Expert Packing Tips: How I Stay Organized on the Road

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My backpack is a disaster!!!

I’m sure many of you have felt this way. If you don’t travel full-time, it can be difficult to justify spending money on any sort of specialized packing gear. You may start out with everything fully organized, but things shift around and before you know it you have a mountain of clean and dirty clothes mixed up together in a pile, and wet ziplock bags with smelly toiletries spilling out of them.

How could something so organized become a complete mess so fast?

If you have a backpack, things can go downhill in a matter of days. I travel with a backpack that zips up like a suitcase, but most people tend to opt for top loaders. This means that to get to your clothes you have to take everything out. What a mess.

Moving to China

All ready for China!

I used to be the worst packer

Four years ago I took my horrible Rick Steves travel backpack with zero shape and support on a two-week adventure through Sichuan and week-long trips to Yunnan and Xinjiang. I took it to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan… and trust me, my shoulders were about ready to kill me.

I never used packing cubes to organize my clothes. I used a plastic bag to keep my dirty clothes separate, and I put my toiletries in ziplock bags. In addition to my heavy MacBook Pro and Nikon D3100, I also used to travel with a Lonely Planet China book that is about the size of your average Websters Dictionary.

Obviously, this was not sustainable. It made for a miserable time moving from one destination to another and a headache every time I tried to find anything.

hostel backpacker

the hostel: quintessential backpacker accommodation

Fixing My Packing Strategy

Slowly but surely I made changes to my packing routine. At first, it was hard to invest in so-called “travel gear” because I didn’t feel like I was traveling enough to justify spending money. If you’re leaving for a 6-month round the world trip it’s easy to create a budget for real gear. But when you live abroad and only travel for a few weeks every few months, you don’t think about how horrible your packing methods are until you’re already on the road.

Over time I started making small investments that really paid off. I even realized that most essential travel items as expensive as you might think!

If you’re planning a trip or thinking about moving abroad, here are the three biggest things you should invest in before you hit the road. 

choosing a backpack

The day I bought my pack at REI!

Choosing the Right Backpack

The first and most important thing you’ll need to do is find the right bag. Some people prefer suitcases, while others love their backpacks. If I’m only going somewhere for a few days, I might actually prefer a suitcase, but for the most part, I’m extremely happy with my backpack and haven’t found the need to purchase a small suitcase.

Trust me, if you’re heading to Southeast Asia, you’re going to want the best carry on backpack. There have been times I’ve had to jump off the side of a boat into the water to get to small islands in the Philippines. Hiking up flights of stairs, walking along sandy paths, navigating crowded subways… my backpack is my best friend.

You’ll also want to make sure your pack fits the carry on size requirements. Paying for baggage fees on every single flight will definitely add up. While you might want to check your bag every once and a while, you’ll definitely want the option to carry it on too.


Koh Rong is not a good place for a suitcase

Top Loaders vs. Front Zip

There are two main types of travel backpacks: top loaders and front zip packs. Top loaders open from the top with a drawstring and a cover that clips over the top. Most travel backpacks and all hiking packs will use this method. Some of these packs may have small side and bottom zippers to help you get things out, but for the most part, you’ll have to unload everything to get to the bottom.

Front zip packs open like a normal backpack or suitcase. This makes it much more convenient to get your things out of the pack, but also provides less structure. This system pretty much exists only for travel backpacks.

After much deliberation and research, I decided to go with a front zip pack. The lovely people at REI confirmed my assumption that front zip travel backpacks are best for travelers unless you know you’ll be doing a lot of hiking or trekking with your pack. If you plan on hiking the Camino or going multi-day trekking in Nepal, definitely choose one of the best backpacks for hiking, but otherwise, a travel backpack is more than enough.

Osprey Farpoint

Osprey Farpoint Bag and Day Pack

The Osprey Farpoint

After a few solid months of searching, I finally decided on the Osprey Farpoint. It’s a front zip travel backpack with a detachable daypack. The hip belt is much smaller than your average hiking backpack but still provides great support if you’re not wearing it for hours on end.

The straps can even be zipped into the back of your pack if you’re checking your bag on the plane. This ensures your straps won’t get caught and your bag won’t be ruined.

I tend to check my pack when I’m flying in China because Chinese airlines always offer a free checked back and speedy baggage service. I also always get a free checked bag when I fly to another country from mainland China. The zip up straps, front zipper, and free daypack were definitely the three biggest reasons behind my decision.

