The "Snowball Method" Will Change How You Pack

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
I love traveling. I love walking off a plane into a different climate and time zone and being surrounded by different languages and people. I love eating foods that taste like the high-def version of what I thought was authentic back home. I love having to remember to stand on the other side of the escalator and hand over a credit card with both hands. I love struggling to remember how to say “thank you,” and noticing when an “obrigado or a “kop khun kha” become second nature. Most of all, I love seeing the outfits people wear and finding out where they buy them so that I can wear those things while I’m there, too. When in Rome, right?

I only really hate one thing about traveling, but it’s a really, really big hate. I despise airports. Every single minute I’m standing in line after I exit a plane is a minute less of fun. Mostly because of that, I’ve learned how to become an efficient packer to avoid checking any luggage and having to wait at the baggage carousel. I only do carry-on vacations, and so when I began thinking about what I was going to bring on my four-week-long #r29sabbatical throughout Southeast Asia, I knew that I had to really be ruthless. Not only did I have to fit 36 days' worth of things into one carry-on, but I also had to leave enough room for things I might/would definitely pick up while abroad. I had to go beyond “minimalist packing” and adopt a new strategy. Enter: The "Snowball Method".
On paper, it was simple: I wouldn’t bring anything except what would be absolutely necessary and hard to buy, and I’d shop as I traveled, filling up my suitcase with each stamp in my passport. But in practice, it was much harder to get comfortable with the fact that I was about to board a plane with only two pairs of shorts for a month-long tropical vacation. But, in the end, I had the best shopping month of my life, largely thanks to what I didn’t bring.

So, for anyone who loves to shop, loves to travel, and wants to maximize both while minimizing their time spent in line, click through for what might be the most extreme packing strategy out there.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Start Here: What Do You Actually NEED?
Let’s play a really awful game, shall we? Imagine you’re on vacation, and you become physically incapable of buying any clothes. You’re only able to bring the absolute necessities — and for anything you don’t wear, a semi truck full of deli napkins will get dumped into the Grand Canyon in your honor. What do you bring?

For me, I knew I had to bring a modest “temple outfit” I could wear to visit the various religious sites. I also knew I had to bring something nice for the few times I was going to nicer dinners and rooftop bars. I also knew I had to bring one workout outfit for a Muy Thai class, a handful of mountain hikes, and a festival that involved a lot of water guns. I knew that I would also be in one location with temperatures in the 40s and 50s that would require a jacket. With those requirements, I knew I absolutely had to bring the following items:

Temple Outfit: Billowy, lightweight culottes and a shirt that covered my shoulders and chest.
Nice Outfit: A cotton dress.
Workout Outfit: A sports bra, leggings, black T-shirt, windbreaker.
“Cold” Outfit: Black jeans, long button-down shirt, zip-up jacket.

That was my jumping off point, and filled up 1/4 of my suitcase. Next came everything else.

Clockwise from above left: Vintage sheer shirt; Maje for K-Way windbreaker; Nike bra; Lemaire for Uniqlo Pants, $49.90 $29.90, available at Uniqlo; Flagpole swimsuit; vintage souvenir jacket; JNBY dress; Old Navy leggings; Madewell Skinny Jeans, $115, available at Madewell.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
One Nice, One Not-So-Nice
While packing I’ve always made sure I had a few "not-so-nice" items along with “nice” items — for instance, an A-line skirt that can look fancy when worn with other fancy things, but is casual enough to pair with sneakers. But for this extreme situation, I forced myself to go even further: I only allowed myself one nice and one not-so-nice version of each type of item, which meant I brought a total of two pairs of shorts, two short-sleeve tops, two long-sleeve tops, two dresses, two pairs of pants, and two jackets. If that sounds like too much for one carry-on, keep in mind that I would be wearing at least three of those items on the plane, and a lot of them were already part of Step One.

Additional items added to the suitcase: Another long-sleeved shirt (not-so-nice), a lace tank (nice), a printed dress that can double as a cover-up (not-so-nice), a pair of denim cut-offs (not-so-nice), a pair of black shorts (nice). I was almost half full at this point.

