How to Pack for Winter in a Carry-On

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After a few years of international travel, I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at packing light. While I’m not sure I’m actually packing light, I have gotten far more efficient at packing what I need and fitting it all into a carry-on, whether it’s my backpack or my beloved suitcase. I’ve tackled all types of trips and all sorts of seasons so far, but this year, my husband and I were truly tested by traveling to Central Europe in the winter. I was determined to fit everything into our backpacks so we wouldn’t have to drag a suitcase through the snow, but AJ wasn’t sure it was possible. Spoiler alert: it was. Here’s how we did it! These tips will work for a carry-on size suitcase or a backpack of about 38 liters.

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The gear: a 38 liter Gregory Backpack and a foldable daypack

Here is a packing list of what I brought for a week in Central Europe in the winter, including New Year’s Eve. After the list, I’ll show you the tips I used and how it all worked!

  • winter coat
  • 1 fleece hoody for under the coat
  • 3 sweaters, including one for wearing only on New Year’s Eve.
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 set of long underwear
  • 2 tank tops
  • 3 pairs of socks (one for every two days, give or take – my feet weren’t sweaty!)
  • Various underwear
  • 1 workout outfit – tank top, sports bra, and leggings
  • Sleeping clothes – shorts, sports bra, t-shirt
  • 2 hats
  • 4 scarves
  • 2 pairs of gloves
  • 1 pair of snow boots
  • 1 pair of flip flops (for the plane)
  • Toiletry bag
  • Laptop and charger
  • Hair straightener (I can’t help myself)
  • Camera and camera bag with extra lens
  • 1 water bottle
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All the necessary gear

If that sounds like a lot of stuff, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t – but either way, it all fit in my backpack! And honestly, I could have gotten by with a few less scarves, of course. I had room in my pack, so I brought a couple of extra things, but I also wanted to make sure I had plenty of room in case we decided to bring back any souvenirs.  Here are my tips on packing efficiently for winter in Europe in a carry-on!

1. Limit the number of shirts you bring. It’s important to be realistic: you’re probably not going to see the shirt or sweater you’re wearing in any of your photographs because you’ll be wearing several layers on top of it. Pretty much every picture of me from the entire trip is wearing my heavy coat! I didn’t need a lot of variety in terms of base layers, so I only brought 3 shirts – one of which was for New Year’s Eve and would only be worn that day. Lest you think this is gross, remember, it’s winter, so you’re not going to be sweating much.

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You have no idea what shirt I’m wearing under that jacket. I could have worn the same shirt every day!

2. Utilize packing cubes to stay organized and compress your gear. Packing cubes are a traveler’s best friend! Not only do they neatly organize your stuff so you can find it quickly without disrupting your entire suitcase, they also compress your gear for you. I typically make one cube with workout and sleep clothes, one with larger clothing items like pants or dresses, and one with shirts. It all depends on where I’m going! AJ had never used packing cubes before this trip, always opting to just dump everything in his bag and hope for the best. He couldn’t believe how easy it was to find things this time – or how fast it was to put them away.

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Packing cubes and stuff sacks galore!

3. Stuff sacks are great for your coat and winter accessories. There are tons of different stuff sacks out there, but these are the ones I purchased. They’re useful for a lot of things, but on this trip, they came in handy for two reasons: one, compressing my giant winter coat (we flew from Miami to Vienna, so I didn’t want to wear it on the plane), and two, keeping my gloves, hat, and scarves organized and easy to find.

Believe it or not, it's possible to pack for your #winter #vacation in a carry-on! @thetrexrunner shows us how. Click To Tweet

4. Bring a daypack for a dual purpose bag. Rather than trying to pack a purse, bring a daypack that you can place under your seat on the plane. Not only will it allow you to keep your essentials close at hand (such as your laptop, toiletries, medications, and an extra jacket or blanket), you’ll also be able to use the daypack as a purse/backpack when you’re sightseeing. It’s great for carrying around souvenirs or anything else you might need to bring with you!

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This is what I packed in my daypack – camera bag (for safe keeping), toiletry bag, laptop, and a soft hoody

5. You only need one pair of shoes. If you’re going to be wearing your heavy coat the whole time, you’re probably going to be wearing your warmest boots the whole time. Forget about looking fashionable and again, be realistic. You can buy plenty of cute snow boots (these are mine) without sacrificing style. Just leave your heels at home, ok? You’re not going to wear them. Note: I brought a pair of flip flops to wear on the plane so my feet wouldn’t get hot.

