What was the coldest destination you’ve traveled and were you prepared for it?
This past trip to Northern China tested the winter traveler in me. I thought I knew how to pack for winter travel in the past. But the travel I did in the past was mostly urban and cosmopolitan. I quickly learned winter wonderland activities are a different beast altogether.
As the Jilin travel itinerary was planned at the last minute, we weren’t given an itinerary beforehand to let us know about the activities we’d be participating in. I didn’t expect was that I’d be experiencing daily outdoor activities, from skiing, snow drifting, sightseeing through inches of snow. I didn’t pack for that type of winter and I hated myself for it.
After learning the hard way, I’m going to share with you travel essentials so that you can survive your winter wonderland vacation better than I did!
Winter Travel Essentials
What is your climate like? Snow, below freezing weather, occasional snowstorms and much time spend outdoors without warmth to duck into? What winter activities will you be participating in? These are all things you should ideally know beforehand to help your packing choices.
100% silk underwear is the best way to go in lightweight but warm undergarments (aka long johns). Although silk underwear is thin and sheer, silk traps body heat in, so it’s very warm and decreases the bulkiness of your winter layering. Silk underwear allows you to wear skinny jeans! They sell both, tops and bottoms and one pair will last you for years. The brand I use is UnderSilk, but as long as its 100% silk you should be fine.
Rather than bring a silk top, I brought along a few sheer or lightweight tops, which act similarly in keeping my body snug.
One spandex tank top
Packing a tank top is helpful (but this is personal preference). I like spandex tank tops (aka cami) because they’re warm and snug , but there’s resourceful reason as to why I bring one. It helps me cut down in bed/gym/lounging-in-my-hotel-room clothes! Also, they allow you to quickly change in public without offending anyone.
The best gloves have an insulation or fleece lining. Igloos Thinsulate is the brand I borrowed from an expat on my tour. It’s lined with fleece, which insulates your hands, so your glove is warm inside. Note however, the snow is eventually going to melt right through your gloves and leave you with wet gloves. Ski gloves are a bit bulky, but water resistant and only necessary if you’ll be skiing or playing in the snow a lot.
While cheap regular knit gloves are common and you can get them from many sidewalk street vendor, it is not going to feel like enough. In negative degree weather, your hands won’t last longer than 10 minutes before needing retreat.
Ethical Note: Polar fleece (made of polyester) is cruelty free. These days I’m shifting into looking at more synthetic fiber brands and vegan brands.
I’ve mentioned arm warmers on other packing videos and posts. It’s a staple I take with me on all trips. Even to warm environments. Arm warmers keep your arm warm, up to the palm. I like them because for winter, they’re like fingerless gloves. They allow me to operate my camera. However, in very cold environments, even that isn’t enough and my hands will need to go back into its gloves.
Legwarmers are another standard accessory I pack for every trip. It keeps my legs warm and allows me to adjust the heat – I can remove them anytime I want. My legwarmers are made of soft acrylic so it doesn’t itch and has stirrups. I bought ones that are generally used by ballerinas, who need to keep their legs warm so they don’t pull muscles. I don’t recommend the cheap dollar store legwarmers. The fabric isn’t very warm and some itch. (Read more here)
NorthFace convertible pants
My Northface convertible pants are another staple of my carry on luggage bag (read my carry on packing tips). You’ve seen this in my packing videos or on Bornean safaris and treks, etc. It’s convertible pants which you can turn into shorts, keep it long as pants or you can transform it into capris. They’re super durable for snow day activities, as they’re resilient and a more water resistant then regular denim jeans.
Thick winter socks
I don’t like endorsing animal products, but my Smartwool Trekking Heavy socks have seen many winter years, especially when I was living in New York City. Sometimes the socks are good enough to use singly or sometimes you might want to try and double-up with a thin sock.
A good winter jacket
You want a good winter jacket. I’m not talking about those fashion ones you get at Forever 21 or those pseudo-“down-looking jackets” which the cold can still permeate at 60degree Farenheit weather. You want a jacket with substance. Once you get out on those ski slopes, or into nature with biting cold, you want something with a bit of a barrier against the wind chill. If your legs get cold easily and you know you’ll be using the jacket for more than one trip, go for a long jacket, which extends below the knee cap. You’re gonna want something thick that can be lined and a hoodie is ideal, because your head neck will get cold from the wind chill (ladies, you’re gonna want to wear your hair down).
