Nathan is a fellow Midwesterner and humanitarian aid worker based in the Middle East. He travels as much as possible, mainly to eat, drink, and see old stuff. Favorite places so far include Argentina, Italy, and Tunisia. He’ll be a regular columnist here, so stay tuned for his future posts!
Despite living abroad for the past two years and having travelled to more than 30 countries, packing always gives me anxiety. Having (or not having) the right clothes, toiletries, etc. can make or break a trip. Plus, you have to look good for the photos.
My most recent holiday was a road trip through Austria and Northern Italy starting in Vienna with several stops over the Alps and Italian Dolomites before ending in Milan. It was going to be a mix of city stops for Old World charm and alpine towns with stunning views. While the trip was an excellent blend of experiences and settings, this presented a pretty difficult task for packing. I would need to be prepared for a range of weather, terrains and activities.
My first rule in travel is not to check a bag. My second rule is to spend the least amount of time in airport as possible, be that at check-in, connection, or arrival. Rule two has informed rule one. On this trip though, I was feeling lazy and decided to let the surprisingly eager attendant check my bag through Istanbul on the way to Vienna. As you can guess, this lassitude was punished when I arrived at the airport, but my bad did not. In fact, it could not be located at all. Excuses were made for bad weather somewhere along the line but that didn’t change the fact that I had a road trip starting the next day and nothing but the clothes on my back to brave both the cafes of Vienna and the snowy slopes of the Alps. I was eventually reunited with my battered bag in Salzburg, a full three days later.
Luckily, my first step in packing actually starts outside of the bag. While many travelers will extol the virtues of a particular pair of sweatpants, I always travel in a neutral pair of pants – think blue jeans or khakis – and a durable button down shirt – plaid, heavy cotton. Basically something that won’t wrinkle beyond recognition on the flight and can stand up to a couple days of wear. (If jeans will bother you on a long flight, bring a pair of pajamas in your backpack). I also pack a scarf in my backpack/weekend bag as it is an excellent source of warmth / travel pillow / outfit adjustment. While security can be a pain, I always wear a sturdy, mid-high brown leather boot. This can be worn for days on end and is fit for all range of activities, from light hikes to a night out on the town. My current pair is the Barbour Cleasby derby boot. I would also suggest bringing an extra pair of underwear and a toothbrush. With these basic items you can survive a day (or three) without the rest of your clothing should anything be delayed.
Now on to the essentials. Everyone says pack light. I will say that, then try to explain away how I had four button down shirts and three sweaters for a weekend away. In my mind, decide on the bag that you are willing to carry – is it a weekender, a rolling suitcase, a duffle? Are you willing to check your bag or not, and will you be doing a lot of movement that will make the bag a pain. Once you have decided on the bag, fill it up (with requisite space for gifts/other items you might pick up along the way).
Here is what I brought for a 10-day trip from Vienna to Milan:
- Bring a few nicer pairs, a few wool/durable hiking pairs, and a couple athletic pairs (if you tell yourself you are going to absolutely going to work out on vacation). Socks are small but essential – don’t hesitate to bring a few extra, especially if you are going to be walking a lot and need to change them between the day and night.
- I would suggest a synthetic and/or cotton blend that breathes and wicks sweat. These tend to resist smell a bit longer (a huge plus for long trips) and can be re-worn or even easily washed when needed. Again, bring a couple extra. (Ex Oficio from Orvis, Game On boxer briefs from Lululemon, and Boxer Jocks from Underarmour are three of my favorites)
- Don’t bring more than three – bring something that works under a sweater and that you are fine lounging/sleeping in. If you’re worried it’s going to be warm, bring a light button down – you will look better and it is more versatile
- These are actually my downfall – fall jackets in particular. For the trip I brought a quilted wool coat that provided some defense from the wind but looked nice enough to be worn around towns. I also packed my Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody for more active days or colder temps in the Alps. This is a great travel coat as it packs small and can handle a good range of temperatures (as we faced going up, down, and around the mountains). If I was really prepared I probably could have gone with my Orvis Heritage Field Coat to cover both grounds.
- Bring two and bring your best(ish) – I don’t mean the most expensive sweaters you own but they must be quality material (think wool) that will (or has) lasted for years. In this case, I brought a navy, merino wool, crew neck from C.P Company that worked for nights out or as a layer when the weather was less hospitable. I also brought a Patagonia pullover. I cannot overstate how useful this item is and have yet to find a travel setting where it wasn’t appropriate, from active days outdoors to an upscale dinner with a button down underneath. The material will keep you warm and resist light conditions, but the design is trim enough to roam the town. Remember: you can wear a good wool sweater every day for a 10-day trip. Don’t over pack as they can be quite bulky.
- Button downs:
- This is where your trip plan most comes in to play. Bring three (remember you are already wearing one on the flight): something for a nice night out, one you can wear all day (think business casual), and then your favorite – you’ll find a time to wear it.
- Don’t get too complicated here. Dark jeans are versatile and blend in with the local crowd. I also packed a pair of Patagonia hiking pants ( and some thermal underwear in case we decided to get serious about our trekking in the snow–we did not). In general, dark colors worked best. I also brought a pair of dark brown straight leg pants.
- As discussed above, bring a good pair of durable leather shoes. They can be worn anywhere from outdoors to an evening out.
- If you see yourself doing some serious hiking or just roaming out into the snowy woods I would suggest bringing a pair of hiking / winter boots. If you are planning on a more urban trip staying within the lines of the city/sidewalk, I would bring a casual sneaker that works throughout the day.
- Running shoes
- Hats and gloves are key for cold days and nature excursions
- Standard: Toothbrush, toothpaste (travel size or just get it from your hotel), floss, deodorant, razor / beard trimmer, nail clippers, cotton swabs. These are the basics and stay in my travel Dopp kit permanently (plus an auxiliary toothbrush in my backpack).
- A good facial cream that matches your skin’s needs should be part of your daily hygiene regimen no matter what; however, on a trip like this – with sun, wind, and cold – moisturizers are essential (hotel creams are fine if you need body lotion but you should stick with your go-to for your face). My current favorite is the lightweight Facial Fuel Anti Wrinkle Cream from Kiehl’s.
- Depending on the type of hotel you are staying in, face wash can be hit or miss (or entirely absent, as it was in most locations on this trip). If you have sensitive skin it is a good idea to bring along a travel size container of your regular wash.
Road trips offer an excellent opportunity to customize a trip on-the-fly, embracing spontaneity and maximizing enjoyment. However, they can also stress a limited travel wardrobe. With the above list you can be set for adventures from an evening of symphony in Vienna to a morning hike in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
For women’s packing tips, see Rebecca’s post.