The Best Packing List for Cold Weather: How to Pack Light for Winter Travel

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Packing light for cold weather seems impossible to many people. While it can be trickier than for a beach holiday, there’s no reason why you can’t pack light for winter travel too. 

For the last decade we’ve been travelling full-time with just carry-on luggage and have travelled to cold climates many times. 

Below you’ll find our tips on how to pack light for cold weather and an example packing list for cold weather that we used for a 10-day trip to Finland. 


Pack for a Week

We can travel for over a decade with just carry-on luggage because we never pack more clothes than we need for a week.

Although our Finland trip was only 10 days, we packed the same as we would have for three months, so the length of your vacation doesn’t matter.

After a week, you can do laundry, either in your hotel sink, as we did in Finland (I used the hotel shampoo), find a laundrette, or stay in a rental with washing machine.

Cold weather travel is actually easier as the same clothes can be worn more often than in hot sweaty weather, so we had to do less laundry than usual.

I also highly recommend packing winter travel clothes made from merino wool, as it’s not only warm and lightweight, but also odour-resistant so you can wear it multiple times without needing to wash it. 

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Wear Layers

If you are wondering what to pack for cold weather, the answer is lots of layers!

By packing layers, rather than one heavy jacket, you can adapt to changing weather conditions and your luggage will be lighter.

You can also wash your base layers more often—it’s easier to wash a t-shirt than a jumper.

A good layer system is a t-shirt, a lightweight but warm long sleeved top (merino wool is ideal), a fleece, and a packable down jacket (more on those below).

If it’s very cold, a pair of thermal leggings (long johns) can be worn under your trousers and are also useful for sleeping in.

Simon didn’t bother with these, but I wore my leggings in Lapland either under my ski trousers (which I rented) or my PrAna travel trousers.

If you’ll be hiking or expect heavy rain, you might also want to take a lightweight waterproof jacket to wear over your down jacket.

We didn’t find this necessary in Finland, but it was an essential part of our Iceland packing list.

We now travel with the light Marmot PreCip Eco Jacket, which packs down into its own pocket and features pockets, a hood, and pit zips.

Make sure you pack thick socks, a woolly hat, scarf, and gloves as these don’t take up much space but make a big difference.

Erin on Suomenlinna island wearing her wool coat with multiple layers beneath, plus hat, scarf, gloves, jeans, and boots.
Erin on Suomenlinna island wearing her wool coat with multiple layers beneath, plus hat, scarf, gloves, jeans, and boots.

If you are only travelling to a cold climate, you can break the rules slightly and take a heavier jacket, as long as you can wear it on travel days.

My knee length wool coat was my luxury item on this trip—it’s not at all packable, but as I wore it on travel days it didn’t matter, and I liked having something smarter for Helsinki.

If I’d been travelling to multiple climates, I would have left it behind.

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Take a Light, Packable Down Jacket

The secret to packing light for cold weather is a puffy insulated jacket which is warm, ultra lightweight, and highly compressible so it’s easy to pack.

They usually have a nylon outer shell which is windproof and water resistant.

Goose down has the highest warmth to weight ratio—it keeps you toasty in a tiny package. The downsides are that it stops being warm when wet and takes ages to dry, so you’ll need to wear a rain jacket over it in very wet conditions.

There are also ethical considerations as sometimes the feathers are plucked from live birds. Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear use ethically sourced feathers or you could choose a synthetic down jacket instead.

Synthetic jackets aren’t quite as warm or compressible, but they work better in wet weather.

Simon travelled to Finland with the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket which is the world’s lightest full-featured down jacket with 800 fill power which is about the best you can get.

It really is insanely light (only 219 g / 7.7 oz) but kept Simon remarkably warm. If space and weight are limited this is an excellent option.

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket review
Simon is his Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer down jacket which he usually wore with a t-shirt and fleece (plus sometimes an Icebreaker top) beneath. This was one of the few times he wore the hood up as it was so cold and windy on Suomenlinna Island.

I went with the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody which is made from synthetic down so it isn’t quite as compressible or light as a down jacket (it’s 292 g / 10.3 oz), but it isn’t a huge difference.

Synthetic down is also cheaper and I didn’t have to worry about the ethical issues of goose down. 

Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody review
Erin snowboarding in her Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody synthetic down jacket.

Both were fantastic jackets that kept us surprisingly warm in such a light package.

They have similar features—two external zipped pockets (My Patagonia also has an internal zipped pocket), hoods, and they stuff into one of their pockets, creating a small package that is easy to pack.

Down jackets aren’t typically good in the rain, and many people wear a shell or waterproof jacket over the top. Both our jackets have a water repellant shell and they were fine in light rain—and it rained quite a lot in Finland.

They kept the wind out too. They were ideal for active pursuits like the snowboarding, hiking, and horse riding we did in Ruka.

We chose the hooded versions of our jackets but didn’t end up using the hoods very often in Finland as we had hats, so you could save a little space by choosing the versions without.

On a later trip to Iceland, the hoods came in handy to keep the powerful wind out, though. 

I think black would have been a better colour choice as they would have looked a bit smarter for more dressy occasions.

Down jackets are expensive but they are worth it if you are travelling in the winter as they are so warm and packable. We’ve now had our jackets for seven years so they are good value in the long term. 

Combined with other layers, a down jacket enables you to stay warm in very cold temperatures and is one of the best things to pack for cold weather. 

They are perfect if you are travelling to multiple climates as you can easily store them in your luggage when you’re not wearing them.

This has been very useful for us in the last few years as we’ve travelled to a mix of cold and warm destinations including Hawaii, Japan in winter, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand (in all seasons). 

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Wear Your Heaviest Clothes on the Plane

Wear your heaviest and bulkiest clothes and shoes on the plane to save space and weight in your luggage. I always wore my jeans, boots, fleece and wool jacket on travel days.

You can also save space by stuffing your gloves and hat in your jacket pockets.

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Use Compression Bags or Packing Cubes to Organise Your Clothes

How you pack is just as important as what you pack. Using packing cubes makes packing winter clothes in a carry on easy. 

By packing your clothes in compression bags or packing cubes you’ll keep things organised and save space.

For five years we travelled with compression bags—the kind you roll to suck out excess air. These work especially well for bulky items so are great for packing winter clothes.

The downside of compression bags is that you have to roll them up, which can be a bit of a pain, and your clothes aren’t accessible without releasing the air.

For our Finland trip we used Eagle Creek’s compression packing cubes instead and having been travelling with them ever since.

While these don’t suck air out like compression bags, they do squeeze packing cubes down into a smaller package with a zip around the side.

Eagle Creek compression packing cube review
Eagle Creek’s compression cubes (dark blue), regular cube (red), and Specter compression cubes (pink and light blue).

We could easily fit everything into the cubes and had plenty of space in our backpacks. Compared to the compression bags, the packing cubes are less hassle to pack, we can easily access our clothes, and they cause fewer wrinkles.

I went with the Specter compression cubes as they are ultra lightweight—I use a full cube for my main clothes, a half cube for my running clothes, and a half cube for underwear.

Simon now travels with Peak Design packing cubes—he uses a medium cube for his clothes and a small one for underwear. They are a bit heavier than the Eagle Creek cubes, but he likes the stylish design and separate compartment for dirty laundry.

Peak Design Packing Cubes review
Peak Design Packing Cubes

I think everyone should consider using compression packing cubes for packing winter clothes in a carry on. If you are really struggling with space, compression bags will save you even more space. 

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Tips for Multiple Climate Travel

While packing for cold weather is easier if you’ll only be visiting wintery destinations (like on our Finland trip), it is possible to travel carry-on only to multiple climates.

For the last few years we’ve continued to pack light despite visiting a mix of cold and hot destinations. 

For multiple climate travel, I give up the bulky luxury items I had in Finland—my boots and wool jacket—but manage just fine without them. 

For mixed climates, pack compact clothes like down jackets and merino wool tops that have a high warmth to weight ratio, and multi-purpose items like a dress you can wear on its own in hot weather or pair with leggings and a cardigan when it gets cooler.

If you’ll be travelling for long periods of time in hot weather, don’t pack your winter gear—buy it when you get there. If the first three months of your trip are in Southeast Asia, there’s no point carrying around sweaters for when you get to New Zealand in the winter.

We always travel with a few items (jeans, cardigan, fleece) and anything else we need we’ll buy when we hit cold weather.

