How to Pack a Suitcase




Introduction: How to Pack a Suitcase

About: teacher. writer. inventor. innovator. slacker.

This is my instructable for packing a suitcase. I used to be terrible at packing, but after a number of trips under my belt, I have learned some useful tricks of the trade - some even MacGuyver-esque tricks.

Traveling can be made a lot easier if you know how to pack. The first time I went on a seven week trip, I packed a suitcase that weighed over 85 pounds  and that didnt include my backpack. I soon learned better methods on how to pack  and as a general rule, just know that less is better.

Check out my steps and see if they can help you out.

Step 1: Step One - Make a List...and Check It Twice

Don't just run straight for the closet and start yanking things out - make a list on a sheet of notebook paper or on the computer. Think about the weather, who you will meet, what you may need and what you can easily get there when you arrive. This will save you time and frustration.

On your list -
make list of clothes, meds, toiletries, etc. I actually type mine out so I can be sure to keep a copy on my computer for the next trip.

Don't bring the economy sized shampoo that you have been using for a year - bite the bullet and spend three bucks on travel sized toothpaste, soap and shampoo. Buy more when you get there.

Make two copies of your list when you are finished - and always leave room for adding more or scratching through stuff. Then ask a friend what they think and if they think you are missing something. This may seem a little OCD, but that is okay. The better you pack, the better trip you will have.

Here is a 'pasted-in' copy of a trip I took -

Main Bag

4 pairs pants (2 columbia, 1 slacks, 1 scrubs, 1 lined khaki (at home))
5 tshirts, one scrub top, one sweatshirt, one thick wool shirt, one Columbia shirt, one china shirt
Four boxers/undies
4 pair socks

1 scarf
1 Toboggan
1 polar fleece vest
1 bottle tylenol
1 bottle Centrum Vitamins
1 roll duct tape

3 disposable razors
1 bottle Tony Cacheres seasoning
1 parka

1 Epipen
1 bottle Benadryl
1 bottles 2 oz shampoo 2 H&S
1 bottles .5 oz hand sanitizer Purell
1 stick 2.25 oz deodorant Old Spice
2 tubes 1.4 oz Aquafrest Whitening
bible commentary
pens (felt tip)
camera - dont leave it in another country

Step 2: Step Two - Lay Out Everything on the Floor or on Your Bed

Clear off your bed or your floor and lay everything out. This will help you organize things, but also help you realize just how much stuff you are planning to bring.

Step 3: Step Three - Outfits Go in One Bag Each

Take each outfit and place it into a grocery bag. Each bag will represent a day of your trip - and this helps out loads when a TSA representative asks to search your bag. Rather than dumping out fifty individual pieces of clothes, all you do is pull out five small grocery bags that are labeled. How sweet is that?

Don't just stop there - group everything and place them into grocery bags - that way everything is divided up into smaller bags. This makes finding things, repacking things and going through security loads easier. Be sure not to pack electronics in the bowels of your bag - these need to be readily accessible for going through security.

Also, be sure to pack extra bags and a heavier trash bag - that way you have something to put your dirty clothes in and/or in case something gets wet.

Put your gizmos, iPods, cameras and whatever else you have in a seperate bag. I picked up some cheap bags at an outdoor store that had a big box of unsorted bags on clearance. Be sure to put your shampoo, hand sanitizer, or any other small tube of liquid (remember airport security has limits) in a ziploc bag - not only for going through security, but also so that it doesn't leak onto your other stuff.

Step 4: Step Four - Labeling

Mark each bag with a number or a color - then on your list, make note of each item and which bag it is in. This is a great help - especially when you have a smashing headache and want to find the tylenol in your bag. Just check the list, see which bag you placed it in, and get it.

Once again, this seems a little nit-picky, but this will pay off in the long run. Keep that list on top of things.

Step 5: Step Five - Compression/Make It Smaller

In this step, I dumped the smaller bags into a large compression sack. Some people go out and buy a super-duper vacuum operated compression sack - that works if you happen to pack a vacuum with you sleeping bags or tents. I paid $20 bucks for mine and accidentally got a size too large. But it still works.

If you don't want to shell out the bucks for a compression sack, don't worry. A compression sack is just a stuff sack with some webbing that squeeze it together. I have made some in the past as follows:

Version one  normal bag or stuff sack and a belt or a strap. Pack the bag as you normally would and then squeeze it down to size. Then run the belt around the bag and fasten it so the bag can't expand back to its full size.

Version two  put your clothes in a grocery bag and then squeeze it tight  wrap once with ductape horizontally and once vertically. Be sure to pack extra bags because the ductape is sure to rip them to pieces when you unpack at the hotel or basecamp.

Some people can perfect the art of rolling clothes - this works well too - when I am going super light on a trip, I just roll my clothes and then tighten them up with a strap. This keeps them from 'growing' while I am trying to pack the next thing.

Step 6: Six - Choose Your Bag

I put 'choose the bag' as step five, because if you choose the bag on step one, you will fill it up, regardless of how big or what you need. Step back and look at the little bags that you packed. Think about what bags you have in the house and then get the bag that is the best match. Sometimes, you may want to take two smaller bags rather than one large bag. Whichever you think will be easier to carry and lug around.

