I travel light; as light, that is, as a man can travel who will still carry his body around because of its sentimental value.

Christopher Fry

How To Pack It

Packing Clothes

Although perhaps somewhat more relevant to business than vacation travel, most of us do not want to spend our days looking like an untidy mess. Thus a natural concern is how to arrive at our destination(s) with our packed clothing in a fairly pristine state, with unwrinkled garments that have creases only where we want them.

Folds, Creases, & Wrinkles

Some of this will be determined by the clothing fabrics themselves: natural materials acquire and retain creases much more readily than synthetic ones. But the way in which clothing is packed also plays a considerable role in the outcome.

Creases result from applying pressure to folds. If you wrap a piece of paper around a cylinder, it will be easy to straighten again. If, instead, you make a fold in the paper, straightening it will be more difficult. If you apply pressure along the fold, the crease will be even more pronounced. Clothing is no different. And when clothes are packed in luggage, it's not practical to avoid applying pressure.

Wrinkles are essentially tiny folds that most often result from garments moving against each other and adjoining surfaces. And once again, pressure exacerbates the problem.

stack of folded shirtsThe common practice of individually folding items of clothing, then stacking them atop one another (as shown at right), is just about the worst thing you can do from a packing perspective, commonly resulting in both creases and wrinkles. And wasted space.

But What About … ?   (Packing Pipe Dreams)

Over the years, many (mostly ineffective) approaches have been promoted to reduce the problem of wrinkles and creases …

The oft-suggested trick of separating individual clothing items with the use of plastic dry-cleaning bags or tissue paper does help to reduce wrinkling (by reducing friction), but does nothing about the creases.

rolled clothingAnother popular suggestion, that of rolling clothing, can sometimes reduce — though certainly not eliminate — the number of folds (thus creases), but considerably increases wrinkling. Typically, sample photos of such usage show T-shirts and other wrinkle-resistant garments that are easily packed in any case, because trying this with a dress shirt or linen jacket makes clear the absurdity of the idea. (It is also commonly claimed that this method saves space, ignoring the reality that cylindrical objects occupy more space when packed than equivalent rectilinear ones, not less! But this is typical of such travel myths: proponents make impressive claims, but fail to explain how their techniques are supposed to work.)

packing folderAnd at least two companies sell "packing folder" systems, which include a folding board and some sort of wrapper/sleeve to envelop the pile of folded garments. Again, these companies carefully avoid explaining exactly how this is supposed to reduce creases or wrinkles, which is no surprise, as this approach is simply a more costly way to do folding and stacking, while simultaneously adding weight and taking up additional space!

Notice also that none of these fantasies takes into account real-life concerns like suit jackets and similar structured garments.

Fortunately, there is an alternative technique, one that is close to ideal …

Bundle Wrapping

… bundle method avoids the creases and wrinkles you get from folding or rolling your clothes.
Good-bye, hotel iron!

Wired Magazine

photo ©www.corbis.comThe best solution to the problem of wrinkles and unwanted creases — though it involves one very minor inconvenience — is the use of the bundle wrapping technique. As the name suggests, this approach involves the careful wrapping of clothes around a central core object, thus avoiding the folds that result in creases. Furthermore, the slight tension created in the fabric by the wrapping process, along with the anchoring of the resulting bundle, greatly reduces the chances of wrinkling. But for it to work, it must be done properly!

Be aware that there is an older, related method called "interfolding", which is less effective at avoiding creases and wrinkles, and adds no advantages of its own. Most of what you see online that claims to show bundle wrapping is actually interfolding.

So it's a skill to be learned, with an abundance of important subtleties, described in the paragraphs to follow. I've been teaching this method for more than twenty years, and can assure you that it's not difficult, but definitely demands careful attention to detail at the beginning (once you've mastered the technique, it will take but moments to wrap your bundle). If you find yourself having imperfect results, review each step carefully to see where you're going awry.


You will need a fixed-size object to form the core of the bundle: an organizer pouch is an ideal choice. The optimal dimensions will depend somewhat upon your girth, the configuration of your bag, and the amount of clothing to be packed, but something around 11 × 16" (30 × 40cm) generally works well. The pouch is well-filled with soft items — like socks, swimsuit, undergarments, sheet bag, etc. — to form a sort of small, quite-firm-but-not-hard "pillow" around which the clothing will be wrapped.

