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, 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!
Table of Contents
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’m hoping to get one of these Craghoppers jackets that are 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 always 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’s 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 everyday 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 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 means 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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