What are packing cubes?             Ever since airlines have become increasingly disinterested in the needs of travelers and increasingly interested in packing as many... How To Use Packing Cubes

Eagle Creek packing

 What are packing cubes?

            Ever since airlines have become increasingly disinterested in the needs of travelers and increasingly interested in packing as many of us onto airplanes as is physically possible, the fees and limitations associated with how much luggage you can bring along with you and how much space it can take up have become more and more stringent. As a result, travelers have been forced to become creative and crafty in their packing methods, and out of this forced ingenuity have risen new tools in bag-stuffing known as packing cubes.

            Packing cubes are small, lightweight bags of various sizes, often with a see-through mesh window, that can be used to stuff your critical travel items into organized and dedicated sections of your bag. In theory, these cubes allow you to get more into your luggage without sacrificing organization by fragmenting your bag space into smaller, stackable bags. For example, you might have one small packing cube for your toiletries, medications and toothbrush, while another, larger bag holds your dress shirts. Yet another cube might be dedicated to all of your socks and another could carry your underwear.

            Packing cubes were born as a natural extension for those travelers who generally stayed organized by using ziplock bags as dividers and organizers for their travel needs— cubes arrived as a more dedicated, durable alternative to these often flimsy solutions. The name packing cube, though originally used to describe the geometric design of many original solutions of this type, has come to be a widely-used term for a diverse range of packing solutions as variations on the original shape have emerged. Since they’ve begun gaining popularity, packing aides have divided frequent travelers who feel very strongly about either their benefits or drawbacks. Proponents believe that they can allow you to get way more into your carry-on or checked bags and make living from a suitcase a less stressful and more organized endeavor. Here are a few of the different types of “packing cubes” available as well as their various benefits and drawbacks.

Packing Cubes

            These are the original vanguards, the brave innovators that launched the battle for supremacy in the wars for dominance in travelers’ luggage. Okay, they’re basically mesh rectangles with zippers. But their stackability and luggage-friendly shape make them worthy companions for many airport warriors. They’re also beloved for their organizational power, their mesh see-through panels allowing travelers to more effectively live out of their suitcase without a nightmare re-packing scenario at the end of every trip. When travelers need a specific item, they simply remove the corresponding cube and then return it when they’re finished. It’s an excellent solution for both obsessive organizers and habitual over-packers, allowing travelers to fit more items into their luggage without an explosion of shampoo bottles and loose socks taking place every time they forcefully unzip their bag. Here are a few things to consider when considering packing cubes, or using the cubes you have more effectively.

  • Benefits- Packing cubes are an ideal choice for organization-minded packers. If you like to know exactly where every last item is, from your nail clippers to your work-out shorts that (let’s be honest) probably won’t make an appearance in the hotel gym, packing cubes will turn your suitcase into a neat-freak’s dream. No loose items ending up sadly adorning the very bottom of your bag, not found until weeks after the trip when you happen to be packing for the next one. With cubes, everything has its proper place and you’ll be able to see which case carries which items, so you won’t be completely disassembling your luggage with every single use.
  • Drawbacks- Though they’re purchased primarily by travelers looking to jam more into their bags, packing cubes are in reality more of an organizational tool than an effective method of bag-stuffing. With packing cubes you’ll find that your maximum bag space is increased, but not exponentially. Their rounded rectangular shape means that you’ll be leaving cracks and spaces where more luggage could fit if packed freely, and you’ll find that lumps created by various items within those cubes will make them stack unevenly, minimizing their space-saving benefits. You may also eventually find yourself frustrated by constantly zipping and unzipping the various bags to get to your many travel items and perhaps could end up wishing everything was simply sitting open in your luggage. But if that image makes your organized brain want to cry perfectly symmetrical tears, then packing cubes could be for you. It should also be noted that packing cubes’, well, cube-like shape makes them better suited to shaped, framed luggage rather than duffel bags.
  • Uses- It’s all about the stacking. When it comes time to fit your packed cubes into your luggage, don’t just toss them in willy-nilly, defeating their organizational and space-saving purpose. Look at that open suitcase like your own personal game of Tetris. Make those cubes fit in every nook and cranny and do some rearranging until you find the perfect fit that allows you to pack in as many as possible. And don’t feel as though every single item you pack has to fit into a cube. Use the cubes for your major categories, and use the nooks and crannies left over to stuff other items in. You’ll thank yourself later.
  • Shapes, Sizes and Types. Packing cubes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from the smallest cube for medications and toiletries to the largest container for shirts, pants or other large items. Though their name suggests a boxy shape, packing cubes can be found in many different rectangular configurations, from tall and thin to short and wide. There are waterproof versions available, as well as cubes that replace with zippers with velcro or belt-type clips which can increase the ease of closing and opening. They also come in versions with and without the small, see-through screens, allowing you to choose between ease of use or total privacy for more personal items.

