Comfort has its place, but it seems rude to visit another country dressed as if you've come to mow its lawns.
A Packing List
For the best travel experiences, dress more "upscale" than down. This doesn't (necessarily) mean "fancy", but few things will get you tagged (and targeted) as a tourist more than shorts, saggy slacks, sneakers, and sweatshirts.
Remember, not all of these items go in your bag: this list includes those garments that you will be wearing, and a number of them are destination/weather-specific. Also, don't neglect to read the page on Choosing Clothes.
Long-sleeved garments are generally more practical than short-sleeved ones. Before deciding what is best for your travels, consider the implications of coping with temperature variations. You can find very high quality, stylish tops that incorporate many features important to the traveller: quick-drying, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-resistant, temperature-adjustable, with hidden pockets, sun & insect protection, etc. ExOfficio's justly famed Air Strip™ Shirt (pictured at right) is a particular case in point. Such garments are not inexpensive, but offer an excellent return on your investment, especially if you reserve them exclusively for travel use.
Note that a white business shirt, "upgraded" with brown buttons, will serve its intended purpose when those buttons are hidden by a long necktie, but act as a leisure shirt when worn open-necked.
2 pairs trousers/skirts (shorts?)
Denim jeans make poor travelling clothes: they're heavy, bulky, and take forever to dry. Several companies make pants with zip-off or roll-up legs (which convert them to shorts, capris, etc.), a versatile solution that appeals to some; they do raise temperature concerns, though, and the zip-off variety (which I find a bit clunky-looking) tends to advertise one's "tourist" status in most parts of the world. Many styles of athletic/workout pants can also be used for lounging, sleeping, or general casual wear.
Keep in mind that shorts, and even short-sleeved shirts, are culturally inappropriate — especially for women — in many areas of the world (and not just places like Africa, Dubai, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, and Thailand, but even parts of countries like Cambodia, China, and Italy). And even where they're acceptable, shorts are a "tourist flag" in most parts of the planet.
Skirts or slacks for women? It depends. In some places, skirts are scandalous; in others, it's pants. So check before you go: Journeywoman is a convenient — and current — source of such information, from fellow female travellers.
A nice blazer is ideal for almost any dress-up occasion, and companies like Tilley and TravelSmith make them with fabrics and pocket arrangements that are specifically designed for travelling.
Women who anticipate more formal events should consider the merits of a skirt and separate top; the popular "little black dress" has drawbacks for the serious traveller (black is much too hot for many areas, and the one-piece nature of the outfit makes it quite a challenge to deal with the security pouch that you should be wearing). That said, the classic (Diane von Furstenberg, 1972) wrap dress, one version of which is pictured here, is a dressy — yet business-friendly — option that flatters any size and shape, and (especially in jersey knit) travels extremely well.
3+ pairs socks
Despite feeling nice (when dry, anyway!) and being a natural fibre, cotton is just about the worst sock fabric imaginable. Walking experts overwhelmingly recommend socks made of synthetic yarns (CoolMax is a good choice) to keep your feet comfortable and dry.
The main function of socks is to "wick" (draw) moisture away from the skin. Cotton, unfortunately, absorbs moisture, leaving your feet moist and more susceptible to blisters, fungal infection, and odour. Also, cotton chafes and feels cold when wet, which can rapidly put an end to your walking plans. Further, it is notoriously slow to dry, which can seriously interfere with your laundry schedule. So heed the classic sports adage ("Cotton is rotten, but plastic is fantastic."), and ensure that there's no cotton in your socks.
What about wool? It's unquestionably the best natural sock fabric (and Merino wool, being a thinner fibre, feels nice against the skin, especially in cooler weather), but wools don't wear as well, are heavier (for equivalent warmth), wick less effectively, don't dry as quickly, and are typically more expensive. That said, wool does absorb odours better, so if you have a problem with smelly feet (and daily washing doesn't help), then you might find it acceptable to forego the many benefits of synthetics to help address this concern. Otherwise, embracing the artificial (in this case, anyway) will lead to happier travels.
Finally, pay attention to fit, which can be critical on longer walks: avoid tube socks (which only fit tubes), one-size-fits-all types (they don't), stretch socks (too tight), and those with prominent toe seams.
Do you need special socks for long flights? Probably not. Back around 2002, the media hyped the dangers of "deep vein thrombosis" (a blood clot in the leg). Those with specific risk factors (especially more than one) for this serious condition — the obese, folks over 6 feet 3, women on a hormone regimen, anyone with "Factor V Leiden" (a hereditary blood coagulation disorder) — should seek medical advice for their particular situation: common recommendations include the use of special compression stockings, and the taking of low-molecular-weight heparin (not aspirin, which has no effect on fibrin, the main component of deep leg vein clots) prior to departure.
