[Editor’s note 9-21-17: Since publishing this post, I have found a new favorite t-shirt. Follow this link to read about it. My recommendation for the Lacoste Sport Polo still stands though.]
What’s the best travel shirt for the ultra light packer?
Let’s begin with the worst travel shirt: anything made of cotton. It dries slowly, wrinkles easily, retains odor (i.e. it stinks), and in general is a poor choice for traveling. Don’t get me wrong; I love cotton shirts. Most of the shirts I have are cotton. But they don’t belong in your luggage if you’re trying to travel light.
The best shirt? One that is light, doesn’t wrinkle, is odor resistant, takes a beating, and dries rapidly. What we want is a shirt made of high quality polyester. The specific brand is impossible to universally recommend because everyone’s body is shaped differently; what fits you great may look ridiculous on me. However, my personal favorite travel shirts come in two varieties:
Columbia Polyester T-Shirts Patagonia Capilene Lightweight T-shirts (see link above)
2) Lacoste Sport Polo shirts
Both of these brands are very well made, and with proper care, they’ll last for years. My oldest travel shirt still in rotation is a Columbia I’ve worn regularly for over 7 years. It still looks and smells great. The newest model of the Columbia polyester tee is called the Tuk Mountain shirt. Though I don’t own this specific model shirt, it’s the updated version of the ones I’ve been wearing for years. [Editor’s update: I did eventually buy this shirt, and it’s trash. Don’t bother with it.] These shirts do change a little bit each year in style and material, sometimes with a completely new name, so most of the travel shirts I own are now discontinued models that are no longer made. In general though, if you like Columbia shirts, you want to look for the ones with “titanium” written on them for the best quality.
Again, if you buy a high quality name brand shirt, you’ll only need to purchase these once or twice in a decade. Naturally, once you wear out your current shirts, the exact models probably won’t be made anymore, so if you find a particular style you love, go ahead and get a few while they’re available, though there’s no need to go overboard.
If you’ve never worn one of these types of shirts before, I highly recommend visiting an outdoor store like REI and trying on a few different ones first. There are lots of great companies out there that make clothes that meet the Lite Adventurer seal of approval, and you want to find something that fits you really well. When I was first shopping around, I tried everything available at the store and found that the Columbia shirts suited me the best, so I’ve stuck with them ever since.
Sometimes you’ll want something a little fancier than a T-shirt. For those situations, I like to carry at least one nice polo shirt in my bag. In my opinion, Lacoste makes the best travel polos I’ve found so far. The problem with these is that they’re very hard to find in a brick and mortar store, so trying one on before buying is problematic. I ordered my first one on a whim directly from Lacoste.com and it happened to fit me perfectly, but for many people purchasing these may require a bit of trial and error to find the correct size. What a great shirt though.
If you find yourself hesitant to spend all this money, you can also find plenty of cheapo polyester shirts at your local discount big box stores. Take my advice and don’t bother. I was once lured by the low, low prices, and what I ended up with was a crappy shirt that smelled bad after short use and made my skin itchy. This will be a common theme throughout my recommendations: pay more, buy quality, and you’ll have a product that lasts for years. Or you can buy cheap and waste your time and money re-buying these things multiple times and still have an inferior product.
There are some newer cotton blend shirts that repel small amounts of moisture and are super resistant to odors compared to regular cotton, allowing a person to wear the same shirt for several days before changing it. As intriguing as this sounds, I’d rather stick with my polyester.
First of all, I’m a clean freak, and there’s no way I’m wearing the same shirt for 3 or 4 days straight. Hell no. That’s just gross.
Second, even though these modern materials may wick away small amounts of water and fluid, once they actually get soaked, whether intentionally in the wash or in an unexpected downpour, they will take longer to dry than the shirts that I recommend above. If you’re okay with these compromises and don’t have any qualms about wearing the same thing for half a week, then give it a shot! Nothing wrong with a little trial and error to find out what works best for you.
A quick word about merino wool. This is also a great choice for travel clothing material, however it has one big drawback: it’s not very durable. I’m not going to pay $60 for a shirt that only lasts a couple of years. My polyesters tops are comfortable enough for less money, and they’ll last way longer than any merino wool shirt, so for now that’s my preference.
*A disclaimer: I’m a cold tolerant guy, so my clothing choice reflects this. If the weather is 50 degrees or warmer, I’m usually in a T-shirt and shorts which happen to take up less space in a bag than their longer-appendaged brethren. Having said that, all this stuff is made in longer-sleeved versions, so pick your articles of clothing accordingly.