I’m writing this post from Sofia, Bulgaria. Outside the snow is piled at least 15cm high, and it’s -15 degrees Celsius. My stay in Sofia is part of a month-long journey that has taken me through Cyprus, Istanbul, and will end in Belgium. In Cyprus the daily highs would sometimes reach 20-22 degrees Celsius. Istanbul was cool and damp, with temperatures often between 8-12 degrees. And here in Bulgaria I have seen anything between 4 degrees and rain, and biting winds of -18.
The problem this presents is how to pack for a trip like this. In total I’ve seen a spread of about 40 degrees between the hottest and coldest point of the trip. At the coldest, I would have welcomed a fur* coat and snow boots. But those would have been horribly inconvenient to lug around in the pleasant Mediterranean climate of Cyprus, where a t-shirt and sneakers were mostly sufficient.
The solution is: layers. When packing smartly for a trip with a wide range of temperatures, you should build up your attire in layers. There are three reasons why a layered outfit works best:
- You save space. Rather than carrying around a bulky winter coat and thick sweaters at intermediate temperatures, you only have to carry the upper layer(s) that you’ve reserved for the coldest temperatures. The rest is already on your body.
- Layers have an insulating effect. If you’re dressed in multiple layers, there will be a very thin layer of air between each of them. This stops the cold from penetrating to your body. You’ll be warmer in three thin merino woollen t-shirts stacked on top of each other, than in a single thick woollen sweater.
- You can easily adjust to changing temperatures By putting on or taking off some layers. Think about walking from the blazing sun of Kuala Lumpur into one of their icily airconditioned malls. Or going from the freezing streets of Warsaw into a warm and cozy bar.
So what layers should you have? It all depends on the range of climates you expect to encounter on your trip. It pays to do some research in advance about the weather conditions at your destinations. The longer your journey, the less precise this is, making careful design of your layered outfit even more important.
Plan and pack all of your layers in advance. It is tempting to think “whatever I don’t have, I’ll just buy on the road.” While that may be possible, usually what you can find on the road doesn’t ideally match your packing and dressing goals. While you can buy a warm sweater anywhere, it will often be made of water-absorbing cotton, unbreathable acrylic, or bulky fleece. It may not match the colours of the rest of your outfit. Better to plan ahead than to be stuck with an overstuffed backpack full of half-usable gear.
Below I will give you some advice on what to pack for different temperatures. This list is cumulative. So you will always take the 26+ degrees stuff. If you expect colder temperatures, bring the clothes for those temperatures in addition to the warmer ones. The warm-weather-clothes will serve as a base layer under your thicker garments when it gets colder. Also, the list is subjective and based on my own experience. If you’re someone who feels cold all the time when others don’t, you may want to add 5 degrees to every level. If you’re still walking around in shorts at 14 degrees in autumn, subtract 5 degrees from every level.
Dressing for a summery 26+ degrees Celsius
At such temperatures you hardly need clothes at all. You’re packing clothes out of decency or fashion sense rather than to stay warm and protected. If you were to travel to an uninhabited island, you might jut decide to walk around in the nude. You can pack basically anything that you find comfortable and airy, but if you’re also planning for colder temperatures, you should pick something that will make a good base layer for your warmer clothes.
For the upper body I strongly prefer a tight-fitting merino woollen t-shirt, such as Icebreaker or Minus33. Wool is fairly warm when it’s cold, but it is breathable, which keeps you cool at higher temperatures. A snug-fitting shirt will easily and invisibly fit under your other upper-body garments. Merino wool is thinner than other types of wool, making it the perfect material for a t-shirt. If I can’t find merino wool, I would take a polyester mesh running or hiking shirt, which is designed to whisk away sweat (but it won’t be as warm as merino, and it starts to smell sooner). I usually take 2 or 3 t-shirts, so I’ll have one to wear while the other is in the laundry.
As far as trousers go: I don’t like packing shorts, unless I’m only visiting warm countries. Shorts don’t layer or match well with other garments, making them useless in any but the warmest climates. They also don’t protect against mosquitoes, sun, and tall sharp grasses. Rather I opt for wide-ish nylon hiking trousers. The wide model is airy in warmer temperatures, and it has the added benefit of fitting over another layer. I bring two pairs of trousers on any trip longer than a week. If you really want shorts, you can take zip-off trousers, which are functional but look silly.
As for underwear, I’m not very particular about it, as long as it’s not cotton. Cotton absorbs water/sweat like a sponge, dries slowly, and doesn’t breathe well. Bamboo is very comfortable, but it dries incredibly slowly, making it inconvenient if you have to wash it on the road. Usually I take breathable polyester mesh socks and boxers designed specifically for hiking. I know that there is also woollen underwear, but I haven’t tried it and don’t know if it’s worth the price premium.
