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The perfect conference suitcase

Lifehacked packing tips from a Girl Scout & chronic traveler

Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about fashion. However, I am both lazy (and so like to find useful lists) and an organizer who builds training for a living, which was the inspiration for this post.

A week or so ago, there was a Forbes article about “What to Wear” to a certain progressive conference happening in Detroit at the end of the week. I watched my friends share the post and write all manner of glib-to-hater comments — it was evident that the author was well meaning but had never hung out with that part of the Progressive-activist community. Anything goes at Netroots Nation. I’ve seen it. Anything goes so long as you have shoes, a shirt and hopefully pants.

While I considered writing a satirical post with tips like “be sure to pack goggles and a handkerchief in the event that during the demonstration to help turn Detroit’s water back on, the cops decide to teargas you…”, I found myself writing real packing tips to friends. Some friends are going on their maiden NN voyage, and I remembered all the times I went on an unnecessary shopping binge before packing and heading out. So I offer these hacks as someone who — though sadly not attending this year — has had her share of packing (and mis-packing and poorly packing) for conferences.

These tips are written for the lady folk — dudes, you might spot some helpful general tips, but I did write this as a tactical cheat-sheet for my lady friends.

The first cardinal rule is: comfy shoes. Seriously, WEAR. COMFY. SHOES. Even if you’re from NYC or DC and you walk all the time, heed this warning! This is like hiking — do NOT wear new shoes, even if they are cute. (*Except possibly to one evening party, or a special panel, but keep those ballet flats in your bag, and know you’ll pay for it the next day.) Also, pack moleskin or those nice rubberized blister covers — they sell them at any local drugstore next to band-aids. Moleskin and the rubber blisters will save your feet.

Before I get into the packing list, let me also share some things I learned after working with an incredibly gifted stylist — know your figure type and what works well on it. It’s not about the clothes, it’s about hacking a body type and finding silhouettes that reliably flatter you.

Set aside two hours for packing — this includes trying on outfits before they go in the suitcase. Pull out the outfit that you feel most confident in AND has reliably gotten you compliments — every person has at least one outfit like this in her closet. Put it on and look in the mirror — what about this outfit is working for you?

For me, (I’m a “dew drop” also known as pear-shaped — 5'7", 145 lbs and a size 4-6 top, 8-10 bottom) it’s all about balancing my frame. So structured collars, bright tops, fitted blazers and statement necklaces that draw the eye up help create a sense of balance in my outfit that make me feel confident. On bottom, I look for A-line skirts, fit-and-flare dresses (with a modest hemline. I’m old-fashioned that way. But not past the knee), and dark wash jeans. (Oddly, ‘boyfriend’ cut slacks or cigarette pants seems to be flattering these days — find a pair that have a little bit of stretch/elastic. Also we need to rethink this term “boyfriend” and “cigarette” — both strike me as outdated. But back to the matter of packing…)

Figure out what items make you feel like a bad-ass. Again, this is all about confidence. My stylist has tried to get me to wear more skirts and dresses, and I just never feel the same amount of oomph as I do when I wear a great jacket and dark slacks. I’m hoping over time that might change, but for now, I’m going to go with what works, and encourage you to do the same. Ultimately, you have to figure out what works for you and makes you feel like an assassin. Or a badass or (insert whatever your superheroine preferred archetype is here.)

Wear stuff that’s tried-and-true. Again, find that killer outfit you already have — figure out what shapes, colors or cut is present in that outfit, and find more and similar options in your closet. As mentioned before, I used to go on shopping binges, and came to find that conference really aren't good environments to test drive new stuff. You’re already going to be going without enough sleep, in a place you don’t know, in a (physical) climate you likely don’t live in. Go with what you know works reliably.

That said, there is something empowering about buying stuff before embarking on a journey. I suggest setting a budget (say, $40) and go buy some key accessories — for instance, a new statement necklace and a bright belt. Some of the most complimented accesories that I have were $20 impluse-buys at Target or Old Navy. I think of these new accessories as my “armor” of a sort, and they can affordably breathe new life into outfits.

