Monday, October 06, 2008

When Your Closet Is a Backpack

My favorite bible verse goes something like this: And God said, "Let there be internet!" and there was internet, and the fashion blogger could finally dispense style tips for a South American backpacking trip, even though the person who asked probably left already. God damnit.

Dear Winona,

I find myself in a fashion conundrum, and I wonder if you might be able to help. I will be leaving in a month for a 2-month, 5- country South American backpacking extravaganza! The itinerary includes both urban and rural destinations, and I need to figure out how to look hip in Buenos Aires, while keeping warm on Lake Titicaca, and simultaneously looking hot in Rio (I also will probably do some volunteer work as well, so some of my clothes will inevitably get covered with paint or typhoid). This wardrobe has to fit into a backpack, and survive bus rides, rainy seasons and hostel laundry facilities.

I have an extremely small budget, but I might be able to splurge for one or two essential pieces. However, I am a pretty great seamstress, and can sew anything within reason....What should I buy/make/pack? Help a sister out!

In the Buff in Bolivia

Dear In the Buff,

First of all, I'm mega jealous! To make up for not inviting me, will you at least sew me a well-fitting dress? Thanks.

Ah, the South American backpacking extravaganza! A rite of passage! A chance to find yourself! And, most importantly, a supreme fashion challenge!

I haven't gone on a South American backpacking extravaganza (which is probably why I haven't found myself, although I still need to check under the couch), but if I were to go, I would pack a selection of simple pieces that, with minimal effort, can take you from the hiking trail to city and back. For short, we'll call this look, "What everyone wears in Portland, Oregon."

When I read your query, the first thing that popped into my mind was a recent post over at the Fashion-y Blog about Alternative Apparel. The clothes are edgy, cute, but very simple, and check it out, the models are even covered in paint (and possibly typhoid):

Now, of course I'm not saying that you need to buy an entire collection of slightly overpriced eco-friendly athletic wear. But take, as an example, the charcoal tanktop in the upper right hand corner--besides the eerie fact that the model looks EXACTLY like I would after a night or two in the South American jungles (my hair would probably look worse), a flattering tanktop like this would be great paired with some slouchy olive green cargo pants and hiking boots for schlepping around in the jungle ("plus a light long-sleeved layer on top!" screams my brother, "BOT FLIES!"), but then, you get into town, take off your long-sleeved layer, check for bot flies, throw on a comfy/cute blue jersey skirt, some smart flats, and boom, you'd look totally at home in a restaurant or salsa club.

Fine Jersey Drape Skirt (can be worn as skirt or dress, and I'm sure you could make this for, like, $3), $30,

Continue this theme of easy versatility through the rest of your clothes too, and you'll be able to weave your trail wear into your city wear: a light, waterproof jacket looks great layered over a flowy cotton dress, for example.

I'd really like to hear from other readers on this one, though. Those of you who have gone on backpacking extravaganzas--What did you wear on the trail and in the city? What did you pack that you didn't end up wearing at all? And which was worse, the typhoid or the bot flies?


WendyB said...

The chances I will ever go on a backpacking extravaganza are nil.

Unknown said...

Well the closest I've got to this is a fortnight in Colobia!
However I had barely any fashion sense then and my mother did a lot of the packing!
I can however report that long sleeve/dresses/trousers were necessary because of mosquitos! Unfortuantely they still got us pretty bad because we slept with water by our beds and they love the stuff! Damn!
My friend wore lots of neon underwear/bikin tops with loose (off the shoulder sometimes) plain tips for a unique look on beating the heat.
We spent a lot of time in the sea though but I can tell you that Leggins were a true friend through that time of need!
Good luck!


Sarah Von Bargen said...

Oooh! I knows all about the joys of the backpack wardrobe! I backpacked for six months through Asia and Europe with basically flip fops and black synthetic stuff. Please allow me to shamelessly link to an article I previously wrote on said topic


Kate Coveny Hood said...

