Travel Tips

Packing With Just a Carry-on in Winter

I’m heading to Japan in February. Yes…in February. Yes…it’s going to be freezing, but scheduling worked out to mean this was the best time to go for my husband and myself, so February it is. Knowing full well that Japan is freezing in February and also knowing full well that I’m going to be tromping around on foot and using a lot of public transportation for this trip, I’m not exactly interested in packing particularly heavily. That’s why I’ll be traveling using only a carry-on size backpack and a small purse/backpack combo on this trip. So how does one pack for a two week trip in a cold place using only a carry-on? Here are some of my tips…

Layers are your friend.

The best thing you can do in order to pack light for winter is to think layers. You can bring thermals or leggings to wear underneath your jeans in order to stay warm, but if it doesn’t end up being as cold as you thought it would be, you can wear the leggings or jeans on their own. The same goes for shirts. I like to pack tight long sleeved shirts to wear underneath my t-shirts, tank tops, and sweaters. If it’s really cold, the long sleeved shirts work well as undershirts, but if it’s a little warmer, you can skip the undershirt.

Pack light, do laundry.

Remember: you don’t need to pack enough clothes to wear the entire trip. You can always do some laundry! I love to stay at Airbnb properties or hotels with coin laundry for just this purpose, but even if you’re staying in a spot without these amenities, remember you can always hand wash your clothes, wring them out, and hang them up in a hotel room. I’ve done laundry by hand in the sink, in the bathtub, and in the shower. If you’re staying in Europe, a lot of the older hotels have radiators in them which I’ve found to be really useful for drying clothing. If you don’t have a radiator, just wring your clothes out really well and then hang them on the towel rack or drape them over the shower door overnight, then transfer them to a hanger in your closet until they fully dry, usually no more than a day or two.

You can buy detergent at any of the local shops and if you’re in a pinch, even shampoo works for washing clothes.

The other thing you should do is pick a color scheme and stick with it for your travel attire. I tend to wear a lot of black when I travel because black goes with everything so I can mix and match all of my items. Mixing and matching makes for greater versatility in your wardrobe and allows you to pack a lot lighter overall than if you pack “outfits”.

Here is the bag I use when traveling and I love it:

eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible

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I plan on leaving at least some empty space in the bag after my clothes and toiletries are packed so I can fit any fun items I pick up on the trip on the return journey.

Wear your coat on the plane.

Unless you have one of those pack-able down coats that squishes down to a tiny ball, you’re likely thinking your coat will take up a lot of real estate in your suitcase. Since you’re trying to get by with just a carry-on, my advice is to wear your coat on the plane. It gets cold on planes anyway so you may be happy to have it with you. If you do get hot, you can always remove your coat and shove it either under the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment. Let’s also not underestimate how well a folded up coat can be used as a makeshift travel pillow in-flight.

Warm accessories make a world of difference.

Bring a beanie, a scarf, some gloves, and some warm socks. I suggest getting them in a neutral color such as black or gray so they match all of your clothing. This will help you to keep warm throughout the trip.

A note on shoes…

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Something like this is a good bet.

It’s winter, so you’re probably not going to be packing any sandals. Shoes are a tricky subject because it really does depend on what you’re going to be doing on the trip. You’ll need some sort of athletic shoes if you plan on getting exercise, fancy shoes if you plan on going out at night, etc. My advice if you’re like me and are planning on just tromping around in a city environment is to bring one versatile pair of boots. They should be attractive enough to be worn with street clothes and dressed up for nicer dinners and events, but also comfortable enough to be walked around in for long periods of time. You’ll want decent tread on them so you don’t slip on ice or snow as well.

When I’m packing, I like to shove my socks and underwear inside of my shoes to free up suitcase space.

On the plane, I like to wear a pair of ballet slippers which are easy to get on and off in 31gjddockwl-_sx395_
airport security, are comfortable, can be dressed up fornice events, and take up barely any space in your suitcase should I want to stow them.

I like these ones: Sam Edelman Women’s Felicia Ballet Flat

Also don’t worry about bringing slippers for nighttime. I know it’s cold, but a pair of wool or fleece socks will also do the trick and will take up much less space in your suitcase.

Use compression bags

I love these things! Get the roll-up kind that doesn’t require a pump and you will be able to fit a lot more into your suitcase, which is fantastic for packing in only one bag. You can put things like shirts, sweaters, pants, etc. inside the bags, roll them up to let out the excess air, and see the capacity of your suitcase expand.

Here’s my clothing packing list for two weeks in Japan:

  • 4 thin, tight long sleeved shirts to be worn either by themselves or as undershirts.
  • 2 tank tops
  • 1 black sweater top.
  • 2 sweater dresses.
  • 1 winter overcoat.
  • 1 pair of black boots (see above)
  • Ballet slippers (see above)
  • 4 pairs of leggings.
  • One scarf
  • One beanie
  • One pair of knit gloves.
  • enough winter socks and underwear for one week.
  • 2 pairs loose jeans or other pants that will fit leggings underneath.
  • Pajamas (I just wear cotton shorts and a tank top to bed)

With this list, I can do laundry every couple days (I rented an Airbnb with a washing machine) and mix and match my outfits to last throughout the week. Here are some sample outfits:

  1. Leggings (under) + Jeans + long sleeved shirt (under) + tank top + Coat + hat, gloves, scarf + boots.
  2. Sweater dress + long sleeved shirt (under) + leggings + Coat + hat, gloves, scarf + boots.
  3. Leggings (under) + Jeans + long sleeved shirt (under) + sweater + Coat + hat, gloves, scarf + boots.

That’s three days, and then at this point I’ll do laundry. I’ll let the clothing hang to dry while I wear another sweater dress/leggings combo outfit. If it’s cold, I’ll put a long sleeved shirt under it and of course my coat, gloves, and scarf. This will give it a day and a night to finish drying, at which point I’ll wear everything again.

**Note: if you’re doing laundry by hand, give it two days to dry. The Airbnb I rented has a washing machine but no dryer. Still, the spin cycle on a washing machine will get out most of the excess water. If you’re simply wringing your clothes out, I would wash early enough to have two days time to dry. I know this from experience.

And here’s what I’m using for my “personal item” on the plane:

Douguyan Girl Elegant Combination of Leather and Canvas Backpack Travel Backpack

71bl6zt2buml-_ux425_I bought this backpack specifically for my trip to Japan. I always carry a small leather backpack with me as a purse (even at home) because I’m not much of a fan of holding things. I would rather have my hands free as I walk around. My current purse/backpack is really small though, and with the extra added items I carry around when I travel that I don’t carry when I’m at home, I thought it would be good to get a slightly larger, stylish backpack for the trip. Since I’m only packing a carry-on, I do still get one “personal item” which the airlines define as around the size of a purse. This one is small enough to satisfy their personal item requirement and fit under the seat in front of me, but large enough to hold my iPhone, Kindle Fire tablet, a small Chromebook laptop (which I’m still debating if I want to bring or not), my travel documents (passport, itinerary, etc.), wallet, keys, snacks, headphones, portable battery charger, water bottle, chap stick, and a small bottle of lotion and still have room to spare. I plan on loading up my iPhone and Kindle Fire tablet with books, audiobooks, games, music, magazines, guidebooks, language learning apps and more for the long journey across the Pacific.

This will serve as my “purse” when I tromp around Tokyo and Kyoto as well.


For more information on packing, you may want to check out the ‘Travel Tips: Packing‘ section on this site. Check back because I add new content all the time. I hope you found this article useful!

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