Using the right kind of core object is a key component of bundle-wrapping success!

Clothing is wrapped in a particular order, so that larger, more tailored, and more wrinkle-prone garments will end up on the outside of the bundle (where the wrapping has a larger radius of curvature), with less easily wrinkled pieces closer to the core. Here is a typical sequence (beginning, as you will begin your packing, with the outer bundle layer):

  1. jacket
  2. longer skirts, dresses
  3. long-sleeved shirts
  4. short-sleeved shirts
  5. trousers/slacks
  6. sweater, knits
  7. shorts

Button the fronts of shirts, and perhaps the jacket (unless it is particularly wide, in which case it is better to let the sides overlap more than is possible with the buttons done up). Do up zippers on pants, skirts, etc.

The easiest place to form the bundle is on a large flat surface, such as a bed. In more cluttered locations, you can open your bag flat — assuming that your bag features a zipper around three full sides, as recommended in my discussion of business bags — and wrap the bundle right in the bag. Mostly, though, you'll find bundle wrapping more easily accomplished on a larger flat surface. (Even in this case, a bag that opens flat is preferred, as the bundle, when completed, can be placed directly into it without being disturbed.)

Begin …

by taking the item highest on the above list, laying it out flat on your working surface. If it's a (tailored) jacket, lay it face down, orienting the sleeves so as to lie the most naturally. Such jackets are the exception to the rule: all other garments are placed face up. Smooth everything out carefully, eliminating any wrinkles.

At this point, consider the dimensions of your core object, which will eventually be placed atop the pile of clothing. One edge of each garment will align with (or extend slightly beyond) an edge of the core. As you add additional garments, their directions will alternate, and the shape of the core object will dictate their locations (this should be much more clear in the diagram referenced below). Don't obsess over this, however: you'll be able to adjust the growing bundle relative to the garments during the wrapping process, but it's easier if you get the clothing positions approximately correct to start with.

Continue …

with the remaining garments. Orient shirts — and shorter items in general — vertically, alternating in direction (to maintain a uniform bundle shape), aligning their collar edges with (or extending slightly beyond) the top and bottom edges of the soon-to-be-added core. Orient slacks and longer skirts — and longer items in general — horizontally, again alternating in direction, aligning their waist edges with (or extending slightly beyond) the left and right edges of the core. It can sometimes make sense to fold wider skirts lengthwise before wrapping. With all garments, strive for a smooth placement, avoiding wrinkles to the extent possible.

When all items are down, place the core on top, forming the centre of the bundle. It's now time to begin the wrapping portion of the process (so definitely think "wrapping", not "folding").

Work your way back down the clothing stack, wrapping each piece completely around the slowly growing bundle before moving on to the next item (don't interleave garments with one another). You can adjust the position of the existing bundle if necessary to correctly align it with the appropriate edge of the following garment. For long-sleeved items, wrap one side of the garment around the bundle as far as it will go (part of the sleeve — which is wrapped straight across — will typically end up going around and underneath the bundle); repeat with the other side. Then bring up the bottom of the garment, again wrapping it as far around the bundle as it will go.

Jackets remain the exception to the rule (because of the tailoring in the shoulders); their sleeves are wrapped somewhat diagonally (following the natural inclination of the fabric), forming an X-shape across the bundle.

Wrap each item firmly, ensuring that the fabric is sufficiently taut to discourage wrinkles from appearing, but not so taut that the cloth is stretched out of shape (in case you were wondering, this is why the core object should be fixed in size, so that it will not be deformed by the initial wraps).

Finish …

by placing the resulting bundle — either side up — into your bag (if it's not already there), and anchoring it securely — but not too tightly — with the bag's tie-down straps. If the bundle is allowed to shift around during travel, much of your work will have been in vain. Should your bag not have tie-down straps, consider adding them; it's an easy do-it-yourself project. Two straps should be sufficient, as the bundle naturally bulges a bit in the middle.

Click here for bundle wrapping diagram.Clicking on the image to the right will display a diagram of the basic bundle wrapping process (albeit with many important details omitted for clarity — you can't master the method from this diagram alone). Thanks to Devon Baker and the Red Oxx folks for sprucing up my original drawing!

