without it? Does it have more than one use? Am I bringing this out of some false expectation that I will need it (it looks pretty and I never get a chance to wear it at home) or because it really serves a purpose. You will be surprised at how quickly your priorities change throughout the fermentation process. You will toss out the things you really don’t need and realize you forgot to include some items you really do need.

As you consider each item, stop and ask yourself if you really need this? Is it easy to pack or require special handling? Can you find a smaller version of the same thing? Do you really need a full bottle of shampoo or will a small bottle do? Will the hotel have shampoo so you don’t really need it? Will the hotel have a hair dryer so you don’t need to bring one? Watch for duplicating items. Do you really need four bathing suits or will two be enough?

Laying out all the items, look for things which serve more than one purpose. A towel can become a pillow as well as a small blanket. A large plastic garbage bag acts as a waterproof poncho, covers your camera equipment, can be sat upon, and serves as a laundry bag, along with many other uses.

Luggage Tags
luggage tags on suitcases and gear
Another tip from Mary Mulari’s Travel Gear book is colorful ribbon luggage tags. Using either an iron-on label with our contact information or writing with indelible ink onto bright colored fabric ribbon, our luggage jumps out at us with this recognizable flag. We have found many other uses for this technique, too.

Finally, ask yourself if leaving the item behind will ruin the whole trip. If you are heading out for some spelunking and photographing caves, leaving your flash behind will be a serious mistake. Photographing wild animals or birds, in most cases it’s useless without a minimum 400mm lens. If you are going to the desert or beach, forgotten sunlotion can make it difficult to enjoy. Sun lotion can be easily purchased anywhere, but can you rent or replace a 500mm lens or the right flash for your camera? Look carefully at what you are bringing. If leaving it behind spoils the trip, make sure it goes into the suitcase first. If it won’t spoil the trip, then will it make it more enjoyable or do you really need it? This helps to narrow down the choices really fast.

Once More – With Feeling

Once you have packed everything, take some time to unpack it all and reconsider what you’ve packed. Once again ask yourself if you really need this.Can you make do with something else? You may find you brought three sweaters when only one was sufficient, or you forgot to pack your toothbrush. Go through your list and really examine each item you include as to its value and purpose. You’ll find yourself shrinking down your choices quickly.

Consider Losing Your Luggage

Photo of our suitcase tags after arrival in IsraelWhile lost luggage is becoming an unusual event nowadays, it still can happen. There is nothing more frustrating and liberating than losing your luggage. It quickly prioritizes the basic elements you need on a trip.

When my mother and I decided to spend an extended vacation in Morocco and Spain, our plans didn’t get off on the right foot too well when my luggage showed up and my mother’s didn’t. During the entire time we were in Morocco, she refused to borrow any of my clothing. She had brought an extra pair of underwear and an extra shirt for the 20 plus hour flight from Seattle in her carry-on, so every night she washed those out and hung them to dry. She would carefully fold her pants and slip them under the mattress to “press” them as she slept. She purchased a goat herder’s pullover jacket to keep her warm, which smelled like goat when it got wet, and a T-shirt for the more rugged excursions, easily available in the tourist spots. A scarf she always traveled with was draped over her shirt and pants to look more formal for evenings out. Losing her luggage changed her attitude about what was appropriate to wear for which occasions and taught her how to make do with what she had.

Packing for moving to Israel, I watched a month of careful shopping and planning go out the door after Brent weighed the first suitcase. Limited to 70 lbs per suitcase by airline restrictions, it came at near double that. The second suitcase was a bit less, as was the third, but we knew we were in trouble. Everything came out of the suitcases and we started over, prioritizing everything just a few hours before our flight. The items we couldn’t live without that related to work went in first. Slowly we added the barest of essentials, fighting the scale every time, coming back for more and more to come out of the suitcases. Weight restricts can be horrible to work with, but they do help you measurably prioritize what is most essential. We left a huge mess and tons of stuff behind for his parents to clean up after we left for the airport.

Consider losing your luggage or put weight restrictions on you luggage to help you prioritize your packing. Go through the packing questions and really look at what is most important to bring with you when you go. The less stuff you bring to tie you down, the more open you are to the wonders of your adventure.

The Art of Packing

When it comes to packing, size matters and so does convenience. Everyting should have dual purposes. Here are some neat itmes we’ve found and enjoyed to carry with us as we travel:

Make It Yourself Travel Kits
The Travel Gear and Gifts to Make book by Mary Mulari is a great resource for all kinds of do-it-yourself gadgets and gizmosLink to web site of Mary Mulari for travel organization and storage. It includes making clothing hanger covers that feature pockets for storing jewelry and belts that match the outfit, as well as hiding money in it. And how to sew a pocket on your socks to hide money or keys. She has patterns for a rain poncho that stuffs into a chest pocket on the poncho, which then zips up into a small 4 x 8 inch pouch. Toiletry and makeup bags, jewelry bags, fanny packs, stuff sacks and all kinds of neat tricks designed for the traveler. You can buy it from a variety of arts and crafts and fabric stores, or order it direct at Mary Mulari’s Travel Gear Book, Mary’s Productions, Box 87, Aurora, MN 55705.
Platypus Bottles
Lorelle adores the Platypus water bottles found at serious recreational stores and available on the Internet. These bottles are designed from lightweight but “puncture-less” plastic and collapse as you consume the water, taking up less bulk in your bags. They come in a variety of sizes. The 1/2 liter is excellent for traveling. Lorelle often carries two, one in an easy-to-reach pocket and the other for later. The liter and larger bottles can be used as a “camel” bag, hung from your pack with a connecting tube to suck from strung to the front. The large 4 liter bag works best for leaving in the car or for long hauls with some form of transportation.

