Scarves are your friend. Jeans are not. 

By Barbara Ray
Updated August 16, 2017
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Trying to close overpacked bag
Credit: Klaus Tiedge/Getty Images

Ruthless. That’s what I had to be in packing for this year-long trip. One carry-on sized suitcase and a small duffle was all I was allowed. (Did I mention I’m traveling with three globetrotting men allergic to checked luggage? And that I had to fit a mini-Moka pot and a Nikon camera in the bags as well?)

My husband and I, along with two friends, are spending this year as nomads, following the sun as we travel the globe, across Europe, Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Central America. I needed a reset from the rut I’d dug, and travel was the way to do it. I wanted to give up the familiar coordinates of life, open my eyes, and experience life off-kilter, on the road, out of a suitcase. Of course that all sounds good until you have to pack.

I’ll admit to a moment of deep despair as I whittled down the pile of clothes I’d assembled in a moment of magical thinking about bag size. How could I possibly know what I’d need for the next 12 months? How would I not get sick of this miniscule wardrobe? Why was it that all my “fun” clothes were bulky, silk, or otherwise impractical? And shoes! How could I not take all my shoes?

Looking back, it was all for naught. I have since discarded nearly everything I had originally packed—and in the process discovered an airtight system for packing along with a newfound liberation in my whittled down life in a rolling suitcase. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Sandals in the sand
Credit: photominus/Getty Images

Ignore the “Just in Case” Thinking and Make All Your Clothes Do Double-duty.

I found myself packing a pair of shoes just in case I went to a really fancy restaurant in London, or two pairs of blue pants just in case I spilled something on one. But I’ve survived with a pair of sandals that work on a hot afternoon touring and out for a nice dinner. Same goes for tops.

No One But You Knows You’re Wearing the Same Thing Three Days in a Row.

The four of us on this trip don’t even notice when one of us is wearing something again—and we spend a lot of time together—so certainly no one else will.

Skip the Shoes.

That is probably the hardest sentence I have written yet. I love shoes. But the world is constructed with a lot of cobblestones, and there are few sights more ridiculous than a woman tottering over cobblestones in heels. Even the chic women of Paris wear flats. I’ve found that a pair of flats, a pair of sleek kicks, and yes, flip-flops, will take you around the world. As for the latter, there are a surprising number of saunas, pools, spas, beaches, and hot climates in this big world. A cute pair of sandals (and a pedicure) come in mighty handy.

Stick to One Color Scheme.

I’ve found that black and gray are great for cities. But my black got hot at the beautiful Adriatic Sea, so I restocked with cooler blues and whites.

Bring Scarves.

Praise scarves. They are the jazz of the clothes world—cool and inventive—not to mention a bad hair day rescue, a wrap on a chilly night, a beach cover-up, a picnic spread, and a makeshift grocery bag.

Don’t Underestimate the Utility of T-shirts. Jeans, Not So Much.

Under, alone, layered—T-shirts (without pockets) are my go-to. I stock up at Primark in the U.K. or Uniqlo in the U.S. for cheap, durable T-shirts that wash well and don’t stretch out when there’s not a dryer in sight. (There never is.) T-shirts dress up (see scarves rule above), they dress down, they take up little room, they don’t need ironing, they’re cheap to replace. Denim jeans, on the other hand, are bulky to pack. And they take forever to dry. A trim T-shirt and classic khakis in any color, a good watch, a silver bangle, slides, and lipstick gets you anywhere feeling stylish. Add a scarf and you’re French.

Living With Less Puts the Joy Back in Shopping.

I follow the organizing principle of a new thing in, an old thing out. This keeps my suitcase in check and it makes me really think about what I’m buying. It also does something else. It puts the joy back into shopping. Rather than a catatonic stroll through the racks of clothes, dodging the nagging question of why I’m even shopping, I’m like a teenager in my first mall. I look forward to the day when I can stroll in and out of shops, looking for that one blue shirt that will go with me to Ho Chi Minh City, Melbourne, and Tokyo. Not two blue shirts because I can’t decide. Not a red shirt because it’s so cute. Just one simple blue shirt that dresses up, down, and in between. It brings me clarity.

Limiting Your Options Paradoxically Curbs Disappointment.

Five months into this streamlined world, I think back to all those mornings I stood staring at my clothes wondering what to wear, only to rashly grab something in a fog of decision fatigue and then regret my choice by lunchtime. My big a-ha moment on this trip was realizing that too many choices means too many opportunities for regret. And regret drives disappointment. Now, with four shirts and three pants to choose from, my mornings are a five-minute fling with no regrets. Plus, I can sprint up those 47 stairs to catch that train to Phnom Phen.