Happy 2023! I hope everyone had a lovely break and start to the new year. Apologies for things being quiet around here, but I had a good excuse: I’ve been on my honeymoon. Yep, after our wedding last fall, my now-husband and I took off on a four-week trip to Southeast Asia to celebrate.
And now that I’m home, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do a post on how to create a petite-friendly travel capsule wardrobe. There are tons of posts out there on travel capsule wardrobes, but I’ve yet to find any that are specifically catered to petites. So I decided to write this one. Read on and enjoy!
Travel capsule wardrobe principles
The challenge: Everything I brought with me needed to fit in my 36L carry-on sized backpack. That includes clothes, accessories, electronics, gear, you name it. It all needed to weigh less than 12kg for my long-haul flights, and to be able to be split into two bags each weighing less than 7kg for internal flights. I needed clothing suitable for the hot, humid weather in Southeast Asia, as well as for a two-day mid-January stopover in freezing cold Paris on the way home to even more freezing cold Montreal. And I needed enough variety to be able to visit temples, hike up waterfalls, go to the beach, and also some options that I could dress up in the evenings for dinner out.
Luckily, I’m a pretty experienced traveller, and I have packing light down to a science. Here are a few basic principles for building a carry-on capsule wardrobe:
- Plan on doing laundry every 7-10 days. In most developing or heavily touristed countries, inexpensive service laundry is easy to find. In more expensive countries, you may need to use a self-service laundromat. Either way, it’s always possible to wash as you go. So, regardless of the length of my trip, I start with premise of having enough clothes to last me 7-10 days or so.
- Everything should go with everything. Ideally, every top should mix and match with every bottom so that you can maximize the number of outfits you can form. Try to stick within a cohesive colour palette. This doesn’t only have to consist of neutrals; I like bright colours and I do wear them. But try to make sure that they all sort of work within the same colour family. For this trip, I chose mostly shades of purple, grey, navy, and magenta.
- Avoid items that get dirty quickly. Lighter colours show dirt quickly. Darker colours don’t. I avoid white when I pack, because it’s just too difficult to keep clean on the road.
- Wear natural, breathable fabrics. Merino wool is excellent for travel, because it is lightweight, stays cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and is naturally antimicrobial so it can last a while between washes. Cotton is another personal favourite; some will advise against it, but personally I find it to be comfortable and nicely breathable. A lot of synthetic fabrics tend to sweat, crease, and smell after wearing them, and can leave you with uncomfortable skin rashes or worse.
- Layer, layer, layer. If you’re packing for multiple climates, take base, mid, and top layers, and switch them out as needed. Wear your bulkiest and heaviest layers on the plane or on travel days to minimize pack weight.
- Carry-on or bust. Checking luggage is an invitation for hassles, lost or delayed baggage, or other travel frustrations. Increasingly, airlines are charging high fees to check bags, too. For 90% of trips, you don’t need any more stuff than fits in a carry-on compliant bag. If it doesn’t fit, leave it out.
- For petites: Don’t assume you can just “buy it there”. This is a specific tip for people our size. Most of the travel capsule wardrobe guides you’ll read will say, hey, don’t stress if you forget X item; just go shopping and buy something at your destination. But petite-friendly clothes are incredibly tough to find while travelling, even in countries where the average height is lower than in North America. Souvenir stall t-shirts, local market buys, and high street shops at your destination probably won’t have petite sizes, and it’s near-impossible to get things hemmed or tailored while you’re on the go. Best to take everything with you, and if you’d be heartbroken to lose it, never check it! Carry-on only.
What I packed
Here’s the full packing list of my 7-10 day petite capsule wardrobe for any length trip:
- 4 cotton t-shirts – Old Navy Everywear Petite, XS Petite, assorted colours
- 1 merino t-shirt – Icebreaker Tech-Lite, S, charcoal grey
- 1 cotton t-shirt – Lord & Taylor, XS Petite, purple
I generally prefer t-shirts over tank tops, because they protect my shoulders from the sun better, and they are more appropriate for visiting temples and religious sites or in more conservative areas. As a petite with narrow shoulders, I also find v-neck or round neck tees to be the most flattering necklines on me.
The Old Navy cotton tees are wardrobe staples of mine. Cheap, well fitting on my short torso, comfortable, breathable. I selected colours that mix and match well with any of the pants in my bag, and are dark enough not to show dirt easily, but bright enough to photograph nicely. The Lord & Taylor Petite tee is very similar, with an open v-neck and a chest pocket.
