The ultimate travel capsule wardrobe how to guide

A travel capsule wardrobe is an absolute gamechanger, both for responsible and budget travellers alike. Consider this your travel capsule wardrobe how to guide.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Overpacking is a problem facing many travellers. It’s interesting how travelling can suddenly make a reasonable person who would never think they might need a snorkel on hand completely change their mind on this fact and drag one around for 6 months, only to use it once (yes, I am speaking from experience). Particularly if you’re travelling for a long time, it’s hard knowing what to pack!

There are also lots of things that you need to pack when travelling, such as battery packs, adapters, bug spray, sun cream – so many things you wouldn’t have to hand in everyday life! It can be really tempting to grab all of your clothes as well, with a ‘just in case’ mentality. In reality, the amount of clothes you need when travelling isn’t as many as you might think, and really, they’re just weighing you down.

As travellers, especially if you’re travelling for a long time, overpacking is a killer! You need the the backpack space to pick things up as you go along: souvenirs, extra bits and bobs that are useful etc… Having bag full of clothes really is the last thing you need.

So let’s dive right in…

Murray, a backpacker, is crossing a road with a small black and yellow backpack, with a travel pillow and a reusable water bottle.
Travelling with just a small backpack for a few weeks is the dream!

What is a capsule wardrobe?

A capsule wardrobe is a couple of items of clothing which you can mix and match to create a full wardrobe of outfits. Essentially, you’re turning two or three outfits into nine or ten, or more depending on how you do it! For travellers, the benefits are pretty obvious – you don’t need to pack as much, but you can still have plenty of different outfits to choose from each day.

The notion seems to have come about for fashion gurus, especially those wanting to be more sustainable. The aim is to have multiple ‘outfits’ to choose from, without needing to purchase so many new clothes. Mastering putting one together is a bit of a niche skill, but one well worth learning. If done correctly, it can totally change the way you travel, and the benefits are many.

In the fashion world, another benefit can be avoiding collecting so much ‘clutter’. If you clear out your wardrobe regularly, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to choose what to wear, as you don’t have as much to choose from.

Why are the benefits of a travel capsule wardrobe for budget and long term travellers?

For long-term and budget travellers, this is especially beneficial. Firstly, if you do it right, you can probably fit everything you need into carry on baggage. This is an obvious benefit for a budget traveller. Since many airlines now charge for checked baggage, so you’re instantly making a saving. Not only airlines, in many countries, bus drivers will actually charge you more to stash a large bag. Additionally, there are hostels where you need to pay for lockers for large bags. Of course, if the budgeting starts before you go, it’s also a good idea, as you have fewer clothes to buy.

For long-term travellers too, this is a massive plus. Anyone who has travelled for more than a couple of weeks knows the pain of lugging around a huge backpack. You very quickly come to the point where you’re leaving/donating clothes everywhere you go. Not only that but as a previous long-term traveller myself, I’ve found that even a large wardrobe can get really boring as time goes on. I’ve actually found a capsule wardrobe more interesting, as I have more possibilities with it.

Nowadays, I even choose to take a capsule wardrobe on short trips. It just completely takes the stress out of outfit choosing!

A snowy path full of tree branches
Packing for all weathers can be tough

Why is a travel capsule wardrobe more sustainable?

This is a hot topic, but it’s generally believed that travelling light is better for the environment. This is particularly true when you’re flying, as you’re not contributing as much to the fuel usage. The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it needs to take off and land, so many people believe that packing light helps with the fuel economy.

Additionally, and this one is perhaps a more obvious reason, you don’t need to buy as many clothes. In today’s consumerist society, anything which leads to us buying fewer things can only be a good thing! For many people, it’s a standard part of pre-trip preparation to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe forces you to look deeper at what you already have and figure out how it can be used together with other items already in your wardrobe, to create multiple looks.

The idea shouldn’t be to rush out and buy a new wardrobe that works together, but rather use what you have. Not to mention, you’ll also save money this way!

Travel capsule wardrobe how to

How does it work?

It’s a mix and match system.

Example: you take two pairs of trousers, but they work together with the same three tops. Rather than two outfits, if you wear both pairs of trousers with each of the tops at least once, you have six outfits. Notice how in the outfits below, the top under the jacket is the same in the 2nd, 5th and 6th picture, but in the 6th picture, I removed the jacket and added a hat. This basically gives it 3 uses instead of 2, as long as you don’t dirty it!

In the below capsule wardrobe, I took 3 tops, plus a jacket, and two bottoms and got 6 outfits out of it. I actually wore this for 8 days, as you can see I still had a couple more possibilities for mixing and matching that aren’t pictured.

