Beginner's Guide to Load Plans

If there’s anything I’ve learned from having kids it’s that they need a lot of stuff. An infant can go through four bottles, eight jars of baby food, a dozen diapers, five outfits, and half a package of wipes on any given day.

So when I prepared to travel with my two kids from Germany to visit my family in Minnesota for a month, I knew we’d need a lot of stuff. After giving the logistics of the trip some considerable thought, I decided not to check any bags. 

Because things weren’t already challenging enough, I would be making the trip by myself. 

I knew I could do it, but it would take some planning. 

I needed a load plan. 

What is a load plan? 

Basically, a load plan is just that:  a plan of the load. How will you carry what you need to carry? Where and how will the stuff you carry be stowed? 

Load plans are pretty routine planning tools used by military units as well as logisticians in the civilian sector. They’re pretty common. 

In fact, you might already be using a load plan and not know it. Do you always keep your insurance card, spare tire, jumper cables, and car jack in the same place in your car? (I mean, ’cause who moves that stuff around anyway?) Do you have a designated space in your purse for your keys and phone? While you probably don’t have it written down, that is, in its most basic form, a load plan. 

The important part is that you know where to find those items because they are in a designated space. 

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure every woman I know has a load plan of their entire house in their mind.

“Honey, where are my pants?”

I digress. 

Having created a few load plans for military deployments and training operations, I was already familiar with the process. Since load planning is part of military doctrine, most of the work is pre-packaged in the form of standard operating procedures, manuals, and forms. For your civilian planning purposes, here are the questions you should ask yourself. 

What are you transporting? 

Large volume? Large item? Lots of small items? A mini-household? What do you need to move from one place to the next? 

When you first start out, it might seem like everything you plan on taking is  a “must bring” item. So you may find it helpful to prioritize what you are bringing into three categories: must bring, should bring, and would like to bring. These are purely categories to help you cull out what won’t fit, if it comes to that. They might also help cut down on what you ultimately deem necessary, reducing your overall load. 

Must Transport

These are the absolutely necessary items that you can’t leave the house without regardless of how much space you have: medications, identification, tickets, money, keys, etc. They are also items you can’t replace or duplicate during transit or at the destination, with or without great cost. These are trip-stoppers. 

For me this included: the kids’ car seats, a baby carrier, passports, written permission to travel solo with my kids, prescription medications, OTC medications we requested as prescriptions from our pediatrician, printed airline tickets, U.S. and Euro currency, electronics and the peripherals, diapers and wipes, jackets, two back up outfits for the kids, pouches of food for the kids, and my infant daughter’s first-year monthly photo props. 

Should Transport

These are things you could replace if you had to, but usually at a significant cost or inconvenience. So, they are things you could purchase at the destination but would benefit you more if you carried them instead. 

For our crew this included: seat belt extenders for the kids’ car seats, a months’ worth of clothes, the only thermometer that works for us, personal hygiene items, diapers and wipes, and toys and activities to distract the kids on the plane. 

Would Like to Transport

These are things that are easily replaced, duplicated, or simply not necessary. Ask yourself if you can pick up something similar, if not the same, at the destination. Or, if it’s consumable, if it would be easier to purchase it versus carrying what you need. You can also check if it’s possible to borrow something that will work just as well. 

In our case, this included: hand sanitizer, bagged Clorox wipes, a baby monitor, cabinet locks, diapers and wipes, 110v USB plugs, USB battery, rain coats and boots, my empty purse, towel bibs my friend made for us, and pacifier wipes to clean the kids’ utensils between uses. 

How are you transporting?

Planes, trains and automobiles. Will you hand-carry your items? Will you hand-carry some items and ship others by a third-party shipper? Are you flying, driving, walking, using public transit? What method or methods of transit are you using to move the items? 

Our trip involved cars and planes, both of which we traveled via routinely. Since our trip involved liquids and flights, I noted we would have to separate all our liquids for security screening. It never hurts to buff up on the rules or the road though:  keep tabs on air travel with liquids here

What tools do you have/will you need? 

What containers are you going to use? Will you use boxes, suitcases, backpacks? Do you need special equipment or packaging? Are you going to use USPS Flat Rate shipping boxes? Do you need labels, postage, packaging tape, customs forms? Will you have to stand in line at the post office or can you use their Self-Service kiosk? Will what you are transporting fit inside? Will the packaged items fit in the transit conveyance?

I became my biggest tool both literally and figuratively. I would be making the trip by myself and my kids were small at the time. This meant I had to limit what we would bring to what I could carry.

As any good farm kid can tell you, two equally-loaded five-gallon pails are easier to carry than one. I could more easily carry something strapped to my back with something of similar weight strapped to my front.

Having done a fairly significant amount of traveling with kids this far, I was well-versed with carrying a child in a carrier on my front while wearing a backpack on my back.

We had both a child carrier and a backpack. 

