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.