How to Pack Light for Winter Travel and Cold Weather

Jessie Beck

Packing light in the winter may pose more of a challenge than the summer, but it’s still possible. There’s no need to check a bag just because you have a coat and a couple of sweaters — you just need to put thought into what you bring and how you pack it.

Between coats, sweaters, and boots, packing for cold weather trips is always more challenging than warm ones. However, you can still pack light for winter travel and still have everything you need. It’s all about having the right winter travel clothes, packing layers, and using a few clever tricks to fit even the bulkiest layer into your bag.

Whether you’re headed somewhere colder for the holidays or going skiing in Hokkaido, here’s how to pack light for winter travel.

how to pack light for winter travel

Use This Winter Packing List

The winter clothes you choose to travel with will likely be different than the ones you wear in cold weather at home. Great winter travel clothes will pack down compactly, rather than add unnecessary bulk to your bag. They’ll also hold up to the environment, since you’ll likely spend more time outdoors than normal, and be easy to layer and rewear for multiple different occasions.

For cold weather trips, here’s what clothes you should pack:

1-2 Fitted Sweaters

I wear sweaters all winter long. (Just kidding. I live in San Francisco. I wear sweaters every day of the year). But when I travel, I leave my fun, oversized sweaters at home and instead pack my fitted sweaters, like Everlane’s Cashmere and Cotton crews, which pack more easily.

And, of course, you can never go wrong with a merino wool sweater for cold weather adventures. This magic travel fabric is naturally temperature regulating, softer than traditional wool, and dries quickly.

Check out our buyer’s guide to travel sweaters.

2-3 Long- and Short-Sleeved Tops

The key to choosing winter travel clothes is focusing on layers. In addition to your sweaters, pack 2-3 tops. Choose a mix of long and short sleeves, so you can be just as ready for a full day in freezing weather as you are for an evening by a cozy fire.

Check out our buyer’s guide to travel t-shirts.

2 Bottoms / Pants

For cold weather trips in urban areas, I’ll usually pack a pair of pants or leggings, and a mid-length skirt and warm, wool-lined tights. Jeans are also fine for winter travel, though not ideal if there’s any snow in the forecast.

Check out our buyer’s guide to travel jeans and leggings.

Base Layers: Leggings and Long-Sleeve Shirt

Pack a lightweight pair of long underwear (leggings and long-sleeve shirt) to make any outfit warmer. Smartwool — our favorite brand for travel socks — also makes great long underwear and base layers.

Base layers will help you rock your favorite pair of jeans and sweater, without freezing your butt off, so you can look good and stay warm at the same time.

Check out our buyer’s guide to the best women’s base layers for travel.

1 Down Jacket

Down jackets are the best coat for winter travel. They pack down small when not in use (i.e. in the airport), are incredibly warm for their size, and will be more weather resistant than more fashion-forward coats.

While everyone’s needs and preferences will differ, I’d recommend Patagonia, Arcteryx, and Columbia for well-made down jackets that will last through years of adventures. While less long-lasting, Uniqlo also makes a decent budget-friendly down jacket.

Check out our buyer’s guide to winter travel jackets.

A Lightweight, Warm Scarf

A scarf is a winter packing must. While you won’t want to sacrifice warmth, you do want a scarf that won’t take up too much room in your pack. A lightweight jersey or (yes, I know) merino wool scarf will give you warmth without bulk.

Alternatively, go for a scarf that does double duty as an airplane blanket. Or, if you want to be ultra minimalist, grab a multi-functional Buff.

Check out our buyer’s guide to travel scarves.

A Warm Hat and Gloves

Go for a straightforward beanie you can match to any outfit. Want to get serious? Try the Outdoor Research Transcendent Beanie ($50). It’s like wearing a down jacket on your head, but it packs down small enough to fit in your pocket (yes, even a woman’s pocket).

1-2 Pairs of Shoes: Boots and Sneakers

For cold weather travel, opt for a waterproof or water resistant, neutral-colored pair of boots that pair well with all of your outfits. If you don’t already own a good pair, Sorel is my go-to brand for both men and women for waterproof, winter-ready boots that actually look stylish.

