How to Layer Your Clothes for Traveling

By Nick Hilden
Pack smart by layering.

Whether your goal is to pack like a minimalist so that you can travel with one bag or to explore multiple climates and seasons in one trip, learning how to layer is essential.

Layering allows you to carry less in your luggage while still being prepared for whatever weather your journey throws at you.

For example, a trip to Peru, Chile, or Argentina can easily bring you through a diverse range of climates, from hot, humid regions along the coast to chilly rain high in the mountains.

If you’re a slow traveler planning on spending months on the road, you need to be ready for summer, winter, and everything in between. 

I’m all too familiar with the need for layering. One December, I found myself alternating between the eternally sunny weather of south Vietnam and the surprisingly cold winter weather of Hanoi up north. There are many such regions where climate conditions change fast, and you need to be ready. Layering is the solution.

Outbreaker Backpack 45L

The Best Luggage for Layering

One of the key benefits of dressing in layers when you travel is that it can dramatically reduce the amount you need to pack. The less you need to pack, the less luggage you need to carry. Flying carry-on-only is within your grasp.

From my experience, the Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack is unrivaled for single-bag travel. No other bag allows you to pack so much into airline carry on limitations, all while providing maximum comfort and all-weather readiness.

The Outbreaker’s exterior is made from durable, waterproof sailcloth, so it’s ready for whatever the trip throws your way. Thanks to its fully adjustable, heavily padded shoulder straps, the Outbreaker is as comfortable as a backpack gets.

Layering for travel.

How to Dress in Layers

Don’t bring clothes designed for only one climate. Doing so would be expensive and a waste of space in your pack.

Everything you bring should be wearable in any weather. Winter-weight fabrics will weigh you down and frustrate you on the road. Any specialized items you may need, like gloves, can be bought locally and passed on afterward. Focus on versatility and layer-ability.

Find stylish pieces that can be layered with other options to make them perfect for any climate. Use layers to dress efficiently and look good.

Base Layers for Travel

Base layers are the foundation of a versatile wardrobe and will quickly become your best friend. Be thoughtful about your base layers and choose wisely. 

You’ll need several high-quality, breathable base layers that you can always wear. Your list should include underwear (plus long underwear or tights for a trip through cold weather), undershirts, socks, and t-shirts.

These base layers should be made of merino wool or synthetic microfiber. They’re both breathable. When you’re hot, wool and microfiber wick sweat away from you. When you’re cold, they keep you warm. Merino has the advantage of not getting stinky like cotton.

Another important quality about these fabrics is that they dry really quickly. I can’t overstate the importance of quick-drying fabrics.

If your base layers get wet or sweaty, they’ll be ready to wear again after a few hours of air drying. Most importantly, you can hand wash and hang dry your socks and underwear in your hotel room. Because you can wash and dry your base layers quickly and easily, you only need to bring a few pairs of each.

Two to three pairs of socks and underwear are all you need for any long-term trip. One set of long underwear (top and bottom) will be sufficient. Adding a set of long underwear makes pants and any long sleeve shirt an ideal outfit for even the most frigid conditions.

Really. That’s all you need.

You can find a huge variety of great base layer t-shirts. I’ve worn Under Armour, North Face, and store-brand microfiber t-shirts that have all served me well. Go with what fits your budget and style needs. But stay away from cotton if you’re serious about layering.

Layering Bottoms

At Tortuga, we believe that the best travel pants not only look and feel great but lean into smart features like wrinkle and water resistance. They should also offer a bit of stretch for an improved range of motion. 

If you typically wear slim or skinny pants, consider packing a pair with a looser fit so you can pull them over long underwear.

The Outlier Slim Dungarees and Western Rise Evolution Pant check all the layering boxes.

Layering Shirts

Shirts and tops are your opportunity to get creative and show your personal style, but durability is still key.

Remember that you’ll be wearing your base layer t-shirts almost every day in almost every environment. My style is pretty classical, so I wear grey, black, and blue. You can never go wrong with a grey t-shirt and khaki bottoms. If your style is a bit louder or more colorful, make sure your base layer t-shirts match that.