Portable Ironing Board
A great gadget Lorelle made is a roll-up ironing board she discovered in the book, Travel Gear and Gifts to Make: Accessories for Trips Around the Corner or the World, by sewing talent Mary Mulari. She took a pretty cotton fabric and the Teflon covered ironing pad from a used small ironing board and sewed the pieces together into a small ironing board shape, leaving the square end open. Stuffed two thick layers of cotton batting in it, sowed a ribbon on the end, rolled it up into a roll and tied it shut. It is about 3 – 4 inches high and about 10 – 12 inches long when rolled up. To use, you just unroll it and stuff newspaper or cardboard into the open end to provide a stiffener and you have a portable, roll-up ironing board. It’s great and real handy. A towel works just as good, but if you have to wear serious business clothing requiring ironing, this is a great alternative when you are not staying in the finest hotels which supply ironing boards. Even while camping, I can wear freshly pressed outfits and look like I’m not camping.
Stuff Sacks
Found in good quality camping stores, these small “bags” come in a variety of sizes. Originally designed for stuffing in a sleeping bag and using the side compression straps to shrink it down in size, these also work great for clothing, towels, and other “stuffable” and “crushable” items. Make sure you don’t put anything hard or sharp inside these bags as they will poke and tear the sack. Stuff them to the top and pull the side straps as tight as possible to shrink the whole mess down.
Bring the Office
Don’t forget to bring the office with you when you go. Many stationery, office supply stores, and camping stores offer little “kits” which feature a pen, ruler, paper clip, scissors, stapler, or even a scotch tape dispender in a little container not much larger than a credit card. Be sure and keep this in your suitcase and not your carry-ons when you fly.
Be Creative
Who says that only the best travel goodies come from fancy travel stores. We use a lot of interesting items made from the simplest of supplies.
Skewer Cleaning
We use a cooking wood skewer and twist some cotton on the end and you have an instant cotton swab for cleaning those hard to reach places and other needs.
Stuff stockings
We use socks as gloves when the weather changes unpredictably. Thick socks are fairly inexpensive and easy to find. You can also cut the toe off and make a flexible knee protector against the cold or rough terrain. Wear them inside your pants, using the heel towards the front of A plastic bag protects you and the camera from the elements. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenthe knee. They can also be cut to act as ankle warmers, covering up more of the leg or to provide an extra layer on the lower leg for warmth. A long wool sock can be pinned around the neck to provide a turtleneck warmth there, too. Don’t forget pantyhose. While they are not the most comfortable items of clothing for women, they are good think insulators and wearable by men and women. People who spend a lot of time in cooler temperatures wear them as a thin insulation layer under their clothing. Cut the legs and feet off and you have an arm insulator, as well as a compression “skin” with which to cover and hold bandages in place on your arms and legs. Don’t worry, guys, no one will know except those who see you put them on.
Large Plastic Garbage Bags
We rarely go anywhere without plastic grocery bags and large plastic garbage bags. These are so versatile. The large bags can be turned into instant rain protection gear, covering yourself and your equipment. It can also serve as a wind protector. They can be made into hats, gloves, boot covers, and a wide variety of clothing covers and protectors. Tie one around your waist to waterproof your backside when sitting on damp or cold ground. Or just set your camera equipment and cases on one to protect it from the dirt or sand on the ground. As a last resort, use it to carry out dirty laundry, or even the garbage from the area.
Recycle Dishes
Traveling in Spain in a rented small motor home, we found the dishes they provided inadequate for our needs. We needed a salad bowl for our frequent need for greens, small mixing bowls for making salad dressings, sauces, and other goodies (we cook a lot for ourselves on the road to save money in the expensive tourist restaurants, which we can’t go in because of the smoking anyway), and bowls for ice cream and storing left-overs. We found that some of the plastic containers and jars that came with food we purchased worked great for reusing as practical bowls and containers. Jars from homemade local jam-makers were emptied quickly and became left over containers and drinking cups. A plastic container carrying take-away became another. A baked chicken container became a salad bowl. Yogurt “cups” became salad dressing “mixing” bowls. Use your imagination and what you have instead of spending money to buy dishes you won’t need at the end of your trip.
Pad It
Sanitary napkins or panty liners are excellent emergency bandages on serious wounds and cuts. If the serious wound or cut is on the arm or leg, instead of using tape, consider holding the pad against the wound with cut pantyhose legs. Soak the pads in water to act like a sponge for cleaning sores. Panty liners work well to protect blisters and other foot injuries and work as padding in your shoes. Sanitary napkins are really just highly compressed cotton so they are small and lightweight with their own protective containers, fitting easily into any case or camera bag.

We are always looking for good ideas and suggestions for traveling and packing. Add your ideas and suggestions below.


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