Someone once blamed Apple for suffering from “design anemia,” a condition that compels the company to make every product thinner, lighter, and smaller at the possible expense of usability. Modern travelers could suffer the same affliction in the form of “packing anemia.” We’ll admit it: We do. Many of us are so fixated on going carry-on only that it’s become an obsession beyond the point of just saving money on baggage fees.
Imagine packing just two of everything — two undershirts, two pairs of underwear, two dress shirts, two pairs of socks — then layering your apparel as necessary.
Why shouldn’t we be? The same ingenuity that makes our smartphones, Roombas, and portable espresso machines harder, better, faster, stronger has also made our clothing better, durable, more versatile. It seems a handful of companies may have found the secret sauce for creating near-perfect travel apparel that lasts longer and requires little to no laundering. Ads for these brands tout some variation of “Hack your travel with this amazing clothing that can be worn for weeks without washing!” Usually with lots of exclamation points and pictures of chisel-jawed men stepping out of a cab in Rome.
But how? By blending traditional fibers like cotton with more premium materials like Merino wool — sometimes a dash of precious metals — high-tech clothing is comfortable, quick-drying, odor-resistant, and infinitely wearable. For travelers, this opens up a brave new world of ultra-light packing possibilities. Imagine packing just two of everything — two undershirts, two pairs of underwear, two dress shirts, two pairs of socks, etc. — then layering your apparel as necessary.
It sounds great in theory, but does it work? The short answer is: Yes, it absolutely does. We spent more than two weeks testing the products below in the high-noon heat, surprising night-time cold, and (even more surprising) rains of the Israeli desert. Here’s what we found.
Base Layer: Unbound Merino
Unbound Merino is everywhere these days or, at least, their ads are. If Facebook hasn’t yet convinced you to buy their products, just wait. The company bills its Merino apparel as nothing short of “miracle wear” that can be worn for weeks without washing. Indeed, 100-percent Merino wool is a near-perfect fabric for active travelers as it’s exceptionally soft, naturally antibacterial, and odor-resistant. Plus, it’s wrinkle-resistant and dries fast, which is great for on-the-go laundering.
The traveler’s take: We found Unbound Merino’s clothing best for close-to-skin wear. The crew neck T-shirt, in particular, was a favorite base layer of ours — so much so that we wore ours for 12 straight days, taking it off only for our morning shower. Only once we neared the two-week mark did it start to smell “less fresh.” It never quite stunk but, like the clothes in your “maybe I can wear this again without washing it” pile, there was a general sense that it needed a freshening up.
- Versatile, minimal styling
- Super soft Merino fabric
- Lightweight, but warm
- Naturally antibacterial
- Bulletproof odor-resistance lasts for weeks
- Priced well for premium merino wool
- Delicate fabric requires a precise laundering routine (only hang dry)
- Can stain with harsh antiperspirants/deodorants
Our pick: Theincludes one long-sleeved shirt and one T-shirt (crew neck or V-neck), both available in a variety of colors. It’s Unbound Merino’s most versatile multi-pack for travelers as the shirts can be layered for warmth or worn individually in warmer weather. Minimalist travelers could easily pack only these two shirts along with a sweater or pullover and feel prepared for all but the coldest climates.
Outer Shirts: Ably Apparel
Ably Apparel bills its apparel as “WhateverProof” because it’s designed to repel any liquid. Seriously: wine, salsa, bourbon, Yoohoo — whatever delicious treats typically end up more on your clothing than in your mouth — they all slide off the fabric like a magic trick. That might sound like pure marketing hype, but it absolutely works.
The wizardry behind their apparel is a proprietary Filium coating, “an eco-friendly technology that makes any natural fabric repel liquid and resist odor without sacrificing softness or breathability.” To state the obvious: This is a dream for travelers. Because virtually nothing soaks into the so-called “hydrophobic” fabric, it dries fast, resists stains, and fights odors. That same coating also ensures that it repels many of the microbes found in sweat so it’ll stay fresh for weeks.
The traveler’s take: In short, Ably’s clothing works exactly as advertised and we highly recommend them. The ultra-repellant coating has one interesting side effect the website fails to mention, however. Because Ably’s shirts are virtually impenetrable to liquid, they don’t absorb sweat like typical shirts. In hot and/or very active situations — at the gym, backcountry hiking, on safari in Africa — your sweat will have nothing to cling to. In my experience, it beaded off my skin, away from the shirt, and straight to the top of my pants. In most daily situations, however, this isn’t an issue.
- Works as advertised to repel dirt, liquids, and stains
- Lightweight and breathable
- Extensive catalog with a great variety of products
- Can be machine-dried
- Free shipping on orders $35-plus (which is most orders)
- Not quite as comfortable as premium merino
- Fabric repels sweat a little too well
Our pick: Ably’s best selling point is its ability to resist stains. If you’re going to buy just one of their products, make it a top layer (versus, say, socks or a base-layer shirt). Theoffers neat, timeless styling that’s versatile enough for the trail, urban sightseeing, or a candlelit dinner.
