The Pros and Cons of Packing Cubes

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Eagle Creek packingOn the first version of this Practical Travel Gear blog and here I’ve reviewed a bunch of different packing cubes, some from Eagle Creek and some from Tom Bihn. Magellan’s also has their own brand of packing cubes and if that’s not enough to choose from you can also buy an eBags set…at Amazon.

So obviously these little rectangular pouches are pretty popular. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone (witness Twitter, reality TV shows, or the latest Michael Bay movie.)

I’ve used packing cubes on some trips and have left them behind on others, so I guess I’m on the fence overall. The people that love them really love them though, the same way people who love the book Getting Things Done see its teachings as something almost spiritual. Sometimes they’re the same people: those clean-desk types who love it when everything is in its place. The key thing is, with these packing aids you can group similar items together and keep the dirty clothes separated, making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

The anti-cube crowd has a point too though. If you are a one-bag carry-on packer who is trying to make the most of every inch of available space, packing cubes can be a hindrance rather than a help. It’s a lot easier to stuff rolled t-shirts, socks, and underwear in the remaining cracks after you’ve packed everything else than it is to confine them to a blocky cube, leaving wasted space on the sides. The exception is an integrated bag like the Tom Bihn Aeronaut one I reviewed earlier, where a packed long pouch fits perfectly into a paired side pocket—nothing wasted.

The way I see it, the cubes’ main benefits are in the unpacking rather than the packing. When you get to a hotel room, you pop the cubes out and you can unpack in a minute flat. If you are moving from hotel to hotel (or hostel to hostel) this can be a great time saver. You’re not as likely to lose a stray pair of undies or a single sock either, plus some cubes are designed with two sections, for dirty clothes and clean. Most have mesh on one side so nothing gets mildewed by being confined.

To decide whether packing cubes would be useful for you or not, see how many of the following questions you can answer with a “yes.”

1) Will you be moving around a lot on your trip?
2) Are you carrying a rectangular suitcase or bag?
3) Do you have room to spare in your bag?
4) Do you have trouble keeping track of your clothes while traveling?
5) Will you need to pack up quickly to catch a flight or train?
6) Do you have an inordinately large Tupperware collection at home and a credit account at The Container Store?

If you only answered yes to one or two, you’re probably better off jamming and rolling. If you scored three or above, however, go shopping for some packing cubes:

REI
Backcountry.com
eBags brand value cubes and others there
Tom Bihn cubes

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About Author

Tim Leffel is editor 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 Travel Writing 2.0. See more at www.TimLeffel.com.

15 Comments

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Mary Alice Coffman on

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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