The traditional backpacking uniform involves convertible zip-off cargo pants and Keen sandals that resemble medical devices. It’s not chic. Of course, you want to leave your heels and lacy dresses at home when you’re wandering dusty streets and trails somewhere: backpacking for seven months changed my style completely. But the experience also taught me that being on the road doesn’t have to mean sacrificing all your visual sensibilities, and these six easy pieces might help.
Isn’t cashmere impractical, expensive, a luxury fabric, you say? Yes—quality cashmere can be pricey, and not something you’ll want to squish into the top of a backpack. But you can get a wonderful mid-range cashmere cardigan from one of the frequent department store sales (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, etc), or pick up one from UNIQLO or Everlane. It’s lightweight but keeps you warm, will make you feel much better than a ratty fleece, and layers great underneath a down jacket. It won’t suffocate you and it will be a perfect buffer for those cool summer breezes.
Get one in black so it goes with anything, and so that you can get away with not washing it for a while. It might develop a small holes and fallen buttons along the way, but I say that simply adds character.
These are comfortable (they mold to the shape of your feet), waterproof (wear them in unsavory hostel showers or across bubbling streams), come in a dazzling array of colors, are cheap—and Sartorialist approved, even. Get a pair in tan or black and they might even be mistaken for locally handmade sandals. (Alternatively, if you’re traveling to tropical climates, buy sandals locally. They may not be the style you usually go for, but they’ll come with a story and lots of memories.)
You’ll want a hat for all the time you spend gallivanting beneath the sun, which will, ideally, be a lot. But your hat doesn’t just have to be practical, it can also be gorgeous! Look for a good, straw, boater or panama hat. It’ll add a tinge of glamour to your outfits. If you end up in Ecuador, head to Cuenca, where the Panama hat first originated. Tour the factory and see the beautiful process before you find just the right one. Your hat should fit you exactly (there’s no point in wearing a hat if you’re worried about it bellowing off with the slightest breeze), and should have enough brim to give proper sun protection. If you can’t find the perfect one just yet, get a cheap, stylish one that will stay on your head, and upgrade on the road.
Wear a few light, easy pieces of favorite jewelry (preferably in waterproof, rainproof precious metals) to add a subtle polish to your sloppy backpacking uniform, especially something that might carry memories from home. If friends you meet on the road notice, you’ll be able to tell a lovely back story. Opt for non-obtrusive pieces like a tiny ring or a delicate necklace. If you never have to take it off, you’re also far, far less likely to lose it. Make sure you don’t travel totally decked out in pearls and gold, though. You’ll want to leave bare wrists for the new bracelets you’ll buy where you are; it’s part of the fun to adapt your style to your whereabouts.
Your T-shirt doesn’t have to be something completely sloppy—make an effort to find high-quality, versatile basics that will last. A great fit is important, and make sure it’s a look that suits you. An oversized shirt may give you that loose, hippie wanderer vibe you’re going for, while a fitted one could add sophistication to jeans and flats in the city. Neutral colors are fantastic for going with everything, but something with a simple stripe pattern could add a touch of interest and chic. Look to your favorite brands for pretty basics (tip: they’re almost always available and often go on sale!) I love this go-with-everything U-Neck from Everlane, which is soft, comfortable, and easy.
This is the one travel item you should never be without. Not only does it function as a lightweight, stylish scarf or a shawl to keep you warm on windy evenings, it can also serve as a protector from the sun when your bare arms and shoulders are exposed in the desert.
It’s also the perfect travel towel: big enough to wrap all the way around, light enough to carry everywhere, even in a tote bag for an overnight trip, and it dries quickly, so it’ll be ready to go the next morning. It’s easy to clean and maintain, and they’re cheap enough to buy a variety of pretty hues.
Laura Yan is a writer, wanderer, and sketcher of strangers. She does not know where she is going next. She tweets @noirony.
Top images via Laura Yan.
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