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How to Pack Your Travel Backpack, Carry-On, and Luggage Like a Pro

It’s 2021, but you’re still packing like it’s 2012 (remember those “dark days of travel” when smart luggage and instant language translators were but a twinkle in their innovators’ eyes?). Despite the many horrors of modern air travel, it’s never been easier to get organized for your next trip. Here are some of our favorite tips for planning, packing, and flying like a pro. Most importantly? How to pack a suitcase.

Make a List, Check It Once

If you’re the sort of traveler who “wings it” when it comes to packing, there may be no hope for you. Blindly loading your suitcase with everything you might need is the best way to ensure you’ll be lugging around a much-too-heavy bag full of useless goods.

If you’re looking to foolproof your packing game, a proper packing app is the way to go. If you hate packing and would prefer an app that creates and dictates your packing list to you, there’s an app for that. If you fancy a bit more control, there’s an app for that, too.

The trick is to create a single master list of every item you might ever travel with including winter wear, beach gear, photography equipment, gadgets — everything. Work from that same list, crossing off and deleting things as you go based on the type, destination, and duration of your journey. This ensures you’ll never forget any of your travel essentials. It’ll seem tedious at first, but it’s way more efficient than packing on-the-fly. Even if you only travel once a year, an hour spent creating this list will save you hours of packing over the course of your lifetime.

Divide and Conquer

eagle creek packing modules
Packing cubes help organize your belongings. Eagle Creek/Facebook

If you’ve yet to experience the wonders of packing cubes, now’s the time to get on board (get it?). Packing cubes make it a snap to organize the loose bits in your luggage: Underwear and socks in one cube, t-shirts in another, and loose cables, memory cards, and miscellaneous bits and electronics in the third. Packing cubes make loading and unloading your bag infinitely easier on the road. Using a trio of cubes makes it possible to completely unpack and repack your entire bag in less than a minute. As a bonus, they also help streamline the process of TSA tossing your luggage during random “secondary screenings.” For around $20, you can score a set of nylon packing cubes (typically sold in threes) from Eagle Creek, REI, or Amazon.

For garments where wrinkling is an issue, like dress and collared shirts, Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Specter Garment Folders are a lifesaver. On the other hand, if you’re unconcerned with wrinkles, traditional stuff sacks work almost as well as packing cubes but pack down smaller when empty. Plus, they’re great for stowing dirty laundry on your flight home. Just toss a dryer sheet in with your sullied drawers to keep things mostly fresh.

Pack Right, Pack Tight

There are two schools of thought for packing your travel clothes: Rolling and folding. The truth is that neither is “best” because it depends on the particular article of clothing. In general, it’s best to roll soft garments and fold stiffer ones. This requires a bit of trial and error based on your wardrobe. Either way, be sure to pack your clothes as tightly as possible. This ensures the fabric doesn’t shift in transit and helps stave off wrinkles.

Packing Tips for Airline

It’s the ultimate goal for every savvy (and cheap) traveler to go “carry-on only.” Fewer baggage fees and a lighter load make for a better travel experience. But, whether you’re checking a bag or not, the smartest way to pack is purposefully and thoughtfully. No matter what sort of luggage you’re packing, consider these tips:

  • Wear your bulkiest layers on the plane.
  • Don heavier footwear (like boots), but pack your lighter sneakers or sandals
  • Wear your sweater and/or jacket (then ball it up and use as a pillow on the plane) instead of cramming it into your luggage.

This isn’t always practical, of course, but it can be a clever way to save space and weight. If your trip involves any formal events, check out our tips for how to pack a suit when you’re traveling light.

How to Pack a Backpack

The rise of the bare-bones “Basic Economy” class of air travel — in which most airlines allow passengers to take only the luggage that fits beneath the seat in front of them — has polarized travelers. But, if you know how to pack a backpack like a boss, you can save serious coin on airfare. For short-haul and weekender flights, it’s a cakewalk. For anything longer (say, one week or more), you’ll need to get creative.

Choose the right kind of backpack:

First, start with the right backpack for all your traveling needs.

  • Size: Get a bag that provides the maximum packable storage space. This varies by airline, although the dimensions are similar.
  • Check airline dimensions: On Delta, for example, the space is roughly 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches; on Southwest, it’s 20 inches by 17 inches by 11 inches. Expect less room next to the window.
  • Exterior pockets: While it seems minor, invest in a backpack with a couple of small, exterior pockets for stashing frequently needed items like your passport, wallet, and phone.
  • Two-in-one: A backpack that converts to a duffel-style carry with a single longer shoulder strap is convenient, too.

