Many people think that travelling with just carry-on luggage to cold climates is impossible. While it is trickier than packing for a beach holiday there’s no reason why you can’t pack light in the winter too. We’ve been living out of our carry-on sized backpacks for over five years now and can’t imagine travelling any other way. At the beginning of May we visited Finland (including a ski trip in Lapland) for ten days with just hand luggage and found it even easier than usual.
Here are some tips to help you pack light for winter travel, and you’ll find our carry-on only packing list for Finland below.
Pack for a Week
We can travel for 5+ years with a carry-on backpack 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 trip 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), or find a laundrette. 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.
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 want to also take a lightweight waterproof jacket to wear over your down jacket, but we didn’t find it necessary.
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.
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—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.
Take a Light, Packable Down Jacket
The secret to packing light in 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 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 is a big concern this is an excellent option.
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.
Both were fantastic jackets that kept us surprisingly warm in such a light package. They had similar features—two external zipped pockets (My Patagonia also has an internal zipped pocket), hoods, and they stuffed into one of their pockets, creating a small package that was 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 as we had hats, so you could save a little space by choosing the versions without. 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. Combined with other layers a down jacket enables you to stay warm in very cold temperatures.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.
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.
Use Compression Bags or Packing Cubes to Organise Your Clothes
How you pack is just as important as what you pack. 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 travelling with 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 this trip we decided to try out Eagle Creek’s compression packing cubes. 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. We were interested to see if we could replace our bags with them.
It turns out we could easily fit everything into the cubes and had plenty of space in our backpacks. We’ve decided to permanently replace our compression bags with them as the packing cubes are less hassle to pack, we can easily access our clothes, and they cause fewer wrinkles.
Simon chose the traditional Eagle Creek Pack-It compression cube as it unzips on three sides for easy access—he uses one full cube for all his clothes and underwear. I went with the Specter compression cubes as they are ultra lightweight—I use a full cube for my main clothes and a half cube for my running clothes. At first I was concerned that my clothes would be difficult to access as the Specter cubes only unzip part the way round, but it hasn’t been a problem—I roll my clothes and it’s easy to reach in and grab what I need. I also have a standard half packing cube for my underwear—I’ve been using it for over six years which shows how durable Eagle Creek’s products are.
We used to use a plastic packing cube to store our electronics accessories but it was a real mess of cables. Now we travel with the Eagle Creek e-Tools Organizer Pro and it has been fantastic. It took a few goes to find the perfect place in its various pockets for all our cables, chargers, and hard drive, but now it’s a much more organised system and keeps our gear protected in a durable and water resistant case. We definitely recommend it if you have a lot of electronic gear like we do.
Tips for Multiple Climate Travel
It helped that on our Finland trip we started and finished in the UK so were able to only take our winter clothes, but it is possible to travel carry-on only to multiple climates. I could easily have fit summer clothes in my backpack. Although I would have had to give up my bulky luxury items—my boots and wool jacket—I would have managed 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 a jacket 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. 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 rented snowboarding clothes in Finland and New Zealand, and jackets for a trek in Nepal.
Our New Gear
We’ve written about our new jackets and compression cubes above but we also picked up some other new things for this trip.
PrAna Halle Trousers
Usually I travel with jeans and linen trousers. Obviously linen wasn’t going to work for Finland so I needed something warm and practical for hiking. I’m not a big fan of unattractive travel/hiking trousers but they seemed the best option for this trip. I was happy to find some trousers on the PrAna website that looked much more attractive than the usual ugly travel trousers. I hoped they’d be the perfect blend of function and style.
The PrAna Halle trousers are definitely practical as they are made from a water resistant material and dirt wipes off easily. They were comfortable and great for hiking and horse riding in Lapland—I wore long johns underneath for extra warmth. They do look better than any other travel trousers I’ve seen, but ultimately they weren’t smart enough for me to feel comfortable wearing them out to dinner in Helsinki. Perhaps it’s just the fit on me as many reviews rave about how good and “normal” they look. Although I will definitely pack them again for trips where I’ll be hiking in cool weather they aren’t going to have a permanent place in my backpack.
