What To Pack (In A Carry-On!) For A Multi-Week, Multi-Climate, Multi-Activity Trip

pack in a carry on

How to Pack for a Multi-Week Trip in a Carryon

Disclaimer: This is the packing list that works for me, when I’m in hardcore, multiple month, living-out-of-my-backpack mode. My packing list for a weekend in Vegas would read more along the lines of “small, sparkly things. lipgloss.” You should also know that I’m ridiculously minimal and one of those people who’s willing to wear the same outfit for four days in a row and then wash it with bar soap in a bucket. Soooo, consider yourself warned.

When I’m backpacking, my goals (fashion-wise) are:
a) that you don’t notice that stain
b) that my outfit doesn’t ruin that photo
c) that I’m mistaken for European (there! I said it!)

And I try to accomplish all of this with a wardrobe that’s small enough to carry around on my back. Now, this may not be the most exciting wardrobe ever, but, based on my experience, it works. I’ve used this combination across multiple countries, cultures and climates and it hasn’t steered me wrong!

What to Pack for Multi-Week Trips

Logistical Clothes

These are the not particularly-cool-or-fashionable items that you need to carry, especially if you plan on traveling through cold climates or doing outdoors-y stuff. These things can be quite expensive, but (as per the usual) I found most of mine at thrift stores for just a few bucks.

  1.  Silk long underwear
    Sure, they’re expensive. But they’re also thin (and thus layer-able), light and incredibly effective. Much of the world doesn’t have central heating, so you may even need these if you’re frequenting Ireland in March.
  2.  Those ubiquitous hiker pants
    You know the ones. They’re made of high-tech material, you can make them 47 different lengths and you could use them to walk through a lava flow and emerge unscathed? They are also a big ol badge that screams “I’m a tourist!” But if you’re going to do any jungle exploration, glacier climbing or bush bashing, you probably need a pair. But I only wear mine when I’m engaging in the above activities because I’m totally vain.
  3. Zip-up technical gear coat
    Again, you know these. The ones that cost a million dollars, have 35 zippers and were designed for astronauts. I like ones that zip all the way open (as opposed to half-zips) because it’s easier to warm-up/cool-off without actually removing clothing.
  4. Merino wool socks
    They’re light, they dry quickly and they keep your feet really warm. Done and done.
  5. Nylon windbreaker
    I have a tiny black one that’s actually a boy’s size XL and I love it. It’ll keep you warm and dry, pack up into a tiny ball and if you pair it with the right scarf and jeans, you won’t even look totally ridiculous. I realize it might seem like overkill to bring two coats, but it’s nice to be able to layer them or wear them separately. Of course, if you’re feeling fancy, you could get one of these 2-in-1 coats that zip two layers together.
  6. Fashion Clothes
    For all those travel situations that don’t call for nylon, mesh or pick axes. Personally, I like to stick to cotton/lycra blends because they can go awhile between washes, dry fairly quickly when you do wash them, and don’t look too painfully touristy.

Also, I pretty much exclusively wear black when I travel – that way everything matches and it looks clean longer!