Despite their breathability, woollen socks are a bit too warm at these temperatures. There aren’t any good but thin woollen socks, because they would be too vulnerable for their purpose. This means you’re pretty much stuck with a polyester blend hiking socks, offering a good balance of breathability, durability, and comfort. Pack about four to five pairs of socks, including the ones you wear, if you don’t want to be doing laundry every day.
If you wear your socks inside a pair of trail running shoes, you’re set for maximum flexibility. (I use a pair of Merrell Mix Masters 2 minimalist trail runners.) You can run and hike in them, they can get wet and dry fast, and they breathe well. Alternatively, if you’re the sandals type, you can wear some Teva hiking sandals without socks all the time, but this won’t help you at lower temperatures.
With temperatures above 25 degrees, chances are that it will also be pretty sunny. I like to pack a synthetic bandana to block the sun and to prevent sweat from running down my face. A merino woollen ‘Buff’ would also do the trick (it’s warmer, but more versatile). Whether you want to bring anything against the rain at these temperatures is a personal choice. You won’t really get cold in the rain anyway, and your clothes will dry quickly enough after they get wet. For my advice on a rain jacket, see below.
Late spring to early autumn: packing for 18-25 degrees
There is a big difference between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius. But I have to categorize information somehow, so I’m using somewhat broad temperature ranges. Use your common sense when taking in this information. If you’re travelling somewhere where the mercury will never dip below 24 degrees centigrade, you’re technically in the 18-25 degrees range, but you need not apply all bits of advice. Below 26 degrees is when I’m no longer completely indifferent about what to wear to keep warm. You can no longer just run around naked on your uninhabited island, and have to select some summer clothes with care.
My only adjustments here concern the upper body. First, you’re going to need a long-sleeve. If the temperature drops below 20 in the evening, you want to be able to at least cover most of your body. I use a merino-woollen long-sleeve, which is like my t-shirts but with long sleeves. (Duh!) Wearing a merino-woollen t-shirt and long-sleeve on top of each other keeps you warm enough at these temperatures as long as it’s dry and not windy.
If you have opted for the polyester t-shirt instead of the woollen one, you may need a little more to keep warm on top of it. I also like wearing a silk-cotton blend buttoned shirt (which I had custom made in Vietnam, but you can buy one off the rack, provided that you can find a reasonably snug fit). Lacking merino wool and silk-cotton, a thin fleece sweater is a reasonable option. Fleece is not breathable and holds a lot of water, but it’s very light and fluffy. I prefer a more loose-fitting fleece, because I will wear it over other layers when it gets colder.
The second adjustment is that below 20 degrees you really want a jacket. Rain no longer feels like a hot shower, and wind can cool you down more than you’d wish. The combination of both is a recipe for contracting a cold. I prefer to use a thin and breathable rain jacket. A 2.5 layer rain jacket should be sufficient for most circumstances, or you may want to shell out for a hardshell if you’re planning to do some alpine hiking later on. If you’re hiking in the rain with a backpack it doesn’t get super sweaty. The jacket keeps you dry and keeps out most of the wind, without adding a lot of warmth. That is exactly what you want to achieve.
Middle territory: 12-17 degrees
Now we’re getting into the temperatures that are common in Western-Europe for about half the year. Here you’re going to need some adjustments to keep warm. It’s no longer sufficient to just have summer clothes. You’ll be wearing 1 or 2 layers on your legs, and 2 or 3 layers on your upper body at these temperatures. For comparison: if luggage size and versatility weren’t an issue (like at home for most), you’d probably be wearing jeans with a t-shirt, a long-sleeve, and a sweater or light jacket.
First of all, your light polyester travel pants are probably no longer warm enough. On a shorter, urban trip without much exercise, I don’t mind taking one pair of jeans. The problem with denim is that it’s cotton, and of a particularly heavy kind. This makes jeans bulky, rigid, heavy, sweaty, and slow-drying. But the big advantage is that they look pretty good, and don’t show dirt easily. So if you want to make a more fashionable, less practical choice, jeans are o.k.
I’ve always found the skinny jeans for men, that got in vogue a few years ago, a bit weird. But because they are tight you can wear them under your travel pants, which make them a useful layer for even lower temperatures. (On this particular trip I’ve at times worn two pairs of jeans on top of each other: a looser-fitting pair that got damaged during the trip on top of a pair of skinny jeans that I bought to replace them. This worked great between 0 and -15, as I will discuss farther below.)
