I was a packing cube holdout for the longest time. Sure, people rave about them, and they are a classic travel hack.
“But what would they really do for me?” I wondered, as I tightly rolled my t-shirts and tossed them into my cavern of a suitcase. “I mean, it’s a whole extra layer of fabric, so it’s not like they save space,” I would speculate, as I dug to the bottom of my backpack looking for that flashlight I could have sworn I put near the top.
What packing cubes actually do
The truth is, packing cubes don’t save space in a direct, physical way; everything still takes up the same amount of space it otherwise would. (Unless you buy compression packing cubes, which are a thing.) Instead, they let you pack the same amount of stuff, while having it behave like less.
Here’s what I mean. Imagine a fantasy world in which you only needed to carry a few items. You would be able to easily find everything in your bag, wouldn’t you? It would never be a big deal to unpack and certainly not to repack. You might put some thought into what goes where, but it wouldn’t take Tetris-like levels of strategy. Packing cubes give you all those advantages, even if they are stuffed to the brim.
Cubes facilitate tight packing
If you’re already an efficient packer, you know that rolling your clothes will buy you a lot of space. But clothes only stay rolled if they are pressing up against something: either their neighbouring rolls, or the wall of your suitcase.
That means the only way to keep those rolls tight is to keep them contained. If they don’t completely fill your suitcase, they’ll unravel and flop around. If they do fill your suitcase, then the minute you remove something, the whole scene is thrown into chaos.
Enter the packing cubes. You can roll your shirts as loosely or tightly as you like, then zip them into a cube where they will stay rolled. If you remove a shirt and they’re not packed so tightly anymore, it’s not a big deal — the rest are still snug in their cube. They won’t unroll much, and even if they do, they won’t sprawl all over everything else.
Cubes make everything easier to find
I first used packing cubes on a trip where I would be camping, but also attending a wedding. My nice clothes went in one cube, my camping clothes in another, and miscellaneous items like books went in a third. That left plenty of space for other large items. If I needed something, I would unzip the pack, pop out the three cubes, and grab whatever it was. Then I’d toss the cubes back in. Everything was easy to find, and my dress never even got wrinkled.
Even in a more traditional suitcase situation, everything is still easy to access. I’ll have my clothes and essentials in a few cubes, and then packing the suitcase is a matter of laying those cubes inside and zipping up. If I need to add a tote bag or stash my winter coat while I’m sitting on an airport bench, that’s an easy operation, not a wrestling match.
Oh yeah, and they’re good for organising
If you’re partitioning your stuff into multiple cubes, you’ll naturally divvy it up in some logical way. If you know which cube has which things, you have by definition organised everything, and can pretend you are one of those with-it, organised people.
For a typical one-person trip, divide things either by type, or by when you will use them. I’ll often have a cube of nice clothes, a cube of underwear, spare shirts, and pajamas, and a cube for workout gear.
For multiple people, cubes are what allow you to share a suitcase peacefully. When I take the family on a family holiday, each kid gets their own packing cube, with their name on a strip of masking tape on the outside. The bigger kids must each pack their cube in their backpack (the rest of the backpack’s space can be filled with toys) and the little one’s cube goes alongside mine. When we get to our destination, I plop each cube into a drawer of the hotel dresser.
You can also assign a cube to a place or purpose. For example, I like to put everyone’s swimsuits and goggles in one cube. Grab that on the way to the beach, and you know you have your essentials.