What should I pack for a winter holiday? As a Southern Californian, that was a question I had no idea how to answer until a few years ago.
I used to think that anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit was “freezing cold.”
My winter packing list consisted of about 5 turtlenecks (which I hated wearing, but somehow thought I needed), several heavy coats, and multiple pairs of bulky, itchy, gray wool socks to survive cold weather trips.
Needless to say, walking around like an overstuffed burrito while carrying multiple bags was never a pleasant experience.
But everything changed when I moved to Colorado. I became obsessed with researching the best fabrics and techniques for staying warm in actual cold weather. Like, fluffy-white-things-falling-from-the-sky level cold.
I quickly learned about the importance of layering and the miracle that is lightweight wool (more on that later). Honestly, much of the credit should go to Michael, my native Coloradan husband, who also patiently taught me how to walk on ice-filled sidewalk and even snowboard.
Together, we’ve traveled the world with clothing for multiple climates in one carry-on bag each. Before that, we did multiple backcountry backpacking trips in the Rocky Mountains. When it comes to packing light for cold weather, I’d like to think we’ve gotten pretty damn good at it.
To help you out, we’ve put together this winter packing list based on our research and real-world experience. It has all our best tips, including how to pack for cold weather in a carry on, winter travel essentials, and even a printable packing list for cold weather.
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HOW TO PACK LIGHT FOR WINTER TRAVEL
So, how do you pack a suitcase for winter? Although it may sound impossible, packing winter clothes in a carry on is really not as hard as you think. It’s more about knowing exactly how and what to pack, and some key secrets…
Wear Bulky Clothing on the Flight
One of the keys to packing winter gear in a carry on bag is to wear bulky and heavy items on travel days. Wear your coat, scarf, and boots on flights to meet carry on weight restrictions and fit everything else in your bag.
Choose Items Wisely
Packing light for travel is all about choosing a few quality items over quantity. For winter travel, that means clothing made from a durable, lightweight fabric that’ll keep you warm.
And that fabric is Merino wool. Merino wool is finer, lighter and softer than regular wool. It’s a natural insulator that keeps you dry by wicking moisture away from your body. Plus, it’s odor-resistant which means that you can wear it for longer before washing. It’s basically the ultimate travel fabric.
It’s also important to choose items that serve more than one purpose. For example, I use my pashmina as a blanket on airplanes, as a scarf on cold days, and as a shawl on cool summer nights. We’ll get into more ideas for multi-use items later.
Layer Up to Stay Warm
Wearing layers is a crucial part of dressing for cold weather. It’s the best way to be prepared for any kind of weather (both indoors and out) and stay warm.
Dressing in layers means starting with thermal-like base layers, then adding on the mid layers, like pants and a sweater, and wearing your outer layer on top of that, like your jacket, hat, and gloves.
Use Packing Cubes
After you’ve got all of the right clothing for winter travel, the best way to fit it all inside your luggage is to use packing cubes. Packing cubes are fabric containers with zippers that compress clothing, helping everything fit into your bag.
They are also a great way to stay organized and make it easy to unpack at your destination. Just take the packing cubes out of your bag and stick them in a drawer and you’re done!
WHAT TO PACK FOR A COLD WEATHER VACATION
Now that we’ve covered how to pack, let’s talk about what to pack for a cold weather vacation.
Not having to drag wheeled luggage through snow just makes life so much easier. Which is one of the many reasons why we use carry-on backpacks for traveling. I love my women’s travel backpack and Michael loves his travel backpack.
A packable day pack is essential for carrying cold weather clothing and accessories in case the weather changes while you’re out exploring. Make sure to pack your packable jacket, hat, scarf, gloves, and moisturizer!
Coat & Jacket
Of course, it’s important to check the weather before packing for your cold weather vacation. Unless it’s extremely cold, you can probably just take a packable puffy jacket or parka.
Packable down and down alternative jackets are perfect for travel. They pack down small, can be used as a pillow on planes, and puff up in an instant to keep you warm, even in light snow. Michael loves his packable down jacket, while I’ve got my heart set on this vegan alternative down jacket. Remember to get a jacket that fits loosely to leave space underneath for multiple layers!
The secret to staying warm in freezing temperatures is to wear base layers. They basically work as insulation to trap in your body heat. The best base layers are made with wool because they’re warm, lightweight, and quick-drying.
