Traveling always sounds, from a distance, like a wildly glamorous time. Maybe that’s just to me, because I start imagining myself as a heroine in a classic movie – Katharine Hepburn in her crisp trousers on a boat in Africa, Marilyn Monroe on a cruise ship in silky gowns – a Hollywood vision of effortlessly glamorous travel.
But in real life, I lived out of a 35-liter backpack and hauled my ass over three continents for a year with only about three outfits. I slept in stacks of creaking bunk beds most of the time, and put my face on for the day huddled over a tiny smudged mirror under fluorescent light in a shared bathroom.
My comfort became more of a priority than my formerly glamorous appearance (an old family admonition was often “Kathleen, wear sneakers – REAL SNEAKERS, not calf-hair leopard-print slip ons, please”).
But I’m a creature of habit – I couldn’t just go gently into that shabby night. I needed my backpacking beauty essentials.
So I developed a few workarounds to keep myself looking like a fairly decent human while on the road. I met many people who were amazed I look so normal while living out of a backpack so small my cat could barely fit into it. Some of my backpacking beauty tips are pretty standard (be clean! Brush your hair!), and some of them are a little more out there. I stand by every one of them.
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This one should really, really go without saying. Unfortunately, I encountered far too many backpackers out there who strayed too far from this basic rule for being a polite and decent human. I got on a four-hour bus ride in Crete once and glanced admiringly at the cute German guy two rows ahead… only to be bowled over by the smell of his body that had clearly not been washed in weeks. The ancient Minoans on Crete had better hygiene thousands of years ago!
The smell was so awful I still think about it a year later. Thankfully the bus was pretty empty so no one had to sit next to him, but going out in public with body odor so strong it makes people want to vomit is incredibly rude.
Ok, I’m glad I got that one off my chest. I understand we won’t all smell like roses every day when we’re traveling (I mean, I do, because I travel with a little rollerball of Chloe perfume), and Americans often have an obsession with cleanliness that other cultures find ridiculous.
But heading out on the path less traveled does not mean you should abandon all human decency. This especially applies in hot climates like Southeast Asia, where locals take multiple showers a day and maybe we should too.
And while you’re at it? Please use deodorant – it’s not going to give you cancer and it really makes a difference to the poor people around you. Tip for Americans though – bring your own stick deodorant if you like it because it’s so hard to find abroad.
Do Your Laundry
This ties into the category above – cleanliness is about 3/4 of glamour, I’ve decided. While this can be a huge challenge in a time when you have very sporadic access to a washing machine and only a few items of clothing, it can be done. Trust me – I’m a very clean bitch who had three outfits.
My method was strict but simple. Every evening after I climbed into my worn-out but soft H&M pajamas, I took out my little bar of Dr. Bronner’s soap (which I also used on my body, so versatile), plugged up a sink in my Airbnb/hostel/hotel/yoga retreat, and scrubbed and soaked out that day’s socks, underwear, bralette, and layering tank top.
In a hot climate, I wasn’t wearing socks or a tank, but I’d still do it with my bra and underwear. This was the bare minimum – I’d also wash my pants every few wears in cold climates, and pretty much everything in Southeast Asia because I am a sweaty little person.
Once everything has been thoroughly scrubbed out, soaked for a few minutes, and rinsed well, they got squeezed out in a little towel and hung up on my travel clothesline. That was one of my best purchases. I’d hook it up in my hostel bunk bed, on a hotel balcony, or an Airbnb bathroom to let everything dry overnight. And then in the morning? Clean clothes to put on my clean body.
Even if you’re away from a washing machine for a while, if your socks and underwear are always clean, you’ll be a reasonably decent human.
Pick Your Clothes Wisely
To make this laundry method work, my clothes had to be selected carefully to withstand all that sink washing and to dry in a reasonable amount of time. I found a couple of rules that worked really well:
- Swathing myself in all the merino wool I possibly could. It’s cool in hot weather and warm in the cold, very odor-resistant so you don’t have to wash it much, and it dries quickly when it does need to be washed. It’s kind of a miracle, as long as you’re not allergic to wool.
