The Revised Lewis Method
by Jeff Lewis

My parents are intrepid travelers who’ve spanned the globe on a limited budget for over forty years.  As chief packing technician for their trips, my mother developed increasingly streamlined packing methods that now enable them to go on month-long jaunts with only two carry-on rolling bags and a small backpack between the two of them.  I sum up her method with the phrase, “Pack light, pack tight.”  It’s easy.  Envision the number of items that you think you’ll need to take on your trip.  Reduce this by half and wedge it all into a small rolling bag or backpack, making sure to roll all items into a cloth cigar before jamming them in.

The Method enables a family of five to fit into a Volvo sedan for a sixty day camping trip through Scandinavia or Italy and Greece.  With the Method, the same family can circumnavigate the globe in a summer with only a backpack apiece and two communal suitcases.  The Lewis family guarantees this.

Of course, the Method is not entirely original; many elements have been borrowed from others, such as nerd-travel-guru Rick Steves and Mohandas Gandhi, a famously light packer.  Nonetheless, the Donna Lewis Packing Method is unique and worthy of analysis.  Therefore, I present to you the primary rules, which are gems that will benefit you on upcoming trips.

Rule #1:  It’s About Rolling

Rolling is the key to a tightly packed bag.  At home, it’s okay to fold your clothes and stack them in a closet, but in order to fit the contents of three suitcases into one carry-on, you will need to jam your clothes into the bag with much force.  Under pressure, folded clothes develop deep parallel creases that tell the world, “My mother did a poor job,” “I don’t have a girlfriend,” or “I don’t listen to my wife.”  On the other hand, rolled clothes subjected to the same pressure leave more subtle, wavy creases that look like they were the result of a business meeting or a nature hike, depending on the type of attire.  These creases show action.

Handy Tip:  Don’t forget that you will need to assess your philosophy on dirty laundry, because unrolled laundry can ruin packing equilibrium.  If you don’t plan to roll the dirty clothes, buy a stuff sack that will keep the dank, crushed ball of laundry away from your other clothes.

Rule #2:  Before Packing, Make a Mental Usage Flow Diagram

Avoid repacking during your trip by visualizing the order in which you will wear your clothes.  For instance, let’s say that you are passing through several Asian destinations en route to an archaeology conference in Vienna.  If you plan to go to the Gobi desert before Nepal, don’t pack your anorak on top of your sundress.  Similarly, don’t place all of your sports bras in the bottom under the carefully-rolled Tyrolean dress that you won’t be wearing until the rave on the last night of the conference.  You’ll need to take out the dress each time you grab a bra and that could frazzle the doilied sleeves.

Rule #3:  Fill Your Spare Shoes, If You Need Spare Shoes

Shoes contain pockets of air that should be exploited.  Spare shoes, to be honest, are a luxury that you should consider foregoing, but if you must take them, fill them with socks at the beginning of your trip.  If you buy any figurines or marionettes to give away as fun stocking stuffers, make sure to choose ones that will fit in your shoes, where they will be snug and safe.

Rule #4:  Leave Room for Touristy Gifts

The best way to ensure that you have enough room for all the trinkets that you will buy is to bring gifts with you.  Once, on a trip to Denmark, my mother stocked up on Chicago Cubs pencils to hand out to the toe-headed boys and girls.  Our family is full of Giants fans, but this was back when Sammy Sosa was more bubbly and less bitter, so a Cubs pencil could serve as a memento from both the U.S. and Dominican Republic.

Pencils don’t take up much space, so you can also bring along some refrigerator magnets, although you should buy several varieties so that customs thinks you are a collector rather than a smuggler.  If you still have room, consider bringing “These Colors Don’t Run!” tank-tops.  Foreigners can’t get enough of those.

Rule #5:  Emphasize Matchability

When my mother travels, her color palette revolves around navy blue.  Clothing that clashes with navy blue does not enter her rolling bag.  This allows a few clothes to become many outfits, Geranimals-style.  As an added bonus, my mother can pack thin dress socks, which are so small that they can all fit in one shoe, allowing space for a rolled-up Cubs banner to go with the pencils and refrigerator magnets.

