Harvey Mudd College: Literature 117

Professor Eckert, on What to Pack, and How to Pack It

Two simple truths. Everyone over-packs and ends up lugging extra pounds of useless stuff around.  Everyone forgets something that they really need and/or want with them.  How do you minimize the practical effects of these truths? Read on.

The rule that I learned long ago, and that I have all too often ignored (usually to my dismay), is the "Packing only what you really need" rule.  Here is how it goes.

Arrange the stuff that you plan to take with you on your bed.  Make sure that it is all laid out so that you can see exactly what it is that you are considering.  Now remove everything that is not essential.  Look again and be very critical in your assessment of what you need to take and thin the load once more.  After you have mulled this over for a while and reduced what you plan to take to the absolute minimum with which you can survive, put half of it away and pack the other half.  You will still have over-packed, but not as ridiculously as if you had gone ahead with your original plan.

This rule may seem a bit extreme, but let me tell you that I travel a lot, and I usually travel with only a carry-on bag (even to Europe). Even so, I almost always find that I've brought too much stuff with me.  Our hotel in London, The Celtic, does not have an elevator (or lift as the English call it), so you will be hauling your luggage up the stairs.  You may find yourself on the third floor (and the British, like most of the world, begin counting floors with G, the ground floor, and number the remaining floors, beginning with 1 for what we would call floor 2.)  The stairway to the third floor is both narrow and steep.  How much you want to carry up those treads is up to you, but...

Of course, before you are given an opportunity to climb to the top of the hotel, you will need to get from the airport to the hotel.  This will involve weaving your way in and amongst lots of folks stressed out from the rigors of travel.  You will be getting on and off of trains and/or the underground.  You will be going up and down steps.  You will be praying that the escalators/elevators in the underground are working; often they are not.  You will be walking a bit over one hundred meters from the Russell Square tube station to the hotel.  It may be pouring rain.  There may be earthquakes, solar flares, plagues of locusts, riots, hordes of the undead, people driving on the wrong side of the street and yelling at you in a language that sounds tantalizingly familiar but that is completely incomprehensible...

Packing List

I recommend that you make a packing list in an attempt to avoid forgetting things that you really do need, e.g., prescriptions, glasses, contacts lenses, toiletries, batteries, etc.

Pack Smart

Bring clothing that you can layer.  It can be quite cold and raw in January.  The average daily temperature runs in the mid 40's ºF and the average evening temperature in the low 30's ºF.  We expect to see rain and, if we get really lucky, sleet, freezing rain, ice, and snow.  On past tours we have seen temperatures in the low 20's ºF and in the mid to high 50's ºF.  You need to be ready for a wide temperature range without bringing a dozen suitcases along on the tour.  Once again, the concept of layering works well.

Those of us in-the-know plan to bring enough clothing for half the trip, and we do laundry once.  That makes a huge difference in how much one needs to pack.  Aside from that practical consideration, how often are you going to have a chance to sit in an English laundromat? Soak it in....

Assume that you will be getting wet.  It would be a good idea to be as waterproof as possible.  We believe that a quality waterproof jacket is a must.  One of the breathable barrier jackets (Gortex being the original) will work very well.  We will be going on some walks that last a few hours.  If it is raining and cold and you have opted not to be waterproof, you will be a very unhappy camper.

For the first four tours, I scoffed at Professor Groves’s suggestion of waterproof rain trousers. It was obvious to me that he was a ninny, unable to withstand the harsh realities of literature tours. However, it may be that his views have taken on some small sense of validity due to our Dorset experience during the 4th tour. [Editor's note: Ha!] On our 4th tour, during one of the Dorset walks, it was a bit wetter than my heretofore calculations had anticipated. As such, for the first time ever, I am the proud owner of a pair of Gortex rain trousers. [Editor's note redux: Ha!]

Along with a quality waterproof jacket, and perhaps rain trousers, you want to keep your feet dry.  There are few things that make a person more miserable than being stuck for an extended period of time with very wet, very cold feet.  For traipsing across Hardy's countryside, I wear a pair of lightweight, Gortex-lined, sealed seam, mid-height boots.  My boots are perfect for such hikes where we might encounter standing water and mud but, for around town, I take a pair of New Balance walking shoes that I find extremely comfortable.  They are NOT Gortex equipped and they are not designed to keep one's feet dry, but I give them a few good coats of a waterproofing spray (you can get it at REI or any camping store) and these shoes end up being more than waterproof enough for around town.  Remember to spray the shoe laces too--they wick water straight to your socks otherwise.

Gloves, a warm hat, and a neck scarf are also wise additions to your packing list.  In the past we have had a few cases of tour members who ignored this advice and they regretted that decision once we were in England.  A set of silks is a very good idea.  These are a very lightweight version of long underwear that can be mashed into a tiny ball for packing, are so thin that they can be comfortably worn under one's normal clothing, and they do a very good job of keeping you warm in the type of weather we are likely to encounter out in Dorset.


