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It can be done: 1 suitcase for whole family

As a mother of four, I've spent the past 15 years or so serving as part Sherpa, part pack mule on our family's vacations. Loaded up with everything from Band-Aids to Nintendo charging cords, I erred on the side of excess when it came to packing.

Now I'm trying to lighten up.

With airlines such as United charging $25 for a second checked bag and the smartest travelers working to live out of a single carry-on rather than check anything, I decided to see if I was up to the challenge.

Could I fit all the gear needed for my family's three-day getaway to Austin in one bag that would fit in the overhead compartment?

The answer - with a few caveats - was yes.

The key was finding the right bag, using clever packing techniques and sharing the burden a bit by having the kids carry more of their stuff.

I'll give credit to packing guru Doug Dyment of www.onebag.com, an informative site that offers downloadable packing lists, product recommendations and specific packing tips, including his preferred method of bundle wrapping, or wrapping clothes around a central object such as a toiletry kit.

Dyment isn't a fan of wheeled luggage - the wheels take up too much space - so I looked for his recommendations and found the Red Oxx Manufacturing site, www.redoxx.com, where I purchased a bag he helped design - the Air Boss Carry On ($225).

The bag is divided into three sections, so it was logical to take the central section for my husband and me and have our four sons split the other two. Red Oxx's co-owner Jim Markel recommends rolling clothes and then packing them into one-gallon zip-close bags.

I used the bags to corral each person's socks, underwear and swimsuit, then pressed all the air out - giving the effect of freeze-dried clothing.

I managed to get most of what we'll need in the one bag weighing about 22 pounds, but here are those caveats:

1. I didn't pack shoes or pajamas for the kids. I figure they can wear their sneakers on the plane and carry flip-flops and pajamas in their backpacks. Yes, I'm passing along some pack-mule responsibilities to them. It also makes things easier the first night on the road.

2. I kept toiletries to a minimum, opting for sample sizes, figuring we can use what the hotel offers.

3. I'm traveling somewhere relatively warm. I think it would be harder to do this on a ski trip, but then again perhaps you could wear all or most of your bulky gear on board.

4. I was only planning for a long weekend, but if I could find laundry facilities, our wardrobes could theoretically stretch over a week.

5. I have boys. They would gladly wear the same outfit the entire trip if I let them.

COOL PACKING PRODUCTS

Need help stuffing your stuff? Here are some products designed to ease packing for parents:

Pack-It Folders, Eagle Creek

Assign each family member a different color and use the handy folding guide insert to keep your wardrobes wrinkle-free. The medium size works for a long weekend, but go for the large if you're on a longer trip.

$21.99 to $27.99 at the Container Store

Pac Back by Cheeky Monkey Designs

So you look a bit like a pack mule; at least you have your hands free when schlepping that car seat through the airport.

$39.95 at www.familytravelplanet.com

Jar Pac from Cheeky Monkey Designs

The Transportation Security Administration's rules allow parents to carry on baby food and liquids in "reasonable quantities for the duration of your itinerary." While that's a bit vague, perhaps packing it neatly in this product will help you get through security.

$7.95 at www.amazon.com

Travel Space Bags

Stuff clothes in these bags then roll them from one side to the other, squeezing out air, to shrink the amount of space taken up in your bag.

$3.99-$4.99 at the Container Store

Calypso Paper Pouch

Make copies of vital documents and travel itineraries in this water-resistant pouch that sits flat in your suitcase.

$9.99 at the Container Store

Unforgettable Door Hanger

Technically not something you pack, but still nice to hang on your back door for a glance before you head out. Be sure to list all your kids' names to avoid a Home Alone situation.

$5.99 at the Container Store

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