As many of my esteemed and fiendishly loyal readers may know, I have an unhealthy obsession with ultralight, super-efficient travel gear, and am constantly on the lookup for better techniques, items, materials, and other potential strategies to get the pack as tiny as it can possibly get.
It’s an endless game of ounce-shaving achievements the likes of which none but a select few backpackers actually care about. But this is the way I managed to travel for 9 months through winter and summer with nothing but a 20 liter carryon daypack that weighed 15 pounds and fit into the overhead compartment on the plane. It was glorious. For a poorly-muscled specimen of questionable masculinity such as myself, it was indescribably helpful.
But despite having managed that minimal of a setup, searching for new gear is just as time-consuming an ordeal as always, with every trip to the store becoming an exercise in disappointment.
Why is travel clothing so ugly?
It’s not that it has to be this way; making travel gear is not particularly difficult. All you have to do is take ordinary clothing, which everyone on the planet wears all the time, and make it out of the right material. Sadly, 99% of the items available at any store will have some unfortunate blemish that ruins its functionality. And yes, I said functionality.
Here’s the secret to traveling long-term with nothing but a carryon: Bring enough clothing for a week, and do laundry once a week. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is. In fact it’s so extraordinarily easy I wonder why so few other people do it.
They have objections, of course. But the one and only legitimate objection is:
“I want to look nice.”
It’s a good objection, and, sadly, one which the travel clothing industry resoundingly ignores.
Form is function
Let me rant for a moment as to why fashionable clothing is actually a necessity, not a luxury, for the ultralight long-term backpacker. You want to look nice. So, people will typically bring some nice-looking clothing along with the outdoorsy clothing they intend to wear on hikes or casual days.
But what if it looked good and performed well? It’s not particularly difficult. In fact, it’s rather effortless. And if all your clothing is ultralight, quick-drying, moisture-managing, temperature-regulating performance apparel, and looks classy, then you don’t need to carry spare clothes for “nice” occasions in addition to your “serious” clothing, which means you could cut out half the outfits, thus reducing pack weight and size significantly. When it comes to travel clothing, form literally becomes function.
Wouldn’t it be great? If all your clothing looked classy and sophisticated, but was stealthily constructed of high-performance fabrics that would keep you comfortable all day, wash in the sink, and hang dry by morning? All anyone would have to do is take ordinary clothing patterns and switch out the fabric. Easy!
Sadly, the travel clothing industry fucks it up every time. It drives me insane. They take fantastic performance fabrics and make them into some of the ugliest monstrosities the human race has ever experienced. And they refuse to stop. Newcomers are changing the game, though.
So I’ve compiled a list of what I consider the stupidest mistakes to be found, in a most-likely doomed-to-fail effort at getting someone to do it right for once. Here we go:
1) “Look at me, I’m a backpacker” clothing
This is perhaps the most egregious mistake the outdoor industry makes, and I could go on and on endlessly about how dumb they are when they make clothing that looks ridiculous, like the dreaded “safari” shirt.
It’s not just that it’s ugly; it’s that its ugliness requires extra gear to be packed, and its ugliness identifies you as a backpacker. This is just plain stupid.
Among the dumbest mistakes that stand out are:
- Extraneous zippered pockets: Can’t figure out who’s a backpacker and who isn’t? Look for a zipper. Particularly on a collared shirt. Sigh. You know what works just as well as a blindingly obvious and hideous zipper, but looks perfectly normal at the same time? A button!
- Visible velcro pockets: See #1.
- Visible mesh vents: Seriously, do these exist on any other article of casual clothing? No? Well, maybe there’s a reason why.
- Obtrusive logos: This one just drives me insane. Is there any reason I should be a walking billboard for your brand after having shelled out stupid amounts of money for your high-tech garments? Sigh. There’s no quicker way to ruin a perfectly good t-shirt than to slap a giant mountaineering brand logo all over the place.
