One of the great balancing acts of travel is deciding how much luggage to take with you. And by luggage, I really mean clothes. Many people throw everything they can imagine needing into an enormous suitcase, others tend towards the bare minimum. If you’re travelling for a while, or would just prefer to carry less, you’ll need to wash your clothes at some point during your trip. But… how?
The most important thing to remember when travelling is to pack light. This means you need to take fewer clothes, but you should also consider what each item weighs, and how easy it will be to wash — and of course, since you will have fewer clothes with you, you’ll need to wash what you do have more often.
Avoid taking very heavy things like jeans and bulky jumpers, as they are hard to wash and even harder to dry. Leave the big towel at home and pack a sports or travel towel, which takes up a fraction of the space and dries quickly.
If you’re going somewhere cold, the trick is layering. Pack lightweight trousers and thermal underwear to wear underneath. Instead of one thick jumper, pack three thin ones — it’ll weigh the same or less, you can rearrange them for a change of wardrobe, and they’ll dry so much faster after being washed!
Leverage your accommodation
We used to hand wash our clothes as a way of saving money, and use a hostel washing machine or laundromat once a month or so to give our stuff a more thorough clean. These days, hand washing is for hiking and emergencies only — we definitely prefer to use a machine to wash our clothes if at all possible.
And the best way to find washing machines while travelling is to stay in places where washing machines are available — like ordinary people’s houses. Couchsurfing, AirBnb, housesitting… when using the sharing economy, most of the time you’ll be staying in somebody’s home, and they’re likely to have laundry facilities that you can use. Just ask politely if they have a washing machine you can use, and they’ll let you know if it’s possible. In our experience, many Couchsurfing hosts offer before we have a chance to ask.
Since we travel with carry-on sized bags, we need to wash our clothes about once a week. So, we make sure that once a week, we’re staying somewhere that has a washing machine available for us to use… and if we can’t find a Couchsurfing host, housesitting gig, or AirBnb rental, we look for a hostel that features a laundry.
In a hostel or hotel
Many hostels have laundry facilities, so if you’re due to do a load of washing, choose one that does. Hostel washing machines are almost never free, but are often cheaper than a laundromat, and you won’t have to leave the comfort of “home”.
You’ll probably have to operate the machine yourself, and you may need coins or tokens. Don’t forget washing powder or liquid — it might be provided, you might have to purchase it at reception, or you might need to buy your own. Driers are also usually available, or hang up your clothes outside if you can.
Be aware that the laundry service many hotels offer is often prohibitively expensive (think $3 per sock) so we don’t recommend this option unless it’s an emergency.
If you have enough dirty washing to make a full load, or can make a load up with your travel partner, it might be worth finding a laundromat. We don’t advise you make this your principal plan though, as sometimes a laundry can be hard to find — we had to admit defeat in Linz, and it took an hour or wandering in La Paz.
In some places you wash your clothes yourself (take coins, or you might have to buy tokens), in others you leave your clothes and collect them later or the next day. In this case, you often pay by weight, so lighter is better — avoid taking wet clothes. Even local people wash clothes this way in many parts of Latin America.
Depending on your travel style and where you are in the world, you may need to wash by hand at some point in the trip, which isn’t as bad as you might think. The trick is to do it regularly. Take your undies and socks into the shower with you, or wash them before you brush your teeth — make a habit of it. Larger items need a bit more time, and it can sometimes be easier to wash a few things at once. Find a system that works for you.
If you’re washing in a hostel sink, you might find it hard to find a plug. You can improvise with bluetack or a rubber ball, or just stop it up with one of your socks — though if you plan to do this regularly, it’s worth investing in a universal plug.
It helps to wash like items together — do your undies first, then socks, then t-shirts for example. Soap up the items first, and use different parts of the item to agitate at the dirt. Then rinse them in the soapy water, squeeze out and rinse once or twice in clean water. Twist to squeeze as much water out as possible.
Some clothes require special treatment. Trousers (particularly jeans) can be difficult to wash in a sink because there’s just so much material, so take them into the bath or shower with you instead. To wash socks, put one on each hand and rub together. And if you have zip-off trousers, it’s easier to wash three pieces than one large one.
It can be tricky to find a way to dry your clothes, especially in winter. The most important thing is to get as much water out of the clothes after washing, and a towel can come in handy here. If you’re staying in a hotel, recycle the towel you used after your shower, or just use your travel towel. Lay the towel on the ground, then place your wet clothes on top of it. Roll it up then twist it as tight as you can — this will wick out a lot of the moisture.
Hang your clothes up outside or at least in a sunny place, or in the bathroom if you have a private one. A portable clothesline could be a good investment — get one that has two strands of elastic twisted together, so you don’t need pegs. In winter, hang your clothes close to heaters — but be careful as this can be a fire hazard.
Washing your clothes while travelling doesn’t have to be an ordeal — just wash small items regularly and keep an eye out for your next washing machine.
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This post was originally published in 2010, but we recorded a new podcast and updated the information to bring in all that we’ve learned over the last six years!