Back in 2013, I wrote a series of posts about how I attempt to stay stylish while living my entire life out of a backpack.
It was one of the most popular things I wrote that year and since I’m still striving to fit in in stylish, gorgeous Europe while traveling the world full-time, today I thought I’d revisit that old theme—to tell you which of my 2013 travel style philosophies stood the test of time, how I’ve shifted in nearly five years of full-time travel, and what I’m doing these days to manage my personal style on the road.
Back in 2013, I started my style on the road journey by choosing a base color, a rule I still live by today. When you’re living out of a closet, you can have blacks and khakis, grays and navies. But when you’re living out of a bag, you should really choose one base, something you’ll build your color palette and wardrobe around. I chose black back then and still stick with black today, mostly because it’s slimming, doesn’t show stains or dirt easily, and is really easy to find.
Next, I added colors. The key here is to commit to a single color palette of shades that all work well together. Today, my palette spans maroon, dark purple, light navy, and soft gray. The main thing is that everything has to go well with everything else. My only outlier is the pink tank top, which doesn’t quite go with my more numerous maroon items, but I haven’t convinced myself to part with and frequently wear with everything else.
Making sure everything matches is the foundation of my travel style philosophy for a couple reasons: firstly, because on laundry day or when you’re jet lagged, it makes it easier to throw something on and still not feel like a slob (a great feat in places like Paris or Rome where everyone dresses to impress) and secondly, because if everything goes with everything else, your small capsule wardrobe can yield an enormous number of outfit options.
Five skirts and five tops is 25 possible combinations. Add a light jacket and you’ve got 50. Throw in a scarf and now you’re at 100. If you pack a few outfits, you’ll find yourself wearing those same combos over and over again (which is absolutely fine if that’s how you like to travel), but if everything matches everything, the combinations grow exponentially, allowing a very small wardrobe to feel constantly fresh and creative.
One Sweater Four Ways
What I’m wearing: red tank (I love this brand, own six or seven of their tanks, and re-buy them whenever I’m in the states), black sweater (similar to this), cute gray handmade hat, dark jeans. (Not pictured: maroon converse shoes.)
My On-the-Move Style Philosophy
Okay, so one of the foundational philosophies I live by when it comes to style on the road is making sure everything in my bag works with everything else. But that’s not the only rule I stick to.
I also firmly believe that I should feel good—stylish, beautiful, and comfortable—in every single thing that I own. I can’t carry much, so I’m ruthless about making sure that everything I do buy is comfortable and makes me feel good. And when things start to pill or get holes, to become scratchy or shrink or stretch uncomfortably, they go.
It’s also important to me to choose fabrics that are as wrinkle free as possible. Especially when I’m traveling for fun, I don’t want to be ironing stuff every night.
My other style philosophies are more general, things that I started working on before I hit the road. One is to not attach my worth to (or even usually look at) sizes. I pick what makes me feel sexy and comfortable and good. In the past couple years, this has meant everything from size two to size eight, a pretty large spread.
The other is to always take my best, not my worst. When I first started traveling in my teen years, I always packed my least favorite clothes because I was afraid they’d get lost or damaged, dirt-stained or snagged.
Big t-shirts, old jeans, puke green ponchos, long skirts with bright patterns from the thrift store. Even though I wasn’t a huge “stuff” lover, I still prioritized taking care of my stuff over feeling comfortable and beautiful.
No longer, though.
As I started to travel as an adult, I began packing a little differently. And now that I travel full-time, I’ve shifted my priorities entirely. Instead of protecting my things, I plan on loving and using my things. And if they eventually wear out, well, that’s the point of things, right? To be used until they are so well loved that they can no longer be used.
One Skirt Three Ways
What’s in My Bag
So, what does all this mean in real, practical, what’s-in-that-hiking-backpack terms? Here’s what’s currently in the drawers and closets of my rental:
Base color: black
Complimentary colors: dark/deep reds, purples, and blues. Bright pink, bright blue, soft gray.
