Add a tunic – and a cocktail

I pride myself on my ability to pack light; one rolling carry-on is my limit whether for a three-day weekender or a recent two-week through Switzerland and France. But I also hate being caught without the right thing to wear. I’ve been known to follow Parisians and Italians down the street lusting after their footwear and no, I’ve never been able to let myself wear polarfleece to dinner in a big city.

And I’ll admit it; I’m fairly thin-skinned when it comes to carrying off unexpected formal occasions without the proper attire. As you can imagine, this leads to some daunting packing challenges. Here are three items that have helped me avoid more than one outfit crisis.

1. Are they yoga pants — or palazzos?
A few days ago I heard those words every non girlie-girl dreads: “no jeans allowed.” We were at a mountain-top lodge high in the Sierras and sure enough, my pack contained almost nothing but jeans. But guess what else was in there? My yoga pants, one of a handful of things I never travel without. Luckily they weren’t my cheapo floppy cotton ones, but my beloved Chaturanga pants from Athleta, which are made from a thick, nylon-and-lycra fabric called Supplex that gives them just the right amount of stretch and swagger. With a black-and-gray tunic sweater, also from Athleta, pulled over them, they masquerade unrecognizably as wide-leg palazzo pants.

Athleta, a maker of hip yoga, hiking and athletic wear, just happens to have been founded in my backyard of Petaluma, California and sometimes it feels like their designers are channeling — well, moi. It’s one of my go-to brands because almost everything they make dresses up whatever activity it was intended for. Stretchy yoga tank tops with built-in bras supportive enough for running, yet they look groovy enough to wear to a dance club. Flippy gored skorts you can hike in, bike in — or wear to a picnic or barbecue. Unlike many catalog companies, their fit is remarkably consistent and they keep many of the same styles year in, year out, making it easy to replace a beloved standby. I just wish they had more frequent sales and discounts — are you listening, Athleta folks?

How can shoes this cute be so comfy?

2. Mary janes you can hike in.
Everyone who’s ever walked around the block with me  knows how much I love my Keens — all of them. My hiking boots are Keens, as are my trusty water sandals and my basic around-town tennies. But the travel essentials I can’t leave home without are a battered and much-restored pair of Keens in a pseudo-Mary Jane style called Calistoga. (With that name, is it any surprise I love ’em?) With wide buckle straps, perforated floral details and contrast stitching, they can dress up enough to carry a skirt, but they’re also sturdy enough that they’ve taken me up many a mountain when my pack was too full for my boots. Like almost all Keens, they’re washable with removable, washable insoles, so trail dust comes right off.

3. A bathing suit cover up that works as a shawl. 
If you’ve been to a resort in Mexico or the Bahamas recently, you’ve likely been approached on the beach by ladies selling sarongs, simple squares of lightweight nylon, often with beaded edges,  that can be tied in any number of ways to cover up a suit. Since my color of choice is always black, on one recent trip I picked up a sheer dotted black sarong with jet beads along the edge. Later that night, wishing I had a Sex and the City-style resort dress, it hit me — I could tie the sarong around my shoulders and suddenly my simple black sundress looked almost Samantha-like. Now it lives in a pocket of my travel pack, ready to make me decent during the day and glam me up at night.

Do you have any favorite items of clothing that do double-duty for travel? I’m always looking for more.