To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in the knowledge of simplicity.
What To Pack
Clothes & Laundry
For many, clothing presents the greatest challenge to packing light; it's certainly the area where the "What if … ?" syndrome runs most rampant ("What if I'm invited to dinner with the Queen?"). This page addresses the two major issues related to this concern: choosing clothes, and keeping them clean.
More generously-proportioned folks will discover a third significant issue: larger-sized clothes occupy more space. So fitting a substantial wardrobe into a given bag will definitely prove a greater challenge than for someone less dimensionally endowed, and warrants extra attention to bag measurements and internal volume. It's still possible to travel lightly, but thinking about one's goals in relative (rather than absolute) terms might be wise in the early stages. To put my remarks in perspective, I am six feet (182cm) tall, with 10½EE feet (US measure), and generally a wearer of "large" sizes (as opposed to "'extra large" and above).
Minimize clothing by selecting a uniform colour scheme. Keeping to no more than two (compatible) base colours ensures that everything goes with everything else, thus maximizing the number of available clothing combinations.
Knitted fabrics are less prone to creasing. And small plaids/checks and other patterns, especially in darker hues, are better than solid light colours when it comes to keeping any wrinkles (and stains, and dirt) from being noticed. In all cases, the use of bundle wrapping helps considerably, by eliminating the folding that causes creases in the first place.
Choose clothes that will dry quickly. Test any new item that you are considering by washing, towel drying, and hanging it indoors overnight. Anything not dry by morning is likely to prove annoying on a long trip (see "Doing Laundry", below).
Avoid military-styled clothing, which in some parts of the world can definitely send the wrong message. This includes anything with a camouflage pattern, or coloured green! Sounds extreme, but even green backpacks were once confiscated in Nicaragua.
Be aware — especially if you are female — of the clothing conventions of countries you are visiting. Failing to to wear the hijab in parts of some Muslim countries, for example, can land you in difficulties more happily avoided. You can find pretty good information on culturally correct clothing for women in various countries by visiting Journeywoman.
A well-considered clothing mix — especially when combined with judicious accessorizing — can be highly effective in creating many "looks" from a limited number of clothing items. Not all such combinations will be appropriate for lightweight travel attire, but many are, particularly for women (this is an area where they have a considerable advantage over men). The following photo gallery — from Chick on the Go — presents twenty-five different looks, created from just five items of clothing (black, wide-leg pants, black slip dress, white long-sleeve shirt, white tank top, and black poncho that doubles as a skirt or shirt) plus one black and one white cloth belt. And while these particular items, styles, or colours might not be right for you, the example clearly illustrates that a great deal can be achieved with a modest number of garments.
Keep a watchful eye out for articles of clothing that can serve multiple purposes. A velour dress, for instance, can do double duty as a towel.
One excellent example of this is reversible clothing, especially tops, such as the men's shirt pictured at left, by Merrell. These effectively double your clothing choices, without noticeably increasing the amount you actually need to carry. Should you be fortunate enough to come across such an item that appeals to you, I suggest setting it aside for travel purposes only, as decent reversible clothing tends to be difficult to find! A surprisingly untapped market, in my view.
In fact, I encourage in general the notion of setting appropriate clothing aside for travel. If you travel much, you will soon come to recognize "perfect" travel wardrobe items, and it seems a shame to "waste" them on ordinary life! Reserving travel-only clothing also makes it a bit more special, thus less onerous to wear for extended periods of time.
When travelling with others, don't overlook the wardrobe-stretching benefits of shared garments.
Pay particular attention to underwear & socks, especially on longer trips. They will have a significant effect on your comfort, and likely be much more difficult (if not impossible) to replace than your outerwear, especially in developing countries, or areas where the local people have body shapes much different than yours. It's always possible to purchase appropriate outerwear locally (it may well be more appropriate than what you brought with you, and often makes for good souvenirs); the same is not true of undergarments. Incidentally, white socks and underwear are unlikely to remain that way over time, so unless you prefer surprises, start off with a colour choice of your own!
