Uncommon Challenge: Living Life Out of Packing Cubes

A chronically messy packer shares their ongoing journey to become a tidy traveler after getting their hands on a set of packing cubes.

When it comes to tidying, I am the polar opposite of Marie Kondo. Ask my partner, my folks or any of my former roommates, bless their hearts, and consensus is that the only person messier than me goes by “Leo” and plays forward for Argentina.

When you combine my disorganized disposition with a lifelong gear obsession, not to mention the fact that over the last eight years I’ve bounced from mountain town to mountain town like an army brat, the result isn’t pretty. My gear storage system—if you can call it a system at all—consists of precipitous, borderless piles of surf, snow, fly fishing, mountain biking, trail running and camping gear, which threaten to avalanche and bury me alive at any moment.

I also travel regularly, both for business and pleasure (as an outdoor writer, the two are often inextricably intertwined). My messiness is a constant companion wherever I roam: Board bags and backpacks inevitably turn into black holes that swallow socks, obscure my passport the night before an international flight and ruthlessly mock me until expletives erupt from deep down in my troubled soul.

But I’m almost 30, damn it. In an effort to act my age and try my hand at #adulting, I acquired a set of Patagonia packing cubes this past spring. Dubbed Black Hole Cubes (ironically for me, but really named for their ability to consume uncanny amounts of matter) and available in small (3 Liters), medium (6 Liters) and large sizes (10 Liters), these packing cubes offered a potential solution to my on-the-road organization woes.

My challenge? Live out of the packing cubes on a fishing trip to Alaska, a surf trip to Mexico, a road trip through the Pacific Northwest and visits with family on the East Coast. The hopeful outcome? Reduce the frequency of both lost items and packing-related migraines.

The Endless Pursuit of an Instagram-Worthy Pack Job and a Tidy Tent

Illustration of a messily packed duffel bag.

We’ve all swooned at those shots, taken when pro athletes are about to embark on an adventure and lay their gear out on the bed, primped and sexy for the ‘gram, every carabiner and Clif Bar just so. While I’ve never been able to attain such a tidy, photogenic layout, I do typically arrange everything on the floor or bed while packing—particularly for expeditions, when missing a single piece of the puzzle jeopardizes the entire mission. My question has always been this: How the hell do you stay organized once it comes to cramming all of said gear into your duffel or backpack?

This is where the packing cubes came in. On my fishing trip to Alaska, I put all of my socks and base layers in one cube; mid layers in another; gloves, eyewear and beanies in a third; and chargers and miscellaneous gizmos in a fourth. Bigger items, like outerwear, my hip pack and fly rod, were loose in my bag, but without the smaller items floating around the duffel like it were a giant junk drawer, finding everything was much easier.

When I headed to Mexico on my surf trip, I used a smaller cube to stash wax, fins and fin keys—essentials that are easy to misplace and will ruin a surf trip should you do so. This was crucial, as I could wake up predawn, throw the cube in my pack and head to the beach half-asleep without stressing about leaving anything behind. I also found it easier to ration surf wax throughout my trip since I kept it all in one place instead of loose at the bottom of my backpack.

I appreciated that the medium and large cubes unzip to fold open like a book, and both sides have a zippered mesh divider. This was a convenient feature for further separating gear. While camping on the Washington coast, I kept my unworn clothes on one side of a cube, clean used clothes on the other side and my damp and dirty laundry in another cube entirely.

My only gripe: Sometimes I forgot which cube held which gear. As such, some will want their packing cubes to be transparent, like these mesh-topped cubes from REI Co-op. However, I dug that my cubes were made from heavy-duty and waterproof material, in case you need to lash a cube to your pack—or accidentally leave it outside your tent overnight, as I did in the notoriously wet Pacific Northwest.

The Verdict: Packing Cubes Are Helpful, Not a Magic Bullet

Illustration of three packing cubes.

On each trip I took this past spring and summer, packing cubes helped me start my adventure off much more organized than usual—every category of gear in its rightful place before it even entered my bag. However, a mess would inevitably materialize a few days later when I failed to return clothes and gear to their respective cubes. I’d start off with a neat and tidy organization system, then quickly devolve to a messy duffel, gear-strewn tent or disorganized trunk. Shocking, right?

Unfortunately, packing cubes aren’t sentient beings. They’re not programmed to clean up after the shambolic, scatter brained gearhead. They’re simply collapsible, zippered fabric drawers—it’s up to the user to employ them properly. Packing cubes weren’t a magic bullet for me: They didn’t cure me of my messy malady, and I remain a pack-job slob, albeit a slightly less slobby one. Fortunately, though, I have hope.

I’m writing this the evening before I take off on my final trip of the year, this time to a friend’s wedding on the East Coast, where I’m also hoping to score some swell and go camping with my brother. My to-do list grows by the minute: My suitcase is still beneath the bed, laundry hangs everywhere, wetsuits dry on the porch. Normally, I’d be overwhelmed with pre-trip anxiety right now, but I take solace in the fact that my packing cubes are laid out like clamshells on the bed, ready and willing to offer their services. I’m almost 30, damn it, and I’m committed to staying tidy on this trip. I have all the tools required, all I need to find is the motivation to do so. Fingers crossed it’s around here somewhere—maybe under one of these piles of gear?

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