I thought I’d break down the process of creating a mix and match travel capsule into simple steps you can follow. While the steps are simple, the post is a little long so bookmark it if you have to or download it along with bonus content (that includes some killer worksheets by the way) because I didn’t want to make this post any epically longer than it was already.
But stick with me and hopefully I will take the overwhelm out of this process a little more so that you can confidently pack your carry-on capsule and be a packing light guru yourself one day.
One of the keys to packing light is indeed the mix and match travel wardrobe. It does take a wee, little bit of planning but it does not have to be an overwhelming process. You can approach it in two ways: use a list (or worksheet, like the one I’ve provided) or lay your clothes out or both, whatever works for you. Let’s break it down.
Step 1 – Check the Weather
The first steps in planning your carry-on travel wardrobe is to write down or at least be familiar with the weather conditions you are packing for. Google it, look in a Farmer’s Almanac, ask a friend – whatever you gots to do, just find out what the weather is like at your destination.
Specifically, be aware of the range of temperatures you should be expecting. For instance, the highs may be comfortable but the morning/evening lows may require outerwear or warm layers. Also check for rain conditions. This is key, so don’t skip this step!
Step 2 – Check your Itinerary
Next, take a look at your itinerary and write down your major travel activities. If you aren’t sure of your activities, no worries.
Just try and generalize what you’ll most likely be doing and estimate how much time you’ll spend doing each activity. So typically you’ll be sightseeing, going out to dinner, beachtime – whatever it may be that you will most likely be doing, write this down.
When you write down your activities, estimate how many outfits you might need for each. For instance, if you’ve got a few nice dinners scheduled during a 7 day trip that may require 2 outfits (or one outfit worn multiple times). Let’s say for this same 7 day trip you’ll also be sightseeing most days then you’ll need enough mix and match items to come up with 7 outfits for your 7 days of sightseeing.
This is not the time to speculate or dream about what you’ll be doing like having dinner with Beyonce or the queen of something or attending the opera or whatever fancy scenario you can come up with. For me, it’s thinking that I will actually work out and run on vacation. I bring my workout gear and shoes and NEVER touch them. So once again, just be honest and very realistic about what you’ll be doing during your trip.
If you have a special occasion or specific travel activity that requires particular clothing lay that out or list it first. This is what I call your non-negotiables. If you’re traveling for a wedding, jeans and flats won’t do, you’ll need to pack whatever is appropriate for that event.
Or if you’ve got some serious hikes planned for your trip, the right shoes are key to prevent yourself from being injured. So take note, of whatever specific, non-negotiable clothing needs you may have for your trip and list them or lay them out.
Step 3 – Build your Core Capsule
One way to put together your travel capsule is to start with a foundation of basics and build from there. I call this foundation of travel basics your “Core Capsule” and it should be around 8 items. You can either lay out or list your items during this process. And, don’t worry you will be adding to the Core Capsule in the next step.
Neutral Base Core Capsule
Now, I could get very deep on the color wheel and color theory when picking out color palettes for your travel capsule. BUT, the packing process can be difficult enough as it is and honestly adding a color palette component can just make it all too overwhelming.
Unless you’re an art major, you really don’t have to know the difference between complementary and tertiary colors, mmkay. If your closet is anything like mine it’s a complete mish-mosh of patterns and colors. So, I recommend you build your Core Capsule on a base of neutral colored clothing or as close to neutral as possible.
You will be adding more items to your core capsule (don’t worry) and that’s when you can mix in different colors and patterns. If you love color and matching and your closet already has an existing color palette then by all means build your Core Capsule around the palette of your choice. If you are looking for some color palette inspo, check out The Vivienne Files for outfits curated with specific color palettes. For this particular example we will stick to a “core capsule” consisting of neutrals and/or basics you have.
The only thing you do have to think about when it comes to color is to be aware of what types of colors are appropriate for your destination. Bright hues might not be the best to pack for your European vacation but they are totally right for more tropical locations. So just do a bit of research about the types of clothing and colors that are suitable for your destination.
Choose Versatile Items
When choosing and editing your options you just want to make sure that clothing can be worn with at least 2-3 other items. Don’t stress about this too much and don’t get too tripped up in the travel outfit math. Yes, it would be amazing to make 97 outfits of just 12 items but most of us aren’t traveling for 97 days.
Focus on getting the most use out of your items but don’t let this be a stumbling block. But, yes the more items that match the better your travel capsule will work for you. The longer the trip, the more necessary it is for all of your clothing items to mix and match, unless you are ok with wearing just a few outfit combinations.
Do not pack “one use” items that can only be worn one way unless it’s for a specific travel activity in your travel itinerary. For example, a dressy dress to attend a wedding is completely acceptable. However, don’t pack that same dressy dress if it’s not for a specific event and when another combination of versatile clothing can perform the same function.