Day to Day Clothing for a Multi-Week Trip

  1. Black cotton/lycra blend dress
    (knee length or longer – preferably covering your shoulders)
    You can dress it up, dress it down, find one at any given Target/TJ Maxx/Goodwill. I’d recommend something knee-ish length because many temples/churches/cultures don’t go in for the miles of exposed leg that we Westerners favor. Also, when in doubt it’s always better to dress a bit more demurely, isn’t it?
  2. Black long sleeved t-shirt
  3. Black tank top
    I know, I know. I’m overwhelming you with all this color, right? But you’ll look classier in black and it won’t show dirt as easily, I promise!
  4. Dress/skirt combo-thing
    You know those elastic-y topped, strapless sundresses? And then you can pull them down and wear the elastic-y bit around your waist? That’s what I’m talking about! They’re super versatile and good for dealing with all those awkward pop-a-squat-no-toilet situations that Southeast Asia is always presenting. Yes, really.
  5. Black thin, zip-up hoodie
    Not your giant Hanes hoodie, but something a bit thinner and more sophisticated. You can wear it as a coat when you don’t want to rock the nylon windbreaker or layer it with the windbreaker when it gets cold.
  6. 2 or 3 patterned sarongs
    Sarongs are every traveler’s best friend (it’s a dress! it’s a towel! it’s a water filter!) so you can use them all the time. I like to wear mine as a scarf to dress up my black outfits, so I’d recommend getting a few in patterns that your really love. And no, not that tie-dyed lizard pattern.
  7. Black ballet flats
    They’re always classy and should be quite comfortable. I love the ClarksBorn, or Me, too brands. Yes, they are spendy and no, you shouldn’t just get a pair from Goodwill or Target. I know you wouldn’t want to spend $2,000 on a ticket to Japan and then spend most of your time there with blisters and an aching back because you’re wearing $12 shoes, right? Riiiight?
  8. Good flip flops
    There is such a thing, I swear! I always opt for flip flip style sandals over the strappy sport sandal version because, as we’ve established, I’m vain. A high quality pair of flip flops can run you $50, but you can wear them every day of your trip, they’ll support your back and I’ve even hiked in mine! I love my Chacos. They’re so innocuous you can even wear them in your daily, non-travel life.
  9. Black Adidas (or any non-white athletic shoe)
    I will certainly be evicted from the Society of Serious Backpackers for saying this buuuut, you don’t need to bring hiking boots with you. Really. I’ve hiked Vietnam, Peru, Greece and Bolivia in a pair of black Adidas shelltoes. They weigh one-third of what hiking boots weigh and you can actually wear them around the city without looking totally ridiculous.
  10. Dark wash jeans
    They’re dressier than a light-wash pair and they won’t show dirt. I’d opt for a pair that is not skin tight, so you can layer your long johns underneath if need be.
  11. 1 or 2 other solid color tops that match your sarongs
    Mixing and matching, you clever thing you!
  12. 7 pairs of underwear
    This is where I gross you out by recommending that you get used to hand-washing your underwear in a sink. Yes. Sure, it’s a little yucko but 90% of the time when you travel, your laundry is going to be hand washed – either by you or by the tiny grandmother who runs your hostel. So you might as save the money and keep your panties to yourself. I’d also recommend non-cotton underwear as they air-dry much, much faster.
  13. 5 pairs of socks
  14. Black leggings
    Layer then under skirts and dresses or even under your jeans if the long johns are dirty or too warm

Non-clothing stuff to pack

Since you’re only bring a few carefully edited pieces of clothing, you’ll have heaps of space for other important things, right?

