Thursday, June 4, 2009

Travel Tip: Clothes Not to Pack

You're probably used to packing for trips that are a few days long. A pair of underwear and socks for each day, maybe a pair extra of each, a couple pairs of pants, several shirts, etc. So, if you're a backpacker, how do you pack clothing for something that could last a month, or several months?

There are a lot of packing lists out there. Really a lot of what you decide to take with you is up to your own taste. I have my preferences which I'll probably share later. Travelers don't always agree on what you should bring. However, there are a few items of clothing most backpackers agree you should *not* pack. Most of the logic behind this is related to packing light, which you should do for fairly obvious reasons. If the reasons to pack light aren't obvious, be brave, let me know (comment anonymously if you like), and I'll be happy to explain in another post.

Here are a few pieces of clothing to skip:

-Jeans. Through middle school, high school, and a good chunk of college, blue jeans were the only kind of pants I'd wear casually. Two separate girls I've dated used to describe my personal style as "jeans and an interesting T-shirt." So I know this might be difficult for some of you. I feel your pain. But, you have to trust me on this one, denim is the very last thing you want in your backpack. It's big, heavy, takes up a ton of room, takes a lot of water to wash, and takes forever to dry if and when it gets wet (because, once again, trust me, it will). Yes, they're comfy. Yes they look good. No, do not bring them.

-White stuff. This is a simple one that I messed up. Don't bring white socks. Or white anything else for that matter. Dirt shows up faster on white clothing than you will believe possible, and you won't always have a way to wash it out. Unless, of course, you're carrying a container of bleach, which you shouldn't (because if it opens in your bag, you will have problems).

-Any article of special value. Leave the lucky shirt/shoes/bracelet at home. This is the only fail-safe way to guarantee it will be there in one piece and in half as good condition as you left it. The most common problems arise because you will feel like you need to take better care of these articles than the rest of your gear, and thus either never wear it (making it dead weight), or micromanage it and end up doing something silly like trying to remove surf board wax and ending up removing both the wax and the fabric beneath it (guess which genius pulled off that little stunt).

-A "Travel Hat." you guys know the ones I'm talking about. They're big, foldable, floppy, often have a mesh part to let your head "breathe", and a long drawstring. Looks like a great idea in the store-- they keep you cool, keep the sun off, shade your eyes, and sometimes even come with bug repellent imbued in the fabric. However, once you're out there, you will realize that the more you stick out as a tourist, the more difficult life becomes (for example, prices for everything mysteriously go up), and nothing screams tourist like a big floppy creased beige hat with specialized mesh and a long drawstring. So you won't wear it. And if you're not wearing it, it's just taking up space in your pack. Skip it. SPECIAL NOTE: This does *not* mean you shouldn't bring a hat. if you have a good hat you will actually wear, bring it, for all the reasons listed above. If you don't, don't worry, hats are sold everywhere, and they're usually fairly cheap. Look around to see what kind of head covering the locals of your gender use, and buy appropriately. I've yet to meet a country that didn't wear baseball caps, for example.

-A second pair shoes. Ladies, I'm looking at you. I don't care how unfair the stereotypes seem, but in my experience, women backpackers almost always have bigger packs than men, and this is the number one reason why (followed shortly by full-size containers of hair and beauty products). If you're bringing shoes (not everyone does, some just use a good pair of sandals), wear them, and make them the only ones you need to wear. A second pair of shoes will take up room, weigh a lot, make a lot of other stuff in your pack dirty (unless you wrap them in something, which then takes up even more room) and probably smell bad after a while. Choose a comfortable pair of shoes that you can both hike in and go clubbing in. Yes, they exist. I suggest a brown pair, that helps both hide dirt and look good. Besides, most places you really need fancy shoes for are probably going to be out of the backpacker budget anyway. (SPECIAL NOTE: to head complaining off at the pass, I do not count flip-flops as “shoes”. Go ahead and bring those if you want, they're small, light, and easy to wash dirt off of, dry, and pack.)

-Heavy cold weather gear. A snow parka will take up most of the space in your bag. Snow pants and thick wool sweaters will too. Generally speaking, unless you will be spending all of your time in cold climates, you're not going to be using heavy cold weather gear, and anywhere you will be using it, you can get it for cheap. I keep a microfleece sweater and a waterproof windbreaker with me, and that's typically all I need. If I need to be warmer, I put on more layers (usually multiple shirts and socks). If and when you go into colder climes, you'll likely be doing things that require a little shopping anyway, and a warm hat, scarf, gloves, can usually be picked up for less than you'd spend on them back home. Long underwear *might* be worth it, as a good quality pair that fits isn't always so cheap. Depends on your itinerary.

