Packing for a Big Trip

As National Geographic Traveler senior editor Norie Quintos readies for a family trip to Kenya (with a stopover in London), she shares her packing tips in this posting, the fourth in a series. Click to read posts one, two, and three.

iStock_000002891757Small.jpgI hate packing so much that I’m procrastinating by writing this post on packing. Putting the necessities of your trip in a suitcase is a tedious chore that at the same time requires Mensa-level mental discernment: Does the camera charger go into the carry-on or the checked bag? Do I pack a separate suitcase for London? Will I be hand-washing clothes during the trip? (which of course affects how much underwear I should bring). And, especially for women, what shoes do I bring? Tough, head-spinning stuff.

But good packing is vital to a good trip, allowing more time for exploration, engagement, discovery, and less time looking for a store that sells bathing suits, tracking down a pharmacy for allergy meds, calling home for a copy of your passport, or nursing blisters because you brought the wrong footwear.

Start early: I keep a cardboard box in my bedroom in which I put items I will need on my next trip as I think of it. This passive activity is easy and painless. When I received my travel insurance documents by mail, I immediately popped them into the box. And just-washed shirts I knew I wanted to take went straight from the laundry basket into the box.

Know the rules of the game: Airline baggage rules are constantly changing, so I always check the websites of all the airlines we will be using. Our transatlantic flight on Virgin, for instance, allows each of us to check in two bags with a maximum dimension each of 62 linear inches (that’s the combined measurements of height, width, and depth) and weight of 70 pounds. Very generous. But we will also be on small Kenyan air charters with a weight maximum of 33 pounds. That probably means the kids’ Dungeons and Dragons hardback manuals and my Kenya and London guidebooks won’t be making the trip.

The airlines’ carry-on rules force hard choices as well. My camera, laptop, phone, important documents, malaria meds, and other prescription drugs are no-brainers. Hopefully there’s enough room for a change of clothes; drugstore remedies for headache, upset stomach, and the like; electronic chargers and cables; and a book. Most airlines allow a “personal item” such as a purse or briefcase. I’ve chosen the biggest “purse” I can find in my closet.

Print out a packing list: There are many out there on the Web. Download one you like and customize it for your preferences. Save that file on your computer and use that as the template for future trips.

Keep your important documents together: Itinerary, tickets, passports, credit cards, debit card, driver’s license, insurance card, cash should all go in a document/passport case. Put a copy of your itinerary in each suitcase, and hide a copy of the first page of your passports in a side pocket of your checked luggage. I believe in giving older children responsibilities such as safekeeping their own pocket money and keeping track of their belongings, but vital documents such as passports and tickets are safest with me.

Group items: Looking for a pair of socks in a duffel bag can be like the proverbial needle in the haystack unless you find a way to contain similar items. I have folders, cubes, and sacks specially made for packing by Eagle Creek and the like. But you can also use plain old plastic bags–the larger-sized Ziploc bags work well. Each pair of shoes should also have its own bag. Some eco-minded outdoor clothing retailers such as Ex Officio sell shoes in reusable cloth-like packaging ideal for travel.

Choose travel-friendly clothing appropriate to your destination: You certainly don’t need to buy an entire new wardrobe, but a few well-chosen items can cut down on weight and volume. For an African safari, we needed clothes that protected from the sun, bugs, dust, and at the same time didn’t attract the attention of toothy mega-fauna (ergo, no bright colors). Outdoor retailers such as REI and Hudson Trail Outfitters and Patagonia will have everything you need. New-tech materials, while not absolutely necessary, can be useful. Insect Shield clothing is bonded with insect repellent that lasts through multiple washings. (Cheap alternative is to spray your clothes with the insecticide permethrin.) And while Stanley Livingston, Beryl Markham, Ernest Hemingway and other  explorers of yore wore cotton, there’s a crop of new synthetic and natural fabrics with quick-dry, odor-absorbing, wrinkle-resistant, moisture-wicking properties. Check out fabrics such as merino wool, activated carbon, chitosan, soy, and bamboo from brands such as Icebreaker, Ibex, GoLite, and Travelsmith.

Make the kids work: Customize a packing list for each child and have them fill the suitcase. Tell them it’s a game (though my teens are too old to fall for that trick).

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: That is, don’t put all your clothes in one bag. If you are traveling as a couple or family, consider dividing your clothing equally among all the bags. That way, the loss isn’t so great when a bag is delayed or misdirected. I always do this on big family trips requiring an airplane ride. It complicates packing, but reduces the anxiety of losing a bag. Once you reach the destination, re-organize clothing back to original bags. And there’s no need to repeat this tactic for the flight home, because a delayed or lost bag shouldn’t create as big of a problem.

Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear your favorite packing tips.



  1. Jake
    October 15, 2013, 9:43 am

    I never go on a trip without my survival knife. I have a big collection, most of them fixed blade knives from Bark River. I have a thing for this knife brand. This is the newest I could find with info & reviews about this type of knives that can also be used on trips.

  2. Sue
    Gainesville, FL
    October 12, 2013, 6:06 pm

    Packing for a big (long?) trip should be no different than packing for a short trip. This was my packing list for 6 weeks in Europe: 1 pair pants (zip offs), 1 shirt, 1 underwear, 1 socks, 1 pajamas, 1 thin plastic poncho, medicine, and toiletries. One jacket, either on or around waist, the shoes you have on. I prefer sport sandals. If cold, wear socks. Make sure your clothing is quick dry so it will dry overnight.