I take my New Balance jogging shoes with me on every trip. They allow me to do a lot of walking and sport activities. However these aren’t very practical for snow. The rubber soles are not very thick and the fabric isn’t only lightly water resistant. So when your foot sinks into the snow, your feet can get cold. You’ll also feel the cold coming in through the bottom of your rubber soles, so if you spend anywhere from 10 minutes onwards, standing on cold concrete or snowy grounds your feet will feel cold like having a mini air-conditioner in your shoe. I’ve used this type of shoe during deskwarming days in Korea and as I said, the cold goes through the rubber soles.
Fortunately, one of the expats on this trip loaned me her UGG Australia winter boots. They cover a good chunk of my calf/leg. Comparatively it doesn’t seem like the two are very different in terms of sole thickness.
Knit caps or a warm hat
If you keep your head warm it actually helps to keep the rest of your body warm, so it actually should be protected as well. Bringing a knit beanie cap or warm hat is ideal. I like synthetic knit caps, which tend to be as warm as wool.
All the same, there are some occasions where I like to pull my hoodie over my cap as well for added protection.
I take my green pashmina scarf on virtually every trip, because it’s large enough to be a lightweight blanket, I can bundle it around me as a shawl and it’s soft and warm. A pricier but fashionable alternative are merino wool scarves ; they’re snug, soft and thin. I try to avoid cheap and large, bulky 6″ width scarves at all costs. They do little other than create bulk around you as a windbreaker. large what you can wrap around you.
Additional Winter Accessories
If you’re in a country that sells heat packs or hand warmers, pick a couple up (or order them online). The ones sold in China stick to your clothing and it will keep you warm in that area. In Korea, I used to buy hand warmers. The general rule is that they last around 10 hours but I’ve experienced it lasting longer, up to 14 hours. Usually the cost is relatively low and under a dollar.
Face masks (or sick masks) you can find anywhere in Asia. Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan… face masks are often used when you’re sick. It’s polite to wear a mask. In China it’s important to have a mask, whenever there’s high smog or pollution days. Some of those face masks can get pretty intense and look like respiratory or gas masks. Face masks are protective if you want to cover your face to keep it from getting frostbitten when the wind blows against it. The greater equivalent are ski masks that you see criminals portrayed in in films. It covers the entire head with only a slit for the eyes. The latter is great, if you don’t mind looking scary. Another option travelers have recommended are Buff Adult Polar neckwarmer and headwarmer.
Note: There are times my nose will run underneath your face mask and it will to start feeling like a gross reusable kleenex!
Winter Travel Essential Tips
Avoid bringing bulky sweaters
The bite of winter can feel harsh, but so are excessive luggage fees. In order to keep my luggage to a carry on, I reduce the bulky sweaters. I pick medium to thin bulk sweaters. I like form fit ones a lot, because my winter jacket still needs to go on and it’s not my core body that gets cold a lot but my extremities (aka thighs, feet, hands, head).
Bring sweaters with turtle necks or hoodies
One thing I didn’t mention in my video was that I brought my favorite baby blue zip up turtleneck sweater. Turtleneck sweaters and hoodies add extra warmth to your neck and head.
Layer your clothes and winter accessories
I don’t have a lot of winter apparel and I want to avoid packing bulky items like thick sweaters. So I layer the clothes I have, like light-weight long-sleeved shirts. Basically, I wear around three pieces of clothes under my winter jacket!
Order of layering
1) tank top/cami , 2) undershirt, 3) sweater, 4) winter jacket.
Cream vs lotion
During the winter, your skin gets dry and can tear easily. The simple act of reaching into your purse/bag for a wallet or camera is frictive and can lead to knuckle scrapes, which hurt. Moisturizing cream helps. Creams are more buttery and thicker (I’m using Nature Republic hand cream), so they moisturize better and longer against the dry cold. The lotions you get complimentary from your hotel is okay but as it’s very watery, you’ll need to reapply generously throughout the day.
If you’re looking to participate in winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding or anything that entails risk or maybe you’re just uncertain of the weather, it’s advised to get travel insurance. Winter and winter sports can tempt accidents- ski accidents, slippery roads for travel, unpredictable weather. Despite the fact I was on a press trip, we were still taken to a mountain to see a waterfall, whereupon I got stuck in a snowstorm. It could’ve ended badly; luckily it didn’t. But I was insured for this trip with World Nomads.
Have you traveled for winter? Leave a comment below and share your winter travel essentials!
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