Many travellers rave about Smartwool socks so I thought this would be the perfect time to try them. We got the medium crew hiking socks which are fairly thick, so we wouldn’t travel with them all the time, but they were ideal for Finland and the UK. We loved how cosy and warm they felt, and as they are made from magic merino wool they are fairly quick drying, and best of all don’t smell! I tested this out by wearing them multiple days in a row and it really was amazing. We liked them so much that we’re planning to buy lighter versions to take with us permanently.
Another traveller favourite that we’ve been meaning to try. ExOfficio claim “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear” as they are so quick drying you can wash them every night. Simon tried the sport mesh boxer briefs and I the lacy bikinis. We found them comfortable, lightweight, breathable, and very quick-drying, so are ideal for travel. They are expensive but friends have said they last for years of constant use, so are a worthwhile investment for an ultralight traveller. We already travel with fairly light and quick drying underwear so we’re not going to switch over completely yet, but we’ll definitely travel with a pair or two, and when we need to quickly wash a pair of underwear these are the ones we’ll turn to.
Our Finland Packing List
For our Finland trip we packed for both active outdoorsy stuff (snowboarding, hiking, horse riding) in Ruka and city life in stylish Helsinki.
It was actually easier to pack than usual as we were only visiting one climate and we had plenty of space left. Both of our bags weighed 8.6 kg, which is around the same as I usually have but a few kilos less than normal for Simon. This was slightly over the 8 kg carry-on limit of Finnair but as usual they didn’t weigh our bags. They only allow one carry-on bag, without an extra personal item, so Simon packed our cotton shoulder bag that we use as a day bag in his backpack.
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.
Our packing list includes everything that we wore on the plane so we didn’t actually pack all of this.
You can read a detailed review of our carry-on backpacks here.
- Tortuga backpack (Simon) – Lots of space and a good hip belt to take the weight of the shoulders.
- Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack (Erin) – The perfect size for me with good support and plenty of space.
- Combination locks – To lock the zips of our backpacks.
- Cotton shoulder bag – We use this as a day bag. Simon packed it in his backpack on travel days.
- Eagle Creek Specter full compression cube for my main clothes.
- Eagle Creek Specter half compression cube for my running clothes. You can only buy these as a set so the half cube comes with the full cube.
- Eagle Creek half packing cube for my underwear, and other bits like Simon’s hard drive.
- 1 Jeans
- 1 PrAna Halle trousers – Practical but decent looking travel trousers. See my review above.
- 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
- 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 Jumper – As this was a short trip I bought a cotton jumper in the sale. This wouldn’t be practical for long term travel as it takes ages to dry. Merino wool or even cashmere would be a better option.
- 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 and it was nice to have something smarter in Helsinki.
- Running outfit: Capri leggings (Athleta Be Free Knicker), t-shirt, long sleeve top, sports bra (Victoria Secret Incredible), Nike Elite No-Show running socks, fleece headband – If you don’t run/workout you obviously won’t need to pack these.
- 7 Underwear – One pair were the lightweight, quick-drying ExOfficio underwear (see review above).
- 2 Bras
- 7 Socks (3 thick, 4 thin) – One pair were the fantastic Smartwool medium hiking socks (see review above).
- Woolly hat
- 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.
- Merrell Mix Master Glide 2 running shoes – These are lightweight, minimalist trainers. I only wore these for running so could have managed with just my boots if I hadn’t been. An alternative second pair of shoes if it’s not too cold could be a pair of comfortable but smart ballet flats like my beloved Tieks which are usually in my bag (see my Tieks review for more details).
- 1 Eagle Creek full compression cube for all his clothes.
- 1 Jeans
- 1 Bluffs trousers – The most functional and stylish travel trousers Simon has found. They are lightweight, wrinkle-free, quick-drying, and have hidden zipped pockets, but still look good. He has worn them hiking, horse riding and to weddings. Read a full review here.