6. Mix up your outfits with scarves. Men and women alike can benefit from mixing up the same winter coat with different scarves. I had four with me because they take up very little space, pack small, and were a lot more useful (and visible) than extra shirts. My extras came in handy because AJ lost one of his scarves on the first day!

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Same jacket, different scarf plus a hat! Exploring beautiful Bratislava

7. Plan your outfits around each other. The golden rule of packing light is to make sure that all of your clothes mix and match well so that your outfits have variety. I made sure that all of my hats, sweaters, and scarves could be worn interchangeably without clashing, even though we never ended up seeing my sweaters. It’s an easy way to mix up your look from day to day with a limited wardrobe!

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Another day, another scarf! My husband lost his about 4 hours later.

As you can see, packing for winter weather is possible if you pack smart and think logically about what you’ll really be using and doing. It might feel like you’re bringing next to nothing, but you’ll be glad you packed light when you arrive! There will be tons of people struggling with massive suitcases in the airport and on the roads, or worse – dealing with lost luggage – but if you pack for winter in a carry-on, you won’t be one of them!

LEAVE A COMMENT: What are your best packing tips? Do you prefer carry-on or checked luggage?

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11 thoughts on “How to Pack for Winter in a Carry-On

  1. These are al such GREAT tips…although I usually workout almost everyday of a vacation so I need to pack more of that gear but…I could definitely use some of the other tips. I had also never heard of packing cubes!!! OMG – genius. Since I have two big trips coming up (although summer outfits will be required) I will definitely be using a lot of your info here. Thanks woman!!

    1. OMG, you have never heard of packing cubes?! They are a lifesaver!!! Your travel will never be the same again, seriously.

      Normally, I pack a bit more workout gear too. For this trip, I knew I wouldn’t be running so I just packed a barre outfit and wore it multiple times. A little gross, yes, but an easy way to pack light 🙂

  2. Along with the packing only a couple of shirts, I try to buy travel clothes (especially shirts) that are made of materials that will dry quickly. That way, I can wash them out in the evening and they’re dry the next morning. Makes packing much easier when I know I don’t need enough shirts to last a trip/between laundry days.

    1. That’s a GREAT point, AndreaClaire! I definitely have done that for warmer weather trips and it makes a huge difference. I wasn’t was worried about that for this trip since I knew I wouldn’t be sweating, haha!

  3. I was totally guilty of packing EVERYTHING when I took a trip. now I realize I’ll probably wear the same shirt a few times and no one will care. I especially don’t care. My only challenge is whittling down my toiletries into the acceptable size. Sorry styling product, no room for you!
    I also desperately need to invest in some packing cubes!

    I’m always worried about my feet being cold when flying, not hot!

    1. Same! I always wanted to have “options” but then I ended up just wearing the same few things anyway, or just not changing as often as I thought I would because I didn’t have time during the day. Eventually, I learned my lesson!

      I am a little bit of a toiletries whore. I brought 8 of my 10 skin-care products to NEPAL with me (the exfoliant and gel masks seemed a bit much), which is admittedly ridiculous. I’ve found really good containers for all of that stuff though – and you’re actually the second person who has mentioned having a hard time packing toiletries down, so perhaps I will do a post on that next!

      For the love of all things holy, get packing cubes. I am not exaggerating when I say they will change your life. AJ has always refused to use them because he thought it was a waste of time, but I made him on this trip. His mind was blown.

      Haha, normally I would worry about that too, but I’m normally not wearing snow boots! I always keep a pair of socks in my carry-on for under the seat in normal circumstances.

  4. I’ll second (or third) the request for more info on toiletries. I’m tired of checking my bag just because I have to many liquids. Help!

    1. OK, the requests have been heard! Watch for a post in the next few weeks. T-Rex Runner to the rescue!

  5. Wonderful post … I am a pretty good packer, but I have been pretty lazy through, because either it was before you got charged to check bags, or I got to use the company jet, or the company (or client if it was blog-sponsored travel) was paying for the bag. I generally have a duffle or garment bag and a carry-on for my tech stuff.

    But after my last trip in September with a colleague, I decided I need to get a better backpack-style bag that will transport more of my stuff and then a smaller laptop bag.

    Look forward to more on managing packing and stuff for international travel! 🙂

    1. I’m definitely guilty of being lazy sometimes – for example, I brought as many clothes with me for a 2 day trip to NYC with my mom as I did for the whole trip to Europe, simply because I had room in my backpack and could still make it a carry-on. I can definitely appreciate that! I think there’s the right time and place for both a backpack and a suitcase – just kind of depends on what your needs are.

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