But the vast majority of us don't — despite what some marketers would have us believe — need to run out and buy special footwear. Some foot & leg swelling during long periods of upright sitting (it has nothing to do with flying) is neither unusual nor harmful; it is caused by blood pooling in the leg veins, due to inactivity (some medications, such as calcium channel blockers, exacerbate the problem).
The best course of action, especially on trips longer than a few hours, or when you are particularly immobile, is simply to follow good health practices: get up & walk around once in a while; exercise your leg muscles occasionally while seated (rotate your ankles, raise & lower your legs); drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration; avoid alcohol & sedatives; and don't sit with your legs crossed.
3+ pairs undergarments
Once again, look for fast drying qualities. Remember that nylon, which doesn't breathe, invites fungal infections in the tropics. And consider possible dual-use items: ScotteVest boxer-style underwear (seen at right) comes with a button fly and pocket, enabling it to serve emergency duty as a pair of shorts.
long (lightweight) underwear
Stores such as Campmor, REI, and the Sierra Trading Post sell very high-tech, lightweight underwear (often made of polypropylene to wick away moisture, and speed drying) that is ideal for layering. Look for dual usage products: many such items are sufficiently stylish to be worn as garments in their own right. The converse is true as well: women will find that tights can work well as underwear.
Note that what used to be called "long johns" are today more likely to be labelled "base layers"!
For males, the right kind of swim trunks can double as shorts. For women, a one-piece — or the more convenient tankini (see photo at right) — in a silky fabric can substitute for a body suit under a skirt and jacket.
dark (cardigan) sweater
A nice cardigan is an excellent layering item, and can also substitute for a jacket when a more formal appearance is required. Women might choose one that can be worn with nothing underneath; coupled with pants or a skirt, plus jewellery, this can make a nice evening outfit.
If more casual wear is appropriate, then an excellent — and amazingly lightweight — layering item is an insulated sweater. Originally these were filled with goose down, but although down continues to offer the ultimate weight/insulation ratio, it performs very poorly in damp conditions. Consequently (except for very specialized requirements), you are likely to be better served by one of the advanced synthetic insulation materials, which very closely approximate the functionality of down, without its poor wet-weather performance. Currently, the top-rated material is PrimaLoft® ONE (note that PrimaLoft makes other, lower-performance insulations as well: stick with "ONE" for the best results). Representative of this breed of layering garments is the Patagonia "Nano Puff®" line of tops, offering a variety of styles (pullover, jacket, sleeveless, hooded) and colours; a men's jacket-style sweater is pictured at left, above, and shown stuffed into its own pocket next to a Coke® can at right.
Umbrella or raincoat? It's not an easy decision. A contemporary (thin, breathable) rain jacket/coat packs very efficiently, and adds an extra layer to your wardrobe; ExOfficio's "Rain Logic® Jacket", in both men's (pictured at right) and women's versions, makes an excellent choice. A rain poncho is even more space/weight efficient, albeit not so wind-friendly; Sierra Designs makes a practical 10 oz. (283g) model, or you can opt for a high-fashion style if you prefer.
To shield your head, you'll need a hood (detachable or otherwise) or a hat. It's difficult to find hoods that work well: they interfere with your peripheral vision, are only marginally effective at keeping your face (and spectacles) dry, and don't prevent the pelting sensation of raindrops on your head. A hat occupies more luggage space, although a well-designed rain hat, like Outdoor Research's classic Seattle Sombrero, is disarmingly light (3.2oz / 91g), and surprisingly effective.
In hot climates, however, that jacket's extra layer is not a welcome one, and the hat/hood inhibits heat escape from the body's main location for same: your head. Furthermore, permeable fabrics, despite having improved considerably in recent years, are still not all that breathable, and it's possible to end up with more "rain" inside than out.
Enter the umbrella, which — after addressing the above concerns — adds a variety of important benefits of its own. This is especially true in warmer weather, where it provides, in addition to its rain-shedding qualities, superb sun protection. This, in fact, was the original purpose of the umbrella (indeed, the source of its name), and still its principal use worldwide:
In rain, an umbrella provides a combination of protection and ventilation unequalled by any clothing item. And this protection extends to your hands, your face, your glasses, your map, your camera, your lunch, and even your luggage (when carried on your back). If the rain is intermittent, you will find raising and lowering an umbrella to be much faster and more convenient than donning and doffing rain clothing.
