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How to figure out what size bag you need for travel

  • by Tys Sniffen

Ok, it seems that we should cover the super basics of figuring out what size bag one should be thinking about.  We've covered some aspects of how to pack, as in what sort of clothes to take, but this post will dig into how to figure out what size pack you might want to go shopping for.  It might surprise you to find that you don't need as big a pack as you thought! 

You may be confused by all the bag classifications around 'volume'.  First of all, they use metric liters (which is good, but weird for us in the USA) and then you have wonder, how do they figure that out? Do they stuff water bottles into their bags and count them up?  Actually, what's usually done is a simple measurement of the interior dimensions and then mathematically  figure out the volume.  (height x width x length) in centimeters will give you cubic centimeters, and then divide that by 1000 for cubic liters. 

 So, now that we know that, let's dig into how to figure out what volume you might need.  

As a middle-aged dude, this is my clothes layout, so yes, there will be some difference if you where different gendered clothes, and a slight bit of difference between hot and cold climate trips, but not really that much, and the technique is the same. 

First, remember that you'll be wearing an outfit in transit, so that you'll have another whole outfit to mix into your trip.  Further, you might want to wear some of the bulkier or more complex stuff while traveling - i.e., I wear a sports coat and generally don't add it into my bag. 

So let's gather the clothes and get them laid out in a way to measure them.  First, fold your stuff flat, not all this 'military roll' stuff you hear about from Seal Team Six or whatever.  You're not packing uniforms or scrubs or camo, you're packing clothes you want to look good in.  You can go on a never-ending quest to find ultimate travel gear with each shirt costing $100 and 17-way-stretch pants, but really, nice, light clothes you already own are probably going to be fine. 

So, fold your stuff flat.  When I fold my trousers, I do it like they do in the retail stores, along the seams first, in half: pants half folded

and then half again:

pants folded

 Same with shirts, I fold them out like they do in stores. Here's a typical travel shirt laid out flat:

shirt laid flat

 and then with the sleeves tucked under, sides folded in, whole thing folded in half:

shirt folded

 Now make a stack of your clothes - Remember, you'll be wearing one set, so don't put that set into the pile. Notice you can fold t-shirts like this as well:

clothing pile

 With a 'One Bag Solution', which is what we're going for here, you'll want to be wearing one pair of shoes and carrying one more pair.  I generally carry my 'travel sandals', in my perfect shoe stuff-sack of course. 

sandals on shoe bag

Now we get to 'the delicates', which is actually the opposite of what they are.  Underwear, socks, swimming suit, and a warm layer all can be squished or rolled or folded.  Here's my lay out of what I take on any length trip - 3 pairs of underwear, 3 pairs of socks, a swimming suit (can be thought of as an additional bottom half of a casual outfit!) and a light warm layer.   

vacuum bag lay out

 All of the above go into my hand-rolled vacuum bag, which of course you've been sold on by reading this blog post. Squish down these things to remove the air and bulk: 

vacuum bag squished

Now, make a stack and measure it!  clothes piled with shoe bag

 I use a metric ruler because I love metric and it saves a step, but if you don't have one, just do inches and then convert to centimeters.  Multiply all 3 sides to get your total cubic centimeters.

 clothes stack with measurement

Oh, I forgot to lay out my toiletries kit, which is a simple 'bucket style' and looks like this: 

toiletries kit

 But, there's a lot of empty space in that thing, and so if you were to put it in a bag, it'd squish down, to something about like this:

toiletries wrapped up

 Remember to include your shoes!  Once you have this number, think once more about getting rid of something, and then 

clothes pile with measurement

 take off the 3 zeros of your cubic centimeters, and you'll have your volume needs in liters. (metric IS great, isn't it?)  Now you know what sort of volume you should shop for.    

If your results are over 40liters, it's time to do some more research on how to pare down your stuff. Check out this blog post for starters, and if you want to continue the conversation, just send an email!

Guess which bag system I think you should get? 


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