Is winter at home giving you a case of cabin fever? Traveling in the winter can be just the diversion needed to lift your spirits and give you a new perspective for springtime. Here in the USA, we are lucky enough to have travel opportunities that cover a variety of climates in our winter. If you’re from the Southern Hemisphere, a winter trip to America can help you check “build a snowman” off your bucket list. If you’re from a colder climate, the Southwest’s dry desert and blue sky will divert your attention from the grey weather at home.
Since I travel frequently, I aim to streamline my travel style. No checked bags here! Winter travel can mean packing a few extra necessities that add bulk to your bag, but it is still completely possible to pack at least two weeks’ worth of winter gear in your carry-on bag. For my last trip I packed everything I needed and realized I could have streamlined even further and saved space!
21 days from Los Angeles, CA to San Francisco, CA in January (or anytime between October and March), California Hwy 1, Hollywood, Grand Canyon, National Parks of Utah, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco
Temperatures anywhere between -25 to 20 C. San Francisco’s weather is much different and colder than the beaches of LA and San Diego. High elevations like the Grand Canyon and parks in Utah will be extremely cold, rarely reaching above -5 C and often much colder.
What You’ll Need to Pack
I prefer to pack dresses because I love to wear them and they capitalize on suitcase space. I’ve been known to pack nothing BUT dresses. For winter I like a ponte-knit dress with a full skirt in a solid color and a gray sweater dress… they can go anywhere, with anything, for any occasion. They’re especially great for dinners and city tours.
Unless you are fundamentally opposed to dresses, you should bring at least one for your night in Las Vegas. I usually bring one wowza dress for Vegas that I won’t wear again on the trip, but there is so little material to it that it hardly takes up space. You don’t need to go full glamour girl, but Vegas is the kind of place where it’s best to overdress. If you’re worried that your dress is too over-the-top… Don’t. You’ll see much worse.
1 pair of Leggings
Oh black leggings. These sleek bottoms, especially those in a winter-weight, are ideal travel buddies. They look great by themselves. They provide extra warmth layered under dresses. You can even put them under jeans if necessary, which it may be in the high altitudes of Utah.
1 pair of Jeans
What else would you wear in the most denim-centric country in the world? I like mine dark and skinny, but whatever suits you. Jeans are acceptable just about everywhere, so you can’t go wrong.
2 skirts (or other pants)
I prefer skirts to pants, but either is completely acceptable. I usually bring two knit pencil skirts in a longer and shorter length because they travel so well and pack flat.
2 Layering tank tops (or more)
I always bring at least two tanks, no matter the season- one white, one black. On longer trips I’ll bring four or even six. Even if I do nothing more than sleep in them, I am always glad to have them. You know your style. Bring as many as your space reasonably allows.
4-5 tops (blouses, t-shirts, sweaters)
If you pick your fabrics wisely, you can get away with packing a few extra of these. I always pack at least two extra- I’m a messy eater. For winter, I like 1 knit sweater, 1 white button-down, and 3-4 tee shirts of varying casualness.
3 mid-weight layers
1 Cardigan – My favorite is long, black, and warm
1 Blazer – Easily exchangeable for another cardigan, the blazer changes and dresses up an outfit
1 athletic layer– For those cold days in the parks, you’ll want either a hoodie or zip-up jacket of some sort for extra warmth. The trick with this layer is it’s got to be warm but thin enough to pack efficiently and/or layer under your coat — you don’t want something big and bulky.. My choice is a Patagonia zip-up soft-shell; it is waterproof, windproof, extra-toasty, and very smart.
I bring two because I get sick of wearing the same thing every day. If you are not vain like me, then one is completely fine and will significantly cut down on your suitcase space. I like to bring a snowboard coat because it’s warm and has so many pockets it might as well be a purse. My other coat is a pretty trench that works well in the cities.
1 pair of awesome boots
These should be in every girl’s closet. The kind of boots that can go anywhere and kick down any doors necessary. If done right, these will take you through the snowiest bits of trails and the brightest of cities. They should be tough enough to withstand the elements, but they don’t have to be moonboots either.
