Build a Travel Capsule Wardrobe With These Expert Tips

clothes on hangers hanging from closet rod

Geneva Vanderzeil / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Oh, the places you'll go with just one bag on your back! Learn how to unburden yourself from unnecessary luggage.

On a recent trip to California, my husband and I limited our clothes to a single backpack each. It was a life-changing experience. After checking in online, we walked into the Toronto airport, past the lineups of luggage-laden individuals waiting to check their suitcases, and went straight to security. Within twenty minutes, we were sitting at the gate and hardly knew what to do with all our free time.

After that experience, I vowed never again to check luggage when traveling. It makes moving around so much easier, and it eliminates potential wardrobe crises because all the outfit planning has been done in advance. Figuring out what to take, however, can be a challenge the first few times, which is why I've compiled some helpful advice from other travellers who are more experienced with building capsule wardrobes.

The idea for this post came from Verena Erin's Instagram. Erin runs a sustainable fashion website called The Green Closet and has lots of informative articles and YouTube videos on shopping ethically, minimally, and sensibly. In this particular post, she shared a picture of the few items she took a trip to Croatia and asked for readers' best packing tips. Some of the following come from those responses.

Wear an undershirt: This tip comes from Erin herself. She recommends wearing a thin t-shirt (or a tank top) beneath a garment on its first wear. This will prolong the outer garment's number of days to be worn.

Wear loose clothes: The looser the clothing, the less sweaty it will get, and therefore, the more days you'll be able to wear it.

Do the smell test: Base your clothing's cleanliness on its smell, more than its appearance. You can spot wash and let dry overnight, but as long as a top smells OK, wear it as long as you can. Wearing merino wool helps to minimize odor, especially with socks.

Stick with a neutral color palette: Make sure your pieces can mix and mingle easily. Leave behind anything that doesn't fit into the palette or cannot be used in more than one way.

Experiment with a packing formula: One reader shared her 5-4-3-2-1 formula -- 5 tops, 4 bottoms, 3 shoes, 2 handbags, 1 special item (dress, scarf, etc.). Another source breaks it down as 5 tops, 4 bottoms, 3 dresses & 3 shoes, 2 swimsuits & 2 bags, 1 hat, watch & sunglasses. One commenter said she has a hard limit of two pairs of shoes. (After taking a shocking 5 pairs of footwear on my infamously overpacked trip to Israel, I quite like this 2-pair rule.)

A male commenter on a previous article I wrote provided a list of his super-light packing essentials: 3-4 underwear, 2-3 tees, 1 spare shorts, 1 sweater, 1 jacket, swim shorts, 1 extra pair shoes, 1 microfibre towel.

Get clever with packing: Stash socks and underwear inside shoes to save room. Roll clothes instead of folding. Use packing cubes if you want. Wear your bulkiest items, especially shoes or boots. Take items that are built for travel, such as this brilliant collapsible water bottle called the Hydaway that shrinks down a 1-inch disk when not needed -- no more hauling awkward stainless steel water bottles.

Get some laundry detergent: Depending on the length of trip, realize that you'll probably need to wash something at some point, but this is small price to pay for bypassing enormous lineups. Pack a small ziplock of powdered detergent, or buy it upon arrival.

Women, take a pashmina scarf: Conde Nast reported that every flight attendant they interviewed travels with a pashmina scarf. It's incredibly versatile, can be used as a blanket or pillow on the plane, extra warmth for cold days, an accessory to dress up a basic outfit.

Pack as if social media doesn't exist: There is weird pressure to appear good in photos on social media, and with that sometimes comes a reluctance to be seen in the same outfit more than once. Ignore that impulse! Wear what you're going to feel comfortable in, no matter how repetitive it is. That leads to a related point...

Pack what you love wearing at home: Stick with your favorite. If you find a particular piece of clothing to be restrictive and uncomfortable at home, you won't want to wear it elsewhere, either.

Take books that can be left behind: If you're one of those few people that doesn't have an e-reader (like me) but cannot survive without a book, then choose cheap paperbacks that you can leave in hotels or hostels as you move on.