Secrets of a suitcase-packing ninja

Heather Poole, an LA-based flight attendant, is also a total ninja when it comes to packing suitcases. This 12-step NYT slideshow illustrating her advanced packing techniques for getting 10 days' clothes into a carry-on just changed my life (top tip: roll, don't fold: take up less space, wrinkles less).

10 Days in a Carry-On

(Image: David Ahntholz for The New York Times)


  1. good luck trying that in the UK – they’ll confiscate your liquid toiletries and spend 15 minutes berating/questioning you.

  2. Yep, I’ve been doing the “roll” technique for years. Mom taught me that one ;) I even roll for packing up seasonal clothes.

  3. Not impressive. I can get about 25kgs of clothing/equipment into a 80l backpack. No one can believe me when I spread out my stuff and tell them I’m going to fit all of it in.

    Rolling helps, but mainly I build up a core from stacks of towels/pants/shirts/jumpers and forcefully shove bits that don’t mind wrinkling down the sides.

    1. Commando?

      I think the roll-up concept would work, but I think this end result – as depicted in the final photo – would elicit barks about not fitting under the seat or up above etc.

  4. She also occasionally guests on a podcast called “The Crew Lounge”, which is well worth a listen.

  5. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s going to no longer work soon.

    The reason? More and more airlines are limiting the WEIGHT of carryons. I flew to Thailand via british air a year ago and they announced a 10 kilo (I think) weight limit. My uber-carryon, packed with two weeks of clothes and belongings,weighed a few kilos more. They made me check it. And then (of course) lost it.

    I check with the airlines before I fly and make sure of carry on weight requirements now, and they are getting lighter and lighter. They really don’t want you bringing anything into the cabin. And let’s not even bring up the corrupt TSA!

  6. There’s no question: overpacking tops the list of biggest travel mistakes.

    Thus this Web site, which offers exhaustive — some might say exhausting! — detail on the art and science of travelling light, going pretty much anywhere, for an indefinite length of time, with no more than a single carry-on-sized bag.

  7. This is truly a wonderful thing.
    Now that I have a small son, I’ve found that the amount of luggage the family has to take on a trip has tripled. Do while packing ten days in a carryon isn’t an option, this really helps with packing checked luggage as well.

  8. I appreciate the idea that rolling might cause fewer wrinkles, but how does it make the actual volume of the clothes smaller? (The Times article says “Folded clothing takes up too much space.”)

    When I fold my clothes, I don’t see a lot of inefficiencies in terms of air between the layers or what-not.

  9. Well, first of all, there’s pretty much only one secret: roll your clothes.

    Second, any backpacker knows that one.

    So this leaves me a bit underwhelmed.

  10. This is all well-and-good until the TSA performs a random search of your bag and can’t get everything back in.

  11. I agree that rolling does take up less space and is a technique I’ve used for many items, but it doesn’t necessarily reduce wrinkles. You have to roll VERY carefully for that….but my beef with this demo is that she only has two other pairs of shoes for a ten day trip, no hair dryer, and her bathroom bag is hard to believe – it would never hold my contacts supplies, glasses, and other sundries/soaps. I think you CAN pack 3-4 days into a carry on if you really try, but ten days is not going to work for most people. And if she is going through security in the US (maybe they don’t have the same rules if you are a flight attendant??), then you are limited in the amount of carry on liquids and cannot pack them in your bag. I also think that the shift to people trying to ONLY bring a carry on has other, less desirable, side effects; as people pack the overheads with ridiculous bags and then all of the carry on luggage won’t fit – causing some people’s items to be checked anyway (and more likely lost). The greedy airlines (Note: not true for all airlines, i.e. SW) need to just charge a bit more for tickets (or cut costs elsewhere) and go back to allowing at least one free checked bag.

    Ensign Smith – LOL!! I noticed she was apparently going commando too AND not packing at least one other bra – for ten days? Kinda gross…..

  12. Naah the one thing you can do without when packing light is underwear, buy more and cheap when you arrive and discard after use. Environmentally unsound but keeps the volume down and the scent of the bag on it’s return trip more pleasant.

