Building a Basic Travel Wardrobe

By Stacey Ebert

Every traveler needs a basic travel wardrobe. Fill it with things that make you both look and feel good, keep you both warm and cool, and are culturally appropriate.

Elle  loves to travel and has been doing it for decades. She loves the show and food scene of Las Vegas, the casinos of Atlantic City, and beach life in the Caribbean. Before every trip, Ellen chooses her clothes, lays out the outfits, tries everything on, discards items that don’t work, revamps her list and packs it all away. Organized, thoughtful, and always leaving room to bring home ‘new found’ treasures – her holiday begins before she sets foot on that plane. I love this process. But we don’t all travel the same way, go to the same places, head out during the same seasons, nor are we all in the same financial travel bracket. So how do we manage our packing lists, and plan for those ‘most of the time’ experiences while still leaving room for spontaneity all on a non-Kardashian budget?

Develop a basic travel wardrobe.

Whether you call it a basic travel wardrobe or a travel capsule wardrobe, the idea is to develop a mix-and-match combination of pieces you love that create numerous outfits. Start with what’s in your closet. Add a few key pieces purchased with intention. Consider the following:

  • There’s a big difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’
  • What you ‘think’ you ‘need’ and what you actually ‘have to have’ can be different
  • Just because it’s in your closet doesn’t mean you really ‘need’ it
  • If you’re actually invited to dinner with a real knight, like our editor, Jenn, was, you can pick something up where you are… it’s what the locals would do, too.

Building a Travel Capsule Wardrobe: Questions to Ask

The capsule wardrobe is designed to make your life easier while traveling. Think simple, versatile, and convenient as you get started. If your closet is a jumbled mess of all the things you’ve accumulated since grade school, pick out your favorites and ignore the rest. If you’re starting from scratch, consider your budget, buy a few new things and make do with what you have for the rest – you can always add more at a later date.

Do these items work for various locales?

The idea of a basic wardrobe, or capsule wardrobe, is to maximize “wearability” by choosing items that are versatile and low maintenance. If the items you’re thinking about don’t fit these categories – ditch them! Consider the places you’ll go and make sure you could adapt the clothing you choose for beach, village, temple, trek, or city travel.

What is my primary type of travel?

If you’re headed towards the warmer climates most of the time, build your basic wardrobe around this and consider thinking of a few other pieces you can add in at a later date if you head somewhere colder. If you spend most of your time in cities, then choose pieces that reflect the urban vibe, take into account the sorts of activites you’re likely to find, and leave those zip off adventure pants out of the mix.

Which activities am I likely to engage in?

Are you a city sightseer, an extreme sports addict, a yogi, hiker, beach bum, or skier? Sure, we each might have a bit of each of these in all of us, but that basic travel wardrobe is one that can work for most occasions and takes into account your recreational passions. Additions or subtractions can always be made later. Consider and plan for your ‘normal’.

What’s the climate like where I’m headed?

Plan for that and tweak accordingly. I’m a warm weather traveler, primarily; but I realize that if I ever want to see those northern lights in Iceland, I’m going to have to brave the cold. Plan your wardrobe to work where you’re headed – you can always add or subtract a layer or two and really, bathing suits don’t take up that much space anyway.

What’s the local culture?

Research the local culture and be sure to dress appropriately. In many parts of the world (and certainly when visiting any place of religious observance) it’s best to cover arms, shoulders and knees – be sure to have something that works for where you’re going.

How long am I traveling & how often will I do laundry?

Some of us throw the towel in the wash after each shower and others wait ’til we can no longer stand the mildew smell before it ever hits detergent. Consider your type of travel, your level of activity, the climate, and know that the entire world washes their clothes – somehow you can make it work too. There’s no need to take three outfits to wear each day and think you’d need to launder each immediately. 

As a general rule, pack for no more than one week, and plan to do laundry.

How can I pack light and smart?

This is where those fabrics, bag size, and the ability to discern the difference between what you want and what you actually need comes in. Just because you have it doesn’t mean it needs to be packed. Just because you like to know that you have it ‘just in case,’ still doesn’t mean it needs to make it into your bag.