Packing Folders.

Packing folders are a variation on traditional packing cubes and are shaped like cubes that have been squashed flat— they’re wider in surface area but shorter in depth, making them ideal for folded clothes, documents, and other traveler items that are best packed while laid flat. Think of a fabric envelope for your items. They’re often laid flat along the bottom of bags, but they’re most effective when used with deeper luggage and arranged file-folder style, side-by-side. Many have handles on top tailored to this kind of organization, which allows travelers to open up their bag and remove the “shirts” or “pants” file while keeping the others in their proper place. Here’s everything you need to know when considering packing folders for your next big (or little) trip.

  • Benefits- Packing folders are more compact than cubes, allowing you to fit more into a bag at a time. They’re ideal for shirts or dress pants, allowing them to be kept in their folded state throughout all the bumps and jostles of traveling, ensuring that they come out still looking fresh-pressed and ready for that big presentation or night at the bar after the presentation. Packing folders are also an organizational dream, taking the OCD-lovers ideal of file folders and applying it to packing. They’re a great way to take your luggage from an overflowing mess to a textbook example of flawless organization.
  • Drawbacks- File folders don’t work quite so well when laying flat, and they can often take up a large amount of vertical real estate. If you don’t have a fairly deep suitcase or luggage bag, these guys might not be for you. They’re also fairly specifically suited to clothes and other items that can lay flat— toiletries, electronics and other small or oddly shaped items will collect at the bottom of the folder, creating a bulgy mess that sort of defeats the purpose. You’ll also find that packing envelopes don’t come in the greatest variety of sizes—most are about the area of a folded shirt.
  • Uses- As we mentioned above, you’ll be the most happy with packing envelopes if you use them in a deep bag, not laid flat but rather side-by-side like a file folder. They’re designed to be used this way, with handles at the top allowing you to slip one out without disturbing all the rest. Considering that most styles lack the see-through benefits of packing cubes, we recommend buying a few different colors and color-coding your packing, always keeping pants in the red folder, shirts in the blue folder, etc…
  • Shapes, Sizes, and Types- If you’re looking for a wide range of diversity when it comes to packing folders, you might be disappointed. Many are roughly the same size, and the main variations come from how they open. Some fold open like a mailing envelope along the top, while others unfold at each corner. These are convenient for packing, but be wary of them falling open as a result of improperly velcroing shut. Opt for quality when it comes to this style— you’ll thank yourself later when your underwear doesn’t come spilling out all over the floor at LAX.

Compression Sacks

Popular with campers and backpackers, compression sacks are often cylinder-shaped bags that allow packers to stuff a great deal of items into each sack. They help separate items from each other and are ideal for soft luggage that’s able to be squished and squeezed to fit tight spaces like overhead bins. Like other modular packing solutions, compression sacks are helpful in making packing and unpacking a quicker, more organized experience. They come in various sizes and types, and their origins in the backpacking world mean that you can find some that are highly waterproof and protectively sealed. Here’s what you need to know before buying compression sacks.

  • Benefits- Compression sacks are true workhorses when it comes to stuffing as much as humanly possible into your luggage. Their duffel-shaped design means that you can jam everything but the kitchen sink deep into their depths, and keep compacting until each sack is a solid, oval-shaped brick of traveling bliss. They also squish down just fine without losing their shape, and a few of these tossed into your duffel bag will increase your luggage capacity by leaps and bounds. Plus, their durable construction will protect your precious items when they’re left sitting outside the plane in a downpour for three hours (not that this has ever happened to anyone).
  • Drawbacks- What you get in storage space you sacrifice in organization— compression sacks are basically smaller duffel bags to stuff everything into. You can keep some sense of order by using specific sacks for specific categories, but outside of that each sack will be an avalanche of items that you might have to pour out each time you want to retrieve something from their depths. They’re best suited for large items that you want to condense, like sweaters, coats, and blankets. But keep in mind that any clothing items that go into a compression sack will come out more wrinkled than you ever could have imagined. No matter how carefully you roll that brand new dress shirt, it will emerge looking like it spent too long in the bathtub and became prune-y. If you decide to go with compression sacks, be sure to dedicate one to a portable clothes steamer.
  • Uses- Save your packing cubes for toiletries and smaller items and use compression sacks for big, bulky space-hogs like puffy sweaters and large coats. Grab one end of each item and stuff it deep to the bottom of the bag, methodically pushing each section of the item as deep as possible into the sack and then repeating on the next item. You’ll be amazed at how much you can fit into even smaller compression sacks. Lay them side beside and fill in any spaces between them with additional items. Isn’t fitting an unholy amount of stuff into your luggage what this is all about?
  • Shapes, Sizes, and Types- Though most compression sacks will look essentially the same, there’s a fairly wide range of quality and features, mainly in the area of durability. Remember, these were made for backpackers, so if you’re looking for a waterproof, heat-proof, crush-proof option— they’re out there. But if you just want a cheap way to overpack to your heart’s content, inexpensive and less feature-heavy options are available as well. Compression sacks also come in a wide range of sizes, so pick a few different ones and find out which ones work best.

