Look up "the best way to pack a suitcase," and you'll get at least half a dozen different answers. Some say you should roll your clothes, others recommend folding them, origami-like, into a bundle, while others swear by tools like packing cubes or compression bags. A recent trip gave me the opportunity to test out various packing strategies and determine the most efficient way to pack your clothes.
I consider myself an organised and somewhat efficient packer, relying on well-known space-saving tricks like stuffing shoes with socks and wearing my bulkiest clothing pieces on the aeroplane. But with so many different opinions on how to shape articles of clothing before putting them in a suitcase, I was never certain about rolling vs. simply folding clothes and other often-recommended techniques. Which method is the most space-efficient? Which prevents wrinkles best?
How I Measured
To perform my tests, I packed 5 days' worth of clothes for myself and my daughter using the various methods below. Then, to have a standard to compare each method's space savings or usage, I tested how many additional t-shirts of mine I could stuff into the carry-on (up to the suitcase's zipper. I didn't try to squash the clothes). Since most of our travel clothes weren't prone to embarrassing wrinkles, I also added a few dress shirts and pairs of khakis from my husband for each method to evaluate potential wrinkle issues.
It's an informal test, but in the end, I found that each packing method (or style) has its merits and disadvantages. Sorry, rollers, folders, and bundlers: there's no one packing technique to rule them all.
Folding: Quick and Easy (But Not Necessarily Space-Efficient)
I'm betting most people pack by simply folding their clothes and stacking them in their suitcases, like my husband does. After all, it's how most people put away laundry in their drawers (or leave them in their laundry baskets).
Doing this, though, usually means you've got clothing rectangles or squares of various sizes, which leaves inefficient space gaps unless you arrange those various rectangles to tightly fill in each layer of the suitcase. It's a packing puzzle. However, if your clothes are roughly the same size, as my daughter's are, or if you're packing mostly summer clothes, it's not as much of a Tetris problem. Generally, though, maximizing space means moving folded clothing pieces where they fit best, not necessarily in the order you want to use them.
Alternatively, you could layer your folded clothes by outfit (e.g., pants and shirt for the last day of your trip on the bottom of your suitcase, pants and shirt for the second-to-last day on top of that, and so on), my previous method of packing. This also wastes valuable space, but it's better for organisation.
For the first test, I folded clothes and grouped them into planned outfits, stacking them on top of each other. Then I filled the extra spaces with folded t-shirts.
- Space: I was able to pack 16 t-shirts on top of the clothes we were bringing for our trip using the stacked, folded t-shirt method.
- Wrinkles: After packing, the khaki shorts had noticeable creases where it was folded, as did the dress shirt.
This isn't a particularly space-saving strategy, but it's one we're all familiar with. Folding might make sense if you tend to unpack your clothes at your destination: just move them from luggage to drawer in one swoop.
The alternative is a folded front-to-back method. At home I use this filing method, stacking clothes in drawers so they're like files and filling the drawer from front to back. Instead of digging through horizontal layers of clothing, it's easier to see the clothing pieces you want. So I tried it for luggage packing too.
- Space: I was able to pack an additional 22 t-shirts using the front-to-back folded t-shirt method and I probably could have squeezed in even more. Stacking this way enables you to add more clothes depth-wise and also make use of room on the sides.
- Wrinkles: Since the clothes were folded the same, I didn't notice any wrinkling differences between "filing" clothes this way or stacking them in the suitcase.
Bundling: Best for Sets of Wrinkle-Prone Clothes
Bundling might be the most clever way to pack your clothes. You layer them strategically all in a bunch and fold into one big wrinkle-free, origami-like package. The main idea is that by placing your most wrinkle-prone clothes at the outer layer of the bundle and wrapping them around clothes you're ok with being wrinkled (undergarments and socks, for example), you'll have fewer wrinkles and make better use of your space.