  13. RE: Underwear

    Stuff it in shoes, in whatever spaces might be in the bag, outside pockets of the bag, etc.

    One set to wear, one to wash, one to dry. As a flight attendant, she’s in a hotel every night when working, the bathroom sink is right there and just the thing for washing out undies and hose. Let dry overnight. Use the hair dryer in the bathroom on any damp spots the next morning. (said dryer also negates the need to pack one.) The hotel also provides soaps, shampoos, etc. No need to pack them, either.

    So, her personal toiletry kit might include a small bar of soap (Ivory works as both soap and shampoo in a pinch) and a small roll-on anti-persperant/deodorant. Along with toothpaste/brush. Takes up less volume than a 200 page paperback book.

    Smartphone/mp3 player recharger & cable in handbag or carryon. (Have you see the recharger for an iPhone? It’s TINY!)

    So, yes, everything she needs and then some can indeed be packed in a carryon bag.

    As always, Your Mileage May Vary.

  14. I first heard of the rolling clothes for packing from watching the first season of Amazing Race. That was also the last season I ever watched it. Team Guido, a couple of gay guys in the race, made a point of their luggage packing skills. Good idea I thought. I’ve been doing it ever since.

  15. An impressive demo with some great ideas.

    But what does she do when the TSA dumps her bag out onto a table and then snarls at her for taking too long to repack it?


  16. Last time I flew (Tenerife) there was a 10kg maximum. My clothes for 5 night went easily into the carry-on bag, but were exactly on the weight limit.

    i.e. your enemy is weight, not size. That much stuff is going to weigh 15 – 20kg, so you’re not allowed to have it as carry-on, and some airlines will fine you for unbooked checked luggage


    The second technique they showed was a variation of the one bag technique. I like the rolling technique better though, since doing the one bag is a pain when you have to get a specific item that’s buried in the middle of the pack.

    That site has lots of other great tips though.

  18. Learned the rolling technique back in Girl Guides. Always amazed at how well it works!

    I fly Porter all the time, and they have an amazing “gate porter” service. It’s like checking your carry-on right as you board the airplane. Then it’s there waiting for you the second you get off the plane, but you don’t have to lug it inside the plane and haul it over someone’s head.

    I’ve never had security open my suitcase and fish through it yet, but I know that if/when they do, it will be hell fitting it all back in again! The trick is not to pack anything other than clothes and basic toiletries in there. If they see a ton of wires (like if you bring multiple chargers) then they’ll want to open your luggage and have a closer look.

  19. I travel transatlantic about once every two months and domestically about once every 6 months. Here is my problem with the move to more and more carry ons:

    I pay the fee to check my bags because I can’t get all the things I need for a trip in a carry on. When I walk on with my laptop case they insist I put it under the seat in front of me because the overheads need to be used for the roll-on bags, which sucks donkey balls for a 10 hour flight. I was almost been kicked off a flight because I quietly explained that I paid to check my bags instead of trying to carry everything or even 1 bags worth on and that now I am penalized (loss of leg room) because I only have a small briefcase type bag and I wasn’t going to put it under the seat in front of me.

    My solution now is to put my briefcase laptop bag in a roll-on carry on bag. That way they can’t force me to lose my leg room because the bag won’t fit under the seat in front of me.

    So instead of one slim laptop bag taking up some space in their overhead compartments, they get a full size (and I mean full size, right up to the limits) roll on bag up there with 50% air in it.

  20. I like packing in a garmet bag – no wrinkles, and there is plenty of space to pile stuff in the bottom. You don’t have to worry about overhead space, since unless you’re on a CRJ or some other small plane, you can use the closet up front which I’ve never seen fill up. Of course, I’ve never tried packing for 10 days in one of those…

  21. Heather’s cool (fun twitter feed) but her packing method doesn’t address the shoe needs. I wear a pair for traveling/casual and pack dress pair for meetings & of course my running shoes (don’t even think about using them for casual). 2 pairs of “real” shoes takes about 50% of the available space.

    Maybe I should switch to barefoot running?

