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How to Pack a Suitcase for a Road Trip

Updated May 21, 2018

Packing a suitcase for an adventurous road trip vacation isn't rocket science.  Making efficient use of limited luggage space goes a long way to keeping clothes wrinkle free.

Consider the Destination, Weather, Terrain and Activities

For this vacation, imagine the American West’s larger-than-life wilderness; the magnificent Rocky Mountains of Montana, the rugged landscape of Snake River country in Idaho or the desolate high desert of eastern Oregon.

The volcanic terrain of western mountains and desert shreds footwear, and scorpions and rattle snakes lurk in unexpected places; pack tough, hard-wearing shoes or boots, and sturdy socks.  

Wear Heavier Items En Route

I wear heavier items while en route, my walking/hiking shoes, and pack a pair of flip flops wrapped in a plastic bag at the bottom of my suitcase.

The flip flops serve as sandals, slippers and can be used in public showers to protect my feet from foot fungus.  

Packing Tip

Use space wisely by packing socks inside of shoes.

I also pack a pair of lightweight ballet flats to wear with a travel skirt.  

Make Items do Double Duty

Nights often turn cold at mountainous elevations, so packing layers is important.  Again these items should do double duty.  

I pack silk long underwear that double as pajamas, rolling them along with my lingerie and leftover socks, and put them in a packing cube placed at the bottom of my suitcase.

Packing Tip

Tuck belts and straps in around the edges, lining the sides and back of the suitcase before adding clothes.

Next, travel guides, extra books, travel alarm clock, toiletry kit and cosmetic bag go into the bottom of my suitcase.

Experience is a Great Teacher

There’s nothing worse than being thousands of miles from home only to discover you've packed only one pair of . . .

. . . the pair you’re wearing!  

Packing Tip

Travel-size everything!  The items available are as creative and clever, as they are numerous.  

I never leave home without my home-made laundry kit stored in a quart-sized freezer zip bag, consisting of clothesline twine, a handful of clothes pins and travel size laundry detergent.  My laundry kit packs as a heavy item in the bottom of my suitcase.

This Really Happened to Me!

Every motel/hotel in town is packed due to multiple events on a holiday weekend, and it’s late on a Friday night.  After battling a long line to the reception desk and rescuing our reservation from drop-ins, we collapse in our room, only to find only two sets of towels in a four person room.

For the first time, a routine call to the front desk to request additional towels turns into a bad dream.  Two hours later, and nearing mid-night, multiple phone requests and a trip to the front desk . . . still no towels.

Our morning requests resulted in more false promises.   

Travel Tip

Never travel without a microfiber travel towel.  Roll the towel and pack in with your shirts.

However, I did overhear one over-worked staff member say to another over-worked staff member, the hotel manager was on vacation and had ordered a skeleton crew to cover the weekend.

Still no towels. . . We made do with what we had.  

To say it’s a challenge to dry off with a small, thin hand towel following a shower is an understatement.

Now, I always pack a microfiber travel towel.

Worse Still. . . 

. . . same hotel, a broken hotel hair-dryer added salt to the wound.  

I found a tough travel hair dryer, which has traveled thousands of miles with me.

This is my hair dryer of choice for home use as well.

I pack this little workhorse at the bottom of my suitcase.

Out West, Jeans Rule!

Yup, cowboy getup, tried and true throughout history is the uniform of choice for the locals.  They know what they’re doing!  

Blue jeans are considered a basic neutral color in a classic style, a perfect pallet for planning a travel wardrobe.  Jeans’ dark colors hide dirt and wrinkles.  

Hang them up to air out overnight and they’re ready for another day on the road.  Cinch them up with a money belt to add a layer of security.

Packing Tip

Blue jeans tend to blend in with the crowd and don’t shout “tourist”.

Wearing military colors, such as khaki and camouflage, is unacceptable in many foreign countries.

Dressed up or dressed down, blue jeans are comfortable, and can take anything you throw at them and still look great.

Though blue jeans are not “light” on the list of packable clothing, they tend to go further between launderings, so fewer pairs can be packed in the suitcase. 

So, I pack one pair for every three days of travel. 

