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
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 at the Royal Palace?"). This page addresses the major issue related to this concern: choosing good travel clothes. A companion page looks at the second component: that of keeping them clean.
More generously-proportioned folks will discover yet a third significant concern: 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 help put my remarks on this site in perspective, note that I am a six-foot (182cm) tall male, with 11EE feet (US measure), and generally wear "large" (as opposed to "extra large" and up) sizes.
Travel Clothing Considerations
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. I tend to dress in fairly bright colours, but I travel with blues and greys.
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 when packing helps considerably, by eliminating the conditions that cause 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 troublesome 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 The Chick on the Go — presents twenty-five different looks, created from just five basic clothing items (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 perhaps saving 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 to your 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. A simple scarf will buy you at least 8°C (15°F) of protection. And because the human body loses some 10% of heat through the head (and up to 55% during exercise, which increases blood flow to the head), wearing a hat, especially one that covers as much of your ears as possible, is a particularly important part of keeping warm. Avoid baggy clothing, in order to reduce the air space between layers, and maximize the insulation value of your garments by keeping them clean. The packing list on this site includes 5–7 layers of upper-body insulation, enough for anything short of an arctic expedition.
If you expect to be outdoors in temperatures lower than about -20°C (-4°F), you will need to pay very strict attention to clothing issues, as the potential for frostbite increases dramatically (and this is exacerbated by the fact that as the temperature drops below this point, you don't feel it getting notably colder). That warm hat now becomes extra important, as blood vessels in the head do not vasoconstrict, thus are particularly vulnerable to extreme temperatures. And you need to appreciate that the big enemy is very cold weather is moisture. So even though down is an optimal insulation-vs-weight material, it is not great for being active in cold weather: better to use synthetic fabrics and stuffings that wick away perspiration.
Niko Dubreuil, a polar expedition expert who lives in Kullorsuaq, Greenland, relates a lesson he learned while watching children play on the ice floe in February at -35°C (-31°F): "As soon as a child fell, he stopped playing and took the time to clean his clothes and remove every snowflake from the inside of his gloves. Because he knows that the snow in his gloves, with the warmth of his body, will turn into water. And this water will eventually freeze and freeze his fingers." Conduct yourself accordingly.
The other end of the scale demands that we pay even closer attention. Humans are fairly tolerant of cold, and can regularly recover even from long periods of hypothermia. But raise the body temperature more than 3°C (6°F) above normal and the brain begins to malfunction; 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").
The best travel umbrella I'm aware of is Gossamer Gear's 179g (6.3 oz.) Lightrek Hiking Umbrella, affectionately known as the "Chrome Dome".
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.
But What if I am Invited to Dinner at the Royal Palace?
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!