Today’s travelers want better clothing. Gone are the days of chucking a pair of hand-me-down cargo pants and a few cotton t-shirts into your duffle bag for your next off the grid adventure. Expensive checked bag fees, the rise of freelancers (like myself), and digital nomads working from all over the world have spawned a new type of traveler with a different type of wardrobe. We need to pack light and travel hard for weeks at a time while still looking great on the road. Luckily, we’re living in the golden age of travel clothing.
Breakthroughs in space age fabrics, crowdfunding great ideas, and changes to the way clothing gets made (size, scale, and sustainability) have lead to more functional travel clothing that you’re not embarrassed to wear. Travel clothing is going mainstream, and big name brands have noticed. Featherweight insulation, new waterproofing techniques, even tech integration and “smart” clothing are just some of the hallmarks of tomorrow’s new travel wardrobe. People want more from their travel clothing, and brands are delivering.
I chatted with several fashion designers, travel clothing experts, and clothing brand CEOs about the clothing innovations that are changing how we travel. Here’s a look at a few performance fabrics to watch out for, clothing brands with an eye toward innovation, and some seriously stylish travel clothing with all the rugged features you’d expect from gear that’s road tested in some of the world’s most demanding environments. Get excited because the future of travel clothing is here today, and it’s amazing.
Travel Clothing Fabrics: Merino & Synthetic Blends
When you think “travel clothing” you probably picture cargo pockets, moisture-wicking t-shirts that cling to your body like a silk bodysuit, pants that zip into shorts, and hiking boots, but you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today’s top designers are refining natural fabrics like high-quality merino wool and premium cotton, as well as reworking dozens of other fibers like nylon, for shirts, pants, and a whole host of other travel garments that actually fit well, look fantastic, and wear for years in the harshest conditions. Here are a few examples of stylish travel fabrics you should include in your travel capsule wardrobe.
Merino Wool Travel Shirts
Merino is the grandfather of “travel” fabrics because it’s been doing what all the high-priced synthetic fabrics do, naturally, for millennia. Namely, keep you warm, dry, clean, and comfy. Thanks, Mother Nature.
Merino is lightweight, odor-resistant, quick drying, insulating in cold weather, breathable in warm weather, doesn’t wrinkle, and looks and feels so. dang. good. Thanks to my Dad’s influence (he’s from New Zealand), merino has been a favorite of mine for decades, even if it is a bit pricey. Luckily, merino is infiltrating the designs of travel shirts across the board, so you don’t need a Kiwi passport or a Swiss bank account to enjoy top quality merino travel clothing. Here are a few of my favorite merino wool travel shirts:
Unbound Merino Wool Shirt ($65)
When Unbound set out to make a great travel shirt, they turned to merino for all the reasons I just listed. Confident of the inherent value of the fabric, they made a sample, made a video, and asked people if a stylish, durable travel shirt was something they wanted.
They raised over $330,000 for their merino shirt on Kickstarter (that’s 900% more than they asked for). I guess people like a well made travel shirt.
Unbound kind of says it all about merino right on their homepage:
“Stylish, simple merino wool apparel can be worn for weeks or even months without ever needing to be washed. That means you can ditch the big suitcase, because all you’ll need is your carry-on.”
You don’t have to pack like you’re summiting Everest to travel in a carry on backpack. Start small. Streamline your travel wardrobe with one piece of quality travel gear — like a merino wool shirt — that looks great, performs in all weather, and can take a beating on the road. This shirt is only $65. That might sound like a lot for a t-shirt, but it’s not a t-shirt. It’s a piece of travel armor. You will wear this thing all the time. Like, far too often.
I wear my merino shirts on the plane, when I hike, on sweaty buses, and when I’m just hanging in the hostel. Bring other fancy shirts for fancy occasions, but remember the 80-20 rule of travel: 80% of people will hate you if you smell like crap. So will the other 20%.
I can’t say enough about this shirt.
The Outlier merino wool t-shirt is just a straight up game changer. I wore this shirt every single day on my recent six week hike across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and I smelled awesome the whole time. Seriously. At one point my girlfriend grabbed my shirt took a whiff and screamed that it wasn’t fair that I had just hiked 22 miles and still smelled great.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hadn’t washed my shirt in 5 days, so it was more like 100 miles. The ability to just get up and go is the single best feature of a quality merino shirt.
“The most important things for travel clothing are cleanness, durability and packability,” argues Outlier co-founder and creative director, Abe Burmeister.
“The longer an item stays clean the more useful it is and the less you need to pack. When you trust your clothes can handle getting pushed to the limits you can carry less and the less you carry the further you can go.”
Heck yeah. Outlier (a local Brooklyn-based travel company) makes some of the best travel gear I’ve ever worn, but it’s definitely on the pricey side. They use a “top capped” ultrafine merino blend of 17.5 micron thick fibers (that’s insanely small), so this really is top of the line merino wool. Ultrafine merino shirts are extra soft to the touch and drape better than more bulky fabrics, but ultrafine fibers are also better at pulling odor and moisture away from your skin, meaning that it’s a just a better travel shirt.
