25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 15

Clothing and Laundry

Advice  Hot Weather  Cold Weather  Coordination  Appearance  Glossary  Apparel  Laundry  Socks  Tips

TRAVEL CLOTHING SHOULD provide sufficient protection and flexibility so you can go about your affairs without suffering the elements. It should also be as light and compact as possible since space and strength are limited. Travel clothing should also project the image or style of choice, because to a great extent it determines how you are perceived as a traveler in foreign lands. Like it or not, clothing is a basic form of communication.

Traveling lightly upon the cultural environment demands consideration of clothing and appearance, since both are seen as forms of respect. Many religious buildings require skirts for women, pants for men, or removal of shoes.

In some countries it is objectionable and unsafe for women to wear revealing clothing--which may mean showing skin other than face and hands, or by not wearing a bra. Some smaller societies are disturbed by visitors wearing copies of their clothing as they connect religious and/or cultural significance to apparel.

My recommendation is to try to look at least neat while traveling. The world's peoples may think better of you, may want to talk to you more often, and may be more likely to offer hospitality. Moreover, you will make it through customs faster and be hassled by authorities less often.

On the other hand one of the great things about travel backpacking is there is no mold we have to fit. If you can just be yourself you'll do great.

Hot Weather Clothing

Jungle clothingSun and mosquito protection are the primary functions of clothing in the tropics, and clothing which performs these jobs well will keep you cooler and healthier in the long run. Long sleeves, collars, hats with a generous brim, and baggy pants fend off heat exhaustion better than tank tops and shorts. Knit or extremely fine materials offer little sun or mosquito protection as rays and proboscises easily penetrate. A 100% cotton, long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirt with buttons, collar, and a breast pocket or two is perfectly functional.

Tight denim jeans are a bad idea for jungle trekking, and not so comfortable in any humid climate. They are hot to wear, slow to dry, and heavy to carry.

A straw or canvas hat with at least a three-inch (7.5 centimeter) brim all around is essential for many backpackers--especially hitchhikers--in sunny climes. Baseball caps don't offer much protection. I usually buy locally-made hats for a few dollars.

Cold Weather Clothing

Sleeping cold and being cold are the big daddies of hardship for travelers. For winter travel you'll want a number of wicking/insulating, insulating, and wind blocking layers as detailed in the glossary below.

I recommend having at least a layer or two of of the new synthetics. They are easy to wash, dry with body heat, and provide the most warmth for the weight and bulk.

For winter travel in Europe you will want either a long and heavy windproof coat or rain shell, insulating layers of pile and/or down, and quality long underwear, in addition to gloves, heavy socks, and headgear. As opposed to spring, summer, and fall travel where weight, bulk, and style are factors, in winter you will wear most or all of this clothing anytime you're on the move, if you're not sleeping in it, too.

Photo: I bought this midweight polyester zip turtleneck several years ago for $30. Now I wouldn't travel without it. Zip-up pullover, hat, and grand view

Travel Clothing Coordination

Versatility is key. Select clothing that goes double-duty for day and evening, and can be worn with everything. An outfit that can only be worn by itself is very heavy in the pack. Simple styles and basic colors work best. Black, navy, and white are good.

If you wear one set, carry two in your pack, and everything more or less mixes or matches, you'll have enough clothes to begin your trip. As they wear out or your needs change you can easily buy more clothing exactly appropriate for the climate or conditions at hand, which is a nice feature of the world economy.

Don't be so delusional as to bring anything reserved for one special event or purpose. While that special event or purpose may or may not suck, carrying clothing with limited utility will suck.

I've gone to quite a few concerts in fine halls wearing slacks and a decent shirt. While I can't say I felt particularly comfortable in the sartorial bottom 0.01 percent, it was no big deal, either. Many women backpackers include in their packs a combination which looks more than okay at such events, and can also be worn everyday.

How Not to Look Like a Tourist

Keep your head down and don't look at anybody. Actually, however you dress many will sense you're from somewhere else, which, since it's the truth, is usually good. Blue Skies in Mexico City
Photo: Blue Skies in Mexico City


