Proudly sporting awesome gear on our honeymoon in Belize! | Image © Lee Vanderwalker 2018.
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Before digging into this list of recommended travel gear, I’d like to outline my philosophy about purchases and consumption.
In my life, I use my everyday clothing for travel and use my travel clothing for everyday. Because guess what? They are the same clothes. I realized that there was no point spending money on nice travel-specific clothes if I could only wear them a small portion of the time. Over the years, my closet and items have converged so that my travel wardrobe has a large amount of overlap with my everyday wear. This means that when I travel, I feel like myself, instead of like a tourist or outsider in my own clothes. This system is the result of years of downsizing, optimizing, research, and testing. By removing the clutter, life gets much simpler and I enjoy the items I own since they were carefully curated and I get to wear them all the time.
Many travel blogs want you to buy new things because that’s how they make money. I don’t care if you buy these items or not - I’d prefer you didn’t, actually, or if you found them used someplace. Start with the items you have, then individually note which things would be useful to upgrade and make small changes over time. You’ll appreciate each item much more, spread out your spending, and be able to research and purchase that item more thoughtfully. Sure, if you’re going backpacking and don’t own hiking boots or need some sweat wicking underlayers, please make sure you are prepared, but most travel can be done with things you already have.
There’s no point being a different person when traveling just because websites tell you to bring a monochrome wardrobe or that you need to pack super lightweight things. I wear lots of bright colors at home, and wouldn’t feel like myself when traveling if I changed that. My wardrobe is simple (yes, I own 5 colors of the same shirt), but it’s me. When I travel, I feel like myself and am able to enjoy the destination instead of feeling out of place. Life’s too short to not feel like myself.
The items below are constantly evolving as I discover and further optimize my life. I hope these recommendations point you in the right direction for creating a system that works for you.
Last updated 12/6/2021. Equivalent men’s or women’s item in parenthesis where applicable.
Luggage, Backpacks, and Purses
Carry-On System for Bulky Travel: Requires Use of Overhead Bin
Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Backpack | In my less minimal travel style, this bag only fit enough for 4 days or a week. Now, I can travel indefinitely out of this bag. I fit a formal dress and heels for a wedding along with clothes for 4 days and had room to spare. If I need to bring bulky clothes like hiking boots or special items and have a carry-on ticket, I bring this bag. Comfy, durable, and has excellent sorting and storage options. Plus, Cotopaxi is a great company that ethically sources its labor and materials. Main downside is no built-in water bottle pocket. Read my review here about how this backpack helped me to escape LAX.
Travelpro Rolling Bag | If you can’t manage a backpack because it puts too much strain on your back, this rollaboard is lightweight, durable, and inexpensive. It fits easily in overhead bins and expands if needed. Whenever I need to gate check my bag, the purple is easy to find at the baggage carousel or in a pile of bags under a bus. Travelpro released this economy line of bags, and it’s just right for what most travelers need. I only bring this if I need a structured bag to transport a fragile item or something that needs to be checked (like hot sauce from Belize).
Osprey Daylite 13L Daypack | I always carry a lay-flat daypack so I can go on hikes or day trips without lugging along my main backpack. The Daylite, which I snagged in Colorado, is incredibly comfortable and structured while being lightweight. It has space for a hydration bladder, 2 mesh pockets for water bottles (although they don’t work great when the bag is full), and a few divisions for storage. It’s a good looking backpack that fits in both urban and outdoors settings and won’t break the bank.
Indefinite Onebag System: Personal Item Fits Under Airplane Seat
Osprey Daylite Expandable Travel Pack 26+6 | While I don’t own this bag, the reviews and price point ($100 compared to $200 for many comparable bags) make it the perfect travel bag for me. Two (count ‘em, TWO) water bottle pockets, ergonomic design, clamshell, lightweight, and made by Osprey who I trust to make great bags. It’s the best of both worlds - 26L and designed as a personal item, but can expand to 32L so I can shove my jacket and anything bulky that I wear on the plane into the bag once I reach my destination. Right now I’m using the Pacsafe Vibe 28L backpack that I got on sale for half off. I fit a dress and heels, plus clothes for a week, in this bag. It does the job and I love the size, but isn’t particularly well made and has some quirks, so I’m eyeing the Osprey. Watch a review of the Osprey here.