If you don’t want to go the jeans route, I highly recommend wearing tights. Yes, you read it right, tights (or leggings). They exist for men, and are mostly sold as running pants for colder temperatures. They look absolutely ridiculous when worn by themselves–not to mention that they lack convenient pockets–but with some light, breathable polyester running tights, you turn your travel pants into a garment that you can wear down to the freezing point. The added benefit is that tights are thin and light, so won’t weigh down your luggage too much. Pack 2, so you can wear one while the other is in the laundry.
Winter clothes: 5 to 11 degrees
Some people are fine with walking around in jeans and a t-shirt down to 12 degrees Celsius. (Curiously, those people seem to come mostly from Ireland, the UK, and New Zealand.) I’m not, but at the same time it’s hard to become really chilled above that point. Below 12 degrees it’s a different story, and it’s time to pack what you could typically call winter clothes. That means 1-2 layers on your legs, 3-4 layers on your upper body, and some accessories.
The main garment that should be on your packing list is a warm sweater. Again, wool is the ideal material for a sweater, but it doesn’t have to be merino. Your sweater has to be warm and insulating, and not necessarily smooth and thin. New (lamb) wool is my favourite choice (with cashmere being expensive and not very wear-resistant). When going out you’ll be wearing two base layers (a short-sleeve and a long-sleeve), a sweater for warmth, and the light rain jacket against the elements. Since you don’t wear your sweater directly on your skin you will rarely have to wash it, so one is enough for a trip of any length.
You may also want to reconsider your socks here. The thinner hiking socks worn in trail running shoes are no longer comfortable at the lower end of this temperature range, especially when you have to stand still for a long time, such as when waiting for a bus. Thicker woollen hiking socks inside breathable shoes are excellent down to around 5 degrees. This does mean that you’re packing two types of socks that don’t layer (yet), which goes against the idea of this post. If you really want to stick to principles and you don’t expect anything colder, you can wear two pairs of socks on top of each other; but there is no great combination of materials that is comfortable, breathable, and strong, so having some redundancy may be the lesser evil.
For some a scarf will be no luxury either at these temperatures, while others would wait for the mercury to dip below 5 degrees Celsius. I probably start wearing a scarf somewhere between 8 and 0 degrees, depending on the ‘type’ of cold and my activity. Read below for my choice of scarves.
Fighting the frost: -5 to +4 degrees
When we get to around the freezing point, you really don’t want to leave any parts of your body uncovered. Gloves, a scarf, and a hat become mandatory here. Because gloves limit your dexterity, I like to have them as tight-fitting as possible. Lined leather gloves are a great choice if you won’t be facing any temperatures below -5. If you do, you should opt for thinner woollen liner gloves instead, that you can wear under thicker snow gloves. Or if you value using your smartphone without taking of your gloves, you can get the special texting gloves with conductive fingertips (although those usually aren’t available in wool).
For scarves and hats wool is again the perfect material. Fortunately woollen scarves and hats are as easily available as anything. Avoid fleece scarves; they feel nice ans soft, but they don’t provide enough warmth and aren’t breathable. Acryllic scarves and hats are very warm, not very breathable, and they are bulky for what they accomplish. I think that the combination of a buff or bandana (see above) with a woollen scarf is best for lower temperatures.
Now you’re also going to suffer from the fact that you have only a light jacket with little to no insulating properties. If you weren’t packing in a minimalist way, you’d probably be wearing a thicker winter coat. What you need is an extra layer that turns your jacket into a coat. A thick but light vest is good, as it will trap more still-standing air. For once fleece is not a bad choice of material. Remember the fleece you packed for chilly evenings in the 18-25 degrees summer vacation? It’ll come in handy here. A kind of hoodie–provided that it isn’t made of cotton–works too, with the hood being an obvious added benefit.
Below 5 degrees I find that shoes become an issue. Because the ground will be frosty cold and your feet are a long way from the main heat centres of your body, you can start to lose feeling in your toes if you don’t protect them well. At this point I find that trail running shoes no longer work, no matter how many layers of socks you wear in them. You really want shoes that are not very breathable, that have some warm lining, and that have thick soles between your feet and the cold ground.
Winter boots or category B hiking boots are best here. Obviously you can’t really layer your shoes. At least avoid redundancy by not packing any intermediate shoes. When travelling by plane, you’ll probably have to wear your bulky winter boots to save space in your backpack, even if it’s not that cold. When trekking with your backpack at warmer temperatures, you can fix your heavier boots to the outside of your pack, and wear the trainers.
