The Obligatory “What Do You Take” Blog
People ask what one packs when one is traveling all the time, and going from climate to climate. What do you take when you have no plan, don’t know where you are going, and might encounter anything from freezing snow to tropical sun? When you might go to a museum one day and then go whitewater rafting the next; or visit an archaeology dig and willingly take up a trowel. (I did that one summer, it was wonderful.)
This is a LONG blog. If you aren’t interested, just skip it. I won’t be insulted. But this is in answer to some questions we’ve received. And for soon-to-be travelers, it isn’t the usual take on travel wardrobes, but there’s some sound advice in there anyway. (And I'm making the photos small, since this is so long – but if you click on the photo it will enlarge for you.)
So, for starters – while I’m a minimalist in my dressing, I’m not the kind of person who can live out of a small backpack with just a few tee shirts and a pair of convertible slacks where the legs zip off. Sorry, I’m just not. I’m a bit of a fashionista. I don’t want to look like a stereotypical tourist – I’d prefer to fit in the culture of the place I’m visiting. I LOVE being mistaken for a local. (I’ve been asked for directions in Denmark, Israel, Greece, Russia, Italy, Costa Rica, Spain, and places where I speak the language such as New Zealand and Australia. And I work on learning the language of the country I’m traveling through, so I’ve been able to give directions in Hebrew, Greek, Italian, Spanish. I LOVE being able to do that.)
I’m also 59 years old now, and I can’t wear the same cute little shorts and tops that I wore when I traveled forty years ago.
Anyway – so my travel wardrobe is NOT a bunch of shorts and tee shirts. I pretty much have brought along clothing that I would wear to work as a teacher in the USVI. Nice slacks or skirts, lightweight tops, a sweater or two, a light jacket. Cold weather clothing includes jeans, a heavy sweater, a few long-sleeved tops. Clothing suitable to my age and body shape. Clothing that I've already worn and mostly my favorite pieces.
The clothing probably would come under the general category of “casual professional.” Or, in an office job, maybe “dress-down Friday.” Which meant, when it came time for packing, I didn’t need to buy much, I already owned most of what I needed. (I also boxed up clothing I didn’t pack, putting my personal essential items in every box – white top, black slacks or skirt, neutral dress, a few tops, one pair of coordinating shoes, some undies. I kept a spreadsheet so I know exactly what is in each box, labeled each box, and these are all in storage. So I can easily write to my brother and ask for box C-5, and know that that box has replacement clothing for a year or two at a time. A little compulsive, but it makes life so much easier when you have a system.)
I do carry a pair or two of shorts and a top or two that is super tough and super casual – for whitewater rafting, or mountain climbing, the occasional archaeology dig, or whatever might come up that requires getting hot, sweaty, grubby, or dirty. But most of my clothing is in the nice casual category.
Everyone knows to travel with mostly mix-and-match clothing – most tops can combine with most bottoms. Nothing that can only be worn in one combination or in one way. Reversible is great. Items that convert from long slacks to rolled-up-and-tabbed capris or shorts are great. There are items that can go from a long skirt to a sundress, or a short skirt to a top. These are great travel items. Also, I don’t bother with separate workout clothes or sleepwear – the old tanks I wear for rafting or a swimsuit coverup are my sleep shirts; leggings are workout wear or day wear or sleepwear or even long underwear. Multi-use is the key.
Knits are best for travel because they don’t wrinkle – but in hot tropical weather, knits can be hot and not breathe as well as wovens. I carry a mix. And I only wear natural fibers, again because in hot weather synthetics are just too hot. My trick – carry a small empty plant misting bottle; when I want to wear a woven item I fill the bottle with tap water and mist the woven item (dress, top, skirt, slacks) and hang in the shower to air dry. (The night before is good.) The piece of clothing is dry by morning, and major wrinkles are gone. I hate ironing, and I’ve done this trick for years at home, but it’s great for traveling. The bottle weighs next to nothing.
Last general thought – be ready for sometimes unusual color combinations – I have no problem wearing red Birks with a burnt orange skirt. Or pink sandals with a black dress. You can carry off unusual color combos if you just hold your head high and show people that this is, indeed, your signature look and your fashion statement.
