12 Common Packing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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12 Common Packing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

On this blog, we regularly approach the topic of packing with tips and tricks – what you should do, in other words. And over the years, Unbound Merino has amassed an authoritative compendium of the best practices for fitting everything you need for a trip into one small carry-on bag.

But where does that leave the packer who – by no fault of their own – slips in a packing error? Maybe they pack a suit the wrong way, or pack shorts with a leather belt for a tour of India’s sacred temples. Since there’s no resource to tell them they can’t, they have to assume it’s permissible.

So, let’s tackle things from the other side of the coin. In this post, we’ll review 12 common packing mistakes people make – and how you can avoid them. We’ll cover things you shouldn't pack, inefficient packing methods, cultural faux pas and more.

Before you strike off on your next trip abroad, see if you tick any of the boxes below, and then re-pack accordingly.

Packing the Entire Wardrobe, Tech Drawer and Toiletry Cabinet

This is what we’ll call the “arch-mistake,” the granddaddy of packing errors that almost everyone is guilty of at some point.

It’s a human impulse to want to prepare for anything, especially when wading into unfamiliar territory. Therefore, we overpack clothing, toiletries and electronics on the off-chance that niche items come in handy. However, the sobering reality is that most of these items remain unused.

You don’t need that third pair of shoes, that flashy blazer at the back of your closet, or that portable Bluetooth speaker you got for Christmas. If you don’t use an item regularly in a given week, chances are you don’t need it for your trip.

And here’s something we remind ourselves constantly before travelling: they have pharmacies in other countries too. Don't sweat it (literally) if you forget your antiperspirant. Don’t worry if you can’t jam a hairbrush into your toiletries bag. There will be opportunities to find what you’re looking for as you travel.

Underpacking a Bag

This may seem contradictory, but it’s entirely possible to underpack a bag. While we agree that the goal, in most cases, is to be as minimalist as possible in your packing endeavours, you still want to fill whatever vessel you’ve chosen as your luggage.

Let’s say you opt for a standard 30-litre backpack. Filling it 75% will only result in wrinkly clothing, and loose items that bump around while you walk. It’s better to downgrade to a 25-litre pack where everything fits snugly.

Before you travel, ensure that your bag matches your packing ambitions.

Big Colour Clashes

It’s easier to match big, bright colours when you’re working with an extensive wardrobe at home. It’s significantly harder when you’re living out of a condensed pack with a small set of outfits.

Our advice, take it or leave it: keep the big, bright colours at home. Pack a capsule wardrobe with monochromatic, neutral colours that all play together nicely. As we devised our merino packs and bundles, we considered this principle, crafting sophisticated combos that you can mix and match for unique outfits every day.

That said, you can get splashy with the accessories; pack those purple sunglasses and patterned scarves if you like a pop of colour in your outfit.

A man makes a packing list with merino wool clothing

Credit: jcomp Via Freepik

Starting Strong, Then Giving Up

As a trip wears on, people sometimes give up on their structured packing plans. Instead, you stuff your belongings back into your bag haphazardly – like you’re bagging your own groceries in front of a long line-up at the till. 

Start strong and finish strong. If it helps, devise an ordering system for your bag. Write it in your notes app, or commit it to memory before flying. Better yet, hold onto your initial packing list and keep it in a side pocket of your bag. Give yourself ample time before each move to pack methodically. And consider compartmental solutions like packing cubes to keep everything orderly.

Rolling Your Suits

Rolling is a roundly effective way to get as much clothing as possible into a bag. However, there’s one circumstance where the rule doesn’t apply: packing suits.

Because suits are structured along seams, packing a suit requires a balance between minimizing surface area (for compactness) and maintaining formal integrity (so you do not crease the seams).

In a previous blog post, we outlined our preferred steps for packing a suit. In brief, we recommend folding toward the middle seam of the jacket, tucking one shoulder in to fit the other, before folding again vertically and horizontally to make a neat square; then, you fold the pants around the jacket like a belt. You can find a more detailed list of instructions on our blog.

Packing Stuffy Materials for Summer Travel

Whoever marketed polyester, nylon and acrylic as “summer fabrics” must have been exercising some wishful thinking. While these materials routinely show up in summer tees and dresses, they are a) not breathable, b) abrasive enough to make anyone itch, and c) trap moisture in an uncomfortable way.

There’s a reason why our merino wool v-neck shirt and new merino travel dress are so popular with travellers. They can withstand the heat, ably wicking moisture, promoting airflow and adding some welcome softness to a summer outfit.

Too Few Layers the Rest of the Year

No one – not even the TV meteorologists – can predict the weather with 100% accuracy. And the margin of error increases for longer-term weather forecasts, which you'll probably check before leaving for your destination.

