8 Packing Dos and Don’ts

Summer is officially here, the time to load up the (metaphorical) station wagon and head for the hills.  Whether you’re loading up a literal car or flying somewhere, packing can be stressful and unpleasant.  And when you add camera equipment to the equation, packing can be painful as you worry about getting your camera bag on board.


Packing light is cheaper (no need to pay bag fees, tip for help with bags, or take taxis when the bus will work) and less stressful (if you carry on your bag, the airline can’t lose it).  It’s also faster.  Studies show that, depending on airport and other factors, the average person checking a bag waits 15-45 minutes to get it back, and that’s not taking into account the time spent checking the bag).  And when you are trying to get out of the airport to get out and take photos before the sun goes down, or just are excited to start exploring, 15-45 minutes can seem like an eternity.  But even if you need to check bags, our packing tips can help you pack smarter.  Here, in time for your own packing, are eight of our packing dos and don’ts.

1.          Do pack assuming you’ll do laundry.  We discussed this in more detail here but doing laundry for any trip over a week makes life so much easier, whether you stay in an AirBnB, use a drop off service, or do laundry yourself at a laundromat or at your hotel.  (Before you discount the last option, we’ve found easy – and sometimes even free! – laundry facilities in hotels at all price points all over the US and in other countries as well.  If you’re in a foreign country, just download Google Translate and use the camera feature to decipher the laundry instructions and settings.)  To make this easier, RedDotBlueDot reader Lisa recommends the Scrubba Travel Wash Bag and we always travel with small packets of soap like these.

2.           Do pack well in advance.  We usually pack the weekend before we are departing, whether we’re driving to another city to present a training or headed to another continent for several weeks. By not packing at the last second, you are less likely to forget things, or to panic and just throw everything within reach into your bag.

3.           Do use a packing list.  While using a packing list makes you less likely to forget things, it also makes you less likely to panic and take stuff you don’t need.  I keep packing lists for various types of trips in Evernote, so I can easily call up anything from a “1 night work trip” list or a “1 week warm destination” list.

4.          Don’t pack based on maybes.  Yes, maybe it will rain.  But if it does rain, how likely are you to happen to have the umbrella you hauled from home?  Buy a package of disposable ponchos, put two in your day bag, and leave the umbrella at home.  (And take a shower cap from your first hotel to use it around your camera in case of rain.). Likewise, if you normally finish two books per month, don’t take four paperbacks with you for a week vacation because “maybe” you’ll read constantly.  Pack one book and just plan to pick up another book at the airport or to download one. 

5.          Don’t pack based on 15 minutes.  I know someone who takes a full winter coat, hat, and gloves with him when he travels to warm destinations in the winter, because it will be cold for the 15 minutes when he is waiting for Uber when he lands in his home city.  If you’re going away for 24 hours and have room, great, bring a parka.  But ask yourself what percentage of your trip really requires an item.  And unless you’re going to a cold weather destination, don’t pack for the 15 minute Uber wait – stand inside and run out as the car pulls up.  Or shiver, which I find preferable to carrying around my Chicago-ready North Face for a week enjoying the sunshine in Hawaii.  

6.           Do pack layers.  Everyone always says this, but I ignored it for years.  In fact, I was never good at packing layers until we took a cruise to Alaska a few years ago and, due to some logistical complications, knew we needed to pack for two weeks and a wide range of temperatures in carry-ons and backpacks. That was the trip when I finally stopped packing multiple sweaters for cold destinations and learned the value of packing layers.  Today, I take my Patagonia Nano Puff almost anywhere I think I need a jacket.  It packs down into its own pocket to take up less space than my 3-1-1 bag, and has been fine for temperatures down to 30 degrees.  And, with my Patagonia Houidini Winderbreaker that I take everywhere on top of it, I stay dry and warm even in cold rains.  (The jacket is so small when compressed into its pouch that it often fits into my pants pocket.)  I also tend to pack an ear band rather than a bulkier winter hat, gloves rather than heavy mittens, and sometimes buy winter hats at a destination.  When I found my ski band lacking for cold nights on the Bolivian salt flats recently, I picked up a very warm hat for just $3.80 US, providing a cheap and useful souvenir.  