Clothing Glossary

Property of a fabric to transport moisture away from the skin to the outer side of the fabric where it can evaporate. Wicking is crucial when working up a sweat in cold weather, since you can later become chilled from your own perspiration.
Best method of dressing warmly. Inner layer of clothing is a wicking fabric such as polypropylene, pile, or Thermax. Next layers consist of whatever warm clothing you have; a synthetic fleece jacket is ideal. Down jackets and wool sweaters are also good. Outer layer is a shell, which blocks wind and rain. Layers can be removed and added as conditions change.
Polypropylene (polypro)
Synthetic fiber with excellent wicking and warmth. It retains very little water.
Backpackers consider the new formulations of polyester a wonder fiber, even a life-saver. The new polyesters are soft and comfortable to the skin, retain very little water, keep you warm when wet, dry with your own body heat, and wick well. Brand names include Thermax, MTS, and Capilene.
Fleece and pile
Generic terms for a thick and fluffy polyester fiber. It is warmer and lighter than wool, wicks well, absorbs very little water (comes out of the washer 99% dry), and is durable. Fleece isn't windproof, but some fleece incorporates a wind barrier for greater warmth.
Best used in hot and humid climates where cotton's breathability and coolness are matchless. These same characteristics make cotton clothing a bad idea for backpacking in cold and rainy weather. Wet cotton clothing in temperatures well-above freezing is a leading cause of hypothermia and resulting death.
Heavier for equal warmth than pile, fleece, and polyester fabrics. Wool retains some insulating capability when wet. Look for a tight weave as in British Army-type sweaters.
An excellent wicking Dupont fiber for socks, which leads to cooler, drier feet and fewer blisters.
An outer garment such as a rainjacket which blocks wind and rain. Due to this wind-blocking function shells provide the most warmth per weight of any garment.
Brand of waterproof/breathable fabric. GoreTex is a membrane attached underneath the outer fabric and protected on the inside by a nylon or mesh liner. Its pores are 700 times smaller than a water drop, but still large enough for perspiration vapor to pass through. Thus after several hours of wear you don't become damp from your own perspiration. It's also windproof. Not a necessity, but this and other brands with similar function perform well.
Durable Water Repellent. A Teflon, silicone, or other treatment on the outside of a fabric to provide moderate water protection, yet maintain breathability. Available in spray cans from outdoor shops and discount stores.
Coated nylon
Nylon fabric coated with polyurethane to make it waterproof, windproof, and non-breathable.
Backpackers carry clothing the most compactly and conveniently, and with adequate wrinkle minimization, by rolling-up each item. (After a day they're mostly worked-out.1)
Nylon bags are the traveler's drawers. While some use different-colored nylon ditty bags, I prefer mesh so I can better discern what is where. Socks and underwear in one, shirts in another, etc. See Chapter 20 Organization and Packing.