They can be worn under jeans for walking around the city or under hiking pants to keep you warm on outdoor adventures. And they also work great alone as leggings and pajamas.
The other good thing about wearing base layers is that they’ll keep the mid and outer layers clean and odor-free, which means you only have to worry about washing the quick-drying base layers.
Sweaters and fleeces are great for wearing alone on cooler days or as the mid-layer beneath your jacket, You can also dress up a knit sweater to go out to dinner.
A fleece sweater with ¼ zipper is lighter and packs up smaller than a fleece jacket with pockets and full zipper. Knit sweaters can be bulky so it may be best to pack just one or two. Another good option is a packable puffy or fleece vest .
One of the items we find ourselves wearing often on our cold weather travels is a flannel shirt . It’s the perfect mid layer because it’s warm enough to wear outside at times, but also cool enough to leave on indoors.
Yes, jeans are bulky and heavy, but they’re our favorite. We both travel with a pair of black or dark jeans because they are easy to dress up or down and go with pretty much any color shirt. Wear your base layer bottoms underneath to stay warm!
For outdoor activities, you’ll also want to bring along a pair of hiking pants. PrAna has several options of hiking pants for men and hiking pants for women that are water-resistant, yet don’t look like your typical hiking pants, so they can be worn around the city as well or out to dinner without looking like a tourist.
Pack a versatile, water-resistant pair of winter boots that’ll take you from the airport to walking in snow.
Wool socks are the best thing to happen to my travel packing list. And no, I’m not talking about those old-school, itchy, super thick gray socks I started off with.
There are tons of lightweight wool socks to choose from including cushioned ones for hiking shoes and super thin no-show socks for sneakers. Our favorite wool socks are made by Darn Tough. We both have several styles and they can be worn for hours on end without getting stinky.
Keeping your head covered with is an essential part of staying warm in cold weather. We always pack beanies for winter trips because you never know when it’ll get too cold.
I must admit I’m not a huge fan of winter hats, but I hate it when my ears get cold, so I usually wear this fleece headband along with my jacket’s hoodie.
I always have a large scarf in my travel bag. It’s the perfect multi-use item. It works as a blanket on the plane, a shield from the sun, a shawl on cool summer nights, and, of course, as a warm scarf on snowy days.
Gloves are another must for winter travel. One good pair of Merino wool gloves with touchscreen compatible fingertips will do. Make sure whatever gloves you pack are touchscreen compatible because having to take your warm gloves off in freezing temperatures to check your phone is a pain!
Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit! You’ll need one for some classic cold weather activities: jumping in the hot tub or sauna and soaking in hot springs.
OTHER WINTER ESSENTIALS
Along with the cold weather clothing basics, there are some other essentials you should bring along on your winter trip.
Ski & Snowboarding Gear
Ifyou’re going on a ski or snowboarding trip, make sure to check out our Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List for tips on what to bring along.
You’ll need an intense moisturizer for cold weather travel. Our favorite is Honest Company All-Purpose Balm.
Sunburns on the ski slopes are no joke. Make sure to wear sunscreen!
It’s also really important to keep your eyes protected from the sun’s rays bouncing off the snow by wearing polarized sunglasses (I use and love these folding ones).
A waterproof GoPro camera is the best way to capture your outdoor adventures.
Stay safe and don’t leave home without travel insurance.
PACKING LIST FOR COLD WEATHER
So how much should you be packing inside your carry-on for minimalist winter travel? Here’s a quick rundown of the basics for a cold weather packing list.
Clothing & Shoes
- 1 Winter Coat (Optional)
- 1 Packable Puffy Jacket
- 1 Packable Rain Jacket
- 1 Lightweight Fleece
- 1-2 Sweaters
- 2-3 Shirts
- 2-3 Pants
- 1 Base Layer Top
- 1 Base Layer Bottom
- 2-3 Wool Socks
- 1 Pair of Boots
- 1 Hat
- 1 Scarf
- 1 Pair of Gloves
- 1 Bathing Suit
- Intense Moisturizer
- Polarized Sunglasses
- GoPro Camera
- Travel Insurance
WINTER VACATION PACKING TIPS
I hope these winter vacation packing tips and winter travel packing list were helpful! Let us know in the comments below if you have any other useful tips for packing for cold weather.
Interested in winter travel tips? Check out these other posts:
Plan Your Trip
Pack Your Bags
Wondering what to pack? Read our Ultimate Guide to Packing Light for a list of travel essentials.
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