Packing lessons learned (and re-learned)

As Miss D. and I begin to get our stuff in order for the big move south-westwards to Texas, we’re learning (and re-learning) some time-honored lessons in how best to pack our stuff.  They apply particularly because we’re moving ourselves, rather than having professionals do it for us.  For the sake of anyone who’s looking at the same process in the near future, I thought I’d share them here.

  • Get rid of excess stuff well in advance of moving day.  It pays to go through your possessions with an eagle eye, discarding what you don’t use or don’t need, rather than packing it all to take with you – and decisions like that can’t really be made in the stress of last-minute preparations.  It’s easier, simpler and less stressful to do so at your leisure before the big day.
  • Big moving boxes are not necessarily a good idea.  They’re great for bulky, lightweight stuff like comforters, but a terrible idea for heavy things, because one inevitably wants to fill them up, making use of all the available space.  That makes them too heavy to be easily handled.
  • Carts, trolleys and hand trucks are your friend!  I bought a heavy-duty appliance dolly several years ago, which has proved invaluable in moving appliances, gun safes, etc.  I also have a small folding cart that moves two or three boxes at a time, and a bigger one that moves up to eight when it’s converted from vertical (two-wheel) to horizontal (four-wheel) mode, so that the back now serves as a load bed.  They’re invaluable, particularly if you have a bad back as I do, and I’d hate to move without them.  Get good-quality ones, too.  Don’t skimp on cheap stuff.  You’ll be thankful when you need them.
  • Small boxes are great for heavy items like books and crockery.  Trouble is, you need a lot of them if you have a lot of books or heavy things.  We’ve learned to simply ‘bite the bullet’ and accept large quantities of smaller containers, rather than worry about it.
  • Crockery has to be well padded.  If newspaper isn’t available in large quantities (and today, with newspaper sales going through the floor, that’s more likely than not), use blankets, jeans and T-shirts to separate your plates, bowls, mugs and cups from each other.  It’s a bit tricky folding multiple items into a single blanket, but it can be done – just as long as you unfold it very delicately and gently when you unpack!
  • Don’t buy your shipping boxes from a moving company.  They want a relatively high price per box.  Lowes offers moving boxes in small, medium and large sizes for very much less money, ranging from $0.69 to $1.36 (compared to $4.99-$9.99 apiece at some storage and moving companies).  I bought about a hundred in assorted sizes.  We’re unfolding them, taping them to add strength to the joints, and using them as needed.  If we have some left over, we’ll take them down with us – there are bound to be people moving who can use them.
  • I’ve always had a fondness for using plastic totes rather than cardboard boxes to store and move things.  Unfortunately, they take up a lot of space when you’re not using them, and they cost a lot of money relative to the cheap cardboard boxes I mentioned above.  I’ve got something like twenty or thirty that will be surplus to requirements when we finish this move, and rather than stack them up and keep them for future needs, I think I’m simply going to pass them on to someone else.  They’re probably more trouble than they’re worth.

Just a few ‘lessons learned’ so far.  I hope they help you, too.  Those of you with more moving experience than the rest of us (particularly ‘military brats’, who’ve done so very often) are welcome to leave your own suggestions in Comments.



  1. The answer to your "lots of small boxes" is pallets. Stack the boxes tightly and wrap with the stretchy plastic, all the way down to the pallet. If the box size allows it – small book boxes will – nail a strip of wood 1" X 1" around the perimeter of the pallet to prevent shifting, and densely packed boxes (books again) on the bottom will allow lighter boxes to be loaded on top before wrapping. Rent a manual fork lift (a few wheels, a pair of forks and a hand crank cable arrangement to lift the forks) to lift the pallets, and a light duty pallet jack to move them around.

    Or do what I did – last time I moved I had several worksite job boxes, a large mechanic's tool chest and top box, workbench, plus the usual "every gun owner's nightmare" to move in addition to all the boxes. I bought a used pallet jack, several 36-inch wide rolls of plastic stretch wrap and scrounged some pallets in good condition. I packed and wrapped a garage-full of box-filled pallets, each packed 6 feet high and hired a power fork lift and driver at $125 /hour. The truck was loaded in 45 minutes, and the empty 2 feet on top of the pallets got the large light boxes after the fork lift and driver left, then the furniture went on last.

    Fork lift and driver rental on the other end was more expensive – $175 for the hour – but the truck was empty within that hour. The garage was full, truck empty, and we could tackle unwrapping and unpacking at our pace. When we were all done I was able to sell the used pallet jack for exactly what I paid for it (after I moved all the heavy stuff with it…..).

