Best Travel Clothes for Women (I should know!)

Best Travel Clothes for Women (I should know!)

Note: There is an updated version of this post, including everything I carry in my pack and the packs themselves, on my IndieTravel.guru site now.

My travel lifestyle demands a lot from my clothes. As a woman, I want to feel good about how I look. As a nomad, I need clothes I can wad up in a ball, stuff in my pack, and wash once a week in one load.

Best travel clothes for women
Knocking around Spain in my running T, a pair of 15 year old trekking pants. My fleece Windbrake jacket is on my arm.

Just a few pieces have to take me from Iceland to Africa, desert to rainforest, and from camping out in piles of alpaca poo to the Royal Opera. Every piece has to earn its keep. The best travel clothes for women need to be:

  • Lightweight
  • Packable (small)
  • Wrinkle resistant
  • Stain resistant
  • Odor resistant
  • Versatile
  • Mix & Match easily with other pieces
  • Durable

It’s also nice to have plenty of secure pockets (I rarely carry a purse any more) and to have protection from sun & bugs.

I’ve always been proud of my frugal shopping skills, but for travel clothes I’ve had to adopt the strategy of buying expensive pieces with the hope that they’ll last for decades. I know these clothes will outlast me. They get worn a LOT, abused horribly, and laundered often and they still look like new even after a year on the road.

Here are the items I carry that are the true workhorses of my wardrobe, mostly from REI.com. I can count on every piece for 3-4 wearings between washing (more, in a pinch) since they resist soil, moisture, wrinkles and odors.

prAna Quinn Dress

Best travel clothes for women - prana quinn dress review

I love this dress so much I bought a second one in solid black. It has a shelf bra that actually supports my D-cup breasts, which is extremely rare, and the fabric is thick enough to hide any show-through. Hallelujah!

It’s cool & comfortable for hot climates, with shorts underneath to prevent chafing. I’ve also worn it with leggings (actually, they were my long johns), boots and a cardigan in cooler weather. It looks OK with sport sandals, but it dresses up cute with nice jewelry & shoes.

It’s my go-to dress for lounging around the house, covering a swimsuit, taking a long walk, going out for dinner, and I’ve slept in it. I pop it on to go to/from the shower in a hostel. It never wrinkles, doesn’t stain, shows no dirt, and the colors and shape have held up to a year of brutal laundering, in harsh chemicals and conditions.

The only flaw in this dress is its lack of pockets. I had a seamstress add one to each of my dresses, deep enough for my passport, with a hidden zipper for security. Now they are perfect.

REI Endeavor Pants

Best travel clothes for women - REI endeavor pants reviewThe perfect slacks. They feel like yoga pants, look like dress slacks, and have  the zippered security pockets a traveller needs.

They’re lightweight and stretchy, with an ingenious inner drawstring to adjust the waist. The generous hip pockets zip closed, and there’s a third zip pocket on the thigh.

They are water, wind, and rain resistant, so they keep me warm and dry, but they’re light enough to wear in the desert (and 50SPF).  Mine went through the laundry in Morocco with a tinted Chapstick in the pocket, but the greasy spot disappeared after a few more washings and the fabric even resisted the red dye.

These are long enough on my 5’9″ body, which is rare. They also come in petite and plus sizes.

REI Northway Pants

Best travel clothes for women - REI Northway pants reviewI have these pants in black, and I love them. Super lightweight, stretchy, and another pair that feels like yoga pants but could pass for dress slacks.

The fabric is smooth, and no matter what you spill on them, it just wipes off. They  look  wrinkled when I pull them out of the pack, but the wrinkles fall right out. The waist has a tie ribbon so they fit me through thick and thin — literally.

Best travel clothes for women - REI Northway pants reviewThe legs have a sort of vertical double drawstring that lets you pull them up into capris for hot weather. I like that they’re convertible without having the awful zipper line across the thighs that shouts “TOURIST!”

There’s a hidden zipper pocket inside the right slash pocket, and it’s big enough to hold credit cards and cash securely.

I can wear these on the trail, or tuck them into boots and look really spiffy in the city!

 

 

The North Face Horizon II Pants

Best travel clothes for women - The North Face Horizon II pants reviewI love these pants! Super lightweight & casual with wider legs than most hiking pants. They roll up into capris and have button tabs to hold them in place.

I’m not actually travelling with these at the moment, because I lost weight and mine were trying to fall off. Only the drawstring waist was keeping them on me, and I just didn’t trust it.

I have a pair of black capris in their place at the moment, but they’re not as versatile. I’ll be replacing them with another pair of these.

I love that they behave like trekking gear – lightweight, wrinkle and stain-resistant, sun protection, versatile, and durable – but they don’t look like trekking gear.

Mine were a light khaki color that’s not available any more, but they never showed dirt or stains. They  have a zipper pocket for valuables and cash. And they’re relatively inexpensive, for a pair of pants that will last the rest of your life.

Another pair of pants that I dearly loved but shrunk out of was these. Superstretchy, comfy, stain resistant and would last a lifetime. Highly recommended. I bought a pair for my daughter and she loves them.