Underwear: Organic Basics
For next-level basic wear (that would be T-shirts, underwear, and socks), we looked to Organic Basics. The Copenhagen brand makes straightforward apparel in a handful of solid colors. Three flavors of fabric are on offer: Organic Cotton, SilverTech Active, and SilverTech Everyday. The Organic Cotton line is a solid eco-friendly choice as it uses only organic materials and dyes. However, we opted for the SilverTech Everyday Boxers. They take the company’s entry-level cotton briefs and add real, sustainable silver threading to the process (an 84 percent cotton, 12 percent silver blend to be exact) to make them antibacterial and odor-resistant.
The traveler’s take: The thought of wearing “metal-lined underpants” doesn’t sound appealing, but you’d never know these were lined with silver. We found the tagless men’s boxers to be buttery soft straight out of the package and even more so after washing. Because they’re crafted from traditional cotton, they wear and feel like traditional cotton. However, the silver fibers make a noticeable difference for the better. Even amid an active itinerary of desert hiking, city exploring, and trekking around the Dead Sea, we got four days of wear out of them and probably could’ve eeked out a fifth. Only then did we have to tap out and toss them in the dirty laundry pile. Organic Basics suggests airing them out at night to maximize their day-to-day freshness. So, if you also like to air out your junk by sleeping in the buff, you could kill two birds with one stone.
- Buttery soft, 100-percent organic cotton
- Excellent odor control
- Uses premium silver thread instead of potentially toxic nanoparticles
- Sustainable, fair trade business practices
- Fits snugger than their size guide would indicate
- Takes longer to dry than other premium quick-wicking fabrics
Our pick: Theis a solid bet from Organic Basics. At more than $30 per pair, it’s easy to balk at the price tag. However, minimalist travelers could easily pack just these two pairs of skivvies and be set for indefinite travel.
Socks: MP Magic Socks
It’s easy to think, “socks are socks are socks.” But adventure travelers and anyone who spends considerable time outdoors will tell you that you should always take care of your feet. Which is to say, it’s worth it to spend a little more on good socks. Like every brand on this list, MP Magic Socks promises a virtually wash-free, odor-free, bacteria-free wearing experience. The company is a bit vague on how this is achieved, however, noting only that their socks are infused with silver, zinc, and copper.
The traveler’s take: Our MP Magic Socks delivered solidly on most fronts: They’re soft, lightweight (so thin, in fact, that it’s easy to forget you’re wearing them), extremely comfortable, and quick-wicking. While we’re happy with them overall, the reality of the company’s promise of a wash-free sock Xanadu was a bit overblown. In our real-world test, we were able to score two to three days of wear before they needed a wash. Still, even at that rate, we were able to wash our socks at least 50-percent less than on any other trip. That’s a win in our book.
- Extremely soft and comfortable
- Quick-drying and quick-wicking
- Available in fun colors and patterns
- Inexpensive for high-performance apparel
- Too thin to keep feet warm
- Unclear about how metals are added to their production process
Our pick: Depending on how active or nasty you like to get, acould easily last more than three weeks before needing a wash. We highly recommend throwing in a bonus pair of their patterned socks in your luggage as well because you’re worth it.
Dress Shirts: Threadsmiths
Like Ably Apparel, Australia-based Threadsmiths manufactures cotton clothing that’s specially treated to repel liquids, resist odor, and go a week or more without laundering. The process relies on patented hydrophobic NanoSphere technology to ensure that liquids cannot adhere to the fabric. They bead up and run off like a well-Rain-X’d windshield. Spill all you want, it promises to keep you looking fresh.
The traveler’s take: Threadsmiths’ apparel wears like cotton because it’s crafted almost entirely from cotton. It’s soft, durable, and holds up well even after several washes. On paper, it might sound like adding a space-age coating would make the fabric itchy or uncomfortable, but we never noticed a difference. The only thing that raises an eyebrow for us is the use of nanotechnology. While touted as eco-friendly and safe for human use, scientists have yet to agree on the facts about its potential toxicity. Further long-term testing is required.
- Dress shirts look good untucked or tucked in
- Smart, versatile styling
- Works equally well on sweat and rain
- Soft and comfortable even after numerous washes
- Nanotechnology touted as safe, but hasn’t been adequately tested
- Most popular styles are often out of stock
Our pick: Threadsmiths’ catalog focuses on basic apparel including simple, solid-colored T-shirts and Henleys. But, we love their. The style is sharp, timeless, and versatile enough to wear no matter where you’re traveling to and what you’re doing once you get there.