Cotopaxi Luzon 18L Backpack | The Luzon is back! While it doesn’t have as much structure as the Osprey Daylite 13L Daypack (my preferred bag for hikes in general), the Luzon packs incredibly flat, has space for a hydration bladder, and I already own it. It comes in very fun bright colors and is made from scrap material from the production of other bags. I wouldn’t spend the $60 that Cotopaxi is asking for this (it came bundled with my Allpa 35L for much less) but check out Pack Hacker’s thorough review of daypacks at all price points.
Everyday Bags and Packing Cubes
Matador Packable Hip Pack | During the pandemic, I realized that I didn’t need all the things I carried in my purse. I wanted to minimize what I carried and make it easier to have hands free instead of a swinging and bulky purse. Enter: the hip pack. Yes, it’s a fanny pack. But I love it. It has completely replaced purses for me. Think of it as an extension of pockets (especially for women whose clothing typically has abysmal pockets). I can quickly grab my necessities when heading out, and if I need more items for the day, I toss the pack into a tote bag or backpack. Going through airport security, I can throw it on the conveyor belt without having to empty my pockets and loose items into a bin.
Baggu Reusable Bag | This reusable tote/grocery bag packs up incredibly small into a flat square pouch. I use this to throw my airplane items (snacks, water bottle, Kindle) into before putting my bag in the overhead bin or for any shopping or day-carry necessities on trips.
Aer City Sling 2 | My husband uses this sling bag to carry his everyday essentials. It is spacious and fits his spare glasses case, phone, wallet, earbuds, and Kindle.
Packing Cubes | Previously, I loved the Eagle Creek Spectre Pack-It Tech packing cubes, but they have since changed the design. Honestly, the best packing cube is the one that meets your price point, is the right shape and size for your bag, and if you want a compression cube or not. There are tons of knockoffs on Amazon that come in fun colors. I had a very specific form factor that only the Amazon Basics packing cube matched, so I begrudgingly purchased it from them. Pack Hacker has done the leg work on this research.
Shoes and Socks
On most trips, I carry two pairs of shoes: A tennis shoe or hiking boot that I wear while traveling, and a sturdy pair of sandals stored in my backpack. If I might need to dress up, I’ll upgrade the sandals to something more stylish, like a sturdy low wedge. My current setup is Lems Trailhead Shoes for trips with a combo of urban and outdoors activity and Teva Tirra Sandals, which thrive in beaches and rivers but are stylish enough for walking around town. My current stylish sandals are from Earth Shoes, which have great support for wearing all day.
Lems Trailhead Zero Drop Hiking Shoes (men’s) | Since most of my trips are a combination of hiking and spending time in towns, I needed a shoe that could perform on short to medium hikes, but could be passable in a restaurant or urban setting. I recently discovered Lems, a zero-drop lightweight (~half the weight of comparable hiking shoes) shoe with a wide toebox, and have never looked back. With a delightful retro feel, they are comfortable (even with my bad arches) and don’t weigh me down. I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains, Sedona’s red rocks, the slippery steps of forts in Montenegro, and then wandered around towns afterward feeling totally in place.
Teva Tirras (a similar style for men) | I can’t say enough good things about these. Teva has come a long way from their patterned hook-and-loop origins. These are ridiculously comfortable, cushioned, and can get soaked without a fuss. I wore these 90% of the time in Belize and they are my shoe of choice for travel unless I need something enclosed.
Sandals from Earth Shoes | For a more stylish sandal that is still incredibly comfortable and supportive, I buy sandals from Earth Shoes. They are affordable and eco-conscious.