This still left my hands free to carry or hold other items.

As I walked through the planning process, I found there were some additional tools I needed:  car seats to safely transport our kids via plane and car; our kids’ 10L backpacks that doubled as diaper bags; a true carry-on suitcase; and a trolley for my son’s car seat (which I was also purchasing but that’s a different post). 

What do you need to access when?

When you are getting ready to pack your bags, consider what you will need to access and when. Failing to plan is genuinely planning to fail here.

Consider your tools

Don’t forget to consider the accessibility of your tools. Is there easy access or is it difficult to get in and out of? Are there multiple compartments to easily separate items? Is there only one midline zipper? Is it soft-sided or hard-case? What is the capacity? Are you going to tape it shut? 

In our situation I deemed it made the most sense to put the various things that we needed ready access to during transit into the multi-compartment backpack or the kids’ backpacks, and to put items we wouldn’t likely need until we reached our destination into the suitcase with a single, midline zipper. 


Packing things that are needed in the event of an emergency at the bottom of a bag in the hardest to reach place will only delay the response. Instead, ensure that items needed in the event of an emergency are accessible within one or two steps. 

Because my son has an unknown allergy, I needed ready access to his antihistamine. Being a paranoid mom, I also wanted access to the thermometer and medicine.

Consider the whole transit process

Will you be going through a security checkpoint? What can you do to make that process the least inconvenient? How long will transit take? 

Knowing that we were going through airport security, I needed at least temporary access to all of our liquids, electronics, passports, and airline tickets. All of these items, particularly liquids, were packaged and conveniently accessible. Once we were through security, I moved items not already there to their permanent in-transit space. 

In the best of circumstances our trip was scheduled to take 16 hours. This meant I needed to have access to food, diapers, wipes, and distractions. Since my kids were small and are messy, I also needed a couple changes of clothes and some trash bags. Finally, for the kids’ safety and my sanity, I needed their car seats. 

Group items that are used together

A tenet of organizing. It’s inefficient to pack items you will need under the same circumstance in different places. For instance, putting diapers, wipes, and the changing pad in three different zippered pockets adds two extra steps to changing a diaper. Instead, group, or even bag, items needed for the same task.

For our trip, basically everything was grouped in this way. I bagged individual meals for each kid including bibs and utensils. The kids’ individual diaper bags included their diapers and wipes, changing pad, two changes of clothes, some small toys, and, once we got through security, small containers of diaper cream. All the electronics and peripherals were packaged in the same pouch of the backpack. Also, all of our clothing and anything else we most likely didn’t need until we reached our destination went into the suitcase. 


There are two ways to rehearse a load plan. One is to write/draw it out and one is to actually pack it. Both are helpful and useful in different circumstances. 

Write it out

If you have the time, writing out a load plan is a good way to get a head-start. Create list headings using the containers you’ve chosen and then start writing your lists. You can easily add, remove, or rearrange items over time without having to repack anything. Consider it a virtual packing rehearsal.

This is especially helpful if the things you need to pack are things that you still need to use everyday. Writing the load plan also helps you remember everything since you can add things to it that you use as you go through your day. Sometimes things become so routine you forget you’re doing them! 

About a month before we left, I started writing out our load plan/packing list. This really helped me feel prepared when it came time to pack. It was also really helpful because, based on how much we used that item, I was able to verify whether we needed the things on the list or if it was just me overpacking. 

Pack and move it

Once you have your list written out, it’s time to test your estimates. It’s good to pack one to two days before departure. This leaves time to arrange and rearrange as well as enables you to pack away things you don’t want used and subsequently left behind.

This is the only true way to know what will fit where. It’s not inconceivable that you could be successful when packing the day of or before departure without a list but since you’ve already put the work into it, use your list! 

Don’t forget, to the extent possible, to check how the containers fit in the transit conveyance. It is also important if you are carrying everything, for instance, to pick all of it up. Both to see if you can carry it, and how you should carry it. 

Two days before we were to leave, I started packing. For big trips, I normally do a rough pack two days out, let it fester overnight, and then make adjustments the day before departure. I knew that our carry-on suitcase would fit under the seat or in the overhead bin because of the dimensions of the suitcase. Given how overstuffed our backpack was, though, I knew that one would be stowed in a small aircraft. I wasn’t worried though, because I had a plan and knew where everything was. 

Try it out!

This is not an efficient planning method should you have a short, routine trip. However, for a trip where you are carrying a great deal of baggage, this should help you both manage your load and organize it in the most efficient way you can. So next time you take a full-on family trip with all the bags, give this a whirl and let me know how it went. 

Click the Pin it! button for a handy load plan outline and the load plan for our trip home. 

A load plan example
A Load Plan Outline
What is a load plan and how do I use it?
The beginner's guide to load plans and how to use them for family travel
The beginner's guide to load plans and how to use them for family travel
The beginner's guide to load plans and how to use them for big trips

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