Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

How to Unpack

Unpacking is just as important as packing when it comes to long-term, productive travel.

There are a lot of articles that talk about how to pack when you travel. Whether you are a hardcore minimalist or pack for a combination of work and play, these guides aim to provide tips and best practices. The aim typically is to pack light for freedom and mobility, but pack enough so you have the essentials and can enjoy experiences. The emphasis is high quality, versatile gear.

But what about about unpacking? As a long-time traveler, I find that unpacking is just as important as how you pack. I regularly bounce between two or three cities and/or countries per month. That means a lot of hotels, AirBnBs, logistics and, of course, packing and unpacking.

Sure, it’s great that you have the latest luggage for minimalist travel and have this great method to get everything in the bag, but once you arrive at wherever you are staying, you want to feel right. That means unpacking right.

You can improve your travel by unpacking in a positive, organized and “homely” way. From my nearly a decade of constant travel, I want to share some my insights on the “art” of unpacking. This includes my “philosophy” around packing and unpacking as well as some actionable tips to make your stay anywhere a bit better.

The “Art” of Unpacking

Like anything, there is no one way to pack (or unpack) while you travel. You can do it anyway that works for you. You should personalize it. But if you want to improve it and make it fit your way of living, unpacking takes some practice and some thought. You got to turn your unpacking into an “art.”

As a kind of digital nomad, I pack and unpack several times per month. I’ve struggled with finding the best way to travel and remain sane and happy. Even for me, it’s tough not being at “home.” Perhaps like you, I find that traveling can sometimes be grueling and tiring as well as eye-opening and empowering.

Like a lot of aspects of lifestyle design or life hacking, the first thing you are doing is becoming consciously aware about how you are currently doing something. You think about it, you ask questions, you ponder possibilities and you iteratively propose a way of doing it. These questions open you up. Eventually you start to consider the design implications and open up an opportunity to design a better approach.

The same is true when it comes to travel and unpacking.

The first thing you have to realize is that you are not at home. You can’t expect your travel life to reflect everything in your home life. So forget about all the details and optimizations you have at home and embrace the “enough.” This means translating the essence of what you consider a home into your travel situation.

By properly unpacking and setting up your space, you can significantly improve your mood and travel experience. You take an anonymous space and make it your home for awhile. You can boil down your needs to a few essentials. This means transforming the travel space so you can be both comfortable and productive.

By properly unpacking your things, as minimal as they are, you start to take ownsfership over the space. The end goal is to make sure you feel situated in a way that makes you, as much as possible, at home.

Depending on how you like to work, you want to make sure your hotel, guesthouse or room with a friend conforms to your basic productivity needs. For me this translates to power outlets, decent internet and somewhere to sit or lay down within reach of power and internet.

Setting up a work environment on the road takes a bit of flexibility, so if you are rigid in how you need to work, then the travel-work life may not be for you, especially if part of your work needs to be done at home.

Fortunately, you can find co-working spaces almost anywhere and coffee shops with good internet are nearly ubiquitous now. So it might be more about finding a workable situation outside rather than at your hotel.

Overall the art of unpacking is setting up your space, so you can do what you need to do, while feeling comfortable, positive and productive. It should be low stress and fit your style. The goal isn’t exactly to reproduce home (if that was the case, then just stay home). Instead, the goal is to create a comfortable and workable situation wherever you are staying.

Tips for Better Unpacking

No. 1: In a New Place? Claim the Space as Your Own: Mentally we often think of hotels as not ours and as foreign. It’s important to consider your hotel as a modified version of your normal space. Sure, you need to combine sleeping, working and other functions into a smaller area. But that challenge just makes you more efficient and more concentrated. In order to unpack (and live) in your new place, you need to first mentally claim it as your own, so make it your home.

No 2: Unpack Your Toiletries, Take Over the Bathroom: For me the first place I unpacking for in a new travel place is the bathroom. Do you have a particular order and place for your toiletries at home, then do the same while you travel. Getting the bathroom feeling right (and maybe even cleaning yourself up? wink, wink) can instantly get you into a mental stage of this-is-my-domain. So a good first step is to unpack your toiletries, take a shower, shave, and whatever. Be clean, man.

No 3: Digital Worker? Desk junkie? Couch creator? Setup Your Desk and Remote Command Center: If you are a digital worker like me, there is a good chance your travel combines an element of pleasure and necessary work time. The essentials are internet and power. Unpack your digital menagerie of tools (and start charging!) and setup your desk (or bed). Once you are ready or it’s time to work, your space is ready and you can get to work as usual. Setting up a consistent work area might make the difference between getting stuff done and stressing out. It hopefully translates into getting enough of your work done so you can venture out and enjoy the new place you are in.

No 4: Snack Time? Coffee Break? Unpacking Your Tasty Treats: On my checklist of travel essentials is coffee and some basic snacks. Sure, you can go out and buy these things while traveling, but having some snacks and provisions while you move about can make traveling easier. It means your first worry isn’t how to satisfy your hunger (or caffeine addiction) since you got it covered. Personally I travel with my own ground coffee, an AeroPress, tea and an assortment of snacks and breakfast foods. So, unpacking this means I have mentally setup my “kitchen.”