7.         Do use compression packing cubes.  Compression is your friend.  For years I used Rick Steves packing cubes and loved them because they kept my clothes organized and I could see what was in them.  Then on a trip to Italy with friends, we went into their hotel room and I realized that they had fit what seemed like entire wardrobes into their carry-on bags.  They explained their secret was Eagle Creek Specter Compression Cube Set.  I was sure they were crazy – how could little pieces of fabric really make a difference? Then I started using them and now don’t pack anything without them.  Even for two night trips where my suitcase is half empty, I still use the Eagle Creek Compression cubes because they keep everything clean and organized, and free up lots of extra space.  (If you’re worried about wrinkles, don’t be.  I almost never use my expensive suiter roller bag anymore – I fold up even dresses for business meetings into compression cubes, then hang them in the bathroom when I arrive.  The wrinkles hang out after a shower and I don’t have to fight wars between dry cleaner bags and suiter zippers anymore.)  An added bonus: if you get pulled aside for extra security screening, the agents tend to open your suitcase, see your neatly organized compression cubes, and send you on your way.  And, if they do decide to dismantle your bag, it’s much easier to put it back together when you’re using the cubes.  One more tip: Buy them in different colors.  I use red cubes for exercise clothes at the beginning of a trip and dirty clothes on the way home, purple for dresses, etc. to keep things organized, and a friend uses different colors for different family members.    

8.           Don’t leave stuff at home just to save space – if you actually really need it, take it with you.  

How often have you gone shopping just before a trip because you were sure you needed entirely new stuff to survive for a week?  Don’t.  If your shirts are good enough for home, you probably don’t need special travel shirts unless you’re climbing a mountain or doing something totally outside your normal routine.  

Instead of buying a whole new wardrobe, though, do take things that you need.  If you’re taking liquids, you need bottles that won’t leak.  (Having tried approximately 9,000 different options and having about 8,995 of them spill shampoo all over, these GoToob containers are the best and last forever.  They do come in 2.5 ounce and other larger sizes, but I found those too large.  The 1.25 ounce size holds enough shampoo or face wash for one person for even a couple of weeks.)  

If you’re taking anything electronic, you will need to charge it.  We now use this surge protector and power strip.   It is able to charge two camera batteries, two cell phones, and two laptops all at once.  Buy something that works for travel and for home if you don’t travel a lot.  

If you’re going outside, you will need bug repellent and sunblock.  Rather than using up precious 3-1-1 bag space, buy sticks. For years I’ve kept Repel and sunblock sticks in my daybag, but recently discovered that my trusty Repel sticks aren’t as great as Ben’s Tick & Insect Repellent Wipes.  (Thank you, bugs at Machu Picchu, for this valuable lesson - oh and I listen to Keith who added this sentence as he put up the blog post.)  Again, you’ll be able to use any remaining repellent or sunblock at home.  And, I’ve found that these are two things that aren’t always easy to find at your destination and are often crazily overpriced if you’re headed to an area popular among tourists.

Comfortable shoes.  You can spend hours reading the entire internet about good shoes for travel. (Ask me how I know.)  Having gone through more “travel shoes” than I care to admit, here’s what I’ve learned:  Break in your shoes before you leave, and remember that shoes take up more space and weigh more than just about anything else.  Look for lighter and multipurpose options when you can.  I basically take the same shoes for almost any destination:  for every day (and for working out on short trips), New Balance Women’s Cruz Fresh Foam running shoes.  They squish down for packing and are incredibly comfortable.  I also almost always take flats for dressier occasions, dress shoes for business trips, and sandals for the beach/pool/warm destinations. For trips longer than two days, I take or wear my running shoes. For men’s shoes Keith recently discovered the Arc'teryx Men's Konseal FL which he can’t stop raving about. He claims they are practically self cleaning, comfortable, dry, and durable. He loves them so much they are the ONLY shoes he took on a three week Bolivia and Peru trip recently.

One more thing to take, even if you’re trying to save space: a First Aid kit. Having tromped up and down the hills of Cuzco, Peru (elevation 11,152 feet) trying to find cough drops, believe me when I say that some things are worth the space in your bag.  Check out our full list of what we always travel with for suggestions.

There you have it: pack assuming you’ll do laundry, well in advance, and using a list; don’t pack based on maybes or 15 minutes; do pack layers and use compression packing cubes; and take what you actually need.  

What’s your favorite packing tip?