Packing cubes are one of the very first, ESSENTIAL packing and travel tips you should listen to. A travel tips article from Always Wander.
What Exactly Is A Packing Cube?!
So, here's the thing. If you're going to wander smarter, as I know you want to, then I'm going to let you in on maybe the NUMBER 1 secret that experienced wanderers use. Even - the PROS. Now if you're already an experienced wanderer, and just want to check out my opinion on them, well you're welcome here, too. But for those that aren't aware of them, or have only heard whispers in the halls and dark corners of airports, read on. I've got something you want.
I use not even a little bit of hyperbole here when I say that packing cubes were the single most influential discovery I made in my early days in terms of smarter travel and wandering. Really. I mean that. I happened to be searching online for some packing tips, watching videos, etc., and I came across what was basically an advertisement video but showed how to use them. I was like, "What. Are. These?" And they proceeded to show you how you could get 10 days worth of clothes into a carry on. Blew my mind! Now, I will caveat this with I don't think you should ever try and fit 10 days worth of clothes into a carry on unless there is some reason you absolutely, definitely will not have access to a way to clean your laundry. But that's an article for another time. Back to the cubes.
Packing cubes are essentially, little bags or, ahem, cubes - that you can store all your various items in that you'll be traveling with. Think: socks, t-shirts, pants, underwear...all that and more. From there, you essentially then get to play Tetris with these cubes as you put them into your chosen pack/suitcase for your trip. It sounds SO simple. And, you'd be right. What it allows you to do is not only be MUCH more organized, but as I mentioned earlier it also allows you to put more into the same space because they help to use the available space in a much better way. Some packing cubes, even help to provide compression.
Let's get into why if you aren't using packing cubes yet, you're missing a very serious trick in your wandering routine.
Who Makes Packing Cubes?
Nowadays, who doesn't? They are made by all sorts of companies. The first mainstream ones, as far as I can tell, were Eagle Creek and shortly thereafter, eBags. These were the two major players in the game when I came across them around 2013. They've come a long way since then. Any smart, enterprising backpack/luggage Kickstarter-born company now also makes packing cubes with their same design language to extend their revenue streams. You've got quasi-designer ones too. Even Ikea has gotten into the field of packing cubes. You know it must be organizationally smart if Ikea is making them.
Due the brand quality, the fact they were one of the originals, and the fact that I came across them first, I tend to go with Eagle Creek. And there's more than that. For one, Eagle Creek just makes good stuff. They offer 2 main kinds - the regulars (boxy style, a little thicker materials) and the Specters. These second ones are made from ultra-lite ripstop material. Both offer compression style cubes as well (pictured here). That adds an extra zipper that allows you to expand (or compress) the cubes for even more space. The Specters are a little more expensive due to the materials. But important to note - Eagle Creek's cubes are backed by their "No Matter What" guarantee. This is one of the best in the business and means you really only have to buy the product once.
However, as mentioned earlier, more specialized companies have come into the area too. Peak Design (which makes some really popular and well made urban-style commuter and camera packs) has one that of course fits with their design language. Amazon Basics also carries them now, which makes sense due to their former partnership with eBags. Osprey has them too! You aren't going to be left wanting when it comes to choice.
There are ALL SORTS of no-name brands on Amazon as well. Frankly, these aren't all bad things. Very economic choices. And if you're just a very casual wanderer, they will most likely serve you well. I have a couple of Gonex compression style cubes, and they work great!
The Pros of Packing Cubes
There's so many pros to packing cubes. The first as mentioned, is the outrageous amount of organization it allows you to have. Now, that might not be for everybody. But I think it's worth trying. It should be for most people. Remember, you want to be smarter when traveling to help you have the best and easiest time possible. My typical usage: one for underwear and maybe for socks if I need a lot, one for t-shirts, small for undershirts, one for button-downs and even a pair of jeans. Here's the biggest part of this: when you need to grab something, you don't need to go fishing around in your bag or luggage for it. You know exactly where it is! Need a t-shirt? Well it's in that big white cube there. Underwear? Those are all in the orange one! See what I mean?
Keep your dirty stuff separate. Exercise clothes vs. Regular clothes. It's your bag, do it up! At the very least, use only a small one for your little things like socks and underwear. It's just more convenient.
Need more? OK. Let's say you are going on a safari in Tanzania, and you're finishing it up with a few days on Zanzibar to rinse off and relax on the beach (how's that for some pro-level foreshadowing? Stick around til next year for that one!). Well, you don't want to put all your clothes in one open bag, and frankly you won't even need much of your beach gear. Some of it could also be nicer dinner wear, if you're staying at a higher end resort. So, you can use packing cubes to not only separate items by partner/partner - but also by purpose/location. Just keep the beach cubes in a section in your big bag on the bottom and not touch them til Zanzibar. Handy, right?
