Packing Strategies for a Family Vacation (Nerd Alert!)

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The other day, I received a text from a friend that made my heart beat a little faster.

“Are you familiar with packing cubes?  If my hunch is correct, you are.”

Girlfriend, come on over!  Let’s have a drink and chat for hours, I wanted to say.

But don’t worry, I played it cool.

“Very.  Why?” I replied.

“I’m liking this idea for our road trips.”

The conversation that ensued confirmed that this topic was worthy of a blog post.  In fact, packing for family trips has come up several times recently with friends.  I don’t need to look at a calendar to know it’s summer vacation time.

Remember when you could pack for a trip in one bag and less than fifteen minutes?  Me, neither!  I may have managed to do that once or twice, but that was in my life B.C.

Now, a whole process is required… It entails washing and folding loads of laundry before our departure, obsessively checking on the weather at our destination, thinking about the type of activities we have planned, selecting enough outfits, underwear, extra socks, pajamas, a pair of long pants, perhaps a “nice” outfit, a warm layer, rain jacket, swimsuit… Repeat four times… It can really add up, even for those of us who like to pack light!

And have you ever seen a kid dig through a packed bag for their favorite outfit?  It’s not pretty… so I stopped letting them do it.  But even when I’m the one digging through a bag, I make a mess.  I like being able to find everyone’s stuff at a glance, and keep our luggage to a minimum.  This is where packing cubes come in handy.  These soft-sided organizers are life-changing!

For most of our trips, each family member gets one “large” packing cube for their basic clothes.  For a trip of less than a week, everyone brings one outfit per day.  For longer trips, we bring five or six outfits and plan to do laundry along the way.  Everything fits in a large cube just fine, especially if we roll the clothes.  For the younger kids, a large cube is actually a little too big.


Everyone in our family has an assigned color.  This is especially important for the kids!  You’ll see tons of orange, red, and purple in our house.

I’ve been able to find packing cubes in everyone’s assigned color, so we can share one or two large duffel bags and easily find everyone’s clothes.

We also pack “communal” cubes for certain items, like pajamas, rain jackets, hoodies, swimwear, shower towels, and swim towels.  Chances are, we’ll all need those items at the same time, so why dig through five different bags for them?  Sometimes my minivan resembles a Minecraft world, since many of the communal cubes live in our vehicle.

I can ask my 13 year old son to grab the green cube (rain gear!) out of the back of the van, and there’s no possible way he can claim he can’t find it.  Amazing, right?

We take a slightly different approach to packing if we are going to be making one-night stops.  In that case, I’d pack a cube of everyone’s pajamas and one cube per day with a complete outfit for everyone.

We own some other brands of packing cubes, and they are all comparable in size and quality.  We chose them based on the colors available, in sets of four different sizes. The largest size is for our clothes, and the smaller cubes get used for things like electronics chargers, pillowcases, spices, beverages (Emergen-C, Natural Calm, tea), dish towels, shower supplies, etc.

Of course, there are cheap and free ways to pack like this, using large Ziploc-type bags or even just different colors of grocery bags, but they might tear after just a few uses.

Our packing cubes have held up well over the past several years, so I consider them to be a good purchase.  If you are in the market for some packing cubes, this set comes in many colors and looks like a great deal!

For those who are skilled with a sewing machine, here’s a tutorial on making your own packing cubes!

No matter what method you use to pack, I recommend keeping a record of what is packed where.  Worse-case scenario, like if your luggage gets lost or your car gets stolen, you can file an accurate claim.  We don’t often fly and that’s never happened to us, but I can assure you that keeping records helps the planner of the family (that’s me!) enjoy the trip instead of being asked “Where’s the…?” every five minutes.

Being the nerd that I am, I make a color-coded grid listing the contents of each cube.  I print three copies, and two get laminated. Those stay in the back of our vehicle and in our tent/camper/hotel room for constant consultation.  The non-laminated one stays in the back of our plastic trip planning portfolio.

Another indispensable color-coding tool we use is… drumroll, please… the diaper pin!