Rule #6:  Think, “What Would A Hobo Do?”

It’s a shame that the lesson that most Americans take form the Great Depression is the fallacy, “The best way to end a depression is to start a war.”  Rather, the real nugget of wisdom to be gleaned from the 1930s is, “Pack light!”

The itinerant Americans who rode the rails revolutionized packing efficiency.  The stick bundle—the direct ancestor of today’s rolling bag—didn’t hold much, but it was invaluable for the hobo on the go.  The hobos’ secret:  Choose fabrics that are easy to hand wash.  I can attest to this wisdom.  On our trip around the world when I was sixteen, I either wore paper-thin, powder-blue pinstriped pants or a pleated madras short.  These could be hand washed easily so I could feel fresh and clean without having to carry many clothes.  The fact that I looked like a jackass was unfortunate, but that had more to do with my poor sense of style than my packing technique.

Similarly, my younger brothers usually wore matching nylon shorts and shirts that could be washed and line dried in about five minutes.  The tops were white with satiny shamrock-green panels.  The shorts were very short and all green.  Normally, I’d advise against synthetics because they don’t breathe well, but the white part of the tops were mesh, so breathability wasn’t an issue.

Rule #7:  Make Plans to Avoid Food Poisoning

Food poisoning can spoil your holiday, necessitate unscheduled hand washing of clothes and leave you too weak to carry even one bag.  When confronted with a dodgy glop of mayo or a gamey piece of meat, repeat the mantra, “If in doubt, toss it out.”  Also, don’t trust food kiosks on ferries between Greece and Italy.  Misplaced confidence in the cheese and salmonella sandwiches on the Corinth-Brindisi line resulted in bulk intestinal disorders for the Lewis family back in ’85.

Handy Tip:  Choose your camping spot carefully if your family has acquired bulk intestinal disorders.  A long walk to the public facilities is inconvenient.

The following summer, my parents—having learned a valuable lesson—went all out to ensure that we didn’t get sick in India, the first leg of our around-the-world journey.  I mentioned earlier that we traveled with a backpack apiece and two communal suitcases.  My parents were told that Dehli’s drinking water was unkind to the uninitiated and that food vendors often recycled the straws in the soft drinks.  Consequently, they filled one of the two suitcases with bottled water and straws, so we could drink soda and brush our teeth without internal ramifications.  Hauling around a seventy pound suitcase of water so that your family stays in the pink is a true act of love.

Handy Tip:  A few years back for my birthday, my mother gave me the indispensable, It Was Probably Something You Ate, by Nicols Fox.  This book, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming piece, covers the myriad of ways that you can die from food poisoning.  A thorough read of this book will save you hundreds of dollars because it will keep you from eating at restaurants for several months.  However, if you enjoy food, this may not be the book for you.

Rule #8:  Stuff Your Passport Into Your Pants

Apart from a bout of botulism, nothing ruins a trip like losing your passport and airline ticket.  This needn’t happen if you buy a money belt to hold your important documents.  The belt—which you can buy through Rick Steve’s website—fits neatly below (and inside) the waistband of your hand-washable pants.  After about half an hour, you get used to the packet; you just need to wear a long top or you’ll look a little pudgy.  As an added bonus, the money belt keeps not only your trip secure, but your front warm.

My wife and I recently drove about 4,500 miles on a month-long road trip through British Columbia and the American Northwest.  This gave me a lot of time to reflect on life and—because I began each day by loading a bunch of unnecessary items into our car—assess my adherence to the Donna Lewis Packing Method.  I realized that I’d strayed from the rules, although certainly not #7.  I also suspected that the original Method could be expanded.  Here are my additions, which I call the Revised Lewis Method.

Rule #9:  Don’t Overemphasize Decorative Stitching

In an urban environment, there are few limits to the benefits of decorative stitching, but in the rugged American West, I advise moderation.  I got good use out of a smart brown jacket with decorative white stitching across the shoulders and down the front.  The jacket has a vague western feel, but is both masculine and urbane.  Unfortunately, I went to the well once too often and brought my Polynesian-sunset-colored jacket, also with decorative stitching and—I’m a little embarrassed to say—subtle decorative zippers.  There’s no denying that it’s a cute jacket, one that turns heads in our favorite creperie, but it is out of place in rural Montana or Wyoming.  It announces, “I am not armed.  There will be no repercussions if you hit me with a pool cue.”

