Packing 101: 6 Tips for Smart Packing

Even if you’ve booked a trip and are ready to embark on a new travel adventure, you’re not going anywhere without at least a few items to your name (unless, of course, you’re Rolf Potts).

I pack small and smart. A lot of trips I take require a variety of different clothes, but my key rule is that I always pack small enough to carry my bag onto the airplane. Yet it is possible to pack clothing for the beach, a conference, formal evenings, casual settings and the gym—plus appropriate shoes for everything—all in one small bag.

So … open your drawers and browse your closet. Below are six basic tips to help you pack appropriately and concisely the next time you travel. This list is in no way exhaustive and is not meant to provide an actual packing list for your travels. What it will do, however, is get you thinking about a way to pack smart and small on your next trip.

1. Consider the local dress code and habits. To avoid feeling like an outsider or dressing inappropriately, research your destination ahead of time to ensure you’ve packed the correct type of clothing. In some parts of the world, travelers will be required to cover certain parts of their bodies. In many Middle Eastern countries, women should dress modestly in skirts that are at least knee-length, and entrance into some religious sites may require women to cover their heads with a scarf. This is one of the reasons why I always travel with a sarong. Though not strictly a dress code, it is not uncommon for people in many European countries to far outdress Americans, even when they’re just running to the store for something.

2. Think about the weather. General weather patterns can help dictate what you need to pack. If you’re headed to Canada in the winter, leave the shorts at home and don’t forget to pack a heavy jacket. Likewise, countries surrounded by water and near the equator can get awfully humid in the summer. As you get closer to your departure date, make sure you keep an eye on the weather at your intended destination. If it’s been a particularly rainy or dry year, take those things into consideration. Temperature, precipitation and humidity should all be factored in to your packing choices.

3. Take planned activities into consideration. Will you be spending most of your time indoors at a conference? Are you going to be kayaking, hiking and cycling? Will the activities on your itinerary leave you dirty or sweaty? How will you be getting around your destination? On foot? By taxi? In overnight trains or buses? Consider how you’ll be spending the majority of your time while traveling, then think about the clothing and shoes that make the most sense for your activities.

4. Pack everything then get rid of at least half. Set out everything—and I mean everything—that you plan to pack. How many pairs of underwear and socks will you take? Is more than one pair of socks necessary if you’ll be spending most of your time in sandals? Everything you take should work with more than one other thing in the pile. If you have a pair of shoes that only matches one evening outfit, leave them at home and find a pair that will serve you well for multiple occasions. Can you leave those three pairs of earrings at home and just choose a single pair that matches everything? Consider washing some clothes partway through your trip so you can wear them multiple times. Any time I am staying somewhere for two nights or more, I wash all my dirty clothes in the sink. After you’ve laid everything out, get rid of half. Now you’re on the right track for packing smart.

5. Pack versatile shoes. Choose shoes that can be worn for multiple purposes. I’ve found that a sturdy pair of sandals that can be used for hiking is one of the best pairs of shoes to pack. I use a pair of Tevas; I know several people who prefer Keens. Flip flops are good shower and beach shoes, and if they’re basic and black, you can also use them for an evening out. Avoid packing hiking boots unless you are specifically hiking. I have a pair of low-top Merrells, which I can use hiking or for long walks, but I’ve also used them in a pinch to run a last-minute 5K while traveling. Leave the dress shoes at home unless you’re spending a considerable amount of time at a conference or similar event.

6. Choose a primary color theme. When I travel, I choose a primary color theme and everything I pack matches it. The theme is usually brown/green or black/gray. This means I only have to take one belt and my choice of shoes is drastically narrowed down right away. I pack a few plain-colored shirts and tank tops that match everything, but never any graphic t-shirts. I also always take a scarf with me, which can dress up a brown or black basic t-shirt at night.

Smart packing is an art that can take time, but the more you travel, the easier it becomes.

If you have other basic packing suggestions, please share them below.

15 Responses to “Packing 101: 6 Tips for Smart Packing”

  1. Gray

    But…it hasn’t become easier for me! Part of my problem may be that I don’t own the kinds of clothes that drip dry overnight. The one time I tried washing my socks while on the road, they were still damp 3 days later. Am I hopeless? Or do I have to buy a whole new travel wardrobe?

