The Psychology Behind Overpacking

Therapists and travel experts explain our tendency to stash that extra sweater or phone charger

A pile of metallic blue suitcases

Overpacking isn’t a “you” problem—there are psychological explanations for why we all find it so hard to pack light.

Photo by Alexander Mills/Unsplash

It often begins innocuously: tucking two phone chargers into your suitcase, in case you lose one. Tossing in an extra sweater, to prepare for an unexpected drop in temperature. Bringing along a bottle of your favorite shampoo, even though the hotel will provide toiletries. Before you realize it, you’ve exceeded your airline’s luggage weight limit and find yourself contemplating adding a second suitcase.

Despite the many benefits of traveling with only the essentials—flexibility, room for spontaneity, ease of mobility, savings on checked bag fees, and fewer concerns about lost luggage—many travelers are unable to pack light. But why?

Anxiety and feeling in control

Experts agree the inclination to overpack, driven by an urge to prepare for countless “just in case” scenarios, is rooted in anxiety and the loss of control that comes with leaving one’s personal space. The extent of that anxiety may depend on factors such as the level of familiarity with the destination and the length of the trip.

“When you’re traveling, not everything is at your fingertips,” says therapist Alyssa Mairanz, owner of Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City. “You might not know the area, you might even be somewhere you don’t speak the language. So you’re more worried about how to get around and find things.”

These feelings aren’t limited to individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders, says psychologist Michele Leno, founder and owner of DML Psychological Services in Detroit; travelers may cope by packing what she describes as “self-soothing items.” (For her, that’s a fan that helps her sleep at night.)

“There’s this thought when we’re traveling, of being connected to home,” she says. “You may already have sort of a fear of travel, maybe not enough to stop you from traveling or not enough for anybody to notice, but it’s enough of a fear that you overpack because these are things that make you feel more at ease.”

Catastrophic thinking

Travelers who overpack may also exaggerate the ramifications of being without an item or catastrophize, says Mairanz. “What’s the worst-case scenario if I don’t pack all this extra stuff? It’s usually ‘I’ll have to buy something there’ or ‘I’ll have to rewear outfits,’” she says. “Usually the worst-case scenario of not having everything is really not as catastrophic as it feels.”

Leno notes that this kind of thinking can be triggered or reinforced by past experiences. “If you have ever been in a situation where something went wrong during a vacation, and you didn’t have a particular item that maybe you associate with well-being, then you may blame it on ‘I didn’t have this with me.’”

Lack of confidence

Brooke Schoenman, the Sydney-based founder and editor of the blog Her Packing List, has mastered the art of minimalist packing. (For a two-week trip to the USA in 2023, she took only an eight-liter bag, about the size of a mini backpack.) She teaches others how to whittle down their luggage in her HPL Packing Method program.

In Schoenman’s view, overpacking is fueled by “not really understanding the value” and utility of what you packed. “One top could be used several different ways if you were put in that situation.”

Self-doubt about our resourcefulness can lead to overpacking, says Schoenman: Rather than trusting our ability to adapt, we opt for excess to avoid being caught off-guard. “Most things you can get there and even if you can’t get the exact perfect thing, you can most likely get something that gets you by,” she says. “It comes down to a lack of confidence in your own ability to figure things out and be OK.”

For some travelers, however, the peace of mind of being prepared for the unexpected and having options outweigh the benefits of packing light and make their trips more enjoyable—and that’s OK, too. “It might not be a problem,” says Mairanz. “You can allow yourself to overpack a little bit if you have the space and not get all upset.”

Nathalie Alonso is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has also appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29, and Well+Good, among other publications.
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