This was very informative. Unfortunately - I have very little use for any of the advice since I can barely take a shuttle to Boston for the weekend with my three toddlers and not pack up the house in steamer trunks (as in for a voyage on the Titanic - which is an apt comparison on SO many levels...). But I think jersey is the solution for pretty much any packing dilemma. Don't even have to ask a question - just say "so I'm going on a trip..." I can already give you an answer: "jersey."

Mariah said...

1. accessories! i'm a big scarf fan because you can stuff one in your purse, and use it as a head-scarf (for urban nightclub), neck-scarf (art openings, et al), or preppie headband if you accidentally forgot that you have to meet your mother-in-law (also good for emergency frizzies/bad hair). small cotton pucci scarves are the best (silk requires more care and slips out of your hair)! but a big piece of dramatic (but cheap) jewelry, a facinator (so chic right now), or the like is also good.

2. big-ass scarf. skirt. scarf. tent. whatever. get it in a cool print, nothing crunchy or plain. the rest of your "wardrobe" should be as plain as possible, so you'll need a wow piece. this is a good choice for it.

3. a really cool haircut. have you ever noticed how girls with cool haircuts could be wearing, e.g. a prairie dress or all north face and they still look cool? takes up no space in your bag, but makes all the difference. i would say this is a perfect big-ticket item. cool glasses have the same effect, but are easier to have stolen.

4. you won't believe me: spats. you need two shoes, cute comfry flats and hiking shoes. spats turn two shoes into 12 (or whatever). take a pair in a rainproof material to keep your ankles warm/dry, but mostly, they cute up basic shoes. I don't know but I bet they'd be easy to make. also, if you use spats, you don't have to get such cute flats, which means you can, e.g., get something with straps across the top, which i find significantly increases the comfort while decreasing the cuteness. spats cover them up.

(p.s., i dont know what kind of hiking you're doing, probably pretty hard-core, but if not, you can get light hikers that are pretty cute, like so. also on the shoe tip, bring travel-size black shoe-polish. travelling beats up your shoes, and even the cutest shoes look fug when scuffed up.)

5. layer. I've always found 5 thinner layers packs better than 1 thick one. this will also give you more options. synthetics and knits are a good choice for at least some layers since they pack so light-small (think american apparel pieces). obviously you'll need a serious coat for outdoorsy stuff, but get one that has different lining options. look for something fitted, in layers, and waterproof. some of the ski jackets tend to be cooler than regular performance gear, although also expensive.

6. one pair of insoles. if you're doing a ton of walking, half-way through your trip, you can insert a new pair of insoles and your feet will thank you.

have fun!

echidna girl said...

I know this won't be very exciting but socks. I totally relied on my socks. It's a lot of tired feet, wet feet, muddy feet. Just a few pairs but ones you think probably won't get holes in them within the first 2 weeks would probably be a great investment. Also ones that will dry out overnight. I found that ones that were TOO thick didn't dry out in time if I washed them the night before so I had to carry them wet in my pack on to the next place.

Good luck to Buff in Bolivia!

Shawn said...

Oh man do I hate typhoid. It never quite washed out of my jeans.

Kristina said...

Isn't it going to be summer in South America? I wouldn't think you'd need TOO heavy of a coat, even in the mountains. I agree that it's probably better pack lots of layers. They keep you warmer than a coat anyway (that's what science says, anyway). A lightweight cashmere or cashmere blend sweater (hey, you said you'd splurge a little) is probably good enough, layered over some tees.
Synthetic blends do dry faster than natural fabrics, if you don't mind the way they feel. Try them out before you go.
I second the jersey skirt option. I'd go with a pattern, though, so if you do get stuff on it, it's not so obvious.
Evin if you break in your hiking boots, you might want to consider a second pair of walking shoes. The best way to combat tired or sore feet is to switch shoes for a little while. You can get some pretty nice walking shoes from Lands End that are flat.
Have fun! I'm tremendously jealous.

Unknown said...

Dear, i think you will find this usefull, since i`m brazillian and all.