If you are going to be doing a lot of walking once you arrive, I would recommend a backpack. If not, just use a small rolling suitcase, duffel or backpack. I love to use a camping style, internal frame backpack. But not always. The trip and the amount of stuff should determine which bag to use, not just because it is your favorite bag.

Step 7: Step Seven - Lay Out What You Will Wear While Traveling

What you wear the day of travel is your ace in the hole. As a general rule, don't pack your jacket - wear it. Jackets and sweaters take up tons of room in your bag, but make great pillows on a plane or a train ride. If you have lightweight clothes and one pair of jeans, wear the jeans - they take up more room as well. Don't try to wear four pairs of pants on the plane, but just wear the ones that you think are comfortable, yet a little bulky to pack compared to your others.

Always have a jacket or a shirt with good pockets - especially pockets that close, zip, velcro or whatever. You will be keeping a passport, a plane ticket, a wallet, etc. with you - despite being required to take off jackets going through security screening. Putting these things in a jacket, zipping the pockets shut, takes away the worry that they may fall out.

If you wear glasses, be sure to pack a glasses case on your person. Even if you don't plan on it, you probably will doze a little on the flight or the ride - you don't want to wake up with your glasses twisted like modern art. Keep them safe.

If you like to wear sandals like I do, but want to bring a pair of sneakers on the trip - wear the sneakers and pack the sandals. That will save you a lot of room when packing.

Step 8: Step Eight - Keep That List!

Keep your list on you - put it with your passport or your ticket or wallet. Also, keep a pen on you. As you travel, you will inevitably think of things you wished you could have brought or things that you didn't use and wish you left behind - make note of those things on your list. This will help for future trips.

Step 9: Step 9 - Tricks of the Tradeٍ

Belt - clothesline - on a trip to Cambodia, I knew we weren't going to run into a bunch of laundry mats on the trip. I bought a few travel packets of Tide so I could wash my clothes during the trip. I would wear a pair, have a pair drying and have a pair ready - I just rotated the three sets of clothes. To make sure I would have something to hang my clothes on, I made a belt using parachute cord and a belt clip. Once I arrived, I could undo the belt and hang my clothes to dry. I made two - that way my pants would fall down - and on the way back, I could use one belt to help keep things wrapped up tight for the journey home. (see pics)

Nalgene bottle - I like to put my toiletries and meds all in a nalgene bottle (or any other tough plastic water bottle). This keeps your stuff from getting crushed and you can attach it to the outside of a bag if needed with a clip of somesort.

Compression Sacks - these cut down on room considerably.

Gifts - while visiting a country, bring little knickknacks to share with people you meet along the way. Nothing beats random acts of kindness.

Photos - be sure to bring a family photo, a pic of your humble abode, the dog, your school...anything that is of your daily life - even of where you work. It is fun to share with others when you talk about where you are coming from. Plus, some people are rather shocked if you don't have a family photo on you.

Pins/Patches - I love getting patches of places where I go - these are great to trade, to give and leave your mark.

Old t-shirts - if you have a local t-shirt store, they sometimes have closeouts of shirts that are old. The one in town sells them for 2 bucks each. These are great to bring on a trip. Once you wear them once, just give them away.

Tony's - Tony's is a cajun seasoning that you use like salt. Their motto is (or was..) 'it makes good food great.' A friend of mine discovered that it can 'make bad food ok.'

Almond Joys and Little Debbies - as a general rule M&Ms and snickers have made it around the world. I haven't found a place that doesn' t have these or Coke products. Almond Joys and Little Debbies haven't been quite the globetrotters - I bring these if I am visiting ex-pats in foreign places. They really appreciate the little things that you can't get elsewhere.

Duct tape and zip ties - you never know. What room they take up is worth it. Check out 'how to's on how to make duct tape wallets or other things - this will help increase it's usefulness.

Step 10: Putting It All Together

When you pack your items in, be sure to put heavy things in first (at the bottom of the bag). If you are carrying it, this keeps it easier to balance. If it is a suitcase with wheels, this will keep it from tipping over when you try to stand it up on its own.

If you are packing sandals, put these in first. They pack flat and work best going in first or squeezing in the sides.

If you bag doesn't have a back support in it and you plan on carrying it on your back, make sure nothing is poking out to the point where it makes carrying it uncomfortable.

If you have a bag with a detachable day pack or fanny pack, try to get most of your stuff in the main bag first. That way you aren't carrying your shoes, toiletries and your camera when you take the small bag on a short excursion.

Step 11: Pre-Travel Practice

Once you pack everything, check the weight of the bag. Make sure you aren't going to pull your back out before the trip begins.

Once you pack and think it weighs okay, try carrying it one hundred feet and back. Also, go up a flight of stairs and back down. If you find either test too cumbersome, start to whittle away some more until it is comfortable enough to carry and not get yourself worn out.

If it remains comfortable even while walking with it, go back to the house and relax - you are going to have a wonderful trip....