When we spent the winter in Melbourne, Australia, I needed warmer shoes so bought a pair of Allbirds Wool Runners, and have been travelling with them ever since (they’ve been ideal in New Zealand too).

I love how warm and cosy they are. They are so comfortable they feel like slippers and I can even wear them without socks. See my Allbirds review for more details. 

I have since picked up a pair of Allbirds Mizzles, which are even better for a winter packing list as they are water resistant and have more traction for slippery surfaces. I’ve even worn them on hikes.

Allbirds review - Allbirds wool runners in natural grey

In northern Argentina when the weather turned snowy, we picked up thick socks, hats, gloves, and an extra thick fleece inexpensively at a local market.

You can find cheap winter clothes in second-hand shops, markets, and discount clothing shops like Primark in the UK and Target in the US—ask locals where to shop.

We borrowed and bought extra gear for our Finland trip in the UK. This doesn’t have to be expensive—a hat and gloves in the market cost £5 and my warm winter boots were £17.50 online at Zalando.

You can also rent clothes at your destination. We’ve rented snowboarding clothes in Finland, New Zealand and France and jackets for a trek in Nepal.

You can see our multi-climate Europe packing list for a trip from August to December. 

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Our Cold Weather Packing List 

Carry on only packing list for cold weather
Us on our way to Finland with our carry-on backpacks.

This was our cold weather packing list for our Finland trip in early May. We packed for both active outdoorsy stuff (snowboarding, hiking, horse riding) in Ruka and city life in stylish Helsinki.

Both of our carry on backpacks weighed 8.6 kg (19 lbs). This was slightly over the 8 kg carry-on limit of Finnair but as usual they didn’t weigh our bags.

Finnair only allows one carry-on bag without an extra personal item, so Simon packed a cotton shoulder bag to use as a day bag in his backpack (we have since upgraded to a packable daypack).

On the trip we had temperatures ranging from 2-12ºC (35-53ºF) although the wind chill factor often made it feel colder, and it rained about half the time.

Our layers and down jackets kept us warm and we never felt like we had a lack of clothes. We definitely could have managed even colder temperatures as we didn’t wear all our layers.

This winter carry on packing list includes everything that we wore on the plane so we didn’t actually pack all of this.

You can use this packing list for cold weather for any winter travel.


For Finland we travelled with carry-on backpacks. We have since switched to Away carry on suitcases—see our carry on packing list for why we changed. 

Erin’s Clothes

Carry on only packing list for cold weather - Erin's clothes
All of Erin’s clothes ready to be packed in cubes (not including the clothes she wore on the plane- jacket, fleece, jumper, t-shirt, jeans, boots, scarf).
A winter packing list carry-on only - Erin's stuff
Everything ready to be packed in Erin’s backpack
Carry on only packing list - Erin's backpack packed
Erin’s bag packed. At the far end is the large packing cube with small packing cube and jacket on top. In the front is the camera, shoes with small packing cube on top, and small items slotted in gaps. The laptop is stored in the laptop compartment in the front.
  • Eagle Creek Specter compression cube set – For clothes.
  • Eagle Creek half packing cube – For my underwear and other bits like Simon’s hard drive.
  • Acai Skinny Outdoor Jeans – My new favourite travel-friendly jeans are super comfy, have huge pockets, and are shower-resistant. They are UK based but ship internationally. See also my review of the best travel pants for women.
  • 1 PrAna Halle trousers – Practical but decent looking travel trousers. 
  • 1 Thermal leggings – To wear under my trousers.
  • 2 Tank tops – To layer under my other tops. I didn’t end up wearing one of them.
  • 3 Short sleeve tops – These could be replaced with extra long sleeve tops. 
  • 1 Cardigan
  • 1 Icebreaker long sleeve merino wool top – This is fantastic as it keeps me warm without taking up much space. Merino wool is not at all itchy and it never smells!
  • 1 Sweater – I like merino wool or cashmere sweaters as they are warm, light and dry more quickly than cotton. 
  • 1 North Face lightweight hooded fleece – This comes with me everywhere as it’s warm and light.
  • 1 Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody Jacket – Warm but amazingly light and packable. See my review above.
  • 1 Wool jacket – My knee length jacket is heavy and impractical for long term travel, but for this short trip I wore it on travel days so it didn’t matter. It was nice to have something smarter in Helsinki.
  • Running outfit: Capri leggings, t-shirt, long sleeve top, sports bra, running socks, fleece headband – If you don’t run/workout you obviously won’t need to pack these.
  • 7 Underwear – My favourites are the lightweight, quick-drying ExOfficio underwear.
  • 2 Bras
  • 7 Socks (3 thick, 4 thin) – One pair were the ultra warm Smartwool Classic Hike Full Cushion Crew socks which I adore in cold weather.
  • Gloves
  • Woolly hat – I love my Allbirds Pom Beanie made from merino wool as it’s cute, non-itchy, and super warm. They only sell it in the winter months.
  • Scarf
  • Sunglasses and travel case
  • Winter Boots – I bought some cheap but warm boots (not these exact ones but similar—basically fake Uggs) which I wore every day. They weren’t waterproof so I would have bought better ones for a longer trip.
  • Running shoes – I currently travel with the Allbirds Tree Dashers. If you don’t need shoes for running but would like a pair of cosy warm sneakers, see my Allbirds wool runners review. An alternative second pair of shoes, if it’s not too cold, could be a pair of comfortable, lightweight ballet flats like my beloved Allbirds Tree Breezers.

Simon’s Clothes

A cold weather packing list in a carry-on - Simon's clothes
All of Simon’s clothes ready to be packed. Not including the down jacket, fleece, t-shirt, jeans, and shoes he wore on the plane.
Carry on only packing list for cold weather - Simon's stuff
Everything ready to be packed in Simon’s backpack
Simon's backpack packed. Packing cube at the bottom with toiletry and accessory cases on top with the iPad, sketch pad and bag above them. His laptop is stored in the laptop compartment behind. Small items in the side pockets.
Simon’s backpack packed. Packing cube at the bottom with toiletry and accessory cases on top with the iPad, sketch pad and bag above them. His laptop is stored in the laptop compartment behind. Small items in the side pockets.
Carry on only packing list cold weather - Simon's clothes day time
Simon’s typical outfit in Helsinki—t-shirt, fleece, down jacket, jeans, Scarpa shoes.
Carry on only packing list cold weather - Simon's clothes at night
A smarter look for a meal at a fancy restaurant

Other items

See our latest carry on travel packing list for the toiletries, electronics, and other miscellaneous items we usually pack on trips. 

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I hope this post has helped show you how to pack for cold weather in a carry on. There are so many advantages to packing light for winter travel that I hope you’ll give it a try and save yourself money, time, and stress.

Let us know if you have any more tips on how to pack light for winter travel! What’s a must on your winter vacation packing list?

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More Packing for Cold Weather Tips

These packing posts might also be useful:

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  1. From now on, I will pack like your style. Very helpful, thanks. Few pairs of thermal socks are really helpful for me. Also maybe a tiny hot water gel pack instead of hot water bags. Gel packs are better for hand-luggages.

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  2. What a great post…thank you. I also have the Osprey Farpoint 40 and love it although at 38 liters I could use just a tiny bit more room. I think inspired by you I will pack less!
    What do you recommend for shoes for a multi climate trip that will include light hiking and a ton of city walking?
    Thank you!

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    • I’m glad you like the Osprey too Lisa! Have you tried packing cubes or compression bags? We find that they make all the difference and allow us to fit extra items in. I wrote about them here:

      Shoes are tough! Finding one pair of shoes that does everything is hard but maybe some lightweight sneakers/trainers in a neutral design so they don’t stand out so much. In cities I tend to wear my Tieks most of the time, although they are not ideal if the weather is rainy (then I have to wear my running shoes). Good luck in finding something!

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  3. Southern India – 10 pound backpack for 10 weeks. I wore nylon clothes, carried camcorder equipment and I also had paperwork, money and documents. The key was the nylon, which dried quickly, especially since it was Spring.

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  4. Hello!
    Quick question. Does the eagle creek pro organizer fit in horizontal position in the Osprey’s smaller pocket (in front of the laptop sleeve)?

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    • Yes it would. Although I tend not to put much in that compartment as it makes the bag look too bulky (and I try to make my bag look small so that airlines don’t weigh it!).

