I’ve observed that one of the pieces of gear travelers are the most passionate about are packing cubes. Such a simple little thing that people gush over.
We find them great too. But there a few land mines – or at least trade-offs – in selecting which ones to buy, and exactly how to employ them.
Let’s take a look.
How Packing Cubes Are Helpful
No surprise, the most direct benefit of packing cubes is they organize your things. Whether it be grouping like things together (all my t-shirts…) or avoiding the inside of your luggage being one big mess. Many travelers use packing cubes to develop specific systems of what goes where, how to manage clean versus dirty clothes, and their routines for unpacking at their destination.
In reality, what you’re doing is customizing your luggage to improve how it works for you. Many bags come with organizing sections, but I find they never meet my needs. Or, work on one trip, but not another.
The solution is to use packing cubes – sometimes different ones on different trips – to organize everything.
A second benefit of packing cubes is they can impact the bag you choose. The greatest waste of weight and space while packing is an organizational system you don’t use. Packing cubes can enable you to choose a lighter, more minimalistic bag that you can then customize to your own needs.
One of my favorite approaches is to use a lightweight duffle that has virtually no organization, and I then organize as I pack it. For more on options and my approach to that, see details about the Duffle Bag and Backpack Combo in our Choosing The Best Carry-On Travel Bag post.
Now let’s examine the various factors in choosing a packing cube, and then we’ll share specific product recommendations as a starting point for figuring out which option works best for you.
How To Choose A Packing Cube
There are a few considerations for making your choice. For a complete listing of sizes, weights, and cost of some specific products, see our reference table at the end of the post.
Most brands offer cubes in various sizes. What matters here is (1) whether you can buy a collection of cubes to save money, as they can be expensive individually, and (2) does the brand offer smaller or alternate sizes that you can buy separately, and can’t otherwise find?
Although we want to conserve weight while packing, it turns out I am not a fan of the lightest packing cube options. With no body structure, they always end up being my least favorite to use.
Eagle Creek Specter lightweight cube weighs 1oz (M)
Eagle Creek Pack-It structured cube weighs 4oz (M)
Eagle Creek Specter Tech double-sided compression cube weighs 5.3oz (M)
If I were to carry three Eagle Creek medium cubes, the difference between going structured versus lightweight would be 9oz. It could be meaningful to save that weight but it's not a huge difference.
For a packing cube with multiple sections, brands advertise that it’s the solution to separating clean and dirty clothes. But, I’m not buying it.
In fact, when I carry a double sided packing cube, I often intentionally use just one side. The reason is to get everything to lie correctly, one side has to have its contents to one end of the bag, and the other side the other end of the bag. I’m this fussy about few things in life. I would rather carry two cubes, or allow some items – like my dirty clothes – to be organized in my bag some other way.
There is a new wave of packing cubes with compression built-in, with the idea of saving a few inches of space by reducing the air in your clothing.
Compression bags can help, but they have some limitations.
First, you have to have the right amount of stuff in the right sized bag for compression to make a dent in the size of your load. For example, if a cube is not completely full, the compression has a lesser effect. Second, most of the compression affect happens on the sides, with a lesser impact on the middle.
The greatest benefit to compressed bags is how tight and dense they become. But the drawbacks are that they are notably more expensive, and quite a bit heavier – particularly when using a double-sided compression combo, like from Eagle Creek (8oz, yikes.).
My preference is to use multiple regular cubes that I compress myself and find less finicky to pack tightly when I am moving fast, versus fiddling with an extra zipper.
One last consideration before you dive in and purchase a three-pack is to plan what you intend to carry in the cubes, and how you like to approach your packing – rolled garments go well in cubes.
For example, packing cubes are great for socks, underwear, t-shirts, etc. Pants can go in okay. Collared shirts can be fine, and although I see some benefit to them being more organized, they are seldom packed as tightly compressed as a t-shirt.
Packing cubes are less useful with something like a blazer, although elaborate garment protection / folding systems exist to minimize wrinkles. But, the addition of our machine-washable Gramercy Blazer onto the wrinkle-free travel clothes scene means you can just wear it on the plane, or place in the top your bag, like I do.
The point is that I find buying a multi set with a bunch of large packing cubes to often be more than I need, despite the savings achieved. On the flip side, having a drawer of different sized cubes is extremely handy to draw from in support of my needs on each trip.
Choices For The Best Packing Cube
We reviewed the cubes in our closets and researched additional options to provide you with a list of some of the best packing cubes currently available.
Tortuga makes some of the best travel backpacks we’ve seen, and their packing cubes are no exception. Instead of being designed an afterthought, the cubes are as thoughtful and durable as their luggage.
The Outbreaker packing cubes is their original collection. They are a great combination of lightweight, while maintaining structure. Each cube has a handle in the middle which I like, even though I sometimes wish it was on top, as I have been known to use a packing cube as a small organizer (like when I’m taking a bunch of toys from our hotel room to the pool.)
The Setout packing cubes are specifically designed to fit as the top layer of their 45L Setout backpack. Clever.
Eagle Creek has an extensive line of packing cubes that include versions that cover nearly the full range of options.
The Pack-It Original cubes are a basic, structured packing cube with a handle, and are the most economical. They come in individual sizes or a three cube set.
The Specter is Eagle Creek’s line of lightweight cubes. They weigh as little as 2.2oz, versus 10oz for competitors like the Tortuga Setout cubes.
The Specter Tech takes the Specter and adds two things: double-sided compartments and compressibility. It is immediately worth noting that these features put the Specter Tech at double the weight of a similarly sized regular Specter cube.
A leader in travel backpacks, Osprey makes packing cubes to go with their gear.
Arc’Teryx is known for higher end gear, and their packing cubes are no exception. I own the Index 5, Index 5+5, and the Index 10. The digits relate to how many liters they hold. Arc Teryx used a lightweight nylon that I like because it is in between the less rigid ultra lightweight material, and a structured cube.
The Index 5 is a single compartment cube with a handle on top, and it weighs 2oz and holds 5 L.
The Index 5+5 is a double-sided packing cube that opens flat to expose each side individually. They weigh 5oz and carry 10 L.
The Index 10 doubles the capacity and weighs 6oz, with an attachable shoulder strap included, so you can carry it outside of your bag.
Other Packing Cubes
You can always look to Amazon or EBags for straightforward interpretations of a packing cube.
However, I will say, when you pick up something that’s well made, you feel like “wow, this thing will never break,” and might even wonder if it’s necessary to be so strong. My experience is that I have actually had packing cubes tear or develop holes, although it took a while and I was able to repair them. But my approach is almost always to buy better quality from the start.
Other popular packing devices:
Toiletry bags. Often clear cases meant to help organize your bathroom essentials, but have you noticed that many don’t come with a waterproof zipper? It feels like it defeats the purpose of a clear plastic siding. I am compelled to add, they also never seem to fit what I want to pack, like a toothbrush. Why?
Multi section with hanger hook. I understand there are people who have a more extensive collection of toiletries than I do, and maybe a multi section, zippered compartment is great for them. These often include a hanger, for easier access without having to unpack. I have seen some of these packed and rolled up, and with all of the compartments and zippers, they are huge. Not for me. But, maybe there’s an opportunity to innovate in the future...
Garment folders and suit organizers. I no longer need this, as we make wrinkle-free clothes.
There are some good options, but I believe there’s the potential to make a better cube. I think we might have cracked the code with the new BluffCubes which are now available for sale.
Until then, I’ll keep a quiver of them in my drawer to grab for my trips and adventures.