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Pack light, travel happy

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY In another stage of my life, I was quite into backpacking. When you hike for multiple days, and have to carry all your necessities on your back, you think very carefully about what you actually want to haul for 40 miles. The answer tends to be "not much." So you wind up with titanium utensils and cups (light, but durable), a sleeping bag climate rated to zero degrees that weighs less than a kilogram and stuffs down into the size of a football, a tent with basically the same properties, and so forth.

I'm taking a break from backpacking these days until all my children can walk and haul their own backpacks, but I've found that this mindset serves me well for business travel. The question becomes not "What could I possibly need?" but "How small a bag can I carry?" Anything that can do double duty should. Not only do I not want to check a bag, I want to be able to put my bag under the seat in front of me if necessary, to avoid the game of overhead luggage compartment chicken that seems to occur on most crowded flights.

So what does that require? Basically, a recognition that your business travel is probably taking you to a major business center -- not a wilderness area. If you stain a garment, you can buy another at a department store near your hotel (in a nice enough hotel, the staff can help you with this). They probably have overnight dry cleaning, too. Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane. Unless your trip will for sure involve exercise, don't bother with more than one pair of shoes (exception: a pair of rollable flats if you need snappy heels in your line of work). If you're female and work in a slightly less formal industry, a wrap dress and cardigan is less bulky than an extra suit. Elaborate hair and make-up rituals are a bad idea in general. Keep it simple. If you're taking particular personal care products, hold yourself to the TSA guidelines: less than 3 oz, and it all fits in a quart-size Ziploc bag. You probably won't make it through more than two magazines. If you do, airport book stores will gladly sell them to you.

Of course, all this may involve similar hunting to the REI aisle prowling I did to find my feather-light sleeping bag. You may need to buy a travel wardrobe: Shirts that don't wrinkle, walkable dress shoes, and a suitcase with lots of compartments that is still stunningly small. But the payoff is high. Time not spent waiting for bags is time you don't need to spend at the airport. Time not spent jostling over overhead luggage space is time you don't need to be to the gate early. Time not spent deciding what to wear or hunting for some object you brought in your vast suitcase is time spent doing whatever it is you're taking that business trip to do -- or time not wasted, so you can get home sooner.

How do you pack for your trips? Share your tips in the comments below.