If You Want to Pack More Efficiently, Ask a Disabled Traveler

Creativity and disability go hand in hand, and traveling is no different.

Several orange and brown packing packing cubes with clothes

A few strategies, plus packing cubes, can help your suitcase stay organized.

Courtesy of Eagle Creek

Last summer, I took a three-week trip up to Portland, Oregon and then across to the Midwest, visiting three different cities before returning home to Los Angeles. I called it the “rectantangle ’round America,” and brought along a carry-on and a backpack for the ride. It was all I needed, but when I shared a photo of my luggage, this was the comment I received most: How?

Practice, of course. When it comes down to it, modern travel isn’t so much about starry-eyed wanderlust as it is about practical realism: You gotta do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Airplane seats behind business class are ever sleeker and closer together, and storage opportunities above and below those domino-esque chairs are increasingly tighter too. That’s where packing efficiently comes in. The internet is full of “best of” lists for things like condensing cubes, insights from pros like flight attendants, and countless links to shrunken-down toiletries that can transport an entire medicine cabinet abroad.

But if you want to learn how to pack well in an era of doing the best with what you’ve got, then I’d recommend befriending a disabled traveler.

As a disabled woman, I’m already always doing the best with what I’ve got. I can remember telling my parents—who met in the travel industry back when Southwest only flew in that region—how I wanted to go to Antarctica when I was a kid, around the same time I had a surgery for my cerebral palsy. I studied maps and memorized flight fares in the Sunday newspaper, while devoting hours to dispatches of faraway places, whether they were written in National Geographic or voiced with the warm snark of Anthony Bourdain.

I craved adventure, even though my body set its own itinerary: I have trouble carrying more than a dozen pounds and struggle walking more than a mile at a time. But I wasn’t deterred. Disability makes you stubborn; it makes you flexible. And above all things, particularly with travel, disability makes you creative.

Above all things, particularly with travel, disability makes you creative.

I think of my outfits in terms of a palette: Every top matches every bottom to simplify dressing and complements the most common shades of my destination: blues for the coasts, greens for the mountains, and so on. (Who needs to worry about lugging heavy souvenirs home when you have perfectly coordinated photos?) Each must-have serum, cleanser, or solution in my bathroom has a teeny counterpart inside a toiletry bag that I never disband, only restock.

I forbid last-minute packing and don’t tuck something in “just in case” unless it’s a swimsuit. Instead, editing is part of the routine and can take about an hour after I do the initial pull of clothing from my closet. If an item can only be used once, other than undergarments, it’s out. If it’s too casual or too formal, I likely can’t wear it for an entire day—so long! I want to feel stylish and confident in my choices, but I also want to meet the goal of making my luggage as light as possible. For the rectangle ’round America trip, I ended up with one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, one dress, one skirt, four tops, and a jacket. My clothes were rolled like mini sleeping bags into one packing cube, while my undergarments and swimsuit were folded into another. As for shoes, I stashed sandals and a fancier pair into the top pocket of my suitcase. I wear my bulkiest sneakers and clothing on the flight.

The skill of packing efficiently takes time to perfect and can feel cutthroat even as it becomes more familiar. I might fall in love with the idea of wearing a specific outfit during a certain outing, but if the zipper won’t close, I’ll probably do my best to break up with it. If I waver, I remind myself that traveling with essentials gives me more peace of mind and a greater sense of independence on the move.

And if I have to ask for a stranger’s help, my typical two bags aren’t too cumbersome for someone else to manage. Sticking to these guidelines also allows me to focus on other details, like how my body feels and if there’s time to fit in another attraction. Since it doesn’t take long to collect my things, there often is.

Having a disability and packing efficiently overlap in the sense that I know how to live without—and doing so hasn’t been the end of the world. In fact, I can still get out and go on my terms, unencumbered by stuff that’ll only weigh me down.

Kelly Dawson is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram @kellydawsonwrites.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More from AFAR