Darn Tough Socks (men’s) | These socks are the bee’s knees! These socks are made with merino wool, which means they aren’t scratchy (I have very sensitive skin!) and don’t get smelly. I own 2 pairs of their hiking socks that I use for all of my travels. The 2 pairs gets me through a week of travel without washing. Plus, they have a lifetime guarantee, no questions asked!
A lot of apparel, you can purchase used or brand new from resale and thrifting websites like Poshmark or thredUP. Geartrade is a resale site specifically focused on outdoor gear. If you already know your size in a particular brand, it can be a great way to purchase more of something you love and give an item of clothing a second chance. I bought brand new Prana shorts for half price from Poshmark.
ONNO Bamboo T-Shirt (men’s) | A lot of travelers swear by merino wool for its sweat wicking, anti-odor, quick-dry, warmth, and cooling properties. However, it is expensive, and to my sensitive skin even the finest merino wool still itches me. I spent months looking for an alternative, and ended up going with bamboo shirts from ONNO. Based in Colorado, ONNO shirts are ethically and sustainably produced, come in fun colors (unlike many travel shirts), are incredibly soft and lightweight, and can be worn a few times between washes. I own multiple colors and both short and long sleeve versions, and on trips I just alternate shirts and let them air out overnight. Bamboo can be a renewable resource and is known to have many of the same properties as merino wool without breaking the bank.
Patagonia Men’s Sol Patrol II Shirt (women’s) | Technically a fishing shirt, this lightweight long-sleeve safari shirt provides protection from the sun without heating you up. As a plus, the men’s comes in an XS which fit my husband wonderfully! All the other shirts he tried on made him feel sloppy. The sleeves roll up and snap to convert to a short-sleeve. I’ve worn many like this on my travels, too.
Columbia Women’s Anytime Casual Dress | This versatile dress is UPF 50 and can be used as a casual going out dress, a beach cover up, or even for a hike in the Channel Islands if you forget to bring hiking clothes like I did. The skirt cinches up or down, ranging from knee length to a miniskirt depending on the weather or situation. It’s made of durable fabric that’s semi-water repellent and excellent for multiple day wear.
Carve Designs Lake Sunshirt | This is the holy grail of travel apparel. Hear me out. Yes, this is a sunshirt, which is great for sun protection during water sports, hiking, or any outdoor activity. It dries quickly. It is stylish and flattering enough to fill the role of a light jacket or cardigan with a collar. It acts as a base layer for warmth. The super-smooth full zipper makes it easy to pop on and off. And, most importantly, it has excellent pockets that can fit a phone. This sunshirt fills so many roles that I previously brought multiple items to fill (swim shirt, cardigan to dress up, base layer, light jacket).
REI Sahara Convertible Pants (men’s) | I never thought I’d see a pair of convertible pants that were actually cut nicely, but REI has nailed it with the Sahara pants. My husband and I both bought pairs for Belize, and they were lightweight and super easy to switch between shorts and pants. Ample pocket space, too. Why bring two clothing items when you can just bring one?
Prana Shorts | Prana has a great selection of shorts for men and women. My husband and I both wear their shorts. They have multiple inseam lengths, options for slim fit, and are durable with decent sized pockets (hooray!). If I’m going anyplace warm, I bring these. Otherwise, I’ll go with the convertible pants, which are great for anything outdoors and can turn into shorts as a backup.
Undergarments and Leggings
Boody Undergarments and Leggings | A sustainable clothing brand for both women and men? Finally! Boody is my go-to for underwear, bralettes (they pack down flat), lounge pants, and leggings. Their leggings are incredibly soft and have options with pockets, which is a huge win.
Exofficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Underwear (men’s) | This underwear is a game-changer. Exofficio claims you only need one pair of these to travel the world. They are incredibly lightweight, feel like nothing is there, and are easy to wash and dry overnight. I have three pairs that I rotate through, spot-washing in the sink as needed. this gets me through about 5 days and I do full laundry on the 6th.