  22. I’ve gone on several month-long trips with a small day pack. I carefully fold each wrinkleable item and seal it in its own zip-lock bag. Everything always looks neat when it comes out of the bag. Linen, which I usually think of as the fussiest fabric, responds really well to this treatment. And I never take more than two tops and two bottoms. I’d much rather have ten pairs of clean socks, which take longer to wash and dry, than an extra shirt, which I’ll never end up wearing.

  23. just WEAR 10 layers of clothes and a weeks worth of deodorant… and remember to drink lots of water!!!

  24. I have questions as to whether this is actually “carry-on” size. In the last slide, she’s sitting on it, and it really appears too thick to pass muster. It could just be the perspective.

    Also, I can’t for the life of me understand the love affair flight crews have with Travelpro luggage. Sure, they created the upright carry-on with wheels, but others have done SO much better with the design. My favorite is Briggs and Riley.

  25. A pair of jeans and 3 teeshirt.. whats so hard is that? Ok,Ok a few pairs of underware.

  26. Don’t forget that you can use these kinds of methods in your checked bags too, for trips when you need/want checked bags or if you just don’t want to bother carting a large carry-on around. I use a bag that’s technically carry-on size, but I usually check it. Much easier getting it to and from the airport, rather than dragging around some huge suitcase. Weight is not an issue because it’s smaller – packed normally (just folding) to the limit gives you maybe 20, 25 lb, and the limit is normally 40-50. Therefore, there’s a lot of room for increased density of clothing.

    I fly fairly frequently and lately I’ve decided to just pay the checked bag fee (assuming it’s an airline with a reasonable fee) because it’s much more pleasant to just carry a small bag with a laptop and whatever else (DSLR in my case) you don’t want to check.

    I had just gotten fed up with carrying everything in my carry-on. Most of my recent flights have been from LAX to New York and back. It’s exhausting and there’s always a layover, which almost always involves walking clear across the airport to get to the next flight (it is amazing how they’ve manage to do this to me every time – to the point where I feel like it must be on purpose).

    I agree that they would do much better if they just raised the ticket price a little bit. Not the whole $25 or more that they charge you, because not everyone was paying that anyway – instead they were avoiding checking bags and overcrowding the cabin.

    If you fly to or within Asia on an Asian airliner, one of the reasons it’s much more pleasant is because they give you two free checked bags. Very few people then feel compelled to bring the maximum allowed carry on – most bring just a small bag on board.

  27. I travel for a living and am against the roll technique, mostly because it’s great for your initial pack, but misrepresents the space you have in terms repacking after your trip.

    By the end of the week, I have a hotel cleaning bag full of dirty underwear, which takes up much more room than when they’re initially folded or rolled. So I account for that inefficiency by folding all my underwear. I do roll dress pants though because it does make them easier to iron.

    If you travel for leisure a few times a year, these ideas like throwing away underwear or washing them in the hotel sink are fine, but when travelling is your life, it obviously doesn’t suffice.

    So basically, I saw that on the Times originally and thought it was nice and all, but not practical for me.

  28. I still believe Dilbert’s ‘Tubular Luggage’ concept (ie in a Pringles can) is the best idea ever. EVER.

  29. Everybody likes to “roll” when they pack, and think it takes up less space. But years ago, I saw/read (maybe on PBS, that travel nerd) that laying each item flat and spread out, with as little folding as possible, actually fits more. I tried it and found it to be true.

    If you think about a cross-section of the rolled items, you are trying to pack circles together – there is always going to be wasted space. While if you do flat layers, it’s like a Napoleon pastry (or filo dough, if you prefer) — lots of layers, not much height….

    Try it for yourself!

  30. OR, cut the amount of clothes in half to about 5 days worth, do laundry one time on your 10 day trip, and you’ve saved half the weight and space. or given yourself plenty of room for a pair of running shoes, camera, laptop, whatever. As suggested by other posters, reduced weight, not size, is the real thing that will allow you to enjoy a trip so much more. and really, 25kg in an 80L pack? that sounds like a freaking nightmare to carry around, not a feat of impressive packing skill.

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