Pack It Up

(photo credit: Belinda Fewings/Unsplash)

(This post was adapted from one originally published in July 2015).

I’ve always said that Brett could pack a grand piano into a carry-on bag.

He developed his amazing packing skills during his years in the navy, when he had to get everything he needed for six months or so into his seabag, the only luggage besides a briefcase that he was allowed to carry on board. A seabag, made of heavy, green canvas is just 26″ in diameter and 36″ high. There are six metal grommets at the top that are folded over each other, then the bag is closed with a lock.

A six-month cruise meant not just working uniforms had to go into that bag, but dress uniforms as well, both summer and winter, as well as dress shoes, work boots, socks, underwear, hats, personal toiletries, and civilian clothes for port calls. It used to take Brett a full day to pack his seabag before he left on deployment. The bag would be rolled down to the bottom, and as each item went in he would climb in and stand on the growing stack to compress each item. It was nothing short of miraculous the amount he got into that bag before each cruise. (It was also nearly impossible to lift, but he always managed.)

Brett: Most uniform articles were tailored to be folded and packed inside-out, and remain wrinkle-free when hauled halfway around the world in a canvas bag. That was the easy part. Shoes, civilian clothes, books, and toiletries were not so easy. Things that are square or rectangular could be layered in to help shape the space, but I had to avoid packing too many square things together as they tended to rip the bag. After some “square things” went in a pair of steel-toed boots, stuffed with socks and underwear to fit nicely on top of the “square things,” followed by dress shoes also stuffed with socks, and perhaps a pair of running shoes. Then I added more square stuff, and covered that with a laundry bag and clothes I didn’t expect to wear right away (e.g., heavy garments, dress uniforms, and civilian clothes). Finally I added some more “square things,” followed by working uniforms intermixed with toiletries and fragile items, and then folded over the flap that covered it all before closing. Sometimes the seabag wouldn’t close, so I unpacked it all, removed the boots, put everything else back in, closing and locking the bag, and tying the boots over the top of the bag. No unnecessary items went in the bag, and everything had to fit.

Laura: One of Brett’s (many) duties in the navy was to coordinate the packing of the “cruise box” from his maintenance shop in his squadron. A cruise box is a large, 9 cu.ft., folding “tin coffin” (as Brett says) that carries every bit of maintenance equipment, including books, tools, and nuts and bolts used by each shop. These items have to move from the ship to shore and back again before and after each cruise. Packing up a cruise box and making sure nothing is forgotten is like putting together an intricate puzzle, but one that has to be accomplished in just one day. Brett became very, very good at this and along with his seabag packing he developed some amazing skills.

Brett: How many books can you pack in a suitcase? Probably more than you can lift, so don’t even try. On numerous occasions I came upon people who thought they’d pack all of their manuals, forms, and office supplies in one cruise box only to discover that no one could lift it, or if they did lift it using hoists, ropes or chains, the handles ripped off. Unfortunately, fingers, toes, arms and legs were broken moving these overloaded boxes up and down several decks to be stacked on pallets for offloading. Some smart cookie eventually came up with the half cruise box, also known as a publications cruise box, which two people could lift when it was filled with books. Even so, it’s best to mix contents when packing anything, and never have any bag so heavy you can’t lift it. These days airlines will ding you hard anyway for an overweight bag. It’s better to save those funds for something fun on your trip.

Laura: My packing skills have come about through trial and error, and over time I have gotten better and better, need less and less, and now can get everything I need for even a two or three-week trip into a carry-on bag. Prior to our Big Adventure, I think the last time I traveled with a checked bag was when we went to China in 2005 to adopt YaYu, and had to bring along clothing for her as well as gifts for her orphanage and foster parents.

The best thing I’ve learned over the years is to keep it simple. Less really is more when you travel. I think carefully about what I will actually need when I travel, and no longer come up with a whole bunch of scenarios that might occur, which was the main reason in the past I overpacked. Will there be laundry facilities where I’m staying or will I have to wear the same stuff over and over? Will I be toting all my own luggage around or will there be valet service (not likely)? Those are the two scenarios I think about first. I’ve heard that you should take out everything you plan to pack and lay it out, and then put half of it away because you probably will never wear or use it – that’s good advice. It is seriously much, much easier to only have to look after a carry-on bag and a tote or backpack (and purse) than having to worry about a heavy checked bag. I have yet to go somewhere where I couldn’t find something I needed somewhere out in town, even if I don’t speak the language.

Like most people, I don’t want to wear the same clothes every day when I travel, but it doesn’t require a lot of stuff to have several different outfits that I can switch around. For a longer trip (10 or so days) I typically take three pairs of black knit pants, five or six tops, and two pairs of comfortable shoes, and lots and lots of underwear. I travel with clothes that don’t wrinkle easily and pack using the roll method to maximize space in my suitcase. My favorite travel pants are L.L. Beans Perfect Fit knit pants – they’re comfortable like yoga pants, but a bit dressier. I also am a big fan of their Packaway jackets, which fold down to just about nothing and yet are warm, comfortable and nice looking for when you’re out and about. Personally though I am not in favor of buying clothes specifically designed for travel because they typically cost more and usually don’t go on sale. Overall however, it’s best to pack whatever is comfortable for you to wear.

