I love any vacation that gets me up and exploring the natural beauty of a new destination. But whether I’m hiking, biking, kayaking, or simply jogging around a city, active getaways require the right kind of active wear—and some special planning when it comes to packing.
I took on this challenge on a trip to New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a place that begs to be explored off road. My one problem? Packing for all kinds of outdoor activities in every type of climate (from freezing glacier tours to sweltering kayaking adventures) in just a carry-on suitcase.
Things to Pack for an Active Vacation
Here’s how I did it. I think the advice can apply to pretty much any type of active vacation that you’re planning to take on.
A Compression Jacket
Even if the weather is warm when you’re headed out, temperatures are likely to drop down at night, or as you head to higher in altitude. It can be tough to justify packing a warm jacket if you’re not totally sure that you’re going to need it, though.
The Craghoppers Compresslite Packaway Jacket (available for men and women) stuffs down into its built-in carrying pouch and takes up barely any space in your suitcase, so you don’t have to stress over packing it. It’s also super lightweight, yet incredibly warm and wind/water resistant, thanks to its ClimaPlus technology.
A Hat with a Brim
I packed plenty of sunscreen but forgot a hat, and my sunburned scalp is not happy about this. Packing a simple baseball hat without any kind of logo is a good way to prevent yourself as instantly being branded a tourist. I wish I’d brought this plain cap by Sunday Afternoons, which is both sun-protective and moisture-wicking.
A Layering Zip-Up
A good lightweight zip-up doubles as sun protection in the summer, a base layer on freezing days, a jacket, or as protection against a freezing airplane cabin. Instead of taking your ratty old college hoodie, a technical half-zip will be much more versatile.
SCOTTeVEST’s Susie QZip Top is great for female travelers, as it’s specifically cut for women. I love the side smartphone pocket, which keeps your phone tucked away smoothly instead of creating a conspicuous bulge in your front. The Triexta/bamboo fabric blend is soft and breathable, and resists odors, so you can wear it multiple times throughout your adventures. It’s also thin enough that you can easily layer it under jackets or sweaters, yet still pretty warm on its own.
Men—your layering zip-up equivalent is the Tasc Performance Transcend Fleece Jacket. The Tasc Performance feels like a sweatshirt (with a plush fleece interior) but acts like a jacket (keeping you dry with a water-resistant exterior and helping to regulate your temperature). The simple grey color and lack of a hood keeps this polished yet casual, and could be worn on its own or with multiple layers.
If I had a dollar for every pair of sunglasses I’ve broken, snapped, or scratched, I could afford a really nice pair of shades. Invest in a travel-friendly pair that will last you a lifetime (without spending Ray-Ban type dollars) with sunglasses from Maho.
The OceanView polarized lenses are the lightest on the market, but are still anti-fog, scratch/heat/crack/shatter-resistant (thanks to a diamond hardcoat) and 100 percent UV-protective. The light frames are made from a natural cotton-based substance that molds to your head over time, keeping them comfortable and stable. Plus, Maho sunglasses all come with a lifetime warranty in case of disaster.
A Barefoot Running Shoe
Even if you’re not into the whole barefoot running trend, these minimalist shoes can be perfect for travel, especially for non-running activities. I like to pack them if I’m planning low-impact activities like biking, where I want to have closed toe shoes but don’t need traditional bulky running shoes.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 3 is great thanks to its super light weight (about 6 oz.), easy to clean/wash vegan materials, breathable mesh lining, and superb gripping Vibram outsole. Plus, if you get them in the basic black color, you can wear them for walking around town.
A Deceptively Nice-Looking Long Sleeve Shirt
My favorite clothes are the ones that perform like workout gear but look good enough to get you into a nice restaurant. A classy long-sleeve shirt with active-properties is a must-pack—it can work as a base layer for extra warmth, pair with jeans or nice pants for dining out or touring museums, and provides sun protection on hot days.
The Long-Sleeve Workout T-Shirt from Lucy is billed as a workout top, but it looks just like a standard shirt with its scoop neck and classic cut (especially in the evening-appropriate black). It packs beautifully and doesn’t wrinkle or restrict your movement (due to the polyester/spandex/lyocell blend fabric). I wore this more times than I’d like to admit on my trip, and the moisture-wicking properties kept away odor.
For men, Eddie Bauer’s Voyager II Performance Long-Sleeve Polo is an even dressier option, thanks to the collar and classic design. Don’t let the buttons fool you—this shirt stands up to whatever activities you’ll throw at it, as it has UPF protection, odor control, and moisture-wicking (plus a relaxed fit to keep you mobile).
