How to Pack Luggage Like a Pro

This bag will hold a lot of clothes  and it also includes a padded laptop sleeve.
Article By:
David Allfrey
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
June 2, 2015

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How to Pack a Suitcase and Travel Bags


Regardless of if you are packing a suitcase for a week long adventure, a business trip, or a quick weekend getaway, packing a bag is not rocket science. But let's be honest, you can't just smash and shove all your clothing, gear and accessories into your bag - unless you want to arrive looking like you just pulled your clothes from that huge pile of laundry that has been on the bed for a week! So fear not, here are a few tips to help pack your bags and arrive at your destination looking fresh and wrinkle-free.

Whether you are packing your clothing into a carried or checked bag there are a few things to always keep in mind when thinking about how to pack a suitcase. You want to maximize the space you have and the best way to do that is to be sure to actually utilize all of that space. Remember to tuck items into the corners and up against the edges of the bag so you don't waste that precious space; this is especially true with baggage you are going to carry on.

Fold n' Roll


A great tactic to minimize wrinkles is the fold n' roll, this is best for T-shirts and pants. For T-shirts, start out by carefully folding in half, arms together, then fold the arms in, leaving a long rectangle. Starting from the bottom roll the shirt up towards the top. The fold n' roll works especially well with pants; we recommend folding the legs together lengthwise, then rolling from the bottom to top (instead of the top to the bottom).

The Dress-Ups


For your dress-ups and business clothing, things get a little more tricky. The best way to keep those dress shirts and slacks looking fresh when they come out of the suitcase is to use plastic (like a dry cleaning bag) between each item. That's right! By layering your garments between sheets of dry cleaning bags or even cut open plastic bags (if you don't happen to have dry cleaning bags just laying around, I know I don't), you can minimize the amount of rubbing and chafing and your dress ups will arrive fresh and wrinkle free. If you travel often you can use large zip-lock bags; just keep them in your suitcase all the time and reuse them time and time again.

Shoes and Socks


Shoes can be a real tricky item, you want to be aware of dirtying your clean laundry with the soles of the shoes. This is why we recommend putting shoes into the bottom of the suitcase first, soles down. If they are dirty or you are worried, use a layer of that plastic bag we talked about to cover them. Don't forget that there is a lot wasted space inside those shoes! Remember that the inside of the shoes is a great place to store a few pair of socks to maximize your available space.

Stuff Sacks and Ditty Bags for everything!


Often bags don't have enough accessory pockets for the odds and ends of travel life: toiletries, chargers, makeup, etc. It can be tough to keep all your things organized if you only have one or two extra pockets built in. A great way to deal with all those little items is to utilize a few small stuff sacks or portable pockets. We recommend the Outdoor Research Mesh Ditty Sack for this application, but any small pouch will work; Outdoor Research sells the ditty sacks in a three count for $25. These sacks will help you organize while packing and will help you stay organized once you arrive. We like to have at least two or three of these, one for toiletries, one for electronics, and one for everything in between.

Outdoor Research Ditty Sacks - Set of three.
Outdoor Research Ditty Sacks - Set of three.

Award Winners for Carry-on Luggage


Best Overall: Eagle Creek Tarmac, $300.
Top Pick for Business Travel: Briggs & Riley Baseline Domestic, $499.
Best Buy: SwissGear Meyrin 20, $120.


Packing a Backpack


If you have ever packed for a big adventure that required backpacks rather than suitcases, you know things get tricky. Here are a few tips for packing up, whether you are going backpacking around Europe, are preparing for a big mountain expedition, or just don't own a real suitcase. Remember, if you are just packing for a regular trip and just don't like using a suitcase, the same tips from above apply here! The fold n' roll is a great strategy with a backpack too. Using plastic between clothing items (if you are bringing a few dress up pieces) will still help to keep the wrinkles away.

Lets assume that we are trying to pack up for an urban camping trip, you know, sleeping bag, clothing, maybe a computer or tablet, and some odds and ends.