Example of a capsule wardrobe

A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.
A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.
A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.
A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.
A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.
A series of outfits as part of a capsule wardrobe. The top three are black denim shorts with a mix of tops, the bottom three are pink linen trousers with the same tops.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • The aim is to mix and match, so you want clothes that go well together. To maximise the combinability, choose neutral colours that go with anything (black, white, beige, cream etc.) and perhaps one or two statement items, or else choose a colour palette (as above).
  • If it’s a short trip, think about how long clothes can go without needing a wash. For example, sturdy trousers can normal last a few days. Flimsy tops might need more cleaning. That means you probably need fewer trousers than tops!
  • Think about how many days you’re away and work backwards. For example, if you’re away for 7 days, 2 sets of trousers and 4 tops should work well, or 3 bottoms and 3 tops should be plenty.
  • Think about accessories for changing up a look. Note the jacket and hat swap above. You can also do this with scarves, belts or different jewellery. Just keep your accessories more minimalistic and light in weight.
  • Choose great shoes. We usually back walking sandals because of the types of trip we do, but think about what you’ll need and pack accordingly. If you’re not sure, a set of sturdy boots or training plus some strappy sandals or flip flops usually works well for me! The sandals/flip flops don’t take up much packing space either.
  • For winter trips, think in terms of layers. Reorganising layers will help you get more out of your clothes too.

For long term travellers:

I will admit, we found this trickier, but there is no reason why it needs to be. Here are our key take-aways from six months with a capsule wardrobe in Africa…

  • Choose sturdy clothes that will last. Honestly, after 6 months of backpacking, you will not care what you looked like, but if you do, you can still get great sturdy clothing from brands like Rapanui, Know The Origin and Lucy and Yak (a few of our favourites). We also find second hand clothing from thrift and charity shops is generally super durable!
  • Take care of your clothes (as much as you can). This is harder when you’re on the road we know, when you’re shoving things any which way you can into your bag, cramming things into packing cubes etc. The one thing we would say is wear the right clothes for the right occasion – for example, don’t take your sandals and jeans out hiking (you might be laughing but we’ve seen people do this!). Also keep your clothes clean if you can, as over-washing can damage them too, and hand-wash where necessary.
  • Pre-plan how often you need to wash your clothes and plan a rest day around that time. Most cities, towns etc. will have laundrettes and you can check the reviews on Google. You can also plan to be in long-term accommodation with a washing machine or try handwashing.
  • Pack a sewing kit. Honestly, this is our number 1 tip for travelling long term with a capsule wardrobe!

If you need tips for a long-term overlanding trip, like the one we did in Africa, you can check out our tips here.

How to avoid getting bored with your clothes

If you’ve done it right, you probably won’t get bored of your capsule wardrobe, however here are some additional tips.

  • If you’re the kind of person who gets bored of outfits easily, definitely choose neutral colours. They get annoying much slower than bright colours, and stand out less, so you’re less likely to notice something you’ve worn multiple times.
  • Choose clothes you already love and wear a lot anyway. If you have a pair of jeans/shorts/a top you wear all the time, include it as part of your wardrobe. It clearly works, so no need to reinvent the wheel!
  • Take a few accessories (jewellery maybe or a scarf/hat/cardigan/belt) that you can also mix and match. You can also play around with hairstyles and make up if you wear it.
  • Switch up the outfits entirely on consecutive days
  • It’s going to sound easier said than done but learn to care a bit less. While you’re travelling, honestly no one cares what you are wearing, least of all you by the end of it! Don’t worry so much, and learn to enjoy the experience rather than how your photos look

Honestly, I think you will be surprised how little you get bored with a capsule wardrobe!

Murray is standing wearing a bright green poncho in a rainy street
The one thing you should always bring…
Emma is wearing a rain coat and looks very wet but she is smiling
…a raincoat!

Doesn’t it get dirty?

This depends on the activities you’re doing, but it shouldn’t do really. For a short trip, the likelihood is that you’ll only wear each item once or twice, and on a longer trip, you can factor in laundry days! If you have the occasional activity where your clothes do get messy, you can scrub them off a bit in the sink with soap and hang them out to dry overnight. If you’re in a hot country, they should dry quickly anyway.

Tips for laundry days as a long term traveller:

As someone who has forfeited many a sock to laundrettes over the years, here are some tips for laundry days.

  • Write a list of everything you’re washing and take pictures of it before you go. Match it all up when you get it back, and go and let them know ASAP if something is missing.
  • Check Google reviews of laundrettes. This is a really useful feature on Google as you won’t find reviews on Tripadvisor for this sort of thing! We often find they mention if the staff speak English etc., but you can also use Google Translate.
  • Check if your hostel or accommodation has a washing machine, as this could save you some hassle!
  • Take it in a ‘dirty’ bag, but bring a different bag to pick it up, so it doesn’t end up smelling unwashed again.
  • Check your clothes are machine-washable before handing them over. Some items are only hand-washable and you don’t want them to be ruined by a machine
  • Separate by whites/colours yourself (a laundrette is unlikely to do this for you) and check the pockets before you hand things over
  • Leave a Google review yourself to help other travellers!

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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