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Plus Size Suitcase Packing: Big Clothes in Small Luggage

Packing light is hard- and if your clothes are a bit bigger than average, it can feel 10 times more difficult to stay within a one bag travel style, hand luggage weight limits, and carry-on bag dimensions.

As an expert at packing plus size clothing in ultra-compact luggage, today I’m sharing a little bit about what works and what doesn’t work, plus size packing list essentials, tips for creating and packing a plus-size capsule travel wardrobe, and some recommendations for others trying to jump the same hurdle.

Plus size travel capsule wardrobe

Before I set out to live as a digital nomad in South America, I scoured the Internet for (mostly elusive) plus-size travel clothes and carefully built a plus size capsule wardrobe that could fit in my one-bag luggage allowance and keep me comfortable through a variety of climates.

This packing challenge was especially difficult because I knew I was packing for weather ranging from autumn bluster on the islands off the coast of Patagonia to high noon in the Atacama desert, and dozens of microclimates in between.

For Plus Size Packing Success, Invest in Tech clothing

Spending months living out of a carry-on means either lots of small loads of laundry or making handwashing clothes in a sink part of your daily routine.

I tend towards the latter, and with that in mind, I pack mostly clothing made from high-tech materials. Modern synthetics, like those used in athletic clothing, wick sweat, dry fast, and resist odors- all qualities essential for good travel clothing.

While fluffy sweaters and puffy jackets are warm and cozy, they’re difficult to pack- especially in larger sizes. High-tech materials offer the same warmth without taking up as much space in luggage.

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Blend Basics with Statement Pieces in your Plus Size Capsule Wardrobe

I’ve found the secret to living with the same 15 pieces for weeks or months at a time is to mix up classic staples with bolder choices.

My Best Buy: Columbia’s Silver Ridge shirt (SM-3X)- A high-tech take on a basic Chambray, I love the versatility of this piece. It’s a great lightweight layer for warmer climates or areas with bugs and the ultralight tech fabric blocks UV rays and bug bites, without adding much warmth or weight.

This is my go-to top for hot climates like the Atacama Desert. Like many Columbia brand items, I found the sizing of this piece to be a little inconsistent, so if you aren’t able to try it on in stores (which you likely will not be able to, due to the fact that Columbia’s physical stores do not have inclusive sizing) you may want to order multiple sizes and plan to return shirts that do not fit and flatter.

A small carry-on bag with a souvenir blanket on top of a scale at a bus station
In some parts the world, having your luggage weighed in before boarding public transportation is standard. In this photo from the end of one of my trips you can see a large Peruvian souvenir blanket as well as my boots strapped to the exterior of my bag

Leave Jewelry at Home

No matter how long the trip is, I start every international travel adventure with just two items of jewelry: a plain necklace and a modest pair of earrings.

Packing ultralight with jewelry not only helps to fit within my ultralight packing limits, but leaves space for me to purchase handmade jewelry from international markets and artists, which is one of my favorite types of souvenirs.

Pick Dual Use Pajamas

Plus size pajamas can take up a lot of space in luggage, but here’s my secret: a swimsuit!

Wait, no, bear with me…

Years back I bought a two-piece swimsuit with the bottom half of the suit styled as a pair of shorts with a liner (like a fitted version of men’s swimming shorts). I’ve now bought two more swim-short-things for at-home PJ’s. Not only do they pack in a tiny amount of space, but when in use they stretch every-which-way, but never ride up and show more skin that I’m comfortable with. They also dry super fast and if you need a swimsuit, you’ve got a swimsuit.

For a pajama top, I recommend a quick-dry workout tank top- this plus size travel clothing capsule piece can do double duty for exercise, sleeping, layering, or a swimsuit!

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Plus Size Packing: Footwear

When it comes to footwear for a trip that will include both urban landscapes and rugged trails, I pack just two pairs of shoes: Blundstone 500s and Allbirds Sneakers, both of which can be purchased in unisex or men’s sizing without changing the styling- offering a still-feminine option for those of us with wider feet.

Blundstones – If I have my choice, blundstone’s are the shoes that I will die in. These classic boots, made in Australia in a style that’s unchanged for decades are Chelsea boots that can go from the office to the trail without skipping a beat. They are my heaviest clothing item I pack, but are comfortable enough to be worn on flights. During ground travel, the the loop at the back of the boots makes it easy to secure them to the outside of a suitcase- freeing up space inside.

Allbirds – constructed of breathable 100% wool, these sneakers manage to keep my feet toasty in cold climates and not too hot in warmer locations. They do tend to get dirty faster than leather or canvas sneakers, but the heathered gray color sneakers hide dirt well and these sneakers can be tossed in the wash or, as I have done, washed in a hotel sink. Thanks to the wool constructions, these get bonus points for drying within 24 hours.

A pile of backpacks on a curb in south america

Invest in Plus Size Socks

Purchasing sized socks in natural fibers and pairing them with breathable, stretchable shoes has resulted in the dream: weeks of city exploring with no blisters!

When planning a capsule wardrobe for a trip that will require washing cycles, wool socks are the way to go.

After walking holes through too many Smartwool socks to count, the soct section of my plus-size travel capsule wardrobe is now entirely made up totally of Darn Tough socks- which offers more sizes of wool socks with a lifetime guarantee against holes or unraveling. 

Be sure and experiment with sock sizing before your trip. While a switch to wool socks helped reduce blisters on long days exploring a city on foot, when I upgraded to size L women’s socks, my travel blisters all but disappeared even on the longest days.

Since socks are quick to wash in the sink and wool dries overnight, five pairs of socks are plenty for a capsule wardrobe that packs compactly in a small suitcase.

Bonus Item: Turkish Towel

Hands down my best recommendation for traveling solo as a plus size woman is to bring a Turkish towel- many of the Turkish towels on Amazon are now poor quality poly-blend fabrics sold as 100% cotton, but this brand of Turkish towel from Target is the real deal: soft, absorbant 100% cotton.

Without the weight or bulk of a traditional towel, a thin Turkish towel offers more than enough fabric to wrap securely around bodies sized up to 4X. Hotel towels never stand a chance of staying around my body while drying my hair or doing my makeup, but a Turkish towel stays in place and keeps me covered.

They work on the beach and at hotels as a soft stand-in for scratchy towels. I’ve used mine as a towel, blanket, lumbar roll, and as a shawl for mosques and cathedrals where sleeves and long skirts are required (While visiting the Vatican in 100-degree heat, while other sweltered in line in extra layers, I was able to wear shorts until I was at the front of the line- where I simply knotted my Turkish towel over my exposed legs and was permitted entry) When I get my period while traveling, I lay the soft, absorbent towel over my fitted sheet before bed- as an extra layer of protection for clean linens.

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