- Wearing a fair amount of silk, cotton, and linen, depending on the climate. They wash well (silk is not nearly as delicate as it’s rumored to be, as my 2.5 years of abusing this Everlane cami I’m wearing right now will attest), dry relatively quickly on a little line, and breathe well so you don’t sweat too much.
- Avoiding polyester at all costs, unless it was an athletic blend like my favorite Athleta yoga pants. It doesn’t breathe at all and retains odors incredibly well – it’s the highway to smell.
With natural fabrics like this, yes, sometimes you’ll be wrinkled. But a little light wrinkling in clean clothes is vastly preferable to a perfectly starched stinkbomb. Trust me.
Picking the right clothes is key to making sure you’re comfortable and not smelly. I spent a huge portion of last year thinking about laundry – I have far too many thoughts on the subject, but my wisdom can help you too.
The other key to looking like a regular human even when your life fits on your back? Selecting clothes that fit you pretty well and flatter you – they don’t have to be fancy. But upgrading from the free Bintang tee shirt you got on a beach in Bali to a little black cotton v-neck makes a world of difference.
I’m not suggesting you bring a big designer wardrobe – traveling is really tough on your clothes, and a limited wardrobe wears out quite fast. (Bring a little sewing kit!)
Also, this is a boring tip, but wearing black is pretty much fail-proof unless you’re in a tropical climate. It makes cheap clothes look more expensive, doesn’t show that stain from when you bit into a cheese sausage in Vienna and dripped it on your leggings, and just blends seamlessly into any outfit.
I didn’t dress exclusively in black, but I’d say it was about 3/4 of my wardrobe in Europe. It’s just so easy, and you’ll always look a little more pulled-together with a little less effort.
In my year of just traveling, I always lived the carry-on only life. It’s simpler and cheaper. But the hardest part wasn’t cramming everything into a little backpack and staying under 10 kilos. It was getting all my much-loved beauty products into that quart bag of liquids.
I loved buying tiny travel-size beauty products to tuck in and replace with local goodies when they ran out.
I still think fondly of this amazing tiny tamarind face wash I bought in Bangkok that made my skin glow even under the tropical heat.
Basically, I had only shampoo, conditioner, face wash, face oil, and sunscreen in that quart bag. It was a minimal life, but so many great products come in travel sizes now. It was often a chance to try a cool new product once a minuscule bottle of conditioner ran out.
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Advanced-Level Backpacking Beauty Tips
All the tips above will keep you in decent, non-smelly, clean shape. That’s like travel needs 101. But for my fellow beauty obsessives out there? Let’s get a little advanced and sometimes kind of weird.
Fix Your Hair
Hair makes a big difference in your appearance. I didn’t get my hair cut once during my trip, which may have been a mistake but je ne regrette rien. I did find 2-3 hairstyles which I could do quickly, even hunched over a hostel sink, and which both held back my hair from my face and looked pretty presentable.
On days when I felt too shabby to face life, an extra 5 minutes spent on a slightly fancy face-framing braid made all the difference.
Brush Your Eyebrows
This is the beauty tip I swear by – it helps you look 100% more put-together when you have less than one minute to primp. Run a little spoolie through those guys, toss on some Glossier Boy Brow, and you’ll look more awake and more human even if all you’re wearing on the rest of your face is sunscreen.
Better yet, if all you do is brush your eyebrows and smear on a creamy red lip (like my true love NARS Dragon Girl), you’ll look impossibly French and feel ready to take on the world.
Think Long-Lasting Beauty Treatments
After I hit the six-month mark of my travels, I felt the increasing shabbiness getting to me. I hadn’t had a haircut since I left, my clothes were wearing out, and my makeup routine in Asia was non-existent thanks to the staggering humidity. But life in hostels wasn’t conducive to an extensive beauty routine.
So when I arrived in Australia, I treated myself to a new long-last beauty treatment – the lash lift. It is basically a perm for your eyelashes, ensuring they’re always curled just right.
For my decent but stick-straight lashes, it was a game-changer. I looked much more awake, I didn’t need to worry about sweating the curl out of my lashes, and I didn’t need to fuck with mascara during the day.