- 3 T-shirts
- 1 Long sleeve shirt
- 1 Icebreaker long sleeve merino wool top – Warm, lightweight, and odour-resistant.
- 1 Lightweight fleece
- 1 Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket – Incredibly light and warm. See the review above.
- 7 Underwear – One pair were ExOfficio travel underwear (see review above) and the rest were Marks and Spencers microskin trunks which are very lightweight.
- 5 Socks (2 thick, 3 thin) – One pair were Smartwool medium hiking socks (see review above).
- Woolly hat
- Scarf – He never wore it.
- Sunglasses and travel case
- Scarpa Margarita GTX shoes – The smartest looking walking shoes Simon has found. They worked for every situation in Finland so he didn’t need to pack another pair of shoes.
We have one toiletries bag between us which Simon carries.
- Lifeventure Ultralite Wash Holdall – Lightweight and comes with a hook for when we have nowhere to put it. This one is only available in the UK but Sea to Summit have a similar bag in the US.
- Small ziplock bag – For liquids on the flight.
- Suncream – 50 ml bottle of Ultrasun once a day suncream. We usually prefer the Riemann P20 once a day suncream as the oil consistency is easier to apply, but as we only used it on our faces in Finland this cream was more moisturising.
- Lush solid shampoo bar – It works as shampoo and soap, lasts ages, and doesn’t use up your liquids allowance on flights.
- 90 ml bottle shampoo
- Toothbrush each + small cover for end
- Hairbrush (travel sized)
- Deodorant (small roll-on)
- Lip balm
- Nail clippers
- Razor each + spare blades
- Shaving oil (Simon) – King of Shaves 15 ml bottle. This magic stuff comes in a tiny bottle and lasts over six months.
- Moon cup (Erin) or Diva Cup in US – Essential for travelling women. It takes up less space than tampons (and you don’t have to worry about finding them) and is better for the environment, your body, and your wallet.
- Hair bands and clips (Erin).
I carry our minimal medical kit.
- Small pouch for storing everything
- Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) – Essential for me for travel sickness although I didn’t need it in flat Finland.
- Immodium – For traveller’s diarrhoea emergencies (again didn’t need it in Finland!)
- A few plasters (Band Aids)
- Prescription medications
We took all our usual electronics, except Simon’s graphics tablet, as we needed to work.
Laptops and Accessories
- Macbook Retina 15 inch laptop + Incase neoprene case + charger (Simon) – A powerful beast in a relatively small package. Ideal if you are doing a lot of design, development, or video work.
- Macbook Air 11 inch laptop + Incase neoprene case + charger (Erin) – The perfect travel laptop in my opinion. So thin and light yet powerful.
- Western Digital My Passport 1TB hard drive (Simon) – Essential for backing up.
- Seagate Backup Plus Slim 1 TB hard drive (Erin) – I recently switched to Seagate after I broke my Western Digital backing up on an unsteady bed (don’t do that!). It’s even thinner and lighter than the My Passport.
- Small mouse (Simon)
- International travel power adaptor
- USB flash drive
- HDMI cable – For connecting our laptop to hotel TVs for Netflix and film watching.
- Eagle Creek e-Tools Organizer Pro – Perfect for keeping all our cables and accessories organised and protected. Simon carries this.
I carry all my photography gear in a small shoulder bag that fits inside my backpack.
- Olympus OM-D EM-5 mirrorless camera + Tamrac 3440 shoulder bag – I don’t regret switching from DSLR to mirrorless at all. This camera is much smaller and even better quality. You can read my camera review here.
- Olympus 14-42mm kit lens
- Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens – I love this tiny lens, especially for food photography, and had it on my camera most of the time in Helsinki.