Umbrellas also provide protection against the wind, being especially useful in bitter cold winds that can chill you very quickly. That said, an umbrella user needs to think about the effects of strong winds. A good umbrella is hard to break (I am not considering cheap sidewalk-sale items here): if you do manage to break one, it will likely be the result of some wind-related event. So remember to keep your umbrella pointed into the wind (this is easily forgotten when the wind is coming from a direction opposite to that of the sun, but a broken umbrella is not going to make an effective sun blocker). In strong winds, hold the umbrella shaft with both hands, and let the canopy bend against your body (which will prevent a sudden gust from snapping the ribs). You can even cope with extreme conditions (winds exceeding 100km/h [62 mph]) by disengaging the mechanism that holds the canopy open; in this fashion, even a gust that could theoretically break the umbrella will merely fold it up.
In true multipurpose fashion, an umbrella can also act as:
- a privacy screen (for changing clothes, urinating, etc.)
- an anti-bug shroud (netting draped over an umbrella forms a protective cover for sleeping or eating in the presence of insects)
- a weapon to fend off potentially dangerous dogs and other creatures
- a short balance stick
My own Swing Liteflex trekking umbrella with reflective silver coating (pictured at right, with fiberglass frame and ribs, and a Teflon®-coated canopy), at 207g (7.3 oz), weighs about half as much as many modern "breathable" rain jackets, and costs a small fraction of their price. [This latter observation helps to explain why outdoor gear manufacturers are less likely to extol the virtues of umbrellas.]
Drawbacks? An umbrella can be awkward on crowded sidewalks, especially for shorter users, and occupies one of your hands. It may not fit in your bag (mine goes diagonally in my MEI Voyageur bag, but not my Red Oxx Air Boss); of course, this problem can easily be solved with a collapsible model, but this increases the weight, the price, and the chance of something breaking.
So the choice is ultimately a personal one. I tend to prefer a rain jacket for cooler destinations, and an umbrella everywhere else. In really wet weather, I might take both.
Note that raincoat-wearing leisure travellers may want to think about a luggage cover as well. Campmor and REI carry "pack covers", but an acceptable alternative is to bring a couple of heavy-duty plastic garbage bags; they take up almost no space, and can serve other uses (such as dust covers) as well.
Or consider a poncho that's large enough to cover both you and your bag.
parka, coat, or equivalent
long T-shirt or sarong (nightclothes?)
A multipurpose item, this can function as a cover-up (for beach and bath) and nightshirt. In general, it's a good idea to consider what you will wear for trips down the hall to a shared bathroom, or building evacuations due to fire alarms and the like (both of which are much more common in the less-traveled parts of the world). Appropriate footwear and a garment that preserves some semblance of modesty are the prime requirements.
An ideal solution is the wonderfully utilitarian sarong (also known as a: boubou, canga, kain, kanga, kikepa, kikoi, lap-lap, lapa, lava lava, longyi, lungi, pagne, pakome, pasin, pareo, pareu, sulu, zulu, etc.), the traditional tropical garment of Asia, the Pacific, and east Africa.
Simply a length of thin cotton cloth, roughly 1 × 2 (or 2.5) meters/yards, traditionally with a batik pattern, it can be arranged on the body in various ways to form a dress, a skirt, trousers, shawl, and even a hat. There are almost as many ways to wear them as there are tropical cultures; if you see a style you particularly like, ask a local to show you how to tie it.
A sarong also functions as a sheet, towel, tablecloth, tote/laundry bag, sling, beach/picnic/airline blanket, shower/window curtain, pillowcase (or wrapped around some bundled clothing or an inflated aLOKSAK bag to create a pillow), horseshoe pack to carry small items, makeshift changing room, and more (including several of the many uses for a bandanna).
When buying a sarong (done most easily — and inexpensively — where they are commonly worn, though there are now many Internet sources), ensure that it's dyed all the way through (not just on one side); it's also advisable to set the dye(s) by soaking the garment in cold water before you use it the first time.
necktie, scarf, shawl, hairband, bandanna
Thoughtful accessorizing is an excellent way to stretch a wardrobe. For women in particular, a well-chosen scarf (such as the multicoloured silk print pictured at right, which will go with pretty much anything) can dramatically alter the appearance — and thus multiply the utility — of an outfit; here are 50+ examples.
I always, always, always travel with a scarf.
Scarves also offer much of the multifunctional utility of bandannas (see below). Cynthia Rowley (the designer quoted above) wraps hers around her head when taking a nap.
For colder weather, a long woolen scarf adds a surprisingly effective insulation layer (those seeking a more masculine presentation might appreciate these five simple styles), as can a light (cashmere/pashmina?) shawl. And folded thicker scarves also function well as makeshift pillows.
Yet another option is the classic Turtle Fur® fleece neck warmer (pictured here). This lightweight, versatile item comes in twenty colours, and can also serve as a hat, a balaclava, and even (like Cynthia Rowley's scarf) a comfortable sleep mask.