Be Frugal and Pack Light

In keeping with the frugal phrase, I save all my worn out, frayed and holey clothes, the ones that have one or two wearing’s left in them, including socks and underwear.  

My way of packing “light” for casual road trips, is to wear these clothes until they need laundering, and then dispose of them instead of hauling around a large bag of dirty laundry.  

My luggage starts out heavy and comes home light.  Best of all, I have room for souvenirs, less to unpack when I get home, and very little to launder.

The Pant Layer Begins the Bundle

Blue jeans, slacks and pants are zipped up, buttoned and folded lengthwise to protect front and back creases.  

Lay the first pant with the waist against one side of the suitcase and the legs draping over the top of the other edge.

Continue layering pants, waists opposite each other across the sides of the suitcase, smoothing wrinkles as you go. 

Flying Tip

You can have your jeans, and your carry-on, too!  Roll clothes into a compression bag to shrink the volume.

I use a combination of bundling and rolling similar to the method recommended by to make efficient use of limited luggage space and to prevent wrinkles when packing my clothes.  

For ladies, layer skirts on top of pants with waist bands against the back of the suit case and the hem draping over the front edge.

A blazer or tweed jacket dresses up jeans or skirts for evenings on the town and doubles as a light layer of warmth.  

Over the top of the pants, lay the buttoned up blazer or tweed jacket face down with the collar against the front edge of the suitcase and the tail draping over the back edge.  

Sleeves will naturally drape over the sides on top of pant legs.  

Smooth wrinkles.

Your First Defense Against the Elements

Durable clothes are the first defense to ward off flesh biting horse flies, blood sucking mosquitoes and sunburn in the wilderness; pack plenty of long-sleeved button shirts with collars that can be turned up.

To make up for the bulk of blue jeans, I pack shirts made of fast drying, high performance fabrics.  

My favorite fabrics are rip-stop polyester, Supplex™ nylon and a knit blend of nylon and spandex. These shirts are feather light, comfortable, wear like iron and take up virtually no room in the suitcase.

I take two T-shirts and two long-sleeved button-up shirts; this way I have, one to wear, and one to wash.  They drip dry overnight and are wrinkle free.  

Make button-up shirts multiple duty; use as shirt-jacks and sun shirts over T-shirts, then wear as a stand-alone shirt.  Add a tie or a pretty scarf to dress them up.  

Collared shirts are buttoned up and layered face down, same as blazers.  

Layer the first shirt with the collar to the back of the suitcase and the tail draping over the front edge. Again, sleeves will drape over the sides.  

Continue layering collared shirts opposite each other and smoothing wrinkles as you go.

Nestle close together tightly rolled T-shirts, knit tops and microfiber towel across the middle of the bundle.  

This becomes the core around which the bundle is wrapped preventing crease lines and wrinkles in clothes. 

Wrap sleeves and shirt tails as a unit or one-by-one snugly over the core; tuck in edges around the core carefully smoothing out wrinkles. 

Finish the bundle by wrapping pant legs over the top of the bundle in the same fashion as the shirt and blazer sleeves.

Stabilize the bundle with nylon or elastic straps and close the suitcase.  


Security is as important on the road as in the sky.  I always place an index card with my contact information and shipping address inside in the event my luggage tag is separated from my suitcase.

I also attach a lock to prevent theft when my luggage is left unattended in the car or at my lodging.

Packing Tip

For clothing without security features built in, I purchased a low profile RFID blocking security pocket and pin it inside my coat, jacket, shirt, pants or skirt. 

With a little planning, packing right makes for carefree travel and an enjoyable road trip.

More Packing Tips You Might Enjoy

10 Reasons Why You Should Always Travel with a Packable Bag

Avoid Baggage Fees When You Travel; Use a Digital Luggage Scale

Clean Travel Laundry in Minutes to Keep Clothes Clean & Fresh Smelling

Common Cold Treatment Tips for Travelers

How to Pack a Tote for a Road Trip

How to Use a Travel Clothesline to Dry Clothes in Record Time, Wrinkle-free

Packing for a Road Trip--What you need to Go!

The Ultimate Road Trip Packing List & Tips

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