That age old question! What to wear? First, consider the climate, what activities you’ll be doing and what you’re most comfortable wearing and feel good in. Next, whether you’re traveling for 1 week or 1 year, the idea is to only pack enough for 2-3 days. Then follow the rule of wear one while the other is washed and drying.
What?!! Wear the same clothing over and over again for weeks or months on end?!! Yes, you read correctly. Trust me, it works, and it won’t make you feel like a fashion outcast. Other travelers you meet have been wearing the same clothes for 3 days as well so you’ll fit right in.
What will you wear if you get asked out on a hot date by that prince or princess or score free tickets to the opera? Uh, well, that’s were the first rule of packing comes in: you can always buy a nice outfit along the way IF something comes up. In the world of backpacking and budget travel even clean casual clothes will make you feel like a million dollars after you’ve on the road for a few weeks.
Long-term travel through different climates can pose a real dilemma when it comes to packing. The easiest way to minimize the weight of your pack is to buy/rent/borrow warmer clothing along the way and sell/donate it locally when you’re done. Another option is to mail gear home. The reliability of postal services around the world varies greatly, don’t mail anything you can’t afford to lose
Should you go out and buy expensive synthetic-quick-drying-moisture-wicking travel clothes? Many travelers swear by synthetics. My own preference is for clothing made of natural fibers like cotton, linen or silk when traveling in warm climates. I find many synthetics end up smelly no matter how well they’re washed. Though, if traveling in the tropics during the rainy season, it makes sense to pack synthetics, if only to avoid mold and mildew. There’s no need to experience monsoon season wearing perpetually damp undies.
Taking into account cultural sensitivities with regard to dress is important as well which is a topic we’ll cover in a future article. It doesn’t hurt to do some research beforehand, some cultural sensitivities with regards to dress are not always obvious.
Disclaimer: I’ll be the first to admit that this article is biased and assumes warm weather travel. Despite having been born, raised and lived my life in a cold climate, all of my backpacking travel experience has been to warm weather countries. Even my European travels have been during the Summer or Autumn
Top?…Long or even short sleeved shirts are one notch above t-shirts. They look smarter, even if wrinkled. You can wear the sleeves down for sun protection or warmth and roll them up to keep cool. They’re lighter and dry quicker than a t-shirt. It doesn’t hurt to throw in a t-shirt, or even buy a souvenir one along the way. If you’re packing light, you’ll get far more mileage out of a couple of shirts.
Bottom?…One option is to pack a pair of convertible pants with zip off legs and you’ll be all set when you need some shorts. Skip the jeans, denim is too heavy, and too hot. Women might prefer ankle/calf length pants as opposed to shorts. Whatever you do, pack at least one pair of long pants to wear when visiting religious sites like temples or mosques. Skirts are a practical alternative for women in warm climates. On the flip side, I’ve more than once packed a skirt and never used it.
Feet?…ahhhh shoes! I admire those seasoned backpackers who can leave home with just a pair flip-flops to their name. I’m still a 2.5 pair of shoes type traveler. The .5 being the cheap pair flip flops, and the other two, a pair of sandals and lightweight trainer style shoes. Hiking boots are too heavy and totally unnecessary unless you’re doing some serious trekking. Are you traveling for several months through many different climates? You could plan to buy the hiking boots along the way. And what about socks? If you plan on wearing sandals most of the time, 1 or 2 pair of socks will do. Socks that hand wash and dry quickly are a bonus if you’re wearing them everyday.
Knickers & things…no matter how light you’re trying to pack, bring at least 2 pair of underwear. Whether you go with natural or synthetic fabric, make sure you test wash and dry them before you leave home. No use bringing anything that takes forever to dry in damp, tropical conditions.
Bras are also easy to hand wash and air dry, so no need to pack more than a couple. A sports bra is convenient as they have fewer seams and shouldn’t chafe when wearing a backpack. The little pouches for extra padding on some models are a great hiding place for money, take out the padding first though 😉 . A bikini top can double as a bra as well.
Sleepwear…optional for some! 😉 Lucky those who sleep in their birthday suits, more room in their pack for other stuff! Plan on having something to wear to walk down the hall when staying in places with shared bathrooms if only to make sure you’ve got a pair of shorts and t-shirt handy for a middle of the night toilet run. I pack some lightweight yoga pants that serves multiple purposes: bottom half of sleepwear, lounge wear, and travel wear on long flights.
Swimwear…guys are lucky as most swimming trunks can double as shorts, though not if you wear skimpy Speedo style trunks 😉 . Being female, well, I don’t bring anything I wouldn’t be seen in at a beach at home. Choice of bathing suit is personal. My rule is if you’d wear it in front of your parents, it should be fine on most tourist beaches overseas. In the Middle East don’t be surprised if you see local women bathing in the ocean fully clothed.
Outerwear, should I bring a jacket or a raincoat? A lightweight fleece jacket is useful even in the warmest places, for travel on super chilled AC buses or flights. Layers is the way to go to keep warm, so make sure your jacket is big enough to wear a few layers underneath if it gets cool. For wet weather wear, short of wearing a fisherman’s rain suit, you’ll likely get soaked if you’re caught in a tropical rainstorm. I’ve never traveled with a raincoat, even in Ireland.
Jewelry: leave the valuable heirlooms at home! Don’t bring anything you can’t afford to lose. You can always buy some locally handcrafted jewelry while traveling. It makes a nice souvenir and helps the local economy as well. I only bring what I plan on wearing most of the time which is normally just a pair of small earrings.
Should I bring a watch? I like to have an alarm clock for those times when I can’t depend on a wake-up call. A cheap digital watch with an alarm works well, is small and lightweight and can also be used as a watch when need be.
Bandanna, hats, other bits and bobs…a bandanna or two is a must. They can be used as a head scarf for sun protection, a towel, napkin, tied into a pouch to carry small items, etc. A sun hat is a good idea, make sure it’s got a wide enough brim or peak to protect your face and neck. I always pack a lightweight scarf to wear on cool nights or AC buses. A sarong, basically a large rectangle of cotton cloth, has multiple uses: beach towel, regular towel, bedding, tablecloth, scarf, etc.
Click here to download a PDF copy of my packing list.
So now, what about staying well-groomed and smelling pretty on the road. We have all figured out in Part 3 of our packing series on toiletries.