When you arrive at your destination, open out the bundle to let the clothes "relax"; hang the items where possible (doing so in a bathroom with some steam generated by running a hot shower should get rid of any wrinkles that did manage to occur. If it doesn't, find garments of a more forgiving fabric).

And the bad news is … (?)

I occasionally read claims that this is the downside of bundle wrapping: the need (or at least, desire) to unwrap your bundle whenever arriving at a new location. I personally believe that unpacking/hanging one's clean clothes upon arrival is always a good idea, whatever the packing method. If you do find this a significant inconvenience, your problem is more likely to be with overpacking than bundle wrapping. Typically, the task takes but seconds, as few items are involved. Further, a little practice makes one quite proficient, and even the full (re)wrapping process should take less than a minute.

Naturally, it is inadvisable to pack anything in the core pouch that you may need during the day. For that matter, don't pack anything in there that might look suspicious on an X-ray machine, or the security folks might want you to unwrap the bundle (though I've yet to have this happen in many hundreds of airport passages).

Also in this regard, understand that you don't need to bundle wrap all of your clothing, just the items that you wish to keep crease- and wrinkle-free. This typically excludes socks and undergarments, for example (not that it will hurt to have them in the bundle, but it's hardly a necessity); pack some or all of such items elsewhere in your bag, should you prefer to keep them more accessible. As for myself, I normally pack my socks in the core pouch, and position my undershorts on top of the stack, prior to placing the core and wrapping the first item.

video?Bundle wrapping on video? I'm not generally a fan of teaching by video. It's not that I dislike the medium (I chair the Board of my local film society), but rather that its nature constrains video explanations to be curtailed renditions of good written ones (in much the same fashion that films made from books can rarely do them justice). There are certainly particular topics where the medium can be effective, but not — I think — bundle wrapping.

That said, Ben Popken has produced a pretty nice introductory video for NBC News. It's not perfect, and definitely not an example of packing lightly, but it's head and shoulders above anything else I've seen (realize that most of what's on the Internet claiming to be bundle wrapping is not actually bundle wrapping at all, or is bundle wrapping done very poorly). Don't ask me to point out Ben's (modest) errors/omissions, because I think you should be learning from the written description, but you'll almost certainly find it helpful to give you a quick overall perspective on the procedure. Just appreciate that you'll get much better results with the (firmer, somewhat wider, more dimensionally stable) type of core object that I suggest. And don't be frightened off by Ben's giant "bundle": the light packer won't have this problem!  smiley-face

Another advantage of this approach is that it reduces the overall volume of your packed clothing to a somewhat smaller size than simply by "folding and stacking", or resorting to the use of vacuum-bagging products (see below).

Should you feel the need to explore an alternative description of the bundle wrapping technique, with different illustrations, consult Judith Gilford's book, which also recommends this method (though she calls it "bundle folding", a label I find somewhat misleading, as the entire point of the technique is to eliminate folding). Her wrapping sequence differs very slightly from mine, placing slacks more to the outside (I've always found slacks less prone to wrinkling than shirts).

Vacuum-Packed Clothing?

As Seen On TVSeveral products on the market promise to reduce your packing problems by "vacuum-bagging" your clothes. The claim is that by placing your clothing in a heavy plastic bag, from which you then remove the air, you will reduce the occupied space, thus making more room in your bag (perhaps these marketers studied a different high school physics book than I). If you take a moment to consider it, you'll realize that these products actually increase your packing bulk, not diminish it, and add to the weight as well! Not to mention that they make it more difficult to avoid creases, and dramatically multiply wrinkles! At least one version even uses a vacuum cleaner to exhaust the bag, not an item you're likely to find in your hotel room.

Some people use these bags simply for storing dirty laundry, as they do an acceptable job of isolating soiled clothing. If this is of interest, I would recommend use of an aLOKSAK bag, which is considerably less expensive, comes in many more sizes, and — I would be willing to bet, given its NASDS certification — has a much better air seal!

I for one have never been troubled by too much air in my luggage. The promotional photo of the "regular" vs. "compressed" bulky sweater looks impressive, but I achieve the equivalent result simply by closing my bag.