The “girly-girl’s” guide to packing for adventure travel

I’ll admit it. I’m what you would call a “girly-girl”. I like to dress up, I’m most comfortable in heels, and, ironically, I don’t feel quite myself when I’m not wearing at least a little makeup (and yes, I am fully aware of how ridiculous that is). Despite my disdain for getting wet, sweaty, stinky or dirty, I love taking part in adventure activities when I travel. I like to do things like hike, ride horses and zipline. I just like to look good (though I’ll usually settle for “not gross”) while I do them.

Aside from the obvious vanity issues, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, except that I stubbornly refuse to pack more than a carry-on for any trip, and so bulky adventure gear gets left behind to make room for yet another pair of cute high heels. This means I’ve ended up exploring a cave in Iceland in skinny jeans, knee-high boots and a wool trench coat, and have hiked in the humid Costa Rican rainforest during the muddy rainy season in jeans and running shoes with no traction. But I’ve finally figured out how I can bring both the clothes that make me feel good, and the ones that I need to survive as an active traveler. I’ve learned what I absolutely have to bring to enjoy myself on adventures, and how to fit it in my limited space along with my stylish clothes. If you’re a “girly-girl” like me but still want to get active with the boys, here’s what you need to know.

For almost any outdoor activity, you’re going to need some kind of boots. Sure, you can hike short, easy trails in tennis shoes. And technically you can ride horses in your stylish city boots. But for comfort and safety, you really need appropriate footwear -. you really don’t want to find yourself in the snow covered Andes wearing just a pair of suede ballet flats. To save room in your luggage, look for a pair of boots or shoes that can do double duty and can be worn in the city or while out having adventures.

For less strenuous hikes, you can get away with a pair of “trail running shoes”. These can be as stylish as many pairs of running shoes, but the traction is much better. If you’ll be exploring warmer climates or a tropical area, limit yourself to this pair of shoes and one or two more, one pair of flip flops and one pair of dressier sandals for nights out. If you’ll be in cooler climes, bring these to wear for activities and during the day and bring one pair of boots. Choose a pair that is flat and comfortable, but that can also be dressed up with a skirt and tights for evenings. Merrells are an excellent brand to check out. Their shoes and boots are notoriously comfortable, but attractive enough to wear around any city.

Always wear the heaver pair of boots or shoes on the plane, freeing up more space in your bag.
A Large Plastic Bag
If you’re like me, you probably travel with some of your favorite outfits. Depending on the activities you have planned for your trip, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a pile of dirty, stinky clothes to bring home with you. You really don’t want to throw all those clothes in one bag. Separate any heavily soiled clothes from the rest of your belongings and put them in a sealed plastic bag before packing them for the trip home. This will keep your other clothes clean and keep the inside of your suitcase from smelling like dirty socks.
Pack your Oldest T-Shirts
Better yet, don’t even bother to bring back the clothes you wear out mountain climbing or trekking. Pack older t-shirts and tank tops that are at the end of their lifespan and you can donate them at your destination. Your bag won’t get stinky, you won’t have to worry about doing laundry when you return, and best of all, you’ll have more room in your bag, which you can fill with clothes bought while shopping on your trip.
A Quick-Drying Towel
A small travel-sized quick-drying towel will be a life-saver if you plan on traveling to wet or humid places. You can always snag a hotel towel if you’ve got plans for an activity like to hiking to a waterfall, swimming and then hiking back, but then you’re left to carry around a heavy, sopping wet towel that will soak everything else in your bag. Use your lightweight towel to clean off and it’ll be dry in no time, making for a light pack on your return hike.
A Light, Water-Proof Windbreaker
Hiking across Icelandic lava fields in the rain in a wool trench coat is no fun. Take it from one who knows. No matter how warm your city coat is, once it’s soggy it’ll be of little help. For cold destinations, layer a waterproof windbreaker over a fleece or a wool sweater to stay warm and dry. For tropical climates, just wear the windbreaker over your t-shirt. Though the temps may not call for a jacket, you’ll be glad to have some protection from the rain if you get stuck in a rainforest downpour. When you aren’t wearing the windbreaker, it’s light and thin enough to roll up and pack in your bag without taking up too much room.
“Performance” Pants
Yes, I did recently walk into an REI and tell the salesman I needed “performance pants” because I didn’t know any better term. Luckily, he knew exactly what I meant. Basically, you want a pair of lightweight, water-resistant, quick drying pants (synthetic, not cotton). Unless you’re going to be in extremely cold climates (in which case, there are pants for that too), one pair will cover you for all occasions.
The length will protect you from bugs and scratches, but you’ll stay cool and dry thanks to the fabric’s quick-drying and water-repelling properties. Get a pair with a little extra room and some stretch to them, and if you do venture to slightly cooler climates, you can layer a pair of long underwear underneath.
Hair Accessories and Makeup
This is purely about vanity. As much as I hate to admit it, I am not one of those women who truly doesn’t care about her appearance, who can get messy and sweaty and not mind (and of course, somehow always looks good). When I start to look gross, I start to feel gross. My hair gets frizzy in high humidity, or hangs lifeless and limp after getting soaked in the rain. So when I know I’m going to be out in the elements, I’ll generally tie my hair back or wear a headband, scarf or hat to keep it under control. I don’t bring a blow dryer or any hair products so this supply of hair accessories is key.
As for makeup, while I do insist on wearing it when I go out for less physical adventures like sightseeing or shopping, I don’t bother putting any on while getting active. I know it’s just going to run down my face when I start sweating anyways. To save room in my bag though, I only bring the bare minimum. You should be able to get by with foundation (get one with SPF lotion in it to save room), powder, blush, mascara, a pencil that doubles does double duty on brows and eyes, and a single lip gloss. All of this should fit in one TSA-approved plastic bag, along with your travel shampoo and toothpaste.
Even with these supplies, you’ll have room in an average-size carry-on for enough outfits to last up to two weeks if you pack smart. Bring items that mix and match, can be dressed up or down, and can be layered for varying temps. You really don’t need to fill your bag with heavy outdoor apparel for every season. But bringing these basics along with your favorite fashionable duds will allow you to feel so good about your appearance that you can totally forget about your looks and concentrate on enjoying your adventure. And that’s the whole point.