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    11 years ago on Introduction

    With your lead photo', you should have titled this "How NOT to pack your backpack.." !

    Well written, by the way.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    thanks for the comment. experience is one of the best teachers but it also kills your back. :)

    Shades of Grey
    Shades of Grey

    12 years ago on Step 7

    This is a great 'ible. I know its a couple of years old but who cares! One thing I see you left out is medication. If you have some sort of medication that you can't survive without, DON'T PACK IT!. Put it in your sealable pockets or whatever bag you are going to be carrying with you at all times(kinda goes with the glasses comment). No airline can ever 100% guarantee your bags will make it to your destination at the same time you do. I used to work for an airline and you would not believe the amount of people that insist they need their bags "right now" because of some medication. I can't teleport it here and then next flight won't come in for a while. Then it depends on if that fight has room for extra bags. Anyway, I digress..


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Having worked in the travel industry for 30 plus years and the last several at United Airlines having worked the "bag desk" and other positions I really wish to simply tell everyone to NEVER EVER pack your meds in anything always carry them in your purse or something you don't run the risk of having checked at the gate due to a lack of space on board the plane and yes it does happen. Your carry on is great unless that plane has every overhead bin jammed with bags, coats, whatever then the flight crew can and will and btw has every right to take your carry on and checking it though you planned only to have it as carry on. They won't charge you any of those ridiculous fees for checked bags but sometimes (seldom) it happens that there is absolutely no room left so PLEASE never put your meds and the same goes for your valuables as well in your main carry on if there's the slightest chance it could be checked at the gate. Obviously there's the risk of what everyone just assumes is always a "lost" bag when so many times it's a case of someone seeing what they just KNOW is there bag so they grab it and never look at the name tag or anything and I am not kidding when I tell you I spoke with one woman who had grabbed someone else's suitcase and had it for over 10 YEARS before she bothered to call about it! (What is wrong with people?) 
    I'm not sure if people realize you are allowed to carry on certain items that do NOT count as carry on...a purse, camera bag, diaper bag...????? So get a huge purse and put your regular purse in it and your meds and valuables and toothbrushes for the trip if it's long or along those lines....FYI.
    And please control your temper when you do have to call because your bag didn't arrive when you did just as on here with the 'be nice' policy. The person answering the phone shouldn't have to bear the brunt of your anger especially when that anger is verbal abuse of the innocent person who simply answered your call and is trying to help you. Like the picture not be NEGATIVE! And you really do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! I KNOW!

    Thank you and hopefully even 1 person reads this and realizes they almost packed those important meds and stopped themselves. Plus the cargo holds are not climate controlled and can break down the components of your medicine making it ineffective or possibly worse. The same reason you never ever store those meds in the so-called "medicine chest" in your bathroom! The humidity alone will break down your medicine!

    Thank you again.

    Brad as a negative but what's new he's always negative taken 3April 2010.jpg

    11 years ago on Introduction

    Umm in step 9 you wrote " made two - that way my pants would fall down" I think what you mean is " made two - that way my pants would not fall down". Excluding that great instructable.

    NE Ohioan
    NE Ohioan

    11 years ago on Step 8

    This was great, especially since you are hearing from an over-packer! With a special needs child, and some health concerns myself, keeping the meds with us at all times is important. One other suggestion for the airline travel: take advantage of any & all samples! I have multiple little packs of shampoo/conditioner, lotions, even sunscreen, and those mini finger toothbrush wipes. Even snitched a couple extra deodorant pads last time I was at the hospital for a procedure. It's amazing how much of this items will fit in a quart ziplock bag. Enough for a couple of days if necessary. Keep traveling and enjoy yourself.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Good Instructable! The last time I traveled I packed all my clothes into 2 1/2 Gal Zip Lock bags. Once the clothes are in them you can sit on them to burp them and they stay compressed. It worked great but it did make the bags heavier since I could get more stuff into the same space. When you get searched or if you are going after some item that is hidden, you can unpack and repack with ease.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    That is a great idea as well - plus it waterproofs everything :). Once I had a bottle of shampoo explode in my suitcase so I have been putting those in ziplocks - I'll have to try your idea out next time I head out.
    - thomas h


    12 years ago on Introduction

    When last time I've been travelling I took too much food that than I took it back home)))


    12 years ago on Step 9

    Weaving a colored string through the rope might make it look a bit more gussied up. I'll try to make one so you can see what I mean.

    that looks like my friends sister on my scout camp out in westpoint NY. I've never seen a 13 year old girl carry so much stuff in my life. When she saw a rat run past, i've never seen a 13 year old girl run so fast with that much stuff


    Reply 14 years ago on Introduction

    yeah - as i put in the instructable, i packed way to much. plus too much luggage creates a huge problem in over crowded places like the subway or train station. i learned my lesson (sometimes more than once before it kicks in...).


    14 years ago on Introduction

    good instructable, well described and detailed. 5*


    Reply 14 years ago on Introduction

    I am an English teacher. I do like to travel and I do dig to read the Bible. Always like to travel with it.