Rule #10:  Communication Is Vital—Don’t Pack Two Light Jackets for Your Wife When She’s Already Packed Five

This rule is self-explanatory.

Rule #11:  If You Are Paranoid About Auto Break-Ins, Don’t Pack More Than What Fits in the Trunk

If you are like me, you constantly worry that either bears or hobos will break into your car because they see the pack of Snapple on the floor or the dress clothes draped across the back seat.  You can alleviate nearly all of these fears by fitting everything into your trunk.

Corollary:  Never Pack Yoga Mats

Rule #12:  Use Restraint When Purchasing Refrigerator Magnets

Limit your wife to one refrigerator magnet per national park, not four.

Rule #13:  Analyze Your Dark to White Sock Ratio Before Leaving for Your Trip

I packed sneakers and a pair of fairly dressy brown leather shoes.  I also brought along leather sandals—man-mules to be precise.  To accompany these, I packed seven pairs of brown socks and three white.  That’s a 7:3 dark to white sock ratio for a trip to the fecund Pacific forests and arid western planes.  A quick analysis should have told me that a 7:3 ratio might be appropriate for a trip to New York City, but for our trip, 3:7 was more appropriate.

Rule #14:  Avoid T-Shirts With Deep Vees

Vee-neck t-shirts are handy because you can wear them on their own, for a salt-of-the-earth look, and then pop on a collared shirt for a dressed-up turn.  You can hook your sunglasses into the vee for a little Euro flavor.

Be aware, though, when you buy vee-neck t-shirts.  If you purchase ones with deep vees, you’ll show off too much chest hair, which doesn’t please anybody.  At that point, you might as well put on a speedo and pool shoes because you’ve taken the look too far.

Rule #15:  Buy a Snappy Orange Shirt, but Don’t Wear It With Your Stylish Orange Jacket of Different Hue

A well-cut orange button-up shirt is indispensable if you plan to take travel photos.  If you wear it over a vee-neck, you hardly ever have to wash it!  Judging by our pictures, I wore mine 95% of the time.

Corollary: Don’t Rely on Your Wife’s Stockpile of Sunglasses–You Will End Up Fielding a Great Many Questions About Them When Showing the Travel Photos, Particularly Ones That Say “Liz Claiborne” on the Frame

Rule #16:  Don’t Rely on Gift Shops to Address Packing Deficiencies

Early in our trip, it became clear that I needed to address the preponderance of brown socks and deep vees, but I stubbornly refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, which greatly limits the shopping options in the American West.  Because we spent much of our trip in and around national parks, I hoped to save time and avoid Wal-Mart by purchasing white socks and t-shirts at park gift shops.  Unfortunately, it is tough for a nattily clad man to find suitable apparel at a gift shop.

In my younger days, a “Hang Loose Hawaii” t-shirt from Waikiki with a cartoonish hand giving the “Hang Loose” sign, or a phony Fila track suit from a stall in Hong Kong, was an acceptable purchase if I needed additional supplies.  Now, however, socks with moose are out, along with shirts adorned with embroidered Native American symbols.  I did find a brick-colored shirt with a 1920s-style drawing of Yellowstone Lodge.  Sadly, it was a girl’s size large and when I tried it on, it gave the wrong message about my sexual orientation.

Eventually, I broke down and bought two t-shirts at The Gap in Jackson, Wyoming.  This temporarily broke the Wild West magic of our trip, but I hadn’t followed Donna Lewis’s hand washing rule, so I really needed a clean shirt.  Incidentally, the tees both have decorative stitching across the shoulders.

. . .

There you have it, the Revised Lewis Method.  I hope my insights have been helpful and that you will use the Method on your next vacation.  If you have specific questions about the Method, I will gladly answer them if you contact me at jlewis@prancyhorse.com or jeff@babblog.com.