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Does your travel capsule have a core? Most one-bag travelers know that creating a capsule wardrobe is key to having the right clothing for a trip.  What many don’t know is that there are certain clothing items within the capsule that are the very foundation of a travel wardrobe.  Get them right and your capsule can handle any activity and any temperature.  Get them wrong and you will need extra clothing for your trip.    I call these foundational items the travel capsule core.  You will see these items in every one of my clothing capsules. I can travel with just the core and have all the clothing I need for a trip.  I also build off of the capsule core to create a full wardrobe.

The travel capsule wardrobe core

The travel capsule core consists of a few clothing items that work for any activity and temperature.  These items are selected because of their versatility and function.  The other travel capsule pieces work with the core items to provide a greater variety of travel outfits.  They add interest to the wardrobe but do not provide any added functionality.  The core items act as a minimalist travel wardrobe all by themselves.  A traveler could bring just these pieces and they would have enough clothing for any activity on the trip.

Do you always need a capsule core?  Maybe, maybe not.  A capsule core is most needed when your trip has a wide range of activities, such as adventure travel and formal events.  It also is important if you travel for longer periods of time.  Long term travel usually means that you’ll participate in different activities and endure different temperatures.  The core becomes extremely important if your trip has weight limitations, as you’ll need to do more with less clothing.

I always take a capsule core. I’m usually participating in outdoors activities and dress up activities in the same trip.  Let’s take a closer look at the core items and why they work so well for travel.

Features of the travel capsule wardrobe core

The core items have the following characteristics:

  • They are mostly neutral in color.  People don’t remember neutrals, which means that they won’t remember that you wore the same clothing just two days earlier.  The pieces also match whatever else you are wearing.  Neutrals refocus attention on your accessories just like a piece of black velvet sets off a beautiful gemstone.  Swap out the accessories and people think you have a whole new outfit.
  • The core pieces are easy maintenance.  They form the basis of your wardrobe so you will wash them and wear them over and over.  The best materials are light, wrinkle free, and quick drying.
  • The core items are high quality and robust. These pieces will get a lot of wear during the trip. You don’t want them to pill, tear, or sag.
  • The best core items work in extreme conditions.  They are cool when it is hot, warm when it is cold, and moisture wicking. I’ve found that silk, merino wool, and nylon blends work best for core items.
  • They fit your lifestyle.  Active travelers should focus on clothing items that work for sports and will also work in town.  Less active travelers should focus on easy maintenance, but don’t need to be as concerned over thermal or moisture wicking properties.

Pieces of the capsule wardrobe core

The travel capsule core consists of the basic clothing items described below.  Lets take a peek at the characteristics of each item.

Capsule wardrobe core This capsule core is an ultra-light minimalist wardrobe that can handle most activities and temperatures.

A light weight long-sleeved shirt

A long sleeve shirt is a double duty item.  It protects you from sun exposure when it is hot and keeps you warm in cold weather.  It protects you from mosquitos and provides modesty when needed.  The shirt should be light weight and breathable so you can wear it when it is warm.  I suggest a button down shirt because it provides multiple style options.  You can wear it open like a jacket over other garments or wear it underneath a sweater or tee shirt.  I find that roll up tab sleeves give the shirt added flexibility when it gets warmer.  You have the option to wear it as a long sleeve or short sleeve garment. When it gets colder I wear a silk top or base layer under the shirt for warmth.

Light weight pants

I always bring at least one pair of light pants when I travel.  You never know if a storm front will blow in and the temperature will drop. Long pants also protect you from sun exposure, mosquitos, and cold airplanes! I prefer pants made of a light weight technical fabric. I also look for pants with roll up legs, so I can style them as capris.  Pencil pants made of stretchy material will still roll up into capri length. When it gets colder I add leggings underneath the pants.

A sweater or jacket

A good sweater is light weight and maintains its warmth even when wet.  Look for sweaters in synthetic material or merino wool.  The best sweaters are thin enough to layer with other clothing items.  I prefer the cardigan style, as I can wear it open or closed depending on the temperature. My favorite sweaters have a close weave so that they give complete coverage when worn by themselves.  I can wear the sweater alone as a very luxurious top.  Pin an open cardigan closed and belt it for an alternate top.

A dress item

I always bring a dress up item when I travel.  You never know if you’ll be invited to a Broadway show, a wedding, or a funeral (I’ve had all 3 happen). A light knit dress is always comfortable.  A two piece dress gives more style options.  You can wear the pieces together as a “dress” or separately with other wardrobe items.  Bring a pretty top if you travel only with pants.

Walking shoes

Good walking shoes are critical for a fun trip.  Many people assume that comfortable shoes are ugly.  It isn’t true! Many cute styles exist.  I prefer Euro style shoes as my main walking shoe.  They are sporty looking but have enough style to wear in the city.  All of my walking shoes fit securely on my feet and have a great tread.  They are either waterproof or washable so I can wear them trail hiking. In the winter I will take waterproof ankle or knee high boots.

Dress shoes

Traveling with one pair of shoes is difficult if you like to wear dresses.  I like to have fancy shoes for nicer occasions. I usually carry a light pair of dress shoes that are good for walking medium to long distances. I may want to spend all day dressed up. That means my dress shoes are just as comfortable as my walking shoes. I prefer light weight pointy toe ballet flats with a rubberized sole.  The thicker sole is important for foot comfort, especially if you are wearing the shoes for several hours. In mid-summer I will substitute good sandals for the ballet flats.  In the winter I will use a pair of nice ankle boots with rubber soles.