Clockwise from above left: Comme des Garcons PLAY Shirt, $155, available at Dover Street Market; DIY Levi's cut-offs; Pixie Market panda dress; Zara tank; Aritzia shorts; Elizabeth and James button-down.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
How To Treat Shoes, The Greatest Space-Wasters Of All
Shoes are glorious. But shoes take up a ton of space, so the less you bring, the more you can buy. I’ve found that no matter how many shoes I bring, I typically only wear two: A walk-everywhere pair of sneakers in a neutral color (so they match everything), and a waterproof pair of sandals that feel dressy.

Here’s the fun part: You get a free pass to pack any other clothes, as long as they fit into your shoes. For my freebies, I brought along two more tanks that fit into my sandals. (I wore my sneakers on the plane.)

AGL Sabrina Sandal, $455, available at Nordstrom; Babyghost tank; American Giant tank; New Balance sneakers
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
How To Treat Bags, The Second Greatest Space-Wasters Of All
In my regular life, I am a bonafide bag lady. But when I travel, I can’t deal with bulk (or sore shoulders), so I rely on a single cross-body bag that’s about the size of a check-out counter paperback. The perfect travel bag has three things: 1) A zipper closure, 2) removable straps, and 3) organizational compartments within. I’m loyal to my Lotuff Tripp bag that fits my phone, my passport, my EpiPen, cash and cards, and a packet of Kleenex, chapstick, external battery, and that’s it. It’s so small that the flight attendants didn’t even count it as a personal item. But it’s also sleek and elegant, and I regularly unclipped the strap to carry as a clutch in the evenings.

I also knew there would be days when I would need a tote bag. To that end, I used a tote bag instead of the shoe bags I usually use to hold my underwear and swimsuits. On days when I needed the tote to use at the beach or hold a picnic lunch, I’d dump everything else out in my suitcase (and reorganize at the end of the day).

You may need a lightweight "personal" bag to keep your electronics, snacks, toiletries, and other plane stuff in, along with a lightweight collapsable duffel. We’ll get to that later.

Kate Spade duffle; Lotuff The Tripp, $490, available at Lotuff.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Do Not Break The 50% Rule
By this point, all your clothes should fit into one half of your carry-on. If you're like me, you will immediately feel an overwhelming desire to fill the other half. Don’t. Don’t do it. Instead, squeeze your duffel bag into the other half, and zip the whole thing closed. Then, walk away.

As you shop, fill up the rest of your suitcase, and once it’s full, you have an entire duffel you can use, too. And because you’re still (obviously) committed to the carry-on lifestyle, make sure you leave just enough room to stash your “personal item” bag inside for the trip flight back.

Duro Olowu for JCPenney suitcase.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Don’t Fight It: Your Clothes WILL Get Dirty
Traveling with the expectation of keeping your clothes pristine is unrealistic — and no fun. You’re going to spill, sit on something weird, get splashed, and sweat. Don’t bring clothes that show grime and sweat; leave anything white, heather gray, easily wrinkled, and precious at home. I typically rely on textured cottons, fun prints, and hardy fabrics like denim or synthetics, and carry Tide wipes with me for the inevitable messes.

Since I was traveling to Southeast Asia, I also utilized the hotel laundry services since it was so affordable (I’m talking a couple of bucks to wash everything). In places where it’s more expensive, I still think it’s worth looking for a convenient same-day laundromat where you can drop your laundry off in the morning and retrieve in the evening.
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Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Now, Fill ‘Er Up!
To prep for this trip, I imposed a shopping ban for a few months, set aside a bit of my tax refund, and moved money I saved from not eating out into a special fund. I had $1,000 to spend during this once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I didn’t hold back. When I realized in China that I wanted a turtleneck to wear underneath my tanks, I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could fit it into my suitcase. When I stumbled upon a store in Singapore that sold the most amazing cotton-poplin tops with Carven-esque sleeves, I felt zero guilt when i bought the same shirt in three colors. And when I got sick of my temple outfit in Bangkok, I didn’t hesitate to pop into a local mall and pick up a quick-dry blouse in a style that I had seen all over town. In the end, I didn’t even spend my entire budget, and I still didn’t need to check any baggage (even if I did have to sit on top of my suitcase to zip it shut).

While I won’t be using The "Snowball Method" on most trips — I’m not that big of a shopper — but I will be utilizing it again for these long-haul vacations to big shopping Meccas.

Now, excuse me while I go and admire all the fancy new stuff I brought back with me.