By Laura Newcomer & Wanderers Compass
Whether packing for a long weekend or a 10-day excursion, stuffing a suitcase with cold-weather essentials can be challenging. Warm clothing tends to be bulky, and knowing exactly what to pack is hard. Given airplane luggage restrictions, shoving your entire closet into a bag won’t cut it.
Luckily, a little planning goes a long way. Here’s how to make intelligent packing choices to help you stay warm and comfortable at any cold, windy destination.
Packing for Cold and Windy Destinations
Use these packing tips to maximize suitcase space and ensure you stay comfortable once you’ve reached a chilly locale.
Start with base layers that wick moisture
One of the challenges with dressing for cold weather is that your body temperature fluctuates as you move between indoors and outdoors and when you exert yourself or rest. That’s where layering comes in — so you can peel off layers one at a time if you get hot and pile them back on when you’re chilly.
If you plan to be out and about, it’s helpful to start with a base layer(s) made from moisture-wicking fabrics that won’t trap sweat and lead to chills. Wool (or a wool mix) will keep you warm but not sweaty; look for smooth merino wool options if you’re worried the material will feel scratchy. Avoid cotton as it soaks up moisture and doesn’t dry quickly, which can lead to hypothermia in extreme conditions.
As you select your base layers, aim for a snug fit so the material touches your skin all over and can effectively wick moisture from your skin. Selecting the weight depending on the extremity of the cold you’ll be exposed to is a good idea. Choose heavyweight base layers for sub-freezing temps and low activity and lighter-weight options for milder temps and/or higher activity levels.
Next, pack the middle insulating layers
Layering an insulating layer(s) over a base layer will ensure your core stays warm without getting sweaty. Fleece layers work well for this task since they’re warm and cozy and tend to layer well over thinner base layers. Merino wool sweaters are another great option; they’re lightweight, warm, and can layer easily. A thin, puffy jacket that fits under a shell could also work, particularly if you anticipate exposure to extremely cold temperatures. Don’t neglect your bottom half — fleece tights or leggings will do the trick.
Planning a trip to a cold destination in Europe? Check out our Country Travel Guides
Finish off the layering system with an outer shell
To top off your layering system, bring along a windproof and waterproof shell (or at least water-resistant). This layer seals in the warmth generated by your base and insulating layers. Choose a high warmth-to-weight ratio jacket so you can stay warm without feeling burdened — so you don’t have to juggle a bulky coat in the airport. (Accurately identifying the warmth-to-weight ratio can be tricky; check out this guide to inform your search.) Consider shell pants and a jacket, so your lower half stays toasty, too.
How to Pack for a Cold and Windy Destination
1. Start with base layers that wick moisture
Pack base layer(s) made from moisture-wicking fabrics that won’t trap sweat and lead to
- Wool (or a wool blend) will keep you warm but not sweaty
- Merino wool is less scratchy
- Cotton is not a great choice because it soaks up moisture and doesn’t dry quickly
Make sure your base layers fit snuggly so the material can effectively wick moisture from
Choose heavyweight base layers for sub-freezing temps and low activity and lighter
weight options for milder temps and/or higher activity levels.
2. Next pack middle insulating layers
Pack options like:
- Fleece quarter or full-sip sweatshirts
- Merino wool sweaters
- A thin puffy jacket that fits under a shell
- Fleece tights
3. Remember sun protection
Pack sunscreen, a pair of polarized sunglasses, and lip balm that contains sunscreen.
Planning a trip to Iceland? Check out our Iceland Travel Guide
4. Keep certain items out of your suitcase
Wear your jacket on the plane and pack gloves and a hat in the pockets of the jacket.
- Look for gloves with a waterproof outer shell and insulating material inside.
- If you will be in extreme cold, pack well-insulated waterproof mittens instead.
- Choose a wool or synthetic moisture-wicking hat.
Wear your boots on the plane
- Look for waterproof, insulated boots with plenty of traction.
- Consider boots without laces so you do not hold up security lines.
- Make sure you break the boots in before you travel.
5. Finish off the layering system with an outer shell
Pack a shell that is windproof and waterproof (or at least water resistant).
Choose a jacket with a high warmth-to-weight ratio so you can stay warm without the
Consider shell pants as well as a jacket so your lower half stays warm and dry, too.
6. Give some thoughts to your socks
Pack thinner wool socks to hand-wash every few days.
Pack additional socks to layer over a base layer of wool socks.
Keep gloves and a hat in your coat pockets, and wear your coat
One of the hardest parts about packing for a chilly destination? Cold-weather clothing tends to be bulky. You can save tons of room in your suitcase by wearing your coat instead of stuffing it into a checked bag or carry-on. Save even more space by tucking gloves and a hat into the coat’s pockets so you can fit other layers and accessories into your luggage. Be mindful of taking up precious overhead storage space with your jacket; it’s probably best to wear your coat on the plane and sit with it underneath you or over your lap until all passengers have boarded. Then, if there’s still room overhead, go ahead and stuff your jacket into a nearby storage bin (or use it as a blanket if the plane gets chilly).
While selecting a hat, look for wool or synthetic beanies designed to wick moisture and feature insulation (such as fleece) inside. Pack gloves with a waterproof outer shell and an insulating material inside. If you’ll be in extreme cold, opt for mittens over gloves since they allow fingers to feed off each other’s warmth.
Interested in visiting a really cold destination? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Iceland’s Glacier Lagoons article
Give some thought to your socks
Socks may not occupy much of your headspace on a typical day, but give them your attention while packing for a cold, windy destination. Bring thinner wool socks, which won’t take up much suitcase space. You can hand-wash them every few days, and they’ll dry quickly. Plan to layer a second pair of socks over a base layer of wool socks so you can re-wear the top layer without having to wash them. Again, avoid cotton, as this material traps moisture and can lead to chills. Better options include IsoWool, shearling, fleece, or other synthetic materials that wick moisture.
Wear your boots on the plane
Like a winter jacket, boots are bulky and take up tons of real estate in a suitcase, so pack them on your feet instead! If you’re worried about hassles at the airport, consider boots without laces, so you don’t hold up security lines. Look for waterproof, insulated boots that offer traction to keep your footing on snow or ice. Ensure these boots are comfortable and at least slightly broken in before you depart to prevent painful blisters.
Staying healthy while traveling is especially important in a cold climate. Check out our article on How to Stay Healthy During Travel
Remember sun protection
Many of us associate the need for sun protection with warm-weather destinations such as the beach. However, sun damage should be top of mind in any locale. In fact, sunlight reflecting off snow can tax eyes and burn skin. Pack sunscreen, a pair of polarized sunglasses, and a lip balm containing sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun. While you’re at it, bring along some moisturizer to soothe sunburned or wind-chapped skin.
By layering strategically, choosing fabrics carefully, and wearing your bulkiest items onto the plane, you can show up to any cold, windy destination properly outfitted for indoor and outdoor activities. Bonus? You’ll do it without having to pay for multiple checked bags.
© 2023 Wanderers Compass All Rights Reserved
About the Guest Author
Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published in Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.
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