Relocating to another state always brings extra challenges, but when you’re moving in the military the degree of difficulty goes up a few notches. On the plus side, the military covers all or most of the costs. The downside? There can be a lot of confusing paperwork and a lack of control over where and when you’re moving.    

As a military spouse who recently completed her sixth relocation in 12 years, I’m intimately acquainted with PCS moves, as they’re often called — with PCS short for “Permanent Change of Station.”  

Sometimes we’ve let the military move us — especially when we moved overseas. That’s called a TSP move, so-called as they require using a military “Transportation Service Provider.” During other moves we did more of the work ourselves — and netted some extra money as a result. Those were known as PPM moves, with PPM short for “Personally Procured Move.”

This time, we moved our entire family ourselves, which included our five children and all our household belongings. The new location was across the country, in a state none of us had visited before. There was a lot of sweat (and a few tears!) while loading and unloading all those boxes. But we made it and successfully established ourselves in our new home. If we can move a family of seven across the country, then you can face your next PCS move too!

Although every military PCS has been a different experience, depending on where we’re going and the ages of our children, there are hacks and strategies I find us using every time we move. Read on for my top 10 tips for military moves to help you get prepared for your next big PCS move.

PCS Tip #1: Make the big decisions first    

You can create a moving timeline on Move.mil, which will walk you through the moving process and show you what decisions need to be made three months in advance, and which can wait until the week before the move. Deciding where to live (on or off base?), researching school districts, and choosing whether to rent or buy a home are part of the process. Use a military website like PCSgrades to research your new duty station and read honest reviews from fellow military families. 

PCS binder for military moves
(Credit: Lizann Lightfoot)

PCS Tip #2: Get organized by creating your own PCS binder

There will be emails, phone calls, and paperwork from various sources throughout your move. You’ll need copies of your service member’s orders, moving receipts for your travel claim, contact info from your moving company, and your Household Goods inventory. Create your own PCS binder to keep everything organized and in one place. As you pack the house, make sure that binder is hand-carried in your vehicle, not packed in boxes, so you have everything conveniently located for reference.

PODS portable moving container can be used for military moves

PCS Tip #3: Making a PPM move? Consider moving containers

A PCS move is hard enough. The military provides help. Even if you opt for a PPM, don’t try to do it all yourself, as you still have options to make your work easier. For example, you can use portable moving containers from a company like PODS so you can take your time and pack on your own schedule, while benefiting from their military discount. The containers will be delivered right to your driveway. When you’re done loading, the containers are picked up — no driving a huge moving truck! — and delivered to your new home, or placed in a secure Storage Center until you’re ready for them at your next location. Some providers, such as PODS, can connect you with professional packing and loading help, so you don’t have to do it all yourself.

Take advantage of military discounts: Save 10% on portable containers with PODS’ Military Discount — available to all military active duty, retired, and veterans. Find out more.  

PCS Tip #4: Ask questions and communicate closely with your service providers

If you opt to let the military move you, the key to success is to remain in constant communication with your TSP, or Transportation Service Provider. The military should assign you a Move Coordinator to field your moving questions and handle any problems that arise with the TSP. Check in regularly before the move to discuss moving day procedures and make sure they bring enough boxes for bulky or valuable items. On moving day, walk them through the house and discuss special instructions. You’re allowed to stay in the room while they’re packing, and to add your own detailed labels to each box. Instead of saying “living room stuff,” each box should have a specific list of contents, such as “DVDs, Bluetooth speaker, couch pillows.”

closet with "Do not pack!" sign posted
(Credit: Lizann Lightfoot)

PCS Tip #5: Create a “Do Not Pack” zone

If you are using the military TSP to handle your move, their responsibility is to pack everything in the house. To avoid losing your phone charger, moving paperwork, and essentials you need on the road, clear out a closet or small room and label it with a sign that says “Do Not Pack.” 

essentials for the first few nights in new home
Pack a “first night” box of essential kitchen and other household items to help with your last few days in your old place and first few nights in your new home.
(Credit: Lizann Lightfoot) 

PCS Tip #6: Pack a “first night” box

When you first arrive at your new home, you may spend a few nights sleeping without a bed while waiting for your furniture to arrive. Or if you drive your moving truck and arrive in the evening, you won’t have time to unpack everything. 