I would absolutely love to have packed more merino tees instead of cotton ones. But alas, nobody makes these in petite sizes. The one Icebreaker shirt I own is way too long on me (which you can clearly see in the photo; look how much longer it is than all the other tees) and fits me pretty poorly. It’s too low at the neckline, the shoulders are baggy, the shirt bunches up at my hips, etc. I bought it for the slogan, and I put up with it because I love it anyway, despite the bad fit. But, a plea to the fashion industry: Please won’t someone make merino tees in petite sizes? I’d buy tons of them and travel with them everywhere. Okay, rant over.
- 1 pair elephant pants – purchased there, for cheap
- 1 pair hiking pants – Athleta Shasta convertible, size 4P (my holy grail travel pants)
- 1 pair capri-length cargo shorts – MEC, older model
You really only need 2-3 pairs of pants/shorts for any trip. Each pair should be able to be worn with every top, so I kept all of them in the grey colour family so that they’d mix and match with all my tops.
I knew that this trip would be in mostly hot weather, but would involve visiting a number of places where it’s respectful to keep my knees covered (temples, palaces, etc.) so I opted for lightweight longs and capris. If I were travelling to mostly urban areas or in colder weather, I would’ve swapped the shorts and elephant pants out for a pair of jeans or my black skinny Wander pants.
A word about the “elephant pants” that are so ubiquitously sold around Southeast Asia that they’ve become something of a cliche: Let’s get real. They’re not stylish. They’re never going to be stylish. But they’re so comfortable and convenient for travel that I still recommend that every backpacker own a pair. You can find them at street stalls and local markets for about $3-$4 per pair. They pack up thin, dry in no time, go with everything, protect you from the sun and the heat, and can take you everywhere. In conservative regions or to visit temples or religious sites, it was helpful to have long pants that weren’t also too warm. And hey, if they get ruined, they cost basically nothing. Sure, you’ll look like a tourist. But so does everyone else.
What about length for petites? They’re only sold in a couple of sizes, and are meant to be worn cropped. We petites can often get away with wearing them as full-length pants, especially ones like these with elastic around the ankle. The rise is ridiculously high, and the pants would come up to my bust if I were to wear them pulled up. I just pushed the waistband down to my waist and let the crotch area bag, which isn’t a big deal with this style ’cause that’s more or less the point. For what it’s worth, I did see even shorter cropped ones at market stalls for petites with shorter inseams than mine.
- 1 polka-dot navy jersey dress – Boden petite, size 8P UK (4P US)
- 1 fit-and-flare print dress – NY Collection Petite, size PS
The Boden polka-dot dress was such a great item to pack. Knee-length and with sleeves that covered my shoulders, it was modest enough to visit most temples, while still being chic enough to look put-together in Southeast Asian cities or while going out for dinner. The jersey fabric doesn’t wrinkle. This was so easy to just wear and go.
The NY Collection dress I honestly just brought with me as a beach cover-up for the last few days of our trip, which we spent on a resort in the Thai islands. It got very little wear otherwise, and I probably could’ve skipped it altogether in favour of a simple sarong or wrap.
It, too, packs up small and doesn’t wrinkle, but the fabric isn’t as breathable, and the sleeveless design made it less practical for the rest of my trip. (It also resulted in me getting a pretty bad sunburn one day). I also needed to bring a separate belt with me, because it lacks waist definition, which isn’t particularly flattering on me. Overall, I’d probably advise leaving it out and going with just one dress.
- 1 sleep t-shirt
- 1 pair of lightweight pyjama pants
I always pack dedicated sleepwear, since I don’t like sleeping in grungy clothing I’ve been wearing out all day. Having something clean and fresh to wear to sleep or lounge around hotel rooms is invaluable. You don’t need anything fancy here; anything you’d wear to sleep in at home will work just fine on the road. I don’t suggest bringing any fancy lingerie, mind you, as you want comfy things that are easy to wash.
Socks and Undies
I won’t post photos of these, but you get the idea. I took 3 pairs of Darn Tough merino socks, 9 pairs of undies, and 1 sports bra to rotate with my 1 regular bra. Ideally, bring undies that are made from natural breathable fabrics like cotton or merino, and are both thin and light enough to both pack up small and dry quickly if you find yourself needing to do sink laundry.
