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. 

Contents

This post was originally published in June 2015 and last updated in August 2020. 

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), 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.

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.

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 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 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 five 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.

Simon chose the traditional Eagle Creek Pack-It compression cube as it unzips on three sides for easy access—he used 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. 

I also have a standard half packing cube for my underwear—I’ve been using it for over 10 years which shows how durable Eagle Creek’s products are.

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 last year, 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. 

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.

Luggage

For Finland we travelled with carry-on backpacks. We have since switched to 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.

  • 1 Jeans – My new favourites are the Aviator comfort skinny travel jeans which are ultra comfy and have large pockets. 
  • 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 medium hiking socks which I adore in cold weather.
  • 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.
  • 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, stylish 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

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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More Packing 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 on Amazon for the Kindle or paperback. 

These packing posts might also be useful:

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 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!

If you enjoyed this post, pin it!

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.

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