It’s no secret that I like to travel carry on only, and in fact, many travellers I know do these days. The only time I rock my giant backpack (I’m still not big girl enough for a suitcase) is when I move to a new country! Packing for summer with only a carry on is pretty easy; sandals, dresses, bikini, shorts, and tops…done! But how do you pack for winter travel with only carry on luggage? Winter travel means warmer clothes, which means more bulk and more space is taken up.
However, I love travelling in the offseason, and especially winter in Europe. There are so many great city breaks and reasons to travel to places like Prague in winter, or Iceland, rather than trying to work around all the many tourists that visit these sorts of places in summer!
I decided to share the sort of things that I travel with in winter with carry-on luggage only, and how I make it work. This may be a little on the girly side (since that’s my area of expertise after all) but I figure most of the principles apply to men’s packing too!
So what’s the best carry-on bag?
I use an Osprey Farpoint 40 when I travel with carry-on only. I LOVE this bag! One of the things that attracted me to it is the proper frame, which makes the bag super comfy to carry around. Of course, you can use a small suitcase if you want to travel with carry-on only luggage too, but I have always preferred a backpack. It means if I have a late flight and I can’t leave my stuff anywhere, then I can easily carry it around a city. Try doing that with a wheely bag! Of course, if you want to use a suitcase as a carry on then that’s personal choice, I’d just suggest something lightweight.
But what do you pack for winter travel with a carry-on?
If you’ve been looking at all your stuff and wondering how to pack for cold weather in a carry on then you’ve come to the right place! This is all the stuff I actually pack for winter travel, after several years of travelling through Europe in winter and having to pack for winter only! One day I’ll chase the summer…
So this isn’t actually IN the bag, but part of the way I save room in my carry on when I travel in winter is by taking only one winter coat and wearing it! Its good to have something waterproof, but I actually have a 100% wool coat and it’s done me well so far. If I know that a place is particularly rainy (hello United Kingdom) then I also have a lightweight but waterproof raincoat that I can roll up in my carry on.
Look for something that works for the city and the country. I have something similar to one of these Craghoppers jackets that’s for both the city and exploring outdoors. I also strongly believe in hoods, always. If you get caught in the rain, or without a hat and it’s freezing they are the best thing ever!
Warm and waterproof boots
Also not in the bag… one pair at least anyway! Depending on where you’re travelling and your plans, you need a comfortable pair of shoes. If you’re travelling in winter, you also need a warm pair! I like to go with boots since they’re often waterproof and warm and if you buy a slip on or zip version they’re easy to take on and off at the airport. Try a pair of thinner but warm woollen socks, like Smartwool socks, to keep your feet warm in your boots!
There are so many styles to choose from and you can get away with wearing them in the day and out at night too. If I have space and depending on how long I’m travelling for I’ll take a second pair of winter boots in my luggage so I can switch them out. But if it’s a winter weekend away with just a carry-on, one pair of boots is enough. Check the grip as well, and add extra grip if you need it.
If it’s not so cold where you’re travelling or you need shoes for hiking or some outdoor activity, just wear your boots at the airport so the smaller pair is in your bag.
Scarves and hats
I have a confession. I’m a little obsessed with scarves. At one point I had over 30 scarves! Moving countries several times has forced me to narrow this down to the bare favourites, but the collection may or may not be growing…shhh.
I usually take two scarves and two hats when I travel in winter because they’re small enough to fit in carry on only luggage but can really make a difference to your look (and warmth!). It’s a great way to make an outfit look different, even if you’re wearing the same coat and boots every day. My favourite kind of hat is a slouch sort of beanie, which stops me getting hat hair and goes with everything.
I love the touchscreen winter gloves that have the tips that let you still use your smartphone, and they never leave my bag. Essential for travellers in winter! The other option is the ones that have fingerless gloves with mittens over them, which I also like but always end of leaving the mitten bit off to take photos when I travel in winter and have freezing fingertips!
Thermals aren’t exactly the sexiest of clothes, but they are definitely necessary for winter travel, especially if you’re doing anything outdoors. Brands like Icebreaker or Patagonia. They may be on the more expensive side but they’re built to last and you’ll be thankful when it’s negative temperatures and you’re trying to see the Berlin Wall!
I’m copping out on the title of this paragraph because a lot of the rest comes down to personal choice. I like to wear jeans, so I usually wear one pair and take another. Some people hate jeans though, so then I would suggest thermal tights (also easily packable!) and a couple of different skirts or warmer dresses that look good with tights and boots.
I also hate tops with sleeves so always wear a sleeveless singlet top (vest top, tank top, whatever they call them where you’re from…). I take one for every day and then layer with cardigans or sweaters. That gives me plenty of options! Sweaters are bulky, so try to think warmer thinner layers, and maybe just one big sweater you can wear again. Check the material because something like a cashmere sweater will be warm but less bulky.