- Fluorescent colors: I don’t know what the deal is here. Maybe people like bright colors. Maybe they like using them as flags for signaling from afar. But you know who doesn’t? Everyone else.
2) No such thing as travel jeans
This, my friends and loved ones, is a crime against humanity.
The vast majority of backpackers I’ve encountered bring jeans along with them all over the world. It makes sense. They’re comfy. They’re classy. They’re suitable for all social occasions, whether it’s hanging out with friends or attempting to impress the ladies in upscale nightclubs before going home alone to wallow in your loneliness until sunrise.
But they’re heavy. They’re hot. They take forever to dry, which is quite a problem if you have to hand-wash them, or if you get stuck in a downpour. Girls have it a little easier now that jeggings are a thing. But isn’t there a better way?!?
Yup. Several, in fact. All you have to do is make the fabric out of something vastly superior and it’ll feel exactly the same, but regulate temperature a whole lot better, and dry faster. Fabrics like hemp and Tencel promise to do just that, and when blended with quick-drying polyester, they make pretty great travel pants, while still looking indistinguishable from ordinary jeans.
Can you have one? No, probably not. So few companies use these materials that all you can do is read about how much better they are and get annoyed you can’t have one. They exist in about as much frequency as moon missions.
3) Easily pick-pocketed pockets
This one is just plain stupid. So stupid that I abjectly refuse to buy pants of any kind unless they have jeans-style pocketing. You know those vertical “on-seam” pockets found on most khakis? The ones that just let change and keys and cameras and phones and other small items just fall right out? Yes, they can even get pick-pocketed by gravity.
Jeans-style pockets will not fail. You really have to recline, usually to a somewhat upside-down slope, to get coins to fall out of jean pockets. And pickpockets have a much harder time getting in those than anything else. They’re just objectively superior. And rare. Stupidly rare.
4) Oversized money belts
Okay, we’re getting into nitpick territory here, now that I’ve covered some of the more egregious errors, but this one has always annoyed me. Money belts are often as long as a forearm, and they’re filled with paper bills or passports half that size. Why are they so big?
Plane tickets. They’ll fit an entire plane ticket without having to fold it.
But you know what would be a better solution? Folding it. You only have to carry it around for brief periods of time in the airport and folding it will be just fine.
I think this is a holdover from way back in the day when computers barely existed, and you had to buy your plane tickets and make sure to bring them with you, and carry them around for the whole trip so you’d have them ready for the flight home.
This is a little bit like designing cars with attachments for horses to pull them.
5) Oversized guidebooks
Alright, so this is something of a challenging problem to solve, rather than a stupid decision with an obvious solution. Soon enough, we’ll have always-on, global wireless connectivity and we’ll have smartphone apps that tell us everything we need to know about wherever we are, at home or abroad. Guidebooks will cease to exist.
But in the meantime, no one wants to carry those damn things around wherever they go, and more and more backpackers are skipping the guidebooks altogether in favor of winging it with word-of-mouth tips, online resources, and home printers.
My solution is to take the oversized regional guidebook and cut it into pieces for each country. The pamphlet-sized chapters fit perfectly into a back pocket, and if you do it correctly (saw directly into the spine to preserve the glue, and add packing tape along the edges on the front and back page), it will last longer than your trip.
So why don’t they just issue $5 country-specific pamphlets? They’ve got the material anyway, and they’d probably make more money selling low-cost, portable, country-specific documents one at a time rather than selling Southeast Asia as a single volume that is so big and expensive it scares people away.
I shall persevere
Sadly, I could go on. I tried to pick the biggest nuisances, and ugly clothing is far and away the worst offender, which causes me no end of annoyance. But I remain hopeful that as overseas backpacking becomes increasingly common, the options available to the demographic will improve, and the backpackers themselves will become more discerning in their needs, rather than simply making do with ugly hiking clothing or bringing “regular” clothing since alternatives are expensive and hideous.
Maybe someday, kids. Maybe someday.