Food & Fitness

How to Pack a Suitcase or Backpack

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Packing a bag for travelling purposes can be quite a bit of fun – it’s a puzzle to try to get all of the things we want to take into a bag that we can easily carry with us. I’ve learned how to pack a suitcase from all the travels that I do, as well as from the recent back-country camping trips I’ve been taking. When you are going to be carrying your bag on your back all day long, you are able to leave behind a whole lot of items that you would otherwise have tried to squeeze into a bag that is just going to go from car to airplane!

There were piles upon piles of freebies at the BlogHer conference earlier this month. I had deliberately left some room in my suitcase to take some samples home, but I didn’t have a huge amount of space. Time to do some serious rearrangements! Here are a few tips on how to pack a bag, whether it’s a suitcase that you won’t have to carry for very long or a backpack that you’ll be wearing on a hike for hours:

1) Lay out everything you want to pack in a clean area beside your bag. When you can see everything all together, you might realize that there are some things you don’t need to take. Or that you were unintentionally planning on packing duplicates. Laying everything out before starting to pack it all up will also prevent you from accidentally putting a heavy object directly on top of something that is more fragile.

2) Be realistic about what you need. If you’re going back-country camping for two days, you can get away with wearing the same shirt and pants two days in a row (providing you haven’t been wearing them in the rain). If you are going to be staying in a hotel for a week-long trip, you probably don’t need to take a rain jacket with you. Some items you can buy at your destination (like an umbrella, if it’s rainy). You only really need one pair of pants and one pair of shorts if you’re travelling somewhere for a week or two in the summer. Carting around half of your wardrobe just isn’t necessary. Besides, there’s always the option of going shopping if you find yourself in a predicament 🙂

3) Ask what your travel partners are taking. You only need one tube of toothpaste between the two of you. For camping, one katadyn should suffice (but bring along a packet of water purification tablets just in case of an emergency). If you have good communication before going on your trip, you can save taking along a lot of unnecessary duplicates. You can apply this same philosophy to travelling solo, too; find out what is available at your travel destination ahead of time so that you know what you can leave behind. Normally I would have brought an empty water bottle with me to the BlogHer conference, but they let us know beforehand that we would be each receiving a free bottle. That cleared up a considerable amount of space in my bag.

4) Wrap fragile items in what you were already planning on taking with you. Scarves are the one souvenir that I always buy from wherever I travel to. When I lived with the father dear in Cambodia for a month, I bought a pile of scarves in addition to a few fragile items. Rather than wrapping up these fragile items in bubble wrap or paper padding, I wrapped them in the scarves. The same thing works with boxes: if you’re carrying around some kind of hollow object (for example, if you have a mug or a bowl with you), you can “fill it” with another smaller item that you’re taking on the journey. Figure out logically what will fit inside something else. If you have two bowls to take for oatmeal on your camping trip, have one person carry both bowls so that they fit together, rather than a bowl in each backpack taking up space.

5) Anticipate what things will look like by the end of your travels. Are you going to be leaving some things behind? Buying new things? You want to be aware of this so that you know how much space you should be leaving empty in your bag. Reusable bags pack much easier than containers if you’re taking food, for example; if you take it in containers, this will likely lead to wasted space. If you take it in reusable Ziploc bags, you can easily squish the empty bags and take up hardly any space at all.

6) Be aware of weight. If you’re hiking, you don’t want your bag to be too heavy. But even if you’re just going from the airport to the hotel, it’s still going to be easier to walk around the airport with a bag that isn’t too heavy. Keep in mind, too, that the type of bag you use will be important. A suitcase with wheels makes life much easier if you are going to be carrying it around for a while. If you are looking for a backpack, you want to make sure that it fits you properly. My backpacking backpack is designed specifically for women and it is a smaller bag so that it’s proportional to my body. Think about what you can actually carry, and what will be the most appropriate type of bag for the style of travelling that you are doing.

Umm, I think this bag might be a little too small for all my travelling needs.

7) Placement is important. Use common sense: keep heavy items at the bottom and lighter items at the top. Items you need daily should be easily accessible and near a zipper so you can get at it quickly. Use smaller bags within your bigger bag to organize it all (such as a bag for toiletries), and make use of side pockets in your suitcase or backpack. Always take a few extra large Ziploc bags and/or plastic bags just in case.

Got any tips to share? Leave them in the comments!


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  2. the Bag Lady

    Good tips, Sagan. Here are a few of mine:
    I always pack my shampoo/conditioner/liquids inside a ziploc in case of leaks. I had that happen once, and it can ruin a lot of stuff in your bag! Also, rolling your clothes saves space, and, believe it or not, if done properly, can reduce wrinkles or fold marks. I also pack my shoes inside a plastic bag – if they are dirty or dusty, they won’t soil the rest of your clothes. Plastic bags come in handy for all sorts of things – you can put your dirty laundry in one, or use it to bring home things you purchased and don’t have room for in your bag!

    1. Sagan Morrow

      Heh, it’s gotten to the point where I even pack liquids in a separate bag while GROCERY shopping… twice now liquid containers have opened up from shopping. Oh dear.

      And yes, rolling up clothes is huge. Love it. Great tip for the shoes! I forgot about that one 🙂

    1. Sagan Morrow

      The father dear always said he wanted to be able to carry everything he owned in the back of a pick-up truck. Then he had kids, I guess 😀 Sometimes it would be kinda nice to just be able to get up and go, wouldn’t it?

  3. Pubsgal

    Thanks, Sagan! These are great tips! “Be aware of weight” really bit us on a trip a couple of years ago – we were one of those annoying families that had to pull some stuff out of the suitcases to meet the weight limit. (Luckily, we had room on the carry on bag.) No more, though: we bought one of those hook luggage scales, and that has helped quite a lot. (We were good about weighing luggage at home, where we had a scale; hotels often do not have them.)

    And we often have to remind ourselves that we can buy stuff if we need it; we’ve never traveled in places where there aren’t stores. Here’s a cautionary tale, though: I once took a train trip that looked like it was going to have a long delay (2 hours) in a city along the route. Several people wandered off to find food, and then the conductor called the “all aboard.” One woman was in tears, because her husband had been left behind and she was carrying his prescription medication. (The city was only a couple of hours from our destination and had pharmacies, so presumably they figured out a workaround. But still, that’s pretty stressful.) I learned that I should always carry prescription medication on my *own* person rather than in my luggage.

    We do similarly to Bag Lady, and we put all liquids in ziplock bags. Also, insulated lunch bags make a good kit bag for toiletries…they have some really cute ones out there now!

    My husband traveled recently, a 4-day trip requiring a suit. He wore his suit on the plane, wished he’d had loafers for easy shoe removal/replacement in airport security, but was happy to have a ziplock bag in the front pocket of his small roller bag with everything he needed during the flight (snacks, book, and the like). This made it easy to pull out before he stowed the suitcase during the trip.

  4. Mary Anne in Kentucky

    About 2). All I can say is that you must stay a lot cleaner than I do when I travel. If I wore the same pair of shorts for a week they would be filthy. (I wouldn’t dream of traveling anywhere in the summer that I’d need long pants.)

  5. Lisa

    I say to hell with it! If I forgot to pack it, I’ll just get it when I get there. Saves a lot of time a grief trying to remember what to take and thinking the whole trip “I should’ve packed…”

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