A friend of a friend recently emailed me asking for advice on how to pack for an extended trip through multiple climates. She’d be traveling through both rural and urban Chile, Peru, Argentina – including Patagonia – Brazil, and Colombia for seven weeks while visiting arctic, desert, and tropical climates.
Her goal was to travel with only one backpack (as we recommend), but she had no idea how to do it or if it were even possible. I gave her the most thorough response I could and realized that if she was in need of such information, then surely many others were, too. Below is an expanded, more thought-out version of my advice to her. My focus isn’t solely utilitarian; I believe we can look and feel great on the road while packing everything in one bag!
The Golden Key: Layering
It sounds obvious, but the key is LAYERING.
Don’t try to bring clothing designed for only one climate. Doing so would be expensive and waste a ton of space in your pack.
Everything you bring should be able to be worn in any weather. Winter-weight fabrics will weigh you down and frustrate you on the road. Any particular items you may need, like gloves, can be bought locally and passed on afterwards. Focus on versatility and layer-ability.
You can always find a stylish piece that can be layered with other options to make it perfect for any climate. Use layers to dress smartly and look good.
Base layers are the foundation of a versatile wardrobe and will quickly become your best friend. Be thoughtful about your base layers and choose wisely. You don’t even need to worry about how they look because odds are no one will ever see them with the lights on.
You’ll need several high quality, breathable base layers that you can wear basically all the time. Your list should include underwear (plus long underwear or tights for a trip through cold weather), undershirts, socks, and t-shirts.
These base layers should be made of wool or synthetic microfiber. They’re both breathable. Also, when you’re hot, wool and microfiber wick sweat away from you; when you’re cold, they keep you warm. They also tend not to get stinky like cotton does.
Another super important quality about these two fabrics is that they dry really, really quickly. I can’t overstate the importance of quick drying.
If any of your base layers happen to get wet or sweaty, they’ll always be ready to wear again after a few hours of air drying. Most importantly, you can hand-wash and hang-dry your socks and underwear whenever you want in your hostel room. Because you can wash and dry your base layers so quickly and easily, you only need to bring a few pairs of each.
Two to three pairs of socks and underwear are all you need for any long-term trip. One pair of long underwear for both top and bottom will be sufficient. Long underwear makes jeans or khakis and any long sleeve shirt an ideal outfit for even the most frigid conditions.
My highest recommendations for base layers go to SmartWool for socks and ExOfficio for underwear. I often travel with two pairs of SmartWool socks and two pairs of ExOfficio underwear.
Really. That’s all you need.
I’ve also had great luck with Under Armour Cold Gear for long underwear, which are the tight fitting, but warm undergarments football players wear under their pads in the snow. They’re incredibly comfortable, take up barely any space and have kept me warm at theSundance Film Festival and in Sweden during Christmastime.
You can find a huge variety of great base layer t-shirts these days. I’ve worn Under Armour, North Face, and store brand microfiber t-shirts and they’ve all served me great. Go with what fits your budget and style needs. Just stay away from cotton if you’re serious about layering.
At Tortuga, we’re big believers that jeans are the best, an essential pair of traveling pants. They’re versatile, stylish, durable, and stain resistant. But lots of people disagree.
Nonetheless, I highly suggest you take at least one pair of jeans with you on your multi-climate trip. You can wear them to the club, museum, or for a hike. With some long underwear below them, they’re great for a snowy day.
Best of all, you’re probably making a mistake if you wash your jeans more than twice a year.
For an approximately eight-week trip through hot and cold weather areas, I would bring two pairs of jeans – one fancier and one more rugged – one pair of khaki shorts, and possibly one pair of synthetic fiber shorts for rugged adventuring and swimming. That’s it.
If you’re really into lightweight travel and don’t care too much about going out at night, you can get away with one pair of convertible pants/shorts that zipper off around the knee.
To be honest, I think convertible pants are ugly as sin, but lots of people like them, and they’re surely efficient. I wouldn’t hesitate to bring a pair (and maybe no other bottoms) if I were taking an outdoor-focused trip like a safari.
In all, I’d recommend two to four pairs of bases. Jeans get my highest recommendation.
Shirts and tops are your opportunities to get creative and show your personal style, but durability is still essential.
Remember that you’ll be wearing your base layer t-shirts almost every day in nearly every environment. My style is pretty classic, so I go with grey, black, and blue commonly. You can never go wrong with a grey t-shirt and khaki shorts or a pair of jeans. If your style is a bit louder or more colorful, make sure that your base layer t-shirts match that.