Don’t pack any “Just in Case Items”
Avoid packing for those “just in case” situations. That will lead to overpacking every single time. Pack only for the weather, your travel activities and your destination. Boom! That’s it. Keep it simple!
A few reminders about the best types of clothes for packing light:
- Pack Lightweight knits
- Avoid bulky materials
- Think in layers and choose items that are “layerable”
- Flattering clothing you like to wear and feel comfortable in
- Clothes that fit in with your destination
- Remember to think “versatile” when choosing items
Let’s start with general clothing categories. You can adjust these categories to suit your wardrobe and travel needs.
Even if you are traveling in the summer you may want to pack a light jacket for cool nights. Look at the weather conditions and pick out outerwear that works best for the predicted conditions.
Remember to always wear your bulkiest items in transit. Pack rain gear if it’s appropriate for your destination.
Try and get the most versatile outerwear possible. Sometimes you will have to pack more than one kind of outerwear depending on the type of trip you take and the weather conditions. If you are doing long term travel or traveling through multiple climates you will most likely have to pack more than one type of outerwear.
Prioritize functionality first when selecting outerwear. Sometimes when planning my own travel capsules I account for a functional piece of outerwear along with a more fashionable option. Just determine your outerwear needs according to your trip. By wearing your bulky outerwear in transit you save room in your carry-on suitcase.
My functional piece is generally the Patagonia Nano-Puff and it’s successfully seen me through a number of adverse weather conditions. Best of all, it weighs only 10.5 ounces and it’s so compact and compressible I can literally stuff it in my purse if I’m not using it. I have it in the black color so even in travel situations when it’s my only piece of outerwear it blends in well with the rest of my travel clothes.
Choose a lightweight sweater, either a pullover or cardigan style. Cardigans are versatile items because you can easily slip them on and off to deal with changing temperatures. Sweaters made of lightweight merino wool aren’t bulky and they are highly insulating. However, in colder weather pullovers do a better job at keeping you warm.
When choosing a mid-layer, check that the color complements with whatever outerwear you’ve selected. Read my Guide to Cold Weather Layering here for more on how to pack for colder climates.
This can range from jeans to trousers to skirts to shorts. Choose 2 options that fit in with your personal style or preference and of course whatever suits the weather and travel activities. It’s crucial that whatever bottoms you select match all (or most) of your tops and your outerwear.
Try and keep bottom silhouettes similar because it’s easier to match with the same footwear. For instance the shoes that work with a wide leg pant may not work for a skinny jean and vice versa. Shoes that work with shorts may not work with jeans. So keep silhouettes in mind and how they will pair up with your travel shoes.
If you will be packing mostly dresses use this category and the tops category to list out your travel dress options.
Choose whatever tops you find comfortable and that fit in with packing light guidelines above. Pick out up to 4 options that are appropriate for the range of weather conditions of your trip and that can be layered under sweaters easily.
Also look at your travel activities and weather when making your selections. I like to pack 2 lightweight tees (long and/or short sleeve), 1 button down and a blouse. When laying them out or listing them make sure that they complement or match your mid-layer, outerwear and bottoms.
This is the hardest category, I know! Read my post on How to Pick the best Travel Shoes for more tips on choosing what I like to call the Travelista Trio of shoes. Keep your travel activities in mind and you’ll want to pack at least one comfortable pair for walking.
Remember wear a pair and pack the other two. And don’t hate me too much for suggesting you bring no more than 3 pairs of shoes! It can be done and this will most definitely make you a packing ninja!
Step 4 – Add in your “A la Carte items” Or “Mini-capsules”
Ok, so now that you have your core capsule you can round it out. Add items that will keep your outfits interesting and increase your options. I call these “A la Carte” items. Some items you may want to add at this point are some statement pieces or strategic colors and patterns. Remember whatever you add still has to match multiple items and be worn multiple ways. Add clothing like blazers, a second lightweight outerwear option, cardigans and dresses or an extra pair of pants or a skirt.
Or, you can add a “mini-capsule”. Let’s say you are planning on going for hikes or to the beach, pack items for those portions of your trip if you haven’t already. Don’t go crazy here, you want to aim for a “Travelista 12” and keep the capsule at 12 items ideally, 15 items maximum (for trips over 15 days). If you have a specific event or clothing need during your trip that’s not included in your core capsule now is the time to add it.
Now that you have most of your travel outfits established you can add in a few key accessories. A scarf is essential so pick one that complements your carry-on capsule. The same goes for jewelry. Keep it minimal and don’t get carried away with too many accessories. One to three scarves should be plenty, pack a warm one in colder weather. Keep jewelry simple during the day and pack a statement piece for evening. The same goes for handbags. Pack a minimal and functional purse for day and pack a small clutch for evening.