  • Pack lightweight, layerable, versatile, wrinkle-resitant fabrics
  • Plan to layer your clothes to build outfits
  • Choose a smaller bag and you’ll automatically pack less
  • Reassess your wants vs. needs

Be ruthless in the packing mode – your wallet and your back will thank you for it later.

When I travel (and when I’m at home) what do I wear most often?

If your capsule is being formed from what you already have (or even partially from that), what is it that you wear most often that can work? Whatever winds up in that travel wardrobe should be things that should make your heart smile, make you feel most like “you,” and work for many occasions.

What to Consider Before Purchasing Travel Clothes

Travel is my vice, but if you ask me where I spend my money, it rarely goes to clothing and most often goes towards experiences. However, I’ve realized that for most of my traveling life, I’ve been making do with what I have and perhaps it’s time to step up my game. My cotton tank tops work for great beach excursions but a hike in 90 F weather will end in a pile of perspiration. For the girl who gets cold at less than 70 F, my regular layering of cotton everything won’t keep me warm in Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher in early April. The time has come to spend a bit more on quality pieces.

Quality Matters: Fabrics & Questions of Versatility

There’s no shortage of new synthetic and technical fabrics on the market, but the old classics are classic for a reason. Look for fabric that is wash and wear, will last, wicks wetness away, and adds warmth if you need it. Compare natural fibers to synthetics, consider skin preferences and allergies, listen to the experts, and get shopping.

Comparing Fabrics

Merino Wool

The miracle wool, with limited-to-no itch, wears longer without odors, contains natural antibacterial properties, wicks away moisture, and dries quickly.

Companies to consider: IcebreakerSmartwool

Cotton and Cotton/Poly Blends

These fabrics provide the least allergy concerns, are comfortable and breathable. However, they hold moisture in so, while alright for sightseeing in cool weather, these fabrics are not the best for those heated hikes.

Linen or Silk 

Both linen and silk are breathable. Silk is great for warmth, especially for those who can’t wear wool, but both wrinkle exceptionally easily. They may require special care too, which can be hard to manage while traveling. Do your homework before packing these!

Nylon & Polyester

For performance wear items, these wick away moisture well. Keep in mind that some bodies don’t work well with these and sometimes they develop a sweat-like odor. If you’re looking for items that are lightweight and curve hugging, these could be your fabrics.

Tencel, Rayon, Lyocell, Modal, Viscose

These are fabrics known for being quick dry and feeling smooth against the skin. I can’t wear any of these because as soon as I put them on, the fabric retains a sweat smell that I can’t shake. Not for me, but maybe for you. Everyone is different.

Does the look work? 

Find your ‘look’ and make it work for you. Sure, you’re traveling, still, whatever you put on should make your heart and mind feel good. Remember, these are things you’ll wear daily for however long you’re exploring. A travel capsule wardrobe shouldn’t be so different from your regular wardrobe that you feel like a different person. Take your personal style on the road.

Can you mix, match, and layer these things?

Years ago we all seemed to think we needed those puffy jackets to keep us warm. Today we get to choose thinner over bulkier as there are synthetic fabrics that keep us warm from the inside out. Make sure that everything you choose for your basic travel wardrobe goes with everything else and can be combined in different ways and layered to create lots of different looks. Choose a limited color palette and then add one or two items, like a colorful scarf or statement necklace, to make your outfits pop. Base layers are your friends. Synthetic fabrics work wonders. And perhaps you’ll choose a more packable puffy jacket to add to your carry on wardrobe. 

Do these clothes provide any sort of sun or insect protection?

Depending on where you’re going, you might need this bit of extra protection. There are lots of new clothing items out there that included added sun or insect repellant.  While it’s true that you may pay a bit more, the extra shelter from harmful rays and bites is worth it when you’re traveling places that warrant it.

Check out ExOfficioREIColumbiaPatagonia for a range of options.

How will I carry my stuff & do I need pockets?

Since I’ve yet to find yoga pants with pockets or jeans that fit my 4’11 frame that have pockets that can hold what I’m carrying, I often wind up with a daypack or small handbag for outings. If you’re looking to be able to have that pocket access, keep that in mind before your shopping begins. Look at cargo and travel pants and skirts that fill all of your clothing, travel and pocket criteria.