Less is More


It is easy to forget how much things weigh. Individually, many items like a sleeping bag, a coat, or even five or six pairs of socks don't weigh very much. But when you start adding all these items together, the weight really adds up. When you are packing for a big trip where you will be using a backpack instead of a suitcase, and you plan on carrying it around with you fairly often, it is essential to remember that less is more. Unfortunately, when you are living out of a bag, you will have to make some sacrifices; you might not want to bring three jackets and five pairs of pants because you will have to carry it all around, all day, everyday. Keep it simple and keep it minimal. Take your favorite T-shirt and wear it two or three days in a row, proudly! We recommend trying to keep a backpack between 25 and 35 pounds, more than that and it is going to be difficult and annoying to carry around all the time.

We were totally amazed at how many items fit into the Travelpro Maxlite 2 Expandable Rollaboard. To add even more things  simply unzip the expandable section and check it.
We were totally amazed at how many items fit into the Travelpro Maxlite 2 Expandable Rollaboard. To add even more things, simply unzip the expandable section and check it.

Useless to Useful


When traveling and living out of a backpack, nothing is more frustrating than digging in your pack to look for your rain coat because it just started to pour and you buried it in the very bottom of your bag! Try to pack your useless items, the things you don't need quick and easy access to (like your extra socks and underwear or your pajamas) on the bottom then work towards the things you may need to get at quickly like your sweater or your rain coat.

Protect the Breakables!


If you are traveling with a backpack and also have a computer or tablet, it is important to keep it protected. We recommend packing up your bag, then sliding a sweater or jacket against the back panel of the bag, now slide the computer down along side this. By sandwiching the computer or tablet between the jacket and your other clothing, it will stay protected from being crushed on both sides. Never slide the computer straight against the back panel of the backpack, the rigid frame of the pack can damage the device if it gets smashed.

What about camping and REAL backpacking?


If you are packing up for a proper backpacking trip with all the odds and ends like a stove, cook set, tent, sleeping bag, and everything else needed for the wilderness, it is important to think soft then hard. A sleeping bag or extra clothing is a great thing to put in the very bottom of the bag. This is especially true if you have irregular shaped items, those can jut out and poke into the bottom of the bag increasing the chances of ripping or tearing the fabric. Place something soft in the bottom first, then put the heavy items in. This also helps to distribute the weight better; placing the heavy part of the bag in line with the torso and improving the carrying comfort.

After you have placed the heavier items in the middle put the 'high priority' items on top. This is where you want the items that you will likely need access to: a rain coat, a jacket, food and snacks and the water pump.

Not sure what food to pack for your upcoming backpacking trip? Read The Best Backpacking Food article to find out!

Stuff Sacks and Ditty Bags


Even the most tricked out backpacks don't ever seem to have enough pockets for all the little odds and ends that have to come along on a trip. Things like chapstick, extra batteries, your headlamp, snacks, maps, sunscreen, spoon, fork and knife can get lost forever inside a fully packed backpack. Nothing is more frustrating than getting sunburned just because you couldn't find the sunscreen that you know you brought! Use small, lightweight ditty bags to keep track of all these little items. You can even keep a few small bags in the top (the brain) of the bag so that it is easy to get what you want without digging through all the junk.

Both Osprey packs (Meridian: L  Ozone: R) are convertible wheeled carry-ons with shoulder straps and hip belts. The Meridian's straps are bulkier and harder to use  while the Ozone's are slimmer and more packable.
Both Osprey packs (Meridian: L, Ozone: R) are convertible wheeled carry-ons with shoulder straps and hip belts. The Meridian's straps are bulkier and harder to use, while the Ozone's are slimmer and more packable.

Backpacks are for putting things INSIDE not clipping things to!


That's right! Backpacks are for putting things inside! They are NOT for clipping items to the outside of so that they jingle-jangle around while you walk. Nothing is more annoying than having a yard sale of items hanging from the outside of your bag, swinging back and forth, making your bag sway and pull from side to side, and constantly clinking together while you walk. Find a way to get these items INSIDE the bag. Put your water bottle into the side pouch of the bag, or into the top if need be, it will be far more comfortable than having a liter of water swing around at your hip.