Okay, so I started with a rolling piece of luggage – I fell in love with the Wheely Beast (renamed "Big Wheelie" by us) from REI. I went with the 28” bag, didn’t really need or want the 34” one (when full it would be heavier than I want to schlep). It has a ton of space in the lower part for clothing, and I keep toiletries and miscellaneous items up top. It wheels nicely, is very sturdy, and shows absolutely no wear after a year of travel. Truly love this piece. http://www.rei.com/product/846053/rei-wheely-beast-wheeled-duffel-28
Then I discovered packing cubes. These are wonderful compression bags, but in nylon fabric and mesh, and they zip rather than having to mess with compressing plastic bags. I tried stuff sacks, but found they didn’t pack in my bag as neatly and they wasted space. I have mostly full cubes with a few half cubes, and one folding envelope. Perfect for keeping clothes organized. (I have the Eagle Creek packing cubes, available through REI, amazon.com, Eagle Creek’s website – there are others, but I really like these. No problems thus far after a year.) http://shop.eaglecreek.com/packing-solutions.html
Plus – I love to color code items. Yes, compulsive, but it just makes life easier if I know that all the red packing cubes hold warm weather clothing, the black holds cold weather clothing, and the zebra print holds items that can go either way. When we’re in the tropics, I live out of the red cubes and zebra print. When we were in NZ, I lived out of the black cubes and zebras. I don’t need to unpack the entire bag to find the last piece of undies or the matching sock. It truly makes my life easier and saves time – so I can spend more time playing and less time repacking at each location. (Pick one cube to stash the Swiss Army knife when flying. Also could be used for hiding extra cash, money belt, etc. And a full cube isn’t bad as a flying pillow or footrest on the train.)
So, the actual clothing:
Red cube 1: Knit tops for warm weather: sleeveless linen knit in white, red, and
lavender black (the lavender was hanging in the shower after I
washed it, and the housekeeper accidentally got some bleach on it; so I asked
them to dye it black to cover the bleach spots; works fine for me, I wear a lot
of black anyway); off-white cotton tank (for under things); black and beige
striped tank; coral floral sleeveless top; linen/poly tees in black, heathered
grey, lavender blue; white knit collared shirt.
Red cube 2: Bottoms for warm weather: brown roll up shorts; black shorts; black slacks; black capris; grey slacks; 2 pair black leggings; flippy black skirt; narrow black skirt; brown cargo skirt; short chambray skirt; burnt orange print skirt (can convert to a top); blue print reversible silk skirt; two slips; grey linen sundress; black knit sundress.
Zebra cube: Underwear: 3 bras (1 black, 2 nude); cotton undies – I like cotton for comfort, even though they don’t dry quickly after washing. I usually carry about 4 weeks worth.
Zebra mini cube: Socks and spare shoe laces, in a little compression bag.
Red half cube: Swimwear – for me, that means a couple of sports bras and two swim tops, a pair of board shorts, a swim skirt, and a long tank cover up. Much of this can double as workout gear or rafting clothes, or the long tank as a sleep shirt. Also spare sunglasses, sunscreen, and a little waterproof holder for ID/money/keys. All of this fits into the half-cube.
Black cube: Cold weather clothes: jeans; heavy alpaca sweater to layer; white long-sleeved tee to layer; black sweater; white heavy tee to layer on top; my old rain jacket would go in here, but it stopped being waterproof, so I’ve ordered a new one that will be mailed to us shortly. Former jacket was black, new jacket is red. Helly Hensen rainwear is fashionable as well as absolutely waterproof – you can find good buys on amazon.com. (I gave away the pink sweater in the photo when I lightened up the bag.)
Black half cube: Accessories: scarves (including a pashmina which doubles as a blanket) and one that doubles as a swimsuit coverup; warm knit hat and mittens for cold weather. And a black sequined bolero sweater because I want to be ready for all fancy occasions, LOL!
Zebra folding envelope: Wovens to pack flat: long-sleeved white long shirt; navy blue cotton jacket; blue print shirt; teal long-sleeved heavy tee shirt to layer over tops; white linen peasant top; dark teal linen peasant top; sleeveless linen tops (one red, one white, one pink); purple embroidered peasant top; white eyelet top; white embroidered short sleeved big shirt; two-layer green linen dress that can be worn as separates or long tops. Packs into the envelope, with help from a plastic folding board that slides into the bottom before closing up.