In theory, it's great, but it doesn't make sense in all scenarios. I had only t-shirts and shorts for my trip, as did my daughter and husband, so we couldn't take advantage of long sleeves and pants to wrap all our clothes in. It's also a pain to have all your clothes bundled when you need one specific garment near the center of the bundle.
That said, bundling is great for organising outfits that tend to wrinkle..
- Space: 18 additional t-shirts. The bundled package of clothes actually looked like it took up more luggage real estate than regularly folded and stacked clothes. Your success with this method will depend on how well you fold your clothes into each other. Clearly I need more practice.
- Wrinkles: The dress clothes that were packed with the bundle method were the least wrinkled of the bunch.
Rolling: The Best Way to Maximise Space, But Not Necessarily Reduce Wrinkles
When I started rolling our clothes, it was obvious there would be a ton of more space available than simply folding.
Even if you don't master the military style of t-shirt rolling, rolling really does makes clothes more compact, compared to regular folding.
The problem is you can stack these rolls of shirts and pants and whatnots to take up all your luggage space, but it's harder to pick out your outfit when you're living out of your suitcase this way. Also, although many people say rolling reduces wrinkles, I think rolling can create new creases if you're not a clothes-rolling pro. I'm sure I created bigger wrinkles by rolling than I did by folding.
- Space: A whopping 31 additional t-shirts (I had to borrow some from my husband to add here). Because of their small, narrow shapes, you can fit more clothes this way.
- Wrinkles: I'm probably just bad at rolling clothes, but honestly think there are more opportunities for wrinkling with rolling than with folding (see the photo above) and I found it awkward to do with a dress shirt.
Compression Packs: Great for Bulky Items
You know those so-called space bags that tell you they can triple your storage space by sucking the air out of the bag? Yeah, I tried them too.
Specifically, I tried space saver bags like these. You put your clothes in them and roll the bag to get the air out, no vacuum required.
In reality, I had a hard time rolling the Ziplock-like bags to flatten our clothes. I think you can only do a few clothing pieces at a time, so you'd have to buy a lot of bags to cover all your travel clothes.
However, I do think with bulky items like blankets or coats that would still take up too much space when folded or rolled, these are worth the investment.
Also, the bags were handy to have on our trip to dump dirty laundry into. We weren't going to re-roll or carefully fold all our used clothes in our suitcase, but in a storage bag, we just rolled them up to make the used clothes take as little space as possible (and make more room for souvenirs).
- Space: 16 additional t-shirts. I didn't see any space savings over regular folding, probably because I didn't have bulky items to compress and could only compress a few items of clothing in each bags.
- Wrinkles: I squeezed the hell out of those clothes while trying to compress the bag, but didn't see any additional wrinkles with this method.
Packing Cubes: Great When Combined with Other Methods
Finally, I tried packing cubes. They're a travel accessory everyone else seems to love, but until this test I didn't understand just how amazing these things are.
Packing cubes won't save you space in your luggage; in fact, they will add to your space usage. Some people say they prevent wrinkling, since clothes won't shift around as much when they're contained in these mesh containers, but I don't understand that logic.
Packing cubes are great for one thing, but one very important thing: Keeping your clothes organised.
Rolling your clothes is the most space-saving option, but you won't necessarily be able to keep your outfits organised together with this method. Folding clothes together is more natural and logical, but it's not as space efficient. Bundling works, but it's a pain to get specific pieces of clothes out.
Packing cubes solve both problems. Whether you want to stuff as much as possible in your suitcase or bundle your clothes for the least amount of wrinkles, packing cubes let you use your preferred method and also organise your packed clothes. They will help you keep your sanity whichever method you choose above.
The Best Method: All of the Above?
In the end, the best way to pack is probably a mix of all of these: use the bundling method to keep your large wrinkle-prone items neat, roll everything you can to fill the empty spaces, and use space bags to shrink down puffy items. Add some packing cubes to the mix for better organisation, and you'll have a perfectly packed suitcase no matter what you're wearing.