Tips for moving cross-country: 3 ways to pack without losing your stuff or your sanity


My move from So Cal to Wisconsin will be the twentieth time I’ve relocated. I may not be in Wisconsin yet but I’m already a Packer MVP! (*drum riff*) Seriously though, when I was in grad school I got a full-time job helping the UC Davis Food Science department pack up and move to a brand new building. Other UC Davis grad students got summer TA-ships to pay their bills over summer break;  I got to put things in boxes for 40 hours a week. Make sure you ask for those summer TA-ships early.

For me, packing is the fun part of moving. There are the trips down memory lane as you pack items you forgot you had, and the satisfaction of cleansing as you toss/donate the items you realize you don’t need anymore.  I’ve dabbled in three major strategies for packing, and today’s lesson is finding the strategy that works best for you.

There are three schools of thought when it comes to packing: Tetris style; Shelf-by-Shelf style, and In-Phases style. Knowing which style works best for you will help you keep your sanity and keep track of your belongings.


Tetris Style

If you’ve spent hours playing Tetris on a Game Boy like me then you know how to pack so that no space is wasted. You may spend a bit longer filling a box because you keep moving items around trying to find the optimal orientation. You may start to fill the box with items from one particular shelf, but you aren’t afraid to combine different shelves if you can make it fit. You don’t hesitate to throw a random T-shirt or oven mitt in the box if it will provide padding or fill the gap between different sized books in your box.

PROS: No wasted space means you earn an A for efficiency! This style often reduces the number of boxes you need. You’ll master the art of using stuffed animals and T-shirts for padding, which means you’ll have more bubble wrap left over for dance parties. This style also generally leads to compact boxes that are full enough to be stackable.

CONS: Boxes can get heavy quickly because they are so compact. Unpacking can get interrupted when you start transferring your books…and the random oven mitt…to the new bookcase. If there are a few weeks between the packing and unpacking, you may forget exactly which box a particular item is in. Or worse, you’ll need something from a box you so carefully Tetris-packed before the move, and you’ll have to re-do the perfect Tetris orientation.

Example of one-shelf-only packing strategy
Notebooks from 9-square Bookshelf:  Bottom x Left Corner cubby

Shelf-By-Shelf Style

I read somewhere that one should pack by transferring the contents of one shelf into one box. I’m hoping/assuming you’re allowed to put Shelf 1 and Shelf 2 in the same box (because Slytherins and Gryffindors are all welcome in the Great Hall), but this article made a big deal about allowing the box to be half-empty instead of over-combining. This is the strategy many Tetris Style packers start with before they become obsessed with filling those gaps. As you can see from the sketch above, this packing style is elusive at my house.

PROS: This style takes the guesswork out of packing and unpacking. Packing becomes more mechanical since you’re just moving an item from the shelf to the box without having to also figure out optimal orientation. This is the best strategy if you’re packing someone else’s belongings. When you’re in your new place, it’s easier to find your belongings if you can remember exactly what shelf it used to be on and you’ve labeled your boxes by shelf-location.

CONS: If you don’t have an unlimited amount of boxes, this strategy may backfire. Also, it’s not wise to stack a half-empty box on a half-empty box because they’ll sink inwards. Items in a half-empty box have more space to bounce around, so more bubble wrap or air pillows are needed. This strategy requires that you are ready to box up every single item on a particular shelf. If you’re packing too far in advance, you might end up packing something on that shelf you’ll need later. This strategy is better for last-minute packing.

I've packed everything on the shelf I won't need for the next two weeks...
I’ve packed everything on the shelf I won’t need for the next two weeks…

In-Phases Style

This style can be a hybrid of Tetris and Shelf-By-Shelf style. Like the Shelf-By-Shelf style, you start by filling a box with the items from a particular shelf, but you leave in their current places the items you’re going to need right up until moving day. In a way, it will look like some of your belongings have gone missing.

PROS: You can get a jumpstart on packing by starting with the nonessential and seasonal belongings. You don’t have to spend an entire day packing (AND WASTE YOUR PRECIOUS FEW DAYS LEFT BEFORE THE MOVE) because you can pack a little each day. The biggest advantage is how the items you have to pack last are the items you’ll need first at your new place, so it’s convenient when all those essentials are in the same box.

CONS: It can be draining to think about what items will/won’t need over the next few weeks. It’s also difficult to know where to start packing if you don’t have many shelves that can be packed in their entirety right away. This packing style brings on the “in-betweensies” – the feeling that you are stuck between worlds like Patrick Swayze in “Ghost” or like Barry Allen in Flashpoint. As half of your belongings start disappearing, it can be hard to stay focused because you feel like you already have one foot out the door.

How to Beat the In-Betweensies – stay tuned for the next blog!





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