That’s all to say: don’t put all your eggs in a two-layer basket. A double-layer of clothing (say, a long-sleeve and a winter coat up top) leaves you little wiggle room with temperature fluctuations. It’s far better to pack multiple layers:

  • A base layer of t-shirts, underwear and socks
  • A middle layer of long-sleeve shirts (and thermal underwear, depending on how cold you expect it to be).
  • A sweatshirt, zip-up hoodie or cardigan
  • And a jacket or coat (again, depending on the season)

If the temperature hovers around the “mildly chilly” zone, you can skate by on either your base layer and jacket, or middle layer and sweatshirt. And if the weather plummets to freezing, you can wear all of the above. Naturally, we recommend merino wool wherever possible since it’s a fantastic insulator, locking in your natural body warmth.

Ignoring Local Customs

One pivotal mistake many travellers make is neglecting to pack for local customs and etiquette. Don’t sweat it too much; everyone’s done it once, and, by and large, locals are forgiving of foreigners who didn’t get the memo. Still, it’s always beneficial to be considerate of other cultures. Travellers, on the whole, are brand ambassadors for the outside world; travelling ethically means bowing to local preferences wherever possible.

If you plan on touring holy sites or revered temples, read the guidelines before you pack. Many stipulate a modest dress code of pants and long-sleeves. At the bare minimum, they require you to leave your flip-flops back at the hotel.

Moreover, each country has its idiosyncratic preferences and rules. Camouflage is illegal in Barbados. Miniskirts were banned in Uganda until recently, and continue to be frowned upon by many. Wearing sportswear outside is considered weird in Japan. And if Italians see you wearing flip flops to a restaurant or museum, they might call you on it (or just insult you in private).

Burying Items Commonly Flagged by the TSA

This is a mistake you commonly see in security lines. The TSA flags some kind of electronic, liquid or other suspicious item, and the owner has to rip up their entire packing job to locate the offending item.

If you plan on packing a “flaggable” item, situate it near the top of your bag or in an external pocket. Items commonly flagged by the TSA include:

  • Liquids: Obviously
  • Coffee beans: Which some traffickers use to mask the smell of illegal substances.
  • Stacks of cash: Personally, we don’t understand why someone would travel with stacks of cash, but we’re sure there are reasonable circumstances.
  • Medication: You're well within your rights to travel with medication, but occasionally, a TSA agent will require a doctor’s note.
  • Stuff that vibrates: It could be a toothbrush or a personal item (you know the kind). If it vibrates, especially as it passes the checkpoint, the TSA will probably flag it.

If you’re packing any item above, at least situate it in an easy-to-reach spot. The same goes for your laptop or tablet: pack it in an easily reachable pocket to avoid holding up the line.

A traveller adds their laptop to the top of their luggage

Credit: freepik Via Freepik

The False Dichotomy of Comfort and Style

“You can travel comfortably, or you can travel stylishly – pick one.”

No, in fact. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to “lean into” either comfort or stylishness at the expense of the other. The key is striking a balance when you travel, choosing items that feel good and look sophisticated enough for a variety of circumstances.

For instance, our merino travel pants and merino tank tops for women look sleek and sophisticated enough to fit right in at a cocktail bar. But they don’t feel fancy; they feel like a lazy day lounging on your couch at home. The trick is to find outwardly stylish, deceptively comfortable items that you can wear on transit days and nights on the town.

Shrugging off Shoes

Shoes are a significant part of your packing efforts. But some people treat them like an afterthought, tossing a few pairs at the top of their bag once the “more important stuff” has already been packed.

This is a cardinal error. Shoes are too bulky, hollow and weighty to ignore. To make the most out of your shoe-packing, limit yourself to one or two pairs (which we understand can be challenging, but it'll make all the difference). A pair for leisure and a pair for adventuring. Next, treat them as an opportunity, rather than a burden; fill them with small electronics or non-liquid toiletries. Finally, place them at the bottom of your bag with your weightiest items; shoes at the top of a bag can press down on your clothes, potentially causing wrinkles.

Packing Towels, Books and Valuables

In our list of things you shouldn’t pack (linked in the intro), we take aim at three things in particular: towels, books and valuables.

Towels simply take up too much real estate to justify. The vast majority of hotels and guesthouses provide them, and, for the odd time they don’t, you can typically find a towel at a local store for less than the cost of a meal.

Books are… complicated. We love reading a paperback on the road as much as the next person; there’s something undeniably comforting about the feel and smell of paper. But with the advent of lithe, light e-readers, we can’t really justify lugging books around any longer. However, we can’t blame you if you disagree on this one.

Finally, we always recommend leaving valuables at home. No one needs an expensive watch to tell the time, or a glistening bracelet on their wrist. We understand the impulse to look your best in foreign countries, but, to us, the risks outweigh the rewards.

If you can sidestep these common packing mistakes, you’ll save yourself space, time and – in some cases – money. For actionable packing advice on what you should do, visit our blog, where we have articles ranging from staying fresh while traveling to packing for a business trip.

As always, if there’s an egregious mistake we’ve missed on this list, feel free to post it in the comments below. Maybe there’s even a mistake we’re making that we didn’t even know about – if so, we’d love to hear about it.

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