Inasmuch as underwear & socks are also the items of clothing that require the most frequent laundering, keep in mind that for short trips (less than a week, say), you may be able to forego that chore entirely, simply by packing a few extra pairs. For an arbitrarily long journey, though, three pairs of each — in conjunction with regular laundering — should easily suffice.
I can't recommend the notion of disposable undergarments; it simply doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Enough such underwear & socks for a simple two-week trip would cost around USD$60, take up at least as much space (and weight) as what I use now, and be considerably less comfortable. Typically made of thin, cheap cotton, they provide neither the wicking function so important to socks & underwear in hot conditions, nor decent support (for men's underwear) or cushioning (for socks). And although saving me a few minutes of laundry time every 2–3 days, they would saddle me with the ecological irresponsibility of buying stuff to throw away.
A related — and frequently recommended — traveller's strategy is the packing of older clothes that you plan to discard anyway, the theory being that abandoning them along the way makes room for souvenirs. I think this is more likely to appeal to those who take too many clothes to begin with. In my own case, it would mean more bulk and weight than what I already use; a well-planned travel wardrobe is intentionally pretty modest in volume, so there is little space to be recovered. Further, I prefer to look (and feel) my best when out in the world, and not have my aging elastic give out in the midst of some promising adventure. If you decide to try this, however, don't just leave discarded clothes in your hotel room, unless you'd like them returned home at your expense! Deposit them in the trash, or donate them to the needy.
Overpacking commonly begins with too much clothing, and often this is no more than an issue of attitude. Take exercise clothing, for example. Not all that many years ago, we didn't really have anything called "exercise clothing"; people just dressed casually when exercising. It's certainly nice to have modern, specialized garments, but unless you're preparing for the Olympics, it's a luxury, not a necessity. Many of the exercise shoe companies make dual-purpose shoes that look like casual business shoes, but employ running shoe construction; they can be used effectively for both. More specialized shoes (for golf, say, or bowling) can usually be rented when required. So again, while this stuff is nice to have, one needs to decide whether or not the associated benefits are worth lugging it around wherever you go, thus foregoing the joys (and returns) of packing light. For me, there's no argument!
Curious about others' experiences? Don't miss the TraveLetters page!
Deal with temperature variation by layering, not by packing heavier clothing; a set of long underwear — especially the newer technical varieties — is significantly more weight/bulk-efficient than a heavy coat. And because the human body loses a disproportionate amount (up to 25%) of heat through the head (where the skin does not vasoconstrict), wearing a hat is a particularly important part of keeping warm. The packing list on this site includes 5–7 layers of upper-body insulation, enough for anything short of an arctic expedition.
The other end of the scale demands that we pay closer attention. Humans are fairly tolerant of cold, and can regularly recover even from long periods of hypothermia. Raise the body temperature more than 6°F (3°C) above normal, though, and the brain malfunctions (double that figure, and all your temperature concerns will be forever eliminated).
With this in mind, have you ever noticed that the traditional garb in desert countries is not the bikini? Loose, light (in both colour and weight), long-sleeved shirts will keep you cooler than T-shirts. And, in most climatic conditions, cooler than other short- (and non-) sleeved tops as well.
The broad issue of weather, clothing, and body temperature is quite complex, and difficult to completely characterize. But the basics are straightforward … the heat that your body is trying to get rid of arises from two sources: as a byproduct of metabolism, and heat transfer from the environment. You can reduce the former by simply slowing down; this is why the pace of life is more relaxed in regions where hot afternoons are the norm.
Sweating is the body's natural cooling mechanism (so remember to keep well hydrated). The efficacy of the process is related to humidity, however, which can become high enough to block evaporation entirely; when this occurs, it doesn't matter whether your sleeves are long or short: the sweat will just lie there on your skin, and provide no cooling effect. On the other hand, sun damage (which can occur very quickly in the hot sun) significantly reduces the ability of the sweat glands to function correctly, thereby reducing the body's ability to regulate itself. And long sleeves definitely defend against this.
