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Packing For Cold Climates: 12 Winter Essentials

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

When the temperature drops, layers are the secret to packing for cold climates and staying warm and comfortable both indoors and out. These layers aren’t the giant snow pants and massive parkas that immobilize you like the kids in “A Christmas Story.” They’re packable, comfortable and cozy enough to keep you warm in the harshest elements.

One of my proudest travel moments came during a tour of Erfurt, Germany. We’d been tromping around for a few hours when my guide, a local, admitted she needed a break to warm up. She looked over my outfit — a sweater dress I’ve worn to conferences, an understated jacket, and ankle boots — and exclaimed, “Aren’t you freezing?!”

I wasn’t. I’m just an expert at winter layering. (I’m a Minnesota native and North Dakota resident, after all.) I was bundled up, wearing pretty much everything on this list below simultaneously. But I didn’t look like it. And it all fit in my carry-on.

I’m wearing the layers I described on this snowy day by the Memorial Museum Friedrich Fröbel in Oberweißbach, Germany.

So I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her. When you’re safe and warm, you don’t have to let the weather limit you — whether you’re traveling or exploring closer to home. Just so you know, this post contains affiliate links to some of my favorite layering pieces. That means that if you purchase items from this page, I may receive a small commission.

Here’s a look at my 12 favorite winter layering pieces. Don’t forget to tell me your winter layering tips in the comments below!

1. Dri-Fit Shirt: A thin, breathable dri-fit shirt can add a surprising amount of warmth. It whisks moisture away from the body, so if you overheat, you don’t get clammy. If a shirt is good enough for the joggers I see running around my neighborhood in brutal weather, it’s good enough for me.

This is a great layer to pack, since it can pull double or even triple duty. The same shirt you wear for your workout can double as an extra layer under a sweater, sweatshirts, and jackets. (Just make sure it’s clean, of course.) Dark colors and subtle patterns mean you can rock this shirt on its own as well, instead of hiding it away like long underwear.

2. Fleece-Lined Tights: These things are miraculous. The super-thin lining makes them cozier — and more opaque — than other tights without adding bulk. So get yourself a good pair of fleece-lined tights (or two, so you can wear one while the other is drying) and you’re all set to rock your dresses and skirts in the snow.

When you’re packing for cold climates, you can make a statement with scarves and hats.

3. Fun Hat: I live in a state where subzero temperatures are a reality, so I’ve made peace with the fact that not wearing a hat on certain days could literally kill me. Something warm and functional is fine, but why not make it a statement piece?

For that reason (and a general sense of whimsy), I’m digging this interpretation of a classic pom pom hat. The neutral color makes it easy to wear with everything.

4. Tech-Friendly Gloves: These trail running gloves are appropriate for outdoor winter activities, so you know that they’ll hold up for running errands. As an added bonus, they’re touch screen compatible, so you can text and access your phone while keeping your hands cozy.

You might use that particular feature more than you’d think. Even if you don’t take your phone out regularly at home, it’s likely that you will when you’re traveling, since you’ll be looking at maps or taking photos.

5. Sweater Dress: I absolutely live in sweater dresses one the temperature dips below freezing.  They’re easy to pack and easy to style — just add fleece-lined tights or leggings underneath and you’re good to go. If you need extra warmth, you just start adding elements from this list over and under.

The responsible thing to tell you is that there are lots of colorful and patterned sweater dresses to choose from. And there are. But I’m firmly in the black/charcoal/gray camp and get my variety in dress shape and style. But that’s just me. You do you.

A dri-fit shirt and scarf work well in cold climates.

6. Warm Scarf: This one accessory packs a lot of punch. A cozy scarf provides a pop of color, serves as an extra layer and blocks that uncomfortable “cleavage as wind tunnel” effect. (It’s a thing. And it’s terrible.)

Scarves are especially handy while traveling because you can use them as blankets, pillows or a wrap, as needed. For maximum versatility, opt for a blanket scarf, which is as large and comfy as it sounds.

7. Wool Blazer: Yep, I have an obsession with boyfriend blazers. The easy fit allows for lots of slim layers underneath, yet it always looks polished. It’s a classic look for me. And women can play up the masculine/feminine contrast by pairing a blazer with a flirty skirt or more traditionally girly accessories.

A wool blazer is my go-to. It’s so warm, flatters almost any figure, and works well with a variety of outfits.

8. Base Layers as Leggings (Or Under Pants): If you see me wearing leggings instead of snowpants at an outdoor event, there’s a 100% chance they’re actually a base layer — the kind of heavy-duty, super warm foundation garment favored by delivery people, construction workers, and winter hikers. I rock them as leggings (and later as pants) at the outdoor Christmas market in Germany I talked about in the intro and was perfectly comfortable the entire time.

Of course, the warmer and more traditional way to wear these is layered under jeans or trousers to really hold in heat. They also come in different weights, so you can select a thicker fabric for additional warmth.

9. Wool Socks: As an insulating option, wool socks are an important layer. When it gets cold, our bodies cope by sending heat to our cores (and our all-important internal organs) and away from our extremities, so it’s vital to keep feet and toes toasty.

I’m personally fond of ridiculously warm socks of the weight typically favored by winter hikers and outdoor campers. I’ve also been known to rock wool knee socks under pants or over leggings, even when I’m not doing anything more strenuous than sitting at my desk and typing up a blog post…like I am right this very second.

10. Packable Down Jacket: A packable down jacket is a godsend. I leave my giant down coat at home when I travel and pop a thin down jacket into my carry-on instead. The one I have comes with a little pouch the size of a small purse, which is much more convenient than my usual coat, which is a human-sized nightmare to pack or wear on a plane.

This option I included here is for men, which is nice for women too, because men’s clothing is usually sized a little more generously. Even the curviest among us become a little less so when all those winter layers make us all a wee bit shapeless.

Packable boots by Arcopedico are a game-changer.

11. Light Boots: There’s a time and a place for low rise sneakers short socks — and it’s not winter on a snowy day. (My feet are cold just thinking about it.) A good pair of sturdy, super comfortable water-resistant leather ankle booties are my go-to. Just polish and condition them a few times a season and they’ll last you for years.

I typically wear mine on the plane, since even the lightest boots can get a little bit heavy. But the folks at Arcopedico sent over a pair of incredibly light, packable boots for me to try and they’ve been an absolute game-changer for me. My sneakers weigh more than these do. I’m going to check out their leather options as well.

12. Lined Vest: An insulated vest keeps your core warm (which we’ve already discussed) and handles that weird, in between state where it’s not cold enough for a jacket, but it’s too cold for just a sweater quite nicely. And you can layer it over or under pretty much everything else on this list, which means it’s a very useful item to pack.

I recommend getting the rest of your layers in order and picking a vest in a solid color that will work with everything. It’s also a nice layer to wear on a plane or train where the temperature often fluctuates, but you don’t want to lug your coat out from your bag.

What about you? What are your winter layering essentials? Do you have any tips for packing for cold climates? What winter items do you need to buy or replace? Which cold weather destinations and experiences are on your bucket list?

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