1- South America is HUGE. And urban mostly- You may not want to look like a safari tourist in a big, metropolitan city like São Paulo. Less kaki pants and Indiana hats, i'm afraid.

2- It will be hot, so mind the sun and take one cashmere or two just in case. Find yourself a good sunscreem.

3- You`re going to do voluntary job at favelas? If so, keep in mind that it`s better to avoid very short shorts or skirts- As a rule men tend to be a little on the inapropriate side here.

4-Try to blend in a little, so people won't always see you like the American Girl Trying To Find Who She Is in The Wild Wild South America. Ok?

And have fun, i`m sure you will love it!

Leisha said...

I will of course defer to the actual Brazilian on here, but having worked in non-profits in East Africa, I know that sometimes tank tops are not really culturally appropriate outside of larger cities. Of course exceptions are usually made for foreigners, but I think service orgs will generally appreciate some sleeves and no knees or cleavage showing, especially if you're working with children or in rural or slum areas, which tend to be a bit more conservative.

Lisa said...

I'm definitely not the backpacking type. Some great advice in the post and in the comments, though. :)

Beth said...

Ooh! Some of this stuff is good for me, as next year it appears I am embarking on a semester-in-London-then-train-across-the-continent-for-a-month-to-get-to-traveling-in-China-for-two-weeks fiasco. Of course, staying put in London also entails weekend trips to Barcelona... I wonder where I'm going to get all of this money.

Poochie said...

I would say, I wish I could help but that would imply I ever even wanted to go backpacking... which I really really don't.

I live my life around avoiding going to the bathroom outside of a building and have do desire to rough it. Although I did stay in a Motel 6 once. I may have contracted typhoid there.

Does that count?


Katy said...

I'd say some light light jeans. Good post! I'd also say lots of cotton because it's light. I dunno, I've never been to South America.

Anonymous said...

when i backpacked around europe i practically lived in strapless dresses (i wanted a tan dammit!) and cute tank tops with lace edging - comfy AND they look like youve somehow made an effort despite the fact that actually your rucksack is about to break your back and/or youre about to end up on your back, flailing your legs around in the air and failing to get up.
however! according to some of the comments perhaps such revealing clothing should stick to the urban areas :)

Unknown said...

I don't know about South America specifically, but I was travelling in China and Russia two summers ago. I packed: 4 sundresses, two pairs of khaki-type pants (In darker colors), 3 tank tops, 3 long-sleeved shirts, a raincoat, a hoodie, a swimsuit, a big scarf, and 3 pairs of shoes. It turned out to be more than I needed.

Okay, the comment got too long. I posted it to my blog instead:

I hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Gooood advice being bandied about here. Gotta put in a good word for packing several fitted white tees. They look great dressed up with scarves and earrings, dressed down with shorts or cargos, go with ALL colors, and can be burned on returning without regret. I buy American Apparel baby rib cap sleeves and ADORE them

Annushka said...

I spent a summer on a archaeological dig in Spain a year ago, and it makes me confidently say I am SO the best person to ask about this, as I had to care about my appearance at night while simultaneously picking sand and pottery shards out of my vahoohoo:

1. Buy a black dress that is casual, but that you can dress up. I bought my perfect little black jersey dress at H&M, and it's great with literally anything.

2. If you have some disposable cash, buy some disposable clothes. Find cute, cheap basics that you won't mind ditching at some point.

3. Accessorize. You can fit, like, fifty pairs of earrings in the space one extra pair of shoes takes up.

4. Do not, under any circumstances, bring anything fragile or easily stained.

5. Keep your eyes open for stuff once you get to South America.

6. A decent-quality pair of cute jeans can and WILL take you from the field (or volunteer position of choice) to the clubs, if you can dress them up at all.

7. Black. Tank. Top.


Emma said...

