Get Organized with Packing Cubes 19


Keeping organized on the road can be tricky, especially if you’re in a hurry or constantly in transit. A neatly packed bag can suddenly explode into chaos if the security unpacks it or if you need something and can’t find it. The best way to keep it together is to use packing cubes.

Packing cubes are a pretty standard accessory in a suitcase these days, although there are still a few travelers out there that haven’t been converted to this marvelous way of life. Not only can you find things easily, but repacking a bag is quick work when there’s a place for everything. I cannot count the number of times I’ve woken up late and needed to pack in a hurry, packing cubes have saved my bacon every time.

I’ve been using packing cubes since the beginning of my guiding career, and in that time the designs have gotten better. I have tried many different styles and brands over time, and have some thoughts on which cubes are best and how to use them most efficiently.

A History of Packing Cubes

When I started guiding in 2000, packing cubes were a novelty. I eagerly ordered this new-fangled product from Eagle Creek and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but it seemed cool. You  know, all the cool kids were using them. I got several sizes and a “folder” to use in my Rick Steves backpack, which was just a bag with a big compartment at the time.

That first set was made to last, with tough Cordura fabric and hardcore, military grade zippers. I figured out how to efficiently pack my tops in a big cube, my undies and socks in another and my foldables in the packing folder. It worked well. I still have those original cubes, and they are as tough as ever.

As I have aged and worry more about my back, the weight of my bag has become more important. Eagle Creek introduced the Specter line of packing cubes, made of an ultralight nylon. I happily bought the whole set to replace my aging cubes and shaved almost a pound off of my bag! Woohoo! There was a price to pay, though, as the new cubes have far less structure and flop around helplessly while I pack. The openings are only on one side, meaning I can’t open the top and take what i need without disturbing the other clothes. Specter cubes also don’t have any mesh, so I can’t see what is inside.

Rick Steves started producing a line of packing cubes,  which have structure and are all mesh. That would seem like the perfect solution. Only problem is that those cubes are designed to fit into a Rick Steves bag and they tend to be a little too big for the small pack I am using. In terms of price, design and quality, they are a good option.

Ikea sells a stunning array of travel products these days, and they aren’t bad. I tried these cheap-o hot pink cubes. The idea is clever–the cubes have openings on both sides. It’s a great idea if you like to roll your tops and arrange them hot dog style like I do. I didn’t use these for long, though. They are cheaply made, so no surprise that the zippers stuck. The fabric is kind of stiff and icky and started raveling a little at the seams. But hey, at that price, if you’re only using them a couple of times or just want to experiment with packing cubes, it’s not a bad deal.

My most recent additions are Lewis N Clark packing cubes. I think they must have heard my secret packing cube desires, they designed something that is almost exactly what I’d design myself. The fabric is similar to the Specter packing cubes but slightly more slippery, which I like because it makes pulling stuff out of a bag easier.

There are mesh panels on top to see what’s inside. There is a bit more structure. The opening unzips on three sides, so it is easy to get what you need. As a design bonus, they have a zipper around the bottom that allows the cube to expand its depth by an inch, so the size of the cube is adaptable to your particular piece of luggage. My only complaint is that the zippers are not good quality and I busted one in the first week of the trip. Could have been my fault for packing too much in the cube, though.

My newest packing cube is from the same line at Lewis N Clark. I have used a variety of shoe bags, cubes and organizers, and they are always too bulky or heavy. This long, expandable cube is not specifically designed for shoes, but it works perfectly for two pairs up to size 12 men’s. I put my shoes in it while it is expanded and then zip it up. It compresses the shoes to a nice, tight bundle.

How to Use Packing Cubes

There seems to be three ways to use a cube, either stuff it or roll it, or fold it. Travel snobs will fiercely debate you on which is the perfect method. I am a middle child, so I am the peacemaker that takes advice from all sides of the debate and comes up with a hybrid method.

For smaller items such as socks and underwear, I use a small cube and stuff it–I don’t actually care if my undies are wrinkled. I roll my socks together (sock folding methods are also a point of contention) and stuff them in with bras, undies and nightgown.