Freezing your balls off: -15 to -5 degrees
Below -5 it’s seriously cold. So cold that many would no longer consider it a fun environment to travel in the first place. In my hotel in Sofia I overheard a group of tourists talking about how they were planning to sit inside a warm coffee shop all day long instead of going exploring. Sure, you can do that, but if you prepare your layers of clothing well, it doesn’t have to be so bad.
Now you’re in the range of doubling or tripling everything. I wear two pairs of socks under my winter boots: a thinner polyester pair on the inside, and a thicker woollen pair on top of it. I wear two pairs of jeans (skinny and wide), or jeans with tights under them, or two pairs of tights/leggings with hiking trousers on top. My upper-body layers are a merino-woollen t-shirt and long sleeve, followed by another long-sleeeve or silk-cotton shirt, followed by a woollen sweater, followed by a fleece-zip-sweater or hoodie, finally followed by my light rain jacket. That’s 6 layers. ?
As you’ll have noticed, there are no new garments here. Below -5 I just wear an additional layer of the clothes I already have with me. If you have to manage such temperatures only for a few days, you can pack for a trip that goes no lower than -5, and for those few days just wear pretty much everything you have with you. That’s the power of layering! Of course, if you plan to stay longer in the frosty cold, you’ll need some extra clothes to wear when some of your layers are in the laundry.
One addition you can make to your mobile wardrobe is a pair of snow mittens. Remember, the ones your mom made you wear in the snow when you were a kid? They are horribly impractical, but by insulating four of your fingers together, you keep them warmer. Wear the big gloves over your liner gloves, so that even when you have to take them off to grab something your hands won’t immediately freeze. You can forego these cumbersome gloves, but then you’ll be keeping your hands in your pockets most of the time.
Below -15 degrees
Where is it that you’re going if you expect to face such temperatures? A trek across Antarctica? A holiday to Siberia? To be honest, I’m out of my depth here. I’ve only faced temperatures slightly below -15 degrees Celsius, and those were brief and unexpected spells in places that were mostly warmer. Two days ago I considered trekking up to Mount Vitosha, but I changed my mind when I learned that it would be -20 (and pretty windy) up there (not to mention the snow-covered paths leading up the mountain).
I don’t own any snow boots, down parkas, or skiing-suits. I envision most of the equipment suitable for these temperatures to be pretty heavy and bulky to be carrying around when it’s still +20. I’d be happy to learn more about how to prepare for such circumstances, and whether it can be encompassed in the layering approach I’ve outlined in this article. If you have any helpful suggestions or want to share your experiences on such dismal climates, please post them in the comments section below.
The complete layered packing list
Putting all of this together, you can prepare for a trip with temperatures ranging from -15 to +30 degrees Celsius, while still fitting all of your clothes into a carry-on backpack and not dying of overheating on the plane. When flying, I recommend you wear a merino longsleeve, jeans or travel pants, and obviously socks and underwear. On top of those, wear your heavy winter boots, the fleece layer, the rain jacket, and potentially a scarf, which you’ll take off as soon as you’re seated in the plane. All the other items should fit into your backpack without any trouble.
Below is the complete list of clothes mentioned in this article.
26+ °C18 to 25 °C12 to 17 °C5 to 11 °C-5 to +5 °C
2-3 merino woollen t-shirts
1 merino woollen long-sleeve or fleece sweater
Jeans or running tights
1 Lambs-woollen sweater
Lined leather or woollen Gloves
4-5 pairs of polyester mesh hiking socks
1 light rain jacket
1 additional long-sleeve
2-3 pairs of thermal woollen socks
A woollen hat
Nylon travel pants or zip-off trousers
1 extra pair of tights
A woollen scarf
Some non-cotton boxers or slips
Winter or hiking boots
Trail running shoes or sandals
A fleece (hoodie) if not packed yet
A bandana or Buff
Everybody stay warm and happy travels!
* No real fur, of course!
About the use of product links in this article: For most products mentioned in this article the specific brands and models don’t really matter. The types of garments and the materials from which they are made are paramount. Buy a good, durable brand that has the right fit for you. I’ve linked to products by reputable brands such as Icebreaker, Columbia Sportswear, and The North Face on Amazon.com. These links contain my tracking code, which means that if you buy the item mentioned, you help support this website. This will not make the products more expensive for you (the small commission I get comes directly out of Amazon’s profits). Usually you can find these items cheapest on Amazon.com, but you may be able to acquire them at a better price on sale in a store near you, or second hand. I advocate giving products as long a lifespan as possible and saving money at the same time, so by all means stick to that philosophy. But if you want to order a new item online, you can’t really go wrong with Amazon.com, and I’ll be thankful to you for using the product link.