When you travel clothing is a liability, not an asset. Pack less, wash often, travel lighter.
The shift to packing in a carry on backpack is scary for a lot of people, but the secret to traveling with a smaller lighter bag is actually really simple. Pack less stuff and wash your clothing once in a while.
To help you get started, here are a few ways to wash clothing while traveling, keep your backpack from stinking, and even get rid of stains on the go.
Dirty Laundry is Dead Weight
Limiting the amount of clothing you pack is the foundation of good carry on packing. Three or four extra items of clothing might be all that’s separating you from cheap, easy, stress-free travel with a carry on bag.
We all pack a few things we don’t need, but odds are you’ll use your laptop or phone charger or deck of cards multiple times in lots of situations. You might even use that sweet frisbee you brought. Who knows? Moscow is a weird place. But packing extra clothing is different.
Clothing is mutually exclusive, meaning simply, the clothes that you aren’t wearing are the clothes you have to lug around all day.
You can’t wear four socks at once, or all your t-shirts at the same time (unless you’re in Iceland). Once you wear a pair of underwear (*cough* a few times) they’re essentially useless until you clean them. That means that you won’t be using most of the clothing you packed, most of the time.
So bring less and wear what you want more often.
Even clean clothing isn’t really useful until you get to each item. That button-down shirt you wore to the club on night six is actually just, “the shirt you carried around for five days then only wore once.” When you travel clothing is a liability, not an asset.
So, to lighten the load let’s tackle a few travel clothing do’s and don’ts, and take a good hard look at the best ways to do laundry while you travel, including the time, cost, and pros and cons of each option. Roll up your sleeves because it’s time to get your hands dirty.
The Best Travel Fabrics for Doing Laundry On the Go
One of the best ways to do laundry while you travel is to pack a back with clothing that either dries quickly or just plain doesn’t need to be washed all that often.
If you’re only traveling for a week — maybe even two — you might not have to laundry at all if you pack a few pieces of quality travel clothing. Merino wool shirts and underwear, and the right pair of quick drying stain resistant travel pants can mean you’ll be able to travel for days with a remarkably small amount of clothing.
Here are some of the best fabrics for staying clean and fresh while traveling.
Jeans Are the Ultimate Travel Fabric
Levi Jeans, CEO Chip Bergh, argues that “machine washing” jeans is completely unnecessary, and most denim experts agree that a pair of jeans only need to be washed every two to six months, or “when they smell,” depending on the kind of abuse you put them through.
The coolest part about denim is that it’s designed to wear and fade specifically to your body. How you sit, the way your keys crease one pocket, even the wrinkles behind your knee are all unique to you, and if you don’t wash your jeans, those lines and foxing around the stitching will start to show. Swedish jean company, Nudie Jeans simply says, “The outcome depends on how you travel.”
After a few months of travel, a well-worn pair of jeans is as unique as your fingerprint. How cool is that?
Merino Wool is the Best
Wool, particularly merino wool is an all-star when it comes to travel clothing that fights odors and stains. Wool keeps you warm while also locking away odors if you sweat so you don’t stink. It also wears well over time, and packs like a champ.
If you can’t afford merino wool (it’s an investment, but well worth it), up your wool game with a synthetic smartwool hybrid for easy wearing and fast drying times.
But really, if you’ve got the money buy merino wool. It’s literally the best material on earth. Comfortable, durable, warm, breathing, soft to the touch, wrinkle-resistant and fast-drying. If I could make all my clothing out of merino wool I would, starting with this merino smartwool t-shirt.
Underwear That Goes the Distance
Often times, your underwear is the only piece of clothing that you really have to wash. Not having enough clean undies can hamper your trip in a lot of ways.
Most people try to solve this problem by packing more bras and underwear, but that’s not the carry on friendly solution. Instead of packing a dozen bras and underpants, invest in just 3-4 pairs of travel underwear, and you’ll be able to go weeks between washes.
When looking for good travel underwear, keep your eyes peeled for these four features:
- Antimicrobial fabric
- Moisture wicking
- Quick drying
- Comfortable fit
The antimicrobial fabric keeps your undies smelling fresh, the wicking keeps you dry, but the real difference between regular underwear and travel underwear is how they fit. Good travel underwear just feels…different.
A long-time travel buddy recently put me onto a new underwear company called Saxx. He raved about the new design of… well… the cup portion of these travel underwear, and swears by them. They’re literally the only underwear he owns now, and after taking ’em for a spin, I’m a big fan.
Pairs start at $25, so maybe dip your toe with one pair before ditching your whole wardrobe, but I can attest that nothing beats a well-designed pair of underwear on the road.
Don’t Pack These Items
Never Pack White Clothing
This is a no-brainer. White clothing shows stains immediately (especially sweat stains) and is tough to wash with the rest of your colored clothes. White fabrics are a hassle. Don’t pack em.