Most airlines allow you to take a second smaller bag in addition to your bigger carry on. I like to take a medium sized handbag with a zip because it works for during the day and in the evening. In the day I can put my laptop and camera accessories in it if I want to head out to work somewhere, or I can shove my hat and scarf inside when I’m indoors and it’s too hot! If you have a lot of gear then another smaller camera backpack may be more ideal for you, but most of us can get away without it.
How to make carry on only packing work for winter travel
Basically, the key to winter travel with a carry on is layers. Aaaaaallllll the layers. One thing I’ve noticed in Europe especially is that they like to heat all the shops, restaurants or malls to suffocation level in winter, so you go from freezing outside to hot inside. Layers mean you can manage this!
Also, it means more outfit options. A lot of the time when you’re travelling you’re outside exploring the sites. You need to be warm, but having all your photos of one place with you wearing the exact same thing is kind of dull. Since I usually only take one winter coat with me when I travel because I’m carry-on only obsessed, bringing different hats and scarves is my number one tip for packing for winter travel. They can also be fairly cheap, AND they’re light and take up hardly any room in your bag. Winning on all points. Also when you’re inside, you can take off different layers as necessary.
Not the recommended time to have removed layers…
How to pack winter clothes in luggage
So now you’ve got all these clothes for winter travel, you need to actually fit them into your carry on luggage. The hardest thing is figuring out how to pack a winter coat in a suitcase or carryon backpack. Generally, I avoid trying to do this by wearing it! But if for some reason you really need to I find the packing everything and them laying it as the last layer on top generally works.
I wrote in my other post about travelling carry on only that you should roll your clothes, and fit socks etc into shoes. All these tips still apply to packing winter clothes in a carry on. Basically, you’re relying on taking smaller clothes to layer with instead of bulky items. Having said that, I have been known to fit 4 coats and 3 pairs of shoes plus a bunch of other stuff in a carry on, it’s all about the fabrics!
So what do you think? It’s cheaper than ever to travel with carry-on only luggage now, and just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t make it work!
Do you travel with carry-on only? Have you tried it in winter?
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18 thoughts on “How to Pack for Winter Travel With Carry On Only Luggage”
Awesome tips! I’ve got a trip coming up to Berlin and Vienna, to Berlin with a suitcase, but Vienna only carry-on and I’m worried about how to fit everything in… I’ll remember your tips <3
Thanks! You can definitely do it! It’s just a bit more planning. I’ve been on long trips in winter with just a carry on and it works 🙂
Such good tips! I’m planning to do some traveling this winter, so this is perfect timing for me to read the post 🙂
Thank you! Hopefully it helps you with your trip!
Great tips! For whatever reason the warmer, thinner layers never occured to me! ha. I am such a jumper addict. Will add them to my winter shopping list !
Haha you’re welcome! I love jumpers too, they just don’t work for longer carry on travel though unfortunately! Unless you wear one when you’re on the plane 🙂
Great tips, agree with all of them 🙂 Living in Finland has taught me a lot about travelling in winter.
The biggest plus is that nobody really sees your outfits, so you don’t need to pack quite that many of them 😉
Haha very true Jacky! That’s why I love to change it up with scarves and hats! And then you can wear whatever underneath haha. Thanks for your comment!
Kudos to you! You are so stylish! I had a friend who traveled with only a duffle bag carry-on who was as equally stylish -and she always wore boots in the winter-long ones on the plane and short ones in her bag. Great post! Now if only I could get the kids down to one bag….
Aww thank you!! I agree with the boots thing, that’s what I do too! I always assumed kids had smaller bags because they’re stuff is smaller.. I think I have a lot to learn haha.
Good tips! I’m headed to Moscow for NYE and whilst I’m taking a checked bag these tips will help me keep the luggage down!
Thanks Katie! I’m glad it will help :). I think it can definitely apply to any winter packing, carry on or not!
Yes! I have an Osprey pack and I LOVE it! We also generally pack pretty much everything you listed here, so this is spot on! Really excellent post. It’s hard to pack so light at first, but you can usually pair down even more than you think. Layers rock!
I love my Osprey pack so much too! Thanks, I’m glad to hear it’s not just me and other people do this too. Layers are the best in winter!
I’m currently travelling with a 28L backpack from Osprey in New Zealand. I have a small handbag, too, which makes it easier for me to grab essentials like my purse, mobile phone, etc. I think I’ll take those bags to Europe next year. I don’t know why I am travelling during winter! Haha. I recently received a 40L backpack as present, which is reallyyyyy nice. But I might not travel with it soon. The bag looks a little too big for me. I hope my 28L backpack is enough for my trip to Europe, though. Btw, love your article. Nicely written! =)
Wow 28L that’s tiny! Well done!! You might find the 40L more useful in winter since clothes can be a little bulkier, but then again if you’ve been managing in New Zealand maybe not! 😀
it is very useful think it helps to know evey things