- Charger + 3 batteries
- 16GB Sandisk Extreme SD cards x 2
- USB cable for uploading
- Lens pen for cleaning
iPhones, iPad, Kindle
- iPhone 6 128GB unlocked + Apple earbuds (Simon) – We had a Three pay as you go SIM from the UK and paid £15 a month for unlimited data. With their Feel at Home feature we could use this in Finland for free! Read more about using your phone abroad.
- iPhone 5 64GB unlocked + Apple earbuds + Shocksock neoprene sleeve (Erin)
- iPad Mini WiFi 16GB + Incase neoprene case
- Wacom Bamboo stylus for drawing on the iPad
- iPhone/iPad lightning cables x 2 – We share these for our three Apple devices.
- Headphone splitter – In case we want to watch a film on the iPad together.
- Kindle Paperwhite 3G + USB cable + Neoprene sleeve (Erin) – I absolutely love my Kindle which is essential for travelling book lovers. Read my review of the Paperwhite.
- Earplugs (Erin)
- Eye mask (Erin) – I did try the Eagle Creek Sandman eyeshade which is very comfortable and blocks out all light. It helped me sleep on the flight from New York to London but it’s just too bulky for me to travel with permanently. If I used it every night it might be worth it, but instead I’m going back to a free lightweight eye mask.
- Tiny roll of gaffa (duct) tape – We just have a little rolled around a piece of cardboard. It can fix anything.
- Tiny sewing kit – The kind you get for free in hotels.
- Moleskine notebook (one each)
- A5 sketch pad (Simon)
- Pens and pencils
- Few ziplock bags – They always come in useful for storing food or keeping things dry. I use one for dirty laundry.
Money and Documents
- Dollars and Euros – We didn’t need dollars but we usually have some as an emergency cash supply.
- 2 debit and 2 credit cards each – Backups are important for managing your money when travelling.
- Driving licences
- European Health Insurance Card – For EU citizens to access healthcare.
- Money belt each – We wear these under our clothes on travel days to protect our passports, cards, and cash. Not that we felt at all unsafe in Finland.
- Wallet (Simon) – I don’t carry money 🙂
More Carry-On Travel Resources
If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my new book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is now available for the Kindle on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada or your local Amazon store.
If you’d like to know what we usually pack (mostly travelling to hot climates with occasional cooler weather), you can see our carry-on packing list here. You can also read our tips on travelling carry-on only, and what was new in our backpacks in 2013 and 2014.
Other Cold Weather Carry-On Packing Lists
We’re not the only travellers who manage to travel carry-on only in the winter. See these other packing lists for inspiration:
- Be My Travel Muse – Kristin travels with a carry-on for a winter trip in Europe and still looks stylish.
- Travel Fashion Girl – Another fashionable female packing list for cold weather.
- Oh Happy Day – How to look great in Paris in the winter with just a carry-on.
- Take Your Big Trip – Kristin packs light for a trip to Bhutan which included both hot and cold weather.
- Her Packing List – A packing list for 28 days in Lapland with temperatures as low as -38ºC! Although this list isn’t strictly carry-on only (she had a 55 litre Osprey Farpoint) it would be easy to adapt it, especially by wearing the thickest clothes and using compression bags.
- Snarky Nomad – A simple layering system for cold weather travel.
I hope this post has helped convince you that travelling carry-on only in cold weather is possible. There are so many advantages to packing light that I hope you’ll give it a try and save yourself money, time, and stress.
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Don’t forget travel insurance for your gear. The cheapest we’ve found for long term travel is with True Traveller (for EU citizens) and they allow you to purchase a policy when you are already travelling (most companies don’t). World Nomads is another reliable option if you don’t live in the EU. Read more about how to buy travel insurance.
Please note that some of these are affiliate links so we earn a small amount if you buy anything through them, at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting this site! We received a number of these products for review including our down jackets, new Eagle Creek packing cubes, PrAna trousers, and ExOfficio underwear. As we travel light we are very fussy about what we travel with and wouldn’t recommend anything that we don’t love.
Do you travel carry-on only? Leave a comment and share your tips.
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