A scarf

A scarf is more than a fashion accessory.  I use it for warmth on cold airplanes, to seal the opening of my jacket on a windy day, and as a shawl when I dress up. I usually choose a soft large scarf for my travels.  I can tie it into different configurations.  I can even create a pencil skirt for additional wardrobe options.

A packable rain jacket

Any reader of this blog knows that I’m a bit of a fanatic about rain jackets. I’ve encountered bad weather too many times on my trips and I’m not about to sit inside my hotel room waiting it out! A cute rain jacket provides environmental protection in both the city and the country.  My favorite jackets are waterproof, with sealed seams.  They have no lining so you can pack them down, roll them up, and store them in your day bag as needed.

A good day bag

I usually bring along a packable purse that I can use to store my daily needs.  A good day bag should have enough room for a water bottle, a rain jacket, a sweater, and some snacks.

Add extenders for thermal control

The capsule core is “good enough” for most travel conditions. On some occasions you may need to add in a few extender pieces to accommodate special activities or a wider range of temperatures. This includes swim wear for summer months and thermal wear for cooler temperatures. Adding these items to the core ensures that your wardrobe can handle hot beaches to cold snowy mountain tops. Sometimes the weather changes unexpectedly, and these items are great to have in your suitcase.

Casule Wardrobe Core temperature extenders Adding these key items to the travel capsule wardrobe extend its usefulness for a wider range of temperatures


Swim Gear

A tiny swim suit is your lightest option, although it usually isn’t secure enough for athletic activities.  I prefer dual purpose swim wear.  A full coverage tankini can double as a slinky top for dress occasions.  A long sleeve rash guard can stand in as an extra shirt.  Swim leggings perform triple duty as swim wear, leggings, and a thermal layer under pants.

Light Weight Sandals

Many times I will take ultra light weight sandals as a third shoe option. They are lighter than flip flops but look nice enough to wear with dresses.  Sandals made out of synthetic material work well as shower shoes, beach wear, or dress wear.

A thermal singlet

A light weight singlet like my Uniqlo Airism top performs multiple tasks.  I can wear it as a modesty layer under sheer tops, as a guard against sweat in the heat, or as an additional thermal layer  when it gets cold.  These tops are very thin and dry quickly when washed.

A thermal top

A thermal top makes all the difference in cold weather. I prefer a T-zip top as I can open the zipper up for ventilation if needed.  The best tops are thin so you can wear them under street clothes.  They should also be moisture wicking for athletic activities.  For business trips I will use a silk filament weight long john top instead of a T-zip top.  The filament weight silk is undetectable under street wear.

Thermal bottom

Pants alone aren’t enough when it is cold. A second thermal layer is needed to cut the wind.  I like swim tights as my multipurpose thermal bottom. If you don’t bring swim leggings then choose a good pair of synthetic or wool leggings. Don’t skimp in this area.  Cheap leggings bind and chafe.

Hat and Gloves

I always bring a light hat and gloves on shoulder season and extended trips.  They make a huge difference in heat retention, especially in damp weather.

Puff Jacket

A puff jacket is one of the secret weapons of multi-season travel.  My favorite is the Patagonia nano-puff jacket.  It has a synthetic filling and packs down very small.  I prefer synthetic fill as it is machine washable.  It also dries faster than down if it gets wet.  A puff jacket, combined with sweater and rain jacket, will handle most cold weather.  Add in a base layer if you’ll be outside all day.

Want variety? Add in a few extra pieces

Most people like variety in their wardrobe.  You may want to add in a few (and I mean very few) items to give you more outfits. I add the following items to my wardrobe to give myself more clothing options.

Capsule wardrobe variety pieces Add a few pieces to the capsule core for variety.


A nice T-shirt

The T-shirt enhances the athletic/casual side of the capsule wardrobe.  Wear the tee with a sweater, under a shirt, or as a single layer.  Wear it with leggings for workouts. Make sure your T-shirt has a good cut so it doesn’t look sloppy.

A second dressy top

The dressy top adds options to the formal part of the wardrobe just like the tee shirt adds to the athletic part of the capsule.  A tunic is a nice choice as you can wear it with leggings or use it as a swim cover.

The wild card Item

Take any item you want, as long as it coordinates with the rest of the wardrobe.

An extra sweater

You may not need an extra sweater on your trip.  I usually bring a second sweater during shoulder season and winter travel.  I don’t want to look like I’m wearing the same sweater every day. I usually choose a brighter color for my second sweater.

A second pair of pants

Most people bring extra pants when they travel.   I usually bring jeans for domestic trips.  I’ll stick to travel pants for longer trips.

Pulling it all together

The capsule wardrobe core will handle most of your needs for ultra-light travel.  Use it as a base if you want a full travel capsule.  Pull in a few extender pieces for long term or multi-season travel.  Add in a few well chosen clothing items for variety  The picture below shows a full capsule based on the capsule wardrobe core.  You could travel forever with just this clothing and have plenty of outfits for any season.

Think about creating a capsule core the next time you plan your travel outfits.  You’ll be ready for any activity at any temperature!

The complete capsule This is the complete capsule wardrobe, minus underwear and socks. You can travel for any length of time and handle any temperature using just these pieces!