Hats: one sport hat with a hole for a ponytail (so it won’t blow off when sailing); one big sun hat (crocheted off white); one red hat for rain or sun. Plus an umbrella for tropical rain.
And that’s it for clothing. You can see how items mix and match – burnt orange skirt, white top, navy jacket, maybe black leggings if it’s a cool day. Just the skirt and a white top for a hot day. Any of the slacks with any of the tops. Jeans, long sleeves, sweaters for cold cold days, with the alpaca sweater under the rainjacket, throw on the knit hat, mittens, scarf and I can watch fireworks in the rain in Wellington. (Leggings under the jeans act like long underwear for women – don’t bother carrying separate long undies.) Combinations aren’t endless, but there are a lot of ways to combine the clothes so I don’t get too bored. Plus most items are basics that can dress up or down – the sequined sweater over the black sundress makes it suitable for everything but a grande ball.
You can also see how easy it is to repack, or to pack a small backpack for a week-long side trip when we leave our big luggage at the main hotel. Side trips like the fjord cruise in NZ, or to some of the smaller islands around Samoa, or even to Pago meant we didn't need everything, we could leave the big rolling stuff and just carry the small pack with a week of clothes and toiletries.
Small purses (wristlets) holding: (1) jewelry; (2) pens, markers, small art supplies; (3) laundry items such as bleach or stain sticks. (Empty items to use the purse for an evening bag.) The bleach or stain sticks are essential, and can be difficult to find when traveling, so carry your own along with you. Especially if, like me, you like to wear white. While eating pasta with marinara sauce. I tried the laundry detergent that comes in sort of little leaves, and it’s okay – but most laundromats sell small packs of detergent; hand wash items can be washed with dish soap, bar soap, or shampoo in a pinch. Carry a larger laundry detergent when driving/camping/training around a country or continent.
Various toiletry bags – sorted by use (i.e. daily, or shower, or extra meds, or whatever) – color-coded so easy to find, and again might be in a possible purse. Make sure one bag can be used to carry to a shower and can hang on a hook if you plan to camp or stay in hostels – I like a shoe bag in bright pink. Also, I’ve pared down my toiletries to basics: shampoo, conditioner, soap, face cleanser that doubles as face moisturizer, and body lotion. Cosmetics are eye liner, mascara, face powder that has a sunscreen, lip gloss. Vaseline for lip gloss or makeup remover or dry feet. Nail clipper and files; file for dry heels. Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss. That’s about it, other than medications. (Hair conditioner doubles as makeup remover as well as leather cleaner or conditioner. Haven’t tried it on white sport shoes though.) AND – I buy travel size items when we’re flying all over. When we’re in a country and traveling by land, I’ll buy a full size bottle of whatever and refill the travel size bottle, then use up the large when as we drive/train around the country. No sense in wasting all those plastic containers, we want to be kind to the earth. I really like the GoToobs, they’re squishy and don’t break, and are easy to refill. Available at amazon.com, REI, other travel sites and stores.)
You might notice that all my medication, toiletry, cosmetics, laundry bags are in pinks or florals – I color code everything, it makes things easier to find in the top of my rolling bag or in our overflow bag.
Foldable cloth (nylon) bags – for laundry, carrying groceries, beach bag, tote bag, whatever. I really like the ones from Envirosax (envirosax.com) – I’ve also given away a few as gifts to people who are especially helpful.
Small notebook and a few sketchbooks. In a little cotton bag, so they don’t get lost. (Could use the bag to hold other stuff, like computer wires, etc.) I keep a small notebook in my everyday purse, with info like the next flight or hotel confirmation or whatever – when you live on the road, travel plans can change from day to day and you can forget what time a flight might be, so jot it down and keep it handy.
Plastic file envelope for records: copy of passport, medical records, insurance info. Contact information. Receipts and warranties for items bought en route, like the pocket wifi. Minimal, but essential. (I'm currently using this as a door stop, LOL!)