  1. Money belt
    Sure, it’s a little embarrassing when you appear to be rummaging around in your groin to find your passport. But these really do keep your money and documents safe. I like this method heaps better than those awful around-the-neck numbers. Just be sure to actually tuck it into your pants, for the love of Pete. I’ve seen a shocking number of tourists attempt to use these as fanny packs. No. Fail.
  2. Packing cubes
    Ohhhh, these are fantastic. They will save you approximately three years of time in repacking your backpack every time you have to pull your jeans out of the bottom. If you want to get all Virgo about it, you can get different colored ones for different items – red for bottoms, blue for socks/underwear/bras and yellow for tops.
  3. Shampoo bar
    Doesn’t weigh much, lasts forever, won’t spill and gives you sexy beach hair. Win!
  4. Lotion bar
    See above.
  5. Tinted moisturizer with spf
    I don’t know about you, but two days into any trip I usually abandon any attempts at makeup and just start wearing sunscreen and chapstick. But with tinted sunscreen, at least I’m kind of faking it.
  6. Tinted chapstick
    Because I’m 11 on the inside, I have a deep and abiding love for Lipsmacker’s Dr. Pepper chapstick. But mileage may vary, so find something that works for you.
  7. Really good smelling deodorant/solid perfume
    There’s not point in wasting your spendy perfume on gaseous llamas or lascivious teenage Peruvian boys, but one doesn’t really enjoy stinking. I like to get a solid version of my favorite perfume or some really, really yummy deodorant.
  8. Bar of laundry soap
    You know, for all that hand-washing of underwear you’re going to do
  9. Messenger bag
    You’ll need a day bag to take around the city, but backpacks are easy targets for theives and fanny packs are douche-y. A messenger bag can be tucked under your arm or worn in the front without creating too much of a “I’m nervous that you’re going to rob me” vibe.
  10. Sanity pack
    Inflatable pillow! Ear-plugs! Sleeping pills (though I’d only use these on overnight flights or overnight bus rides in safe areas) Motion sickness pills! Ibuprofen! Copies of all your documents and cards! An extra camera battery! An extra memory card! A Swiss army knife! Mace! Playing cards!
Whew! My goodness – what a list. What are do you always pack when you travel?
P.S. If you want to quit your job and travel for months at a time – I wrote this for you. And if you’re a woman who wants to travel by herself – I wrote this for you.
Related: Airbnb is always an affordable option and if you’ve never used it before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!

49 Comments

Kate @ Très Lola

This post is super excellent. Found myself nodding along the entire way! My tip? One you clearly already adhere to 😀 But I'll say it anyhow, go with a backpack, have seen so many chicks try and haul a wheely case in the most inappropriate of places. & I love my lucas paw paw, it's moisturiser, good for dry skin, use as a lipgloss/chapstick & a whole ton of stuff. It's pretty fab. Dry shampoo can be useful too, depending on the trip you're takin'.

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Corinne

Great post! Even though I'm finishing up 5 months (2 days left!) of study abroad & I'm pretty damn sick of traveling, this made me itch for adventure. I would also include (in the sanity pack) hand sanitizer – for those pee-squatting times you're talking about. 🙂

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Tarryn

Awesome post! On the perfume topic, Im a firm believer in aromatherapy! Im all about light citrusy smelling spritzer stuff if you are going to a really hot climate-makes you feel cool and fresh, and musky solid perfume if you are going somewhere cold, to make you feel warm and sultry!

I also pack LOADS of hair ties. very important- especially if you have long hair! wind ftl. plus, if you tie your hair up in a messy bun when its damp, it gets lovely curls!

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Helena

I am not good with the sort of travelling that requires you to live out of a backpack. I'm a house-cat, me.

Having said that, don't forget your notebook/sketchbook/scrapbook!

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Ilde Roos

Great list… although I would NOT suggest non-cotton undies.

Thing is, when you're out and about walking and sweating and all that, it gets…er…humid down there, which could cause infections and itchy bits. The last thing you want is an itchy bottom while you're trying to enjoy your adventure.

I'd rather then wait a bit longer for my cottons to dry!

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Sarah

Packing light is always my mission in life! Space saver bags are my best friend when I travel. Saves A TON of space. Also for long abroad trips, pack things you can toss when you're done ( old towel, your undies) then you have more room in your bag to bring home that souvenir you just had to have. I want to travel now…

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amandalee

I second Sarah's comment about tossable items – wash cloths, underpants, socks. I'm pretty sure I threw away my undies in Japan so I could bring home the clothes I'd bought. 😉

The one packing advice quote that's stuck with me goes something like this: "Would you rather be the crazy girl that drags five suitcases across Europe, or the girl who looks great wearing the same two dresses every night?" I take it to heart.

Great post!

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alli

Great post!
I'm a sucker for labello chapstick in strawberry, since it has a tint to it.
Also I always bring a sturdy journal (moleskin, anyone?) some headbands to dress up outfits and mask the lazy hair days, and some pictures of my family or friends. For the lonely days or show and tell!

