How to pack light for a road trip even when it seems impossible, according to experts
As someone who’s packed for several long road trips — and in a MINI Cooper, no less — I’ve learned the hard way that the more items you take along, the harder the journey will be. Sure, when you have extra space in the car, it’s easy to just add things in without giving it too much thought. But, once you head out and realize you can’t see out the windows because of all the bags stacked in the backseat or quickly grow tired of lugging heavy items into each new Airbnb, you’ll wish you had figured out how to pack light for the road trip. Trust me.
And not just because of the physical annoyances. “Taking care to pack light for a road trip can be beneficial in many ways — it can save you stress and make the journey more comfortable and enjoyable,” explains Julie Hall, a AAA spokesperson. “Also, a lighter vehicle will get better fuel efficiency, helping to save money on gas.”
With summer around the corner, you might be thinking that a road trip sounds like a great plan, and you wouldn't be the only one; over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, nearly 43 million Americans will embark on a holiday getaway via car, train, or plane, according to AAA. That's a lot of people, but it doesn't have to be a lot of luggage, too. Learn to master the art of packing light through the below tips from Hall and other travel experts.
1. Roll, don't fold, your clothes
If you’re used to folding your clothes to pack them, think twice. It's actually way more efficient to roll them up instead. “To optimize suitcase space and avoid wrinkles, many people swear by rolling their clothes instead of folding them,” says Hall.
As for how to properly roll clothes, Travel+Leisure suggests going by the Ranger Rolling technique: you first lay the item flat, then fold the bottom two inches of it inside-out. Next, roll up the other end of the item up to the pocket you've made, while folding one of its other ends to hold the roll in place. Finally, fold one side of the pocket over the roll and voilà: you've got an instant space-saver.
2. Create a checklist
Personal experience has taught me that making a packing checklist before embarking on a road trip is a great way to ensure I'm not filling my car with anything inessential. The list holds me accountable, and if I'm tempted to toss something into the car that's not on it, I'll have physical proof that the item is not a priority.
Hall, too, says that creating a checklist will absolutely help you pack less. “Writing down everything you want to bring before you start to pack can help you see what you might be able to cross out, especially if you’re trying to pack light for a road trip,” she explains.
3. Pack twice — then remove half of your items
If you're an overpacker — guilty! — packing everything once, then repacking with fewer items, can help whittle down your list to just the most necessary things. “My number-one rule is: Lay out all the things you plan to bring onto the bed and then: remove 50 percent,” Anna Paniagua, founder of LaTravelista.com, tells Mic. “No kidding, by committing to remove half of your ‘planned items,’ you’ll travel much lighter (and still in style).”
Most likely, packing twice will cause you to realize you don't actually need all that extra clothing and equipment and will be totally fine with, say, just a few tee-shirts and one pair of jeans.
4. Bring mostly neutral- or dark-colored clothes
Another trick of the packing-light trade is to pack clothing in solid colors, which will allow you to use your items more often, as they're easier to match with and also won't get stained as easily. And let's be real: if you're going on a road trip, you probably don't need your best white cocktail dress or bright blue blazer.
“Plan on wearing darker colors or neutrals so you can mix and match, minimizing the number of clothing items you need to pack,” advises Hall.
5. Create a modular organization system
If you've ever emptied the contents of a bag in frantic search of your ChapStick or credit card, packing cubes will be your new best friend. Modular organization systems like these are great ways to stay organized and not lose time while road-tripping, as they separate items so they're easier to find in a hurry.
"When packing your vehicle, storing the items that you use most in the easiest-to-access spots can make a huge difference in your stuff staying organized and not cluttered in the long haul," says Ty Newcomb, a photographer who often road trips.
He adds that these kinds of systems can be used for all your gear and equipment, not just clothes and toiletries, and are also key in helping you bring less on a trip since you have to put thought into each item you choose to include.
6. Pack in layers
If your road trip has you passing through areas with very different climates, it might be hard to know what to pack, but that's where layers come in. “I usually only bring one waterproof outer layer and rely on multiple layers under that if needed," says Newcomb.
She adds that the biggest mistake people make when packing is bringing items they will likely never use but feel worried about leaving behind — particularly heavy jackets, which take up tons of room in your luggage but are rarely actually needed. Glenn Murray-Prior, founder of adventure travel agency ACTION CULTURE, echoes this belief, telling Mic that his best advice for multi-weather road trips is to “Go for lightweight layers — long thermal underwear, a fleece or down jacket, and then a waterproof shell jacket. Down jackets pack away really tight and are extremely light, but give great warmth; the shell jacket should not be insulated, so that you can use it in warm climates as rain wear.”
7. Go light on shoes
It may be temping to throw several pairs of shoes into your car's trunk because of how little room they take up, but you'll likely only actually need one or two pairs on the trip. When deciding how many to bring, think about your road trip goals — will you mostly be hiking? Are you stopping at any nice events? — and go from there. Most likely, the shoes you truly need will be multi-purpose ones, like "hiking boots and a pair of quick-drying lightweight trainers,” says Murray-Prior.
On that note...
8. Load up on multi-functional items
To save even more car space, bring items that can be used in more than one way. For instance, instead of lugging along a container of forks and knives, you can just bring a couple all-in-one combo utensils.
That goes for clothing and other bigger items, too. Candy Pilar Godoy, founder of the pet travel blog BoogieThePug.com, notes that leggings can work as pajamas, day wear, or exercise attire; a blanket can be used to cover car seats, as a dog bed, or to keep you warm at night; and plastic bags can be recycled to be used "as laundry bags for yourself and/or your dog (or as extra poop bags),” says Pilar Godoy.
9. Use a sarong, not a towel
Although you probably have a favorite, super soft towel at home, most towels take up a lot of space, which makes them unideal road trip companions. Sarongs, however, are way more practical. Unlike towels, “sarongs are lightweight, dry fast, and have an endless number of uses,” says Murray-Prior.
It might seem odd at first to leave your towel behind, but you won't regret it once you realize how much use you're getting out of your sarong.
10. Get travel-sized toiletries
“Since you’re not flying and subject to TSA guidelines, you might be tempted to bring full-sized toiletries, but pack travel sizes — even on a road trip — to save space,” says Hall.
Yes, we all have our preferred soaps and shampoos, but bringing multiple full-sized bottles on a road trip isn't necessary. Either buy tiny versions of your most essential toiletries at a convenience store like Hall advises, or transfer the liquid from the bigger bottles you already own into smaller containers.
Even if it feels daunting, packing light is possible, and absolutely worthwhile. By following these tips, you'll cut down on stress and actually get to enjoy your road trip, not regret it.