I spent July cleaning up an environmental camping site in northern Italy; believe me, between the freezing mountains, the wet work sneakers and the having to trek up enormous trails to collect piles of leaves in the rain so that approximately 3 tourists per year could appreciate the beautiful leaf-free landscape, it was even less glamorous than it sounds. HOWEVER, I did learn an extremely important Fact of Life- sexy camisoles are your friend. You can throw on a lace-trimmed little number under your butch North Face fleece and fifteen extra layers of Michelin-Man-style insulation; then, once work is done, you can fling off the outer layers and be all sexy without even changing your pants. The "grungy work jeans plus cute/semi-slutty camisole" combo is much cuter than you'd think.
You're going to want to change your shoes, though; the whole "tough-yet-sexy girl who's too cool to wear a skirt" image is severely threatened by the wearing of stinky wet work boots at any time. Except, of course, when climbing the face of a mountain in the pouring rain with only a twig for your balance tool, screaming "OH SWEET MOTHER WE'RE GOING DOWN GOODBYE UNIVERSE."

Anonymous said...

I travel South and Central America a fair amount, never for such a long time usually just around a month but I'm usually traveling out of a backpack, not a backpacking backpack, but the kind you took to school as a child.

I have to agree with annushka in that traveling is the only time i encourage disposable clothing. Forever 21 has basic perfect fitting tshirts in a thousand colors for around $4.80 ususally. I like to get the basics (black, white, brown) in a medium which fits and in an extra large, even though it is the exact same shirt, it is two entirely different looks.

We obviously all agree on basics but I don't like to travel with my american apparel basics because I like to shop when i travel (shopping in argentina is incredible and CHEAP) and AA basics are not so cheap that you can ditch them if space becomes an issue.

Even when I'm not traveling with such confined spaces, I stick to my shoe standards: a pair of rubber flip flops (shower shoes) a pair of super basic and comfy shoes in brown and one in black. All Stars are good for this, so are Toms because not only are they both incredibly comfortable and versatile but they both pack relatively flat.

I could go on about this for days...

Anonymous said...

i don't understand the urge to utilize "backpack" as a verb at all, so i'll just remind the traveller to pack extra undies, that a nude convertible bra works with everything, that the little knit black dress idea is the best one on here, and thank you for relinking to that post about your dad. i howled again!

Anonymous said...

Traveling through Guatemala last summer, I packed light and had absolutely everything I needed. I was there for only a month, but what I took in my backpack didn't take up much space AT ALL (everything except the jeans was very lightweight) and could have easily lasted me for 2 more months without getting too bored with the clothes I had. this is what I had with me:

1. 2 pairs of jeans- though I only wore one of them most of the time, the other was "just in case". includes a comfortable belt with an interesting buckle, just for the fun of it. It was good enough for hiking, walkign through the market, a city, and even going out at night.
2. For the trekking- 2 pairs of very lightweight nylon-sort of pants, very big and baggy to be comfortable with enough hidden pockets to carry stuff around in crowded markets, with zipped-off pantsleeves that can turn them into awesome calf-lenth pants. These can be quite pricey in hiking stores, but pretty cheap if bought in SA. one pair dark navy, one in heather grey- great for variety. being a girly girl that likes skirts most of all, I usually turn my nose up at such obviously trekk-y clothes, but they were both comfortable and "look, I know I have funny zip-off pants in the junle, and I'm still awesome!".
3. 3 comfortable racer back tank tops in black (I ALWAYS lvoe black shirts, unfortunatle), 1 lace-edged cami also clack (great for going out in the evening).
4. A number of fun, colorful print tee-shirts (mine were from they don't take up and space at all, but look fun and stylish if you're trekking or out dancing at night.
5. 1 pair of flip-flops, one pair of comfortable sandals in bright red (make everything look fancy and don't take much space), one pair hiking shoes.
6. VERY important- a big scarf, of the 100% viscose type that comes in all colors of the rainbow and is sold on the street in london... "pashminas" that are not really pashmina, but have a great color. It is PERFECT for the evening when it isn't quite warm enough for a tank top, but not qute cold enough for a cardigan. This was one of the best things to take with me since it also allowed covering my shoulders if I felt like the stares were too leering or needed to change from tolerating-the-heat-tank-top to tolerating-the-heat-without-baring-my-shoulders. A fun color also makes every outfit chic- I took a sort of smoked pink that works with everything.
7. Another scarf- square, cotton, fun print, big enough to tie on your head or wrap around the neck to feel stylish in the jungle. (doesn't take up any space- you can fold it and not even nothice that it is there)... something like an oversized bandana only looking better.
8. An activity-compatible swimsuit! I never wear a one-piece, so I took a non-skimpy bikini with a hotpant-bottom that offers more coverage. It was great for the more active parts, but if you want a stylish bikini to lie on the beach in, you can get some extremely beautiful swimsuits for the price of around 2$... so I wouldn't worry about bringing it with me.
9. One skirt was enough for me when going out- paired up with red sandals and a nice looking tee shirt- worked great.
10. One light jacket (mine was black with gold details and quite pretty- I'd recommend something more simple that you don't hold too dear), one syntetic knit cardigan.
11. Accessories! buying pretty earring in SA is a must, so there's no need to take a lot with you. I just took one pair of big wooden hoops that go with everything, and two necklaces that make things look more chic yet simple...

