Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures

Susan Portnoy dressed in a parka at 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 whenever you take a cold-weather vacation.

Below, I’ve put together a list of essential categories for you to consider, including products I’ve used for cold weather as examples.

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

Layers for cold weather are a must!

“Layering Is ESSENTIAL!” A fellow writer once told me before I was on my way to romp in the frigid outdoors, 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. I love Woolx’s Merino wool. I am showing heavyweight here but it also comes in mid and lightweight version (though I think the lightweight is too sheer.)

Merino wool is a fantastic option. It naturally wicks away moisture, breathes, and is odor resistant. Great for long trips where laundry facilities are scarce or too expensive.

100% Merino by Woolx

Tip: They’re perfect for sleeping in when nights are particularly chilly.


Another base layer favorite base 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. That’s said, unlike merino, if you sweat, you’ll want to wash it pretty regularly.



Mid – Layer

Over base layers, a mid-layer is meant to act as insulation. A cozy fleece is a great choice. 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.)


Third Layer

On super cold weather days, I add an extra layer of warmth: A thick sweater or lightweight down jacket. Due to its barely perceptible weight and easy packing, it’s usually my Rab Microlight Down Jacket, especially when space is an issue.

Nearly every brand nowadays makes some sort of lightweight down jacket to use as a layer or on its own. I recommend choosing a version that’s windproof and waterproof or at least water-resistant. Check to see if the “down” is real (real works better) or synthetic and the weight––700-800 will be the most effective. I like the Rab jacket’s slim silhouette and the length of the back seam is 26″ which fully covers my long torso. Plus, longer lengths keep cold air from going up your backside. I prefer the style without the hood because I usually wear a hat and my outer layer has a hood.

Hooded Version


Outer Layer

Whether you choose a midweight shell or heavyweight shell really depends on what kind of weather you’re likely to encounter. For outer layers, I recommend the following traits.

  • Waterproof and windproof
  • An attached adjustable hood
  • Adjustable cuffs, ideally with velcro so you can fit them over gloves and tighten
  • If it has a zip-out down or fleece lining it’ll have more versatility.
  • Hits below your hips to keep cold air out
  • Has waterproof, zippered pockets
  • A cinch cord at the hem for a snug fit when you need it
  • Make sure you buy a size large enough to wear layers underneath

Brands that make good outwear coats include Canada Goose, Quartz Co., Arc’teryx and Helly Hanson, and of course, the classics Marmot, Columbia, Patagonia, and The North Face.

I currently own The North Face Women’s Arrowood Triclimate Jacket. I really like it and have used it repeatedly but ideally, I’d prefer a slimmer design. It’s boxy. But until I find my “perfect” jacket I am so glad to have this one. Mine is a couple of years old and was only available in the blocked colors, however, the design is available now in a few solid colors.

A friend of mine who works as a guide in northern Manitoba with polar bears in Fall and Antarctica for the winter recommends this Arc’teryx coat she bought.

TIP: If you are visiting a destination that is really cold, temperatures exceeding anything you normally deal with, 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.


On the Bottom

Cold weather Pants: Over my base layer I wear comfortable jeans and over that, 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.

These The North Face Bugaboo insulated pants are good.


Boots

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 amazingly 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.)


Socks

Liner socks are a good idea for a winter packing list because they wick moisture away when your feet sweat. On top, I love these SmartWool socks. I wear them all the time.


Accessories

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 to pack. 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.

For normal cold days, not sub-zero, I really like these Unisex gloves. They’re not bulky, nice and warm, and you can use your devices with them on.


This balaclava was one of the best purchases I’ve made for outside play on frigid 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 become cold so I opt for this unisex polar fleece headband instead. Sometimes, I wear these WITH a beanie to make sure my ears stay extra warm.


Warmers are a must in cold weather. Hand warmers are classic fare for any winter packing list but I fell in love with these insole foot warmers when I was in temperatures exceeding 10 below. 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.


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

43 thoughts on “Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures

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  3. Grace says:

    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.

  4. Marielena Smith says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

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    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  6. My Ticklefeet! says:

    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 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  7. Sarah says:

    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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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.
      🙂

  8. Lorraine Spina says:

    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

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      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. 🙂

  9. Susan Portnoy says:

    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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