I normally take only one swimsuit on my trips, but this time I opted to bring two:
- 1 one-piece Speedo swimsuit, size unknown (VERY old)
- 1 bikini – Freya Sundance, size 30D/small
I’m glad I had two swimsuits, since we spent a few days in the Thai Islands at the end of our trip and went swimming a few days in a row. What’s more, in the more conservative areas of Northern Thailand and Laos, two-piece swimsuits are not really appropriate, so I was glad to have the one-piece.
The bikini is a more recent purchase. Freya is a petite-friendly brand that sells bra-sized bikini tops in smaller band sizes. Check them out if you, like me, have this issue.
For shorter trips or those with less swimming involved, one swimsuit is probably enough. If you just bring one, I’d suggest a one-piece over a two-piece, just for practicality’s sake.
Layer, layer, layer is the name of the game when packing for multiple climates. Here, I took:
- 1 sweater – Banana Republic UPF40 zippered hoodie
- 1 jacket – LL Bean Petite Packable Primaloft
- 1 rain shell – Mountain Hardwear Women’s Thundershadow
I wore the Primaloft jacket and the zippered sweater on the plane to reduce pack space and size. The Primaloft jacket was my main protection from the cold on our Paris stopover. I love how small this jacket packs down when you’re not wearing it, making it ideal for travel.
Yes, that’s literally the size of the jacket when tucked into its own pouch. I was able to stash it away in my backpack without adding bulk. LL Bean sells these in petite sizes in a variety of colours; mine is actually quite a bright purple, but they have neutrals such as black as well if you want to be more city-appropriate.
The light grey sweater isn’t the most flattering colour on me (I usually prefer black or darker colours) but it was a useful mid-layer on this hot weather trip, giving me both added warmth on over-air-conditioned transit, and acting as a shield from the hot sun. If I were travelling to cooler climates, I’d probably swap this sweater out for a lightweight black merino cardigan and/or my Old Navy quarter-zip fleece. But in hotter climates, black just acts as a magnet for the heat, so this lighter grey was practical. It also came in handy on the riverboat trip in Laos, when it was actually quite chilly on the water, especially early in the mornings.
The rain shell got very little use during the trip, since we lucked out and didn’t get much rain in Southeast Asia. I did wear it one day in Phuket when it rained, and in Paris to cut the wind a bit in the chilly weather. But you should definitely bring a waterproof layer anyway, since luck only goes so far.
My travel rule of thumb is to take two pairs of shoes, max: One on my feet and one in my bag. For this trip, I packed:
- 1 pair hiking shoes – Scarpa Rapid Women’s (previous season model)
- 1 pair sandals – Teva Verra in colour “Bungee Cord”
The hiking shoes, I wore mostly on airport/transit days when I didn’t want to carry them in my pack, and on our layover Paris. It seldom got cold enough in Southeast Asia to require socks and shoes, so I wore the Teva sandals most of the rest of the time.
I have very narrow feet and it’s tricky for me to find shoes that are narrow enough to fit well without giving me blisters. Scarpa is a brand that’s known to run narrow, and I’ve found that these lightweight hiking shoes are practical for taking me just about anywhere.
As for the Tevas, they’re actually a bit too wide on me, and I have to fasten the velcro at the tightest possible setting with a fair bit of overhang to get them to stay on my feet. I wish more brands would make hiking sandals in narrow widths, as they’re nearly impossible to find. On more city-oriented trip, I’d probably take my trusty Naot sandals instead. But for Southeast Asia, the Tevas were perfect, offering decent traction in water and on light hiking trails, quick to dry, stable on uneven sidewalks, easy to slip on and off (you’re constantly doing this in Southeast Asia to visit temples and shrines), and just cute enough to get away with dressing them up with dresses or skirts for evenings out.
- 1 scarf – purchased in Nepal
- 1 tuque – purchased in Bolivia
- 2 Sunhats: My Wallaroo petite scrunchie, and my Outdoor Research sunhat
- 1 pair sunglasses (prescription)
- 2 packs KN95-equivalent masks – CanadaMasq Breatheteq, size small
My scarf is a cheap cotton one purchased in Nepal a few years back, which I absolutely adore and has accompanied me on many of my trips ever since. It helps protect my neck from the sun, it instantly dresses up any outfit, and it goes with almost everything in my bag. A lot of travel capsule wardrobes for women advise bringing bulkier infinity scarves or wraps, but I find that they can easily overwhelm a petite frame, so I prefer small lightweight scarves. For travel, I really recommend cotton over silk, since silk has a tendency to sweat.