1 pair of everywhere flats
I usually buy a pair to start the trip and by the end of it I give them to someone on the street. In winter I particularly drawn to leopard flats. Bonus points if they are small enough to travel in your clutch for those long walks on the Las Vegas Strip.
1 pair of high heels
I have gone on several trips without high heels for the purpose of saving space, and every single time I have lamented it. Of course, many people never miss them. This is entirely personal, but if you are a heels kind of woman then you will want to have them in Las Vegas. America is one of the few places in the world where high heels are actually practical. If you like em, bring em.
Alternatively, you can always go shopping in Vegas. Just sayin.
I like to have one in a knit winter weight and the other in a lighter weight. They do endless things for your wardrobe.
Jewelry as necessary
I am particularly bad about jewelry. I always bring a million times more than I need (it doesn’t really take up that much space, does it?). Learn from my mistakes and pick the pieces you know work with an outfit and leave the rest at home.
One for your jeans, one for your waist. Maybe a fancy one as well.
SUPER important for winter. They also bring an extra layer of warmth if necessary. I bring 1 solid black pair, 1 colored pair, and 1 black patterned pair. Some people think tights and leggings are synonymous, but bend over and I’ll show you that they are not.
I like knee socks as a general rule, but just make sure you have enough pairs to suit your style.
I usually only bring three or four pair. I just wash them in the sink. Maybe that’s gross. I don’t think so. I also only bring two convertible bras in black and nude.
Hat and gloves
You will definitely want a warm hat of some kind. Make it part of your personality. You will also find gloves to be necessary at many of the national parks. I like mine to be fingerless with a fold-over mitten flap.
Solid Neem Oil Shampoo bar
Soap in a bag
Dr. Bronner’s in Citrus
BB Cream w/SPF
1 great palette w/makeup options
Lip protection – It is vital that you have some kind of SPF for your lips, because the high altitude will fry them if not.
Toothpaste and toothbrush
Contacts and accessories
I don’t bring a blow dryer or straightener because I have a pixie cut, which I would highly recommend for travelling.
How I Pack it All
Think of car travel like flying — you’ll have a checked bag that you only get out for the hotel and a “carry-on” bag (aka purse) that houses the things you’ll need during the day.
1 carry-on suitcase
A lot of people go for the hard-case or the swivel wheels, but you know, the red one my mom got me for graduation works just fine. I have worked with a lot of travelers who bring their backpacks, and while I love my own backpack, traditional suitcases are just better suited for car travel. Save your Gregory or for a country where you will be walking a lot… you won’t be here.
Eagle Creek pack-it cubes
This is probably the best travel accessory I have ever purchased. These packing cubes make your suitcase work for you. I have the large and small double-zip case and they are super rad. Depending on how many clothes I need, I put my tops in one side and my bottoms in the other. If I don’t have as many clothes I put clean on one side and dirty on the other. It’s just such a nice way to compress and organize your clothes on trips.
1 large tote bag
Mine is an eco-bag made of red polyester that crumples up into its own little pocket. I love it because it is HUGE but still small enough to count as my personal item on planes. Seriously though, it fits my purse, laptop bag (which functions as my media carry-all), water bottle, road atlas, and an extra outfit. I use it primarily for flying and then organize further on arrival, but I love how small it compresses if I don’t need it any more.
Purse (AKA your carry-on bag for the car)
Backpacks may be more your style, but I am a purse woman, and pickpockets are of little concern here, so I just stick with my standard purse of the moment. Mine is a camel leather and is big enough to house my work binder, laptop if necessary, journal, a book, ipod, snacks, water bottle, clutch/wallet, and an absurd amount of lip gloss.
I like to have a pretty little purse for nights out. Mine is small enough to function regularly as a wallet inside my day purse, but big enough to hold all the necessities. Even better, it has a detachable shoulder strap.
About the Author: Elisa Marcheschi is an American adventurer. Born in Utah and schooled in Oregon, she has been spending post-grad life as a Chief Experience Officer for G Adventures. As a tour guide, she drives a van full of international travelers on cross-country camping trips. In the summer of 2013, she will be joining the Teach for America corps to teach special education in Chicago, IL. Her interests include travel, food and drink, social issues, and awkward dance moves. You can follow her at @Elisaiselectric on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.