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cara

I totally agree with you about the flip-flops. They are so much more versatile than most other shoes – if you get a good pair you can walk round cities, go hiking and go out in the evening in them. I swear by fitflops – they even make my posture better so I don't get that achy lower back feeling when i'm wandering round museums.
My other packing essential is ziplock bags – keeps things dry, stops leaking bottles spreading everywhere and can be used to seal up your wet/stinky clothes to stop them contaminating everything else until you have time to wash them out!
Great post, has given me itchy feet….!

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Kat

Great list though I shuddered with horror at the thought of hiker pants! With the weird elasticated waste? And plastic buckle belt?! And ability to make your thighs look four times their actual size?! I've always found a pair of slimline combats (or cargo pants? I don't know what you call them over in the States) work just as well and are marginally more stylish.

Though I feel very much love for packing cubes too. I'd like to shake whoever thought them up by the hand.

Kat

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Hip Hip Gin Gin

I second the ziplock bags. Greatest invention ever, I use them so much when traveling every suitcase has about 5-6 still in there.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned, if you have any recurring ailments go to your doc and fill a prescription to take with you just in case.
For example my mom has skin allergies and you know a rash will pop up when you least want it, you may get one of those crazy migraines you haven't had in months, or good god a UTI.

Because depending on where you are when it happens, do you really want to be trying to find a doc/gyno?

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Karolina aka KJTR

nice post. But what's so horrible about handwashing your undies while travelling? Isn't it an obvious thing to do? Speaking of personal hygine – a must on long trips (or any trips): pantyliners. I don't think I need to say more;)

PS – Being actually European I do not understand why Americans want to be taken for European all the time…What's wrong with being American? And living in a popular turist destination I can tell you that you can always tell when you see Americans who pretend to be European, and they don't have to open their mouth. If you're American travelling in Europe don't be ashamed! If you're yourself Europeans will think:"what a nice American! I wish in my country I could have Gap/Target/Old Navy/peacans in evry mall!". If you're pretend what you're not, every one'll think:"Oh, no…Another American who thinks that wearing a scarf will make her look French!";)
Karolina

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Mandy

This=AWESOME! The only thing I'd add is a journal or at least a notebook to write down directions, train times, etc. I'm a huge travel journaler, but I know not everyone is, and it takes up some space. And never forget your shower shoes! I forgot them when I was in Hungary during early April. They were impossible to buy there, and of course I ended up with athletes' foot from the Turkish baths (which were otherwise amazing and everyone should visit). Oh, I also had to RENT a swimsuit when I was there…so you may want to bring one of those if there's a chance you're going to be in a situation where you may need one. Rented swimsuits are definitely not so nice.

Also, I'm a study abroad advisor, so I may just share parts of this list with my students going abroad this summer, if that's ok with you. I think it would really help some first time travelers!

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Meghan

Baby powder makes my list. It can be used as dry shampoo, deodorant, rash soother, and prevents chafing which is key if you're wandering around somewhere hot.

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Corinne

Thanks for the great tips. I can't even explain how much I love packing cubes; I can pull everything out of my backpack, find exactly what I want tucked away in its particular cube, then get it all in the backpack again with no trouble. When you carry everything on your back, it feels great to have it organized.
A good toiletry bag — preferably one that you can hang up — with lots of pockets and zippers makes a trip to the grottiest hostel shower better. Oh, and you need a super-thin, quick-drying travel towel.
Last but not least: if you think you "might need" something that has only one use, YOU DON'T NEED IT! Do you really want to lug around an umbrella on the off chance it might rain? Take a coat or hat instead because it will serve you when it's wet/sunny/cold/snowing… Honestly, most things in the "might need" category can be bought cheaply and easily should they become necessary.
Sorry for the long comment — one more year until I'm travelling again! Excited much? 🙂

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A.T.

