When it comes to travel clothing, the fabrics you choose can make a huge difference in terms of both your comfort and luggage size. In certain parts of the world, you want clothing that keeps you warm, while in other places you want to stay cool. Fabric that holds up well in the long run is also great because that means you don’t have to keep buying new clothes over the course of several trips, or replace clothes on one longer trip. If you’re trying to travel carry-on only, certain fabrics are better than others as far as the space they take up.
So what are the best fabrics for travel clothing?
Merino wool is ideal for travel. Before you cringe at the thought of grandma’s wool sweaters from when you were a child, know that the merino wool fiber is much finer, and therefore more flexible and soft, than other types of wool. Many people who are sensitive to traditional wool garments can wear merino without irritation.
The thermoregulating properties of merino mean that you tend to stay cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold. It wicks moisture, which helps if you’re doing something active and sweating, and then brings that moisture towards the air where it can evaporate. In addition to feeling better on your skin, the natural antibacterial properties mean you can wear it longer without the garment starting to smell. And when you do wash it, it dries quickly in the shade.
Merino doesn’t wrinkle easily, which is always a plus for travel. The fabric is lightweight, so it packs up small and can easily be layered for more warmth.
Many travel gear companies create garments from merino wool these days, but the most popular one is Icebreaker whose entire range contains merino and merino blends. Owners of Icebreaker gear tend to be fanatics, but there are some downsides, specifically the high price. Others have mentioned that the thinner, lighter weights of fabrics wear more easily.
- Pros: Soft, thermoregulating, moisture wicking, smells less, dries quickly, lightweight, wrinkles less. Many brands allow for washing in washing machines, not just by hand.
- Cons: Must be line dried, can be expensive, thinner versions of some merino is not as long-lasting as other fabrics.
>>See how merino wool helped Brooke pack for a three week trip in a 12L bag.
Besides bamboo’s silky, luxurious feel, it has several properties that make the fabric beneficial to travel. Like merino, bamboo is temperature regulating, so you’ll stay cooler in hot weather and warmer in cold weather. Clothing made from bamboo is great for layering, so you can pack clothing that serve multiple purposes and layer up if it’s cold. It’s not to the same level as merino, but it does do a better job than many other fabrics on the market.
Like merino wool, you can wear it several times before it starts to smell. It also won’t wrinkle easily. And, it contains natural UPF. Bamboo Body, a brand in Australia, has a tested UPF rating of 50+!
While it’s a breathable, moisture wicking fabric that helps keep sweat off your skin, the major downside with bamboo is the fact that it doesn’t dry as quickly- sometimes even than cotton depending on the thickness of the fabric. That makes it difficult to hand-wash items as you travel, but then again, since it smells less, you might have to do it less often!
- Pros: Temperature regulating, luxurious feel and drape, smells less, natural UPF, moisture wicking, breathable.
- Cons: Takes longer to dry.
Nylon and Polyester
Many people shy away from these fabrics, but nylon and polyester work well for travel clothing. In fact, much of the fancy purpose-built travel clothing on the market consists of these fabrics.
Nylon and polyester wick moisture, keeping your skin dry. They’re both quick-drying fabrics, so if you have to hand wash your clothes in the sink, they shouldn’t still be wet when it’s time to pack the next morning. These two are also wrinkle-resistant and lightweight, which is always good for packing.
In terms of breathability, the design of many travel fabrics helps them to be breathable, but they are known to be less breathable than cotton, merino, and bamboo.
The major downside is that these materials might not feel as comfortable on your skin as others, and the cheaper versions of these fabrics have a tendency to hold in odor if not treated.
- Pros: Quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant, lightweight.
- Cons: Not as comfortable next to skin and may hold some odor.
>> Exofficio underwear is primarily made of nylon with a bit of spandex. It is also treated with Aegis® Microbe Shield™ to reduce odor.
Rayon feels smooth on your skin. It dries quickly and is another great wrinkle-resistant fabric. Unfortunately it doesn’t wick moisture as well as the fabrics above, so it’s not the best option for warmer climates where you might sweat a lot.
- Pros: Quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant.
- Cons: Doesn’t wick moisture well.
You probably have a lot of cotton in your normal wardrobe – I know I do! It’s comfortable, breathable, and easy to care for.
But cotton doesn’t wick moisture like other fabrics do, so if you’re in a hot place, you’ll start feeling uncomfortable in that sweaty shirt. It also wrinkles easily and doesn’t dry quickly, making it a less than ideal choice for travel.
There is a time and place for cotton, though. Denim might not be the quickest drying fabric, but jeans are great on a packing list when the weather’s chilly. They’re also pretty durable and versatile- as long as you don’t need to wash them often in the sink.
- Pros: Breathable, comfortable, easy care.
- Cons: Doesn’t wick moisture well, dries slowly, wrinkles easily.
Linen and Silk
Linen and silk are both comfortable, lightweight, breathable fabrics that won’t take up a lot of space in your suitcase. But they are probably the most wrinkle-prone fabrics out there. If you’re staying in an apartment rental or at a hotel that provides an iron, that might be ok with you, but in general, these aren’t great fabrics for travel clothing.
- Pros: Lightweight, breathable, comfortable.
- Cons: Wrinkle very easily.
>>Read more about how to prevent wrinkles.
Other things to look for in travel clothing fabrics
Many outdoor companies make clothing that does more than simply clothe you. Some garments are treated with insecticides to help protect you from disease-carrying bugs. Others are made with ultraviolet protection to give you an extra barrier against the sun’s rays.
Water-resistant or water-proof clothing is ideal for some situations but unnecessary in others. Though it’s always a good idea to have one quick-dry outfit, if you’re staying somewhere with a washer and dryer, or you often use laundromats, a full wardrobe of quick-drying fabrics might be a lower priority for you.
Pack clothing that works with your planned activities, and know your travel style. The best fabrics for travel clothing pack up small, dry quickly, keep you warm AND cool, and hold up well so your clothing lasts longer.
Join the Her Packing List email community!
Get our latest packing lists, gear deals, and travel news by email.