The following packing list for New England in winter was submitted by Jessie Hawkes. See all packing list posts here.
I make the trek from Utah to southern Maine every winter to visit my family for Christmas. The average temperature in Maine around the holidays hovers between 15°F to 40°F (-10°C to 5°C), and can make for a frigid vacation. The trip is worth the frozen toes, though: New England boasts gorgeous pines and lots of snowfall, making for a true winter wonderland from December to March.
Plus, there’s a lot to do in this part of the United States if you don’t mind bundling up. Try cross-country skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, ice fishing, or hiking up to the various yurts in the woods. Or visit the coast—though chilly, fewer things are more romantic than a few days spent on a snowy island with hot chocolate and a good woodstove.
So it’s possible to have an awesome trip to New England in the winter, but you have to pack strategically. Even though I grew up in Maine, it’s easy to get intimidated by the cold temperatures when going home and just stuff my carry-on full of 30 sweaters.
The key to dressing for a cold New England trip is layering. Wearing a huge fuzzy sweater sounds like a good idea until you walk to the store in your wool coat; you’ll freeze when you’re outside and be sweating in the milk aisle. Instead, wear lots of thinner layers that you can pull off as necessary.
So, in the spirit of preventing other gals from bringing unnecessary clothes (or forgetting the necessary ones), here’s what goes in my backpack every time I take a week-long winter trip to New England:
- 3–4 blouses – Pick cute tops that could be worn comfortably under a sweater, if necessary.
- 1 warm dress – The general feel of New England is pretty casual (the exception to this may be Boston), so you’ll be just fine wearing nice jeans and a cute top to most restaurants and parties. (Besides, who wants to wear a skimpy cocktail dress if it’s 15° outside?) But if you want to dress up, a cute shift made from wool or sweater material is perfect.
- 1 pair tights – These can go under a dress or under your jeans if you’re out and about. I’d recommend fleece-lined or wool tights for a little extra warmth.
- 1–2 sweaters – Bring at least one warm sweater or cardigan that you can pull on over your blouses, along with a cute sweater that’s thin enough to not make you sweat inside.
- 1 pair of nice jeans
- 4–5 pairs socks – Wool socks are best (I’d recommend Darn Tough, they’ve lasted me years and have a lifetime guarantee). Avoid cotton socks if possible; they’re cold when wet and aren’t very insulating. Remember that you’ll probably take your shoes off inside homes to avoid tracking snow and salt, so invest in cute colors and designs that you won’t mind people seeing.
>>Check out our travel socks guide here.
- 1–2 thin short-sleeve wool or synthetic shirts – These are awesome if you’re going to be going outside for a while. Wearing a wool or synthetic base layer under a sweater next to your skin will keep you well insulated and warm. Don’t be deceived even though they’re thin—they make a big difference. (Note: don’t try this with a cotton t-shirt; you’ll get sweaty and wet.) I also pair my wool shirts with yoga pants to sleep in.
>>Read more about the best fabrics for travel clothing.
- 1 thin long-sleeve wool/synthetic shirt
- 1 pair yoga pants – Great for leggings under a dress (or even under jeans if you’re really freezing).
>>See what Brooke thinks of her Anatomie Skyler pants.
- 2 bras, 6 pairs underwear
- Snow boots or shoes – If you’re going to camp in a yurt in northern Maine, bring actual snow boots. If you’re just hitting up a city, a warm pair of hiking boots or heavy-duty sneakers with good tread will work great.
- Dress boots – Like I mentioned, most places in New England aren’t extremely fancy, so a pair of dress boots will be all you need to look cute while not freezing your toes. Look for good tread on the bottom and thickness in the soles—or if they’re thin, double up on socks. Avoid flats and high heels because they get wet and slick in snow.
- 1 hat or fleece ear band
- 1 warm scarf – Invest in a warm but fashionable scarf that goes with jeans and a blouse inside and will also keep your face warm while chipping ice off your windshield.
- 1 pair gloves or mittens
- 1 mid-weight jacket – Layers are the key to a toasty night on the town. A fleece or thin quilted jacket over your blouse will insulate you when outside, plus it’s nice to have around if it’s chilly in your apartment in the mornings.
- 1 down jacket – Though expensive (and not totally chic), my Patagonia down sweater is one of the best purchases of my life. I’ve had it for years and pull it out every time the temperature dips below freezing. You’ll be amazed at how warm a few ounces of jacket can be.
- 1 outer shell – If you have a nice down jacket and mid-weight insulation layer and you’re not planning to spend much time outside, you’re probably okay skipping the shell. But if you plan on spending hours outside at a time, invest in a wind-breaking outer hard shell to go over your mid-weight or down jacket.
- Lotion – It gets dry in the winter, so bring plenty!
- Deodorant, shampoo, conditioner
- Contact Solution/Glasses
Public transit isn’t the best in New England, so it’s easiest to rent a car. Even the larger cities (with the exception of Boston), will be more comfortable via car or taxi. That being said, Amtrak is an excellent train system that runs through the area and is great if you’re planning on only spending a day or two in New England before heading to another large city.
>>Check out the female packing list for a road trip in New England.
Crime varies by state and town, obviously, but New England is generally a very safe place to visit. Use your common sense when traveling (like always), and feel free to ask locals for help if you feel uncomfortable.
Natural disasters are rare, but if you go in the winter you may witness a real Nor’easter (or other type of snowstorm), which could make the roads treacherous and shut down public transit. The wisest thing to do if there’s a storm warning in your area is to stock up on extra food and water, and make sure you have a few flashlights, extra blankets, and a snow shovel.
Worth Your Time
City lovers: Boston is a wonderful city and has plenty to do every time of year. Other smaller cities like Portland (ME), Kennebunk (ME), Portsmouth (NH), Burlington (VT), and New Haven (CT) will provide you with good food and enjoyable museums while being much more intimate. Also, if you’re there during New Year’s, there is usually a “First Night” party on New Year’s Eve in the larger towns with performances, food, and shops open all night.
Rugged travelers: If you’re not afraid of the cold, hire a guide to take you into the pristine wilderness of New England. Go on a multi-day dogsled tour or reserve a ski-in yurt. If you bundle up and prepare thoughtfully, you’ll have a blast in some of the loveliest woods in the country.
Foodies: There’s tons of great food in New England, especially if you’re not afraid to try seafood. Lobster is a delicious Maine classic—and it’s always an adventure trying to navigate your way around a whole lobster for the first time. Try the crab too, and don’t forget to stock up on fresh New England maple syrup.
Book lovers: New England also has special charm because it was home for so many famous authors. Pay a visit to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house in Portland, Maine.
About the author: Jessie Hawkes is a Maine native who has spent the last 7 years exploring mountains and canyons in Utah. She’s a freelance writer specializing in travel writing and outdoor recreation. You can follow her @wildwilkey or check out her book review blog, The Desert Bookworm.
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