Tips for Packing Roll-Top Backpack

Most backpacks feature one of two layouts. For a roll-top or cinch closure where everything fits through a single opening near the top, pack it like you would a duffel bag:

  • Pack light: Pack only what you absolutely need. Be ruthless: If you’re not certain you’ll use it, leave it out. You’ll appreciate the value of going as light as possible.
  • Shoe hack: To maximize space, fill your shoes with small, non-essential items.
  • Pack heavy to light: Place your heaviest and least essential goods in first, at the bottom.
  • Rolling method: Roll your clothes and pack them tightly side-by-side to create the next vertical layer.
  • Packing cubes: Place smaller, more essential items on top of everything, nearest the top opening. Again, packing cubes come in handy to ensure these bits don’t get lost in transit or work their way to the bottom of the bag, never to be seen again.
  • Use exterior pockets: Finally, stuff the smallest, most essential items into the exterior pockets. This includes your passport, phone, snacks, and headphones — anything you may need in-flight.

Tips for Packing Zipper Backpacks

Backpacks that feature a butterfly-style layout with a zipper that opens wide on three sides provide easier accents to the contents. In this case, follow these simple tips:

  • Minimalist packing: Without the aid of wheels, you’ll be forced to carry the full weight of your luggage through airports, train stations, and in (possibly long) lines at customs.
  • Distribute weight: Keep weight to a minimum and stow heavy goods near the bottom to help distribute that weight. This includes things like shoes, bulkier pieces of clothing, and miscellaneous heavies like that bottle of Scotch you can’t leave home without.
  • Rolling method: Backpacks rarely allow for the folding method of packing clothing. Instead, roll clothing and place tightly atop the heaviest/bottom layer near the middle of your backpack. This ensures medium-weight goods are near the center of your back for a more balanced load.
  • Use outside pockets: Organize smaller goods into the remaining outside pockets. It’s easy to assume related items should be grouped together (e.g., Electronics in one pocket, snacks in another). However, it’s often smarter to pack in terms of convenience and location. When passing through airport checkpoints, for example, you’ll want ready access to your laptop, liquids bag, and pocketed goods. These items can be grouped together to streamline your move through security. Once through the checkpoint, you may want to grab your headphones, wallet, water, and an energy bar. Likewise, these items could all be grouped together in a separate pocket.

How to Pack a Carry-On Bag

Man Carrying Suitcases

Next time you’re packing a carry-on luggage remember these tips:

Rolled clothing: When packing carry-on luggage, start with rolled clothing — jeans, cotton pants, and knit sweaters all pack well when rolled. These should line the bottom two-thirds or so of your carry-on.

Folded garments: Next, folded garments including dress shirts and pants atop the rolled bottom layer. Drape this entire “base” clothing pile with a dry cleaning bag which will keep the top, folded layer of clothing from getting caught on anything and winding up a wrinkled mess.

Belts: Depending on the material, roll belts into a coil, and tuck away wherever they fit or snake them around the outside of your clothing to keep them straight.

Shoes: Wear your heaviest pair of shoes on the plane. Stuff the inside of your extra pair(s) of shoes with leftover bits (especially anything fragile like watches or sunglasses). Wrap any additional pairs of shoes in a gallon Ziploc bag or reusable stuff sack and place them to the side of your clothing pile (ideally near the wheels to better balance the overall weight of your bag).

Packing cubes: Last, fill any remaining gaps with the aforementioned packing cubes, so the contents of your suitcase are tight and unlikely to shift.

How to Pack a Suitcase or Checked Bag

For larger suitcases and checked luggage, the same tips for packing carry-on bags apply. The only difference is that you’ll have more room. It’s tempting to want to pack more because you can fit more. But, remember: Traveling light is traveling happy. It’s amazing how quickly a full-sized bag can go from 10 pounds empty to more than 50 pounds when it’s packed to the gills. This makes your luggage harder to roll and could result in pricey — sometimes exorbitant — overweight baggage fees.

Take only what you absolutely need. Unless you’re traveling to the North Pole, there will be stores at your destination. If you forget anything that you absolutely can’t live with it, you can probably buy it when you get where you’re going.

To better balance your bag, start packing from the side with the wheels. Pack your heaviest bits closest to the wheels, then your mid-weight belongings next, then your lightest gear closest to the top handle. With most of the weight near the bottom over the wheels, your bag will roll easier and be less likely to tip over. For checked bags, also make sure to use a TSA-approved lock. That way, if airport security needs to open your luggage, it won’t be with a pry bar and a hammer.

Be Prepared for Security

For your outbound and return flights, be aware of everything you’ll need to remove from your luggage to pass through airport security. At the moment, this includes your one-quart bag of liquids, laptop, any electronics or travel gadgets larger than a smartphone, and any loose objects in your pockets. Keep all of these in a single messenger bag or backpack to easily dispense with them in the TSA bins, then quickly retrieve them on the other side of security.

Last-Minute Travel Tips

Of course, if you really want to breeze through airport security like a pro, sign up for any of the U.S. government’s official trusted traveler programs like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Average wait time for enrolled travelers is just five minutes!

Article first published January 16, 2018. Updated March 2021.

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