There are certain pieces in my wardrobe that make it into my suitcase time after time. Pieces that I wonder how I will eventually replace when they finally wear out because they have been invaluable travel companions. I went back through my travel photos since 2004 and noted which were my hardest working travel clothes. Trips ranged from museum-hopping in NYC and dining at Michelin Star-rated restaurants, to multi-day wilderness treks and camping. The clothes I’ve worn the most over this time form the foundations of my travel wardrobe. I share them here to help you choose the right travel wardrobe essentials for your adventures, so you can “buy less, choose well and make it last”.
Travel vs. fashion clothing
When I first started travelling, all the recommendations were to go out and purchase travel or adventure wear. Some of those original items have stuck, and are listed below in my travel wardrobe essentials, and others haven’t. You don’t need to only shop travel brands for travel clothing, as long as you carefully consider quality, design, and fabric.
Cheap, fast fashion items that stretch in the first wash are not going to cut it. Depending on the type of travel you do, there are definitely times when a travel or adventure brand have the best solution. However in many cases, particularly urban travel, you can shop your regular favourites or utilise your existing wardrobe. Here are some things to consider:
- Quality – Look at the thickness of the fabric and the stitching for good indicators of a quality garment.
- Design – Details matter, especially when you’re in the wilderness. A well-considered design feature can give you many benefits, and a good fit provides comfort and style.
- Fabric – Research fabrics that will not only provide the maximum comfort to you in the particular climate you’re travelling but will withstand being washed without the need for any special care (e.g. no dryclean only).
Long sleeve cotton top
Let’s begin with a neutral-coloured, long-sleeve, 100% cotton top I bought back in 2003. I still wear this on a regular basis at home and away, and after countless wears, the quality fabric still looks as good as new. Though it was expensive for me at the time, 15 years later the cost per wear is next to nothing. I’ve got so much mileage from this piece because:
- The cotton fabric is cool to wear in hot environments, which is particularly useful when you need to keep your arms covered in certain locations, for sun, mosquito or cultural reasons.
- It can be layered in cooler weather.
- The breathable 100% cotton fabric, means it’s wearable again and again without needing a wash.
- The light, neutral colour is not only good for mixing and matching with other clothing but doesn’t attract mosquitos the way dark colours do.
- The fit is just right, making it comfortable and flattering even through weight fluctuations and changes in lifestyle.
- The simple, flattering style means it can be dressed up with a few accessories or worn as is to the gym for a workout.
Lightweight, cotton pants
These wide-leg cotton pants in 100% cotton have been from Myanmar to Mexico and beyond. This picture is of me at the U Bein Bridge, Myanmar on the pants’ first journey in late 2014. The reasons these pants have gone the distance:
- The cotton is perfect for warm climates where a little modesty is called for or I need a mosquito shield.
- The adjustable waist means you can indulge in a large lunch or two.
- Again, the breathable cotton allows you to get away with several wears before washing.
- They weigh nothing and take up barely any space, great for travelling carry-on only.
- The print and colour are so much fun! You’ll always find a reason to wear something you love.
A cotton tee in your favourite colour is going to be your “go-to”. I bought a coral, slub cotton shirt in 2011 for a month-long South America trip. Since this shot in Rio, it has been from sightseeing in Bali to hiking in the Everglades. Cotton tees are a staple in my travel wardrobe because:
- The cotton is cool to wear in tropical climates.
- The fabric doesn’t hold smells, so I can re-wear it without worrying.
- It washes easily and well, no hand washing or special treatment required.
- A relaxed fit will get you through the long-term including any weight fluctuations.
Merino wool thermals
A set of merino wool thermal underwear are travel wardrobe essentials. I first bought a set in 2011 preparing for trekking the Inca Trail in the Andes, and have worn them repeatedly since. I have combined photos of me wearing my merino wool and the following item, a down vest because I often pair them together. The merino base layers have been so useful because:
- Merino wool is a super-fabric, it will keep you warm when the temperature drops and is breathable and cool when things heat up. Perfect for hikes when it will be cold starting out in the morning but warm up later in the day.
