Travel Tips

Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures

Seal River Heritage Lodge-Manitoba -Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures

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

Base Layers

“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.

SmartWool Women’s NTS Mid 250 Crew Top

SmartWool Women’s NTS Mid 250 Bottoms

SmartWool Women’s 150 Crew Top   

SmartWool Women’s Merino 150 Baselayer Bottom

SmartWool Men’s NTS Mid 250 Crew Top

SmartWool Men’s NTS Mid 250 Bottom

SmartWool Men’s Mid 150 crew top

SmartWool Men’s Mid 150 bottoms

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.

Columbia Women’s Heavyweight II Baselayer Tight 

Columbia Womens Heavyweight Stretch Long Sleeve Top

Columbia Women’s Omni-Heat Midweight Baselayer Half-Zip Long Sleeve Shirt Blouse

Columbia Omni-Heat Midweight Baselayer Women’s Tight

Columbia Men’s Heavyweight Ii Long Sleeve Half Zip

Columbia Men’s Heavyweight Ii Tights

Columbia Omni-Heat Mens Midweight Stretch Baselayer Long Sleeve Shirt

Columbia Men’s Baselayer Midweight Tight Bottom with Fly

Second 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.

The North Face Women’s Glacier Quarter Zip

The North Face Men’s Tech Glacier Quarter Zip

(Note, the men’s Glacier Quarter Zip on the outside is more like athletic wear but the lining is fuzzy fleece.)

Third Layer

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.

Patagonia Women’s Better Sweater 1/4-Zip Fleece

Patagonia Men’s Better Sweater 1/4 Zip

Fourth Layer

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.

Columbia Women’s Voodoo Falls 590 TurboDown Vest

Columbia Men’s Voodoo Falls 590 TurboDown Vest

Outer Layer

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).

Quartz Co Elia down jacket

Quartz Co Sirius Down Jacket

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.

Women’s Bugaboo™ Omni-Heat Insulated Snow Pant

Men’s Bugaboo™ II Pant


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.)

Baffin Women’s Impact Insulated Boot

Baffin Men’s Impact Insulated Boot

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.

Wigwam Coolmax liner socks

Smartwool Women’s Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Socks


Black Diamond mittens

For warmth, you can’t beat mittens. These by Black Diamond are delish. They’re 100% waterproof and have a removable insulated liner.

Columbia Omni-Heat Touch Glove 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.

To buy, select Size Choose from options to the left Add to Cart Add to List Ad feedback Chaos -CTR Howler Multi Tasker Pro Windproof Balaclava, Black, Large/X-Large Click image to open expanded view Chaos -CTR Howler Multi Tasker Pro Windproof Balaclava
CTR Howler Multi Tasker Pro Windproof Balaclava

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.


The North Face salty dog beanie
The North Face salty dog beanieThis beanie is cozy warm

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.

The North Face salty dog beanie

KOMAKE Ear Warmers Headband,
KOMAKE Ear Warmers Headband,

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.

KOMAKE Ear Warmers Headband

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!

Hothands hand warmers 

Hothands insole foot warmers

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.

Bonus info!

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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Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures

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41 replies »

  1. Great tips. I swear by Smartwool & the Columbia Omni-Heat – it totally rocks, I was skeptical at first, but it worked great in both the Arctic & Antarctic. Plus I live in New Hampshire! Only other thing I would suggest is to bring 2 hats and 2 pairs of gloves. If either of those get wet, you would be in a tough position.

  2. We booked this trip for October 2019 because of your beautiful imagery and storytelling, Susan! We are excited to join Churchill Wild and photograph the polar bears, arctic fox, arctic hare snowy owl and Northern Lights (fingers crossed). Your packing and photo equipment lists are extremely helpful. Since I don’t do well with the cold, I’m nervous about -30F temperatures. Therefore, we’ve opted for the full gear rental as you recommended and will follow your tips for all the base layers as well. Great tips on the camera gear condensation. While we are experienced with tropical temperature changes when scuba diving and bringing gear back into A/C areas, this will be our first foray into frigid photography conditions. We sincerely appreciate the plastic bag tip.

    • I’m so excited for you to go. You’ll love it. Though I do have to say, the cold took getting used to. It’s beyond anything I’ve experienced before. I am glad you’re renting the gear. You’ll be very happy that you did. 🙂

    • Haha.. I still do it all the time. I really have to think about it before I say the word.

      Glad you found the guide helpful. 🙂

  3. Oh what a fun adventure you are going to Susan! Loved reading your preparation and made mental notes myself of when I visit cold places. Can’t wait to see your cute polar bear photos 🙂

    • I actually made it back already. Boy, time flies. I just posted a story on the Aurora borealis and starting to wrap my head around the polar bears. So much to think about. Can’t wait to get it straight and share. 🙂

  4. I honestly will never go here (I have a chronic disease so it would be too cold and difficult for me) but I am SO jealous of this adventure and I even enjoyed reading about what you packed and how you prepared! I can’t wait to see your pictures of the polar bears! It sounds so unbelievably amazing.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your illness. It was quite an adventure and VERY cold. Looking forward to sharing my images in a future post. Thank you so much for your interest. 🙂

    • They are quite extraordinary in the wild. They are majestic one minute and a little goofy the next depending on how they’re standing. I feel really privileged to have seen them.

    • Appreciate the compliment on the list. I didn’t take the photos, they’re Mike Poliza’s, but I’m thrilled you enjoyed them. Now that I am back, I’ll be sharing polar bear images of my own. 🙂

    • Thanks a million, Nancy! I’m so glad it translated. I did it on a whim but liked how it came out. Those bags really help.

  5. Can’t wait to see your photos…I’m jealous but after I hear how cold it’s going to be…maybe i might rethink that…in any case…looking forward to seeing the photos! Good Luck! Lorraine

    • We’ll see.. I think they prepare people for the coldest weather so no one is surprised. I may luck out and it may not be too bad. Right now it’s 12 degrees. I’ve dealt with 12 degrees before in NYC. Colder. I’ll know more once I get there. Fingers crossed. No matter what, the adventure is too special not to embrace the cold and have a ball. 🙂

  6. Thanks so much Mark. It’s a little different than what I normally do so glad you find it worthwhile. Trying new things…:)

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