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.
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 in their carry on backpack. 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.
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:
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 seams or hard to zip up.
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:
The Verdict: Is Rolling or Folding Better?
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 in travel backpacks. 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.
- 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.
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.