If you have the means, get this travel shirt. But be warned, “Premium low micron merino is addictive. Once you get a taste of the merino quality it’s hard to quit.”
Icebreaker is another big name in merino travel clothing, and for good reason. They have a merino shirts too, but their MerinoLOFT Departure Jacket is worth mentioning.
They use a blend of MerinoLOFT™ wool and polylactide (space age synthetic fabric) to insulate this stretchy, insanely stylish travel jacket.
If you want to stay warm and dry, but don’t want to look like a backpacker, this jacket’s oiled wool sleeves, 100% woven recycled polyester with DWR finish, and woven merino flannel lining are the ticket.
Again, it’s a pricey option, but it’s compact, durable, and will travel for years.
If you’re starting to get sticker shock, relax. This budget-friendly merino Henley from Wooly Clothing Co. is a great way to dip your toe in the merino pool before you sink half a month’s rent into a shirt you don’t really like.
Jake Darby from Nomadic Hustle claims this is his favorite travel shirt, and it’s not just because merino is good at handling the elements.
He likes the way it looks:
“Merino wool truly is a miracle fabric. Whether you’re a traveler or not, the fabric is ideal for everyday wear. You can wear these travel t-shirts to a bar or on a date and still look good. No one will ever suspect you’re wearing a merino wool travelers shirt that you’ve been wearing for a week straight.”
Synthetics & Blends: Performance Travel Shirts
What if you just don’t want to spend that kind of money on travel gear? No worries. There are some great budget options that look great and perform nearly as well. Bluffworks CEO and Founder, Stefan Loble notes the eternal debate between performance travel fabrics:
“The main choice is between wool and synthetics. Wool is fantastic, wicks moisture, resists odor, and doesn’t wrinkle, but some people find it too warm or don’t like the feel. Synthetics are cooler, wick and dry faster, and are often less expensive.”
Some of the best travel clothing brands in the world are hiding right in plain sight. H&M, Uniqlo, J. Crew, MeUndies—heck, even Old Navy—are just a few everyday brands that are edging into the travel clothing sphere with synthetic fabrics and affordable performance gear that looks good. Antimicrobial underwear, heat activated base layers, and warm yet compact lightweight jackets are taking over retailers, and travelers are reaping the budget benefits of these discount travel clothes.
BUMI created this travel shirt with packing in mind. The ingenious internal pouch design lets you fold up your shirt into itself to create a compact pill shaped nugget, perfect for stuffing in your backpack. Luckily, the proprietary polyblend fabric, Fibertex, keeps the shirt from wrinkling so you look like a boss when you pop it open.
Riz Onies, CEO and Founder of BUMI recognizes that wrinkles can ruin even the best travel clothing:
“Packability, wrinkle resistance, and technical performance need to be the driving forces behind designing travel clothing. As someone who’s spent most of his adult life living out of a suitcase/backpack, this was a no-brainer!”
Travel Clothing for a Different Kind of Traveler
The concept of a traveler has changed a lot in the past ten years. Gone is the image of a gawky tourist in jungle fatigues with a camera strapped around his neck. These days the people that spend weeks on the road aren’t retirees, broke backpackers, or older travelers with cash to burn (and no sense of style).
“Travel clothing is no longer made only by large companies, only for an older and more traditional traveller,” argues Bluffworks founder & CEO, Stefan Loble. “A number of small startup brands—founded by younger people who like to travel (often in different ways, like backpacking or as digital nomads)—are making exciting products for themselves and others who travel like they do.”
Loble notes that, “Travellers look for three big things — comfort (stretch and breathability), multi-day wear (anti-microbial and wrinkle resistant fabrics) and style.” Technical fabrics are now readily available, but it’s the clothing brands that nail the style aspect of travel clothing that are seeing real growth.
“I design pieces that are intended to be workhorses and can function like a capsule wardrobe: that one shirt, jacket, and pair of pants that are going to be in your pack and relied on day after day,” notes Loble. “Travel and adventure is my lifestyle too, so it’s not a difficult extrapolation for me. When I wake up every morning, I pull the clothes off my footlocker that I wore yesterday and go.”
Abe Burmeister, from Outlier echoes that sentiment:
“We don’t really make a distinction between traveling and everyday life. Unless you are stuck in a fast fashion cycle of disposability the clothes you wear day in and day out need very similar functionality to the ones you pack for a trip. Durability, comfort, cleanliness and good pockets. The key thing for us is designing to be unconstrained, which means you are just as ready to hop on a bike or go hiking as you are to walk into a nice restaurant or take an interesting meeting with a well dressed stranger. At the end of the day it’s just good clothing.”
Loble also notes that people are opting for a more natural look instead of technical looking travel clothing. “My life crosses boundaries, from work to travel to more adventurous trips. So our approach [to travel clothing] is to make more refined apparel that looks like regular clothes but performs like the best of travel gear. People wanting to look less like a typical tourist.”
Travel Clothing: Not Just for Travel Anymore
The big takeaways aren’t that travel fabrics are suddenly amazing (merino is as old as time) or that travel companies are making great travel clothing (Patagonia has been rocking quality for decades). The exciting trend in travel clothing is that “travel clothing” isn’t just for travel.
