When you do a military move for your PCS, professional movers will pack up everything you own and transport it to the next location. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any work to prepare for a military move! It’s important to communicate with the moving company and decide ahead of time which essentials items you will need with you in the car and during the weeks it takes for your household goods to arrive at the new destination. These items should NOT be packed by the moving company. Military families often refer to these as “hand-carried items” because it is the things you will transport on your own to the next assignment. 

What you should pack yourself before a military move

How do you keep your hand-carry items separate from the rest of your household goods? It’s easy– you need to set them aside BEFORE the movers arrive. Military families all have that closet or bathroom where before Moving Day we stash those items we will be transporting ourselves. We make sure the packers know not to pack anything from our special holding place. It could be a bathroom, closet, spare bedroom or your porch. Here is a list of some of the things that should end up in the “Do Not Pack” zone.

Clothes and toiletries

Pack all the things you need for a few nights on the road: a change of clothes for several days, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and medications. If you have young kids then having several changes of clothing and extra diapers can be a lifesaver. On a PCS from Florida to Virginia, my infant wet through two sets of clothes! Luckily, we had a waterproof cover for the car seat. Pro tip: if you will spend several nights in hotels, then pack a separate duffle bag for each night, with a clean set of clothes for each person in each bag. Then when you are checking in, you just need to carry one large bag instead of a separate suitcase for each person!

My husband’s uniforms are also hand carried because on at least two occasions, he had to start work before our household goods arrived.

Important documents and valuables

Hand-carry any important documents that you do not have downloaded onto your computer or a thumb drive. You need original documents to register kids in school, check into base housing, and to access certain programs on base. You don’t want to wait until your household goods are delivered before you can take care of essential activities. Be sure to include birth certificates and social security cards, education records, other school-related papers, medical files such as vaccination records, pet records/vaccinations, and financial records. You will also want several copies of the service member’s orders for checking into base programs. 

Of course, you will also want to hand-carry a file of all your PCS paperwork. This should include copies of the packing lists and anything you signed on moving day, plus all the travel receipts for your move. Some people prefer a binder for this information, while others use a large envelope or accordion file. The point is–make sure it gets hand-carried in your car and not packed onto a moving truck!

Many people prefer to hand-carry jewelry so it won’t get lost or stolen. It doesn’t take up much room and it’s easy to transport. I pack a special watch of my husband’s and other items that are irreplaceable. My kids each received an item made from my husband’s BDU’s when he graduated from the Army War College.  My son’s wallet and my daughter’s purse made from his uniform are always hand-carried to the next duty station.

Electronics and toys

For little ones, a container of favorite toys can keep them occupied in the car or the hotel. It’s also nice to have those comfort items come bedtime in a strange bed. For young children, let them pack a backpack with their favorite toys and treasures to keep with them during the move. (Of course, you may need to veto some of their choices!) This can be their busy-bag while traveling. If they pack it before moving day, they won’t have to watch the movers throwing their favorite toys into cardboard boxes. For older kids and adults, you would want to pack laptops, phones, handheld game consoles and all the chargers. A portable battery pack is a great investment for long trips!

I used to purchase some “new” toys, many times from a consignment store, which I would pull out once we got to our new duty station. It’s a good way to keep the kids busy until we get the house set up and the cable turned on. You can also visit the Dollar Store before your road trip and pick up little toys to use as rewards throughout the PCS adventure.

The “First Night” box

The first few nights in your new house you will likely be “house camping” without your household goods. A First Night box of essentials can be brought in the car to make this transition go more smoothly. I always snag one of the packer’s boxes and pack a set of sheets for each bed and towels for each family member. If your new shower requires a shower curtain and hooks, pack those too. Toilet paper, trash bags, dish soap and laundry soap are also useful the first few nights. We once arrived at our new house, and it took four days for me to find the box with the shower curtain and hooks that had been delivered by the movers. So now this is one box I pack and bring myself.

Miscellaneous items 

These items can be packed into your First Night box, or tucked into storage compartments in your vehicle. Bring items like Ziploc bags, aluminum foil, paper plates, and plastic utensils. They come in handy if you end up in a hotel for a few days or if it takes longer than expected to unpack your HHG. That left over pizza can be wrapped in aluminum foil and saved in your hotel mini fridge. Some like to bring a crockpot or some basic cooking utensils with them to break up the monotony of eating out. I stopped once at a friend’s house as their house was being packed and her son came out of the house holding a plastic spoon from his frozen yogurt. Holding up the spoon he said, “Hey Mom, do we need to save this?” I thought, only a military kid would ask that!

What are your tips for how to pack for a move and what are your ‘must-haves’ to pack yourself during a PCS?

Carla Olivo has garnered numerous TV industry awards including an Associated Press award for Spot News Reporting and Documentary Reporting. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a retired USMC Lt. Colonel, and their two kids.