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Folding vs. Rolling Clothes for Packing: Which is Better?

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Ah, the age old debate of flat packing vs. rolling clothes for travel; a mainstay conversation topic of hostel bars around the world. While some travelers swear that rolling your clothes is the best possible method, others shrug and say it doesn’t really matter.

Online, I sometimes wonder if we’re making this claim blindly — following the advice of others without having stopped to compare the two methods. So, curious to know the truth, I set out to run a test and find out: which really is better? Flat packing or rolling your clothes for travel?

Does Rolling Clothes Save Space in Your Luggage?

One of the most popular reasons people give for rolling your clothes over flat packing is that it saves space. So, to test this theory out, I first flat-packed then rolled the exact same set of clothes.

In the first version, I used the Outbreaker travel backpack to flat-pack:

  • 7 t-shirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • 2 pairs of pants
  • 1 maxi skirt

Everything fit in snuggly, but the bag wasn’t so full it was bursting at the seems. I even had a small space on the side where I could slip a pair of flip-flops in.

fold clothes for packing

I then rolled the exact same list and while I had more space on top, I had no space around the edges of the Outbreaker:

rolling clothes

To fill the extra space and figure out the max amount of items I could comfortably fit, I added in four more shirts and one dress. It brought the total count to:

  • 11 t-shirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • 2 pairs of pants
  • 1 maxi skirt
  • 1 maxi dress

Like before, everything fit snuggly but the bag was not bursting at the seems or hard to zip up.

rolled clothes

However, I suspected that I was able to fit more simply because I had the appearance of more space. At this point, a couple of advantages for rolling clothes were made pretty clear — it was better organized, I had maximized the space — but was more space one of them? Was I really not able to fit the extra tops and dress when flat-packing? Just to confirm, I re-packed the final version of the list as flat:

Flat packed clothing

The Verdict

Everything fit in both versions. The biggest difference wasn’t more or less space, but rather where the extra space was.

  • Flat packing pushed things up, leaving pockets on the side
  • Rolling clothes pushed them out, creating a little extra space on top

This is especially true with a conventional hiking backpack, where the layers of items — if packed incorrectly — can create pockets of unused space throughout.

The even results happened, partially because bulky clothes, like the sweaters, were going to be bulky and take up a lot of space no matter how I packed them. A compression sack is the only way I’d be able to get the sweaters to take up less space and fit more in my bag.

Thin clothing, like the t-shirts, did pack better and take up less space when rolled. Or, at the very least, they had the appearance of being more compressed. I also would have been able to fit a couple of rolled items in the side of the bag in the flat-packing version if I had decided to combine methods.

How to Fit More in Your Bag

While rolling clothes helps you maximize your space (by filling the bag from edge to edge), it doesn’t really save you space.

If you really want to fit more clothes in a bag, use a compression sack and put thought into the type of clothing you’re packing. For example, two bulky sweaters took up the same amount of space as seven t-shirts. I could have swapped out one sweater for two long-sleeve shirts if I’d wanted to bring more stuff (which I usually don’t).

Packing cubes are another option for compressing things just a little bit and keeping your clothes organized. If you invest in cubes that are heartier than the flimsy cheap-o ones the structure will help find a little more space in your bag.

What are the Advantages of Rolling Clothes?

Even if rolling clothes doesn’t save you that much space, it has other advantages. Three main reasons why you’d opt to roll instead of flat pack include:

1. Rolling Keeps Clothes Crease & Wrinkle Free

Did you know the military requires all members to roll their clothes when packing? Yup. When I consulted my in-house military expert (aka my dad) about this, he said, “It helps keep your uniforms crease and wrinkle free, or to prevent it rubbing up against luggage and creating rips.”

To that end, rolling your clothes can be very effective. Especially for items that wrinkle easily (like gauzy dresses), rolling can be a simple way of keeping them neat. Depending on how you roll them, however, you may still end up with a crease. To solve this, bring a small bottle of wrinkle releaser ($8) or briefly toss clothes in the dryer once you’re at your destination. Or, do as the pros do and roll your clothes military style.

