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Packing the Right Cold Weather Clothes and Accessories for Your Winter Travels

Women on the Road
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Packing cold weather clothes requires a bit of skill: when space and weight are an issue, warm winter clothes can weigh a lot more than a summer halter top and shorts. They're also bulkier.

Despite the extra bulk and weight, you're still better off having warm things with you if you're heading into the cold. I'll never forget landing in South Africa one July morning in a T-shirt and shorts, blissfully unaware that the seasons were reversed in the southern hemisphere. I took a taxi straight from the airport to a sports shop for some warm thermal underwear.

Or getting caught in a cold spell in an Asian country where even the larger sizes don't fit me... So be prepared!

Mt FujiYou never know when the cold might come rolling in

Now, what is the secret of cold weather clothes?


Not only will this keep you warmer (or cooler as the weather changes) but you'll pack less.

You'll typically need three layers: one to wick, one to insulate and one to protect.

Start with the lightest base layer of long underwear you can find, either silk or merino wool or light polyester to wick away the sweat and smells and keep you toasty. This layer, worn against your skin, absorbs your sweat and allows it to evaporate, keeping you dry and comfortable.

Your next layer of cold weather clothes serves as insulation and should be a bit thicker, a hoodie made of wool, a fleece, a wool turtleneck or T-shirt or something synthetic. You should look for something light and warm and when you're not wearing it, ideally it should scrunch or roll up easily into a tight light sausage you can use as a pillow on those long plane, train or bus rides. This layer helps keep your natural heat trapped and the cold air out.

Finally, an outer protection shell covers both your torso and your legs. Steer clear of the heavy traditional down parkas (they're great when they're dry, but you don't want to get caught in a cold rainstorm) and choose either one of the newer lightweight fibers or the new waterproof lightweight duvet jackets (expensive but worth it!). Look for something waterproof and windproof if you're headed into miserable weather, like Gore-Tex or other synthetics. When it comes to design, look for zippered panels you can open to allow ventilation if you get too warm. A roll-up hood will be useful in wet weather, especially if you're battling driving winds.

Your cold weather clothes should also include long johns, covered by a shell that is both waterproof and breathes. Many of the cheaper synthetic brands don't breathe at all and trap sweat inside, so invest well in your outer shell.

You may not need all these cold weather clothes if you're simply headed into normal winter. But if the Himalayas, Siberia or Lapland are in your plans, make sure you take the basics with you and top your gear up with local professional accessories, which are often better up to the task.

Village of Gruyere in Switzerland in winterAn unexpectedly cooooold visit to Gruyere, Switzerland and I was glad I had my winter woollies with me

Cold weather clothes: accessories to take along

When considering your travel packing list, here are the winter accessories you should take with you:

  • Don't even think of leaving without high-quality sunglasses, the kind that protect you 100% from harmful UV rays. They also keep out the glare and are a fashionable item that doesn't add to your packing weight.
  • wool cap or beanie or headband is one of your most essential pieces of winter wear, especially since much of your body heat escapes through your head.
  • If you're headed for a Siberian kind of cold, you'll probably need a balaclava or similar face protection. In the Canadian Far North, where I spent a winter, not a single inch of skin could show for fear of frostbite.
  • Taking gloves goes without saying, and if it's going to be very cold, use glove liners, in silk or synthetic fabric (they warm up even the thinnest gloves). For women who travel solo, dexterity is a must so I'd suggest gloves rather than mittens.
  • Thick, warm socks are important, and I also wear sock liners, usually in silk or light wool (I find it more comfortable and warm to wear two thinner pairs rather than one thicker one, but that's a personal call).
  • Shop well for cold weather boots, a combination of lightweight (remember, you'll have to carry them around when it gets warmer) and waterproof, because there's little worse than being cold and wet.

A few recommendations

Having lived through at least a dozen Canadian winters (and the same number of warmer Swiss ones) I take my winters seriously. Here are some of the winter clothes and accessories that I like, or that friends swear by. May you stay snug through the cold!

The TSLA Women's Thermal Underwear are warm, comfortable and snug. These are the long underwear you want if you're going to wear some layers over them. They're a tight fit so get one size up if you don't want a skin-tight feel.