Very often new backpackers don't follow these rules, but still get through their trip and still have a great time. However, once you learn to correctly pack your bag you will see (and feel) the difference. Having the weight distributed properly, the items packed up tight, and not having tons of stuff jingling on the outside will make a huge difference. You will find carrying a bag to be so much more pleasant and the whole experience will be more enjoyable, trust us!

Make sure you have all the goods you could want for your upcoming backpacking trip - check out our Dream Backpacking Gear List.

Airline Carry On Rules and Regulations


Every airline has slightly different rules and regulations in regards to the baggage you can take onto a plane with you. Most of the major airlines allow for one free personal bag and one free carry-on bag. The exception here is Frontier Airlines which charge $30 to $35 for a carry-on bag and will charge $50 if you are required to gate check an oversized bag when entering the airplane.

A great rule of thumb is to measure the dimensions of the bag and be sure to keep them at 45 to 50 linear inches - this is the maximum for most airlines. Rarely do airlines specify the weight restrictions for the bags you carry, so fill them up if you need to, unless you are flying Frontier, 35 pound maximum, and Virgin American, 30-pound maximum.

Many airlines specify the maximum dimensions of the suitcase; no suitcase that you take on the plane should have dimensions that exceed 10 inches by 16 inches by 24 inches. Be aware, some high-mileage travelers advise against having a bag that is 16 inches wide because it looks large and a red flag to the flight attendants making you a target for a gate check. Remember, these dimensions include both the wheels sticking off the bottom and the handle sticking out the top, so be aware of four-wheeled bags versus two wheeled bags where the wheels are often partially tucked inside the baggage space.

The Wheely Beast fit well into the overhead bin. Thanks to its soft  unstructured sides  this bag is also easy to squeeze into smaller spaces.
The Wheely Beast fit well into the overhead bin. Thanks to its soft, unstructured sides, this bag is also easy to squeeze into smaller spaces.

For more advice about choosing the perfect carry-on and to see which carry-on bags were given awards, check out the The Best Carry-On Luggage and read the article about How to Choose Carry-On Luggage.


Here is a list of seven major airlines and their carry-on baggage rules:



Southwest Airlines
Maximum dimensions of 10" x 16" x 24"
Maximum of 50 linear inches
No maximum weight specified

American Airlines
Maximum dimensions of 9" x 14" x 22"
Maximum of 45 linear inches
No maximum weight specified

Alaskan Airlines
Maximum dimensions of 10" x 17" x 24"
Maximum of 51 linear inches
No maximum weight specified

United Airlines
Maximum dimensions of 9" x 14" x 22"
Maximum of 45 linear inches
No maximum weight specified
Personal bags have a maximum dimensions of 9" x 17" x 10"

Delta
Maximum dimensions of 9" x 14" x 22"
Maximum of 45 linear inches
No maximum weight specified

Virgin American
Maximum dimensions of 10" x 16" x 24"
Maximum of 50 linear inches
Maximum Weight 30 pounds

Frontier
Maximum dimensions of 10" x 16" x 24"
Maximum of 50 linear inches
Maximum Weight 35 pounds
Personal bags have a maximum dimensions of 8" x 14" x 18"
Frontier charges $30 to $35 for a carry on bag at check in and $50 at the gate

Four-wheeled luggage makes maneuvering through the airport super easy. Plus these hard-sided bags will add an element of style to your trip.
Four-wheeled luggage makes maneuvering through the airport super easy. Plus these hard-sided bags will add an element of style to your trip.

David Allfrey
About the Author
David Allfrey grew up in California. He found the mountains with his parents as young kid through regular camping trips and rock climbing with his father. When he went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he rediscovered rock climbing and became obsessed. Over the last nine years, he has traveled around the globe climbing, but always returns to his original stomping grounds in Yosemite Valley. David is an accomplished big wall climber, with ascents of nearly thirty different routes on El Capitan and over 40 trips up the big stone. He has set many speed records including climbing seven different routes on El Cap in seven days and also an enchainment of the three largest big walls in Yosemite Valley. David currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where he spends most of his time free climbing, when he isn't writing, of course.

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