Here we’ve included just about everything you need to know generally about the main types of packing aides and suitcase stuffers, but new styles and types are being created every day. Consider this a get-started guide, and go out and become an expert yourself on the various ways to pack effectively and efficiently.

Though lots of travelers swear by packing tools like cubes, folders and compression sacks, they’re definitely not for everyone. Some critics don’t care for the  added step of having to unzip another bag within a bag, and others feel that leaving the luggage space open allows them to stuff more into their suitcases and duffels. In understanding the potential of packing aides like these its crucial to see them not only as space-savers but as organizational tools that will keep you from losing your mind while living out of a suitcase. Packing cubes can ensure that everything has its own proper place, so that you’ll know where to look when you need it and know where to put it when you’re done. However, their ability to save space does come with in inherent drawback— more items means a heavier bag, and some bags may be so overpacked that they’re cumbersome and not worth the trouble.

When it comes time to choose your packing cubes, envelopes, or compression sacks, the key is to do your research.   We don’t recommended buying every kind  at once — try one or two packing aides that intrigue you and then determine whether they’re right for you. Your wallet and suitcase will thank you for taking your time in deciding, and you’ll be more informed when your fellow road warriors ask for themselves. Traveling can be a tough endeavor, and the major airlines’ desperation to turn a profit has only made them more crafty in finding ways to make you miserable along the way. Packing cubes could be your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by bringing along everything you want, instead of having to choose whether its more important that you pack your video game system or a second pair of shoes. With packing cubes, you can bring both!


Tim Leffel

Tim Leffel is founder of the Practical Travel Gear blog, as well as the Cheapest Destinations blog and the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel. He is the author of The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 4th edition), Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, and A Better Life for Half the Price.

  • Kara

    April 24, 2009 #1 Author

    I use packing cubes in my ZUCA Pro wheeled carry on. They stack vertically. Love the concept and love the bag.

  • Linda

    April 24, 2009 #2 Author

    I am kind of on the fence about these things too. If I’m packing a plain suitcase with lots of room, they definitely make life easier. But they don’t really help you pack any lighter or more compactly if you know what you’re doing already. An organization aid more than anything.

  • mike

    April 26, 2009 #3 Author

    I can definitely fit more with packing cubes, because the limiting factor is often not how much I can smoosh in to my bag, it’s how much I can easily get to. By helping with organization, packing cubes increase the amount of stuff that I can carry and get to at the same time.

    They’re also great because I no longer spend an hour every night unpacking and packing my bag when I travel.

  • Jodi

    May 5, 2009 #4 Author

    I agree with Linda – these are great when you are using a suitcase, but when traipsing around with a pack, they’re hard to use, especially when you need to pack quickly. I’ve found that thin siliconized nylon stuff sacks (like sea to summit’s Ultra Sil compression bag (http://www.rei.com/product/766679) in different sizes do the trick. I can unpack quickly and put my clothes in one and underwear/bathing suit/socks, etc in the other smaller one. And they’re water resistant, which is great.

  • Chris

    April 27, 2011 #5 Author

    I also agree with Linda. The biggest advantage is in my opinion that you don`t have to pack or unpack the bag.

    @ Jodi: Thanks for the tip with nylon stuff sacks. Simple but effective

    PS: “packing cubes” link is broken.

  • Mary Alice Coffman

    November 19, 2011 #6 Author

    I don’t really see much of an advantage with these. I prefer using my spacepak bags to suck the air out of bulky items like polar fleece to give me more room.

