Travel Capsule Wardrobe
What to Look for in Each Piece
By Danielle Steffens
Even though I have no immediate plans for a long international trip, I still find myself constantly on the prowl for the perfect pieces to add to my Travel Capsule Wardrobe, ya know?! There’s something so alluring to me about being able to set off on an adventure with next to nothing in a backpack, yet having absolutely everything I need to look good, feel great, and be prepared for any activity I dive into.
So how do you build a travel capsule wardrobe from scratch? Here are the top things I keep my eyes out for before I purchase anything new and some of the pieces that have fit the bill for my minimalist travel capsule wardrobe!
Everything I bring needs to be super versatile. I’m not talking “I can wear this top with these pants or these shorts”. I mean “I can wear this top with everything!” When aiming to pack as little as possible, it’s important that each piece be super flexible and work with many other items on your packing list.
I have been hunting for a pair of shorts that look dressy and can be worn for nice events around town, but also are able to do double duty and be used for workouts, hiking, and water activities. I’ve been very patient in waiting for the right pair and finally found these shorts from Backcountry! The pleats, cuffed hems, and flat waistband elevate what would be just athletic shorts into a piece that can easily be dressed up and worn for a day around town. Since purchasing, I’ve worn these for workouts, hiking, and volleyball and they’ve been great!
Another factor that plays into versatility is color. I tend to stick with mostly neutrals and mix in a few complimentary colors. Here’s the color palette for pretty much my entire wardrobe!
A couple years ago I went through my closet and got rid of all the miscellaneous one-off pieces I had in various colors. Sticking to a palette has made my life so much simpler because almost everything can be worn with everything! It makes it super easy to pack light yet still have plenty of outfit options. To keep it diverse, I look for different shades, textures, or patterns that incorporate these colors.
Life is too short to wear uncomfortable clothing and you definitely don’t want your clothing to distract you from your travel experience. If your shoes are giving you blisters or your sweater is itchy, it’s hard to stay in the moment.
When I buy something new, I give it the good ol’ lounge test. After relaxing in it or meandering around my apartment for a while, did I find myself adjusting straps? Pulling the neckline up or the bottom hem down? Is there a bothersome seam? Do the shoes rub weird? Do the pants fall down? These are all questions I like to answer before I commit and take the tags off.
One of my favorite cozy pieces I own is the Mindset Sweatshirt from Athleta. This sweatshirt is super soft and stretchy. It passed the lounge test with flying colors and I pretty much lived in it for days when I first bought it (totally acceptable when you live by yourself during a quarantine).
This is a huge one for shoes. Have you ever lugged a pair of shoes around the world only to never be in the appropriate situation to wear them? Oh, yea, me neither.
But seriously, what is the deal with every activity having its own type of shoe? Hiking boots, trail running shoes, running shoes, lifting shoes, water shoes, climbing shoes, walking shoes, boat shoes, sandals. The list is endless!
I like to partake in a variety of activities while travelling and many of them require a specific type of shoe. Since I can’t pack 10 different pairs of shoes, it’s important to find the most functional ones that can be used for a variety of activities. If I’m only doing day hikes and no long backpacking adventures, I might pack a pair of trail running shoes (in a neutral color so they don’t clash with my outfits, of course!) that can be used for hiking, running, workouts, and walking.
Another one of my hunts that recently came to an end was sandals. I’ve been looking for a pair of sandals that are comfortable, cute, able to be dressed up or down, can get wet, and are also secured to my foot (won’t fall off while frolicking through a field, wading through a river, or ziplining). What did I find to meet all these requirements? Crocs Sexi Flips! I can even use these as shower shoes when staying at hostels. Note: the only thing I’ve found these sandals can’t do it withstand DEET. Keep your bug spray away unless you want your sandals to have chemical burns that match mine.
My favorite travel souvenirs are always my photos. Bringing clothes that fit well and are flattering makes those photos even more special.
Being petite can make this tricky. Things are often the wrong length for me. But I’ve learned that if something doesn’t fit like it was made for me, then it’s not worth keeping no matter how cute it is on the hanger. There’s an endless supply of clothing out there. Keep searching until you find something that fits perfectly or if it’s a must have, take it to a tailor!
5. Ease of Wearing
This is another no-nonsense consideration for travel. Does the shirt require a specific bra? Do these pants only look good with a certain pair of shoes? I don’t want to have to pack a second item to enable me to wear the first. I want only easy-peasy items in my capsule.
6. Dirt Hiding
Is anyone else an impeccably clean eater until they’re wearing white? It’s like a magnet for pizza sauce or red wine (which I’m obviously having on vacation).
Over the years, white has made it onto my no-go list for traveling. I stick to darker colors that at least have a fighting chance at hiding the dirt.
7. Odor Control
Laundry is the worst, am I right? Especially when travelling! Ugh, no one wants to waste a travel day hanging around to do laundry.
Enter the power of fabrics with odor fighting properties!
This is going to sound gross to some of you but I wore this Lululemon Swiftly top all EIGHT days of hiking Kilimanjaro and it still didn’t smell after thanks to its Silverescent® technology! Have no fear, I retired it for the remainder of the trip but I easily could have worn it a few more times.
Wool is also naturally great at eliminating odor causing bacteria. Smartwool is my go-to for socks. Big fan of the PhD Run Light Elite for daily wear/workouts and PhD Outdoor Light Mid Crew for hiking.
I prefer to pack clothes that have odor fighting properties because it buys me a couple of extra days between needing to do laundry. Less laundry, more adventure!
However, if you want to pack light on multiple week trips, there’s no avoiding having to do laundry. For these trips, be wary of the recommended washing instructions for the clothing you choose to bring.
Does it require dry cleaning? Does it get wrinkled when washed? Can it go in the dryer? Many hostels will do laundry for you but they’re likely washing your clothing with other items and you don’t have control over the settings they use. Avoid bringing clothing that needs to be washed in a particular way.
Bonus if your clothing is quick dry and you can just wash it in the sink or in this cool gadget which may be the best thing since sliced bread! Confession: I literally stopped mid-writing this post and went to REI to buy this. I can now confirm I’ve tested it out and it is a dream! Especially as someone living in an apartment that charges $3 for a load of laundry. It’s quick and convenient! I also like that it can double as a dry sack when not in use. Scrubba, welcome to my travel essential list!
Sustainability! This is a topic I’ve really been diving into the last few years. Anytime I need to replace a clothing item, I look for one that uses recycled or sustainable materials from a company that produces their products ethically.
Brands I check first include Patagonia, prAna, Smartwool, and Athleta. I look for fabrics like Tencel, Merino Wool, Recycled Polyester, and Organic Cotton. Websites like REI and Backcountry have filters to make searching for sustainable items easy, because who doesn’t want to help the Earth?!
So there you have it! These are the top things I look for in each piece of clothing as I’m building my travel capsule wardrobe. Now that you know what to look for, check out my post on what to pack and download the FREE travel capsule wardrobe packing list here!
Looking for more information on how to make packing easy? Check out my day hike packing list!