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The other day I caught up with a well-travelled American friend who had outdone himself this year by managing to see penguins in Antarctica, gorillas in Uganda and iguanas in the Galápagos.

Yet the story from his jaunts that has stuck in my mind concerned a matter the modern traveller seems to find endlessly baffling: how to pack a suitcase.

My friend, a former foreign correspondent, likes to travel light. I had no idea quite how light until he told me his wardrobe for his three-week trip to Uganda and back included just three pairs of underpants, fewer than I have taken for a quick weekend in Wales.

The trick, he said, was a technique he picked up when covering the Cambodian war: whenever he had a shower, he would chuck his clothes in too and let his feet, shampoo and soap do the work of a washing machine.

I could see the appeal at once, though there are some obvious limits, like the need to be in one spot long enough for drying. I cannot see myself stomping on a white shirt on a business trip and it would be tricky on a family holiday, especially one involving babies. 

Yet the idea has the admirable advantage of being rational, practical and proven, which is more than one can say for a lot of the mountainous advice available for dealing with one’s luggage.

When I googled “How to pack your bag” last week I got 449m results, more than “How to end poverty” and “How to cure cancer” combined. Yet a striking amount of the guidance was either utterly obvious (wear bulky stuff on the plane) or a ludicrous faff (layer clothes with fabric softener sheets to improve the smell) or contradictory.

Heathrow airport and Qantas both advise you to start by laying out all the clothes you think you will need on the bed. Heathrow then tells you to cull the pile by a third. Qantas says it should be halved. 

The human species has managed to get itself to the moon and back. One day, it will also know how to pack

Airlines and airports should of course be doing their bit on this front. The maddening mix of ever-changing rules on airline luggage and security checks must explain some of our thirst for instruction.

Yet not that many decades ago, none of this guidance was necessary. The only people who could afford to travel had servants to take care of their piles of chests and trunks, says a Lund University paper from one of the academics now weighing into the fray.

It was not until mass travel began to take off in the late-19th century that travellers carrying their own cases began to emerge, along with a bevy of instructions and manuals on how to pack. You would think we might have got the hang of it now, in the second decade of the 21st century.

Yet road warriors like Neal Keny-Guyer continue to astonish. He runs Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organisation based in Oregon and never checks a bag.

Everything goes into a 20-inch carry-on case, he told me last week, even on a typical three-week trip like the one he took this year from Baghdad to Davos to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same rule applies to family trips. 

He and his wife once took their three children to Cuba and Guatemala for three months: “We did it all with carry-on.” 

I bow to his prowess, which completely outdoes my own pathetic efforts. For what it is worth, the few things that have worked for me are these: keep a list of what you needed on your last trip and get some of those packing cubes so you can separate everything into recognisable piles. 

Confine everything to carry-on if possible and if you cannot, do not worry. Life generally carries on. Forget all the guff about whether to fold or roll, along with those “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” rules that say you should take no more than five sets of socks and underwear, four tops, three bottoms, two pairs of shoes and one hat. They are far too generic to be useful.

Ignore packing apps for the same reason, along with anyone who says you must spend a month’s salary on a suitcase with a hard shell and four wheels.

Finally, remember that the human species has managed to get itself to the moon and back. One day, it will also know how to pack.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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