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How to Pack Like a Pro (Plus Your Ultimate Packing Checklist)

How to pack like a pro plus your ultimate packing checklist header

By Laura Newcomer on October 20, 2020 in life hacks

We've all felt apprehension while staring blankly at an empty suitcase. What should you pack? What if you forget something? Can you really fit everything you need into this bag?

If your packing is usually tinged with anxiety, consider this guide a valuable tool to ease your mind. We’ve got you covered with tried-and-true tips to help you pack with ease and confidence. We’ve also included the ultimate packing checklist so you can print it out, check off items, and set out on your adventure fully prepared.

Packing Tips That'll Turn You into a Packing Pro

Your packing list will vary a bit depending on your destination and the length of your stay. But one thing’s for certain: Adopting the following packing guidelines before and during a trip will ensure smoother sailing.

Plan ahead

Before you pack, hit the pause button. You'll make the whole process simpler and easier if you take some time to plan. To that end, take stock of the following considerations.

  • The weather at your destination(s)

Check the weather forecast for the whole time you'll be there. Note the highs and lows and any chance of precipitation. This info will help guide what kind of layers to pack.

  • The duration of your trip

How many days and nights will you stay at your destination(s)? The duration of your trip — and how long you’ll stay in certain places — gives you a sense of how many outfits to bring. Also, consider whether there’s a chance you’ll extend your stay.

  • Special activities or events

Consider any special events you'll attend as well as the attire that's required by those activities. Do you plan to go water skiing? A swimsuit and sunscreen are a must. Will you attend a wedding? Then you'll need dress shoes and accessories.

Choose the right kind of bag for the trip

Several factors can dictate the right type of suitcase for a particular trip, including your destination, intended length of stay, airline baggage policies, and more. A suitcase that's larger than you need can be a real hassle, while a small bag can limit your ability to purchase souvenirs.

Here's a breakdown of different kinds of bags and how they suit various kinds of travel.

  • Rolling luggage

A wheeled suitcase can make it easy to transport luggage — so long as you travel somewhere with paved roads and buildings with elevators. If you anticipate that you’ll spend a lot of time on cobblestone or dirt streets or in stairs-only buildings, then you may be better off with a bag that’s easier to carry.

If you're traveling somewhere with unknown terrain, you can find a nice middle ground with a rolling backpack or duffel. These bags convert from rolling to carrying, so you can adapt them to the situation in question.

  • Four-wheeled luggage

Four-wheeled bags can ease wrist and arm strain because they distribute the weight of a suitcase across four wheels instead of two. This means the suitcase stands upright instead of tipping on its side when your hand isn’t on the handle. As with two-wheeled suitcases, a four-wheeled bag can be a great option if you're traveling in areas with paved roads and buildings with elevators.

  • Duffel bag

This classic travel staple is lightweight, durable, and flexible. Another pro: Duffels fold down when they're empty, so they take up less space in a hotel room. The downside of a duffel is that it can be tiring to carry it around for extended periods of time. They're best for situations when you don't expect to walk with your luggage for long periods.

  • Carry-on

Perfect for short trips and light packers, carry-on bags let you keep all your luggage with you at all times. Modern carry-on bags come with lots of bells and whistles such as smartphone chargers and app integration. The obvious downside? You're limited to as much clothing and personal items as you can fit into your carry-on.

  • Travel backpack

As the term implies, travel backpacks are backpacks designed with travel in mind. They're often larger and have travel-specific features (such as extra pockets) compared to conventional backpacks. They can be great for people who like to keep all their belongings with them, are capable of packing light, and don't mind carrying luggage on their back. They're not ideal for people with mobility issues that may not be able to carry a heavy load.

If you bring a roller bag, pack the heaviest items near the base

Did you settle on a roller bag? Then this simple packing tip is essential: Pack heavier items — such as books, shoes, and jeans — near the bottom of the bag. This helps balance the bag so it remains stable when it's upright. Placing heavy items on the bottom instead of the top also helps protect other, lighter items from being crushed.

Pro tip: Tuck smaller items into shoes before placing shoes at the bottom of the bag. This saves space, protects fragile items (such as jewelry), and helps shoes maintain their shape. Just don't pack away any items you'll need to access before you arrive at your destination.

Roll your clothes instead of folding them

There's a lot of debate in the packing world about the best way to pack clothes into a suitcase. Many experts agree that rolling clothes is the way to go. Not only does it save space in the suitcase (so you can pack more clothes!), but it also helps prevent creases.

To roll shirts most effectively, lay them facedown, fold in the sleeves, and then roll from the bottom to the top. When it comes to pants, put the legs together and then roll downward from the waist. Load shirts and pants into your suitcase before packing smaller items and place the first outfit you want to wear on top for easy access.

Pack dual-purpose garments

Garments that can serve multiple functions help cut down on packing space. Here are a few examples of dual-purpose garments.