Now I’m addicted to lash lifts, and get them every few months to maintain them. Unlike lash extensions, you don’t need to do anything special to keep a lift in good shape and it grows out naturally.
It’s a subtle but real difference, and it’s low-maintenance to boot.
Getting Beautiful on the Go
One of my favorite and strange habits I developed when traveling alone for a whole year was to pop into the beauty section of a department store in whatever city I found myself in. The smell of the perfumes, the smooth feeling of the lotion samples, the quiet bustle – it was very soothing whenever I felt lonely. If I could find the comfort of a Sephora – even better.
I’ve sampled probably hundreds of perfumes at this point just by strolling around and spritzing myself with whatever caught my eye. (I had no job and a lot of time on my hands.) Or just Tom Ford Eau de Soleil Blanc, if I could. I didn’t have room for perfume with me except one tiny rollerball, so this ritual filled that craving perfectly and for free.
And if I needed a little more? This is where Sephora is a life-saver. I traveled with only a skin tint and one perfect red lipstick and brow gel for makeup. If I wanted to look a little more glam, I was totally at a loss.
Date Night Prep on the Fly
Here’s what I’d do. Let’s use a date as an example: one afternoon I got asked out for a drink later that night by a cute guy in my coworking space. I didn’t have time to go home and touch up – and I didn’t have anything to touch up with, anyways.
So I headed out to Sephora and dabbed a little highlighter on my Cupid’s bow, a touch of concealer on a chin pimple, and some Tom Ford Eau de Soleil on the nape of my neck. I was ready. (I mean, I was in some rather worn-out yoga pants and sneakers, which is an outfit I would barely have worn to Equinox in my former life, but I rocked it.)
Sneak Into a Fancy Hotel
This is my most advanced technique. It makes me feel a little like a gypsy courtesan, as Schmidt from New Girl would say. But I’m sort of into that vibe.
Before the date I mentioned above, I took myself out to a beautiful museum in Athens before we met up (so yes, I would have had time to go home and prepare, but art is just as important a form of beauty as makeup). I needed to brush my teeth and touch up my hair – but where? Sephora unfortunately does not have emergency tooth-brushing stations.
This is where I sneak myself into the bathroom of a fancy hotel. If you’re a reasonably put-together person – if you’ve been doing your sad sink laundry and also maybe swiped on a little lip gloss at Sephora – the doormen will let you in without blinking.
I like to take myself for an occasionally too-fancy drink at a luxury hotel, so I have a few reliable spots down – the Grande Bretagne in Athens, the Ritz in Paris – but any lovely hotel will do if you walk with enough confidence.
Why a hotel bathroom, though?
Surely there are other spots available? For a glamorous-feeling prep, you need a calm vibe and a luxurious atmosphere. Otherwise brushing your teeth in a foreign bathroom can be a seedy and sad feeling, and that’s not what we’re going for.
We want to feel elegant and little sneaky – that’s a sexy feeling. Sneaking in is the first step – elegant hotel bathrooms are usually big and fairly empty, so you’re not feeling rushed.
To really amp up the glam factor, I don’t pull a boring tube of Crest toothpaste out of my trusty Longchamp backpack – I’m all about the tiny travel-size Marvais toothpaste in Jasmin. It’s French and it’s flavored like a flower, so that’s how you know it’s sexy.
Get those teeth clean, fix your hair (I just use my hands because carrying around a brush is too much, and anyways messy hair is cool), and use some of the lovely scented hand lotion hotel bathrooms always seem to have. And if you’re in the Paris Ritz, say hello to the swan faucets for me – I miss them. This little regime makes me feel so much more human and also sneaky in a cool way. I love it.
Bring a Little Glamour Into Life on the Road
Traveling is a privilege, and it brings so many wonderful benefits – new friends, newfound confidence, stories of that time I saw Lea Seydoux in the Ritz bathroom. But it does have its downsides.
I know many long-term travelers lean into the minimalist lifestyle and love it, but I love beauty and glamour too much to go fully into the backpacking life.
I hope this was helpful for the other beauty junkies out there – it’s about more than just looking hot on dates. It’s about bringing an appreciation for beauty in all its forms into your life, even if you’re living out of a little backpack.
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