I only ever take a minimum of toiletries/cosmetics. I usually bring along travel-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, moisturizer, hair gel, deodorant and toothpaste just in case where I’m staying does not provide those things or I can’t find them quickly out in town, but nothing more than what can fit into a quart-size Ziploc bag. My toiletries/makeup go into the front pocket of my carry-on bag so they’re easy to pull out for security.

Brett: Always take care of your feet, and personal areas. That is, if you’re going to pack any extras, make it extra socks and underwear. My only other tip on arriving with everything you need is to wear one extra article of clothing as you travel, like a coat or sweater. If you don’t need it again at your destination, big deal; if you do, perhaps desperately, you will have a more enjoyable time for the money you saved.

Laura: One drawback to only traveling with a carry-on bag is that you can’t pack things like wine or other liquids. If I absolutely have to have something that can’t go into my carry-on bag, I will pay to have it mailed home. Actually, the cost for doing this is usually less than what you now have to pay for a checked bag, and it’s kind of fun to have a package from your travel destination arrive after you get home!

Brett: Actually, I can not pack a grand piano into a carry-on bag, but given a grand piano bag I know how to pack it.


15 thoughts on “Pack It Up

  1. I’m slowly learning how to pack less and make it work. The big test will come this fall when I go to SE Asia for a month (hopefully!)


    1. I don’t know where you are going in the fall…but the virus seems unchecked in many countries. My friend in the Philippines is under curfew…still. India has everyone nervous.


      1. We’re not going anywhere this fall – Japan will be next year. First trip coming up will be Philadelphia next year for YaYu’s graduation. I think there are always going to be flare-ups going forward; it’s always going to be something that has to be taken into consideration.

        India makes me very nervous – so much potential for the virus to spread to other areas.


      2. Sorry, I was responding to Denise :). I know that you are not traveling this fall. Enjoy Philly later in the year!
        India is a very sad mess. Lots of people from here attempting to get stuff there…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The longer we traveled, the less I found I needed. I put a bunch of pieces in storage when we left Portland, but when I saw them again realized I was most likely never going to wear them again and donated them. You can do this Denise!


  2. Have we talked about Joe’s ability to fit everything it the suitcases, etc. in the trunk of a car, the dishwasher, or a FED-Ex jet that has strict needs on weight and balance of all freight so it can fly properly? (part of his job) Our family always laments, after a big meal when there are a few too many dishes to fit in the dishwasher, “Joe could have done it”. Too bad we never had a pack-off between the guys:)


    1. Joe was in a class by himself. A pickoff would have been fun, although Brett could never have matched Joe’s skill in filling a dishwasher. That’s the area where I excel and I could have given Joe a run for his money! My motto has always been, “there’s always room for more,” and I *always* got everything in, no matter how many dishes. Brett though can still pack a car to perfection, suitcases, etc.


  3. Any advice for someone who spills a lot so takes extra clothes just in case? I tried the little stain remover packets and sticks, but they didn’t work. I hate packing extra clothing, but I don’t want to go around in stained clothes when I can’t get to a laundromat or don’t stay in a place with a washer.


    1. Oh Colleen, I spill stuff all the time. “If there’s a mess to be made, Laura’s going to make it.” I found that carrying dark clothes and some patterns helps. I am also very good about getting stains out – quick action is the key, whether I’m at home or out at a restaurant.


  4. I am getting better and better. I just did Disney with an ebag backpack…and it had plenty of room for stuff for the grands on the return. I am getting used to scarves to change things up.


    1. I’m looking forward to traveling again next year with just a carry-on bag, although we’ll probably use one of our big suitcases when we go to Japan to carry along housewarming and birthday gifts. I became a scarf wearer during our travels – they do give you more options.


  5. My uncle thinks my sister can pack a whole set of encyclopedia in her backpack. She is that good. I do not throw away old underwear and take them with me on my trip and throw them away then.


    1. That would be Brett – he could get encyclopedias into a backpack. Growing a up I had an aunt who we said could pack an entire month’s wardrobe into a train case!

      I have heard of taking along old underwear and throwing them away as you go, then getting new when you return home. My underwear packs so small though I don’t think it would make much of a difference in my case. I need to minimize the larger items I tend to take.


  6. Brett’s packing skills sound formidable. I hadn’t thought of how one would have to pack for a naval ship. Skills for life!

    Once we did carry-on for two weeks in Europe I was sold! I also love going straight to customs while everyone else is collecting luggage. I was #5 in line coming into London this time. Quick & easy. I dropped off a few gifts that will lighten my bag, but of course, I will have a few things to add going back. It is just SOO much easier to travel light. All that said, I look forward to wearing different clothes soon. I admit to being a bit bored by these items now. 🤪


    1. We did two weeks in Japan in carry-on, and took along loads of baby gifts as well (Space Bags were our friends) and that got me hooked. We had no choice though but to go with checked bags for the big adventure, but that turned out OK as well. I never got bored either, but did find several things I had packed never got worn, or were only worn once – they have already been recycled.

      Space is at a premium on any navy ship so you either learn to pack well or go without.


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