Packing for Winter Travel

By: Anna Burns

Edited by: Bridget Salice

This past November, I had the good fortune to add a new “first” to my list: I took a trip in the winter.

Before this, I’d only ever traveled during the summer, either with family or for school programs, or occasionally for spring break. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved all of those trips, but there was something very fun and freeing about traveling in the winter. For some reason, it felt like more of an adventure, perhaps because it was also my first major solo trip, but also because it was so different from what I normally did.

Packing is always a bit of a challenge – welcome to some, dreaded by others – but packing for summer travel is generally a bit simpler. Lightweight clothing, little to no outerwear, sandals and tennis shoes: it’s easier to avoid checking a bag when everything packs down so neatly. But when you’re dealing with cold weather clothing, suddenly it’s a lot harder to get that suitcase to zip shut. So, what do you do, when, like me, you’d prefer to avoid hauling around an enormous bag, but you don’t want to consign yourself to a miserable, freezing trip?

1. Plan for the weather

In general, wind and wet are bigger factors in how you perceive cold (and how endangered you are by it) than the overall air temperature. Start checking the weather for your destination about a week in advance and keep an eye on it. If it’s going to be cold and wet, a waterproof coat is more important than a well-insulated one. If it’s going to be cold and windy, a windbreaker will be more useful than a peacoat. Waterproof shoes or boots are very important if there’s going to be any kind of precipitation, whether it’s sleet, snow, or rain, and are just a good idea in general. If you have boots that aren’t waterproof, there are many ways you can waterproof them yourself!  For a pair of faux leather boots, this method worked really well.

Keep in mind that a truly water- and/or wind-proof jacket can be just as insulating as a heavy coat, provided it’s roomy enough that you can layer under it. If your water-/wind-proof layer is more fitted, you layer it under another light- or medium-weight coat and be good to go! Unless you’re going to be outside for long periods of time in a very, very cold area, you probably don’t need a knee-length down parka.

2. Layers over bulk

Layers. Layers, layers, layers. Embrace the onion. Become the onion. Why take up room in your bag with one thick sweater when you can get the same warmth benefit from two lighter ones, or one lighter one and a simple long-sleeved shirt? Insulation is about trapping air, and you can do that more effectively by wearing multiple lightweight layers than by wearing one chunky layer.

Lightweight layers also have a better chance of fitting under a raincoat or windbreaker, if that’s what you decide to bring as your outer layer.

If you do need to bring something large (heavy boots, a big coat, etc.), wear it during transit. If you’re flying, wear your bulkiest items to the airport. It might be a hassle to deal with lace-up boots when going through TSA, but it’s less of a hassle than trying to shove the rest of your clothes into a bag that’s already half taken up by your shoes.

3. Only pack for a week

It’s easier than you might think to pack for long trips without bringing a huge bag. Generally, you only need to pack enough clothes for one week, provided you have access to somewhere to wash your essentials, even if that somewhere is just a hotel (or hostel!) bathroom sink.

If your trip is a week or less, congrats! You’ve just saved even more space, and you won’t have to worry about washing anything. I think where people often run into trouble is the question of outfits. You don’t want to re-wear the exact same clothing every day, because 1) it’ll get gross, and 2) you might feel weird about doing that, particularly if you have been socialized to be very conscious about your appearance and feel dirty or lazy for repeating outfits too often. The joy of layers is that by mixing and matching, you can easily put together a variety of outfits with a relatively small number of items and reduce the number of “wears” on each one by rotating which serves as the base layer up against your skin. So really, if you pack two complete “outfits,” as long as you can swap items between them, you’re just about set for a week!

My trip to Sweden lasted about a week in total, and I brought only my travel backpack and a tiny duffle bag for things I would want to be easily accessible on the plane (phone, headphones, tickets, passport, tissues, medications, etc.). I knew it would be cold and rainy so I would need waterproof shoes and a waterproof outer layer; in order to avoid having to pack them, I wore my boots and coat on the plane, along with my chunkiest sweater, my thickest pair of leggings, and my scarf. Everything else went into the backpack. Altogether my wardrobe consisted of:

  • 1 down coat
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 1 scarf (which doubled as an extra blanket during my flights)
  • 1 pair of (waterproofed) boots
  • 3 pairs of short socks
  • 2 pairs of tall socks
  • 1 pair of stupidly fluffy purple HeatHolders socks (which were nice to have, but which I 100% only packed because when I got them as a gift several years ago, I’d imagined myself wearing them somewhere unforgivingly frigid, “like, I don’t know, maybe Sweden?” and past me deserved that validation)
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 3 sports bras
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 3 pairs of leggings – 1 jersey knit, 1 thin fleece-lined, 1 thicker fleece-lined
  • 1 pair of black harem pants
  • 2 lightweight tank tops
  • 1 chunky sweater
  • 3 lightweight sweaters
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt

If you’re looking at this list and thinking, “ummmm that doesn’t look all that minimalist,” you’re right! This was my first time packing for a winter trip, and I waaaaaaay overshot the mark. Not only was it warmer than I’d expected it to be, but I had also made the mistake of packing things I thought I might want, and not just things I knew I would need. I took note of what I did and didn’t wear during the trip, and when I got back, I compiled those notes into a new and improved packing list “for my next trip,” or what I would pack if repeating the same trip in the same conditions. On that list was:

  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 1 scarf
  • 1 pair of boots
  • 2 pairs of short socks
  • 2 pairs of tall socks
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 3 sports bras
  • 1 pair of black harem pants
  • 2 pairs of  leggings (both fleece-lined pairs)
  • 1 chunky sweater
  • 1 lightweight sweater
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt

This revised list forms the base of what can be referred to as a capsule wardrobe, a small core of essential items that can be mixed and matched and dressed up and dressed down to suit a wide variety of needs without taking up an inordinate amount of space in your luggage. This list doesn’t include things like toiletries and electronics, because those tend to be fairly steady throughout the seasons. If you want tips about how to more efficiently pack those things, or just want more (and more informed) ideas about how to pack period, I cannot recommend this site highly enough. It’s got tons of tips, tricks, product reviews, and even destination recommendations –  for all seasons.

Fortunately, winter in Columbus is coming to an end, but in case you find yourself heading to colder climates, or simply planning a trip for next winter, I hope this has at least provided you a starting point.

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