My tuque, I wore mostly in Paris and while leaving Montreal, but it also came in handy for windy boat rides. It’s an alpaca wool hat that I bought a few years back in Bolivia. It’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
As for the sunhats, well, if you read my post on hats for small heads, you’ll know that the struggle is real; most hats are way too big for my head, and buying one at a market stall simply isn’t an option. But I sunburn easily and it’s essential for me to wear hats as much as possible in hot weather. So I pack ones from home that roll up small. The OR hat is actually a kids’ sunhat, which I’ve affectionately nicknamed the “dorky hat” over the years. I wore it very little on this trip, eschewing it in favour of the wider-brimmed Wallaroo hat, which is both practical and far more fashionable.
Sunglasses, well, ’nuff said. They’re essential. Mine are prescription, though if you don’t need prescription lenses, you can buy cheap ones on the road. Though if you have a petite face like I do, it might be best to bring a pair from home anyway.
And, of course, travel in this COVID era means wearing a good quality mask to prevent both COVID and other nasty bugs on the road. Luckily, mask-wearing has long been normalized in Southeast Asian culture, so we blended right in wearing ours. If you, like me, have a small face and therefore have trouble getting a good fit, check out my posts on petite-friendly masks.
Putting it all together
Other than the outfit I wore on the plane (right) and a few other items like electronics and paperwork, this is everything I packed:
All of the above, together with my toiletries, electronics, and miscellany gear, fit nicely into my 36L Gregory Jade XS backpack. I packed everything in two packing cubes, as well as a couple of ziploc freezer bags for a few compressible items like my rain shell. I always recommend rolling rather than folding clothes to pack them, as it helps prevent creasing and wrinkling. If you make sure everything in your pack has a place, it will always be easy to find things, as well as to repack at each stop.
To add to this, I also bring my trusty Timbuk2 Jessie Cross-Body Shoulder Bag, which I’ve been using for several years as my travel purse. It is just big enough to store my daily essentials while I’m out and about, including my glasses case, phone, camera, tissues, wallet and cards, and important documents. A cross-body bag is useful as a theft deterrent, and while this isn’t the world’s most elegant purse, it’s neutral enough to go anywhere.
Both bags, fully packed, weighed in at just under 10kg (22lbs), which was light enough to easily pass carry-on restrictions on most mainline airlines. It also left some space for souvenirs (in my case, mostly chocolate).
A few notes about this capsule wardrobe
So there you have it, a petite-friendly “one-bag” travel capsule wardrobe that can keep you going for a month on the road while living out of a carry-on sized backpack.
A few caveats about the above:
- This is primarily a hot weather wardrobe. On this trip, I was visiting Southeast Asia, which is hot and humid. When I travel to cooler or more temperate climates, I tend to adjust this wardrobe and pack slightly differently. I’ll generally skip the dresses and elephant pants, add a pair of jeans or city-appropriate black pants, add a half-zip fleece and a merino cardigan, and swap the sandals for a comfortable evening-appropriate pair of closed flats.
- Paris wasn’t optimal. Astute readers will notice that I really didn’t have any good wardrobe options that are fashion-appropriate for Paris. The idea of walking around the city in hiking pants, a t-shirt, sneakers, and a pack jacket is not going to win me any awards for being Parisienne-chic, and is probably making more than a few of you cringe. I will defend this a little in saying that Paris was just a day and a half layover on this trip, and carrying around extra items for a month in order to wear them for one day would’ve felt wasteful. Also, it was the middle of January, and, due to COVID, I was minimizing time spent indoors, so nobody was really going to see anything other than my outer layer anyway. If Paris (or indeed, other European cities) had been the main point of my trip, I definitely would have packed differently.
- This trip was for fun, not for business. If I’m business travelling, I pack quite differently. So should you. But since I haven’t travelled for business since pre-pandemic times, this post is more geared towards a backpacking vacation.
- I’m not one for nightlife. When I travel, my evenings usually consist of dinner, perhaps a visit to a craft brewery, or a bit of walking around a bit to explore. I’ve never been a big partier, even in my younger years, and certainly not now. If your idea of travel is to hit up the hottest clubs in every city you visit, you will obviously need a few different items in your bag.
Having said that, hopefully, this helps other petite travellers looking to build a carry-on packing list. Feedback/suggestions? Hit me up in the comments.