Long-sleeved White Shirt

Best travel clothes for women - Columbia Sun Goddess Shirt Review

One of the most important pieces in a traveller’s wardrobe.

The one I own is by Royal Robbins and has been discontinued. The one I’m linking to, here, has all the right features, and I like the feminine styling better than the one I have.

A long-sleeved shirt protects you from sun and bugs without chemicals. Buy it a little large and you can use it like a lightweight jacket, but one that will fit in your pocket. I like sleeves that roll up and button in place, and I like ripstop poly fabric for its soil and wrinkle resistant traits. You can layer this over any shirt or dress in your wardrobe, or wear it buttoned with black pants for a semi-dressy look (or in case you need to wait tables somewhere).

Running T-shirt

Best travel clothes for women - Running T-shirt

I don’t actually run, but I need a T-shirt that is built to keep me cool and prevent sweating.

There are many countries and situations where you have to deal with heat, but also keep your shoulders covered.  It’s also a great layering piece.

The shirt I’ve linked to isn’t exactly the one I have — I don’t even remember where I got mine — but it’s similar.  I often sleep in mine, with panties or long johns.

Shell top

Best travel clothes for womenThe little sleeveless shell top that I have isn’t available any more, but here’s a super cute one from the same manufacturer, Royal Robbins, (who also made my white long-sleeved shirt) that I’d love to own!

This one is versatile, with cap sleeves that button back, and figure-conscious without being tight.

Pieces like this are perfect for hot weather or for layering.

I recommend choosing a color scheme for your travel wardrobe, with one neutral color and a primary accent color, so everything you own will work together.  My color scheme is black/gray and pink, but I wound up with some turquoise as well.

Icebreaker long-sleeve half-zip top

Best travel clothes for women - Icebreaker half-zip top review

Icebreaker wool clothing is not cheap. But once, I climbed to the top of a mountain and discovered everyone up there wearing the same brand! (a tiny label on the sleeve gives it away).

Why is it so popular? It’s a lightweight, washable wool that keeps you warm without itchiness or stifling heat. It wicks moisture, resists odors and bacteria, and breathes. The shirt is so comfy, and nice and long. It looks great on, or layers under other things very well.

This shirt is what I want any time the weather is cool. Craig sleeps in his in cold weather. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many days in  a row we’ve worn these, but they never look worn or smell bad. They’re miraculous.

Long-sleeved Icebreaker shirt

Best travel clothes for women - Icebreaker top reviewI carry a second Icebreaker shirt, from Amazon. I love it, but it’s been discontinued. I don’t see anything similar, but maybe this one would be a good substitute. I like having a feminine, long-sleeved option for cooler weather.

If I didn’t have this shirt, I’d want another lightweight Icebreaker, for sure. They keep you comfortable in a wide range of temperatures. A man I know — who shall remain nameless to protect his privacy — even wears Icebreaker underwear.

 

Lightweight Cardigan

Best travel clothes for women - cardigan

Another of the most useful items in my wardrobe. The one I own is like this Icebreaker one on Amazon, but I only wish mine was an Icebreaker. It would be lighter weight and more packable if it was, and probably offer the same warmth. Mine has this cool cross-buttoning, though, and the draping gives a touch of femininity.

Around the house, over a dress, for walking and hiking, for covering up bare shoulders in conservative countries, as a robe, I use this almost every day.

Underwear
I won’t go into detail about my underwear. Not because of privacy (I have no shame) but because I don’t think the ones I’ve found are all that special. FTR, here’s what I carry:

  • Four pairs of panties (one is the ex-officio superexpensive ones, three are microfiber from Target, and I don’t see much difference.)
  • Four pairs of hiking socks in various weights. These take up a LOT of room, but if possible I’d carry a fifth pair.
  • Three bras, without wires or padding. My favorite is a Nike crop-top sports bra, one is a stretchy comfort bra, and one is a wireless bra with just a hint of fiberfill to wear with see-through-ish tops like the one above. It’s very hard to find packable bras, but look in the sports section.

Scarves!
The thing all traveling women have in common: scarves. They warm you up, dry your hands when there’s no towel in the bathroom, tie your purse to your chair in outdoor cafes, and roll up behind your neck on long flights. They bring color and sophistication to plain outfits, cover your head when it’s raining, or make a dressy shawl to take your everyday sundress to the opera. They also make cheap and useful souvenirs, so I recommend buying them as you go!

Thermal Fleece Jacket

Best travel clothes for women - REI windbrake thermal fleece jacket review

I love my Windbrake Thermal Jacket from REI (mine is turquoise, and slightly different from the newer model shown, but the same item). It’s comfortable for me on cool summer evenings, yet, layered with my rain shell, it kept me warm in Iceland!

It washes well, packs up small, doesn’t wrinkle or stain, and has pockets inside big enough for my Kindle. The outer pockets zip for security so I never lose my travel documents.

Still looks new after a full year of horrible abuse.