I came up with this classy idea in an effort to keep everyone’s towels straight while traveling.  We have ten microfiber towels, using bright colors for swim towels and silver for showers, and they are each labeled with a pin in our assigned colors.

Swim towels for travel vs. what we use at home - wow!

These microfiber towels conserve space, which is always at a premium when traveling.  You do have to pat yourself dry, rather than rub like you would with a regular towel, but they work well.  

The pin method worked so well for our travels that we have been using them for the kids’ towels at home the past few years, too.  I don’t know about you, but it grosses me out to think of drying my face on a towel someone else has used to dry their feet (or… worse).  Some of my kids are old enough to feel the same way and would toss questionable towels in the laundry – or, let’s be honest, let them pile up in the bathroom.  I hate having to do extra laundry just because people can’t tell which towel is theirs!  The pins totally eliminate that.


I always hope the kids keep the same towel all week until wash day, but if something happens where they need a different towel, they just take their pin off, put the dirty towel in the laundry, and put their pin on their new towel.  This also makes it very easy to know exactly whom to yell at for leaving their wet towel on the floor (grrr).

But I digress.  Back to color-coding our travel gear:

This is the brand of backpack we gave our kids, in which they pack whatever they want for long car rides, and double as their daypacks when we arrive (we dump their entertainment stuff into a tote when the backpacks are needed).  The 20L size is perfect for our us, and the backpacks have held up very well – especially considering how inexpensive they were!

This is how we color-code toothbrushes and keep them clean.  Here’s a set in a different color.

The items I recommended don’t take up much space, and most of them have stuffed Christmas stockings and Easter baskets over the past few years.

So, tell me, what’s YOUR strategy for packing?  I’m always looking for more ideas!

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11 thoughts on “Packing Strategies for a Family Vacation (Nerd Alert!)”

  1. Excellent ideas! Wish I’d had them when I was camping with four kids. But even now I’m sure I can use some of them. Thanks!

  2. Love this Kristen! You have some great ideas in here! I really like the pin idea for towels; both home and away. One thought, several times I clicked on one of your links. The links worked great. The only problem was that instead of opening in a new window, they replaced your blog site. After I had finished looking at the item page, I closed out the page out of habit instead of clicking the back button. Then I had to go back into your blog site. Is there a way to make your links appear in a new window instead? Just a thought. Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts. This is just the kind of stuff I need!

    1. So glad this was helpful to you, Jill! And thank you so much for pointing out the link issue. I hadn’t even thought about that. Fixed them!

  3. Great ideas Kristin. I may implement some of them. Any thoughts on how to pack beach stuff like sandy toys and whatnot?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Nicole! Gosh, I haven’t tried anything other than rinsing the toys off really well at the end of the trip and carrying them in a mesh pop-up laundry hamper from the Dollar Tree to make sure they get dry. There are sand-free mats and totes that get good reviews. Did you know baby powder de-sands skin very quickly?

      1. I didn’t know that. Thanks! I’ve been feeling the need for a mesh bag for beaching. I need to just do it. How about camping hamper? Anyone out there do this? I can’t figure out how to deal with dirty clothes for extended camping trips.

        1. Camping laundry, ugh! We put all dirty/wet clothes in a latching tote while camping and it stays under our awning. It’s a tote that carries sleeping bags on the way to camp. I stick a closet dehumidifier from the Dollar Tree in there which helps a bit, maybe (it helps my peace of mind LOL). Just before we pack up, I transfer the dirty clothes a trash bag in the car, and wipe the tote with a disinfecting wipe before putting sleeping bags bag in it. Nicole, you could easily sew a tote for your beach toys with a mesh bottom!

  4. This is brilliant Kristen! Thanks for the tips. We’re planning a big trip soon, so very timely advice. The planning ahead of time saves a lot of grief in finding things on the road. Links worked great for me. Thanks for the tips! Janice

    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful, Janice! Thank you so much for your nice comments. I hope you have a great trip – I would love to hear about it!

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