So, all in all, this is what I brought with me, and it worked GREAT. My sister came back from 6 motnhs in south america well stocked with fantastic swimsuits and flip flops (brazil), chic earrings (everywhere) and great things from Buenos Aires, so I would say it is better to bring some basics and then buy beautiful things for cheap. :)
I ope I didn't ramble too much by trying to offer some practical advice from my own (limisted) experience. I know that this is definitely what I'll be carrying on my big trek through south american in 2 years, once I finally get realeased from the army. :)

H's Blog said...

I just found this blog and I love it! I traveled through Europe for almost a year and no matter if it was Poland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, or Spain, I always had these things:

1. huge scarf. can be wrapped around yourself at night for warmth. Can be used as a towel in a hostel. Can be used as a beach cover up. can be used as an honest-to-goodness scarf if necessary! i bought one in hamburg and wore it every day for months.

2. black. get tshirts, tank tops, and long sleeved tshirts. you can't tell when it's dirty or sweaty and you always look mysterious/artistic.

3. crazy cheap earrings/necklaces. these are 100% necessary because although you wont have the space for sexy shoes, you will feel like unique and beautiful with eccentric jewelry. don't spend a significant amount of money on your jewelry because you will always lose one of the earrings while traveling!

4. jeans. just bring 2 pairs and wear them like crazy. you can buy new ones when/if they wear out.

5. "celeste" crocs. don't freak out because i said i wear crocs! i had been walking about 30 miles a day and feeling like death at night from wearing hiking boots, and my mom sent me celeste crocs in a greenish brown color. these shoes are not hideous but are definitely outdoorsy. i only ever wore them with jeans so they were pretty much covered but your feet will feel so much better than wearing hiking boots! my number 2 recommendation would be wearing cross trainers but i was walking through cities and felt out of place wearing sneakers in europe.

6. some kind of trusty polar fleece. every american i knew had a northface, but they were immediately pegged as being tourists when they wore them. i bought a "pinea" polar fleece that was actually warmer than a northface and just as warm. don't go anywhere that has a possibility of being cold without one of these!
i hope that can help!

Kate said...

Thanks Winona! I´m sorry I haven´t been able to comment until now, but you´ll be glad to know that what I packed actually matched your advice to a remarkable degree! I sewed up a little charcoal jersey dress before leaving and brought a ton of other jersey. My one mistake was too many sweaters- I am terrified of being cold- but I have already ditched one of them. No bot flies yet, but my bff was attacked by evil mosquitos at Machu Piccu! All in all I think we are wildly stylish given the conditions.

p.s. we have both been wearing the same jeans and black tank tops for about 2 days. No one ever said we´d be clean.

xo. Kate (aka Buff in Bolivia, but really in Chile)

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