Bring two shirts for going out, unless you know that you don’t plan to socialize. Again, let your personal style shine and don’t stress about efficiency. For guys, two buttons down shirts is probably perfect. Or, bring one button down and one polo shirt. For girls, bring two blouses that make you happy that you’re not in your base layer T anymore.
Bring what you find to be wrinkle resistant at home, but don’t fret whether it’s perfect “travel gear.” Socialize on the road in the clothes that make you happy and confident, but keep in mind you only need one or two options.
I recommend one very durable and versatile sweater or fleece pullover. I tend to pack either a black fleece pullover or a grey wool sweater. A lovely sweater is normally acceptable for any semi-formal affair – like a dinner party – in a cold weather city. This heavier weight top will also be great for wearing over your base layer t-shirts and under your jackets for those freezing nights. If you’re moving from city to city, no one will notice that you’ve worn a sweater multiple times that week.
You’ll only need one-and-a-half pieces of outerwear: a waterproof, windproof shell jacket and a fleece jacket. I say one-and-a-half because I don’t consider the fleece jacket only as outwear. It’s also the second most essential layering piece behind your base layers.
You’ll wear that fleece jacket on chilly summer nights in the Mediterranean and underneath your shell in the most frigid Scandinavian winter.
It’s great if your shell and fleece jackets are a convertible set that attach in some way (zippers, snaps, Velcro), but it’s not essential.
Your waterproof, windproof shell jacket will be a fantastic investment because it’ll be your rain jacket year-round, in any climate. These jackets are very stylish, so they’re appropriate anytime, except for in the most formal settings.
In reality, it’s often the wind and precipitation that chill us to the bone during the winter, so you’ll quickly realize that your shell jacket is more useful than lots of heavy “winter” jackets that let through plenty of wind and rain. That’s why so many skiers wear these clothes with just base layers underneath.
It’s a bit trite, but I wear a North Face fleece and shell set. I thoroughly recommend North Face, and you can find very affordable used jackets on eBay or Craigslist.
You don’t need ski pants. They’re huge, bulky, and expensive. Locals of sub-Arctic cities don’t walk around in ski pants and neither should you. Your long underwear will keep you plenty warm.
Accoutrements: The Goodies that Make it All Alright
Bring some accessories that make you really happy. For guys or girls, a scarf takes practically no space and individualizes almost any outfit. Or, perhaps it’s a hat that’s not necessary but makes you feel whole.
Don’t give up your personal identity on the road just because some traveling expert recommends all utilitarian outfits. You won’t look cool or be happy if you’re dressed like a hunting guide, so don’t bother.
Take along some jewelry or a beloved hoodie, even if it’s not high-tech fleece. Wear your favorite vintage cotton T on your flights… You never know who might be sitting next to you.
Don’t feel guilty about bringing one or two accessories that make you happy. If they become too big of a burden, you can throw them out. They’re only stuff, and there’s plenty more stuff to be had in this world.
You’re only going to need one piece of luggage for your long-term trip through multiple climates. Anything more is inconvenient on the road. Just make sure that the bag fits your airline’s carry-on limits, usually a total of 45 linear inches (length + width + height) or less.
As for packing your bag, we suggest rolling your clothes. It saves space and prevents wrinkles. I suggest a rubber band on each piece of clothing to keep it secure. Bring a few plastic bags for wet or filthy clothes. They take up no space at all and are practically weightless.
If you packed what I recommend and bring one extra pair of shoes aside from the ones on your feet, your bag will fit everything perfectly. You’ll also have plenty of space for a small computer or iPad, a few books, and a water bottle.
Did you forget something? Who cares. As long as it’s not your passport, you can almost always find whatever you need wherever you are in today’s globalized world.
Enjoy your trip. And be glad you decided to layer.
Let us know what else you would bring or leave behind in the comments.
Around the World Packing List
- ExOfficio Underwear, 2-3 pairs
- Under Armour Cold Gear or long underwear, 1 top and one bottom
- Performance fabric t-shirts, 3-5
- SmartWool Socks, 2-3 pairs
- Jeans, two pairs (1 rugged, one nicer)
- Chino shorts, one pair
- Synthetic fiber shorts or swimsuit (optional)
- Convertible pants/shorts, one pair (optional replacement for all of the above)
- Performance fabric t-shirts (see ‘Base Layers’ above)
- Wool sweater or fleece pullover
- Long-sleeve shirts, 2
- Waterproof, windproof shell jacket
- Fleece jacket
- North Face multi-climate jacket (optional replacement for both of the above)
Hope that the packing list for vacation around the world is helpful for you. Good luck and have nice trip