Save Luggage Space and Weight With Ultralight Winter Wear

Learn how to pack light to reduce checked baggage fees yet stay warm and stylish during your winter travel with these lightweight winter clothing options.

With airlines across the board adopting fees for checked bags, many travelers are trying to get more out of (or into) their carry-ons. It’s a great plan when your destination is someplace sunny and warm—tank tops and swim trunks take up less room than an issue of Dwell—but it’s a challenge in the winter when the packing list includes bulky space-hoggers like sweaters, lined jackets and hats with assorted flaps and pompoms.

One unfortunate “solution” to this predicament that too many people rely on is the practice of wearing half one’s wardrobe onto the plane. Go ahead and don your largest pair of boots for the duration of the flight, but let me assure you, turning your already-cramped seat into a mobile dresser/changing room is neither a comfortable nor graceful way to travel, and it will not endear you to the seatmates you elbow every time you add or shed a layer.

A better strategy is to become a more efficient packer.

Pack Light

Start with clothes that keep you warm without adding extra bulk. Here, I suggest we take a few cues from ultralight backpackers. This crowd is obsessed with reducing the weight and mass of all the necessities of life, from stoves and shelter to underwear, and outdoor gear manufacturers have responded with a revolution in textiles that account for every ounce. It’s possible to find clothes that offer very high performance in extremely compact packages, and that look good outside their sporty context.

As when choosing a cake, you can’t go wrong with layers—pair a thin base piece or two with others that insulate and shield you from the elements. Investing in a few well-designed items will go a long way toward achieving a goal of single-bag travel. 

At Home With Baselayers

A good base layer system will combine light and mid-weight pieces to lock in your body heat while wicking away sweat and odors. GoLite’s polyester DriMove Silk line is as ephemeral as they come, with a women’s long-sleeved shirt weighing in at a whisper-thin 2 ounces ($35). Top that with a Wool 4 Hoody (11.2 ounces, $150) from Patagonia, one of its warmest and best-looking base layers.

For men, a printed merino wool T-shirt (6.7 ounces, $89.99) from New Zealand-based Icebreaker makes a stylish beginning, while the eco-chic company Nau’s midweight Go-More-Pile jacket (25.5 ounces, $175) is made from recycled polyester and features a beguiling faux-fur interior lining. 

Intrepid Insulation

For superior warmth that compacts, down has been the standby fill for many years. The hitch has always been that when down gets wet, it becomes useless. Some manufacturers have developed synthetic alternatives that have the pros of down without the cons. The men’s Enclosure Jacket (16 ounces, $185) from Cloudveil insulates with the super lightweight and water-resistant insulator PrimaLoft One, and boasts a lot of nice details like underarm stretch panels and interior pockets. (The company also has a great selection of gear for kids.)

Montbell’s Thermawrap Action Jacket (8.9 ounces, $150) is filled with the company’s proprietary Exceloft and features a flattering fit for women as well as stretchy wrist cuffs with thumb holes (a personal favorite). For a super space-saving solution, Merrell’s unisex Gatherer Jacket ($99) allows you to add insulation where and when you need it—the translucent shell has strategically placed zippers through which users can stuff the jacket with anything from dry autumn leaves to newspaper, creating a warm layer that’s eye-catching and locally sourced.

Smart Travel Tip: Many down and synthetic down jackets and vests pack into an interior pocket or included stuff sack. In their compressed state, they can make a perfect lumbar pillow for long flights. Just make sure you do the stuffing before your neighbors sit down. 

Climb Into Your Shell

Total defense from wind and rain requires a water and windproof cover that will fit comfortably over everything else you are wearing. The formidable, hip-length Alpha SL Jacket from Arc’Teryx features laminated zippers and the strength of Gore-Tex, but weighs less than 11 ounces ($299.50). Upstart fabric eVENT is threatening to overthrow Gore-Tex’s dominance of bad-weather gear, with a claim to greater breathability and comparable protection, as in Integral DesignseVent Cruiser Jacket (12.5 ounces for a men’s large, $220), which adds waterproof seams and zippers to the package. To top off, a Windpro Beanie ($24) from yoga/climbing outfitter prAna will block winter’s worst gusts, while the sleek design can fit snugly under a bike helmet or into any small recess of a bag.