The Process for Creating Your Perfect Capsule Wardrobe

Packing/Gear, Travel Tips
Most advice is about what types of things to pack, but let's go over how to narrow it down to a functional minimalist wardrobe that will work for you.
First of all, as stated before, almost all of your clothes should mix-n-match, be good travel fabrics, and be appropriate for the climate and culture you'll be visiting. (See What Exactly is Travel Clothing? What Do I Need?)

Okay now how to narrow it down to just a few pieces of clothing and have everything fit in your small backpack?! No matter how many times I pack, this it's always a bit of a process for me since I get obsessed with having the perfect wardrobe.

It helps to think of budget travel a bit like camping (check out Packing - What Do I Really Need?). You don't need much, it's not a fashion show, it's more function over form but you might want some cute things along too.

For less of a budget backpacker trip to say, Italy, you can still use this same approach. Just pack clothing and shoes more on the stylish side as opposed to purely functional.

You get so few items, they have to be just the right ones!


It is a rare occasion that I bring more than 2 pair of shoes. Usually a rubber flip flop (these get worn all the time) and either a sport sandal or a rugged flip flop. I have even gone on a few trips with just a pair of Reef Fannings (rugged flip flops) and been perfectly fine.

Try these on with your outfits just to make sure you can get by and aren't too horrified by how you look in a skirt and Keens. Sometimes I'll bring a pair of Teva sandals that are a bit cuter (still rugged and good for walking) but less functional if I'm going to be mostly in a city and don't want to look like I'm going out hiking in my sport sandals.

One of my travel buddies wears hiking shoes every day when we travel but I just can't stand closed shoes. Bring what you're most comfortable in but definitely watch the weight of the shoe if you bring hikers.

Wardrobe - The Short Version

1. Look at Photos

First search online for photos of both locals and tourists at your destination. Not only for style but also to help tell how hot or cold it might be.

Photos of Locals = what you SHOULD wear.
Photos of Tourists = what you might be able to get away with.

Of course in many regions the locals will be wearing jeans and long sleeves in 100+ degree weather and some tourists have no clue and are oblivious to their surroundings, so read between the lines when searching.

2. Decide on about 5 bottoms and 6 tops

They should all:
1) Be things you love to wear
2) Be mix-n-match
3) Travel well
If you want something long sleeve, or a hat, or a small cloth purse, only bring ONE of each.
It all fits in here! One half cube and one packing folder. This contains my bathing suit,  socks, underwear, bras, hat, and all my clothing (minus jacket).
It all fits in here! One half cube and one packing folder. This contains my bathing suit, socks, underwear, bras, hat, and all my clothing (minus jacket).

Wardrobe - The Long Version (AKA How I Do It)

1. Look at Photos

Same as above.

2. Make Piles

Now go to your bedroom and get out all the clothes that you think would be good for the trip. Things that pack small, don't wrinkle, and dry quickly. Put them into piles of tops, tank tops, pants, skirts, other (PJs & beachwear).

Next you'll have your "reject" pile and your "don't give up on it just yet" pile. As you add to these piles (in each of the steps below) don't put anything away yet since you will end up swapping things in and out of the reject piles as you go.

3. First Round of Selection

Step back and look at the piles. Right off the bat you can probably reject a few things that just don't match anything else or that you simply don't like as well as the other items in it's pile.

When I pack for a non-budget trip at home, I might pack for instance, 3 different beach skirts. Well not here. If you are going to bring a beach skirt, you bring ONE. If you want a pair of hiking shorts, ONE. Get the idea? If you pack right, you'll find you have something just right to wear for every outing, even without the variety. So if you are looking at your piles and see a skort that is far outmatched by the other skorts, put it in the reject pile.

Only bring one swimsuit and try to make it a simple one that takes up less space and isn't lumpy under clothing or a rashguard. If you are going somewhere that you will be in the water every day, bring two suits.

Try to have no more than around 10 skirts & pants and 10-12 tops in your piles now.

