Beat the Cold without the Bulk: 5 Top Tips for Lightweight Winter Travel
Winter is one of my absolute favourite times to travel. It’s crisp, clean, comes with a whole range of adventurous sports and activities for thrill-seekers, is less crowded than its warmer counterparts, and transforms entire landscapes into shimmering fields that burst blindingly into full colour every time the sun’s rays ricochet off the fresh snow and fracture into a thousand glistening, rainbow shards.
Yes, when it comes to beautiful, unique scenery at its least crowded, winter leaps enthusiastically to mind. However, with the beauty of winter comes the spectacularly frustrating ordeal of packing warm woollens sufficient for outdoor winter sports and activities, without compromising your usual ‘carry on only’ policy. I’ve been asked many questions about my winter packing list – often in tones of incredulity and disbelief – from people who have convinced themselves that lightweight winter travel is impossible and that their only option is to avoid winter holidays altogether. However, I’ve had plenty of experience travelling from the Alps to the Arctic, undertaking a whole host of winter activities from dog-sledding, skiing, and snow-shoeing, to snowmobiling, ice caving, and winter hiking, so I’m well placed to assure you that once the difficulty of minimalist packing itself has been overcome, it’s exceptionally easy to have a sufficient, albeit small and light winter pack that is fit to see you through even the wildest weather. Here are my top tips for enjoying the thrill of winter without breaking your back:
Choose a small, lightweight backpack:
The first step is to buy a lightweight, comfortable pack and to stick to your plan to take it along on your travels. Forcing yourself to fit all your gear inside your chosen pack will greatly limit your options, ensuring that you take only the necessities by prioritising multi-functional fundamentals over that extra jumper that nicely matches your boots, but doesn’t contribute much else. A small, comfortable backpack will also prove to be the best option when it comes to slightly harsher conditions. After all, it’s a great feeling to be able to confidently strap on your gear and breeze past everyone attempting to haul their suitcases through shin-deep snow.
Consider what toiletries you need to pack:
Toiletries are some of the easiest things to over-pack despite the fact that, in most areas, they’re readily accessible and relatively inexpensive. Limit yourself to the necessities and remember that winter trips don’t require any special toiletries. I would, however, advise you to pack a small bottle of high quality moisturiser and lip balm, as the lack of humidity in cold air tends to rapidly leach moisture from the skin. Also be sure to take sunscreen to prevent snow sunburn. Snow is highly reflective of UV radiation, so applying sunscreen, covering exposed skin, and wearing sunglasses is recommended to prevent yourself from unwittingly shivering through the coldest of days only to end up with the hottest of burns.
Learn how to layer your clothes:
You’ve probably heard "layer up to cut down", but that’s only because it’s a good piece of advice. Layering your clothes allows for better insulation and gives you more flexibility, enabling you not only to move comfortably between warmer and cooler, or indoor and outdoor, environments, but to also obtain variety by shuffling your layers rather than attempting to pack three or four different outfits. Base layers are an absolute necessity for staying warm when the big chill hits, and if you’re astute you’ll find they go a long way to keeping your pack size at a minimum. I strongly recommend opting for merino wool or silk base layers, as these materials are highly lightweight, wick moisture, dry quickly, and remain largely odour-free, enabling them to be worn for a few days between washes. Upper layers that are exposed neither to skin nor to harsh weather will likely require even fewer washes, especially if woven from materials like wool, which naturally repel dirt and other irritants. I usually pack a couple of base layers so I can wear one whilst washing and drying the other, in addition to a couple of extra lightweight middle layers that enable me to switch out any items needing to be washed. Be sure to pack your Scrubba wash bag to simplify your laundry days, and remember to bring only one outer shell and one pair of winter boots. You’ll wear these whenever you’re in transit to minimise the size of your pack.
Buy a neck gaiter:
Versatility is the key to packing light, and it’s difficult to get more versatile than a neck gaiter. These are small, lightweight, and come in a variety of materials and patterns to suit all styles. Best of all, they can be folded in almost innumerable ways to provide varying levels of protection for both hot and cold weather. Wear them as scarves, beanies, or balaclavas to beat the cold, and as sun hats, bandanas, or sweat bands for head and wrist, to keep cool in the heat. Otherwise, use them as an eye mask for sleeping in bright conditions, as a hair tie or headband to pull back your locks in windy conditions, or simply as a colourful accessory to spruce up your outfit. Switch out your usual heavy bundle of items for one adaptable, highly convenient item that will see you through all possible conditions, and immediately shed some kilos off your pack.
Learn the best way to pack:
If you’re unable to wear your heavier gear while in transit, be sure to compensate for the added bulk by utilising the pockets of space these items often create in your pack. For instance, fill your boots and your coat hood/pockets with small items like socks, gloves, and underwear. This not only helps to effectively utilise space inside your bag, but also organises your smaller, easier to lose items, keeping you from having to endure the mind-numbing frustration of ending up with an odd sock in the middle of your travels. Additionally, if carrying a rucksack or backpack, don't be afraid to utilise the bag's exterior, especially if it comes equipped with straps that support the attachment of your gear via cable ties. A light, waterproof shell and snow gloves are just two options that can be easily attached to the outside of your pack without risk of perishing in extreme winter conditions.
When it comes to winter travel, quality far outranks quantity, and a few decent items should see you through most of the weather you’ll encounter on ordinary winter holidays. It may seem impossible at first, but persevere and you’ll soon be travelling unburdened in winter, no longer forced to make that horrible decision between lightweight but oppressively crowded and expensive holidays, and cheaper, more accessible travel that’s restricted by the size of your bag. Instead, have it all! Beat the crowds, the exertion, and the unnecessary costs by layering up to cut down, and ensure that your next winter trip is a clean, light and free one.
Want to remember our tips on the road? We've got you covered with this handy, downloadable graphic:
Want more? Get our top tips for packing light.