Jump drives to store info on computer: essential medical records, photos as we go along. Jump drives stored in small tins, in a very small bag, so they don’t disappear in the luggage. (Label drives with a marker!)
Miscellaneous items: deck of cards; camp towel; menorah because I like Chanukah; sewing kit and scissors (don’t put in carry one!); first aid kit; plant misting bottle. Fanny pack. Money belt to wear inside clothing. Medical stuff – all my allergy and asthma stuff for 3-6 months at a time.
Backpack: travel clock (with alarm); laptop computer; Kindle with over 1000 books, including a few travel or guide books; pocket wifi to for mobile hotspot; camera; iPod; earphones (not buds, I dance with the iPod and phones sometimes for exercise); all the cords for everything, a set of universal outlet adapters, and a universal USB port that goes into an outlet (or the adapters) to recharge the camera, iPod, wifi hotspot. Also, backup medical stuff like an Epipen and asthma inhalers. When we fly, I usually add my daily toiletry kit, maybe my bag with jewelry, and of course a jacket and/or sweater because I get cold on planes. (Just a note – because we’re traveling for an unlimited time and don’t know where we’ll be next, we don’t have a mobile phone. I have my Macbook Air, Richard has his laptop, we have a MagicJack phone so we can make calls. We purchased the pocket wifi device in NZ and it is wonderful, we just purchase a SIM card and top up in each country. Other option would be an iPad or other tablet that has a phone option, but then you’re stuck paying for a plan that may or may not work overseas. We decided to use what we already had, and not buy new technology. However, after a few years we may go the iPad route if it works with the pocket wifi, and if it has enough memory to store everything we have in our computers. Then we wouldn’t need a separate ereader, I guess.)
Shoes: I’ve limited myself to three pairs of shoes (and I’d be happy with just two if I didn’t need closed shoes occasionally): one pair of decorated athletic shoes (or whatever you want to call them) – I prefer leather so they’re waterproof, rather than mesh or cloth; one pair of rubber flipflops; one pair of Birkenstock sandals (currently red). I had a pair of Teva river guide shoes, but only wore them twice in a year so I’ve passed those along to someone else. I may switch from the flipflops to river guide sandals, just to have more diversity in a rubber sandal. I store shoes in nylon shoe bags to keep my clothing cubes clean, but I’ve heard you can use hotel shower caps which is a great idea. And I could do without the flipflops, but wet weather is bad for the Birks so I’ve been using the flipflops to save the Birks.
Purse: simple grey nylon fabric purse, with various flaps and pockets to hold daily stuff, including the camera (small digital easy-to-use). Has a separate pocket for my camera, a zippered inner pocket for a wallet, all that good stuff. Long strap for either shoulder or cross-body wear. And the lining is bright pink!
Snorkel and mask: I bought these in Samoa, to use all around the South Pacific and SE Asia. Not sure if I’ll take them along to northern Asia, or what. And I haven’t added these to my luggage yet, so I hope it fits in the backpack.
Packing it all
Hats in the bottom of the rolling luggage. Stack cubes along one side, half cubes standing up on the other side. (See how nicely they fit in?) Miscellaneous items around edges or between cubes. Umbrella on top of half cubes.
Then the plastic envelope of papers (though sometimes this goes in the backpack), and the clothing envelope on top.
Shoes in the bags on top of that.
I keep an extra luggage tag inside the rolling piece – both for extra ID and in case anything happens to the exterior luggage tag (which is integrated into the top flap, but hey, things can get torn off). Just a weird and weightless precaution.
Zip the bottom half of the bag. Stand it up to fill the top area with the toiletries and miscellaneous items.
I realize it sounds like a lot of stuff. But when you break it down to climate zones, it isn’t that much for any one temperature or climate.
The rolling piece is the checked item, with a total weight of about 50 lbs, or 23 kg. My backpack, when full, is probably 12-15 lbs, or 10 kg. We started with more stuff, but that put our luggage in the overweight category, and we had an overflow bag. But then we had to pay for that third bag when flying domestic US, and sometimes overseas. US to international allows two bags per person, but most international flights originating outside the US limit you to one bag of 23 kg. So we’ve gotten rid of some items and pared down to exactly 23 kg.