That's a start. If there's anything else you guys think of that should not be packed, or if you take serious issue with anything I've said here (i.e. you really want that second pair of shoes), comment on this post. Next post will likely be an update on my trip, but, as requested, tips for backpacks, meeting people, and specific concerns for male and female travelers will all be in future posts.

Loved it? Hated it? Don't agree or find it confusing? Comment here or email me. Let's talk.


  1. I agree with all of that. I lost my iPod in SE Asia. Leave behind as many gadgets as you can. Anything that requires charging from an outlet should be left behind. Too much hassle and too much of a chance of it getting lost.

  2. i also don't travel with an ipod but for another reason as well. for me being in another country has to do with absorbing all the culture. i don't want to shut out the thai videos (no matter how annoying) on the bus or listen to my music as i relax in a hammock by the river. i want to hear the river. i want to be open to ALL the sounds in the country i am in.

  3. what is a reader to do? Not everyone wants/can have or should be flashing a kindle. If you're traveling a lot, but like to read...Is it true that lots of hostels have books around that are essentially book swaps?

  4. Flip flops are a MUST for showers. Oh, please, fellow travellers, do not leave your flip flops behind, or you will be buying them--possibly after the impossibly grungy shower experience, which is *not* the time to realize you need them.

  5. "My shoes, damn fool that I am, were Mexican huaraches that, as a fellow later said to me in Wyoming, would certainly grow something if you planted them - plantlike sieves not fit for the rainy night of America and the whole raw road night"
    Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

    So khaki pants and black socks, then?

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  7. I second the flip-flops Especially in cultures where you have to take your shoes off to enter places. I wore my flip flops almost every day in india (and washed my feet every night).

    If you're doing a post for female travelers, let me know. I have some suggestions though I don't know what you want to get into.

  8. Amen on the brown shoes, but women will debate the one pair issue. Whatever. Generally khaki and brown stuff to wear. For women a very light fabric colorful washable scarf can make outfit dressier and double as headscarf for some culture's religious spots. Scarves wear out, but are sold all over the world so easy to replace.

  9. Wow, a lot of responses to respond to! Let me start by saying I'll probably be dealing with things you *should* pack later. Possibly I'll also touch on other gear (not clothing) that you should not pack in another post. So, while I agree with much of what's been said so far, after this comment, let's keep this discussion to *clothes not to pack*.

    nodebtworldtravel- I mostly agree, iPods are a definite liability and I left mine at home very much on purpose. Still, I personally think travelling without a digital camera would be a shame. I also take a phone with me for emergencies (even without a SIM card, any GSM phone can contact emergency services in any country with service), and I finally broke down and got a netbook in New Zealand-- that'll be a whole different debate on its own.

    Anon #1- Totally agree with you, even if I did end up stuffing a sweater in a bus speaker at one point... One thing I've done is picked up a cheap portable FM radio. I can still listen to music, but it's the local scene I'll be hearing. Mostly. often it'll end up being international broadcasts (I listened to the BBC in Argentina and a Salsa station in Australia) but you're hopefully still hearing something new.

    Anon #2- Yes, English book swaps are just about everywhere. I've never owned or handled a kindle, but I'm just as happy without one. I was handed a book by a woman sitting next to me on the plane to Mexico, and I've been able to swap for a new one at least twenty times now. Sometimes hostels will try to make you give them two in exchange for you getting one, but, if you look hard enough, you'll find a free one-for-one swap not far off. The only time I've paid for swap was when the money went to a local charity.

    Catherine- This might disgust people, but many travelers I know get by fine without flip-flops. The showers look unpleasant, but they argue that as long as you make an effort to actually wash your feet, you'll be fine. Still, I recommend having a pair. Just make sure they're the right size and that you can stand walking around in them for a long time without getting sores on your feet (common problem).

    Emily- Heh, just finished reading that one a while back. And I've got grey socks, but yes, my long pants are a pair of quick-dry khakis.

    Awandering- good point about taking your shoes off in South Asia. Though, after a while, once you take your shoes on and off enough times, no matter what they are, you'll get good at doing it quickly. And yes, I'm planning on doing a tips for male and female travelers post-- I'll be sending email and fbook messages asking some of you ladies for ideas. That goes for any other female travelers on the road now.

    Anon #3- Debate away. I stand by my statement. Give me a good reason you actually *need* a second pair. I realise one pair of my shoes takes of the space of about three pairs of shoes for the average American woman, but I still say they'll be a waste of space and weight. Also, I definitely agree on the scarf point, just make it's not one you're too attached to.