How To Pack A Carry-On When Everything Is Bulky

Stuffing jackets, sweaters and boots into your luggage? Travel and organizational experts share their best secrets for making it all fit.
Traveling experts recommend always checking the weather of your destination as a first step.
FreshSplash via Getty Images
Traveling experts recommend always checking the weather of your destination as a first step.

There’s nothing worse than flying to a travel destination and rushing off the plane only to have to wait at baggage claim for what seems like forever to finally retrieve your suitcase. That’s one of the main reasons that many individuals choose to pack just a carry-on whenever possible (you also never chance losing your luggage — another plus).

But packing for a trip to a cold weather destination ― like a ski mountain, where you’ll need sweaters and jackets ― or a lengthy vacation where you won’t have much access to laundry, can make fitting everything you’ll need into a carry-on a bit tricky. The struggle is real.

We spoke to organization and packing experts for tips and tricks to help you fit even the bulkiest of items into your carry-on. And while we can’t promise you won’t still have to sit on your suitcase to get it closed (yes, we do, too!), this can make the process of packing less stressful.

Check the weather where you’re going.

You won’t even know where to start if you don’t know whether it will be hot, cold, muggy, rainy, etc., where you’re traveling. Be sure to check the weather as a first step.

“Next make a list of the activities and plan what you need per activity,” said Anne McAlpin, travel expert and author of ”Pack It Up! The Essential Guide to Organized Travel,” who traveled 21 days around the world with just a carry-on.

“Plan to layer your clothes for warmth instead of trying to pack numerous large bulky items. Puffer vests and coats pack down to nothing in compression bags, yet add warmth and comfort, and can double as a pillow on the plane,” McAlpin told HuffPost.

Write out a list of everything you want to pack.

Make a list, and check it twice! Be sure it includes all the travel essentials that you’ll need.

“Then lay everything out and categorize by the type of item to get a complete look at how many items you have for each category,” said Marie Kondo, tidying expert and founder of the KonMari Method.

Narrow down your list — especially toiletries.

Don’t just bring things because they’re travel sized. “A mistake I often see is my clients packing way too many toiletries when they travel,” said Drea Montali, owner of Dream Organization and ShelfGenie West Brooklyn. “They find traveling as an excuse to bring every single sample item they have gotten from department stores, and still do not end up using them, so my first pro tip is to be strategic and realistic when you are packing these items.”

Montali told HuffPost she recommends using labeled pouches for items like toiletries, hair dryers, curlers, etc., to keep items organized and easy to find. “I also recommend investing in travel size/friendly hair tools like a hair dryer brush if that works for your hair type because they take up way less space than your average blow dryer,” she said.

Wear big items on the plane.

If you’re headed somewhere cold and you need to bring lots of big, warm layers, consider wearing as many as you can on the plane. “This saves room in your suitcase for other items and layering pieces,” Montali said.

Wearing your bulkiest items on the plane, like your jacket and scarf, can help you save space in your suitcase.
bluecinema via Getty Images
Wearing your bulkiest items on the plane, like your jacket and scarf, can help you save space in your suitcase.

Use packing cubes and shoe bags.

Not only do these tools help you keep things organized, but they also help keep everything in the suitcase tidy (because the soles of shoes can sometimes be dirty).

If you have an especially bulky pair of shoes that will not fit in a bag, try putting the soles together and packing towards the bottom of your suitcase or duffle to avoid soles touching clothing,” Kondo said.

If you don’t have packing cubes, McAlpin suggested using plastic compression bags. “Zip them to the top closed and roll the air out the one-way-air valves,” she said. “Plus, they seal in odors, too, so they’re perfect for laundry on the way home.”

Fold bulky items to make them smaller.

Kondo explained that by using the KonMari Method folding technique, you can easily fit two to three bulky items into large packing cubes. “This will ensure your selected items are stored upright instead of stacked in a pile,” she said. “This tactic will allow you to maximize space in your suitcase, and you’ll easily be able to view all of your outfit options when you open your bag or suitcase.”

Here’s how she recommends folding long sleeves and sweaters:

  1. Fold one side toward the center.
  2. Fold the sleeve to fit within the rectangle’s width.
  3. Fold the sleeve back flush with the edge of the rectangle.
  4. Fold the other side the same way.
  5. Fold in half lengthwise — and don’t forget the gap at the edge.
  6. Fold in half or thirds.
  7. Stand the sweater upright.

Try Kondo’s method for folding jeans or sweatpants, too:

  1. Fold the legs in half.
  2. Fold the legs upward toward the waistband — and leave a gap at the edge.
  3. Fold in half or thirds.
  4. Stand pants upright.

Pack hard items on the bottom.

Can’t leave home without your hair dryer or curling iron? That’s OK! “Pack heavy bulky items like flat irons, a straightener or curling iron on the bottom of your bag,” McAlpin said. “Utilize the awkward space in between the handles, too, with smaller items like underwear and tank tops.”

Be sure to pack these items on the opposite side of your suitcase from your clothes, and if your bag has tie-down or compression straps, utilize them to keep the items from shifting or falling out when you open the bag. Toiletries can go on this side, too.

“I keep as much clothing, if not all, on one side of the suitcase and the other side for shoes and accessories and jackets laid down on top,” Montali said.

Don’t take any space for granted.

When trying to just use a carry-on, no extra space should be wasted ― that means even the insides of your shoes. Pack socks inside shoes to save space,” McAlpin said. “Take that a step further by packing them inside the shoes you plan to wear them with to save time searching through your bag later.”

Also, utilize space in bigger items like boots, too. “I think stuffing tall boots with some items like a curling irons, socks, a puffer jacket or vest, and other accessories is a great way to utilize space and keep some form to your boots,” Montali added.

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