Ahhh those packing cubes are brilliant, thanks for the suggestion – I'm finishing up here in Korea and traveling around for a bit so I'll definitely put this list to good use!

p.s. 'definative' is not a word, womp womp!

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Sarah Von Bargen

Ahhh! 'Definitive'! Blogger, why don't you spell check my titles?!

P.S. I realize you might expect an English teacher to be a better speller. I'm totes bad. So there. 😉

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Kate

This list makes me wish I was leaving on a trip like 10 seconds from now! Totally with you on all the black clothes and colorful scarves!

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E

I love this list, I backpacked for 3 months around Africa and Thailand with only carry on luggage. It can be done girls! I second hand washing underwear, I took cotton because quite frankly, polyester doesn't cut it in 45 degree heat!

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jess

this list is soooo fantastic, but I gotta pimp out one company their their awesome clothing –

Glowing Sky. I have to assume that since you spent some time in NZ you're aware of them? They make awesomely thin Merino wool shirts/hoodies/etc that are MACHINE WASHABLE and never fall apart and are ALWAYS warm. AND they are online now too.

And I think it is safe to say that all "Sanity Packs" need to include at least 1 package of Imodium AD (yeah!) and perhaps some tums or pepto bismol tablets.

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Eileen

I always pack a chocolate bar. And not one of those lame Hershey's bars, something like Cadbury or some crazy artisan chocolate from the health food store. (Or Ritter Sport!) It's a great pick me up on that 7 hour layover or the time you wake up AGAIN because of the squalling child two rows back!

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George

With the jacket, it's important to realise that you can actually buy one in a colour that doesn't look ridiculous. It also need not look like you decided to wear a tent. I forgot this the first time I bought one.

Now I have one in charcoal with a dark red offset in the lining, and a great cut and I can wear it over a smart shirt and pants on those days when it's blowing 100 and sleeting. Or give it to a woman accompanying me wearing something stunning but with no capability to keep warm…

Also, if you live in, or visit New Zealand, I'd recommend possum wool socks. (They're an invasive animal that eats and kills all the plants and wildlife, so you're being green when you buy these).

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Lovers, Saints and Sailors

What a super comprehensive list. Nice.

If you're going on a less trekky, climbing type trip and more of the exploring galleries and malls in the industrialised world I would add that more often than not you'll pack more clothes than you really need. If in doubt, don't. It will take up valuable space and if you find that you really did need another pair of jeans chances are you'll love the opportunity to shop for them in this awesome new land. And every time you wear them you'll think of your trip.

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eleanor

Great list. I second all of the above, and would add a quick-drying (shammy?) towel. I always hate mine after I get back from a long trip, but they're great for when you want to pack your bag and go within a few hours of showering. No wet towel soaking through your backpack!
Also, I always splurge on some good moisturizer and face wash before leaving, it helps me feel more zen about less than spa-like hostel bathrooms.

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Aury

Great list! My sanity pack that must follow me everywhere but especially on plane trips includes:

ibruprofen, tylenol, a sleeping mask, ear plugs, really good lipbalm, small hand moisturiser, robb inhaler (fantastic for stuffy noses and those who suffer from air pressure ear pains/ headaches) and gum. Btw, have you gotten my guest post yet?

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dee

They still make Lipsmacker's Dr.
Pepper chapstick?!?! I LOVE that stuff! I must go in search of some now…

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Nate B

Sarah: Great list! Thanks! You're the best!

Eleanor: I second the quick drying travel-towel! Those things are money.

My addition: DUCT TAPE!

In a bind, you can fix pretty much anything with duct tape. Heck, I've even made a knight in shining armor costume with a roll and some cardboard (no joke!).

PS- don't buy the 2 mile long roll from Home Depot…it's heavy as hell and (unless your trip is much better than mine) you're not gonna be making armor for an army of cardboard knights. A small roll will do.

