It is also good to bring along a bit of soap, and not be ashamed of learning how to do your laundry.
What To Pack
Looking at Laundry
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 convenient 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
- unnecessarily 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 make doing the laundry one of your evening chores; 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 — most days, just socks and undergarments — 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, bucket, 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 than simply squeezing, 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).
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.
Several companies make clothes washing devices intended for travel. These generally take the form of some sort of (modified) dry bag, which substitutes for the sink in the above scenario. While portable, none of these products is truly a "go-light" solution: of those that I have tried, even the best (the Laundreez Portable Clothes Washer, shown here) is fairly bulky, and weighs — when fully dry — a not insignificant 11.8 oz (335g). Further, I have not found them to be any more convenient than a sink; generally, they take more time, due to deploying, drying, etc., though they would unquestionably be handy if a sink/bucket/etc. were unavailable. Consequently, I think they're more suitable for campers, RV users, even backpackers and the like than they are for the truly light traveller, unless you are expecting to spend much time in pretty primitive areas, and still want to keep your clothing pristine.
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, along with descriptions of the necessary supplies, in the laundry section of the packing list.
A Tradeoff for Some Trips
You may have noticed that the listed quantity of socks and undergarments on my personal packing list is "3+". On extended journeys (a week or more), I have found the optimal number of these items to be three (one to wear, two to be packed), allowing for a quick hand laundering every couple of days or so.
The "+" relates to a particular tradeoff that makes sense for two particular types of trips, those:
- of no longer than about a week, and
- where you will be staying in one location for a week or more, and have convenient access to a washing machine (perhaps at a friend's place).
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!