How to pack light for winter travel

Think winter: big coats and lots of layers.
Think travel clothes: the middle-aged American tourist look, bristling with pockets and bum-bags
Think adventure gear: functional, brightly coloured, large logos every which way
Think backpacking: an enormous hiking backpack on your back and another, smaller backpack slung across your front.

What if I told you it’s possible to achieve all the comfort and functionality of winter adventurous travel clothes without compromising on style, performance or volume? Well, that would require a serious rethink of travel. Thus, I present my guide to travelling light, even when the snow is thick, the sun scarce and the appetite for adventure insatiable.

Why travel light

First, though, why bother travelling light at all? International long-haul flights usually allow checked-baggage up to ~23kg plus carry on. Why not just take the conventional daypack and large bag/suitcase? Freedom. If you have only one carry-on sized bag, then you are free from baggage check in, the wait at the luggage carousel, the burden on your back while you walk to your accommodation. You are free from having to sort through loads of stuff each night and having to separate clean clothes from laundry. In short, you are free to experience the world in a far more intimate, raw way. Best yet, you don’t need to compromise on comfort, functionality or style. Here’s how.

Pack light, go far

The criteria

What makes for good travel clothing? In researching for my own winter travel, I used the following as a guide to deciding what to take with me.

Comfortable: Radical light-packers and adventurers may choose to compromise on comfort in order to save a few grams, to allow for the packing of more provisions or to ensure greater speed and freedom while performing their intended activities. However, for most of us, we don’t go on vacation to be miserable. When it comes to winter travel, being cold is miserable. A few years ago I went to France in the middle of January with temperatures constantly below freezing and found myself quite unprepared — coming from Australia, I had never experienced sub-zero. I ended up wearing all of my clothing at once on more than a few occasions. Fact is, if you’re cold you won’t be happy. I therefore consider comfort not something to balance against function, but a vital part of functionality of clothing.

Versatility: the philosophy of travelling light is to get by with less and therefore emancipate oneself from the burden of baggage. However, if you want to do a wide range of activities across a range of weather, you’ll want clothing to be as versatile as possible. It is simply impractical to take a dinner suit while backpacking for the rare occasion you visit the opera or go to a fancy restaurant. However, if the clothes you do take can be dressed up or down then you won’t need to take as much: it’s that simple.

Durability: the less clothing you take, the more wear each garment will receive. Thus, if you want to get by on a single pair of boots for three months for everything from city sightseeing to back-country hiking, it needs to be durable. Durability, of course, comes at a premium.

Style: yes, style matters. Even if you’re not a fashionista, few things make you a bigger target than looking like a tourist.

Spot the tourists
Spot the tourists

Price: depending on your budget, you may or may not be able to stomach the price of technical wear. Most backpackers want to be economical, so it’s safe to say that price is a factor. However, when considering prices you need to remember that while a high quality, versatile garment may be expensive, if it can replace multiple garments it may be economical after all. In the end, quality doesn’t come cheap. Cheap clothes will be made from cotton or undesirable synthetics, cheap footwear will fall apart and cheap backpacks will be poorly designed, uncomfortable and may lose their zips, straps and contents during the strain of continual use.

He who would travel happily must travel light.
Antoine De Saint-Exupery

The options

Balancing the criteria above is difficult. I researched available products for quite some time, so hopefully my conclusions will help you.

Urban techwear: The majority of my travel garments come from the category of ‘urban techwear’ — that is, clothing with city-styling but made to withstand abuse across a range of activities, all the while minimising maintenance. More and more companies are producing garments that come under this category. On the one hand, there are small producers like Makers and Riders, Outlier, Mission Workshop, Swrve, Proof NY, Bluffworks, Ministry of Supply etc. who make a fairly limited range of fairly expensive gear, primarily for cyclists commuting to work. Pants from these companies cost around $150-250 and are water resistant, durable and easy to care for, while having a stylish chino or jeans cut. On the other hand, the are outdoor companies like Arc’teryx, Mountain Hardware, Marmot etc. who are beginning to produce more stylish technical options that have many of the same desirable features. What you choose will probably depend most on availability. In Australia the range of urban techwear is almost non-existent, requiring importing already pricey garments from overseas (although NZ-based Alchemy Equipment is a good choice for we Antipodeans). Elsewhere there are more options. One promising brand in the USA is Bluffworks. They make travel pants that look just like normal chinos but don’t need to washed much or ironed at all — plus, they cost about that same as a normal pair of decent pants ($90).

mission workshop styrman topcoat

Urban techwear is ideal for travelling as it is versatile, durable, comfortable and often has useful features like fast-drying fabric, water-resistance, a hidden or zippered pocket and stretchiness to permit greater range of movement. Unlike ‘traditional’ travel clothing, it doesn’t look hideous. The main disadvantage is cost. Further, in terms of technical function these clothes are usually less impressive than those made from dedicated outdoor sport retailers like The North Face, Arc’teryx etc.