“The biggest change to travel clothing in the past decade is that technical clothing doesn’t look “technical” anymore,” notes J. Crew, senior men’s knitwear designer, Elizabeth Kimball. “It’s the ‘athleisure’ effect,” she continues. “You want to be able to adapt to the environment and activities you’re doing, so you want clothing that helps you regulate your body temperature so you are comfortable indoors and out and without having to pack lots of layers.”
“Coming from a classic retailer [J. Crew], we approach the idea of performance travel clothing as a way to enhance the customers’ everyday. From a suit you can pack for a weekend wedding to a polo or tee you can wear playing golf on a hot day that’s fast drying.”
Features that were once fringe staples of travel clothing are becoming part of your everyday wardrobe—and for good reason. “Moisture-wicking, quick dry, anti-wrinkle, anti-microbial (aka anti-stink), water resistance, breathable and temperature regulating (warm or cool feel) are considered industry standard for a lot of travel clothing,” Kimball concludes. “People demand more performance from their everyday apparel.”
Kimball’s go-to stylish travel clothing: “A wool shacket (shirt/jacket). I can wear it open as a light layer or layer it with any sweatshirt or sweater to make into a pretty great coat. I also pack Smartwool merino wool socks.”
Hi-Tech Travel Clothing
One of the biggest factors driving travel clothing innovation is the importance of smart devices. Most travelers depend on their smartphones to check-in for flights, book accommodation, hail cabs, text friends and new acquaintances from anywhere in the world, take pictures, upload and share… everything on social media, and oh yeah—work from anywhere. Digital nomads are on the rise, but everyday travelers are increasingly tethered to their devices, which means fashion brands have to design travel clothing that’s compatible for these types of travelers.
Is this travel clothing or wearable technology? The answer is both. Levi’s Commuter Trucker Smart Jacket has blurred the lines between tech and clothing with this incredibly stylish yet technically advanced jacket. Their motto, “Stay connected and on the move” is a perfect hybrid for today’s tech savvy traveler.
Levi partnered Google to create “Jacquard™ touch and gesture interactivity woven into the sleeve.” Your jacket pairs with your phone (that’s a weird sentence), then lets you control features like answer (or ignore calls), have your texts read to you, get directions, or skip and play music
without ever reaching for the phone in your pocket with a brush or tap on the sleeve cuff. You can even customize each gesture in the app so your jacket works for you.
The technical specs are impressive, but, honestly, the most impressive feature is that this just looks and feels like a regular denim jacket—because it is. Designed with “4-way stretch for mobility, a 3M™ reflective bottom hem for for visibility, and secure zip pockets,” this jacket won’t make you look like a techy goober. It’s even machine washable.
Travel Clothing Trends: Sustainability
One final travel clothing advance worth noting is how clothes are being made. Small batch production runs and an eye toward sustainability and ethical practices are moving brands away from cheap fixes that put consumers at risk.
“Fabric innovation keeps bettering existing properties, and companies are finding more sustainable means to achieve this,” notes Kimball. “Certain DWR coatings (durable water repellent) and wrinkle-free fabrics have nasty chemicals in them (like formaldehyde) that are bad for you and for the environment. Now everyone in the outdoor world at least is moving away to a safer version.”
Tortuganaut, Taylor Coil, recently attended the Outdoor Retailer Expo (the largest outdoor sports expo in the country) and noted that, “Companies are starting to integrate sustainable materials, particularly fabrics produced from post-consumer plastics, into clothing.” Sustainability is an important shift in travel clothing production, and definitely something worth investing in.
Travel Clothing & Packing Tips from the Pros
Riz Onies (BUMI)
“Be strategic with color choices. The clothing you pack needs to be able to create a capsule wardrobe where you can mix and match just a couple pieces? to create dozens of different outfits.”
Elizabeth Kimball (J.Crew)
“Don’t pack too many shoes! (shoes take up all the space). Focus on versatile items you can wear multiple ways and layer for different looks and situations.”
Abe Burmeister (Outlier)
“Packing light is the best way to improve your trip. The weight of any excess items you pack will slow you down more and more the longer you carry them.”
Stefan Loble (Bluffworks)
“Activities are what really change the volume of what I carry. Packing for cold weather, skiing, desert travel, climbing, etc. My trick is to layer.”
Travel clothing is not only getting better and more affordable, it’s getting pretty darned stylish. Sweat-wicking and wrinkle free fabrics are the status quo in shirts and pants that you’ll want to wear everyday. Innovations like smart fabric with smartphone integration are here and they’re fantastic. In the very near future (I’m talking next year) your travel clothing will be more comfortable, durable, dependable, versatile, and integrated into how you live and work on the road than you can imagine. Kiss cargo pockets goodbye. The future of travel clothing is here and it’s going to blow your mind.
- Splurge on one high-quality merino wool travel shirt
- Integrated smart fabrics are here, and they’re awesome
- Some of the best travel clothing isn’t at REI
- Sustainability is a great travel clothing feature