The other biggest pro is the sheer variety. I'm pretty utilitarian in my views towards them, like most of my personal products. I want something that works well and is made well. But there are big ones, wide ones. Small, square ones. Small, longer ones. Thin ones. Thicker ones. Red ones, blue ones, green ones, new ones. OK that reference might have zoomed right over a lot of people's heads. But I'm sure my mom got it. Sturdier cubes, thinner cubes. You get the idea.
Beyond size and shape, they can even vary by function. So you have your shoe cubes, clothes cubes, compression cubes, ultra-lights, clean-dirty cubes (those are cool). Bags with open mesh and vents. Basically, you can always find one for your needs. Stuff sacks/dry bags can serve the purpose too and keep the wet clothes from hitting your dry.
Lastly, they are becoming better looking. Eagle Creek has tweaked their Specter cubes in the last couple years and they look slick. They've also made a line of ultra-durable and more premium ones branded by Nat Geo. Overkill for most people but if you need wicked durable stuff, take a look at those. They're also making patterns on them for their regular line. And if you're more interested in having all matching gear, well hey then buy the ones that are the same make as your bag. Peak Designs are definitely a higher end version. So much choice now!
Here you can see a selection of items I want to take on my fake 5 day trip. (I could fit WAY more - but that's not smart wandering!!)
Here you can see what they look like in all the cubes. Look how much cleaner this is. Pretty amazing huh? Read to the end for the final shot and packing list.
The Cons of Packing Cubes
Not a lot - to be honest. For one, while I think it's a worthy trade off, it CAN add time to your packing/re-packing when you are ready to leave your current spot. It's something to consider if you like to just dump your stuff into your bag and move on. Homeward bound - I think that's fine. But mid trip or when you start, you might get annoyed with having to pack things in such an organized way. I think you should try and grow out of this dump and go habit, but that's just me.
This is a small one, and most people might not notice, but they can add weight to your set up. The more durable, or the bigger they are, the more they weigh. I like the ultra-light ones for this reason, though I give up some of the durability. If you're an ounce counter, it's something you're going to want to think about and consider.
The final point to make here is that with all the no-names out there, it's possible to get some cubes of dubious quality or quality control. It's not all about price (Amazon's are a great price) and not all no-names are bad - but if you trust a brand then you should be able to trust the product. For this reason, if your packing life depends on it, I'd stick to the known brands for the most part.
And here is the bag all packed!
Final Thoughts And Recommendations Around Packing Cubes
Packing cubes can be your first big step in changing how you wander. They'll add structure, organization, color coding if you're so inclined, and the quick-grab ability to pull out only what you need in your bag. And because they make better use of the space within the bag itself, you'll find you can use smaller bags with more stuff in it. Though, resist the urge to pack your entire wardrobe, you still don't want to be weighed down and you're supposed to be being smart about your wandering now! This will also help you work towards one-bag travel - which can also change your wandering life. The only time I'd say you probably don't need them is for a 1 night trip. That's a bit of overkill unless you have something like specific sports clothes and then street clothes you want to separate. Or, get crazy and use some of the sturdier ones for cables and plugs and such. Live a little!
My recommendations on which to get would definitely be from Eagle Creek. I use them myself, and they are one of the great names in luggage and travel gear. It's also a company that's doing a lot to improve their materials and manufacturing from a "green" standpoint. They have a huge selection of types and colors, and more importantly most of them are backed by their "no matter what" guarantee - which is one of the best warranties in the industry. For budget options, I'd recommend Amazon Basics (or eBags, which I have my suspicions they are the same or highly similar) - the helpful folks at Pack Hacker give those a thumbs up. I can also recommend the Gonex ones. I personally own some. They are a bit heavier construction than the Eagle Creek Specters, so I think it balances out my collection nicely.
The Patagonia bag I'm using is a 45 liter. As you can see from this final shot, there is LOADS more space. I could have packed way more, but I packed enough for 5 days, give or take. Here's the full list (keep in mind, I don't count the jeans I'm wearing while traveling, and the final bag has a couple items missing from the picture earlier): 1 jeans, 1 city shorts, 6 t-shirts, 3 button-down shirts, 3 undershirts, 6 underwear, 3 merino crew socks, 3 dress socks, shoes/brogues. All organized, all right where I know they'll be if I need them. I didn't even touch the second side of this bag yet. Brilliant.
These things completely changed how I packed, thought about packing, and more importantly how I was able to wander. They can help you for that family trip to the beach for the weekend, or that dream trip to Chiang Mai you've been dying to take. Go get some packing cubes, wander further and wander smarter than before.
Here’s the links if you want to grab some. I've linked to a few different versions, including those I own: