How To Pack For Cold-Weather Travel

A man and a woman dressed in fishing gear walking on a road toward mountains in the winter

Pack too much for cold weather travel and you’ll be punished in the airport, at the hotel, and your destination. But an under-packed winter bag will send you scurrying to buy cold-weather clothing when you arrive. Take heart: packing sensibly for wintry travel is easier than you think. Our packing tips take the guesswork out of choosing your cold-weather travel wardrobe.

A woman wearing a salmon-colored mid-weight jacket and winter hat while hiking outside

Packing For Winter Travel In Three Basic Steps

Pack a simple trifecta of layers, then add accessories to protect your hands, head, and feet. Opt for multiple, lighter-weight pieces you can layer or take off as the weather demands—and leave that bulky winter coat and clothing at home.

  1. The Base Layer—Think of this layer as a second skin. The best cold-weather base layers wick moisture, allowing sweat to evaporate while continuing to warm your core. Silk, merino wool, or a lightweight performance material are all good options. For men, an ideal base layer might be a thin, long-sleeved merino shirt; for women, it could be the same, or even a camisole or tank top. These multi-purpose pieces can double as sleepwear or workout attire.
  2. The Insulating Layer—Depending on the activities you plan for your cold-weather trip, this is alternately the midlayer that contains your body’s heat while keeping out the cold or the outer layer you’ll wear indoors. Your insulating layer should be a bit thicker than your base layer while remaining compact enough to fit easily into your suitcase. And when you pair a thin base layer under a thin insulating layer, you’ll enjoy the same warmth you’d get from a bulky sweater. Examples include a wool hoodie, cardigan, or thin sweater; a lightweight fleece; a wool or silk turtleneck or tee; or a top made of a synthetic or performance blend.
  3. The Outer Layer—The point of this layer is to keep the weather on the outside, plain and simple. In all but the coldest conditions, you’ll stay plenty warm in a lighter-weight jacket or coat if you wear a smart base and midlayers. What you want is a high warmth-to-weight ratio; a puffy or fleece jacket might be all you need depending on the climate. But your outer layer could also be a slightly heavier jacket or coat with a wind- or water-resistant shell, such as our PRO Hoodie or Drift Jacket. Consider your destination when making your selection. For example, a ski trip requires different outerwear than a winter business conference at a hotel. Whichever type of outerwear you choose, don’t pack it—wear or carry it onto the plane. You can stow it in an overhead bin, under the seat in front of you, or roll it up and use it as a pillow.
A close-up of a person wearing winter boots walking through the snow

Winter Accessories

Protecting Your Extremities from the Extremes

Protecting your extremities is crucial in the cold. When you pack for cold weather, choose a wool scarf and waterproof gloves made from insulated leather or a modern performance material; include glove liners if you need them. (And scarves in a couple of different colors will allow you to change your look without taking up much space in your bag.)

Two cold-weather travel items, in particular, deserve special attention—a winter hat and boots:

  1. Winter Hat—Body heat escapes through your head, enough said. The best winter hat for travel is wool knit; for the coldest weather, choose a hat that also covers the ears and the neck, at least partially. A thin wool hat easily stows inside a coat or jacket pocket when you don’t need it.
  2. Winter Boot—Choose boots based on the conditions where you’re traveling. If you anticipate ice or snow, you’ll need boots that offer the best traction; avoid leather outsoles and look instead for a soft outsole with maximum tread. Think comfort: hiking boots are an excellent choice not only for hiking but also if you’ll spend any time walking on your trip. And make sure your boots are waterproof (because there is nothing worse than being both cold and wet); leave the breathable mesh athletic shoes at home. Wear thin wool socks—if your feet do get wet, wool will continue to keep them warm. Merino is an excellent choice.

Other important considerations for your winter travel boots:

• Wear your boots on the plane. But if you absolutely must pack them, stuff them with smaller items to maximize space in your bag.

Choose a style without laces to avoid holding up the airport security line. Alternately, opt for pre-screening—you won’t be asked to remove your boots or shoes.

• Choose a dark-colored style that can handle snow but still looks nice enough to wear to dinner.

A close up on a man wearing a hood, buff, and polarized sunglasses

Here Comes The Sun: Pack Along Protection

  1. Protect your eyes: High-quality polarized sunglasses are as important in a cold-weather destination as they are in a warm one. Sunlight can be intensely reflected off the snow, and the sun’s lower angle in the sky can impede your line of sight.
  2. Protect your skin: Likewise, sunscreen is imperative anywhere, all year long.
A man wearing a merino sweater making a snowball with his hands

Pack Smart

Build Many Outfits from a Few Pieces

Winter is more forgiving than summer when it comes to doing laundry: you can typically wear one garment a few times before it needs washing, which means you can get more mileage out of a single piece. And since you’ll be wearing base layers, this is especially true for your cold-weather vacation or trip. Keep these wardrobe economizing tips in mind when you pack to keep it light:

  1. A neutral color palette allows better mixing and matching of tops and bottoms.
  2. Choose merino wool, even for your underwear: you’ll get the benefits of the warmth without the bulk.
  3. Silk is also an excellent textile for winter; like merino, it’s warm but takes up very little space.
  4. When packing for a very cold destination, include thermal bottoms in your base layers. Leggings or tights double as thermals for women, and they also look great under a skirt.
  5. Pack a single pair of versatile jeans or corduroys instead of three varied styles.
  6. Colorful accessories are a simple way to change your look from one day to the next.
  7. Choose a pair of comfortable shoes in addition to your boots, avoiding too-casual styles and opting instead for a pair that will dress up or down.
  8. Choose outerwear with pockets to stash your hat, gloves, and scarf on travel day instead of packing them. And wear as much as you can on the plane—the more you have on, the less you have to pack.

It is one thing to pack your swim trunks and summer reading ahead of a warm-weather vacation, quite another to cram your bulky cold-weather wardrobe into a suitcase bound for the mountains in February. Enjoy the journey unburdened by heavy luggage and bulky winter clothing: a few thoughtfully chosen pieces will keep you warm, protected, and comfortable during your cold-weather travel.