Please Stop Packing Your Dirty Shoes With Clean Clothes

I never pack without using travel shoe bags and here’s why you shouldn’t either.

Here at AFAR, I’ve gained the reputation as our resident germaphobe after penning a 750-word personal essay (OK, fine, rant) about why you should never put your suitcase on your bed. Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you of the virtues of using luggage racks, I’m moving on to my next pet peeve: packing shoes in luggage without stashing them in a shoe bag first.

I’ve lived in New York for nearly 15 years and can see the gum, dirt, and grime that builds up on the bottom of my shoes. At my first NYC job, I was forever scarred when a colleague was hospitalized with a flesh-eating bacteria which she contracted by walking around in sandals with a cut on her foot. With that horrible knowledge seared into my memory, I refuse to wear street shoes inside my apartment (or sit on my bed in the same clothes I wear on the subway). It’s also why I don’t let my boots, sneakers, flats, or flip-flops touch anything else inside my luggage. It’s not that I’m convinced the germs on my shoes are going to make me sick (just touching anything on an airplane will do that). It’s more of the thought of all the crud on your soles coming into contact with your clean clothes, your toiletry bag, or even a hat that touches your head.

In fact, every time I see a cute packing photo on Instagram with shoes thrown haphazardly on top, I shudder. To some, this may look pretty and whimsical. But all I can think is I bet those sandals have stepped in dog pee.

To me, using travel shoe bags is a no-brainer. However, when I polled my friends via Instagram Stories, a shocking 28 percent of them said they never use them. Surely, AFAR’s staff would be better? A quick poll in the all-staff Slack channel revealed that 14 out of 35 people—a full 40 percent—said they never use them either.

“It honestly has never occurred to me,” Michelle Baran, AFAR’s other news editor, said when I questioned her (OK, fine, harassed her). “I face my soles down or sideways in the bottom of my suitcase—I’m not a complete animal—and never think twice about it.”

Since I am (over)thinking this, the upside down or sole-to-sole trick doesn’t really cut it in my eyes. The tops of your shoes could be covered in shoe polish, so why would you want them touching and potentially smudging your stuff? And unless you wipe down the inside of your suitcase after each trip, whatever you pack there next could get dirt transferred to it, too.

Packing shoes sole-to-sole and sole down still grosses me out.

Packing shoes sole-to-sole and sole down still grosses me out.

Photos by Shutterstock

To defend herself, Michelle asked two experts in infectious diseases for their take on this hangup of mine.

“The risk is zero. Whether you put your shoes in shoe covers when you travel has more to do with how fastidious you are about your clothes and things,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert. “I would recommend if you step in dog doo, yes, clean that off before you pack your shoes. That’s a sound recommendation. I don’t think we have to make that recommendation.”

“Shoes are definitely dirty, 100 percent. They are icky, they are gross. That being said, I am not one of those people who covers myself in bleach and hand sanitizer. We need germs. They’re a part of how we live and how we survive,” said Saskia Popescu, senior infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth and George Mason University. “I’m sure some of my infectious disease colleagues would cringe. I put the bottoms facing the walls of the suitcase. I personally wouldn’t [put them in a bag] unless they were covered in mud or blood or something super weird. But that’s just me. I would much sooner wipe the bottoms of my shoes with a Clorox wipe than I would bag them in something.”

I don’t know about you, but wiping down shoes with wipes sounds like too much work and it’s more sustainable to throw travel shoe bags into the laundry and reuse them time and time again.

Even though I know I’m not going to catch a disease by packing my shoes willy-nilly, I’m also a big fan of compartmentalizing my suitcase with packing cubes. In that way, using travel shoe bags is an organizational thing, too. And what’s wrong with being hygienic and organized?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably ready to pick up some travel shoe bags stat. The quickest fix—that you likely already have in your house—are plastic grocery bags or large Ziplocs. But here are few sturdier and more sustainable options:

Cotton travel shoe bags

Over the years, I’ve gathered quite a collection of these small cloth drawstring bags. Some companies like Aesop use them instead of paper or plastic shopping bags. You’ll also find that many handbag and shoe companies package items in these for dust-free storage purposes. These are my go-to shoe bags, since they keep the dirt and grime from my footwear off everything else in my suitcase, but are super lightweight and don’t take up extra space. Once I unpack, I pop them in the laundry and reuse them time and time again. If you don’t have your own stockpile, you can also buy them on Amazon for less than $5 each. Another free alternative? Put that pile of freebie canvas tote bags you’ve accumulated to use—I know you have some lying around that you don’t use for grocery runs.

Buy Now: Set of Three Cotton Drawstring Shoe Bags, $14 (was $17),

Paravel’s Shoe Cube Duo comes in four colors, including this punchy red.

Paravel’s Shoe Cube Duo comes in four colors, including this punchy red.

Courtesy of Paravel

Packing cubes for shoes

If you’re looking for something waterproof and more structured than a cloth shoe bag, the luggage company Paravel sells a shoe cube duo that comes in four different colors (green, navy, black, or red). Crafted from seven recycled plastic water bottles, this pair of shoe bags will keep grime off the rest of your clothing, and they have transparent tops so you don’t have to dig through your luggage to find anything. The small cube can fit two pairs of flats or one pair of sneakers or heels. The large cube is big enough for two pairs of heels or sneakers. The $45 price tag is a little steep compared to the options above, but these would make a nice gift (aka a not-so-subtle hint) to push non–shoe bag users in the right direction.

Buy Now: Paravel Full View Packing Cube Duo, $45,

Shoe cubes big enough for hiking boots

Need something extra large and waterproof for your mud-caked hiking boots? There’s a shoe bag for that too, of course. REI says that this shoe cube can fit a single pair of mid-cut hiking boots, in sizes all the way up to a U.S. men’s 14. (I was also able to fit my women’s size 8 over-the-ankle Vasque Torre AT GTX boots in these easily.) Even though the ripstop nylon fabric is ultralight, it has a water-repellent coating so that you can throw your boots in it straight from the trail and not worry about getting your travel clothes wet.

Buy Now: REI Co-Op Shoe Bag, $20,

Ignore the fact that these shoes are touching a clean beach towel; at least they’re separate from the main clothes compartment in this Lo & Sons weekender bag.

Ignore the fact that these shoes are touching a clean beach towel; at least they’re separate from the main clothes compartment in this Lo & Sons weekender bag.

Courtesy of Lo & Sons

Weekender bags with shoe compartments

Even if you refuse to be converted to using shoe bags, maybe at least consider using a weekender bag with a separate compartment just for shoes? That way you can let your shoes live a bag-less life and also keep them away from things that touch your face like your hat, sleep mask, or pajamas.

The separate bottom pocket on the Lo & Sons Catalina Deluxe bags is roomy enough for multiple pairs and comes with an insert that gives the bag more structure and can be removed and wiped down. Choose from three different materials (canvas, organic canvas, and recycled polyester) and sizes (the Catalina Deluxe Tote is a great gym bag option, while the Catalina Deluxe Small and Large weekender bags are both carry-on approved).

Buy Now: Lo & Sons Catalina Deluxe Weekender, From $140 (was $215),

>> Next: The Germaphobe’s Guide to Flying

Lyndsey Matthews is the former senior commerce editor at Afar, covering travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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