2. Better Organized Luggage

As you can see in the rolled clothing example, I had much better visibility into my backpack when the clothes were rolled. I could see all of the items I’d packed at a glance, rather than having to rustle through a pile to find the right top. It simply looks more organized and it’s easier to find items quickly. Up your organizational game one more level by adding packing cubes.

3. Optimizing the Space in Your Bag

If I had wanted to fit more clothing into the flat-packed version of my packing list, I could have rolled a few t-shirts and stuffed them along the sides. Rolling clothes helps you put items in smaller pockets of space.

The Best Way to Pack: Roll Some, Fold Some

In the end, though, it’s best to use a combination of both methods.

For example:

  • Roll small or delicate items, like shirts or dresses
  • Flat-pack bulky items, like jeans or sweaters

If you have a traditional backpack (where you can only stuff from one end), create a flat bottom by stacking rolled clothing on the bottom, then layer with flat layers. Fill small pockets with rolled clothes or other small items.

If you have a suitcase or a backpack like the Outbreaker, group rolled clothes on one side, flat on the other or stack rolled items on top of folded pieces.

How to Roll Your Clothes

Learn how to roll clothes or bundle pack by watching this helpful tutorial:

TL;DR

While rolling clothes can help you create a better organized bag, maximize space, and keep clothing wrinkle-free, it isn’t a magic method that will help you bring more clothing. Flat packing and rolling clothes are equally effective to that end.

The best way to pack your clothes would be a combination of both. Flat pack bulkier items, like pants, and roll smaller or more delicate pieces of clothing, like a dress or shirt.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda May 9, 2017 at 11:59 am

This is actually a good article. A lot of people only do one thing or another. This is where I learned how to fold clothes military style. Why doesn’t this have any comments or shares?

Reply

Jessie Beck May 16, 2017 at 5:07 pm

Thanks, Amanda! This is still a pretty new article — if you think it’s awesome, would love it if you shared 🙂

Reply

Carolyn May 16, 2017 at 9:27 am

For sweaters and jackets I use compression bags. They’re fantastic for multi climate travel. Basically you put your bulky clothing in and press out/roll out the air. Sometimes they can fail but I bring extras (since they weight litterally nothing!) I really like the Lewis and Clark ones. I’ve reduced my swater bulk by as much as 70%!!! The only downside is they’re hard to repack in public if you need a sweater… but with preplanning you should be fine.

Reply

Jessie Beck May 16, 2017 at 5:09 pm

Yes! Compression sacks are awesome and, like I mentioned in the post, the only true way you’ll be able to put more items in a bag. Fold a sweater, roll a sweater… that doesn’t really make much of a difference if you’re trying to squish just one more in :/

Reply

Caitlin June 6, 2017 at 7:00 am

Have you tried the KonMari folding technique? It’s essentially the best of both worlds because it’s a way of folding your clothes so that they end up in neat little (crease-free) squares that follow the seams of your clothing. It works really well with bulkier items but you have to practice it a bit to get the technique down.

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Jennifer Sutherland-Miller June 7, 2017 at 11:09 am

Caitlin… no… I haven’t even heard of it! Thanks for the tip… Googling now! 🙂

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MaryJo June 6, 2017 at 2:17 pm

What about using plastic zip bags? I see several people use them when packing, does it help? Thanks.

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Jennifer Sutherland-Miller June 7, 2017 at 11:06 am

Hi MaryJo, thanks for the great question. Plastic ziplock bags have their uses beyond the TSA liquids bag. They make great separators for small items and pseudo-vacuum pack bags (put your underwear in one, then close the bag almost completely, then roll the bag towards the opening, tightly, squeezing out all of the air, and seal it up!). They’re often used to separate wet and yucky stuff from dry and clean stuff mid trip or on the way home, but the wet/dry bag is a much better answer to that problem and is much more ecologically friendly (more plastic bags are not good for the planet!).

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