When visiting countries where you’ll need to dress warmly, packing can feel like a struggle. How are you supposed to pack light for cold weather travel when you need so many items to keep you toasty?
Don’t fret over trying to fit your puffy jacket into your carry on bag. It is possible to both pack light and be prepared for cold weather, whether you’re going to Russia, Antarctica or Chicago in the winter. We’ll show you how!
The Key to Packing Light
The key to packing light for cold weather (and any weather for that matter) is layers. You don’t need one massive jacket to keep you warm when you can bring smaller pieces to wear multiple ways.
Think pieces that can all be worn together when cold, but can also be mixed and matched, as well as worn individually- for differing temperatures and weather conditions, as well as different activities.
One massive jacket can only be worn in one condition: when it’s really cold. Any other weather conditions or activities will render it a useless, heavy, and bulky ankle weight.
If you choose your layers well, you’ll have less bulk, more outfit options, and be just as warm.
Packing Your Tops in Layers
1. Start with your base layers.
We love camisoles and tank tops because they can be worn under virtually anything for added warmth, and adding a couple to your packing list adds very little weight and space. The bonus about tanks and camisoles is that you can also wear them later on your trip, in warmer weather, for exercise, or to sleep in.
Another base layer option is a thin, short or long-sleeve shirt, preferably made of merino wool if you feel like investing. This kind of top is best in a solid color that can be worn under other “normal” tops, or that can be worn as a top all its own.
The goal here is to have something that keeps your core warm. Once you have something that acts as your core, you can move onto your presentation layers.
2. Add your presentation layers.
Presentation layers tend to be what people will see you in when you’re indoors. These can be cute cardigans, thin sweaters and tunics, just to name a few. Tunics are a great layerable option here as they cover more of your body. My Shirtigan and Chica Cool Hoody*, both by ExOfficio, are what I typically wear.
*Please note this post contains affiliate links, denoted with an asterisk. See our disclosure here.
3. Seal it in with your jacket layer.
Depending on the weather at your destination, and the weight of your previous layers, this may or may not be your final layer. For this layer, I recommend a denim jacket, a nice zip-up fleece, or an insulated jacket like the ExOfficio Storm Logic Sweater Jacket– which also folds into a travel pillow. It’s fleece on the inside and has a hood, but doesn’t do much in terms of wind protection, so keep that in mind.
4. Add extra weather protection.
From there, add a light coat or jacket that you can carry on board the plane. This layer may just be to add extra warmth, or it can be to block cold wind or repel water.
The Mountain Hardwear Typhoon and North Face Triclimate are two great jackets to try as they have zip off interiors and are water resistant. A solid, lightweight peacoat is another good choice for those wanting to look a bit nicer while traveling in colder climates.
Packing Your Bottoms in Layers
When it comes to pants, I always bring jeans for cold weather. They may not be practical on all trips, but they are easy to layer when the weather is especially cold. Corduroy pants are another good option because of the additional fabric. Whatever pants you bring, you can layer them by wearing a pair of long underwear, leggings or tights underneath.
The brilliant part about leggings is that you can also wear them on their own under long tops, or as pajama bottoms meaning you have more outfit options in addition to added warmth layers!
Is there anything worse than cold feet when you’re walking around a new place? Whichever shoes you decide to bring should keep out water at the very minimum since cold weather also has a tendency to bring rain or snow, so those athletic shoes that have breathable panels aren’t the best. Boots will both keep your feet warm, especially when paired with wool socks, and look great.
Just make sure to wear them on the plane to avoid having to find space in your luggage (and to avoid them being counted against any weight restrictions). If you do pack them, fill them up with items to save on space.
Accessorizing in Cold Weather
If all of your clothing items are in neutral or solid colors, it’s easier to mix and match them. Use your accessories as a way to change up outfits from day to day. It may be the same coat every day, but you can wear different hats, scarves and gloves to change up your look. It’s much easier to pack lighter with multiple hats and scarves rather than multiple coats.
Packing It All Up
Save luggage space and weight by wearing as much onto the plane as possible.
Now before you cringe and say we’re crazy, you don’t have to go overboard to the point where you’re about to pass out (like this guy). It’s all about choosing your heaviest and/or bulkiest layers and items- like your boots, jeans and bulkiest top- and making sure those are worn onto the plane.
Take this into account when initially packing as well, because knowing that those items won’t be counted against you at check-in can put a mind at ease.
For space concerns, pack items in compression sacks and cubes that can help to minimize space by removing air from your luggage.
And of course, it’s always helpful to ask yourself: What travel gear do I need? If something isn’t vital, then leave it behind!
Do you have any packing light for cold weather tips?