Sure, lots of people in New Orleans wear short-sleeved shirts; people often wear what they believe will keep them cooler, rather than what actually will. But I was in New Delhi, where the temperature was 115°F (46°C) when I first wrote these paragraphs, and the great majority of local residents were wearing long-sleeved clothing.
In order to promote the circulation of air necessary to the evaporation of perspiration, hot-weather clothing should additionally be both loose-fitting and porous (air-permeable). How porous? Enough so that air can pass through it without serious restriction. Test it by making an "O" with your mouth about the size of a typical beverage bottle (1" / 2.5cm), and stretching a piece of the fabric over it. If you can breathe comfortably through your mouth (not your nose), the cloth is sufficiently porous for decent evaporation. If not, it isn't.
All of this holds true for the lower part of your body as well. Long pants/skirts/dresses of an appropriate fabric will keep you cooler than shorts of any length.
A wide-brimmed hat is a convenient way to shield your head from the sun, but is not ideal. The headband, where the hat makes contact with your body, interferes with sweat production; worse, unless the hat features an open mesh design, the entrapped air space prevents proper evaporation.
The optimal way to protect your head (indeed, your upper body) from the sun is with an umbrella. Although most people from North America and the U.K. think of an umbrella as something to ward off rain, its original — and still most common worldwide — use is as a sun shade (umbrella, diminutive of umbra "shade, shadow"; i.e., "little shade"). Its origin is even more obvious in the word parasol (from para- "defence against" + sole "sun").
Finally, a comment on hand fans. In modern times, these have largely been relegated to female use (such was not always the case). This is unfortunate, as a hand fan is a surprisingly effective way to create air flow — and thus evaporative cooling — with remarkably little effort. Many such fans are far too small to be of much practical use (you need a fairly large surface area to generate much effect), but bear this option in mind when looking for ways to beat the heat!
For those who seek ultimate optimization, and are of a do-it-yourself bent, Anders Ansar sells information on making your own parasols, hand fans (shown at right), and hot-weather clothing.
Smart travellers plan to occasionally wash clothes during the trip, one of the major secrets to living out of one small bag. This is not nearly as onerous as it might sound, if you carry the right tools. Of course, you could take your laundry to a local self-service wash ("Laundromat", "launderette"), although that:
- assumes there is a local one (improbable in most locales),
- is likely to be expensive outside North America (unless you are in truly out-of-the-way places, where small bootstrap businesses can often be found to do laundry very inexpensively: ask the locals!), and
- turns laundering into a major (time-consuming) event, when it can be
almost as easy (and convenient) as brushing one's teeth before bedtime.
So one of your evening chores becomes doing the laundry; typically, you won't need to do so more than every other day (and if you travel with a partner, you can take turns), washing and rinsing the clothes — often only undergarments and socks — in the sink of your hotel or B&B. Never done laundry by hand? Whether done by hand or machine, the process is essentially the same (don't forget that washing machines are a fairly recent invention, and limited to the wealthier parts of the world).