Cotton Travels Poorly
It’s easy to forget how difficult cotton is to keep clean and wrinkle-free. Cotton breathes well, but dries slowly, stretches after a few hand washes, shrinks in the dryer, and generally wrinkles seconds after you pack it.
Cotton is cheap and easy to pack, but if you plan on doing laundry on the road, ditch the cotton for polyester, or at least a poly blend.
Travel Clotheslines & Sink Plugs Suck
Don’t waste your time, money, or space on this garbage. The flat plastic sink plug that comes with “travel laundry kits” isn’t much better. There are lots of ways to block a sink drain that you don’t have to pack and carry with you every day. More on this later, but stop it. Stop it right now.
Now that you know a few items to bring and not bring, let’s move on to how to get your clothes clean while you travel.
Packing Cubes for Laundry
One of the first steps for staying fresh and clean on the road is to keep your clean clothes away from your dirty ones.
Packing cubes are a simple way to separate separate worn clothes from fresh ones, and it doesn’t even require packing anything else in your bag.
Use a Dry Bag for Dirty Clothes
If your clothes really stink (hey, we’ve all been there), you might want to keep your dirty clothes sealed away from your clean stuff. A small 10L drybag is a great way to keep the really smelly stuff separate, and the small size is a way to keep your packing list nice and small.
The waterproof seal on the bag means that whatever smelly nonsense you lock in there will stay separate from the rest of your clothing until you’re ready to wash it. When you’re not using it, the dry bag rolls down nice and small, and if you ever need a dry bag for your camera gear, etc. you’re prepared.
You can upgrade to a 20L dry bag for dirty clothing, but be careful that you don’t pack too much stuff that takes up all the room in your bag.
How to Do Laundry in a Sink
If a laundromat is too far, too expensive, or just plain closed you’re gonna have to wash your clothes in the sink at the hostel. But don’t panic. Hand washing clothing in the sink isn’t a big deal.
Here’s how to quickly and cleanly wash your clothes in a hostel sink:
- Plug the drain in the sink. A rubber ball works great for recessed drains, but a coffee mug, dinner plate, or even just a balled up sock will work just as well
- Fill up the sink with warm water. 85° F water will break down stains without causing the colors to run
- Soak your clothes for 2 minutes. Drain, rinse, and repeat at least once.
- Add laundry detergent or soap and hand wash each item. For tough stains, rub the fabric against itself, lather (that just means squeeze and work the clothing until you see some suds), and focus on any obvious stains. Basically picture a washing machine. Make your hands mimic that motion and you’re good.
- Rinse. Rinse each item until the soap is gone
- Wring excess water off. If you’re in a hurry you can wring items out into a towel to get a little more water off
- Hang dry
It’s simple and easy, and you can easily wash a backpack’s worth of clothing in about 15 minutes.
Here’s a detailed video of how to do travel laundry, from our founder, Fred.
Doing Laundry in a Hotel
Most (nice) hotels offer laundry service for the simple reason that it’s a big money maker. Don’t get me wrong, hotel laundry service can be a fantastic way to maximize your time in a destination without adding to your packing list, but you’re gonna pay for it.
While not all hotels gouge their guests for a clean pair of pants, hotel laundry fees can be steep. Travel writer and producer Rudy Maxa has even made a hobby of collecting laundry price sheets from hotels to show how much laundry can cost you across the world—from $12 for a cleaned and pressed men’s shirt at the Carlton in Manhattan, to $6.30 for a dry cleaned skirt at the Landis in Taipei—and it goes up from there. Hotel laundry is expensive.
Those are 5-star hotels, so the prices are a little high, but the reverse can be true at budget hotels or national chains, like the Holiday Inn. Don’t just assume that every hotel offers laundry service. Many have self-service laundry machines, but sometimes not enough to go around.
The best way to know if your hotel provides laundry service or a machine is to simply ask. Call, or check out their website for amenities, availability and fees and see if laundry service is available, or inexpensive, before you pack. If it’s only a few bucks maybe leave that extra change of clothes at home to keep your bag nice and light for the flight. You’ll be glad you did.
Do Travel Laundry at the Laundromat
If hotel laundry service is too expensive, not fast enough, not available, or you’re staying at a hostel, the next best laundry alternative is to drop it off at a laundromat. Typically, hostels have information about the closest laundromat (the hostel staff wants you to smell good more than you do) so just ask and they’ll point you in the right direction. Odds are, the hostel staff uses the same place.
I’ve paid for same-day drop off laundry service in Rome, Peru, Colombia, and all across the US, and I’ve never paid more than $1 per pound—and that’s on the high end. Typically it’ll be half that, including a wash, dry, and fold. My local spot in Rome was only 2€ for a small load, or about the price of two scoops of gelato.
Paying 2€ for a load of laundry that will take you two hours is a win in my book.
If you do decide to stick around the laundromat and wash it yourself to save a few bucks, at least find a laundromat with wifi and get some work done while you’re waiting for your tighty whities to dry.