    Reply
    • Kelsey

      You don’t need all your clothes to be quick-dry (some of the most durable fabrics take forever to dry), but you might want to get a few key items that dry quickly. Shirts/pants/shorts can be re-worn over and over as long as your socks, underwear, and undershirts are clean. So, focus on getting more suitable undergarments like those in more travel-friendly fabrics, and that will allow you to make more use of clothes that you can’t wash as often.

      Reply
    • Gray

      Kelsey, do you have a recommended online store/brand you generally go with? What material(s) should I be looking for?

      Reply
      • JoAnna

        Gray ~ I’m personally a big fan of Columbia and Under Armour, but I think the key isn’t the brand but rather the fabric blend. Cotton takes a really long time to dry, so if you can get items made with nylon, polyester or other quick-dry material, that will help. It can even be a blend of cotton and something else, but anything that is only cotton will take a long time to dry.

        Reply
  2. Gray

    Thank you, JoAnna. That certainly explains the non-drying socks. 🙂 (Well, that and the humidity in Puerto Rico.) I know they have a bad rep with the “all natural fabrics” crowd, but I’m starting to be a real fan of polyester blends, simply because they don’t wrinkle so I don’t have to iron them. Drying quickly just adds to the appeal. Thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  3. Shelley

    I absolutely second the suggestion of doing laundry in a sink – much less of a hassle than lugging around a big suitcase of clothes!

    And, I recently started using mesh packing cubes…which seem to help me keep my stuff compact and maximize my space.

    Good tips!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Hey Shelley ~ Welcome home! I’ve been thinking about incorporating packing cubes into my packing routine. Up until now I’ve been using large Ziploc bags, which work well for me and still keep things separated (and stinking things contained), but after a few weeks of travel, they start to tear, which sort of defeats their purpose. Is there a brand of mesh cubes you recommend?

      Reply
  4. Brooke vs. the World

    Color combos is something I never think about, but it seems to happen naturally since I love earthy tones. It’s a good idea to make everything work together as much as possible so you’re never left without options. Good 101 post 😉

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      When I pack, just about everything in my bag goes with everything else. Not only is it easier to match, but I can also coordinate for different weather conditions that way as well.

      Reply
  5. Tareh

    And i thought i was the only one brings 2 pair of tshirts for a month of travel. 🙂 Use shampoo whn washing in the sink. It works as well as detergent and it makes the tshirts smells nice too. Dri-fits tshirts works best.

    And for ziplocs, get the ones for the kitchen thats specifically used for liquid and deep freeze meat/fish. They’re usually quite resistant to puncturing. Been using mine for 3 years and they’re still fine.
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Great tips, Tareh! I definitely agree with using shampoo as detergent. There’s no reason not to … it’s one less bottle you have to pack!

      Reply
  6. Trisha

    Excellent advice JoAnna! Funny about the color-combo thing……I love colors but when I pack for business trips I wind up with only black/white/grey….without even thinking about it. 🙂

    Another good tip when you’re packing is to try on your outfits beforehand to be SURE everything fits and goes together as planned – you don’t want unpleasant surprises as you’re dressing for something where impressions count!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Great addition regarding trying clothes on before you go, Trisha. Thanks for mentioning it!

      Reply
  7. Shari

    I have taken several trips to the Caribbean and China. I love the clothes from Chicos. I went to China for 3 weeks with just 10 articles of clothing and two pairs of shoes: black knit skirt, white peasant skirt, black Travelers slacks, black Travelers jacket, black tank top, white tank top, black and white tank top, black shorts, white shorts, black and white jacket, black/white Keen hiking sandals, black Clarks sandles. I also took a sparkly belt, an assortmant of scarves and a multicolored wooden necklace that added color to my neutral wardrobe. Everything fit in one carry on bag. I got an easy haircut in a wash-n-go style, because the humidity made styling a waste of time. For makeup, I just used sunscreen, mascara, & tinted chapstick w/SPF…again, the heat & humidity quickly melts off makeup. One last hint: pack a soft stretchy bag for shopping and day trips. Wear backpacks on your front to guard against pickpockets. Enjoy the trip!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Fabulous tips, Shari! It sounds like you have it down to a science. And you bring up a good point about the make-up. I keep mine simple as well not only to keep things compact but because having all sorts of liquids and gels can make quite a mess if something breaks.

      Reply

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