How much is too much?

Keep in mind that it took you this long in life to acquire the clothes you have – it didn’t happen overnight so neither will this travel wardrobe. Add a piece at a time and make use of what you already have, that’s fine. If it’s hard for you to find clothes that fit (like me), when you find something and it works – give it a go. Check out the return policy, keep within your acceptable price range and limit your initial purposes. Remember that less is often more.

Basic Travel Clothing Essentials

Wouldn’t it be nice if building a travel wardrobe was as organized and simple a process as building a bear at Build-A-Bear? We’re in search of basic colors that work together and can make outfits in varied combinations. Some choose black and white, others choose dark blue and beige, and some mix and match patterns and solids – whatever works for you, works. Look for a few key items that can bend with climate, weather and occasion. Think going from the trail to downtown, or the museum to the bar in one fell swoop.

  • 4 light tops (one of these can be nicer- long sleeve for cooler climates)
  • 2 tank tops/undershirts for layering
  • 1 sweater/cardigan/long sleeve in neutral color
  • 1 light jacket
  • 2 pairs of pants or jeans
  • 1 skirt/shorts
  • 1 pair leggings/sweatpants
  • 1 dress/swap with another skirt/dressier trousers or pants
  • 5-7 pair of socks
  • 2 pair of shoes (one pair for everyday wear, one pair that dresses up)
  • 1 pair of pajamas
  • 5-7 pair of underwear
  • bras (convertable & sports)
  • 1 hat or baseball cap

Where to Find Travel Clothes

Do your research online. Ask friends with similar styles (of clothing and travel) for recommendations. Visit stores and actually try things on. Depending on your needs and your budget, you might try:

Travel Capsule Wardrobe Extras

If it’s your first foray into travel accessories, you might be caught up in all of the awesomeness and decide you need pretty much everything that REI sells. Although it might be nice (and I adore that entire store), you don’t need it all.  Resist the urge to go crazy with accessories; you don’t need to buy it all up front. There are a few items that are worth adding to your travel capsule wardrobe as your travels take you to places that justify making the purchase.

Rain Jacket

For years, I only traveled on beach holidays in the Caribbean and rarely did a rain jacket make an appearance. But when my travel shifted to adventures in Europe in the early spring, Australia in winter, New York in November – I needed that rain jacket. Choose a packable one that will tuck away and not take up too much room in your travel backpack when you’re not using it.

Cold Gear – Jacket, Scarf, Mittens, Boots

 Even if you’re a warm weather fanatic, there are those adventures where your fingers and face get a bit chilly. Choose a nice pair of lightweight gloves into and add one or two nicer quality, merino wool base layers to your shopping cart. A travel scarf can be a wardrobe dresser-upper as well as warmth on a cool walk. No one wants to have to skip an adventure because they’re cold.

Wait to buy the boots until you’re planning for that trip to Iceland to climb on glaciers and see the northern lights.

Travel Towel

Every inter-galactic traveler knows that this is the one item you can’t be without. While not strictly a wardrobe item, a travel towel will always come in handy. They fold up into nothing, and you’ll be glad you have it.

Banish the “Just in Case” Items

My sister and I used to read Whatif by Shel Silverstein on a nightly basis. Those what ifs don’t go away when you turn 8, 13, or 46 – they continue to reappear in various forms throughout life and nowhere is that more true than in packing. You know, those questions like:

  • What if I wind up invited to a formal event?
  • What if a local invites me to a holy festival?
  • What if a fellow traveler invites me for a long weekend in chilly Belgium and I only have appropriate beach attire?

If you pack for the what ifs, you’ll have overpacked.

Find your strength, hold the line, and think of what you’d do in that instance if it happened in your non-traveling life. I know, you’d have the right stuff in your closet – but let’s pretend you didn’t, something didn’t fit, or it was loaned out to a friend – now what? You’d see if you could borrow something, post something on social media and see if anyone knew of a place to go, find a thrift store nearby where you could grab it for limited funds, or find a way to buy something new.

Guess what – you can do all of that while somewhere else too!