Packing for a Warm Climate: What to Wear and Where to Shop

Packing for a Warm Climate

Volodymyr Burdiak /

After braving a couple of brutal winters in my college town of Poughkeepsie, New York, I wanted a respite from the snow and below-freezing temperatures. Study abroad was my chance to move to a “warm” climate, and I chose Buenos Aires, Argentina, as my destination as soon as I learned that the city had only seen snow twice in recorded history. How happy I was to leave my bulky snow boots, down jackets, and earmuffs in New York! But while I could easily figure out what not to bring, I wasn’t sure what I should pack for the warm climate. I’d never before lived in a city with such an extended summer season.

Packing for a warm climate proved to be more difficult than throwing a couple of bikinis and some booty shorts into my suitcase. Part of it, of course, was that I was moving to a different country with a different sense of fashion. (To give you an example, empire-waist dresses were all the rage in the United States in 2010, but to Argentines, they were maternity-wear.) Most of my difficulties, however, stemmed from the fact that I had to remember that I wasn’t packing for a beach vacation; I was packing for an entire year in a warm climate. Sure, I’d probably need a bathing suit and some comfy clothes to wear around the house, but I’d also need temperature-appropriate outfits to wear to class, my internship, and nights on the town. In other words, most days, I’d have to keep it “profesh” without drowning myself in sweat. Tricky, no doubt.

The best I could do was pack clothes of varying lengths so that I had something to wear that was appropriate for any occasion. I wore my shorter dresses, skirts, and shorts when I was at home or out with friends and deferred to the longer ones or a trusty pair of jeans when I had to be at class or work. After all, my classrooms and office were so well air-conditioned that I sometimes needed a sweater inside; it was only the commute in muggy subway cars that made me uncomfortable. When winter rolled around and the temperatures dropped below 55° F (it seemed cold after months in the 80s!), I wore leggings or tights underneath my dresses and skirts.

Light layers, y’all—that’s the big secret. Later, after my study abroad year was over and I flew back to New York, I missed the sun and the heat and my warm climate-approved wardrobe so much that I looked into other school-related trips to warmer climates. Ultimately, I spent a few months in the mountains of Ecuador (warm during the day, cool at night) and a few weeks traveling around Cuba (hot, hot, hot everywhere). If my gallivanting through hot climates taught me anything, it’s that there’s no magic trick to prevent your thighs from sweating onto your seat on the bus, nor is there a way to look cool if you zip off your pant legs in public. You sweat—so does everyone. You do your best to deal with the heat. You layer your clothes.

Here are some of the things you might want to pack for optimal light-layering in a warm climate:

  • Dresses and skirts of varying lengths
  • Spandex shorts to wear underneath, especially if you’re worried about your flowy skirts flying up in the wind (it’s a real phenomenon!)
  • Leggings and tights
  • Shorts, also of varying lengths
  • Pants because there’s no reason to wear shorts to everything
  • Short-sleeve shirts, including T-shirts, blouses, and/or polo shirts
  • Undershirts or camisoles
  • Tank tops
  • Light sweaters and jackets
  • At least one heavier jacket, even if you think you won’t need it. Hey, climate change is causing some funky, unpredictable weather.
  • Moisture-wicking activewear for staying cool during your outdoor workouts
  • Rain coats for rainy seasons—and boy, do some warm locales see a lot of rain! Prepare accordingly.
  • Rain boots
  • Comfortable, water-resistant sandals like Tevas or Chacos
  • Ponytail holders and headbands for keeping your hair off your neck
  • Hats with brims
  • Sunglasses
  • A refillable water bottle—okay, okay, it’s not technically an article of clothing, but we’ll call it an accessory.
  • Antiperspirant—again, not clothing but still important

If you’re used to cooler climates, you need to be particularly careful about staying hydrated (I’m serious about that water bottle thing), avoiding sun poisoning, and protecting your skin. Sunburn isn’t a good look on anybody. When I moved to Ecuador, I was proud of myself for bringing sunscreen (#adulting), but I didn’t reapply it often enough, especially considering the elevation. My cheeks and nose took the brunt of the sun’s rays. They were red, they flaked the entire summer, and the skin is a little rough to this day. Lesson learned. If you don’t already, now is the time to start incorporating sunscreen into your daily skincare routine. Reapply as directed. You’ll also want hats or sunglasses to protect your eyes.

One more note about what to wear, brought to you by science: You might have heard that light-colored clothing will better reflect the sun’s rays and dark-colored clothing will absorb them. There’s some truth to that, but you won’t automatically find relief in delicate pinks or baby blues, nor will you definitely burn up in black or navy. Taking notes from the Bedouins, who stay cool while wearing black in the desert simply because their robes are loose, scientists recommend that you wear loose, breathable clothes to deal with the heat. Skip the skinny jeans and wear the shift dress. Air can flow better through loose clothing, and it will take heat with it so that it’s not trapped near your body. Try fabrics like cotton, linen, silk, jersey, and seersucker.

Where can you find the best summer clothes? Almost anywhere: Target, Macy’s, H&M, thrift stores, Ebay, you name it. You probably already have a closet full of cotton, but check the quality. Loose summer fabrics are more susceptible to wear and tear than wintery wool and fleece. If you need to update your summer wardrobe, the best time to head to the mall is usually at the end of the summer (i.e., August and September) when summer clothes are on sale, but if you’re a savvy online shopper, you can find promo codes to use on summer clothes year round.

Not all hot climates are the same, so it’s worth talking to current students before you move. They can give you the skinny on the humidity, the rain, and just how mild the winters are in your new college town. Plus, you can ask them about their own summery wardrobes to get even more tips on how to pack for a warm climate.

For more advice on staying safe in a warm climate, read this article.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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