Find it on Amazon!

backpacking pack

Most backpackers have top loaders

Can’t Decide Between a Backpack and Suitcase?

For those of you that can’t decide, Osprey also offers backpacks with wheels. I almost bought the Soujurn Convertible which is a favorite among many other travel bloggers. Basically, if the Farpoint and a suitcase had a baby, it would be this bag.

The Soujurn is great for people who think they may only need to carry their bag every once and a while. If you’re planning a trip to Europe or around North America, this might be a good pack for you. You can wheel it the majority of the time, and sling it over your back when you hit those cobblestone streets or a flight of stairs.

Eagle Creek packing cubes

My packing cubes!

Packing Cubes

Embarrassingly enough, I never had a pair of packing cubes until I got them for Christmas this winter. Seriously, I’m the worst travel blogger ever.

I was actually surprised by how many affordable packing cubes there are. I guess I just had myself convinced that all travel gear was a major investment.

Honestly, packing cubes have saved my life. I have a set of three different sizes from Eagle Creek, which is the go-to brand for most travelers. I put my bottoms and dresses in the large cube, shirts, and tanks in the medium cube and underwear in the small cube. My Farpoint has small mesh pouches where I keep my bras and swimsuits.

Packing cubes are my go-to suggestion for keeping yourself organized. It makes packing a breeze and finding outfits even easier. I roll my clothes and shove them in the right cube, and I’m done!

Packing cubes are perfect for people with top loader bags. Seriously, can you imagine pulling out a mountain of clothes and toiletries just to find one shirt at the bottom? Instead, you can pull out your three cubes, open up the one you want, and throw the rest back into the bag.

Find them on Amazon!

packing tips

If only my life was this organized.

Travel Organizer

I have to admit, I held out the longest on this one. I am 100% guilty of using large ziplock bags for all of my organizational needs. This is fine in a pinch, but if you travel for more than just a week or two it becomes really annoying. The bag starts to get rips, or the seal will break, and your toiletries fall out into your bag.

My makeup bag was also overloaded, with moisturizer, deodorant, face wipes and jewelry stuffed inside. My jewelry would become a tangled mess, or get dirty from the powder residue in my makeup bag.

This last October I shared a dorm room with a bunch of other travel bloggers at TBEX, and virtually all of them had toiletry organizers. They put their make up in one pouch, shower stuff in another, and everyday toiletries in the third pouch. Then they’d hang it up next to their bed. Genius!

Origami Unicorn

My new travel toiletry organizer

My Origami Unicorn Travel Organizer

I recently got an Origami Unicorn travel organizer for my trip to Seoul last week! While it’s technically an underwear organizer, I use it for my toiletries instead. I picked the beautiful Blue Leaf special edition organizer, but they have basic solid colors in black and white for the guys as well.

I really love how the Origami Unicorn can double as an underwear and toiletry organizer because I can always use it for my bras too, especially because they don’t fit well in the small Farpoint mesh compartments. The organizer has mesh compartments, which means I can use it for my shower toiletries without worrying about getting it a little wet because the mesh will ensure that everything has a chance to dry out.

If you have a top loading bag without small compartments, you’ll definitely want a travel organizer to keep your toiletries or underwear and bras secure. If you travel with a suitcase, you can always skip the packing cubes and just go for the organizer instead.

Origami Unicorn

Everything organized!

My favorite feature is the detachable handle that allows me to hang my bag anywhere (usually on the side of my hostel bunk bed). When I need to take a shower and get ready, I just grab the whole thing and take it with me to the bathroom.

As you can see, I took some full-size toiletries with me on this trip because I was too lazy to buy travel-size products. If I did have small-size toiletries, I might throw my bikinis in the bottom, or leave the compartments slightly empty so that it folds up flatter.

This travel organizer is perfect for people with a medium amount of toiletries, or a lot of socks, underwear and bikinis/bras that need organizing. If you only have a few toiletries, you can always use the top compartment for your shower stuff. and the bottom two for your underwear, socks, and swimsuits. I actually suggest you don’t fill up your travel organizers all the way so that they’re less bulky.

Packing Tips for the Road

Pin Me!

Honestly, I’m so happy to finally be organized like a real-life travel blogger. Now all I need is a lighter computer and a real camera bag…

Thanks so much to Origami Unicorn for providing me with a travel organizer in exchange for an honest review. Also, there are a few affiliate links in this post, so if you make a purchase using my link, I make a small commission at no cost to you. 



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

3 comments on “Expert Packing Tips: How I Stay Organized on the Road

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