Packing Light: The Backpacker's Guide to Going Out While Traveling the World

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Packing is a tricky beast. Packing with one eye cocked toward the possibility of dance-offs and bar-hopping in a foreign city? Even tricker. When your suitcase is already overflowing with double-duty outfits and really, really tiny versions of normal things (tiny hair straightener! tiny shampoo! tiny first aid kit!) it's hard to justify those clunky platform heels, not to mention your vintage sequined blazer that weighs as much as a small poodle and will push your suitcase over the 50 lb. limit. But — but — what if you go out? 

I just got back from a week in Panama, where I fit most of my necessities into a raggedy Urban Outfitters backpack, and I managed to transition from day to night pretty seamlessly, or so I flatter myself. (I also got a really bad sunburn because my travel mouthwash looks like my travel sunscreen, and guess which one I took to the beach?) But I wasn't always such a packing guru. Many is the trip that saw me with too many heels and no hiking shoes, or too many pairs of shorts and not a single sweater for chilly nights. Packing well means packing for all scenarios, one of which is getting swept away in a gaggle of wild Panamanians who insist on showing you the "Latin way" of partying (hint: tequila, rooftop bars, learning a basic salsa step...). Here's what I've learned.

1. Forget the heels. Yeah, I went there. No heels. Not even "light" ones. HEELS ARE NOT WORTH IT. They take up so much space in your luggage, and you'll wear them, what, once? Last year, I went to Colombia for a weekend, and — chuckling savvily to myself — fastened a pair of high heeled sandals to the strap of my backpack to "save space." They dangled bulkily against my hip for the entire trip, I wore them once, and after walking around hilly Bogotá all day, wearing heels hurt 10X more than usual. Not even close to worth it.

2. Bring double-duty flat sandals. Packing light means you can't afford to bring more than two pairs of shoes. (Unless your idea of packing light means five Louis Vuitton carry-ons instead of your usual six.) So make sure your sandals are comfortable enough to scramble around the city in, but pretty enough to hit the dance floor later. Mine are white with simple silver embellishments, and don't look terribly out of place at night. Repeat after me: no one is looking at your feet. Especially not if you...

3. Pack your brightest, lightest dress. While we're on the double-duty theme, your ideal going-out dress should be something you can get away with on other fancy-ish occasions, should they arise — last minute invitations to tea with the Queen and so forth. Brightness is a perfectly suitable club replacement for tight, short, and low-cut. I'm not saying your going-out dress shouldn't be any of those things; I'm just saying that a neon pink sheath will take you more places than a black, bondage-inspired Bebe number. My go-to is an insanely bright Prabal Gurung for Target t-shirt dress with a swishy flounce on the bottom. It's loud enough for nighttime, but I've been known to wear it down the streets of Panama City around 10 AM on a hot Saturday. 

4. All you need is love and a stick of black eyeliner. There's nothing sexier than being low maintenance when you're in a foreign country. Would you rather be contouring or gaping up at the Vatican? Applying falsies or dancing in the streets of Rio de Janeiro? My makeup-while-traveling philosophy is as bare-bones as they come: nothing but mascara during the daytime, and at night? Go back to your high school roots, when all you knew about makeup is that it had to be black and thick around the eye, and apply eyeliner to your waterline and the roots of your top lashes. Then take that oldest of makeup tools — your finger — and smudge it around. The sweat will do the rest.

5. Jewelry takes up no space at all. Worried that no one will know the difference between Daytime You and Clubbing-While-Attempting-the-Language You? Here's where your glitzy earrings and tangles of faux pearls come into play. The spatial difference between one bracelet and five bracelets is approximately Not Important, so pack as much bling as you want. Ain't no party like an arm party in another time zone, am I right?

6. Hair: up or messy. Once I contemplated bringing my entire set of hot rollers on vacation. I was young, I was naive, I was desperate to look put-together. Now, in my older, wiser smudged-eyeliner days, I either put my hair up in a messy bun, or wear it down in messy bedhead. Nada más. The better for dancing in, my dear, and you won't need to bring more than a handful of bobby pins and, ideally, a dip in the Caribbean ocean. 

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