Buy on Amazon

My friend Sandra swears by these FiteX Women's Maxheat Thermals which she says "feel like silk". Soft and comfortable but above all - warm! But beware if you're tall - they might not cover your ankles. Best for medium and short women.

Buy from Amazon

If you need an insulating layer - something between your long underwear and your outer layer, the Columbia Women's Glacial Fleece is perfect - it's light, it's warm and comes in so many colors you're going to be seriously challenged when it comes to choosing.

Buy on Amazon

The (Gore-Tex) Arcteryx Beta SL Jacket is more for keeping rain off you BUT if you get a larger size you can use it perfectly to layer - for example by adding the Columbia fleece I mentioned above, or a thicker fleece for the coldest of temperatures. (And colors!)

Buy on Amazon

For real winters you might want to cover your face (or at least your mouth, nose and ears) with the Purjoy Warm Thickening Fleece Balaclava, which at least won't make you look like someone about to rob a bank. (Wear it on the plane so you don't have to pack it.)

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This Lambswool Oversized Scarf is decorative, warm, and can be used as a blanket on the plane. It's also ultra-soft, and comes in plenty of colors (I have a beige and a black one - too conservative, right?)

Buy from Amazon

For something that goes under your gloves, the Under Armour Women's liner glove will replace your handwarmers if your gloves aren't doing the job. The nice thing is when you take your gloves off, the liners are thin enough to still use your fingers - with your phone, for example.

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The Eurosocks 0412 Ski Supreme are basically warm padded ski socks, but I like the colors and the fact that they are knee-high. The padding means you can not only ski all day, but hike or stand or... nice and snug.

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This Smartwool Cuffed Beanie will keep you warm, very warm - but if the temperature goes up, you won't end up with a soggy head. It's soft and smooth and you can cover your ears if it gets really cold.

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I don't think Raybans need an introduction but... these are and have been my winter (and summer and spring) sunglasses since forever. I never leave home without them, period.

Buy on Amazon

Tips for cold weather clothes

  • Don't always think of winter fibers when you pack: silk is wonderfully warm and won't take up much space in your backpack. Long silk underwear can also be used as pyjamas.
  • Use or legwarmers or tights if you don't have thermal underwear. They'll keep you warm under your clothes and can also double as a city outfit under a skirt.
  • I'd also stay away from cotton in winter. It absorbs water instead of repelling it, and doesn't keep you warm at all. Leave cotton for warmer temperatures.
  • If in urgent need of warmth, use newspapers. Seriously. They provide good insulation against the cold. You can wrap them around your waist under a sweater or jacket, or even wrap your feet in them if the cold bites.
  • Use compression or ziplock bags to pack your cold winter clothes. Since they're bulkier than normal clothes, you'll need to flatten them as much as you can.
  • Make sure you check the pockets, linings and zippers. You'll want convenience and easy access to essentials, like your cellphone or an extra pair of gloves.
  • Don't even think of traveling without a light fleece. Some of the lightest fleeces are the warmest and can even be water-resistant. A fleece is comfortable to sleep in, and doubles as a pillow or backrest when rolled up.
  • turtleneck is always useful in cold climates. Not only is it a great undergarment, but it keeps your neck warm too. Go for silk or light wool.
  • Stay away from jeans. They're perfect city gear but if you're traveling in winter, jeans can spell disaster: they're not waterproof, and if it snows or rains you'll be soaking wet - and they take a long time to dry.
  • Bear in mind that cold weather travel is more expensive than when it's warm. Not only is the gear expensive, but in some isolated places it's harder to get the basic necessities so they will be more expensive. Still, winter travel is less common so if you're an adventurous woman, you'll certainly be well-served.

This advice will work for regular travel to cold places, but if you're headed into the wilderness you'll need far more specialized advice and gear. Make sure you get it!

Warning: Hypothermia is definitely a possibility - this is what happens when your body temperature gets dangerously low - so a bit of hypothermia first aid is in order. If it occurs, get the person indoors and out of the cold, get rid of wet clothes, and cover them with blankets from head to toe. Don't massage them, and get medical attention immediately.

One last thing: what do you do with those cold weather clothes once you're headed to the beach?

Ship them home! You'll be happy to find them again when you plan that next glacier trip.

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