 

 

Rain Shell

Best travel clothes for women - rain shell

The rain jacket I bought has been discontinued, so the link is to a comparable one that’s still available.

Honestly, I thought I was insane to buy a rain jacket priced at well over $100 (even though I only paid about $95, since it had already been discontinued).

But a light rain shell that’s truly waterproof, with taped seams and a good hood, is worth its weight in gold.

I can layer it over my fleece to keep out not only rain but freezing temps. It wads up and stuffs into a pocket, but keeps me completely dry even in a rainforest downpour. It’s so well-made it will last several lifetimes. And it actually looks sleek and stylish, even layered over another jacket.

Scarf, Hat, Gloves

DSC03942

I add a warm scarf, hat and gloves for really cold weather or mountain climbing. Combined with my fleece jacket and rain shell, this keeps me surprisingly warm. Even in Iceland, or St. Louis in a blizzard.

I don’t carry these items around the world though. They’re cheap enough to pick up locally and donate when I leave cold climates.

Hiking Shoes or Sports Shoes

hkingI honestly haven’t found the perfect hiking shoes, and I think they’re very personal, so I won’t bother to recommend a specific brand. If you don’t plan on any off-road hiking, you can probably get by with a great pair of running/walking shoes. I swear by  PowerStep insoles for my plantar fascitis. I wouldn’t have made it this far without them. I carry two pair, one for my hiking shoes and one for my dressy boots or whatever cheap, fun footwear I may pick up along the road.

I traveled with a full-blown pair of hiking boots at first, and they were SO hard to part with (I gave them to one of the orphans in Peru). But they’re just too heavy and too specialized for the journey.

Sports Sandals

Best travel clothes for women - Tiva Tirra sandals reviewI love Keen sports sandals with all my heart, and nothing supports my arches like they do. I’ve worn them for everything from strolling to hiking to boating. But for travel, I need a sandal that I can wear with a sundress, so I had to compromise.

These Tiva Tirra Sandals are neither truly cute with a dress nor as good for hiking as the Keens, but since I can only make room for one sandal in my bag, this is the one. They are comfortable and supportive, even for long walks, and fully water-compatible.  They’re a good compromise.

Other items

I’ve carried a pair of cheap ($30) lightweight fabric boots (flat heel, knee high) from MakeMeChic.com, my fave source for supercheap footwear. They roll up in my luggage (I bind them with rubber bands), don’t weigh much, and dress up even simple outfits. a pair of Powerstep insoles make them comfortable enough for walking. I will probably ditch them now that we’re headed into summer, but keep the insoles and get a new pair if I need them.

I also carry one pair of true dress shoes and one very dressy dress to wear to fine restaurants, opera, theater, etc. However, I’m considering ditching those permanently (if I can let of my ego enough to consider showing up at the opera in a sundress and sport sandals). I may try to find some foldable ballet flats that have room for my insoles…I’ll let you know if that works out.

I have a pair of striped woven pants I bought in Peru that I love for lounging and for wearing out, and a simple tank top from Target for sleeping and layering. The tank top doesn’t dry fast enough on the line, though, and may get replaced with a high-performance one soon. I have one other pair of pants (in the photo at the top of the page). They’re REI zip-off trekking pants. I’ve had them for over 15 years, so they’re not available any more. But they look like I just bought them yesterday, which is enough to make me trust that my REI clothes will last. (did you know they’ll accept returns for almost any reason, six months or a year after purchase?).

I also have a cheap swimsuit and a pair of sunglasses ($20, indestructible, UVA/UVB protection), both from Target.

That’s it. My entire wardrobe for a year or more, all conditions, all events. It’s not much. I’ll have to do another whole post on the emotional upheaval that comes from not having many clothes to wear, it’s a mindbender for sure!

Published by Lauren

I'm a nomadic freelance writer, out enjoying the world!

6 Comments

  • Beth

    May 18, 2014 at 11:30 am Reply

    Great advice Lauren! Thanks. Do you think you could ask your male traveling companion for a similar post for men’s clothes since a lot of us won’t always be traveling alone?

    Beth

    • Lauren

      May 18, 2014 at 1:30 pm Reply

      Interesting idea! I passed along the request, we’ll see what he says. He might just do it.

  • Sue Guetterman

    May 18, 2014 at 12:10 pm Reply

    Great post, Lauren, filled with many good ideas!!

    • Lauren

      May 18, 2014 at 1:29 pm Reply

      Thanks, Sue!

  • Patricia

    May 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm Reply

    Lots of great information Lauren! As a fellow dancer and someone with foot problems, thanks for link to the Power Step insoles. I have a variety of supportive inserts to customize my shoes, will have to add them to my arsenal! I looked at Make Me Chic, which is a super cute site! But I have a question – how do you wear the flat sole shoes w/o problems? Even with your insoles, how do you have enough support? LOL! Didn’t mean to make this about foot wear but I am curious!

    • Lauren

      May 18, 2014 at 1:29 pm Reply

      With the insole I can walk in flats for several hours without problems. The power step insoles do the trick! Your mileage may vary of course.

Post a Comment