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  5. I also want to thank you for the inspiration. I am a frequent business traveler, my usual bags being a US-sized carry-on and a backpack. Even with all of the electronics I need for work, I wash laundry in the sink and I can extend a week’s worth of laundry to a month. Or several months. Though I will say that I become really really tired of wearing the same clothes over and over again. “Tuesday. Orange shirt, black pants, tan jacket. Again.”

    Right now I have been reading your site for inspiration on a vacation trip to Norway with only a backpack. Even without the business computer and cables, packing layers in a single backpack is a challenge. And unlike you, the plan seems to be that we change hotels or fly somewhere every single day (not my choice!). I am concerned that doing my usual laundry in a sink will be a serious challenge. That said, your ideas on the compression sacks are very interesting. I’m trying them out for the first time and this may well change the way I pack going forward.

    But I had some thoughts for you.

    I always pack a laundry cord and a sink stopper (round plastic disk) to do frequent laundry. Too many times I find that hotel sinks and tubs do not have stoppers that work.Mine works in many places. And even in hotels with a built-in laundry line, I appreciate having two. But many places in Europe and Asia have nowhere to hang drying laundry.

    As a female traveler, I have some clothing challenges. Quick-dry business wear! And pockets. So far, my working approaches include:

    * Nike women’s golf pants. I know it sounds crazy, but they look surprisingly good and are completely quick dry. I’d be hesitant to ride horses or do other wearing activities in them, but for business wear they are great.

    * Duluth Trading Company’s women’s line. Pockets! For hardcore activities that lead to wear and tear on my pants, I favor several of their cargo pants. I have an embarrassing number of pairs, which I use for everything from lawn care when I am at home (quick dry with pockets!) to family travel that tends toward hardcore house cleaning (DIRT! Lots of kneeling. Pockets to hold tools and work gloves!). They have everything from quick dry through winter pairs with flannel lining (currently packed for Norway!).

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    • Thanks for the tips Di! You might want to look at Anatomie’s clothes. They are expensive but many travellers love them- they are travel-friendly but smart. Good luck on your Norway trip!

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  6. Wow, thank you for the thorough blog post! My husband and I just booked flights to Norway today (from USA) to visit my parents, but we could only afford to check one bag. I was worried about how we’d make it work, but after reading your highly informative and super empowering post, I’m excited for our new challenge coming up! Thank you so much! Great work!

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  7. Thanks for the packing tips! I found it much more difficult to decide what to pack for a cold than for a hot weather. You did a great packing! Extremely interesting post, which gives me a lot of useful ideas! Greetings

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  8. Hi Erin

    I’m curious how you go about choosing new items you add to your luggage (such as the insulating jackets) when you are on the road. Do you buy online based on reviews or wait until you’re at a location with a good selection in the shop(s) to check the fit and features? (Or some combination of the two?)


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    • We usually buy new gear when we’re in the UK and the US. Most of the time we read reviews and buy online as it’s easier (and often cheaper) but sometimes we visit outdoor stores so we can try things on.

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  9. Thank you for giving the tips, I have never been into winter season, It’s such a big help and tip for me for future reference!

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  10. I’m about to head into the heart of a Southern winter here in Latin America, so this post is timely … thanks!

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  11. First off, I didn’t say this the first time I posted on your site in response to one of many great articles here, but the site is absolutely lovely. Second, I can’t even tell you how much help this is going to be for my family as we make our way to New Zealand which contrary to what many think, isn’t “always” hot. The organization factor really resonates with me, we always end up carrying far too much in our luggage and half your tips we hadn’t even thought about. You’ve made our upcoming trip a lot smoother, thank you so much.

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    • Thanks Kyle and I’m so glad the article helped. We’ve been to New Zealand in winter so definitely know how cold it can get! Good luck!

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  12. Hi. I am a big fan of traveling with just a carry on. A few years back I purchased 4 big 24″ JanSport backpacks. Our family of four took a 2-week European summer vacation. Each one of us took their own toiletries. We also wear the heaviest clothes and shoes. Years later we took a winter skiing trip and again with the same bags. Everything fit! Skiing pants, sweaters, all layers, everything! The key is not to take your whole closet. Pack, as you say, for 5 days, and wash clothes along the way. We don’t use packing cubes, instead, we roll each piece of clothing real well and stuff the bag

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