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What I Learned From Living Out of a Suitcase for 4 Months

Consider reality.

Photo: Folio ID/Jann-Eric Fischer/Trunk Archive

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Not too many people get to say goodbye to their everyday lives and take a four-month vacation to a sunny, seasonless wonderland. But in August, my husband Sam and I headed from our home base in Philadelphia out to the Bay Area to do exactly that.

Well, almost. Sam works in academia, and he was spending the fall semester on sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley. I’d still be working as a freelance writer, but it was a chance to do something totally different and explore a new part of the country.

Fast forward to December, and we’re getting ready to make the trek back to Philly. Unsurprisingly, our time spent out here has been pretty great. Except the business of getting dressed every day — which has been the absolute worst. Because all I brought with me was one measly suitcase worth of clothes.

I didn’t want to be that person who traveled with trunks of stuff — the very idea felt sort of weird and embarrassing — so I forced myself to pare down to the essentials, which was actually pretty thrilling (at the time). It would be like my own little capsule wardrobe experiment. (If I had any sort of desire to be a blogger, this would have been the perfect opportunity to get started.)

That all changed once I actually got out here, though. What originally seemed like an exciting adventure in minimalism quickly turned into a mind-numbing — and not always comfortable — mistake.

The good news is that it taught me a few valuable lessons — both about packing for traveling and, yes, about myself. Here’s what I learned.

Thinking is not the same as planning.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would bring. But daydreaming about wearing my white sailor pants, white cropped tee, and Birkenstocks while basking in the California sunshine is not an actual wardrobe plan.

In hindsight, I should’ve strategized. The smart thing to do would have been to consider all of the different pieces I wanted to bring and how they would fit together. I could have literally made a list of items, or taken pictures of actual outfit combinations. And then I’d know exactly what I’d be working with, and be better equipped to identify gaps that needed to be filled — like swapping one pair of flats for ankle boots, a better option for chilly nights.

But without somehow laying everything out, I couldn’t picture any of that. The day before we left, I ended up throwing a bunch of different stuff together on a whim instead of with a plan. And that made it harder to build outfits that I loved.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Anyone who’s spent five minutes scrolling through Pinterest has seen those what-to-pack infographics. You know, the perfectly curated collection of two different pairs of pants, three tops, two dresses, and three pairs of shoes that can be effortlessly mixed and matched for every different occasion on your trip.

I didn’t actually reference one of these infographics while I loaded up my suitcase. But I think, just by seeing them so often, I had internalized this idea that a universal formula existed, and could be used to achieve packing perfection.

There’s not. What’s indispensable to one person — or even to lots of people — might not matter much to you at all. For instance, I’ve had this chambray shirt for years that I almost never wear. And yet, I convinced myself that I should bring it with me on the grounds that it would be really versatile. But even with my limited wardrobe, I didn’t wear it that often. It wasn’t me at home, and it wasn’t me out here, either.

Pack for your real world.

I brought four lightweight dresses with me because that seemed like a solid number. But I work from home during the day, usually in comfy wide leg pants and a T-shirt or sweater, and northern California nights are too chilly for bare legs.

I liked the idea of having them around. Seeing them hanging up made me feel like I had options, like I was prepared for anything that might come up, but they just took up valuable space in my suitcase.

Unless you want to spend big, you have to get creative.

When I get bored with my clothes at home, I’ll dig deeper into my closet and pull out a thing that I haven’t worn in a while. But out west, I didn’t have that luxury.

Obviously, exploring cool independent boutiques, vintage shops, and flea markets is part of the fun of traveling. And I did treat myself to a couple of new things, like an amazing vintage spacedye sweater that looked like it was hand-knit by some hippie’s grandma in 1970. (If you’re in the area, go to Caviar & Cigarettes in Berkeley.)

But for the most part, I forced myself to find new ways to wear the pieces I already had. Since it was usually too cool to wear those summery dresses on their own, I took to wearing them over skinny black pants. Or instead of tucking in the chambray shirt, I’d tie it at the waist. It wasn’t as fun as splurging on a new wardrobe would have been, but it did help keep me from going insane.

I’ll never be a minimalist. Ever.

The idea of wearing the same perfect pair of jeans every day sounds endearing, even romantic. I think that’s why the lure of minimalism is so strong. To a lot of people, it implies that you’ve achieved sartorial nirvana. You don’t need anything else because you already found the jeans, or the boots, or the T-shirt that’s exactly right for you.

But it’s not who I am. And deep down, I knew this about myself long before taking this trip. But I thought after four months of pretending to be that person, that maybe I would actually become her. That didn’t happen. I just got bored with my stuff.

It sometimes even made me feel boring, which I wasn’t expecting. Even though I love all of my clothes, I never knew how significant a role they played in defining who I am. Even without all of my stuff, I thought, I’d still be me.

Mostly, that’s true. But after spending months with the vast majority of that stuff in storage on the other side of the country, I realized that my clothes are a big part of my identity. I rely on them to tell the world a something about who I am. Putting together creative outfits — and yes, even having people notice and compliment them — makes me happy.

And I’m okay with that. Just because minimalism is a cool thing doesn’t mean that it has to be my thing. And if I ever take another long-term trip, I’m bringing a second suitcase. Embarrassment be damned.