4. Try it All On

Try on EVERY SINGLE outfit combination. Even the ones you don't think go together. Seriously try on every top in your tops pile with every skirt and every pant. Even put tops over your dresses! Reject pieces that only go with one or two other items.

Of course sometimes you just HAVE to have that one top even though it only goes with one pair of bottoms but if it packs small, allow yourself that luxury. You want stuff you are going to actually wear or it is wasted space and weight in your bag.

Not everything HAS to mix-n-match, it just gives you so many more options and you never know what will be dirty at any given time. You'll end up leaning toward mainly printed bottoms with solid tops or solid bottoms with printed tops.

Try to get down to 5 bottoms, 4 tops, 2 tank tops, and one over-shirt to wear to cover up in the evenings or in temples. Think about it, that's up to 24 outfits!

If you are worried it's not enough, remember that your sarong (because you are packing a sarong ) gives you an extra skirt/sundress/shawl/bathrobe!

5. Envision Your Activities

Picture yourself in various situations and what you'd like to be wearing. Like you're going on a dirty hike, which one of your outfits are you going to wear? Then you're going to the local market and to walk around town. What outfit for that? To the beach? On a long bus ride? Going out at night for a drink or to a proper city shopping mall? Running down to the corner mini-mart? But seriously pick out the outfits themselves. You might be surprised that some items never get picked and how often you can wear the same thing over and over. You'll swap around a few items by doing this for sure!
Bring at least one "hang out in the hotel" outfit. It's so nice to have a pair of leggings and a tank top to lounge around in.

6. Have Mostly Basics

Have most of your items be go-to items (stuff you can wear in almost any situation) and only a couple of things that are your only-wear-when-you-want-something-different (less versatile items). That way if you don't get to do laundry for a while and you have worn your favorite capris for so many days that they're crawling away in disgustingness, you have plenty of other things to wear and not just a beach sundress that is not appropriate for your tour of the ruins that day.

7. Eenie-Meenie

Stuck choosing between skirt A and skirt B? Did you wear skirt A recently on a trip and all your photos are of you in that skirt? Skirt B is it. Give items extra points for comfort, packability, and what is flattering on you. Ya' know, you want to feel both physically and emotionally comfortable!

8. Be Realistic About the Heat

Inevitably, if I'm going somewhere hot and humid, I always forget just HOW hot and humid it gets. No matter how hot it is at home while you're packing, likely it's not as hot as where you are going. I think, oh, I'll pack a couple of long sleeve options to be respectful and conservative. And every time I wish I had only brought one. Skirts do better than pants in the heat but maxi skirts have always been too hot for me. Only pack non-spaghetti strap tanks (singlets) since those are rarely appropriate.

9. Keep it Simple

At least for me, if I try to get "fancy" with an outfit, I don't end up wearing it. Most budget-minded countries aren't usually big on fashion anyway so you can get away with murder.

I have literally said to myself when I'm in the try-on-every-combination stage, "Make sure you never wear THIS combo!" And low and behold I throw on that outfit without even thinking about it once I'm acclimated to my surroundings. Not too thrilled about the photos in those outfits but hey, it's real traveling I suppose.

10. Now ... Walk Away

If you have the space, leave your piles intact. Go back to it the next day and try it all on again. You'll have some "Why did I want to pack this?" moments. Swap it out for something that's just perfect.

After it's all done, you'll have a wonderful feeling of satisfaction that you just created the perfect budget travel backpacking wardrobe! That is until you are on the road of course and realize that some items were a complete mistake. LOL


Submit Your Comment
Thank you! Your comment has been received. :) It will be posted as soon as I get a chance to read it first.
Sorry, don't know what happened. Try later :(
Your email will not be shared or spammed in any way. It is only as extra assurance that you are a real person! ;) Leslie's Travel Snacks reserves the right to delete any comment that is abusive, self-promoting, nonconstructive, mean, or otherwise not in the spirit of this website.