How to Pack Light for Winter Travel

Jessie Beck

Packing light becomes more of a challenge in the winter. Fitting everything into a carry on is easy when you’re packing a couple of sundresses and sandals. Now, swap those out for sweaters, bulky boots, and winter sports gear and your bag might look smaller than it did back in July.

Don’t give up yet. You can still pack in a carry on backpack and enjoy the snow. Read on for tips on packing light for winter travel, the best cold weather travel clothes, and what to do with bulky skis and snowboards.

Which Cold Weather Travel Clothes to Pack

Clothing always takes up the most room in our luggage, especially in the winter. However, there are a couple of good ways to reduce the bulk in your bag.

Choose Non-Bulky Layers

Where possible, opt for clothing that isn’t large and bulky. Instead of a chunky knit scarf, get a jersey one. Instead of your favorite big, slouchy sweater, grab a more fitted one. To add variety to your travel wardrobe, rely on lighter layers, like t-shirts layered under a cardigan or a mini skirt paired with thick wool tights.

Long Underwear Are Your Best Friend

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. They’ll 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.

Down Jackets: The Best Coat for Winter Travel

It took me years to wean myself away from traveling with my favorite peacoat and transition to less-stylish but warm and practical down jacket. I’m so much happier for it. Not only does it pack down smaller when I’m not using it (i.e. running around the airport) but it’s much lighter in weight.

A down jacket also holds up against snow a lot better than most fashion jackets, so I finally feel prepared for wandering around just about any cold weather scenario.

Scarves and Hats

To help you pack light, choose a more lightweight hat and scarf. Avoid chunky knits, and go for a simple jersey scarf or straightforward beanie. 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).

Boots and Warm Socks

For cold weather travel, opt for a neutral-colored pair of boots that pair well with all of your outfits. If they’re not already, consider making them waterproof. To keep your feet warm, also get a good pair, or two, of thick, wool socks.

Use Compression Sacks

Although it’s best to avoid packing bulky layers, sometimes you can’t fully avoid it. And even when you do manage to grab your least bulky outfits, clothes still take up a lot of room. To create space for other items like, say, your toothbrush, pack your winter clothes in compression sacks and they’ll take up less space in your luggage.

Visit a Place Regularly? Store Items, or Borrow 

Whenever I travel back to my parents’ house in Washington DC in the winter, I don’t pack much. Instead, I’ll make use of the box of clothes I’ve left with them for this purpose or rummage through my mom’s closet for things to wear.

If you usually travel to a cold weather destination to visit family or friends, consider leaving an old outfit or two with them. If you travel somewhere regularly, but not necessarily to visit family or friends, you could still consider leaving a bag with the hotel you normally stay at. This is called urban caching. Some hotels will even wash your clothes and store them away for you in between visits.

Shipping Your Luggage to Your Destination

Another option for traveling with less: ship your luggage to your destination. In my opinion, this only makes sense for two circumstances:

  1. If you’re traveling for the holidays and want to ship gifts in advance.
  2. A multi-destination trip where only part of it is in a cold-weather destination.

For gifts, try to purchase things online and enter your destination as the shipping address. It’s generally cheaper than buying items in person and shipping them.

If you want to send your luggage or part of your luggage ahead, you could use a luggage mailing service such as DUFL or Luggage Forward. However, most of these services will cost at least $100 (if not more).

A more affordable option? Use the USPS flat rate shipping services. A flat rate applies, regardless of weight, for packages when you use their official boxes. For a large box, it’ll cost around $19 for domestic shipping, $60 for international.

Winter Sports: How to Travel with Sports Gear

Do you ski? Snowboard? Are you traveling somewhere to indulge in your favorite winter sport? What are you going to do about your sports equipment?

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

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.

The best clothes for winter travel are:

  • Non-bulky layers
  • Thermal underwear
  • Down jacket
  • Waterproof or resistant boots
  • Warm socks
  • Hat & scarf

Use compression sacks to pack it all down compactly.

Alternatively, you could ditch the luggage all together and ship it to your destination, or stash stuff with friends, family, or a hotel you frequent. With holiday gifts, order online and ship them to your destination.

Traveling for a ski or snowboard trip? You’ll either have to check your ski or snowboard or rent one later. If you bring your own, share a bag with friends to save money on checked baggage fees and never, ever ship.

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