  • greg

    January 4, 2012 #7 Author

    As a long time travelling climber, skier and occasional surfer who wound up becoming the product guy for a travel storage company i often find myself engaged in the storage compartments vs storage sacs discussion. That choice usually comes down to some of the points that have been well covered in the original article and followup comments. From my perspective another equally important factor concerns the risk of grim weather and the possibility of clothes and essentials getting wet. If that is a possibility then consider weather or water proof storage options.

  • Joseph Boarman

    March 3, 2012 #8 Author

    I answere yes to every question but #6. I guess I need these.

  • Johnny

    June 5, 2013 #9 Author

    I never use these things. My wife thinks they’re the bomb. Like you said though, so also gets giddy about The Container Store. I never seem to have any trouble finding my underwear, so these seem like something extra to pack rather than a help.

  • innate

    July 1, 2013 #10 Author

    One further point for consideration are weatherproof cubes. With full disclosure, and at the risk of self-promotion, the Innate team saw a critical need for cubes that keep shirts/pants/frocks dry and sealed up when on the road for deployment on the flight home or a meeting when you’ve got to look your best. We used our stitch-less rf welding technology on recycled and repurposed materials to create a nice option for travellers needing more than mere organizers. Worth considering if you need you are travelling in we, humid environs.

  • Maria

    November 11, 2013 #11 Author

    There is a new compression version that Eagle Creek put out that changed my mind about these thing. You stuff in all your stuff and then the second zipper compresses everything tight. Great for dirty clothes.

  • Daidri ~ theegetawaygal.com

    November 12, 2013 #12 Author

    Thanks Tom, great review! I personally love cubes. They were a life safer for me in my backpack while in Italy. Maria, my sister just purchased the Eagle Creek cubes that compress and is absolutely loving them.

  • hermes

    January 4, 2014 #13 Author

    I am a bit of an over-organizer, but as I travel a lot I loathe spending a lot of time sorting my stuff and spending hours between one-night hotels. I also travel in the tropics in the third world where rain comes in downpours. I use a cheap (no point inviting crimes of opportunity) one compartment bag because I find organizer bags overkill when I do it all myself inside anyway.

    Ziplocks are too soft and packing cubes are too clever with colour codes and patterns. The only *pure* see-through plastic (not smokey, no advertising, zero extras) are the line sold in Tokyu Hands department store in Japan. They have dozens of sizes and shapes – for everything from toiletries to sweaters. Zen packing. My only criticisms of that bares bones line are that the plastic is a bit hard and the zippers would be better if they extended truly half-way down the sides, or better all the way down so I could create top-open boxes on the road. I actually designed my own very sturdy organizers and have five progressively refined prototypes made in Vietnam. Problem is in my quest for military durability they were too heavy.

    And yes, you get more in your bag without any organizers.

  • Jennifer

    August 17, 2014 #14 Author

    I’m taking my first Europe trip next month and we are backpacking. I have a large backpack (70 liters) and wondering if packing cubes would help. If so which would be best? Considering Eagel Creek and ebags.

    We’re visiting France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. No real backpacking while hiking but a lot of traveling from country to country on trains which is why we’re using backpacks.

    Any feedback would be so appreciated.

  • Tim Leffel

    August 19, 2014 #15 Author

    I would go a middle route and take some, but don’t fill your whole pack with them. They work better in rectangular suitcases. The compression ones Eagle Creek makes are great though because you can fit more in or compress your dirty clothes. But often with a pack, roll and stuff will actually work better.

  • Michael

    June 9, 2015 #16 Author

    Last year I bought a set of packing cubes and looking back, I don’t know how I traveled without them. Makes life so much easier. One thing I would recommend is buying a set of packing cubes that have 2 compartments so you can keep your clean and dirty clothes separate. Really useful when you go on longer trips. I have this set from Amazon and I can’t recommend them enough. http://amzn.to/1I9riHa

  • Joanne

    October 6, 2015 #17 Author

    I think if you’re looking at cubes you need to look no further than Eagle Creek Specter or Pro Packing Cubes. I have both. Apart from price (Pro Packing Cubes are significantly cheaper) it is down to whether you want a mesh window (I like this – allows you to see inside the cube / find stuff) or compression (Eagle Creek compress better but at expense of wrinkles an its harder to pull things out without unpacking the whole cube). Personally I prefer my Pro Cubes 90% of the time as they are more practical.

  • Wirakorn @ Mora Bushcraft

    October 13, 2015 #18 Author

    Good idea.

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