For larger items, such as shirts, I prefer to roll my things and line them up like sausages. When they are all lined up in the cube, it’s easy to see what I have available. I organize the rolled up shirts in order of weight, from long sleeves to sleeveless. My tops tend to be knit fabrics or wrinkle-proof wovens, and the rolling method helps to limit wrinkles.

Some people, particularly men, prefer to fold clothes and put them in cubes. Some men like to have several cubes and stack their folded button-down shirts in one, short sleeves in another, and bottoms in another.

If I am bringing things that need to be neatly folded, I use a packing folder. A packing folder is a stiff plastic sheet with nylon wings that fold over and close with velcro. I tend to pack dresses, pants and collared shirts in a folder. However, I don’t use it at all if I’m going with an ultralight packing plan as the folder adds bulk and weight to a bag.

My advice is to try several styles and sizes of packing cubes to see what works best for you. Think of your backpack or suitcase like a puzzle–your packing cubes and toiletry kit should fit together easily. Buying cubes in different colors is a good idea as well, so you can find things easily. Keeping your clothes organized in packing cubes will keep them fresh, wrinkle-free and easy to find. They lessen the chance of your stuff exploding all over your hotel room.

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About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


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19 thoughts on “Get Organized with Packing Cubes

  • Megan K

    Thanks for sharing your idea of of the packing tube(s) for shoes. I’ve been using disposable shower caps which *might* last 1 trip and the traditional shoe bags and boxes were too big for my size 5.5-6’s. REALLY liking the compression version to keep everything nice and tidy, too.

  • Julie S.

    I love Flight 001’s Spacepack cubes. They have dual front and back zippered compartments — one side for clean and the other for laundry; thus eliminating the need to take a laundry bag. Prior to using these it seemed like my dirty laundry somehow expanded to twice the original size (even when folded). Packing with these is such a joy. They come in a nice selection of graphics and are machine washable. My husband loves how the color-coded system keeps him organized.

  • Rachel

    have you tried any of the packable shelf things?

    i’m looking at the rise gear and pack gear options – i love the idea of the mckaba shelf pack with it being integrated, but at 14lbs empty that’s a no for me…

  • Gary Westerlund

    Do you have any advice on travel bags? I noticed you were using what appeared to be a hiking rucksack. Why do you use that versus a more traditional travel bag?

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      I have used all sorts of backpacks over time. I’ve been using this little blue one to try and keep under 10 pounds. I tend to change bags over time to try different approaches. I have a new, tougher bag from Cotopaxi that I’m really excited about. I’ll be writing a new piece on backpacks very soon.

  • Diane

    I like my ebag packing cubes. When my husband and I travel we each use different colors. Since we generally check our bags (I know, we’re bad) we put a change of clothes in one cube to carry on and we also pack a change of clothes in each others luggage. Having different colors quickly labels what belongs to whom.

  • ashlye

    I love packing cubes and bags. I’m a huge fan of the EC Specter products. My kids have the IKEA cubes and while they work well, the same issues mentioned in your post irritate me to no end. Since the EC Specter products are on sale at a specialty organizing store, I might pick up a set to replace the Ikea. In the beginning, I started with the folders, but have since moved onto using the cubes exclusively. I can pack a week or two in a large cube for my clothes (lots of dresses and leggings), one half size cube for my shoes (I wear a size 6 though), a half cube for a jacket, sweater, cardigan or two, extra t-shirts or pants, etc., a half cube for a swimsuit, coverup, and hat. i use a long tube cube for socks, undergarments, and still have room in my 21″ carryon for my toiletries, with space for a few small souvenirs. I’ll be away for a solid month this Summer, and will use these products to keep everything neat and organized. After needing to pack quickly for a family emergency while I was on vacation a few years ago, I keep everything in my suitcase so I can close the lid and go, if necessary! You won’t find my clothes in the dresser drawers in my hotel room! I bring a Reisenthal laundry bag that folds into a neat little pouch for my dirty clothing. (When not in use, I tuck thus inside my suitcase zippered liner between the handle and it does not take up precious room in my bag). Also, the Specter cubes wash beautifully, so I throw them in the wash with my dirty laundry after a trip. I ALWAYS wash EVERYTHING that is washable in my suitcase following a trip, so I don’t worry too much about keeping what I did not wear separate from the dirties.