  • A scarf that can double as a shawl
  • Pants that zip into shorts
  • A jacket or sweatshirt that can also function as a pillow

Plan to bring pieces that coordinate so you can mix and match throughout the trip. A mere three bottoms, four tops, and two outer layers can make up to 24 distinct outfits so long as the color palettes work with each other.

Bring a reusable laundry bag or plastic bag to separate dirty clothes

When you travel, you’ll likely accrue dirty clothes you’ll have to transport until you can access laundry services, a laundromat, or your own washer and dryer. It can help to bring along small laundry bags and/or plastic bags to separate clean clothes from dirty ones as you travel.

Consider investing in packing cubes

Yes, packing cubes may launch you into a new level of travel nerd-dom. But what a wonderful level it is! Packing cubes offer several benefits.

  • They let you separate different types of clothing so you can easily locate the items you need to create various outfits.
  • They compress clothes, which can make your packing more efficient and create more space in your suitcase.
  • They help protect against wrinkles.
  • It's easier to unpack when you reach your destination.
  • Plastic cubes can protect your clothes from spills.

Protect breakable souvenirs by rolling them into clothes

As you pack for the return trip, let your clothes do double duty as makeshift bubble wrap. Roll breakable souvenirs into your clothes to help protect them in transit.

The Ultimate Packing Checklist

Alright, now that you’re armed with some proven packing tips, it’s time to get down to the actual business of packing! It's helpful to organize your packing checklist according to the bags you plan to take. Most people travel with a smaller bag (such as a backpack or purse) as well as a main suitcase.

Plan to pack the most critical items in your smaller bag first. That way you can rest assured you'll have the bare-bones necessities with you wherever you go. In your backpack, purse, or other small bag, pack the following items.

  • ID (driver's license and/or passport)
  • Boarding passes
  • Wallet and/or money belt with credit cards and cash (preferably an RFID wallet or money belt)
  • House keys
  • Medications
  • Camera
  • Phone and charger
  • Laptop and charger
  • Tablet or e-reader
  • Glasses and/or contacts if you wear them
  • Any toiletries that you can't live without for more than a day or that won't be available at your destination
  • Emergency documents (such as a health insurance card, an emergency contact card, a list of allergies, etc.)
  • Relevant receipts (e.g. for hotel or rental car reservations)
  • Adapters/converters

If you plan to travel via public transportation, then you’ll probably want to pack some items that will keep you entertained and comfortable during the trip. This can include the following items.

  • Neck pillow
  • Books and/or magazines
  • Headphones and/or earplugs
  • Water bottle (consider a foldable water bottle if you're tight on space)
  • Snacks
  • Eye mask
  • Warmer layers (such as socks and/or a sweatshirt)
  • Journal and pen

If you have space in your smaller bag, you may also consider packing a change of clothes (or at least a fresh pair of underwear) in the event that you get separated from your main suitcase for a day or more.

Speaking of your main suitcase: It's time to pack it! Here's where you'll stash all the essentials, including the following items, for a multi-day trip.

  • Clothing (focus on matching clothes that can be layered)
    • Casual tops
    • Dressier tops
    • T-shirts
    • Jeans
    • Non-jean pants
    • Shorts
    • Dresses or skirts
    • Blazers and suit coats
    • Activewear
    • Swimwear
    • Pajamas
    • Underwear
    • Socks
    • Bras
  • Shoes
    • Walking shoes
    • Dressier shoes
    • Sandals
    • Specialty shoes (e.g. hiking boots or water shoes)
  • Toiletries and personal care items, including travel-size versions of the following (make sure to follow the TSA's 3-1-1 rule for carry-on toiletries)
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Toothbrush and toothpaste
    • Face wash
    • Body wash
    • Shampoo and conditioner
    • Moisturizer
    • Deodorant
    • Contact solution
    • Sunscreen
    • Basic first aid items (e.g. band aids, headache medication, tweezers)
    • Vitamins and supplements
    • Razor and shaving cream
    • Makeup
    • Pads and tampons
    • Hair tools and products
      • Hairbrush
      • Hair ties
      • Gel or mouse
      • Hair dryer (if one won't be available at your destination)
  • Location-specific medications
    • Antihistamines
    • Motion sickness tablets
    • Antimalarials
  • Accessories
    • Sunglasses
    • Watch
    • Jewelry
    • Scarf
    • Belts
    • Hats
    • Umbrella
    • A power bank (for charging electronics when an outlet isn't available)

Conclusion

If you follow these packing tips and use our ultimate packing checklist, then the chances of arriving at your destination without your wallet or clean socks are slim to none. But if the worst does happen, just remember that it’s the nature of travel to present you with surprises. Facing challenges and staying flexible is part of what makes travel so enriching and exciting. So pack your bag as well as you can, strike out on an adventure, and let the chips fall where they may.

Check your coverage before your next adventure!


Laura Newcomer is a consultant for Say Insurance. She is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.

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