No 5 Unpack Your Clothes (or not): I go both ways on unpacking my clothes. If I’m only staying a few days, then I’ll likely just leave most of my clothes in my bag. If I’m staying longer, then I like to unpack most everything, including my clothes. That way, I’m more mentally there, and it gives me a bit more room to manage my stuff too. At hotels where it doesn’t make sense to unpack my clothes (i.e. no closet), then I live out of my suitcase.

No 6: Hang Up Your Shirts or Dresses: Nothing gives a worse impression than wrinkled and inappropriate clothes. Don’t be that poor traveler. I unpack my dress shirts so they aren’t too many wrinkles. When I was traveling more heavily and longer for work, I have even traveled with a small travel iron. If you bought no- or low-wrinkle clothes, hanging them up should take care of some of that ruffled traveler look when you head to your next meeting.

No 7. Deal with the Dirty Stuff: Unpacking your clothes might also mean separating out the clean and the dirty clothes. You can see what you have to wear that’s clean enough and that it might be time to do a bit of laundry. Travel with a dirty clothes laundry page. Separate your clean and dirty stuff. And, if you are a runner like me, then by all means decontaminate your athlete gear from your everyday gear.

No 8. If It Isn’t Needed, Leave It In the Bag: Don’t need it for awhile? Then leave it in the bag. I travel for a range of situations, including scuba diving, formal meetings, photography, swimming, running, tech meetups, yoga and more. This means a bring a pretty diverse bag of gear. I’ve even traveled for a year with a small scale in order to weigh myself daily as part of a quantified self experiment. All this stuff does not need to be unpacked with each move, so if you don’t need it somewhere now, then leave it packed and out of mind until you do.

No 9: Have a Bedside Manner: Sleep is critically important, whether you are traveling or at home. So, while traveling might translate into a couple of late night youtube and netflix bing sessions, it’s still important to make sure you setup a situation where you can sleep right. So, unpack and setup your before-bed essentials, like a journal, book, glass of water, etc. Having your bed ready for sleep will make you more relaxed and take you one step closer to feeling at home.

No 10: Travel with Less: Packing and unpacking over and over tends to make you a minimalist. The product of several multiple country, long-term trips, I don’t hide the fact that I’m a minimalist . Having less stuff makes my life (and mind) a lot less cluttered. The same holds true with traveling. The less stuff you bring, the less you need to worry about it. So, try to only travel with what you need. Traveling with less means less stuff to lug around as well as unpack as you situate your life for a time anywhere in the world.

No 11: Bring “Your” Essentials: Since I travel with several scenarios in mind (scuba diving and professional speaking engagements among others), I’m not the lightest traveler out there, nor do I try to be. I travel in a way that makes it easy to move around while having the stuff I need. If you have a hobby or type of activity that makes it impossible to be a hardcore minimalist travel, then do what you need to do to live the life you love. That said, don’t overdo it. Make do with two dress shirts instead of three. Find a way to only have one pair of dress and casual pants. Keep your workout gear to the minimal.

No 12: Follow Your Routine: The temptation when you travel is fall out of your routines. You overeat, you binge watch the latest TV series, and you don’t sleep, eat or exercise right. You can get a bit depressed too. Avoid these pitfalls by sticking to your routines and following a schedule. Personally I have a morning routine that includes a bit of wakeup, exercise, meditating and writing. When traveling, I may not do of my morning routine, but by squeezing in a shorter, “travel” version helps me to stay mentally sharp and productive. Similarly, it’s good to try and set a schedule while you travel, especially if you want to mix work and pleasure. So set some boundaries on what you need to get done, so you can enjoy the amazingness of wherever you are.

Conclusion: Unpack Right and Make It Homely

Long- and short-term travel can be a lot of fun but it can also be really tiring. You are not at home, so it may feel like something is missing. Maybe the shower is a bit off or you miss your work desk. Your house and neighborhood aren’t reminders of your routines. Any number of factors can make you feel a bit out of sorts when you travel. But you can make your travel experience better by coming up with your own routine when you arrive somewhere.

I can this the “art” of unpacking.

In this post, we looked at some essential tips to help you travel and unpack right. Whether it’s organizing your clothes and toiletries or setting up your work space, the idea is simple: When you get to where you are staying, mentally claim it.

Put your stuff in the most appropriate places for you. If you prefer to hang everything up, do it. If you prefer it a bit messy, it’s all you. If you need a workspace, then takeover a table and lay out your gear. If you are going to be somewhere awhile, then it’s worth the effort to make it more homely.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with a few approaches to unpacking while I travel. I’ve tried to keep everything in suitcase (bag turns into a mess). I’ve tried unpacking everything (where did I put X?). In the end, I’ve found that what works best is a balance. Certain aspects like your toiletries and work stuff should be unpacked and properly positioned. Other things that you might only use occasionally should be kept in your travel bags.

Even if it’s a short trip, unpacking right is worth a few minutes of effort, since it puts you the right mental framework.

All in all most important step to the art of unpacking is a mental shift. So next time you arrive at a new hotel or AirBnB take a couple minutes to survey the space and make it your new home away from home.