A quick pre-rinse will get some of the dirt out of the clothing before the wash phase begins. Fill the sink (or washbasin, or whatever) with water, immerse the clothes, and knead them with the hands, much like preparing dough for bread-making. Then drain off the water, squeeze the clothes to remove as much of the dirty water as practical, and set them aside. Begin the wash by refilling the sink (but not too full, as the wet clothing will take up a fair bit of space when you return it to the basin) and adding soap or detergent; if using a dry laundry product, ensure that it is well dissolved before continuing. Add the wet laundry. If the clothes are badly soiled, you might let them soak for a bit at this point (but no more than ten minutes); most of the time that won't be necessary. Wash the clothes by kneading them thoroughly. If you're trying to remove a stubborn stain, rubbing that portion of the fabric against itself is helpful (when doing this with socks, try slipping them over your hands like mittens). Remember that washing is primarily a mechanical process, not a chemical one. When the wash water stops getting noticeably dirtier, drain it. Then refill the basin with clear water, and rinse the clothes the same way you pre-rinsed them. Drain, squeeze out water (wringing the clothes will extract more water, but is more damaging to fabrics), refill, and repeat until the rinse water remains clear. You might need several rinses if the clothes were particularly dirty, but two or three usually suffice. This entire process, apart from any soaking, should take no more than a few minutes (unless you've let the laundry pile up).
Rinsing can often be done more effectively in a shower than in a sink, but at the cost of more water used. If laundering silk, try giving it an extra/final rinse containing some hair conditioner, which (because silk — like hair — is a protein) both keeps the fabric nice and lessens wrinkles.
Rolling wet clothes in a towel, and wringing the towel tightly (with clothes inside), is an old traveller's trick to extract water and thus considerably speed the drying process; the towel both absorbs the moisture and protects the fabric from damage due to wringing. This technique works with any towel, but using a viscose towel is particularly productive, as you can separately wring out the towel and reuse it to good effect (whereas a regular towel, once damp, will cease to be effective).
Finally, hang the garments on your travel clothesline, and go to bed. All of this takes but minutes with a bit of practice, and you will forever be amazed at how much it lightens your load.
Ensure that everything is dry by the time you're ready to depart in the morning by choosing travelling clothes made of quick-drying (and wrinkle-free) fabrics. A shirt made of Coolmax® (or some similar fabric) will not only dry quickly, but will keep you cooler in summer and warmer in winter than one made of cotton. But if some item of clothing isn't ready to go, do as they do in the army: put it on anyway. Though it might briefly feel a bit uncomfortable, you'll be amazed at how quickly it will finish drying next to a warm body.
If you're travelling on business, of course, you're unlikely to want to wash your dress shirts in the sink (though it's nice to be able to). On the other hand, it's more likely that someone else is footing the bill, so letting the hotel do your laundry is a more acceptable option. Be prepared for occasional surprises if you take this route, however: the laundry processes in foreign hotels can be quite entertaining! Should you choose to have the proprietor of a B&B or small hotel do your laundry, be sure to negotiate the fee in advance.
When travelling for extended periods, some people like to splurge on a "real" laundry every couple of weeks or so, especially for large/bulky items of clothing that are more troublesome to hand wash. Drop-off laundries in some places are notorious for "losing" items; spreading out your clothing on their counter and taking a quick photo with your digital camera can help resolve any differences of opinion at pickup time.
You'll find further comments on this topic in the laundry section of the packing list.
You may have noticed that the listed quantity of socks and undergarments on my own packing list is "3+". The "+" relates to a particular tradeoff that makes sense for trips of no longer than about a week.
On extended journeys (a week or more), I consider the optimal number of these items to be three, allowing for a quick hand laundering every day or two. But for a shorter excursion, it can make more sense to forgo the laundry supplies, and simply pack additional socks and undergarments. Similarly, if you will be staying in one location for a week or two, and have convenient access to a washing machine (perhaps at a friend's place), packing more than three pairs of socks and undergarments might be the more sensible path.
Hand laundering is one of the core strategies that make it possible to travel indefinitely with a small bag, but there's no need to do so in (those specific) cases where it's the less efficient solution!
I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes …
Two effective options are:
- buy yourself a new outfit, and
- patronize a local rental service (for years, such establishments
have been supplying proper dress of all types for short-term
usage; you'll even find them on cruise ships).
In fact, this is the universal answer to any of the (mostly unlikely) situations presented by this kind of "What if … ?" scenario. Simply ask yourself what the local populace would do should they ever need whatever item(s) you're not bringing!