  2. Lowes/Home Depot boxes are not as sturdy as u-haul boxes. Used the cheaper boxes once and the bottom couple boxes crushed and the load shifted. The higher price is worth it to me when stacking heavy boxes of books or pantry items.

    Towels and wash clothes both kitchen and bath are great for kitchen/fragile items. I also use paper towels in place of newsprint. When you unwrap the item, smooth out the paper towels, stack them up and use for whatever in the kitchen.

  3. I can second the pallet idea. Last big move I did I palletized everything. Wrapped the small stuff in stretch wrap and secured all the heavy items like appliances onto pallets. What I spent in pallets (free for the most part), pallet jack and forklift rental was more than offset in labor saved and I didn't need professional movers.

    I also scored a deal on a used bunch of those plastic hinged lid storage boxes they use in warehouses. They were so much easier to deal with than the cardboard boxes especially if you're gonna store things for any amount of time or move a box more than once.

    Another tip is to meticulously document the content of boxes, then label with a simple number or something. Saves time and when you are unpacking if you want a certain item you can just pull up your database and know it's in box "K04-09" or whatever. You don't have to rummage through a dozen boxes marked "kitchen stuff" when you're just looking for the coffee maker or toaster. Also makes inventory for homeowners insurance a breeze.

  4. Reasonably priced boxes are also available at Walmart. I agree with Judy above that these inexpensive boxes are not the sturdiest in the world. That's why when packing books I try to make sure that there is a solid column of books from the bottom to the top of the box to carry the weight of boxes stacked on top of them.

    One of the best investments I made before our move was to go on eBay and buy a dispenser for fiberglass reinforced gummed paper tape. I was familiar with the value of these gems from the shipping dept. of a place I once worked. The gummed tape is so superior to clear self-adhesive packing tape in strength and adhesion, that there is no real comparison. The dispenser wets the tape, and the length of the piece dispensed can be pre-set.

    I am totally in agreement with Peter about the value of hand trucks, dollys and carts. His other advice about packing is sound, too. I speak from experience.

  5. Anon @ 8:46 – "Combat Load" the pallets – the last pallet of boxes "built" becomes the first pallet on, it will be the last one off and the one closest to the garage door. That's where the first week's clothes, coffee maker, towels, sheets, pots and pans, etc. go.

    Color code the boxes as you pack them – colored 1" wide duct tape works well, put a strip on a vertical corner that is visible from both one side and an end, NOT the top. If you're anal and OCD about it, another strip on the diagonally opposite corner, too. Tape a large sheet of matching color paper to the wall (painter's tape) next to doorways – blue-taped boxes go in the blue room, etc. Helps a lot if stuff for one room is concentrated on one pallet rather than spread around. Buy a box of Sharpies, everybody packing gets a couple. After colored tape is put on a box contents are labeled on the vertical face of one end – NOT the top. Number that vertical face with order of unpacking, "blue boxes go in the kitchen, blue #1 gets unpacked before blue #2, etc.

    I'll agree on the inventory – it's PITA and should be done well before packing, but having an accurate list of your stuff is invaluable if anything happens to it, not to mention theft, fire, etc. at eithee end.

  6. Also if you run out of clothes to wrap breakables then office depot, target and walmart all sell rolls of bubble wrap at pretty cheap prices. The rolls we bought were 1 foot wide and set to tear every 1 foot or so and were IIRC 150' long, but there were also 2 foot wide ones. We probably only needed one but bought a second so my wife could wrap everything twice for extra paranoia

  7. Thank you and others for your comments on how to tackle this onerous chore. Moving households is very difficult, especially when your new location is smaller.

  8. Don't wait till the last minute to decide you need professional help after all, even if its just a guy with a pallet lift to get the stuff into the truck.

    Don't set an end date on your apartment lease or rental agreement till your closing date is set in stone. Yes this means you may end up paying an extra month in rent. Trust me its worth it. You don't want to end up with a closing date thats been moved till a couple days AFTER your lease ends and your landlord is having a cow cause now she can't move the new folks in right away……

  9. We've used auto store oil boxes for books. Right size, stack nicely, and about the right weight to carry things.

    We found that garbage bags filled with clothes, sheets etc can be bundled around things and pad stuff.

  10. For heavy things like books, liquor boxes are the best things going. They're small, so you don't overpack; they're sturdy, being designed to carry heavy, fragile, valuable objects; and they're free if you go on the right day.

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