How to pack for winter travel (in a carry-on)

For my honeymoon last year, we went from sunny, equatorial Colombia (where we got married) straight to Europe... in February. Needless to say, the way I packed for the wedding was very different from how I packed for the honeymoon. In about a day, we swung from balmy 85F+ to drizzly sub-40F temps.

When I searched around the web and Pinterest for general travel outfit inspiration for my winter honeymoon, I was reminded of the approach that so many articles take: the default assumption seemed to be that I was going somewhere warm. Every article features casual outfits that work for a variety of mild climates or distinctly hot locales. It makes sense - many people cashing in vacation days are probably going somewhere warm and sunny. 

Now, I am adamant about packing light. I never take more than a carry-on suitcase and a handbag, even on my longer trips. Usually I too am going somewhere relatively warm, which helps when you’re packing light. But in this case, I needed to be prepared for rain, drizzle and biting cold winds. That meant added bulk in the form of sweaters, layers, and a real winter coat.

Packing everything I needed for 2 weeks in a carry-on just got a little more complicated.

Winter weather doesn’t have to throw a wrench in your plans for packing light. I packed smart and was able to to make it all work despite even less carry-on real estate than I was used to. 

I learned a few important lessons on that trip that helped me stay warm while still not being condemned to lug around a giant checked bag. Here’s how you can do the same:

1. Long underwear is your friend (but specifically, this kind):

Look - I’m from Texas. Long underwear here, is just not… a thing. Our winters get cold, and it does snow, sleet, and freeze (to the point of shutting down a city for a day) - but it’s never bad enough to warrant 2 layers. My winter wardrobe in Texas consists of boots, sweaters, jeans and one or two light to medium coats. 

But in Texas winters, I also don’t spend a lot of time outside. I’m just trying to stay warm between home, the car, and the car to work, and back. When you travel, you have to assume (hope!) you’ll be outside a decent amount of the time, no matter the weather. So when planning our honeymoon in Europe, I knew I would need something else to keep me warm, but I didn’t have preconceived ideas about what "long underwear" should be (other than maybe picturing something thermal and old-timey). 

So I did some research. In the end, I purchased a few pairs of UNIQLO’s Heattech long underwear - 1 pair of leggings (dark blue) and 2 pairs of long sleeve shirts (white and maroon). And let me tell you - these undergarments saved my ass on my trip. I don’t know a lot about the technology behind UNIQLO Heattech, but I know they really helped to keep me warm while being relatively thin and lightweight. 

2. Pare down your wardrobe even more:

Even though the Heattech didn’t add a ton of extra bulk to my luggage, it did take up a little extra room in already-tight carry-on luggage real estate. This just forced me to be even more ruthless than I normally would be about what I really needed and would actually wear when packing. For my two week trip, I think I packed about 2 pairs of pants and 4 tops (sweaters) total and rotated them throughout the trip.

That might not seem like much, and it wasn’t - but there are a couple of things to consider here:

a) In the winter, you’re probably not sweating as much, so you can get away with re-wearing garments more than you would in the summer. And don’t forget you have an extra layer in between you and the sweater, which buys even more time between washes of your outer garments.

b) An admittedly somewhat vain consideration I have when planning travel outfits is how often I’m likely to be photographed in the same outfit over the course of a trip. During a winter trip, I knew I was always going to be wearing the same coat - which further quelled the urge to pack a variety of outfits. 

c) Don’t forget that laundry mid-trip is a thing. I sent my laundry out to get washed once or twice, but it is also very easy to DIY that in your hotel bathroom.

If you need more help figuring out how to bring less, be sure to check out my other post, How to pack for a 2-week trip in a carry-on, where I go into more detail about this.

3. Bring disposable hand warmers!

This also falls into the camp of “not a thing in Texas” (unless you work outdoors) but the big bag of disposable, air-activated heat packs I bought on Amazon turned out to be a very worthwhile purchase. And even though they may seem like the kind of thing you might not be allowed to bring on a plane, my research told me they are totally okay to bring on board in your carry-on (and I had no problems doing so).

Every day before we left the apartment or hotel, I stuffed one of these babies in each boot and inside of each glove. It made all the difference in the world, keeping me warm and toasty. (And best yet - as I disposed of each one, I made more room in my luggage for souvenirs).

4. Bring really warm, comfortable boots made by a trusted hiking brand.

I have a long history of struggling to find the right kind of shoes for travel. At the heart of that is a tug of war between my desire for something not completely dorky and something I can actually walk in comfortably from miles 5-15+ (and if you think you’re walking less when you travel - you’re almost certainly kidding yourself). By now, I’ve pretty much figured that out for warmer climates — but for winter travel, not so much.

Until this trip.

One of my favorite travel shoe hunting tricks is to begin by seeking out brands already known for comfort and active use, and then finding the cutest style you can live with. If you do it the other way around - going for style first, and then double checking (fingers crossed) on comfort - you’re far less likely to find a pair that holds up. 

In this case, I found what I was looking for in Keen, a well known hiking shoe brand. I bought Keen’s Bern Baby Bern knee-high riding boot and inserted a SuperFeet insole for extra support. It still had the riding boot style I wanted without compromising on serious comfort and waterproofing. It’s important to remember that shoes made for high levels of activity, like hiking and walking, are built in completely different ways than shoes built for fashion, even if they look similar on the outside. 

I also wore my Keen knee-high boots under yoga pants on the treadmill in my apartment gym a few times to break them in and make sure they would be comfortable. If you have access to a treadmill, I highly recommend this strategy to make sure a pair will be comfortable enough for travel before you wear them outside and forfeit your ability to return them.

5. Go with an ultralight packable down jacket.

If you’re shopping for a winter coat, you can either go with something like a heavy wool peacoat or a light down jacket. As a traveler, you want to go with the latter. Finding a down jacket that is also waterproof is nice, too.

Down feathers keep you (surprisingly, remarkably) warm in the coldest of circumstances - and they’re also quite lightweight. Look for a down jacket that comes with a bite-size carrying bag (this might be called “packable down” when you’re searching) to be sure the coat you buy can be squeezed and compacted into a tight, tiny little space.

In my case, I still brought the wool peacoat and packed my packable down jacket (not waterproof) just in case. Whenever we moved between destinations, I had to wear the coat. When the wool coat became too much, I had no recourse but to hold it, which became tiresome after a while. I thought of my pea coat as a bit more stylish, but life would have been easier if I had just gone with the down coat.

If you’re going somewhere cold and wintery - do not automatically assume this means you are going to be packing a lot! You can still get away with packing ultra light and taking only a carry-on. It just takes a little pre-planning and some smart choices about under- and outer-wear.

When you're packing with limited luggage for the first time, sometimes it's easier to just visualize how everything comes together. So I created this free checklist and visual diagram showing how everything I mentioned above fits into a carry-on suitcase and single personal item. I hope it helps you have the confidence to pack super light on your next trip!

👇DOWNLOAD THE FREE PDF:👇

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