  • Melva Oconnor Rafuse

    I purchased both eagle and Rick Steves packing cubes as per your blogs. I guess I over packed my Rick Steves because the mesh let go from the zipper. I did not like the eagle creek due to poor access and no visibility for the contents. However this post is so informative and helpful Now I’ll try the latest eagle creek. Love love your advice!!! You make my travelling happy!!

  • Theresa S.

    Are there 2 groups for people who pack? Organized, efficient, minimalist versus jumbled, unwieldy and extraneous perhaps? 🙂 Traveling with your needed belongings is a science and an art, if you ask me. I have greatly enjoyed my multiple RSTs with my daughter who was 20 for our first and am thrilled she is a JUE blossoming into an OEM during and from all of our fun explorations and experiences. For me, having a mindset to prioritize ease of handling clothing/toiletries/electronics is natural and I really enjoy the benefits. Taking any type of trip causing me to pack a bag I understand I am going to be far from home in different rooms with different layouts and accoutrements, etc., and simply try to control the part I can about -my- stuff: how easy I’ll make it to use it or get access to it or simply be aware of what I have. Packing cubes are essential to me, for all of that to happen. Thanks for another excellent post, Sarah.

  • Kathy Day

    Once again, you’ve hit it right on the mark, Sarah! I’ve been through the same evolution that you have in packing cubes with the same purpose – eliminate weight. I love them!
    Another specific benefit of packing cubes I’d like to share. I passed my first generation of cubes on to a friend who is new to international travel and went to Israel earlier this year. Her suitcase got a big tear in it on one of the flights. She had packed all her clothes in packing cubes and though the cube was “pooching” out of the bag, like a hernia (ha!), none of her things got loose! If they had been loose in the bag, she would have most certainly lost some of the contents of her suitcase! Thank you for your insights – looking forward to our stop in Cinque Terre in September – and thank you for checking with Maurizio about our hotel! Ciao!

  • Bridget

    I have been using the Ebags brand packing cube for years. I can’t imagine traveling without them! As international school teachers, they are also critical whenever we move countries. Ebags have introduced an ultra-lightweight design that I’m excited to try (I’m totally using it as an excuse to plan some leisure travel haha). Even my perpetually disorganized husband insists on using packing cubes when he travels. They just make life so much easier. (And colorful! I can’t get enough of Ebags’ colors and patterns!)

  • P T

    Now, Sarah, the follow up post could be how to organize the cubes and stuff in them as items are removed and get dirty! I have the earlier version of Rick’s rolling carry on and have his set of three mesh cubes; two smaller and one large. I pack pants and skirts in the large one and tops and dresses in the smaller ones. I use a silky bag with a drawstring for undies and a baggy for scarves. Shoes, which are stuffed with bits and pieces, get a plastic bag. I roll socks and heavier shirts that I am going to wear and toss. They go beneath the cubes in between the “ribs” at the bottom of the suitcase. So do things like gloves or hats when in cold weather. Bras get placed in a top corner of the bag with the corner of a cube in them for support. My dirty stuff gets crammed in the interior mesh zipper compartment of the top of the bag. With any luck the dirty stuff is mostly undies and socks because I have thrown away most of the tops I’ve worn. Now I’m getting to the point that I don’t have much left to throw away, making packing much less fun.

    At a point near the end of a trip, one cube is dedicated to dirty. And isolated with a plastic grocery bag.

    We also have the challenge of packing food supplements for my hubby which are heavy powders. So they get their own eBags mesh/nylon cube. The shaker bottle gets attached to the exterior of our “personal” item with a carabiner.

    Already packing in my head for our October Oman, Greece, Macedonia, and Albania trip!!

  • Terry Kraft

    We have used packing cubes for several years. I have Rick Steves variety. I tend to start my trip well organized and then lose it during the vacation. After last year and two custom agents going thru my dirty clothes, I plan to be more neat when repacking to head home. 🙂 We have silky bags for shoes. Since I usually take only 2 pairs of shoes (one on and one in my bag), they work great. I like the cubes I have. I can squish a lot in them and I can see what is in it. But I agree! Packing cubes are helpful and definitely worth the money!