It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve traveled in really frigid climates but visits to northern Manitoba where the polar bears roam and mushing in the Yukon quickly taught me the value of a good winter packing list.
Below, I’ve put together a list of essential categories for you to consider and the products I’ve used for extreme weather (I’m talking minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit). But even if you’re not going to destinations that cold, use this post as a guide, though pared down, for less frosty environments.
FYI: This post has affiliate links which means if you purchase a product using one of the links below I’ll make a small commission at no cost to you. Please note: I don’t have any paid relationship with the brands below. These are all items I’ve used and loved.
Winter Packing List
“Layering Is ESSENTIAL!” A fellow writer told me once told me before I was on my way to Manitoba and she was absolutely right. Layering makes all the difference when it comes to proper heat retention. That said, it’s a fine balance, you don’t want to wear so much that you start sweating. Once that happens it’s not long before you turn into an icicle.
The first thing you want to start with is a good, snuggly base layer. And depending on how cold it is will determine the level of thickness you opt for.
Friends who’ve hiked in freezing temperatures in Iceland and Norway swear by Smartwool. I purchased both top and bottoms in the brands heavyweight 250 count merino wool. You can wear it on its own in addition to being a base layer. The great thing about Merino wool is that it naturally wicks away moisture, breathes and is odor resistant. I found SmartWool just a teensy weensy bit scratchy, though not enough to stop me from wearing them.
Tip: They’re perfect for sleeping in when the nights are really chilly.
My favorite base layer is Columbia’s thermal reflective, Omni-heat heavyweight base top and tights. The interior breathable fabric has tiny silver dots “that reflect and retain” the warmth a body generates. The more you move, the toastier you get. Plus, it’s thin enough that I don’t feel like the Michelin man when I layer.
Over my base layers, I put on a lightweight warm fleece. My favorite is the glacier quarter zip from The North Face. If it’s cold I can make it into a turtleneck and once indoors I can cool off by unzipping the neck. The style comes in a variety of colors and it’s deliciously soft.
(Note, the men’s Glacier Quarter Zip on the outside is more like athletic wear but the lining is fuzzy fleece.)
For super cold days, I add an extra layer of warmth. My go-to sweater is this one by Patagonia. It’s thick, very warm and great for skiing or any cold weather activities.
I’ve never worn down vests before but the PR at Columbia sent me their Voodoo Turbodown and I gave it a try. As an additional layer I really liked it. Also designed with Omni-heat technology, it keeps your chest and neck toasty warm without being too bulky. I’ve also worn it traditionally as a top layer on warmer days with a heavy sweater or mid-weight fleece. Both the men’s and women’s styles have drawstring adjustable hems and zippered pockets.
For parkas or coats that fall below are much warmer and discourage cold air from going up your back. Hoods are always recommended even if you wear a hat, and often they are a wonderful complement to a great woolen cap when the wind chill is raging. (see accessories below.)
TIP: If you are visiting a destination that is really cold, check to see if your tour group, hotel or outfitter can rent you the proper outerwear before you buy something. Extreme winter coats, insulated boots, and warm mittens can be expensive and aren’t worth the investment unless you’re using it on a regular basis.
The best (and warmest) parka I’ve worn was made by the Quartz Co based in Canada. It was constructed for temperatures measuring minus 50-degrees. It was a loaner from Churchill Wild the company that hosted me in Manitoba. The coat was warm and heavy (at least 10 pounds) with 650 fill down, and had an adjustable hood trimmed in real fur. (Note: I still wore 3-4 layers underneath too).
The parka style I wore isn’t part of the company’s current inventory, but the coat below is more stylish with a slimmer silhouette. The Churchill Wild version had four pockets on the front as well but boxier. (The hood is detachable and If you’re not keen on fur, it’s removable, as well).
Other brands that make good outwear coats include Canada Goose and Helly Hanson, and of course, the classics Marmot, Columbia, Patagonia, and The North Face for cold weather, though probably not as extreme as what the Quartz Co. coats can handle.
On the Bottom
Cold weather Pants: Over my base layer I wore comfortable jeans and over that, I wore waterproof thermal insulated pants. Warmer days, you can easily wear a base layer alone underneath the thermals. Whatever brand you buy, make sure the design includes gators that go over your boots to keep the snow and cold out.
A good pair of boots is essential if you want to enjoy being out in freezing temperatures. I wore Baffin in Canada and they were amazing: warm, waterproof and comfortable. A thick rubber sole keeps your feet off the frozen ground and a deep tread will stop you from slipping. The “Impact” above is rated to -148 degrees Fahrenheit. (Frankly, if you’re out in -148-degree weather, you probably have more problems than what boots you’re going to wear.)
Liner socks are a good idea in cold temperatures because they help wick moisture away if your feet sweat. On top, I loved these SmartWool socks. I wear them all the time.
For warmth, you can’t beat mittens. These by Black Diamond are delish. They’re 100% waterproof and have a removable insulated liner.
Glove liners are also a good idea. Two reasons: 1. The extra warmth is always a plus and 2. When you need to take off your mittens (I often do to photograph), you still have some kind of coverage on your hands. Styles with touchpads for phones are a good choice.
This balaclava was one of the best purchases I’ve made for outside play on frozen days. Yes, you might feel like a ninja or bank robber but it’s worth it considering the lining of warm fleece keeps your face from freezing solid.
Tip: Since the balaclava goes over the ears poke tiny holes with a pin where your ears are so sound isn’t muffled.
This beanie is lined in jersey and toasty warm worn alone, over a balaclava, or under a hood. In severe cold, don’t go without something on your head, you’ll feel much warmer if you’re covered.
On warmer days when I don’t want to wear a cap, my ears still manage to get cold so I opt for this unisex polar fleece headband instead.
Hothands warmers are a must in extreme weather. The hand warmers are classic fare but I fell in love with the insole foot warmers. They’re SO much better than toe warmers because they heat the entire underside of your foot and last for hours!
Tip: Place your foot warmer between your liner sock and your winter socks. It helps to keep them in place when you’re walking around.
When you’re traveling to cold weather destinations it can be hard to pack all the clothes you’ll need to layer up. That’s why I always use packing cubes: one for my underwear, another for my tops, another for my bottoms, you get the drift.
For inherently bulkier items I recommend using compression bags. If you’re not familiar with either of these products, check out my video below.
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