Travel-Friendly Sports Bra
The Handful Sports Bra line is a good choice because it’s wire- and hardware-free, and has flat seams on the inside so it’s comfortable for long flights yet supportive enough for a long run. The Handfuls are also quick-drying and could be used as a swim top in a pinch! The performance wicking lining will keep you cool and dry, and the shape is designed to flatter rather than flatten.
If I could only pick one pair of bottoms to travel with forever, it would be a pair of fleece-lined leggings, specifically these magical leggings from Eddie Bauer that feel like the coziest pajamas you’ve ever owned, but look like a pair of skinny black pants. They’re opaque, so you will never have to worry that they’re see through, and you can wear them as pants or as a base layer under a dress or even under jeans for super cold weather.
I love them as my long-haul flying outfit, and then break them out again for cold morning hikes, since they’re moisture-wicking (and odor-controlling, in case you can’t get to a laundromat in between hiking and flying).
Quick-Drying Shorts and Tank Top
I usually pack a light cover-up dress for when I’m visiting the pool or beach, but for an active vacation a pair of quick-drying shorts and tank top makes way more sense. Wear them over your swim suit while kayaking and you’ll be protected from the sun (but dry off easily when you’re out of the water). Plus, you can reuse a tank top and shorts more times than a dress, for other activities.
I had a long day that included a morning kayak, afternoon swim, and ended with an hour-long hike (and no time to change in between). The Ibex Pulse Runner Short and All Day Tank were the perfect combo layered over a swimsuit.
The Merino Wool fabric is lightweight and dries quickly (don’t think heavy, itchy wool—Merino Wool helps control your temperature in hot weather, prevents odors, and offers natural SPF). The shorts have a perfectly sized zipper pocket for your valuables, and both are wrinkle-resistant and machine-washable.
Waterproof Hiking Shoes
A good, sturdy pair of waterproof hiking shoes will come in handy more than you think on most trips. They’ll work for hiking (even if you have to forge streams or endure rainstorms), walking around the city when your regular sneakers just aren’t cutting it, and keeping you dry when you have to go from water to land.
I’ve had the Vasque Talus Waterproof Shoe for over four years now, and they’re still as good as the day that I got them. I anticipated needing them for hiking, but they also came in handy on my trip for unexpected activities: walking on gravel roads, keeping dry on a glacier boat tour, and staying warm while visiting a Dark Sky Reserve in the middle of a cold night.
Men love the Altitude IV Hiking Boot from Hi-Tec, which are a neutral design that won’t stand out if you’re wearing them with jeans. These are also super warm and fully waterproof, and have a removable contoured insole to keep you comfortable no matter how far you walk. And at just 19.3 oz., they won’t weigh down your suitcase (or your legs) too much, either.
A Performance Short-Sleeve Shirt
Normally I prefer tank tops for hot weather activities, but if your shoulders are sunburned or you’re carrying a backpack, you might want sleeves on even the hottest days. Moisture-wicking is key to avoid unsightly sweat patches. Look for breathable fabrics with built-in odor control.
Eddie Bauer’s active wear line has a ton of great options in their FreeDry material, which is moisture-wicking and has Polygiene odor-control. I love the Women’s Resolution shirt and Men’s Lookout Short Sleeve shirt for their casual design that pairs with anything.
A Tunic That Works as a Dress
You might decide to reward yourself after a hard day of hiking with a nice dinner out. Carbs are essential for that recovery, after all. A sporty tunic that can work with leggings for yoga or weightlifting during the day can be worn alone with nice shoes and jewelry for a dressier evening.
The Savasana Short-Sleeve Tunic by Lucy is a great example—it has a high neckline and longer length to keep everything covered when working out. It’s breathable yet dresses up nicely when worn on its own.
Comfortable (but Stylish) Walking Shoes
Although running shoes and hiking boots are essential for outdoor adventure, you probably don’t want to wear them to a nice restaurant for dinner. Pack something lightweight that won’t kill your feet if you’re walking far in them, but wouldn’t feel like you had to hide under a white clothed table.
For women, I like the Rockport Total Motion Tied Ballet Flat. Unlike most ballet flats which too closely adhere to the “flat” part of their name and offer no support, these have internal cushioning and a midsole plate to help keep your foot secure. Built-in technology from Adidas make these flats feel like sneakers, and the hidden wedge gives you a little lift without sacrificing comfort.
Men should go for the Propet Commuterlite Walking Shoe, which weighs in at a mere 10 oz. per shoe and offers ergonomic support with a fashionable design.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 8 Travel Clothes That Do Double Duty
- What Not To Wear When Traveling (And What To Actually Wear)
- 9 Essential Travel Products for Spring
Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.