example of outfits made by mixing and matching pieces of a travel capsule wardrobe

Last Updated on September 30, 2020

Looking for ways to pack lighter or carry-on only?  The perfect packing list starts with a little prior planning.  In this guide, I’ll show you step-by-step how to create a packing list using a travel capsule wardrobe.  And you can even download my free packing list template and capsule wardrobe planner!

Most people have a tendency to overpack; but if I’m not careful, I basically need a sherpa. My trips often combine both business and leisure travel, which means I need clothes and supplies for both settings.   But even when I travel just for fun, I always have a camera and other gear that makes it hard to pack carry-on only.  After many years of travel, I know it’s the worst when you start off a trip already lamenting how much stuff you brought!

The only way I’ve been able to avoid over-packing is to plan ahead and create a detailed packing list using a capsule wardrobe.  Once, I successfully packed for two totally different seasons and activities: a business trip to Thailand and Ukraine in the dead of winter, with a snorkeling liveaboard boat stopover in between! 

It does take a little bit of prior planning to create a packing list and travel more lightly.  However, if I can do it, you can too!  And with every trip, it becomes easier, as you find a groove with favorite clothes and gear.  So grab your snorkel AND your parka, and let’s get to it!

example of outfits made by mixing and matching pieces of a travel capsule wardrobe

In this guide to creating a packing list with a capsule wardrobe:

Destination research  |  Evaluating your itinerary  |  Travel capsule wardrobes  |  Great travel clothing brands  |  Create a packing list with a template  |  Packing gear resources   |  Be sure to grab my free planners!


Pin this guide to creating a packing list for your next trip!

FYI, this post contains affiliate links, which means I might earn a small commission if you purchase from them, at no additional cost to you. Visit my Disclosure Policy for more info.


How to Create a Packing List, Step #1: Research Your Destination

Find out as much as you can about the weather and climate of your destination(s) during the time you’ll be visit.  Even if you’ll be visiting only one country, the climate can vary significantly based on geography.  I always check a few sources: Weather Underground’s historical weather search or World Weather Online are both awesome resources.  You might also find a local tourism site that has climate information by region and month.  

What will the weather be like at your destination? Perhaps all of these in the same day 🙂

Cultural Considerations for Travel Packing

Also research any cultural issues that could affect the clothes you’ll need to wear.  For example, in Thailand, I typically wore skirts that came to my knee for visiting temples, and brought along a scarf to cover my shoulders.  In Morocco, I packed leggings to wear under dresses (which I made sure were still below-the-knee length).  While in Istanbul, I kept a scarf handy to cover my head in mosques. 

You might make some mistakes, but a little research ahead of time will drastically lower your embarrassment risk!  Search for “what to wear in [destination name]” or “cultural info for travelers to [destination name]”.  Check out the Culture Crossing Guide, an online community-built resource for cultural etiquette and understanding.  And the CIA World Factbook is also a good resource for general information about different countries around the globe – check out their basic 1-page country summaries.

Finally, check out my other Packing Lists, online forums, or the blogs of travelers who have been to that destination before for advice.

Advice

Are you a new traveler, or maybe even a haphazard traveler? 😉 Don’t miss my 20 tips for new international travelers, with tons of info, resources, and links for travel planning!

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Traveling Lighter, Step #2: Analyzing Your Itinerary

Even if you’re only visiting one destination on a trip, it helps to map out the days of your trip and what the anticipated activities will be.  However, this step is CRITICAL if you are taking a tour, traveling between cities, or mixing business and leisure travel.

Grab a calendar and your itinerary to figure out:

  • How many days will you spend in transit?  You’ll want to have comfortable clothes for these days, obvs!
  • Will there be any days when you will have work functions/need business wear?
  • How many leisure days will you have?
  • Are there any special events or activities?  Don’t forget you might need different outfits for evenings, even for work travel.
  • And finally, how many times will you stay at least two nights in the same hotel, so that you could do laundry (either yourself in the sink, or via the hotel laundry)?

I literally tally up how many of each “type” of day to be sure that I plan enough different clothing and gear.

Repeat after me: MORE PREP = LESS SCHLEP

Advice

Are you using TripIt, the free itinerary builder?  Sign up for an account, then simply forward your booking confirmations via email.  TripIt will combine them into an itinerary you can access on a computer or smartphone, forward to friends, and use to keep track of all your travel details.  There’s also a paid version, but the free one has tons of helpful features!


Travel Packing Step #3: Travel Capsule Wardrobes

What is a capsule wardrobe?  Basically, it’s a way to dress more minimally and intentionally.  A capsule wardrobe curates a pared-down list of clothing that can be mixed and matched according to your own personal style, without a lot of fuss. A true capsule wardrobe includes high-quality items with classic styling.  

Travel capsule wardrobes take this minimalism one step further: by mixing in versatile basics and performance fabrics, you can minimize your packing list and travel lighter.  

photo of women's clothing items to include in capsule wardrobe
Capsule wardrobes don’t have to be boring! Look for ways to add color or a pattern with one piece of each outfit.

Building Your Travel Capsule Wardrobe

Each traveler’s capsule wardrobe will be different, of course, and will vary based on destination and trip style.  Start with a few go-to basic items in neutral colors that suit your trip, then add in tops and accessories for a splash of color.  It also helps to select pieces that can fit more than one style, so that you can use them with different types of outfits.  For example, a sleeveless top that you can wear with a suit jacket and skirt, but then pair with skinny jeans to go out for drinks.