Costume jewellery can also work well for accessorizing (but see "Some Thoughts on Jewellery", below).
Cravat wearers would do well to consider a bow tie, which not only packs smaller, lighter, and more wrinkle-free than the more common four-in-hand, but also transforms a blazer into notably more formal attire. (Think that tying a bow tie is a forbidding challenge? Nope … it's the same knot most people use to tie their shoelaces. And the nice folks at Beau Ties are happy to show you how it's done.)
Bandannas are another classic example of utilitarianism, and could easily be a topic in their own right. A large cotton bandanna can serve as a neck/head scarf, headband, hat (knot each of the corners), halter top (for the sufficiently thin!), sun shade (hung French Foreign Legion style from the crown of a hat, or low over the brow in front, or from a rolled-up car window as a mini-curtain), napkin, towel, handkerchief, dust mask, sun/sleep mask, ponytail tie, washcloth, tablecloth, placemat, pillow cover (or wrapped around a sweater or inflated aLOKSAK bag to make a pillow), seating mat, scrub rag, tourniquet, (compression) bandage, tie/padding for splint, hot pad, cold/wet (and possibly ice-filled) compress, improvised smoke hood (dipped in water and tied around your face, one could easily save your life in a fire), belt, bracelet, lens cleaner, apple polisher, short cord, toothbrush, fly swatter, luggage identifier (tie it to the handle of your bag), rental car identifier (tie it flag-like to your antenna when in large parking lots), cooling device (dip it in water and tie around your neck), etc.
A large square bandanna also makes an excellent Japanese-style furoshiki for wrapping and carrying things (in fact, a nice quality large — about a square meter — scarf can be used as carry bag, and even a very dressy purse, as shown in the video above). Sort of a little cousin to the sarong!
Some Thoughts on Jewellery: Jewellery in general is not a great travel item, risking (as it does) loss, theft, and drawing attention to yourself. It can be useful for accessorizing, though. If you do choose to take any, be alert — as with every aspect of packing — for dual-use possibilities. A fancy jewellery wrap/pouch can stand in as a clutch purse for evening wear. Necklaces offer many options: one long enough to wrap twice around your wrist can serve double duty as a bracelet; one with a decorative clasp can be turned end-to-end, and a brooch or pendant can be hung from one, both as shown here. And at least one company makes a range of bracelets that double as hairbands, also shown here.
Mittens are warmer; gloves are dressier, and let you use your fingers.
sun hat / knitted cap, hat clip
Choose a light, soft, floppy, wide-brimmed sun hat over one that's too stiff to pack well; ExOfficio makes a variety of sun hats that are additionally treated with permethrin to help ward off insects (I wear their Breez'r Bucket model). If your hat doesn't have tie-down strings, buy (or make) a hat clip (a short cord connecting two strong clips, which fasten to your hat and shirt collar; Chums makes a good one). Using a hat clip provides — in addition to the intended function of keeping your headgear from blowing away — a hands-free way to carry your hat when not wearing it.
1 pair dressy shoes (laces?)
Don't break in a new pair of shoes on your trip. And if your shoelaces have seen better days, consider replacing them now, rather than during your travels (when it will likely be much less convenient).
For most people (especially many women), shoes represent the biggest packing challenge. Try to find a pair that works with everything you're taking.
Narrow heels are problematic on cobblestones and when trekking uphill (despite the observation that plenty of Italian women ride Vespas, and Parisiennes traipse for blocks, while wearing stilettos); modest wedges and chunky heels are more practical.
Women wearing pants on their travels will find heeled boots a practical substitute for dress heels (especially in the winter).
If you do take a second pair of shoes, be sure to utilize their interior spaces for packing purposes.
1 pair walking shoes/boots (laces?)
ibid. One can now find decent walking shoes that are dressy enough for most business occasions, so consider this multipurpose alternative to a second pair of shoes. Many women (and some men) find hiking sandals to be the optimal all-around footwear.
You'll find some shoe-packing ideas in the section on Coping with Shoes.
flip-flops or sandals
Teva river sandals (and similar brands) are more versatile than cheap flip-flops, but the latter will suffice for the beach, or toilet/bath/shower visits when at a hostel or B&B. In tropical areas, footwear like this is pretty much a necessity to avoid fungal infections (especially if you disregard my suggestions about sock fabrics). And many areas — especially during monsoon season — can produce instantaneous rivers that will have you wishing you had brought waterproof footwear!
Women can more effectively use dressier flip-flop-style sandals, to dress up an outfit, and wear with swimwear. Get waterproof ones, though.
Make sure it fits the loops of all the trousers you're taking. As wet leather is very prone to mould and mildew, choose canvas or nylon belts when visiting humid regions for extended periods of time.