How to Choose Your Travel Essentials

People travel in the pursuit of new experiences. We seek to explore beyond our own horizons—both literally and metaphorically—to discover new places and perspectives, ideas and inspirations. But of course, we always bring a few familiar things along with us for the journey; we always pack our essentials. For some, essentials are purely functional. Ask yourself; what does it mean to be essential? What do I never travel without?

photo by Ari He
"People travel in the pursuit of new experiences."

The need to be unfettered in my travels has always been something I’ve taken into consideration—from the doorstep to the terminal gate, from the tarmac to unfamiliar streets, and back again. I put my ease of mobility above the need for an extra change of clothes. For years I’ve traveled this way: I recently endeavored upon a three-month-long visit to Europe and the U.K. with nothing more than a hardshell carry-on and a tote bag. An extreme for most people but by no means an impossible task.

Not uncommon but frequently overlooked, the first thing to always pack is one item of required reading. Be it a quarterly magazine like The Paris Review, a book that’s been at the top of the list (lately, The Address Book by Sophie Calle), or a forever favorite that can be studied again and again (like Tenth of December by George Saunders), I’ve found that words tend to take on new meaning during travels. A physical book also lends itself to the romanticism of being immersed in the culture and atmosphere of a new locale—whether sitting on a park bench in Copenhagen’s King’s Garden, or outside a café during a siesta in Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. There are thousands of things you can afford to leave behind when loading up your luggage; a book is not one of them.

photo by Nicole Honeywill
"There are thousands of things you can afford to leave behind when loading up your luggage; a book is not one of them."

As a self-proclaimed skincare enthusiast, I follow a strict daily regime. But in my tote bag, the one stowed away on the floor of the plane under the seat in front of me, I have just enough to maintain some self care along the route—all travel-sized in their 100ml miniatures, of course. The thrill of a foreign cosmetics counter like Paris’ famed neighborhood pharmacies or Harrods in London, is enough incentive for me to stave off bringing more travel-sized mementoes to use back home.

photo by Sheila Lam

I began my most recent sojourn in Europe at the end of winter, which of course led into spring, and I returned at the top of the summer equinox. Five diverse cities, four farflung countries and a host of temperatures ranging from below freezing to warm, clear days. With only one carry-on, all the clothes I took with me had to be articles I could layer practically; nothing bulky, nothing frivolous. Save for the wool coat I wore during my flight, my luggage was filled with key pieces that not only worked with one another (a classic t-shirt, a lightweight turtleneck, some casual trousers, etc.) but also allowed me to keep warm or stay cool depending on the weather.

"The picture itself isn’t all that important; what really matters is the experience that its represents."

There was a period of time when I would travel with not one but two cameras: a compact Olympus Trip 35 and a digital Leica M8—an absolute tank. They produced some truly spectacular photos, but the ones I now take with my phone are no less meaningful to me. While I’m not a professional photographer, I’ve learned how to compose an image on my mobile’s screen just as I would through my Leica’s viewfinder—and the result is still a wonderful memory captured in visual form. The picture itself isn’t all that important; what really matters is the experience that it represents.

photo by Sandro Katalina

Throughout my travels, from windswept wildernesses in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, to dizzying super-cities in South East Asia, I’ve learned that the most clever essential you can take with you on any trip is the practice of being flexible. Not only does it eliminate undue stress (it’s not the end of the world if you forget your toothbrush somewhere, you’ll always find another), but it also allows for the spontaneity of discovery. Let that willingness to change or compromise not only shape your travels, but also shape what you bring back. For a look into some of the items I took on my most recent trip, see below.


Packing List

Written by Sheila Lam