This doesn’t mean that you need to purchase new clothes for each trip!  Most travelers build up a basic capsule wardrobe of favorite pieces over time.  A few well-known brands for travel clothing to check out:

  • Anatomie is a luxury travel clothing brand with quality pieces made from quick-dry, wrinkle free fabrics.
  • Athleta is an athleisure brand that integrates performance and technical features into their clothing.  Every packing list I make includes at least one pair of Athleta pants and usually a dress as well!
  • Exofficio makes clothing for adventurers with features like sun protection and bug repellent.  In case my checked bag gets delayed, I always pack an outfit in my carry-on that includes their quick-dry underwear you can wash in the sink!  (Check it out on Amazon here)
  • Columbia Sportswear makes a wide variety of outdoor clothing and gear for outdoor lovers.  They often have good travel dresses for women, and their sizing selection includes plus-size clothing.

Join my mailing list for a packing list and capsule wardrobe planner!

Be sure to join my mailing list so you can get my free printable packing list PDF plus my capsule wardrobe planner!  There are sections to track weather, tally different trip style days, and match up your capsule wardrobe pieces. 

If you have retro fashion sensibilities, you could even create a time capsule travel capsule wardrobe.

Step 4: Creating A Packing List

Remember those worksheets from grade school where you had two columns with lists of items, and you had to draw lines between the things that matched up?  This is literally how I create my packing list for every trip I take. I’ve recreated this for you with my free printable capsule wardrobe planner, so be sure to sign up for my mailing list above to get it!

I start out writing my list with outfit components in different columns.  Tops, blouses and jackets on one side; then pants, skirts and dresses on the other.  I try to plan colors and items that coordinate, then I create outfits by drawing a line to connect all the pieces that can be mixed and matched together.  A top that goes with capris, jeans and a skirt?  A blazer that I can wear with a dress, skirt and jeans?  PERFECT.

I also include sections for shoes and accessories like hats, scarves, and tights.  Again, I match them with the other pieces to be sure I’ve got complete outfits.  Also, I try to limit the number of shoes I pack, although it’s hard on work and leisure trips combined!  (I aim for 3 or less but the struggle is real.)

I have a notepad where I keep my packing lists, so I can look back to see what clothes I packed on previous trips.  If you’re super organized, once you get home you can even make notes on what you wish you’d had or didn’t use, so you remember for next time.


Sample Packing List for a Long Autumn Weekend

In the example capsule wardrobe that I created for this guide, I included the following for a long autumn weekend city getaway:

photo of outfits created by mixing and matching a capsule wardrobe

3 tops  |  skinny jeans  | faux leather skirtleggings  | animal print dress  |  trench coat   |  cape jacket  |  ankle boots  |  tennis shoes  |  flats  |  crossbody bag or hip packbackpack or totewheeled carry-on

As you can see, there’s lots of fun outfits here for sightseeing days, travel days, and evenings out.  I started with the bottoms as basics, then added in a floral top, leopard-print dress, and red cape for color.  All of these items could be part of someone’s regular wardrobe, chosen to coordinate for a trip.


Step 5: Minimal Packing Starts with Your Gear

Minimal packing starts with using the lightest, smallest bags possible for your trip and staying organized with great gear!  Here are some of my favorites that I’ve acquired over my years of travel.

The Best Lightweight Luggage for Minimal Packing  

My favorite travel bag is the wheeled 80L Sojourn bag from Osprey, which is less than 9 lbs. Still, it gives me plenty of room for business and leisure clothes, and I think it also looks sleek enough for business travel.  Osprey makes tons of highly rated technical backpacks and luggage, all protected by their lifetime gear guarantee.   To learn more check out the Osprey shop on Amazon or visit the Osprey website.

Some other great options for durable yet lightweight carry-on and checked bags: Away has bags for modern travelers — lightweight, premium features, and a lifetime warranty including 100-day trial period. 

Also consider the Delsey Paris Helium line of suitcases, which are both lightweight and durable.  They’re hardside bags, but expand two extra inches for the souvenirs you pick up along the way.  Check out the size options, prices and reviews for the Delsey Helium line on Amazon here or shop the Delsey website.  Their 19-inch wheeled bag with laptop compartment is my go-to business travel carry-on.


Packing Cubes, A Heavenly Gift to Travelers

My #2 tip for packing light is to use packing cubes.  I love them so much, I would marry them if I could. Packing cubes keep all your gear organized, and I even stash breakable souvenirs in between my clothes on the return trip. Also I can reorganize my bag at the airport, if needed, without everyone seeing my unmentionables.  I only use the small and medium sizes, though, so I’m not tempted to start adding extra stuff in!  

I swear by my eBags packing cubes because they’re so durable.  I dump them in the washer after every trip, and I’m still using the first set I bought years ago!  (Although I have added to my collection.)  You can buy them on Amazon or the eBags website, where they often have great sales.  I also use the eBags hanging toiletry kit and drawstring shoe bags.

For more travel gear including a packable electronic luggage scale, check out my list of favorites.

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Step 6: Pack That Thang Up

As you pack, check each item off your packing list to be sure you don’t forget anything.  I always put at least one outfit and basic toiletries, including prescriptions, in my carry on.  Plus, I carry on my jewelry and anything I’ll need for business meetings.  I use packing cubes religiously to keep things organized. 

photo of packed suitcase
You did it! (What time is it? Genius o’clock!)

Ready for your next trip?

I hope this guide to how to create a packing list using a travel capsule wardrobe has you ready for your next adventure!

If you haven’t already, be sure to join my mailing list so you can get my free printable packing list PDF plus my capsule wardrobe planner.  


Pin this guide on how to create a travel packing list for later!


New traveler? No worries! Be sure to check out my 20 tips for new international travelers before your first trip.

20 Tips For New International Travelers

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Adrienne, The Haphazard Traveler

I used to be a hot travel mess, but I got better! I kept the name and now blog my best tips for culture and adventure travel from around the globe. Follow along for travel advice, destination info, and photography from faraway lands - and at home in Washington, D.C.

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