Clothes: In my base color (black), I own one two skirts, one pair of leggings, one pair of tights, five tank tops, one dress, one vest, and three tops. I also own a dress and a blouse in black and white. (I don’t think you all have to be quite so committed to your base color, but that’s where I landed this time around, mostly because my recent shopping trips in Croatia and Bosnia haven’t yielded many color options.)
In complimentary colors, I just sadly parted with one purple skirt and top (both had started to pill and look shabby), but still own three colored tank tops, a pair of dark blue jeans, and one nice red dress for nights on the town.
Not really in the style rotation, but for the sake of completeness, I also own two tennis skirts that I wear when cycling, hiking, and/or lounging at the house, a winter coat that’s on its last leg and will be replaced by next winter, and a new bright pink poofy vest.
Shoes: I currently own a pair of navy flats and maroon converse, as well as a pair of trail running sneakers for hiking/cycling and a pair of flip flops for beach time. In winter, I almost always also have a pair of boots which I, unfortunately, seem to wear out within a single season each time.
Accessories: At the moment, my accessory collection is a sparse one: a single colorful purse, one gray hat, and one warm maroon scarf.
Jewelry: I carry a single pouch of jewelry that includes about four necklaces, two rings, a single bracelet (a gift from my aunt), and four pairs of earrings.
Makeup: Day-to-day, I wear tinted moisturizer with a little SPF protection, Bare Minerals foundation, lightly applied, chapstick, and a little mascara. I also carry some gold eye shadow for special occasions.
One Dress Two Ways
Where I Travel
For a little context, let’s also talk about where I travel. Because when it comes to planning style, this definitely matters. If you’re heading to Morocco, you’ll want to err on the side of conservative and maybe even cover your hair. If you’re traveling in South America, it’ll feel different than if you’re RVing across the US. In Colombia, I often wore long sleeves and shapeless clothes (not that it helped) because I was getting so severely harassed by men on the street.
Personally, I adore Europe. Eastern. Western. Northern. Southern. Europe is my jam. And Europe tends to care a lot about style. People take care of themselves. They think through their outfits. And fitting in means doing the same. It’s easy to spot tourists in Rome or Paris because they’re the only ones in sneakers.
(In Rome, Chad would always put on a button-up shift before leaving the house, even if he was just taking Luna around the corner for a potty break. “You can go down in your house pants,” I said. “And disrespect our neighborhood?” He always answered as he grabbed his nice jeans.)
That’s not to say you can’t wear sneakers in Paris or a tracksuit in Rome. You should do what feels comfortable and good to you. It’s just not the way the locals dress. And, for me, there’s a strong pull to fit into the locals’ stylish paradigm.
One Top Two Ways
Favorite Must-Carry Style Items
For the most part, when it’s time to replace something, I go searching for something great in whatever local area I’m currently living in. I’ve gone thrift store shopping in Paris and Rome, browsed H&M in Switzerland, tried on converse sneakers in Canada, and just this last month replaced about half my wardrobe in a mall in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’ve traded boots for flats and flats for boots depending on the time of year–and replaced a blue sweater with a maroon one in a totally different style, a black skirt with a purple thrift store find that I loved.
In other words, I let my style and the things I pack evolve with me as I go.
That said, there are a few things I do keep buying over and over again, often from the same brands:
:: Shapeez bras. They’re supportive, slimming, and sexy. Plus, they distribute the weight of your chest more evenly (no more nasty red bra strap grooves!) and they’re tough enough to handle hiking while also appropriately shaped for city exploring, too. I literally don’t own a bra that isn’t made by Shapeez.
:: Curling iron. Whatever I’m wearing, I feel a thousand times cuter when I curl my hair.
:: Worthington tanks. I have six to eight of these at any given time and always buy more whenever I’m in the states. I have yet to find another tank top that maintains its shape and feels as good as these.
:: Black pencil skirt. I’ve bought four or five of these in the last five years and I still love it. It doesn’t wrinkle easily, works well for fancy nights out and day-to-day exploring, and hugs me in all the right places, making me feel sexy without fail.
One Skirt Two Ways
At the end of the day, style’s subjective. You should pack what makes you feel good.
The above is just one full-time traveler’s solution to how to stay stylish while living out of the bag.
Have some tips or tricks of your own? Drop them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.