The key to packing smart is to find a few key pieces you can wear virtually anywhere and during any time of day. Look for:
Performance fabrics: Fabrics that are breathable, moisture wicking and easy care make smart choices for traveling. See our fabric comparison, below.
Neutral colors: Luggage space is precious. Ditch the bright colors and pack neutral—brown, black and khaki—especially for pants, shorts and skirts. These colors coordinate well with everything, so you can pack less.
Wrinkle resistance: Look for garments touted as wrinkle-resistant. This doesn't mean wrinkle-free, but they should at least wrinkle less than other garments.
Subtle styling: Standing out from the local culture usuallly can't be helped, but the clothing you wear can make you feel less conspicuous. Avoid tight clothing or very short shorts and skirts. This type of clothing might not be acceptable in some cultures or venues.
Sun protection: All fabrics block UV rays to some degree, but sun-protection clothing features an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating against both UVA and UVB rays. A garment with a UPF of 50 blocks 98% of UV rays. Sun-protection garments are rated from 15 (good) to 50+ (excellent), and this protection never washes off or sweats away. For details, see the REI Expert Advice article, Sun Protection Clothing Basics.
Insect protection: Bugs can be a real nuisance. Worse, in some areas, West Nile virus, Lyme disease, dengue fever, malaria or encephalitis can be genuine concerns. A few clothing lines, such as the ExOfficio® Insect Shield collection, are treated with permethrin, an insecticide engineered specifically for fabrics, to protect your skin from insects. Effective against ticks, mosquitoes and dozens of other insects, permethrin has been safely used for decades and its use is recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). You can also apply permethrin in spray form to your other clothing and gear.
Pockets: These become especially useful when you're packing just a few shirts and pants for a trip. A few tips:
Fabrics should breathe well, wick moisture away from your skin and dry quickly. Cotton, while OK for casual wear, is generally less suited for traveling than the fabrics listed below. Your most common choices:
Nylon and polyester: Most performance fabrics feature either of these synthetics. Some name brands include CoolMax® polyester or Cordura® nylon.
Tencel® and polynosic rayons: Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a wood-pulp-based fiber that is part of the rayon family. Tencel and polynosic rayons offer similar drape and comfort, plus both offer machine wash/dry convenience. (Note: A similar fabric, viscose rayon, is typically dry clean only, so check the care instructions to be sure.)
Silk: Luxuriously soft, it's most often used in underwear.
Cotton: This is commonly used for casual, all-around styles.
Cotton/polyester blend: Another common fabrication for casual wear, this blend seeks to offer both comfort and performance.
Plated fabrics: "Plated" refers to garments with one fabric (e.g., cotton) on the outside face, backed with another fabric type (e.g., polyester) against the skin. This approach is designed to offer the best attributes of both fabrics.
Below are garments that travelers should consider packing, no matter what type of adventure is on the itinerary.
In wet weather, stay dry and comfortable with waterproof/breathable (best) or water-resistant/breathable rainwear (good).
Shorts, skirts and dresses are the obvious choice when traveling to a warm or tropical destination. But keep in mind that long pants will better protect you from sun, bugs and rain. And, as mentioned above, you might need to wear them for cultural reasons, too.
Convertible pants have legs that easily zip off to turn into shorts. These are a great space-saving option.
Always pack along a long-sleeve shirt, even if you're headed to a warm climate. As with long pants, a long-sleeve shirt will protect you from sun, bugs and rain. Some considerations:
Always bring a hat. Your choices:
The same fabric rules apply for underwear and socks: A synthetic fabric is easier to care for than cotton, while merino wool products offer natural breathability and comfort. When choosing socks, knowr that synthetics and wool can help prevent blisters by keeping feet drier than cotton socks do.
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By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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