How to Remove Stains: Travel Laundry
Travelers get stains on their clothing. A lot. You sit in wet grass, get coffee on your shirt, or mustard on your pants. It’s all part of the deal. The good news is that you usually don’t need to do a whole wash to get the stains out of your clothing on the go.
Tide To Go Stain Remover Pens
The easiest way to get out stains is to leave it to the pros. Tide To Go Stain Remover Pens are simply one of the best ways to remove stains on the go. The pens are cheap, lightweight, TSA compliant, and they just plain work.
I used to be a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory, and that white collared shirt needed a lot of Tide To Go Pen love on some nights. Tide pens are worth they’re weight in gold if you need to get rid of stains in a hurry.
Warm Water and a Bar of Soap
You can get out most common travel stains (wine, coffee, sunscreen, and makeup) with a little warm water (not hot), and soap. Be gentle when cleaning spot stains as you don’t want to rub stains deep in the fibers of your clothing. Think of how you’d clean up a spill on shag carpet. You’re trying to soak the stain out of the clothing, not digging it into the fibers. Less is more.
Cold Water and a Bar of Soap
If you’re clumsy and need to get blood out of your clothing, cold water is the way to go, as heat can actually let a blood stain set.
Buy Dark Travel Clothing
You know what’s impossible to stain? Patterned fabrics and dark colors. If you’re going to get a travel shirt or pair of pants, get low maintenance clothing that can handle the inevitable slips, spills, and stumbles that happen all the time when you’re on the go.
How to Stop Your Bag from Stinking
After a few trips, your trusty travel bag might start to smell. If that happens there are a few easy ways to get rid of that funky smell from your bag, and a few more ways to prevent any odors from coming back.
Dryer sheets are one of the oldest “travel hacks” in the book, but they really do work to keep your bag smelling fresh and clean. Toss a fresh dryer sheet in your backpack (preferably somewhere a little out of the way) and marvel at the fresh scent every time you open your bag.
If you think dryer sheets smell a little too “chemical” lavender oil or another scented essential oil is a great way to keep your bag smelling fresh. Buy a small (way less than 3 oz bottle) of essential oil and dab a few drops on the lining of your backpack. The oil lasts a lot longer than water-based sprays or fresheners and can be quickly and easily replenished throughout your trip with just a few drops.
Bonus tip: dab a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow before you go to sleep and you’ll dream of running toward something you love in a wide open field
If oils aren’t your thing, you can toss a small sachet of lavender, rose, or other potpourri into your bag to keep odors at bay. My girlfriend always packs a little tiny sachet of lavender when she travels, and I get to hear her exclaim with joy every time she opens up her backpack.
Silicone Gel Packets
You know those little packets that ship inside your electronics boxes? That’s there to keep moisture away from your $1000 camera in transit. And guess what? It can do the same for your backpack.
Toss a few (I’m talking one or two) silica gel packets into your backpack and let them absorb any excess moisture and sweat from your worn clothing. When you remove the moisture, the bacteria that causes odors has nothing to live on, and so it does instead of multiplying until your bag smell like you live at the gym. Silica bags are free, lightweight, and extremely effective at preventing and even removing unpleasant odors from your backpack.
Tea bags act a lot like silica gel packets, and if you get a tea bag with a nice scent you can even mask odors as you remove them. Bouns: tea bags are everywhere and they’re super cheap
If you really need to get rid of a funky stench, toss a little white vinegar in the wash with your backpack. Alternatively, you can put some white vinegar in a spray bottle (diluted with a little water), and spray your bag to help remove odors. Just let your backpack dry in the sun, and you’ll be odor free in no time.
Wet wipes with disinfectant are a great way to eradicate smelly main compartments of your backpack or other luggage. Just make sure you get into every nook and cranny or else you’ll be back to smell town in a few days.
Good Ol’ Fashioned Sunshine
Bacteria hate sunshine. If your bag smells like week-old hell, don’t shove it into a dark, dank closet. Open it up, and set it in the sun for a few hours. Your bag needs to breathe, and a little sunshine can help it come back from the dead.
Travel Laundry Detergent Review
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap Wins
Dr. Bronner’s definitely smelled better than Tide while actually washing my tank tops (it’s got that signature peppermint aroma) but, once they dried, both garments that I hand washed in the sink smelled about the same, that is “clean.”
That being said, the reusable bottle and versatility of Dr. Bronner’s (you can use it for laundry or soap and shampoo) makes it a better choice than the single use Tide packet. The Tide Packet does win for sheer size though. If you know you’re only washing a few items one time, I’d pack the little Tide packet and save space.
DIY Laundry Kits
Packing your own laundry bag is a waste of space. A bulky laundry kit sort of defeats the purpose packing less and doing your laundry on the road. The last thing you need is a lot of extra gear weighing you down, and drying lines, sink plugs, clothespins, detergent, etc. are all things that you just shouldn’t worry about on your next adventure.
Cough up a few extra bucks and save space, time, and your sanity. You can do your own laundry when you get home. That being said, there are a few times when a travel laundry kit might come in handy.