Backpacker Apparel

Long rainjacketI recommend a long waterproof/breathable jacket with a hood and several pockets. The extra length keeps your lower body dry, and doesn't bunch-up under the hip belt when wearing a pack. Weight will be about 1.5 pounds (680 g.), and packed-size about 4x9 inches (10x23 centimeters).
A simple coated nylon jacket, such as the Sierra Designs Microlite ($30, 8 oz., 225 g.), works well for warm weather travel, and its packed-size and weight are unbeatable. Some water may leak in the seams in a heavy downpour, and perspiration vapor will condense on the inside, but usually this isn't a great problem.
Although I prefer a regular rainjacket for travel, ponchos are popular with many experienced backpackers (see below), and utility cannot be denied.
Should be comfortable, supportive, lightweight, and roomy since with heavy walking foot size noticeably increases (up to a full size for long distance trail hikers). The tread should have a good grip and be long-wearing. My last pair of soft rubber soles was good for only 200 miles (325 kilometers) before becoming dangerously slick.
Most backpackers don't need boots since you really don't need them for trail-walking. If you plan on blazing your own somewhere, then yes, you may need a pair, along with a machete and antivenin. Otherwise boots are too much weight for limited utility, and take too long to dry. Most true long distance hikers on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails switch to to simpler leather, canvas, or light trail shoes within a few hundred miles.
Birkenstocks are popular with backpackers. I use cheap and light (12 oz., 340 g.) sport sandals. In the developing world some backpackers buy locally-made sandals, which are cheap but not always available in large sizes. Others use flip-flops.
I travel with two pairs, usually along the line of Levi's Dockers. Comfort over the long haul is my primary consideration. These pants weigh under one pound (454 g.) each, and dry quickly. Regular denim jeans take forever to dry and weigh about 1.5 pounds (680 g.). Thus you save a pound of dead weight by choosing lighter pants. Nevertheless, most backpackers pack a pair of jeans.
Nylon pants
I've also derived great utility from thin nylon warm up pants with pockets, especially when other clothing is unwearably dirty, in the wash, or conditions are unusually dirt-producing, as nylon cleans easily. Weight is 5.5 oz. (155 g.), rolled up with a rubber band size is 2 x 6 in. (5 x 15 cm), and color is black.
Many women swear by high quality (long lasting) tights; they don't do much for me. (5 oz., 140 g.)
See Lisa and John's Eighteen Fabulous Uses for a Sarong.
I begin with three or four of my favorite, best-looking, or luckiest shirts, which usually means one nice, long-sleeved, 60% cotton/40% polyester shirt, one nice, long-sleeved 100% cotton shirt, and one or two t-shirts or polo shirts. Also the zip turtleneck pictured above. Long sleeves are good for sun protection, and can always be rolled up.
A pair of nylon shorts with pockets weighs about three ounces (85 g.), doubles as swim trunks, and rolls-up to almost nothing. Heavy cotton shorts weigh about nine ounces (250 g.)
Some backpackers take one pair of boxers for night ware and emergencies, travel commando otherwise. Saves weight, but requires caution on upzip. In hot and humid climates 100% light cotton underwear are much preferred by all sexes.
Layering pieces
Down vestA mid-weight, high-tech polyester top provides the most warmth and comfort for the weight, space, and money. For winter or altitude you will want heavy-weight top and bottom underwear, a fleece or down jacket, and a long shell. I'm currently much impressed with the function and form of a $20 discount store fleece jacket.2
Down jacket or vest
Traditional layering piece. While losing nearly 100% of loft and warmth if soaked, some backpackers use down jackets since they are lighter and compact 50% smaller than comparable fleece jackets. The down vest at right supercompacts to the size of two medium fists and makes a supergreat pillow.
Fast-drying materials like pile and polypropylene are preferable as wet gloves are no fun.
Headgear for cold protection
Most flexibility and warmth for the weight comes from a polypropylene balaclava (1 oz. (28.35 g.), $7), which can also be worn as a cap or scarf. If it's really cold you will also need a pile, acrylic, or wool cap.
Are crucial travel equipment. I recommend the Thorlo or equivalent brand of hiking, walking, and sports socks. These have thick padding at the heel, ball, and toe areas, and are made of acrylic or Coolmax, which wick moisture away from feet and dry quickly. Cotton socks wick poorly and take a long time to dry, resulting in blisters.
Liner socks
Some backpackers swear by these for preventing blisters. Liners socks are very thin and worn under regular socks. They are made of polypropylene or silk to wick moisture and provide a smooth, sliding surface. In my experience this system is too complex for normal travel.
Cool, comfortable, light, and always in style. I love 'em!

Travel Laundry

Travelers do much laundry by hand. Frequent clothes washing is universally seen as more efficient than carrying twenty pairs of socks, twenty pairs of underwear, and eleven shirts, as did one Kierkegaard-toting, poor-bargaining, backpacking daughter whose name shall not be mentioned to protect her remaining dignity and that of her family.

Hotel, hostel, and campground handwashing is easy. Hostels and campgrounds will usually have several washing boards where you mix soap, water, clothes, and labor. In Europe and the rest of the developed world most hostels also have machines, as will many campgrounds.

Note that the "90" setting on international laundry machines represents 90 C, which is nearly boiling. Not noting this I shrunk a down jacket half-a-size and transformed the rest of my clothing to shades of gray. (But clean, clean, clean!)

You can begin your trip with a small plastic zip bag of powdered laundry detergent and buy additional powder as you go. A small hand brush or nylon pot scrubber works miracles.

In the developing world you might ask at your hotel if anyone washes clothes. Probably one of the maids will do an outstanding job--removing stains you thought were permanent--for a fair price. Benefit from the travails of another by determining in advance exactly when the spotless clothes are coming back, though.

Handwashing Socks and Other Tricks

Travelers' Tips

I select everything I carry for amount of use and dual-function potential. My poncho doubles as a cozy tent/lean-to if the need arises, and it also made a great umbrella for six people while waiting to get into the Louvre--won over a few Parisians for that one! Ted, USA


Bring at least one good pair of pants, one dress shirt, and a polishable pair of walking/disco shoes like Rockports or Dexters. You may badly want such to get where dancing women are, and for taking advantage of the swimming pools and other accouterments of better hotels. Turbo, USA

(Don't forget your cohones.)

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1. Or if something is really bothering you, take a clean hand--but not too clean of a hand (leave some oils in there)--and apply two sets of ten vigorous rubs. If it's then not quantifiably improved, the oils will at least have softened the focus by smudging the surrounding area. back

2. Although, since buyers are rational, the grossly materialistic designer labels splayed across expensive fleece presumably lures mates. back