Bring two shirts for going out, unless you know you don’t plan to socialize. Again, let your personal style shine and don’t stress about efficiency. For guys, two button-down shirts are probably perfect. Or, bring one button-down and one polo shirt. For ladies, bring two blouses that make you happy that you’re not in your base layer tee anymore.

Bring what you find wrinkle-resistant at home but don’t fret about whether it’s perfect “travel gear.” Go out in the clothes that make you happy and confident. But keep in mind you only need one or two options.

I recommend one very durable and versatile sweater or fleece pullover. I pack either a black fleece pullover or a grey wool sweater. A nice sweater is generally acceptable for any semi-formal affair like a dinner party in cold weather cities. This heavier-weight top will also be great for wearing over your base layer t-shirts and under your jackets on freezing nights. If you’re moving from city to city, no one will notice that you’ve worn a sweater multiple times that week.

Layering Jackets

You’ll only need one-and-a-half pieces of outerwear: a waterproof, windproof shell jacket and a fleece jacket. I say one-and-a-half because I don’t consider the fleece jacket to only be outerwear. It’s also the second most essential layering piece after your base layers.

You’ll wear your fleece jacket on chilly summer nights in the Mediterranean and underneath your shell in the frigid Scandinavian winter.

It’s great but not essential if your shell and fleece jackets are a set that attaches in some way (zippers, snaps, Velcro).

Your waterproof, windproof shell jacket is an amazing investment because it’ll be your rain jacket year-round, in any climate. These jackets are stylish, so they’re appropriate anytime, except in the most formal settings.

In reality, wind and precipitation chill us to the bone during the winter, so you’ll quickly realize that your shell jacket is more useful than most heavy “winter” jackets that let through wind and rain. That’s why skiers wear these jackets with just base layers underneath.

I wear a North Face fleece and shell set. I fully recommend North Face. You can find very affordable used jackets on eBay or Craigslist.

You don’t need ski pants. They’re huge, bulky, and expensive. Locals in sub-Arctic cities don’t walk around in ski pants, nor should you. Your long underwear will keep you plenty warm.

Layering Accessories

Bring some layering accessories that make you happy. For guys or gals, a scarf takes practically no space and individualizes almost any outfit. Or, perhaps it’s a hat that’s not absolutely necessary but makes you feel whole.

Don’t give up your personal identity on the road just because a travel blogger recommends all utilitarian outfits. You won’t look cool or be happy if you’re dressed like a hunting guide.

Don’t feel guilty about bringing one or two accessories that make you happy. If they become too big of a burden, you can throw them out. They’re only stuff.

Around the World Packing List

Base Layers

Bottoms

  • 2 pairs (1 rugged, 1 nicer) of pants
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • Synthetic fiber shorts or swimsuit

Shirts

  • Performance fabric t-shirts (see the base layers section above)
  • Wool sweater or fleece pullover
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts

Jackets

  • Waterproof, windproof shell jacket
  • Fleece jacket

Packing for a Trip to Anywhere and Everywhere

You’ll only need one piece of luggage for your long-term trip through multiple climates. Anything more is inconvenient on the road. Just make sure that the bag fits your airline’s carry-on limits, usually a total of 45 linear inches (length + width + height) or less. The Tortuga Outbreaker fits these dimensions and was designed specifically for long-term travelers.

For packing your bag, we suggest rolling your clothes. Rolling saves space and prevents wrinkles. Bring a few plastic bags for wet or dirty clothes.

If you pack what I recommend and bring one extra pair of shoes aside from the ones on your feet, your travel backpack will fit everything perfectly. You’ll also have plenty of space for a small computer or iPad, a few books, and a water bottle.

Forget something? Who cares? As long as it’s not your passport, you can almost always find whatever you need wherever you are in today’s globalized world.

Enjoy your trip. And be glad you decided to layer.