What I Learned About Packing After Living Out of a Suitcase for 6 Months

What I Learned About Packing After Living Out of a Suitcase for 6 Months

Marlen Komar
May 30, 2017
(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

I've always had this romantic idea about traveling light, where I would walk into a hotel in Paris or a rented shotgun bungalow in New Orleans with nothing but a small backpack on my shoulders, ready to explore the city, unencumbered. While other people would be busy fussing over the wrinkles in their packed away shirts, I'd already be tucked away into some charming little cafe or jazz bar, enjoying the fact that it only took me three seconds to head out the door.

(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

The reality of that plan, however, was far from it. Last year I traveled six months through Europe and Asia with only a handful of clothes thrown into my suitcase, and it did not go the way I thought it would. Not wanting to lug heavy luggage down train station steps and cobblestoned alleys, I decided to pack light and not make fashion the focal point of my trip. That, it turned out, was a miserable idea. Here I was thinking I was enlightened and ready to wear white Hanes tees in Bangkok bazaars and simple black shifts on Spanish piazzas, not allowing my outfit choices to get in the way of me enjoying my surroundings.

I know this won't be the outcome for all people, but I didn't feel enlightened. I didn't feel above it all. Instead, I learned that, while I don't especially need all the bells and whistles that I love about fashion when I'm traveling, I do need to feel good in the clothes I have in order to really tune in and allow myself to fall in love with my surroundings. And in order to help you avoid developing an eye twitch every time you look in your bedroom mirror like I did, take some notes while I share what I learned.

Think about the weather. Like, really think about it.

The number one thing you should take into account while putting together your travel capsule wardrobe is the weather you're going to be in for the next couple of weeks—and I don't mean just casually looking at the forecast and packing accordingly. I mean really think about how it's going to feel being wrongly dressed in that kind of forecast. For the purpose of a summer capsule wardrobe, we're going to focus on my Asia adventures and the way I learned that denim was not and never will be okay that close to the equator.

I knew Sri Lanka was going to be hot, but I didn't know it was going to be melt-your-face-off-hot. And so, without really thinking of fabrics but focusing on silhouettes, I packed a couple of silly things into my backpack. The first being denim shorts.

Those bad boys basically turned into a sweat diaper about 10 minutes after I walked out the hostel door, making it a miserable afternoon walking around temples and eating dhal curry. Other interesting choices I decided to include were jersey dresses that showed the rivers of sweat running down my neck and underneath my boobs, a knit short sleeve top, and a scarf that I was too scared to let the hostels wash with the rest of my laundry. So what I ended up with were cute clothes that were incredibly uncomfortable to wear in that air-wavering heat. And before you call me an amateur, I've been to Asia many times before! I've packed semi-successfully a dozen times prior, but I've never really paid too close attention to the materials—I just lucked out before this Sri Lankan melting-like-a-popsicle excursion. So first and foremost, make sure you zero in on the weather of your trip and choose materials that will make it easy for you to survive in (cotton and linen for heat people!!).

Here's what my ideal capsule suitcase looks like: tons of dresses, flattering tops and a few fun accessories.
(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Chase a feeling, not a look.

On a super basic level, what makes you feel beautiful? Do you get a little swagger when you wear a jumpsuit? Do you feel lovely in flowy tops, or like your personality is personified while clashing patterns? What specific item coaxes out that secret smile when you do the last check in the mirror before heading out the door, that half-grin that says "Oh hey, I'm a gorgeous one aren't I?" Pack only that the next time you grab your passport.

One of the things I love about going to Southeast Asia is that it's super hard to actually look put-together there. The mascara will melt right off of your lashes, you hair will be permanently frizzy, and you'll have pit stains the size of dinner plates by mid-afternoon. So you don't spend too much time fussing in front of the mirror in the morning, and instead focus on a beauty routine that involves extra strength deodorant and face wipes. So thinking I wasn't going to really care about what would be in my suitcase this time around, I didn't really think about what elements made me feel my prettiest and most confident, and I just tossed in a bunch of shorts and plain tops.

And I was miffed by the second week. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't losing too much sleep over the fact that my outfit wasn't exactly what Vogue would have shot inside the rolling tea plantations of Sri Lanka, but one thing became clear after I kept reaching for the one and only dress I packed even after it was smelly and wrinkled to oblivion: I felt best in dresses.

Even if it was a simple cotton shift, I felt so happy in it. I walked in it differently, I followed a map in it differently, I haggled in it differently, I laughed in it differently—I just felt most at home in that one particular staple. So figure out what it is that you feel your most happiest in—from dresses to maxi skirts, to shorts or jumpsuits—and pack that the most. Because your suitcase capsule isn't really about a look—it's about a feeling. You don't actually need to look high fashion while standing on that rooftop overlooking whatever sunset you're looking at, you just need to feel content, and beautiful, and, most importantly, like you.

This floral dress? I could wear it alone or paired with a skirt (so it looks like a shirt). And those sandals? They go with everything.
(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Don't bring anything that can't be mixed and matched.

Are you tempted to bring a top that only goes with one pair of pants? How about a pair of sandals that only work with two dresses in your suitcase? Are you bringing shorts that can't really create too many outfits, or a necklace that will match a select few things in your carry-on? Don't do it. It might seem like a good idea and like you won't mind lugging that dead weight around from dusty buses and down long roads, but you will. Trust the person that has left behind so many tops in hostels because what the hell was she thinking packing them. If you can't make at least three outfits with the piece, then forget it.

Only pack things you don't mind getting ruined.

If you're going somewhere only for a week and you can safely dry clean afterwards, cool, go to town. But if you're going somewhere you'll probably have to do your own laundry, then save yourself the heartache and don't pack anything that would make you sad if it got stained, bleached, ripped, pilled, or shrunk. As someone who has experienced all of those things, take my word for it. It's not worth the mourning period. Also, I fully believe that you should get some wear and tear on yourself when you're adventuring. Whether you fall off a motorbike in Vietnam and get a scar on your leg (true story!) or you're so sweaty that your favorite dress pills where your backpack meets your butt, it's part of the fun.

So there you have it; the four lessons I learned the hard way when living out of a suitcase for half a year. Remember that the weather takes no prisoners, clothes are meant to get frayed, things have to mix and match or you will ditch them, and it is better to feel beautiful than fashionable. So while my knit shirts and high-waisted pants looked lovely while I was trying them on at home, dresses were the things that made me still want to flip my hair and wink at a stranger even as I was sporting a sweat mustache.

Shopping Resources for My Ideal Travel Capsule

  • Striped Dress: Sold out, similar here
  • Floral Dress: Zara
  • Linen Dress: Sold out, similar here
  • Striped Sleeveless Top: Mango
  • Black Skirt: Sold out, similar here
  • Striped Blouse: Mango
  • Purse: Sold out, similar here
  • Floral Bodysuit: Zara
  • Sandals: Zara
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