The psychology of packing
Why some people feel the need to pack more than others
Packing for holidays and overnight stays is something I have always struggled with.
While my partner seems to have no problem fitting everything he feels he needs into a small rucksack for a weekend break, I always struggle to squeeze everything I feel I need into my 138 litre, 5kg, 4ft tall mega-suitcase.
No matter how much I try, I have never been able to modify my packing habits to any reasonable and practical degree. I know I am not alone, and I have several friends and family members (mostly female, I am loathe to say) who also grapple with this problem periodically.
Why do some people over-pack?
This issue has given psychologists the world over fertile ground for behavioural and personality analysis.
Many psychologists agree that people who tend to overpack do so because they derive comfort and a sense of security from a covering-all-the-bases, “just in case” approach.
One personality trait that can contribute to the habit of packing more than is realistically needed, is worry. People who are born worriers tend to focus on, and ruminate about everything that could possibly happen in the future, or in any given situation. Holidays - and travelling away from home for any other purpose - can really trigger and increase anxiety levels for these people.
Clinical psychologist, Lara Fielding believes that anxiety and stress levels tend to rise when people travel because …
“When we’re travelling, our emotions can feel more polarised, since we’re experiencing a stressful situation. Our stress levels increase because we’re not in our comfort zone… (we feel) uncomfortable, and we are surrounded by different people.”
Such anxiety and stress can cause some people to carry a greater number of familiar items from home - a place where most people feel safe and secure. This may be borne from a subconscious desire to bring something of yourself and your life to a new place.
It can make those who tend to worry about venturing into the unknown feel safer, and more secure, when they are away from home. In reality, these people are carrying much more than physical items in their heavy luggage; they are also carrying a suitcase-full of emotions.
Why do women tend to pack more than men?
I know that many people will point out that this is a stereotype (in the western world, at least), and this may well be true.
However, the stereotype is perhaps grounded in the fact that women’s clothing has historically tended to be more elaborate, often with fewer pockets than men’s clothing.
Not to mention the fact that many women wear make-up, and they tend to use more toiletries and beauty/grooming products than men (largely due to the pressures arising from mass advertising and the media).
When it comes to hand luggage in particular, many women struggle to decide what to include in their packing list, particularly if they fall into the “born worrier” category.
So, how can we pack our hand luggage more efficiently?
If you are flying to your destination, there will already be restrictions on the types of items you are permitted to pack in your hand luggage. For instance, there are limitations on liquid containers, and things like gas-powered devices, scissors, knives, and certain types of batteries are not allowed.
Your hand luggage will also be restricted by weight when flying, so if you are a compulsive over-packer, you will most likely face a dilemma about which items to include and which to exclude when packing.
Exactly what you pack will, to some degree, depend on the purpose of your trip (e.g. business or pleasure); your destination (e.g. hot or cold climate); airline weight and size restrictions; and how well you tend to travel (e.g. nervous flyer; seasoned, confident backpacker; someone who suffers from travel sickness, etc).
For instance, if you are planning your summer holiday in a hot country, you may choose to pack sunscreen, sunglasses and a cap in your hand luggage, so that you will be able to protect your skin, eyes and head as soon as you arrive, rather than waiting until you are able to unpack your suitcase. And if you are travelling to a cold climate, you may choose to pack gloves, a scarf and a woolly hat in your hand luggage.
If you are prone to travel sickness, or if you are diabetic or asthmatic, for example, you need to remember to pack your medication in your hand luggage.
If you are travelling abroad, you will definitely need to remember to pack your passport in your hand luggage!
Other than this, you should only pack items you are likely to need with you in the cabin during your flight. These could include: wet wipes; tissues; payment cards and/or cash in the correct currencies; mobile phone or tablet + charger; reading glasses; a water bottle.
The type of luggage you choose can also have an impact on how you pack. For instance, wheeled cases can create the illusion of weightlessness, which can encourage people to try and cram more in. If they had to carry the same weight on their backs, then people would likely think twice about weighing themselves down that much. So, if you have a tendency to over-pack your hand luggage, choosing a rucksack or a duffel bag might be a better option than a roller case.
Whether you are a born-worrier, a high-maintenance beauty queen, or a comfort-seeker, your packing behaviour will also doubtlessly be influenced by your previous travel experiences, either consciously or subconsciously.
Luggage packing is a highly personal act, and only you know how little you can get away with before your anxiety levels spiral out of control.
However, when it comes to flight hand luggage specifically, there is a compulsory need to be selective. But, so long as you focus on absolute essentials for the actual flight itself, and the immediate environmental conditions you are likely to encounter when you disembark, you should be just be fine.