Outerwear and Accessories
[Patagonia Women’s Nano Puff Jacket] ([men’s]) | The Nano Puff Jacket is ultra-collapsible (it fits in its own pocket), tailored with a flattering fit, come in bright colors, and is very soft and warm. The smooth fabric makes it easy to pull on over a long sleeved shirt and under an outer jacket. Great for layering and lightweight travel!
Sunday Afternoons Beach Hat | My gosh, I love this hat! This adjustable hat with UPF 50 is a stylish way to stay shaded. The brim can be shaped slightly and the hat is easily packed flat in a suitcase. The best feature is the chin strap that keeps it from flying away on windy days or snorkeling trips.
Electronics and Accessories
Earbuds | I bring my Pixel Buds A-series and a pair of in-ear wired earbuds from Etymotic on every trip. The bluetooth buds are great for quick listening, such as if I’m exercising, waiting at the gate for a flight, or am in a place where I don’t want a cord running to my phone. However, I’m terrified of losing them in an airplane seat, so on flights I use the wired earbuds with an effective ear seal. No battery life to worry about, and they work with seatback TVs as well. Etymotic also has active noise cancelling options, but to me these passive earbuds sound incredible and block out most noise (Etymotic is known for their sound quality).
Slim Phone Charger from Luxtude | Game. Changer. Portable batteries are lifesavers, but the need to carry a charging cable in my purse defeats the point of their compact size. This slim charger is the solution – it has a built-in cable for USB-C. This 5000mAh battery is the size of my cell phone and charges at 2.0A for fast charging. Find one that works for your phone, and you won’t regret it!
Kindle Paperwhite | Reading is a great way to spend time while traveling, and the Kindle Paperwhite carries all your books and saves space to boot. It has access to Amazon’s vast store, but more importantly, you can download library books without even leaving the house. Great for guidebooks, too! Pro tip: If you’re not quite done with your library book when it’s due, switch your Kindle to airplane mode. The book won’t be removed from your device until you go back online.
TSA Luggage Locks | Always bring a lock. You never know when you’ll need to leave your bag unattended at the hostel or under a bus, or will be forced to gate check on a crowded or tiny plane. Keep those wandering hands out!
HEROCLIP Hybrid Gear Clip | Truly one of the most useful items I own, and one I use multiple times a week in my daily life. This carabiner swivels into a cool S-hook lets me hang my purse off a table or on the back of a bathroom stall, and also works like a traditional carabiner to keep my water bottle attached to my backpack or the seatback pocket when traveling.
Sea to Summit Aeros Neck Pillow | This inflatable U-shaped neck pillow packs down to nothing (about the size of a Rubik’s cube) and inflates easily. I was able to sleep in a middle airplane seat, which has never happened before in my life, and the material is comfortable against my skin. It’s easy to adjust the fill level as well and attaches in the front to stay secure around your neck. My previous pick (the Nemo Fillo) was great for hotels that had crummy pillows, but just ended up taking up too much space in my backpack. It’s my slightly unnecessary purchase that I bring with me on every trip.
Sea to Summit Toiletry Bag | Ziploc bags worked for a while, but I recently splurged on this lightweight hanging toiletry bag and it’s made a huge difference in keeping my suitcase organized. The small has plenty of space for my travel-sized toiletries, is made of a durable material, and keeps everything in one place. For liquids like shampoo and sunscreen, I just put everything in a quart-sized Ziploc then store it in the front pocket for easy access if needed during a security screening.
Moon Travel Guides | When researching our trip to Belize, my husband and I looked at all of the guide books out there (Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Fodor’s), and settled on Moon for the colorful pictures and text, easy to read format, and excellent information. Those other books might have great recommendations, but the Moon book made us excited to travel and a breeze to find what we were looking for.