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Anonymous

Natural fabric underpants are definitely best: breathable, cool and healthy. Instead of cotton ;you could buy silk underpants. They are lighter and dry faster after washing than cotton does. I took 3 pair on a 2 week trip to Maui and washed them nightly. They were so cool & comfortable and did not ride up. Felt like wearing nothing.

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kari c.

My sanity pack HAS to include something to read. I know tons of people carry around ipads and other e-readers for that now, but I am old school, and hate to bring excess power cords (especially when in foreign countries where the power outlets are different). Plus, if you finish your book(s) while traveling, you can drop the weight and leave them for someone else (a new friend, a fellow hostel traveler) to enjoy.

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Anonymous

I'm an avid backpacker (like, actual backcountry backpacking with no roads or buildings or toilets) and have been trying to come up with the ideal underwear system for years! So far the best i have come up with is 2 pairs of synthetic or merino undies (you could definitely increase that number depending on packing space) and one pair of cotton ones. I like the patagonia brand synthetic bikinis — spendy but dry so fast and last forever. Merino — also a bit spendy and less durable — can get a bit itchy in hot climates, but it resists odor better than the synthetics. I keep the cotton ones as "sacred panties" that I wear only at night to let things air out. It's also nice, if traveling in a wet, cold environment, to have a pair of "sacred socks" — dry socks that you only put on when you're ready to turn in for the night. When your feet are wet for 12+ hours a day, a nice dry pair of socks is sooo wonderful. I also like to pack a few bandanas or hankies. They're multi-use — hair tie, napkin, snot rag, wash cloth, towel, bandage, etc. — and can be washed out and dried really quickly.

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lucia

Hello! I am OBSESSED with travelling light! I only bring one carry on bag for 3 week tours of Europe. It feels so good to know that your luggage will not get lost- I sleep so much better on the plane! My carry on is a wheelie, but it also turns into a backpack- I really love it! Also a cool new thing for scrubbing your clothes that I just heard about is the 'scrubba'- its a wash bag and really teeny! I also love a brand of shoes- named Native- that are all foamy rubber stuff, but look like sneakers( like converse or keds). They are SO LIGHT and have SO much cushioning and support and are totally waterproof!! happy travels!

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Rachel Linaker

A friend has just recommended your blog as I'm jetting off for my first solo travel experience on the 15th November, 3 weeks in Thailand, 3 days in Kuala Lumpa and Singapore (with flight in the middle) then a flight to Perth for 11 months (and a few days) in Australia (since my flight ticket is only valid for the year – boo). Love this list, love this blog!

Rachel, xo
[catch the trade winds]

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Anonymous

"If you want to get all Virgo about it" -love this, as a fellow Virgo

My favorite travel item is my American Apparel circle scarf. Scarf, blanket, pillow, shawl, towel, skirt, hood and much more all in one:)

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Anonymous

I have gone on a few long term trips (2 months SEA; 4 months West Africa; 5 months India) and I always end up regretting what I have packed (feeling too touristy, too covered up, or not covered up enough). My next big trip with be a month in Indonesia, and I have read that black is not regarded as the most respectful colour for a woman to wear during the day. Do you think this is true? Would you still recommend wearing black in the heat of the day-time? I love the idea of bringing lots of blacks and navy coloured clothing (doesn't show stains, or sweat, or clash with the other items in my bag) but I'm worried that I will regret it once I'm there. Thoughts?

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Sarah Von Bargen

Hi Anon,
I'm spent years (literally) in SE Asia but I've never been to Indonesia, so I can't speak to this specifically. I can tell you that I've worn black tank tops and sundresses in tropical climates and been fine.

Also – I'd do some in depth Googling about wearing black – check out the 'society and culture' sections of the guidebooks. The other thing that I always try to remember is that I'm visibly, obviously not from China/India/Greece … as long as I'm covering all the right stuff, the locals are usually pretty forgiving of the inevitable cultural gaffes 😉

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