Now, we are going to England, not to the hinterlands of Greenland, so no matter what you forget, you can be pretty sure that you will be able to buy it.  It may not be exactly the brand you use at home, but it will do.  Having said that, there have been a few times when I have had to make do with something that I really hated because I forgot to bring my own shampoo or deodorant or soap from home.  And it is certainly true that you may have trouble finding the equivalent of over-the-counter medicine that you use at home.

As I have mentioned a couple of times in our meetings, I recommend that you begin picking up the stuff you want to take now.  Every time you make a Target or Walmart run, buy one or two items you need for the trip.  You might be surprised at the size of your Target bill if you run out the day before you leave and buy everything at once.  Here is where a packing list can come in very handy in helping you get everything that you need.

You might decide to save money and simply bring the three-gallon jug of shampoo that is sitting in your shower at this very moment.  However, taking just what you need is probably a better idea.  Either buy a small bottle and transfer what you need, or pay a premium to buy something other than the economy size, but that is more in keeping with the duration of the trip.


Keep in mind that our dear friends across the pond use 230 Volts at 50 Hz.  If you try to use a 110 Volt, 60 Hz device over there, it becomes a fuse in pretty short order.  All of my equipment is dual voltage, i.e., the equipment has voltage sensors built in that provide the correct adjustments without me having to do anything.  Check your electronics to make sure that they can handle the voltage in the UK.  If they cannot, you will need to obtain a converter.  These tend to be heavy and moderately expensive.  Our hotels typically provide hair dryers.  Even if you have a dual voltage device, don't forget that the wall outlets are nothing like ours.  At the very least you will need an adapter to plug your stuff into UK outlets.

Batteries and Film

Make sure that you bring all the batteries and film that you need for the trip.  Both of these items cost way too much in the UK.  Film cameras are quickly becoming a thing of the past but film is still available and is extremely pricey in the UK. If you are using batteries in something like a digital camera, consider a set of high quality NiMH batteries and a small recharger that is dual voltage.

Luggage and packing aids

Roller bags, backpacks, duffels, soft side cases, hard side cases, steamer trunks, aluminum, fiberglass, ballistic nylon, teak....  The myriad variations, when it comes to luggage choices, are mind boggling, and most of the luggage out there looks much better than it performs and costs much more than it should.  The best bet is to find someone with a bag that will work for you and borrow it!

Backpacks that allow you to zip the carry straps away and that have the ability to be carried like a soft side piece of luggage are quite useful.  You can wear them when the density of people around you allows (people on trains just love being bashed whenever someone wearing a backpack turns around) and you can carry them using the handle when that is the more appropriate mode.

Roller bags are all the rage these days but, unless you are willing to part with a considerable sum of money, you are likely to find that the wheels and handle do not hold up to the rigors of worldwide travel.  If you go for this option, make sure that the bag has oversized wheels of the in-line skate variety; the streets of London are often not as smooth as one might wish and small, cheap wheels on a roller bag will not hold up very long.

Using the space in one's bag effectively is another issue to consider. I have found that Eagle Creek makes a couple of items that aid in getting the maximum stuff in your luggage while at the same time keeping things from getting too wrinkled.  The Eagle Creek packing folders are great for packing shirts and pants in a very compact form while keeping them from looking like they have been slept in, and the pack-it compressors are great for squeezing the air out of socks and sweaters and that sort of thing where wrinkles are not a concern.  Alternatively, you can use the "poor folks" version of a pack-it which is a 2.5 gallon Hefty "one-zip" plastic bag.  The Hefty bags don't work as well as the Eagle Creek bags but they are one heck of a lot cheaper.

Using some version of the zipper lock plastic bag, in a variety of sizes, is a good idea in any event.  Remember, you will be on an airplane for upwards of 10 hours and that plane will be pressurized to the equivalent of about 8000 feet.  Storing any liquids you bring along in a leak proof bag may help to minimize the chances that you will arrive in London to find that all of your carefully packed clothing has become saturated with your favorite shampoo or cough syrup or ink from your pen (yes, pens quite often leak during long flights).

In Conclusion

The ramblings of a sleep-deprived mind, such as those found above, should be taken with a grain of salt.  [Editor's note: I prefer to take them with two Tylenols, and then go straight to bed.] The most significant item is likely the idea of being waterproof and warm.  Having said that, on our first two tours, we had very little rain.  However, being warm and dry is always a good thing and our last four tours were rather wet, so...

Do not go out and spend a fortune on luggage.  The trips to and from the airport in London will be the only times that the configuration, and weight, of your luggage will matter.  There will be a few steps that need to be negotiated on the underground but the Russell Square tube station has elevators (of course, if the elevators are broken, it is 175 steps up to street level.  Don't panic, if the elevators are broken, they close the tube station.).  It will be a bit if a hassle if it is pouring rain during the walk to the hotel but that is part of the adventure.  Just in case that happens, you might want to consider spraying your bag with the same waterproofing spray that I recommended for your shoes.  That will make the bag more or less waterproof and keep the contents nice and dry.  At most, your bag needs to be waterproof for about 5 minutes.  The walk to the hotel is as an easy, relatively level one.

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This page maintained by Eckert, Groves & Co.; last updated March 22, 2012.