While everyone else has been heading to tropical paradises this time of year, I’ve taken the contrarian route and spent my winter travels in Iceland, Spokane, and Quebec. Taking advantage of a winter wonderland is an obvious choice for skiers, but I’ve stayed off the slopes and still had a great time. Winter travel is a great opportunity to avoid crowds, see the world through a different viewpoint, and play in the snow!
Being prepared for the weather makes a world of difference when it comes to enjoying your winter trip rather than simply surviving it. As someone who is perpetually cold, I’ve lugged large suitcases around full of bulky clothing in order to ensure that I stay warm and walk around like a sumo wrestler. However, I’ve managed to get smarter about packing and dressing more recently, managing to pack carry-on only for this winter’s adventures. Now that I’ve tested what makes a difference, I’ve got tips and recommendations on how to dress for winter on your next snowy adventure so you don’t end up miserable and cold!
Firstly, if you’re headed to a cold destination but intend to spend most of your time indoors, you can probably ignore most of this post, save for my very first tip. This information will be more relevant to anyone planning on spending hours outside instead of just minutes. But if you’re planning a full day of walking city streets, partaking in winter sports, or otherwise enjoying the fresh air, you’ll want to consider all these options.
Dry Feet = Happy You
Even if you’re not planning any outdoor activities, there’s no way to avoid walking from your hotel to the museum to the restaurant. Sidewalks and roads are often wet and slushy even if the rest of the world is covered in beautiful, fluffy snow. If your feet are wet, it can drag your entire body temperature down, so keeping them dry is a simple way to stay comfortable.
Look for a pair of waterproof boots; in my opinion, this is worth way more than whatever insulation is built into the boots since you can always layer up a few pairs of socks if you need to. No, waterproof boots aren’t often sexy, but there are more styles to choose from than you’d expect. My North Face boots have worked like a charm: I chose a slip-on style to breeze through TSA checkpoints at the airport and separately pack YakTrax for added traction when necessary. Some boots may come with serious sticker shock, but I found my pair at an outlet store in July for just $40, so shop around. If investing in proper footwear isn’t an option, at the very least, wear something other than cotton socks which never dry out. I love Smartwool socks: they keep my feet nice and toasty, wick sweat if necessary, and aren’t itchy in the slightest.
Learn to Love Layers
Everyone in Iceland jokes that “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Although the weather wasn’t quite that fickle, it’s true that conditions alternated between bitter winds and sunny skies throughout the course of a day. Layers allow you to adapt quickly to changing environments and instantly go from indoor to outdoor activities. Additionally, layers (and dual-purpose items in general) make packing lightly more feasible.
Whether stripping down or bundling up, a three-layer approach works perfectly in almost all situations (though in many cases you may be able to consolidate into two):
The wicking layer should be worn directly next to your skin and is meant to keep you from sweating (which will ultimately make you feel cold). Cotton is the absolute worst fabric you can choose for this layer, but you’ve got lots of options otherwise. For extreme cold, I can personally vouch for Under Armour 4.0 and Cabela’s ECWCS Polartec lines. However, you might already have something at home that will work just as well: my Under Armour Coldgear that was originally purchase for outdoor running or tailgating before football games is pretty effective and very affordable and silk long underwear is easily found. (Pictured, left: Cabela’s Women’s E.C.W.C.S. Thermal Zone® Base Layer Crew and Cabela’s Women’s E.C.W.C.S. Polartec Power Dry Polar-Weight Gridded Bottoms [no longer on their website])
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the insulating layer is meant to keep heat in. Again, that cotton hooded sweatshirt will likely just get wet and lose its functionality, but you probably already have something at home that will make a great insulator. Vests can be a great option if the temperature’s bearable or if you’re planning on working up a sweat. Otherwise, fleece sweaters are warm, soft, and spread moisture out in cases where they get wet so they dry quickly. Wool, whether you choose it in its natural form or synthetic variation, also is a champ in cold, wet weather. (Pictured, right: The North Face Women’s RDT 300 Jacket and Cabela’s Women’s MTP Medium-Weight Bottoms, in addition to the base layers mentioned above)
Lastly, you’ll need a protective layer, which is basically just a fancy way of saying you should have decent outerwear that protects you from rain, snow, and wind. Although I’m envious of 66°North and Canada Goose jackets, there’s no way I could justify paying hundreds of dollars for something I only needed for a four-day weekend. The online REI outlet often has great deals so you can get quality gear at a fraction of the price: I have a puffy but effective Columbia down jacket and REI Ultra Light pants that hold up to all their claims, both purchased as end-of-season markdowns.
Adding on the final pieces really makes a difference in staying warm, and just like in other outfits, these “accessories” are small enough to pack several options for different styles and uses. Hats and scarves seem like small items, but they make a big difference at trapping heat in and keeping cold out. Not everyone will have a hat as fashionable as these, but like always, choose something other than cotton and you’ll be fine!
I recently invested in some Marmot Cirque mittens, deciding that a mitt really does keep your fingers warmer than a standard five-fingered glove. These are the ultimate mittens: they came with a fleece glove liner, so you can take off the Gore-Tex waterproof outer shell if you need more dexterity and they have an internal heater pocket, perfect for disposable hand warmers (which are my secret weapon to staying warm). Honestly though? I like the feel of my leather gloves if I’m not expecting to be outside long.
I don’t need to layer up like this most of the time where I live, but layering up like this has helped me enjoy my winter vacations instead of limiting myself to indoor activities.
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What other tips have you learned for dressing warmly on winter vacations?
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I receive a small commission on purchases made at Amazon using my provided links. Rest assured: I actually own, use, and genuinely recommend these products, as proven by the pictures of me in my (long) underwear and the fact that I didn’t get frostbite on any of my winter getaways.