tropical travel heroes, and other random thoughts about packing


On the 8th day of a trip to Sri Lanka in December, I discovered that I had picked up a new habit - if I wasn't planning to shower the next morning, I would sleep in the clothes I planned to wear the next day. It was delightfully slovenly, yet time-saving, and only possible because of the nature of the clothing I tend to pack when I'm travelling, especially when I am backpacking.

I was travelling with my travel hero items: drawstring-waist trousers in some kind of soft, wrinkle-resistant, breathable material, bonus if it contains a tiny bit of stretch. If you find something in a flattering cut that can be dressed up or down (and slept in!), stock up. They're more comfortable than jeans, essential if you're travelling somewhere conservative and roll up like a dream. Mine are inexpensive viscose ones from Forever 21 and Cotton On, and while I'm often tempted to grab more pairs, these ones have been virtually indestructible, which is horrible from a landfill point of view but awesome as a wardrobe staple. I can dress them up when need be with a pretty blouse, or sit comfortably on a hot, dusty bus for six hours in them. They work for most warm or moderate climates (late spring, summer, early fall) and wash and dry easily - a godsend in the tropics when you perspire a lot on the go - and are a great screen against mosquitoes and other bugs.

It's easy to let style take a backseat when you're wilting your way through the tropics, especially if you're not lounging by the beach and being chauffeured around. But after years of backpacking - shared bathrooms, bunk beds, et al - I've come to develop a uniform built around comfort and practicality, where I still feel like I've put together a decent outfit I'm willing to wear on the streets back home. These trousers are one example - I wear them on an everyday basis too, not just for travel.

Because these trousers also sit higher on the waist, I can wear t-shirts and tanks that are boxy and slightly cropped without showing skin. You may laugh at the idea that a few inches can make such a big difference, but cropped t-shirts truly let more breeze in, and the the whole effect is also a lot less "pajama party" than with longer t-shirts. I like white but heather grey is the most practical option - when you have to scrub out rings of dirt around the neckline of a white t-shirt, you'll wonder why anyone packs white things to travel in at all...

Alternatively, I also like Uniqlo's sleeveless linen shirts for a more pulled-together look. Linen shifts are also a great option - two of my favourites are from Muji. I like them knee-length for practicality, boxy fit for comfort, and with pockets, always so handy for stuffing a handkerchief in for mopping a sweaty face.

If I'm travelling somewhere with strict rules about covering up when entering a place of worship (where simply covering the shoulders isn't enough), I bring along a men's collar-less linen shirt I bought years ago, and wear it like a jacket when need be. It's handier than wrapping a scarf around me (which gets in the way when I'm taking photos) and I like the option of being able to take it off, instead of wearing long-sleeves all day.

On the beach, I don't care what I wear over my swimmers. I have two pairs of board shorts (plain, logo-free), and any t-shirt that's become too faded or pilled to wear out on the streets become my beach cover-up of the moment. I do have a very comfortable loose-knit pullover made of viscose from Cotton On because sometimes long sleeves in a quick-dry material is comforting when the wind is strong and you're still damp from the sea. I am bratty about putting on damp swimmers in the morning, so I always pack at least three sets of bikinis so that there's always a dry set to change into.

These items pretty much add up to a formula that works for almost all occasions - if I throw in a merino wool sweater, a parka, and a pair of jeans, I'm all set for cooler climes. Shoe-wise, I get by on almost all holidays with a pair of sneakers and a pair of flip-flops. I never take anything dressy unless I specifically planned something into my itinerary.

Other little things that help:
- Packing cubes like the kind by Eagle Creek or Muji - keeps things organised tidy. I only like the small ones though, because anything bigger encourages stuffing in more things, and plus the bigger ones don't work for backpacks.
- Cotton drawstring bags for shoes and dirty laundry (plus some plastic grocery bags for the truly dirty items). I use the ones that you sometimes get when you buy shoes. Or pillow cases.
- Lots of socks and undies. When it comes to these two things, more is more.
- Flip-flops. Useful in tropical downpours, on the beach, in dirty hostel rooms and bathrooms, or at a campsite after a day of hiking.

What are your holiday heroes?


I haven't done much traveling in the tropics, but for colder climates, I have found that trouser-style athletic pants from brands like Prana work well. They are compact, lightweight, weather resistant, easy to wash, and comfortable in a wide temperature range. On a two-week trip to Ireland last September, I packed two pairs of pants like this and alternated them for the entire trip. I packed a variety of layering tees and tanks, a down vest, and two wool sweaters, which I alternated each day. All of this fit into a carry-on sized bag.
lin said…
Patience_Crabstick: Easy to wash ranks very highly as a requirement - I hate wearing stale clothing. In aby case, that's really impressive for two weeks!
fzillion said…
is it weird to wear long sleeved shirts and sweaters in 80 degree ...
long sleeve sweater dress
Anonymous said…
I know this is an older post but I was wondering: what do you use as a day bag when backpacking? I see something that looks like a little bag in the top photo. I am trying to find something like a small nylon crossbody bag but all of those travel-specific ones are not very stylish... And I don’t want to take my nicer leather bags backpacking. You have fantastic style (backpacking or otherwise) so nosy me wants to know what you typically use. Style is certainly not my priority when travelling but it helps to not look too conspicuous in one’s travel gear.
lin said…
Anon: Good eye: The little black pouch is one of those black pouches that you're meant to wear under your clothes to avoid being pick-pocketed, but I've never worn it for that purpose. I use it when I'm travelling or hiking and don't have good pockets - I stash a bit of cash and my phone it in and keep it close. It's not very secure though so I don't use it like that if I'm feeling paranoid.

For a day bag, if I'm travelling light that day, I use a simple leather cross-body purse - so small I don't even bother using a wallet (just a small purse for change and bills held together with a clip. It's a Steven Alan Lilly purse I got secondhand a few years ago. The zip is tricky to undo with one hand and the leather is sturdy so I feel quite safe with it, but it's also cute enough for days when I want to look nice. It's also logo-free and doesn't scream expensive. I brought this with me when I went to South America for 5 months last year.

If I'm lugging around my DLSR and maybe a bottle of water, I bring along a simple canvas tote (I've so many that were either free or given to me as gifts) with straps long enough to carry on the shoulder - they look low-key and stylish in their own way. And they roll up nice and small for packing. I try to bring ones where the canvas and straps aren't too thin - I don't want something that might rip if someone pulled too hard.

If I expect to do some hiking during the trip, I opt for a small backpack - mine is the Urban Hauler model from Marmot (in medium). I got the "Heritage" edition, which looks more vintage-y and doesn't scream sporty, but it's practical - lightweight and rolls up small or flattens so it's easy to pack in a bigger bag, useful internal pockets, easy to clean. And it converts into a bucket-style tote, so it's kind of cool in its own way.

The key for me is to never bring something that's heavy, and never bring something I worry about dirtying or losing. Most trips, I'll bring both the leather cross-body purse and the canvas tote or backpack, because they don't take up much space.

Hope this is helpful!

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