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In this graphic: Icebreaker Everyday Cami*, Exofficio Cafenista Tunic*, The North Face Mezzaluna Hoodie*, Columbia W’s Flashback Windbreaker Long*, Icebreaker Women’s Everyday Long Sleeve Crewe*, Long Sleeve Button Down Plaid Flannel Tunic*, Long Sleeve Drop Pocket Boyfriend Cardigan*, Short Sleeve Comfy Loose Fit Long Tunic*
Insulated insoles can also help to add warmth to boots. I can buy them in stores where I live, but people who live in warmer parts of the world might have to buy them online.
They are usually made of felt with foil on one side.
These types of insoles are cheap, and fit easily into a carry-on.
Thanks for the tip, Mary!
They do have those puffy jackets that stuff down to a small little fist size now. I’m sure it’s on this awesome site somewhere. I plan to get one (Ross out Marshalls, they’re expensive!) for this winter’s travels. I’m glad science and this websites tips are making it possible to travel light in cold weather!
The stuffable puffy jackets ARE expensive! We’d love a review if you ever get your hands on one 🙂
I got a pack-able light-weight down jacket at Sam’s Club for $20. Came with it’s own baggie and even fit in my personal item for an economy flight. Used it under my Scottevest multi-pocket (17 in all) trench for super warmth without the bulk.
Great layering advice!
I often layer two pairs of leggings on top of each other to add warmth. It gives me a much greater range of warmth management – I can wear a thin pair of leggings on a warmer day, a thicker pair on a cool day, and both together on a cold day. I live in the Pacific Northwest of the US and wear wool leggings every day for most of the year (I don’t even own any real pants anymore!). They keep me warm, even when I get wet walking or biking in the rain, which is super important. I also layer thick and thin pairs of socks inside my uninsulated boots for the same reasons.
The best thin leggings I’ve found are wool/poly blend from Costco, of all places – I’m a curvy size 10 and they actually come up high enough to sit on my natural waist (surprisingly SUPER difficult to come across!), so they stay up very well, and they have a great stretch to them. The best thicker ones are the midweight 100% wool ones from L.L. Bean – I love the thickness, and they’ve held up much better for me than the more expensive ones by Smartwool or Icebreaker.
Great post – packing for cold weather is so much more challenging than throwing some swimsuits and t-shirts in a suitcase!
My biggest packing challenge is leaving Chicago in the winter for a warm destination. It’s either freeze on your way to the airport, or lug a bunch of winter boots/coats around a tropical island once you arrive. I’d love to hear anyone’s tips on this before I head to Central America next month 🙂
Your comment reminds me of our 3rd podcast episode where Julie went off to an exchange wearing winter boots and big coat at the end of winter, to never ever need them on her exchange! Do not wear the winter clothes to the airport. Instead, layer up the best you can with what you plan to take on your trip to Central America. Chances are you will still have evenings where you want to cover your arms/legs. Maybe put leggings underneath a skirt or dress or other light pants. Use a sarong/ pashmina/ turkish towel as a wrap. It won’t be the best, but it is better than lugging the extras IMO.
Thanks for this useful post! I am looking forward to traveling to NYC in December, and since I’m from Colombia (South America)and I had absolutely no clue about bottoms and shoes!
This is such great advice. I am leaving next week from Florida in the 80’s to Chicago in the 40s-50s. I had no idea where to start and this has been a big help!
Hi I was wondering how many bra tops and long sleeve base-layers did you bring with you? I am leaving to Patagonia for 2 weeks and just wondering how many shouid I pack…I thought about 3 or 6…..
Years ago, I used to travel between Alaska an Louisiana with my infant / toddler (just the two of us)
I’m sorry, but there’s no avoiding a heavy coat in traveling to and from central Alaska in the fall or winter. I’d need those layers AND a heavy coat just to get to and from the airport.
Since I had to bring the heavy coats anyway, I tied mine to the handle of my rolling suitcase / carry-on, and stuffed the pockets with gloves, hats, even socks and/or tights. I’d wear a heavy cardigan and tie a flannel shirt around my waist.
I just thought I’d add a suggestion or two to free up a little luggage space for those people (like me) who would rather not wear the same clothes (especially undershirts) every day.
I usually go to.the Caribbean in winter and live in New England. I always wear a bulky woolen sweater on my way to and from the airport and take a cab so that I don’t have to wear a coat. Taking a cab is expensive but to me it’s worth it not to bring a large coat on trips. It’s great to wear the sweater on the plane. I also got a fever once in Jamaica and I was glad to have bright the sweater.
Thanks a lot for the tips. It’s really helpful for someone like me who lives in Southeast Asia. =D