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How to Avoid the Worst Cold-Weather Packing Mistakes


Yes, you can definitely blame the bulk of winter layers for your overstuffed suitcase. After all, warm clothing takes up a lot more room than summer T-shirts and shorts. To complicate things further, you’ve got to pack for overheated restaurants and frigid outdoor conditions. But we’re here to help—here are nine winter-packing mistakes we learned the hard way, and the tips you need to pack like a sub-zero pro.

Packing the Wrong Materials

woman holding pumpkin at farm

We love cotton for travel most times of the year because it’s lightweight and breathable, but it’s a terrible choice for the winter. Instead of wicking away moisture and sweat, it absorbs it, which will make you cold and keep you freezing. Opt for warmer materials like fleece, Thinsulate, or wool. Merino wool is one of the best choices for travel, as it’s naturally odor-resistant and breathable, plus is less itchy than regular wool. The Icebreaker Merino Quantum Long Sleeve Zip Hoodie is an example of a good layering piece made out of merino wool, and it has secure pockets to stash your cash or keys.

Forgoing a Hat

woman wearing hat holding pet dog

Yes, we’ve all experienced the dreaded hat hair, but if you leave your hat behind, you’re not only exposing your ears to frostbite, you’re also losing significant body heat through your uncovered headSkull Cap’s thermal beanie is made from a moisture-wicking thermal wool that will prevent sweaty hair and keep you toasty. Throw in a pocket-sized folding hairbrush with a mirror if you’re concerned about hat head ruining your look.

Not Bringing Medicine

holding medicine blister pack

Cold and flu cases spike during the winter, and while you definitely don’t plan on getting sick while traveling, you should be prepared in case it does happen. Make sure you’ve packed medication for upset stomach, fever relief, body aches, and congestion. You don’t have to travel with the whole medicine cabinet though—just get travel-sized versions of your go-to drugs.

Packing the Wrong Type of Gloves

woman on phone wearing gloves holding coffee

Gloves aren’t going to keep your hands warm if you keep taking them off to use your phone. Get a pair that’s touchscreen compatible, like Saloman Gloves. We like these because they have a built-in finger cover that turns these gloves into mittens for extra warmth, but gives you the mobility of gloves when you need to snap a photo or send a text.

Leaving Behind Sunglasses

Young man sunglasses is having great time on a bridge with mountains in background

Since you’re not headed to the beach, you might forget to pack your sunglasses. The sun can shine brightly on freezing days too though, so be sure to pack yours. (Throw some sunscreen in there while you’re at it, as you can get sunburned in winter, especially where there’s snow on the ground.) These sunglasses fold down small, so that they’re easy to pack and hard to break.

Not Bringing Multi-Use Items

man wearing denim

Warm clothing tends to be bulkier than summertime items, so maximize your space by bringing pieces that will pull double duty. Bring items that you can wear more than once without washing (like jeans and sweatshirts), as well as clothes that can be worn in different ways. These leggings from Clever Travel Companion can be worn alone as pants or under a dress for warmth. Plus, they let you leave the money belt behind, as they have two hidden pockets to hold your passport, money, or other essentials.

Not Bringing Layers

couple wearing sweaters grassy field

When the temperatures are really low and the winds are really high, one layer of clothing just isn’t going to cut it. Ideally, your outfit will include a base layer (to wick away moisture and keep you dry), an insulating layer (to trap warmth), and an outer layer (to stay wind- and water-proof).

Our tip: Wear fleece-lined leggings or thermal long johns under pants, with a heat-trapping shirt and a merino wool sweater plus a synthetic down jacket, and you’ll be good to go on even the coldest days. (You’ll want to choose synthetic insulation over down, because real down is basically useless if it gets wet.)

Wearing the Wrong Shoes

pile of shoes on grass

Your shoes face a big challenge in the winter. They need to be: insulated, waterproof, and warm; provide great traction in case of ice; be able to withstand salt; and be comfortable to walk in. So, your sneakers aren’t going to cut it. Men, these boots from London Fog fit the bill and offer a basic black design that won’t stand out as snow shoes. For women, we like the Sorel Waterfalls, which are toasty-warm and supportive.

Just remember to wear your heavier snow boots on the plane; otherwise, they’ll take up half your suitcase space.

Choosing The Wrong Coat For Your Destination

woman wearing wool coat

Before you pack, think about what exactly you’ll be doing on your trip. If you’re taking advantage of great off-season rates in Europe, how cold will it really get? If it’s not going to be freezing, you may get overheated, especially if you’ll be doing a lot of walking, which will warm you up. (There’s nothing worse than sweating through your coat when you go from cold temperatures outside to an overheated subway train.)

Consider a lighter weight, packable winter coat instead, like this one for women, or this one for men.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse loves fashion but still manages to travel carry-on only. Follow her journeys around the world on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline and on Twitter @CarolineMorse1.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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