If you are on a panel or giving a training, I suggest dressing in business professional, even if others are more casually dressed. Again, go with your gut and what helps you feel confident, but know that if you’re on a panel, you might be on camera. When I had to be on the stage, I wore a pretty standard suit that I felt confident in and I knew wouldn't look bad on camera.

Before I get into a theoretical packing list of clothes, let me share a list of general must-have items that I take for any conference. (Also keep in mind that I’m one of those people that are cold all the time — so if you run hot, some of this stuff might not be as helpful.)

  • COMFY SHOES, at least two pair. Did I mention bring comfy shoes? Also, even in the summer, I will bring two pair of socks — one for the flight and one for nighttime. (Update: It’s going to be cold in Detroit, so be sure to pack comfy shoes that you can wear socks or stocking in. Also bring a rain jacket or light coat.)
  • A neutral scarf, pashmina or wrap. I am always cold in those large convention halls. Also consider packing 1-2 thin tank tops — a tank underneath the outfit can add warmth and be easily peeled off depending on the temp. Also consider packing a pair of hose or stockings — they are exactly like the tank tops — easy to layer or peel off.
  • (Clothes — full example packing list below.)
  • Your cell phone/device charger. Also one of those spare external batteries are so crucial. Even if you don’t use it, you’ll probably make some new friends that have dead batteries.
  • A very reliable bag — that will hold all your stuff plus some extra room. I prefer medium-size bags that can be worn across the body. Try to ditch your laptop if you can, in favor of a moleskin notebook or a notepad and pen to take notes. Spare your shoulder. I also try to carry a small envelope to put all my receipts in, to help with filing expenses later (if you have to do such a thing. Just put it in one place and deal with it when you get back to your desk.)
  • A small water bottle. There will be opportunities to refill, so no need to haul something gigantic. Just make sure you keep refilling and hydrating yourself. All that recirculated air can dehydrate you rapidly, particularly if you feel cold and/or might have had a lot of fun at last night’s party. Ahem.

If I was going to Netroots this year (assume a 4 day trip), I would pack:

  • One pair of dark wash jeans
  • One pair of light slacks
  • One versatile dress — likely made out of jersey because it really doesn't wrinkle as much.
  • Three jackets — one dark, one light, one cotton — specifically a navy cropped jacket, a cream cropped jacket and a chambray light blue longer jacket.
  • 4 different shirts/shells. Two slacks x 4 shirts = 8 potential outfits. Something will work.
  • 2 cardigans (one will likely be a travel outfit.) This provides other options for the dress as well.
  • 2 pair of comfy dress shoes. I know, I’m like a broken record.
  • At least 3 great necklaces — I prefer statement necklaces because they very quickly finish off a look and I am lazy. One necklace and BOOM, you are done.
  • When all this is packed, pack one “bonus” outfit. Like a skirt and a casual shirt. Something fun and that might integrate well with what you’re already packing.
  • PJs and workout/running outfit (or yoga outfit) + running shoes.

My travel outfit would likely be sandals (that are flats), washed blue jeans, a breathable tshirt and a cardigan. Swap out the shirt, and you can travel back in it, too.

Finally, I want to offer the best de-puffy trick I have ever learned — if you wake up puffy, go to the ice machine in the hotel, and suck on two pieces of ice as you get ready for the day. Hydration is important, but I learned from a make-up artist that your best defense against puffy eyes is hydration and ice to bring the swelling down. Used tea bags also help, but there is something about ice in your mouth, and a strong concealer, that will help erase any evidence of late night revelry.

May you travel safe and well!

Update: my friends in Michigan have mentioned that the Polar Vortex is making a comeback — in which case I would add “pack a light jacket and an additional long-sleeved sweater” to this list, particularly if you’re from the South.

Progressive voices from the annual Netroots Nation Convention — where activism, social justice, organizing and making the world a better place all meet. Visit us at

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Tanya Tarr

Tanya Tarr

I write about negotiation, integrative leadership and equal pay. Coming soon: stories of burnout recovery.

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