Depending on your trip and itinerary, also pack a pair of sturdy sneakers that you can wear on nicer days or for indoor workouts.

Check out our buyer’s guide to the best travel shoe for every trip — including winter trips.

Several Pairs of Warm Socks

To keep your feet warm, grab a few pairs of wool socks. Again, merino wool is our preferred winter sock material, since it tends to be more odor resistant and sweat wicking than other sock materials.

Check out our buyer’s guide to the best travel socks.

winter packing list

Carry On Packing Tips for Cold Weather Travel

No matter how much you try to reduce bulk, winter clothes simply take up more room in your luggage. Here’s how to pack bulky winter clothes for travel:

Wear Larger Layers in Transit

Just, you know, don’t be that person who stuffs their jacket in the overhead bin before all the suitcases are stowed away.

Use Compression Sacks and Packing Cubes

To create space for other items like, say, your toothbrush, pack your winter travel clothes in compression sacks or compression packing cubes. These nifty bags will press out any excess air from bulkier items like sweaters, jackets, and ski pants.

Roll or Fold Your Clothes

Rolling will help keep your bag more organized, but, contrary to popular belief, won’t rolling won’t save you space. Go ahead, roll or fold your clothes — either way, it’ll give you more space than simply stuffing everything in your backpack.

Stuff Small Items into Your (Packed) Shoes

Pack gloves, socks, and other small items in your second pair of shoes (if you’re bringing more than one pair).

Borrow or Rent Items at Your Destination

If you’re visiting friends or family, see if you can borrow things like sweaters or coats. No matter where you’re headed, you can also rent items at your destination — especially if you know you’ll only need them for a day or two.

Ship Items in Advance

Ship gifts directly to your family’s house before you go home for the holidays. Or, if you’re on a trip that takes you through multiple climates and destinations, mail part of your bag home with USPS’s flat rate service.

how to pack for cold weather trips

Winter Sports: How to Travel with Sports Gear

Packing for a skiing trip is a whole different challenge. Not only does it require gear, but you’ll likely bring additional clothes.

With gear, you really only have two options: bring it or rent it. While shipping gear through options like Ship Skis may seem attractive, frequent traveler and snowboarder, Angelina says, “Never ever ever ship your skis or snowboard. There are horror stories of people never seeing their boards or skis again. It’s not worth the risk of losing an expensive set of skis or snowboard. If you have to ship, though, insure it.”

If You’re Bringing Your Gear…

There’s no way around it: you’ll have to check a bag. If possible, pack everything but the sports equipment in a carry on so you can avoid paying for two bags. Some tips to getting there:

  1. Keep an eye on weather patterns: will you need your heaviest coat? Or could you go with a lighter one?
  2. Buy lighter gear if you can afford it.
  3. Bring only what you need: leave non-essentials at home.
  4. Optimize space as best as possible: put small gear in your ski boots.
  5. Share the snowboard or ski bag with friends to save money on checked luggage.
  6. Pack more than just your skis/snowboard in the bag. Just make sure it doesn’t go over 50 pounds or you’ll likely have to pay an oversized luggage charge.
  7. Get a good bag. Angelina recommends looking at Douchebag.

If You’re Renting Your Gear…

Most serious skiers and snowboarders I know say they hate renting. It’s expensive, time consuming, and the equipment is often not good quality. Still, sometimes you’ve got to rent — especially if you’re not very serious and don’t own your own gear. If you rent:

  1. Bring your own ski boots. It’s the one item you can still fit in a carry on, and you’ll feel more comfortable in your own shoes.
  2. When renting gear, look for packages with your lift ticket.
  3. Know where to rent. Resort demo centers have better gear. Local ski shops tend to be more affordable.
  4. Need more than gear? You can rent jackets and other clothes at outdoors stores like REI.

TL;DR

If you’re traveling in the winter or to a cold weather destination, you can still pack carry on only. To pack light for a winter trip:

  • Pack lightweight, easy to layer clothes.
  • Opt for a down jacket.
  • Merino wool is one of the best materials for winter travel clothes.
  • Use compression sacks or packing cubes to shrink bulkier layers.
  • Wear your bulkiest layers in transit.
  • Borrow or rent larger items and sports equipment at your destination.
 

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