- They can be worn as base layers to keep you warm in cold climates.
- Good quality pieces in a neutral colour can be worn on their own. I have used the bottoms as leggings under a dress and worn the top by itself, making them multipurpose pieces.
Combining a down vest with the aforementioned merino wool thermal has created a dynamic travel wardrobe duo, especially for adventure trips. I bought this vest a long time before I knew anything about live plucking and other horrid down industry practices, so I would encourage you to do your research and purchase from an ethical source. There are also synthetic options for anyone wanting to avoid down completely. This vest has been in my travel wardrobe since the pictured trip to South America in 2011. They most recently accompanied me on a road trip of the southwest United States in late 2017. A down vest is a travel wardrobe essential because:
- The down vest is the extra layer you need as the sun goes down or the wind comes up. Obviously, it won’t cut the mustard in Arctic environments, but when you need something for a milder climate that won’t take up a tonne of luggage space, this is it.
- A good quality, well-designed vest will have a tall collar and elasticised arms that will close off space where the chilly wind can potentially get in. I also really value being able to zip it up from the bottom and down from the top, as you can loosen the vest around your hips when you sit down while keeping it closed.
- The slim fit and neutral colour are flattering and don’t feel like you’re entirely sacrificing style for practicality.
I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but a pair of khakis that zip-off to become shorts are adventure travel wardrobe essentials. True, they won’t win any style awards, but they are highly practical. This picture was taken last year while doing some backcountry hiking in Grand Teton National Park (USA). These travelling pants have also been to other parts of the USA, Australia, Peru, and Ecuador. These pants have been invaluable in all kinds of adventurous pursuits since I purchased them in 2011 because:
- They are shorts and pants in one.
- The partially elasticized waist makes them flexible and comfy. Plus, no matter how my weight has fluctuated, I’ve still been able to wear them.
- The fabric is cool, light and quick drying.
Whether yours is a “little black dress” or a “little blue dress” like mine, one simple, flattering dress is a travel wardrobe essential. I first bought my LBD secondhand. It was Marc by Marc Jacobs, a brand I never would have afforded myself brand new, but I got one in almost mint condition for $35 online. It has been the ultimate workhorse at home and away. After four years I finally wore it out, but I couldn’t let it go until I found another and I did! May 2021 I found the exact same dress, in great condition online via Poshmark and paid less than $20 for it – soon to be 20c cost/wear. The pictures show me beachside in Belize circa 2018, hiking Joshua Tree National Park 2019 and in Covid lockdown in Australia during 2020 – all in the same dress. This is why it works so well:
- The cut is super flattering for my body shape and simple enough that I can wear it on its own, layer and/or transform it with a few accessories.
- The fabric is a high-quality Ponte knit that has a nice amount of stretch but is thick enough not to reveal any lumps and bumps. The cotton is also breathable and doesn’t need any special care- just throw it in the wash.
Scarves, hats and gloves are necessary travel pieces. Cold or hot, no matter where you go, you need to take an appropriate hat and scarf. This picture shows me in Laos using a light cotton scarf to cover my shoulders respectfully during a temple visit and a wide-brim hat as sun protection. In cooler climates, you would catch me in a wool beret that previously belonged to my grandmother, a pair of gloves I urgently purchased on my trip to Ireland in 2004. I now wear them daily in winter and they are the only gloves I’ve owned as an adult. These basic accessories are useful as:
- Sun protection
- Stylish adornments to change up an outfit
Travel wardrobe essentials
In summary, here is what to look for when shopping for new travel wardrobe pieces:
- Long sleeve, cotton top
- Lightweight cotton pants
- Basic cotton tees
- Merino wool thermal underwear
- Down vest (or synthetic alternative)
- Zip-off khakis
- Summer hat and scarf
- Winter hat, scarf and gloves
When you’re starting out, selecting the right travel clothing can be difficult. Hopefully, this list of my tried and true travel wardrobe essentials will help you choose well and invest in pieces that will see you through many great adventures. See my favourite places to shop for travel clothing in this post. If you have any questions, please drop me a note in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,