Outdoor techwear: If you have a specific outdoor activity in mind, like rockclimbing, skiing, snow-shoeing etc. you may be best off buying clothes specifically for that activity. Urban techwear will be fine for hiking and a good number of other activities, but is almost never as waterproof as Gore-Tex or a dedicated garment from the likes of Marmot, The North Face and so on. Whether or not you take serious outdoorsy clothing will depend on what you think you’ll be doing. However, most 20-something backpackers you see at the airport toting 80L expedition backpacks are not planning a multi-day trek through the Dolomites or Patagonian wilderness. Therefore I suggest avoiding activity specific outdoor clothes unless you can find something in muted tones that you’d be happy to wear around the city.

Low-tech clothes: I’ve made a lot of technical clothing, because I think that they’re amazing for travel, but if you privilege budget or don’t have access to techy options, perhaps due to high postage costs, you can look for low-tech options. The best for winter travel, and everything in general, is wool. Wool is naturally odour resistant due to anti-microbial properties of lanolin and it retains warmth while wet. Plus, wool doesn’t need ironing like cotton. Merino wool is the secret to Icebreaker (and other) thermals and means you can wear the same thing for days without it getting smelly. However, wool, while low-tech, is usually not cheap or even easy to find in conventional garments. Your suit pants are probably wool, but casual options may be difficult to find. Again, the low-tech but practical options depend on what’s available. I scoured online and in-store for wool garments in Australia, including op-shops for cheaper items, but found that wool is surprisingly rare. If you can get your hands on some wool garments for a good price, then you can skip a lot of the (usually) more expensive urban techwear.

Why sacrifice style?
Why sacrifice style?

The list

The benchmark for travelling light is taking carry-on only. That limits you to what you wear on the plane and what fits in a medium sized backpack. Carry-on limits vary place to place, but the most restrictive are usually the budget airlines who allow up to about 30L. My recent post about the Osprey Porter 30L gives my recommendation for backpack and also an idea of what you can fit in one that size. I’m not going to elaborate on why you should layer or wear merino thermals during winter. That’s been covered elsewhere. Here’s what I suggest you consider if you want to pack light and still be warm when it’s well below zero.

What you wear on the plane
Depending on which hemisphere you depart and where you’re headed, it may be quite hot when you step onto the plane. Grit your teeth and bear it. There’s little point wearing shorts and flip flops if you’re heading to the Arctic.

Shirt (preferably wool blend)
Long trousers (preferably something urban techweary)
Merino thermal top
Merino thermal leggings
Merino socks
Sturdy water resistant boots with decent tread
Fleece/microfleece jacket
Watch

What goes in the bag
1x long trousers (eg Bluffworks, anything with Schoeller fabric, or softshell pants from Mountain Hardware / others)
1x shirt (preferably wool-blend)
1x merino thermal leggings (200-260gsm)
1x merino thermal top
1x primaloft/coreloft jacket (this should be water-resistant)
1x lightweight waterproof shell jacket* (eg Marmot PreCip, depends how much rain you expect)
1x thongs / sandals
1x thick merino hiking socks (your spare pair)
1x microfibre travel towel (these pack small but are super water absorbent)
2x travel power adaptor (depends on where you’re going)
1x swimming trunks (or equivalent)
Gloves
Scarf
phone charger (you’re going to bring a phone, so don’t forget the charger!)
camera charger* + spare batteries*
small laptop* (Macbook Air, Dell XPS13, anything 10-12″ that’s lightweight)
laptop charger*
universal sink plug* (you might be washing clothes in a bathroom sink, so these are handy)
toiletries
1L water bottle and/or thermos
notebook, pens
playing cards*

*optional

That’s it

Yes, that’s all you need to take for a journey of indefinite duration to anywhere cold. You’ll need more if you’re planning a jaunt down to McMurdo or Irkutsk in mid-winter, but for pretty much any other winter travel you’ll be fine, whether you want to ski, snow-shoe, hike, bike, museum-prowl, brothel-creep, opera-go or any other activity that people do while on holiday. That’s two complete outfits (which you can mix-and-match for a total of at least 4!). You don’t need more because chances are you won’t be in the one place too long (so nobody will see you day after day and think less of you for your sartorial choices) and nobody is likely to keep track of your outfits anyway.

The best part: this all fits into carry-on. You can manage with just the one, small bag and while others struggle with heavy suitcases or enormous hiking packs, you’ll be free, unencumbered and actually experiencing things. Because that’s why you wanted to travel in the first place.

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