  3. Ray
    West Virginia
    September 22, 2013, 5:33 am

    I agree with the “start early” topic above. My wife and I go on a lot of ski trips and we use one of our spare bedrooms as a “staging area”. We’ll start months prior to the trip, and then put things in that room as we think of them. Once it is time for the trip, we usually have everything we need ready to go in one area.

  4. Joe
    United States
    September 22, 2013, 5:31 am

    I like to always carry my own pillow. Nemo makes a wonderful travel pillow! I own two!!

  5. Glenn@BestBowieKnife
    United States
    July 11, 2013, 5:07 pm

    I agree with Chris…don’t for get a reliable pocket knife.

  6. Chris
    June 21, 2013, 6:45 am

    Don’t forget to pack a reliable pocket knife. They have a million different practical uses.

  7. Anne
    February 21, 2013, 10:29 pm

    I always redistribute personal lotions etc into smaller bottles then as bottles are finished they are tossed; same with say toothpaste, take several travel size ones. As items are used baggage decreases in weight. Checked luggage is never full — this allows room for purchases. Finally roll all clothes and they remain wrinkle free and take up much less space.

  8. Susan
    December 1, 2012, 9:51 am

    If you can take clothes that are on their last legs or that have past your use-by-date (or clothes that the children have all but outgrown) and give them to charity as you go. This isn’t always approriate depending on your trip. But it means lightening the load as you go, and then there’s room for things you buy as you travel.

  9. Taylor Ruble
    Charlotte, NC
    April 5, 2012, 1:22 pm

    Regardless of what beautiful spot you decide on for your next big trip, great camping equipment is the key to having fun. Poorly maintained or outdoor gear that is cheap and made that way will not last and is bound to fail when you most need it not to. I have had success getting low-cost, quality camping equipment at

  10. susy
    April 1, 2012, 5:07 am

    I’m looking forward to my new Kindle and am happy to see I can download Lonely Planet, or other guidebooks. I used to buy a whole bunch of travel size shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes and came to realize that no matter where we backpack, even in more remote areas of Asia, you can always buys these necessities. I now just figure out when we will be in a city or village and restock there. Whenever we take a plane, we split clothes up between the four of us, and carry absolute necessities like medication and deodorant in our daypack. Shorts and skirts that go with everything is an absolute must. Flip flops that can also be used as shower shoes, definitely. Has anyone traveled the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian? Not sure how to handle the food thing without taking more than a backpack and daypack. Always have had access to food, and this is one where we won’t.

  11. richa
    March 13, 2012, 9:26 am

    For work trips. I do a check to ensure every top or bottom works with at least 3-4 others. And i list a set of matched outfit possibles on a phone memo so that mornings are a no-brainer, especially on a work trip. The first 3 days of outfits are zip locked and right on top. Statement scarves and jewellery dress up day clothes for the evening and a nice leather bag with ‘give’ can be packed flat. No bag or shoe that is stiff and boxy that takes space goes in. The relevant pages of guidebooks are photocopied. For reading i just download text onto my phone ahead of the trip to save on roaming charges and heavy books. If your phone doesn’t support kindle, Daily Lit sends emails of subscribed books that you can keep saved on your phone. And i always stash one of those duffel bags that fold into a palm sized bundle.

  12. Hilary
    March 10, 2011, 4:43 pm

    I’ve never thought to distribute everyone’s clothes. That is a wonderful idea. It’s always so nerve racking wondering if you’ll lose a suitcase. It’s always good to take all of your important things in your carry on. I always take my dakota 20 gps in my carry on. Thanks for all the packing tips! I’ll be sure to use them all for my next trip!

  13. Jun
    December 28, 2010, 6:34 pm

    These are all such excellent traveling tips! Thank you so much for sharing these. I’ve always wondered how certain families traveled with such ease despite having several kids and tons of things to worry about. My guess is that they must have been utilizing some of your suggestions.

  14. Johanna
    June 28, 2010, 12:20 pm

    I always make sure to only fill 75% of my backpack as ‘stuff’ will always be picked up along the way and the last thing you want is an extra bag in your hands as you move from place to place. You know it happens. I also pack all T-Shirts, all shorts, etc in there own plastic bag inside my pack, for ease of access and to keep them dry.
    Also some easy reading that you can dip into and out off at any time is always good. I recently purchased ‘IS’ simply because all the cash went to charity, but it turned out to a fantastic travel/sit on the toilet read.
    Oh… and flipflops. Always bring flipflops!

  15. Johanna
    June 28, 2010, 12:18 pm

    I always make sure to only fill 75% of my backpack as ‘stuff’ will always be picked up along the way and the last thing you want is an extra bag in your hands as you move from place to place. You know it happens. Also some easy reading that you can dip into and out off at any time is always good. I recently purchased ‘is’ simply because all the cash went to charity, but it was a fantastic travel/sit on the toilet read.
    Oh… and flipflops. Always bring flipflops!

  16. product photographer singapore
    August 17, 2009, 8:42 am

    packing is minimize all ur things..

  17. Sophie
    July 9, 2009, 7:59 pm

    The iGo power charger with changeable tips is on my travel wish list to lighten the charger load. I haven’t tried it yet but it looks like a really good idea.

  18. Samuel Peterson
    July 9, 2009, 4:14 pm

    When you talked about packing so it is very painful & stressing work to do before traveling any where, if you go to fun trip or else.

  19. suitescape
    July 7, 2009, 1:44 pm

    When I pack, I like to pack in outfits, as opposed to throwing individual pieces of clothing together! I try to select pieces of clothing that I can mix and match. That reduces the amounts of clothing to take.
    I also try to wrap anything that’s liquid in plastic bags, so as to avoid spills.