A “first night” box includes all the essentials you’ll need to be comfortable for the first few days. Here are some of the main items to Include: 

  • Toilet paper
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Trash bags
  • Sleeping bags
  • Pillows
  • Air mattress and bedding
  • Shower curtain and rings (if you’re not sure, throw in a rod, too)
  • Bath and hand towels
  • Essential cooking supplies
  • Tool kit with measuring tape to plan out your furniture

When it comes to meals, you’ll also want to plan for your last few days in your old home, because the bulk of your kitchen items will likely be packed away and possibly already picked up by your movers. For example, with a family of seven, I need to be able to cook real meals both before we leave and after we arrive.  So I use a pressure cooker the last few nights at the old house and the first few nights at the new house, since it can prepare different types of food quickly in one container. 

When you leave, either bring your “first night” box in the car with you, or load it as the LAST thing in your moving truck or storage container. For our last move, we packed our items into an undercarriage compartment in our minivan, since they wouldn’t all fit in a box. 

wires behind a TV

PCS Tip #7: Take pictures of everything

It’s important to have a record of everything in your home, especially valuables and electronics. Take videos with a date stamp to show that items are working correctly before the movers handle them. This is important for your claims process after your military PCS. You need to provide detailed information like product brand and age, along with evidence that the moving company caused damage. If you’re moving yourself, there won’t be a claims process unless you opt to purchase additional coverage for your belongings. But you’ll still want photos of the cords connected to the back of your TV and sound system, or the way the figurines were arranged on a shelf so you can put your house back together after the move. 

PODS packing supplies kit

PCS Tip #8: Don’t scrimp on moving and packing supplies

If you’re moving yourself, it’s essential to research pro packing tips and take your time to pack things properly. The military will reimburse you for moving supplies after a PPM, so it’s worthwhile to make the investment. Buy similar-sized boxes from a moving company because these are designed to stack together well and will give you the best fit when packing your moving truck or PODS container. Use bubble wrap for breakables and moving blankets to pad wooden furniture. Mover’s wrap is plastic wrap designed to go around couches and shelves. It will prevent scratches from objects shifting during transport. The right supplies can prevent hundreds of dollars in damage.

Need moving supplies quick? Get all the packing and moving supplies you need with fast, free shipping now.
baby sitting on moving boxes during military move
(Credit: Lizann Lightfoot) 

PCS Tip #9: Include the kids in the moving process

If you have military kids, remember that the moving process may be new and frustrating through their eyes. They are leaving friends and familiar places to go to a new town and school. Talk to them early about the reasons and benefits of moving. Research local attractions and fun things to do at your new duty station. If your kids are old enough, encourage them to explore their new hometown online by giving them reliable websites like the official travel site for the area. Even small children can help pack and decorate their own moving boxes, so they’ll recognize their own stuff when they come off the truck. 

PCS Tip #10: Plan your pandemic road trip

Many military families use a PCS move to visit new parts of the country, but when you’re moving during COVID your plans may change. The military pays a flat rate for the service member and each family member, which should cover gas, meals, and hotels while on the road. Check with hotels ahead of time to confirm local coronavirus regulations and disinfecting procedures. If you want to extend your trip, you can spend a little extra to see the sights or save money by visiting family. 

But try to avoid large crowds, and check in advance if attractions have restricted hours. When you arrive at your new base, the service member will likely be expected to do a 14-day Restriction of Movement (ROM) period, during which they don’t leave their lodging area. Other family members are not restricted, but it’s a good idea to wear masks and limit your contact with new neighbors for the first week.

Military moves aren’t  easy, but when you do your research and stay on top of things, you can have a smooth, successful PCS move. Use these hacks to start preparing now!

Lizann Lightfoot is the Content Editor for PCSgrades, a company that helps military families through PCS moves with trusted reviews by and for the military community. She is also the author of the Seasoned Spouse blog, which provides encouraging advice for military families. Her new book, “Open When You Love Someone in the Military,” will be released in 2021.

(Credit for featured image at top: Military OneSource via Facebook)