The Basics: Packing

The one question I’m asked the most, is “What’s the best way to pack a suitcase?” For so many, it seems to be the single greatest struggle of traveling.  Never fear, though, I’m here to help.

There is perhaps nothing more unique to each traveler than packing.  Everyone does it differently.  It’s such a personal thing, and not just because you’ll be carrying around a big box of underwear with you in a public place when you’re done.  Everyone that travels has their own way of going about it.  Some are stackers and some are rollers.  Some travel light and some travel heavy.  For the record, I’m a stacker, and I travel light.  For me this system works, and it’s the one I recommend to travelers.  It’s easy to set up, and dig through, and it doesn’t require packing and unpacking of your suitcase when you’re on the road.  I always travel with two bags-a suitcase and a backpack.  The packing for the backpack is simple.  If you see me in an airport, it will contain the following: flight and travel itinerary, address of people, I’m going to be sending postcards to, a pen, a change of underwear, a change of clothes, a raincoat, toiletries, and my camera and camera equipment.  It’s a short, sweet list that serve all of my needs for a couple of days, should my luggage not make it to my destination.

My suitcase, though, is a far more complicated undertaking.

Before you begin to walk through the process, it’s important that you  do a little bit of prep work.  There are a few basics that you MUST deal with before you start packing.

  1. Check the weather.  In this day and age, not knowing how hot or cold, sunny or rainy it’s going to be at your destination is simply shameful.  Yes, the sweater may look cute with that outfit, but if it’s going to be 80 degrees, you simply won’t be wearing the sweater anywhere.  Don’t bring clothing you won’t need.
  2. Know what you are going to be doing.  A simple bit of research before leaving is essential.  If you booked your vacation, you clearly have some ideas about what it is you are going to be doing.  Therefore, again, don’t pack things you won’t need.  If your vacation is going to involve cold weather, don’t pack a swimsuit “just in case.”
  3. Once you know what you are going to be doing, start planning your wardrobe choices.  Giving this step considerable thought it crucial.  Pack items that you can “mix and match,” and be prepared to wear clothes more than once.  My general rule is to have a pair underwear and socks for each day, plus a couple of extras as a precaution (you never know), then be prepared to wear shorts and pants twice, and jeans several times.  A sweater and/or a fleece pullover, a raincoat, and a heavy coat (if needed), will pretty much see you through any situation.  You only need one scarf if you’ve planned.  The same is true of jewelry and other accessories.  If I’m “going out,” I’ll pack one “nice” outfit.  As far as shoes go, I recommend, no more than three pairs- at the most.  I generally wear comfortable shoes for traveling and sight seeing, a pair of boots for bad weather, or extreme activities, and a pair of dress shoes, if I’ll need them.
  4. Once it’s all been planned out and pulled from the closet, lay it out on your bed.  You’ll need to have an overview for this step.  You will need to begin the process of sorting everything out.  Shirts to the right, pants to the left.  Accessories, underwear, and socks in the middle.  Now the process of folding each item begins.  Shirts should be laid out, face down.


Fold one third of the shirt backwards, and repeat with the opposite side.  If shirt is long sleeved, fold sleeve at shoulder after first fold.



Fold the shirt in half, twice.


The shirt should now be a small rectangle.  Repeat this process with other shirts.


Repeat this process with pants and shorts.

Now, it’s actually time to pack the suitcase.  I have to admit, I’m always a bit perplexed by people that travel with enormous suitcases for relatively short trips.  I’ve traveled with people over the years that have done this, and they almost always, without fail, justify it by telling me that they “wanted options.”  Options come with closets.  You aren’t traveling with your closet.  Spend the time upfront, and avoid the headaches and the hassles.

My general rule of travel packing is that you can bring whatever you want, but you, and only you are responsible for carrying your luggage.  I’ve watched those same people, leave clothes all over Europe, America, and Asia, both by accident, and on purpose.  It’s amazing how quickly their “options” have turned into dead weight.  Simply avoid being forced into the position of having to choose between your “stuff” and your back muscles by doing a bit of planning.

When it comes to loading up a suitcase, as with so many things in this world, there is an art to doing well.  A suitcase should be balanced, and it should also act as padding for items that could break easily.  The key to achieving this is to start with your shoes.  Take the heaviest of your two pairs of shoes and place the sole of each along the outside wall of the suitcase.  Then repeat this pattern with the second pair of shoes, along the top and bottom of the case.


The worst thing you can do when packing is to waste space.  The next step, therefore, is to move to packing your socks and hosiery.  Ball them up, and place them inside of your shoes.  If you have any leftover, put them in the corners of the case between each of your shoes.

Now place your clothes in the center of the ring of shoes and socks you’ve created.  In the center of that you should then be able to fit in your underwear or any other odds and end you will need.  For the picture below, I’ve used a small carry on case.  Larger cases allow for more “stacks.”


Suits, slacks, or for anything else that you want to limit wrinkling in, fold each item neatly, but with as few creases as possible, and lay them over the top of the other items and shoes.

If it doesn’t all fit, go back and reevaluate what you are trying to pack.  If you are still having trouble, you may take each shirt or pair of pants and roll them tightly.  This will reduce the amount of space they take up, but this technique will also require more digging through your belongings and packing and repacking of the case, which increases the likelihood of something being lost along the way.

Finally close and  attach any straps or ties to keep everything in place, and close the case.

I always recommend locking everything down with a TSA approved combination lock.  They keep prying eyes (and hands) out of your bag when it isn’t with you at the airport, and also doubles as a security measure when you leave your luggage in your hotel. A TSA lock should have the small, red diamond shape on it.  If it isn’t TSA approved, your lock may be cut off, should your luggage be selected for random searches.


While you are away from home, move items of clothing that you won’t be wearing again, by folding them and putting them into the netting or lining at the top of the suitcase.

I hope these tips help, and as always, if you have any questions or need advice email me from the link above, or at

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