Covering your Topside

When it comes to clothing, it is easy to pack too much. The strategic packer must weigh his/her choices and resist the temptation to throw one more shirt in the bag simply because there is space for it. Falling into this “fill the gap trap” adds unnecessary worry, weight, and cost to your life.

It is easy to fall into the “fill the gap trap.” 

Two Preliminary Notes

Before going any further down this road, I must face my detractors directly. Hence, two notes.

Note 1

Being a fella, some might object, I am unable to issue judgment on the wardrobe of a lady. They may well be right (I can just hear them cackling: “He doesn’t know the difference between mauve and taupe!” ). In my defense, however, I will tell you that I have been married for 30 years to a woman of class who is quite capable of packing strategically. As illustration of this, consider how, on one occasion, she lived in East Jerusalem for a period of four months out of nothing more than a standard carry-on roller board (and this, half full of books!). I know it can be done because I’ve seen it!

That being said, my comments are primarily directed to the men among us, as this is the corner of the closet that I know best. Perhaps someday I will convince Vicki to write a parallel article for the sake of the gentler sex. She can explain the difference between mauve and taupe. Subscribe to this website right now and you will be the first to know.

Besides understanding how to pack strategically, Vicki possesses extraordinary archery skills. At a Crusader-era castle in Jordan (known as Montreal, or Shobak in Arabic) she demonstrates longbow tactics. (In high school she received the Golden Feather award as well as many other praises. Now you know why.)

Note 2

I can remember how Kansas boys used run around half naked in the summer months. The Midwest does funny things to the mind that way. Remember also that the Middle East is not Kansas anymore.

There are two reasons why even men’s topsides must be covered at this end of the world.

The first reason is connected to nature. Here, the sun will kill you so fast that the skin cancer will not even have time to latch on. If traveling in the spring, you may enjoy a bit of cool rain, but after early May, the moisture pretty much drifts out of the picture and the sun is the only natural enemy remaining. You need to cover up for the sake of your skin.

The second reason why the topside must be shielded is connected to society. In the areas where we will be traveling, locals tends to be conservative in dress. Believe me, you do not want to be caught on the streets of Jerusalem with your topside down. We’ll just leave it there.

Three Clothing Items

In order to cover your topside and protect yourself from nature and society, three items of clothing are essential: the shirt, the hat, and the jacket.

I’m not sure what Marlin and Jim are wearing here, but if Columbia Omni-freeze had been around in the 1960s, I’m sure they would have been sportin’ it. By the way, aren’t Gila Monsters poisonous? Image from here.


For a trip of two weeks duration (or even two months for that matter), not more than three shirts are needed (This assumes that you pack your flat rubber sink stopper, a little box of powdered laundry soap, and a short stretch of clothesline. All of these shirts should be loose fitting and made of thin but rugged fabric. They need to wash easily and dry quickly. I am a real fan of Columbia’s line of Omni-freeze or Omni-freeze Zero garments, but other outfitters make nice high-tech shirts as well. The upside about the Omni-freeze material is that keeps you cool and provides another layer of sun protection at the same time.The downside is the price. I justify this in my own mind by arguing for quality over quantity. You don’t need many shirts, merely the right ones.

My favorite shirts these days say Omni Freeze Zero on the inside. Get the Omni-wicking feature too if a sweltering summer is in your future.

Two long sleeve shirts are ideal. Columbia allows you to roll up the sleeves and button them there below the elbow as needed. They also have lots of pockets for storing notebooks and receipts and tickets and fuzz and things. Other companies make security pockets on the chest that are nice.

A third shirt is a tee that can be worn by itself or worn under the long sleeve shirt on a cool morning. It too should be of a high-tech fabric. Remember what they say at altitude: “cotton kills.” I’m not sure that is true in this environment, but cotton does take much too long to dry for my liking. The earlier in the year you travel to Israel/Palestine, the more important this becomes (A cotton hoodie can hang on the line for months during a Jerusalem winter and never dry. Eventually you just give up and wear it wet.).

All three of my shirts have a color. I think they are either mauve or taupe.


A good hat is a must when out and about in the summer sun. I’m not a fan of baseball caps because I like a wide brim that goes all around my head to protect my neck as well as my face. A straw hat will do this, but is difficult to pack. A thin polyester “booney” style, on the other hand, will roll up and go in your pocket when not needed. As with shirts, Columbia makes a nice Booney out of Omni-freeze material. It will wash out in the sink and dry overnight as well.

Footnote: in the context of head coverings, the ladies (not the fellas) will also want to pack one cloth headscarf. This should be big enough to completely cover your hair, neck, and shoulders. Only your face will peek through. It won’t be needed much, but it will be needed. Pack it!

Three ladies looking marvelously modest on a cold winter day in Jerusalem. Note the scarfwork. Yup, that’s Vicki on the left.

Jacket or Rain-shell

A light jacket is only necessary if your trip is early in the year (March or April) when rain is still around and nights can be cool. For water protection, pick a light “shell” that will keep you dry. Even if the sky is dry, this can be worn as part of a layering package for warmth. If you are cold-blooded, you might add one light sweater or a half-zip fleece just in case (See here for more on weather).

Jerusalem can be cool and rainy in the Spring.

Sex and Politics

Attention, please. Two other issues.

I am compelled to say something more to the ladies. For obvious reasons, I would not pack any kind of tank, halter, camisole, sleeveless top, or a shirt with a deep V neckline for use in the Middle East. These will attract seriously awkward attention on the street. Moreover, many “Holy Places” require females to have tops that completely cover the shoulders and, in one place that I can think of, long sleeves that reach to the wrist. Take this into account as you pack strategically. Go with the button up or crew neck.

For both men and women, it is prudent to avoid clothing with printed pictures, logos, or statements that can be interpreted as nationalistic, sexual, or religious. Most of the time this is not an issue, but occasionally it can be a problem. If you are a patriotic American, good for you! Just realize that wrapping yourself in a flag when traveling abroad is imprudent. Don’t make yourself an irritant or a target. Dress like a Canadian, stay out of the kerfuffle, and everybody will love you, eh?

and Finally . . .

Covering your topside is not difficult but is an essential task. I recommend high tech materials, but I also realize that we survived many seasons of digging and traveling in the Middle East wearing damp cotton shirts and pants. The important thing is that every traveler is protected from the sun. Hot and windy afternoons can cook your noggin and can leave you burned, dehydrated, or worse.

Well . . . most of us survived those days in the field with cotton. Tell Jawa Excavations, Jordan (1991).