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On trips of four days or less, I try to travel with a shoulder bag containing my laptop, electronics, etc. and a rolling, carry-on bag for everything else.

What is the best technique for packing as much clothing as reasonably possible into a standard-sized, rolling, carry-on bag? I don't want to overpack the bag doing something ridiculous or have any difficulty getting the bag in and out of an airline's standard overhead bin. Currently, I use a trick someone showed me where I stack several like items and then fold them together. It seems to pack them tighter and prevent creases from folding. Is there a better way?

I'm especially interested in tricks for packing shoes and jackets. I am a runner and my running shoes always seem to take up too much space. Jackets also never seem to be fold down efficiently.

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4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Funnily enough, there's scientifically exact solution to this - it's known as the Knapsack problem and is considered to be NP-complete - it is expected that no algorithm can be both correct and fast (polynomial-time) on ALL cases.

But naturally there are tips and suggestions to help guide you towards an optimal solution.

Running shoes, it's good to remember, have space inside them. Stuff socks, chargers and whatever else fits into them!

Oddly, I pack my jacket last. As you've pointed out it takes tons of space if put in first, no matter how you fold it. But I find I can stuff it in no matter what at the end, and it means it's easily accessible if the weather changes.

I also find that 'hard' solid items (netbooks) can make room for themselves after the fact. I'll just force-slide it down the back of my pack, and it never seems to not fit :)

Now, for the main set of clothes, assuming you have 'sets', the Bundle wrap method saves a lot of space and keeps stuff quite well folded and together. See instructions on how to achieve this.

Also see an exhaustive list of different forms of carry-on bags and how to pack for each one.

And I can't answer this without linking to One Bag - it's famous among minimalist travellers for giving you suggestions about what to keep/lose to lighten your load or fit more in.

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+1 at least for mentioning One Bag. –  mouviciel Nov 17 '11 at 8:21
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+1 for mentioning NP-completeness. –  jrdioko Dec 13 '11 at 17:38
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Roll, don't fold your clothes. It is much easier to make a tight roll than it is to make a tight fold.

This doesn't mean not to use the "bundle wrap" method mentioned in other answers, but after you've done that, roll your boxers, remaining shirts, etc, and stuff them in the corners and nooks and crannies that remain.

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After twenty years of world travel I only learned the rolling trick a year or two ago! Now I never fold. –  hippietrail Nov 17 '11 at 9:07
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Ooh yes, +1. I heard about it a couple of years ago, frankly didn't believe it, but tried it on my last big trip and it's brilliant! Half the creases too! –  Mark Mayo Nov 17 '11 at 10:33
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A good & space-saving method is to wrap larger clothing (shirts, pants) and your towel around your laptop, and than put this bundle into a tight plastic back so it stays together before you pack it into your backpack - this also makes a good buffer in case you drop your bag and it will stay dry in the rain thanks to the extra plastic bag.

Always put the large items in your backpack first, and fill the remaining gaps with all the smaller items - socks, underwear, laptop power supply, bits & pieces etc. The disadvantage here that you have to repack everything if you want to get your laptop out.

Travel light! shirt, pants, 5 pairs of socks&underwear plus what you wear on your body should get you through 1 week before you have to wash anything. (You may need some more for colder places...)

I also prefer to have a bottle of water strapped to the outside of my backpack, and the camera somewhere in one of the outer bags for easy access.

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Wrapping the laptop might be inconvenient for airline travel if you have to unwrap it to go through security and then re-wrap it. –  Jessica Brown Nov 21 '11 at 23:45
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Since the amount of how much you pack is limited by the available space you want to compress the clothes as much as possible. Rolling the clothes is a very good way to do this and i've used it on many travels already.

Then a friend told me about 'space bags'. Which basically enable you to vacuum pack your clothes in a plastic bag. So you put your clothes into the space bag and then compress it as much as possible. The air in the bag will be let out and no fresh air comes in. (similar to what iHaveacomputer wrote before me)

Perhaps that might be something you want to look into. Personally i haven't tried them, but i am curious if they actually work well. I could imagine that it would be great to compress a jacket and the main set of clothes, and using the rest of the clothes and the shoes to fill in the gaps.

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