How to Pack Carry-On Only for Cold Weather

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Many people think that travelling with just carry-on luggage to cold climates is impossible. While packing for winter travel is trickier than for a beach holiday, there’s no reason why you can’t pack light for winter too.

We’ve been living out of our carry-on sized backpacks for over seven 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 cold weather and our carry-on only winter packing list for Finland:

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Pack for a Week

We can travel for over seven 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.

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Wear 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 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.

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—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 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 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 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.

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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 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 tried 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.

Eagle Creek compression packing cube review

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

It turns out we could easily fit everything into the cubes and had plenty of space in our backpacks. We’ve now permanently replaced 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 seven 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.

Eagle Creek eTools Organizer Pro review

Our Eagle Creek eTools Organizer Pro keeps our electronics accessories tidy and protected.

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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’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 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.

PrAna Halle Trousers review

Erin wearing her PrAna Halle Trousers on a hike in Lapland

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.

Smartwool Socks

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 now always travel with lighter versions of them.

ExOfficio Underwear

ExOfficio claims “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 they are ideal for travel. They are expensive but durable (we’re now up to two years of frequent use) and are a worthwhile investment for an ultralight traveller.

We liked them so much that we ended up buying extra pairs. When we need to quickly wash a pair of underwear these are the ones we turn to.

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Our Finland Winter Packing List

Carry on only packing list for cold weather

Us on our way to Finland with our carry-on backpacks.

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

Luggage

You can read a detailed review of our carry-on backpacks here.

  • Tortuga Outbreaker backpack (Simon) – Lots of space and a good hip belt to take the weight off 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.

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.

  • 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).
  • Gloves
  • Woolly hat
  • 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.
  • 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).

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

Toiletries

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 has 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
  • Toothpaste
  • Hairbrush (travel sized)
  • Deodorant (small roll-on)
  • Lip balm
  • Nail clippers
  • Tweezers
  • 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).

Medical

I carry our minimal medical kit.

  • Small pouch for storing everything
  • Ibuprofen
  • 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
  • Antihistamine

Electronics

We took all our usual electronics, except Simon’s graphics tablet, as we needed to work.

Laptops and Accessories

Photography

I carry all my photography gear in a small shoulder bag that fits inside my backpack.

iPhones, iPad, Kindle

Miscellaneous

  • 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

  • Travel Insurance – We keep our policy details in our wallet. True Traveller is the best value we’ve found for UK and EU residents. World Nomads is great for everyone else. 
  • Passports
  • 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 🙂

For the latest toiletries and electronics we travel with see our carry-on packing list

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More Carry-On Travel Resources

If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for the Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK or your local Amazon store.

These packing posts might also be useful:

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Other Carry-On Winter 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.
  • 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.

Let us know if you have any more tips on how to pack light for winter travel!

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Packing carry-on only is possible in cold weather! This post contains packing light tips for cold weather travel and our packing list for Finland.

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.

 
Tortuga Outbreaker backpack

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21 Comments (6 pingbacks)

  1. 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!

    Reply

    • 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: https://www.neverendingvoyage.com/how-to-use-packing-cubes-carry-on-travel/

      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!

      Reply

  2. 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.

    Reply

  3. 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)?

    Reply

    • 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!).

      Reply

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