Step 5 – Try Everything on!
Trying clothes on can be time consuming but it’s an important step to make sure your travel capsule will actually work for you. Try on potential outfits for your most common travel activities.
When trying clothes on aim to pick outfits that are comfortable and flattering. You’ll also want to check that items can be layered easily. You don’t have to try on every potential combination because if you’ve planned correctly you’ll end up with dozens and dozens of options (Yay!).
Take pictures on your phone or notes to remind yourself of your favorite travel outfit combos. Also note what you’ll wear during rainy or any other inclement weather if it’s expected during your trip. This would be a good time to choose your airplane outfit as well. Choose something comfortable and always try and wear your bulkiest layers in transit.
Step 6 – Edit
If at any point during or after this process a clothing item or outfit feels a little “meh” and you don’t love it- don’t pack it! Replace it with clothing you do love or don’t pack it at all. If you’re not loving it at home your feelings won’t change while you’re on your trip. Only pack what you love and feel fabulous in. Especially for longer trips, you really want to love every item in your suitcase.
Some clothes just don’t layer well and that’s ok but only for shorter length trips. If some are in your travel wardrobe just know their limitations and that it will reduce the amount of outfits you can put together. If you’re traveling for an extended period of time then you’ll want to find something more versatile.
Step 7 – Shop if you have to
Sometimes when assembling your travel wardrobe you may find you just don’t have the right pieces to build a whole travel capsule around. This is understandable, because unless you have a wardrobe capsule in everyday life, most of us don’t shop with the idea of capsules in mind. I myself haven’t committed to a capsule wardrobe lifestyle yet but if you are interested, blogs like Un-fancy are the place to start.
Try and make due with whatever is currently in your closet, if you do have to shop only buy the essentials. One or two classic pieces can bring your travel wardrobe to life. Invest in a well-fitting pair of jeans or trousers or a skirt or leather jacket, whatever the wardrobe workhorse is for you.
Your bottom pieces will get the most wear, so if you’re starting with a high quality piece then you can get away with inexpensive tops. Another good buy is a versatile day to night dress if you are a dress person. You can easily change the look of a dress with outerwear, cardigans and a change of shoes. Other worthy travel investments are stylish and functional outerwear and comfortable yet cute travel shoes.
If budget is an issue, stores like Target, Old Navy, H&M, Nordstrom Rack and Gap usually have a great selection of classic and on-trend pieces that are affordable. Ebay and consignment stores are other budget-friendly resource for finding high quality basics.
Do not be tempted to buy items that are so outside your comfort zone that you wouldn’t wear them in real, everyday life. Stick to your own personal style preferences. Maybe upgrade styles and silhouettes but be true to your own style and what makes you feel beautiful!
Step 8 – Pack Sleepwear, etc.
Once you’ve picked out your carry-on capsule. Don’t forget to pack or list your sleepwear and underwear and socks. Pack a few pairs of underwear and plan to hand wash them depending on the length of your trip. Check out my post on How to do Travel Laundry here.
Step 9 – Make a checklist and Stick to it!
After you’ve done all the planning of your amazing carry-on travel capsule, add the clothing items to your travel checklist. If you’ve got time before your trip you can make adjustments to your list and replace items but don’t be tempted to throw in extras. Stick to your list! Don’t panic and add in extras at the last minute!
If your goal is to pack light in a carry-on then trust in your planned carry-on capsule wardrobe of 12-15 clothing items and 3 pairs of shoes. You can do it!!
If you need extra help, grab my worksheets to help you figure out different outfit options for each item of clothing you pack (you can print as many copies of the worksheet as necessary to help you figure out potential travel outfit options). The worksheet even comes with space to list out your final mix and match travel capsule.
Step 10 – Evaluate What worked
After your trip, take a few minutes to note what worked best and what didn’t in your travel capsule. By noting items that didn’t work or didn’t get used you can be more efficient with your next mix and match travel capsule. These notes will help you pack better the next time you travel and before you know it you will be a total packing ninja, hollah! So hold on to these precious notes in an app like Evernote or something similar where you can easily refer to them for your next trip.
I hope this helps you begin your packing process so you don’t leave it until the last minute. Just a little advanced planning can make you a better, savvier, lighter traveler. And, who doesn’t want that?!
Remember to download my Mix and Match Travel Capsule Guide with bonus content, checklists, sample capsules and worksheets that will help you create your own mix and match travel capsule and you’ll get signed up for my newsletter as well (don’t worry, I won’t flood your inbox except when I have extra special travel light tips that aren’t included here on the blog).
Travel on, Travelistas!