The SoCal Gal’s Guide to Packing for Cold Weather
Confession time: I have exactly one (1) coat even close to suitable for snowy weather. To make matters worse, it doesn’t have a hood and it’s not waterproof. When I went skiing in 2020, I had to layer on a rain shell. Those who live in cold climates are probably shaking their head at me or rolling their eyes, but the truth is I live in San Diego where the average winter temperatures are in the mid-60s.
What’s the point of this overdramatic introduction? Although I have lived in Colorado and Kansas, I’m hopeless when it comes to planning for a cold trip. Last year I literally had to Google “packing for cold weather,” so now I’ll share what I found with you. Hopefully this summary gives you some ideas to start loading up your suitcase.
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Some of us SoCal girlies have a cute fleece, maybe a Patagonia puffer jacket, and that’s all. Even warm-climate folks who regularly go skiing or snowboarding might have the right gear for those activities, but maybe not for a day-to-day trip in a cold climate. And while you can wear your snowboarding jacket while you travel, it might be overkill, or it might not be appropriate for a fancy dinner or a Broadway show.
Furthermore, there are issues not just with knowing what to wear outside in the cold, but also the risk of overdressing and being hot and sweaty indoors. (I learned this one the hard way).
Packing for Cold Weather
First and foremost, learn how to layer. This allows for adjustment of warmness depending on weather and location. Sometimes you start the day bundled up but as the sun comes out and things warm up, you don’t want to be stuck in your thickest outfit all day long. A good formula would be: everyday shirt, sweatshirt/sweater, then coat. Add on scarf, hat, gloves if needed. Some people like to add a fleece vest or puffer vest into the mix too.
You Need a Coat
Let’s start with the obvious thing you might not have on hand: a good coat. There are many different types of coats and they are not all created equally. Not only do you need to consider thickness, but also length. A bomber jacket may look cute, but never underestimate the wind’s ability to cut through and freeze any gaps between your shirt and your pants. A longer goat goes a long way towards staying cozy and warm.
One of the fashionable staples that work well in a variety of settings is a thin puffer (seen above). These can go with a variety of outfits from active, to casual, to a little nicer. They are also great for layering.
The second coat I would recommend that also goes with a wide varity of looks is a wool pea coat. There’s a reason many vintage pea coast were Navy-issued; they are especially good for a damp setting. When I lived in Kansas, my pea coat was the one I reached for most frequently. When I rented a coat for NYC (more on this later) I got a medium-weight wool coat that was long, but not quite as heavy as a pea coat.
Despite a pea coat’s good ability to repel water, nothing is truly waterproof unless it’s marketed that way. If you’re going somewhere with guaranteed heavy rain, definitely opt for a waterproof coat or rain shell to be layered on top of your outfit. (My rain shell is not insulated and can be folded up very small. Nowadays I throw it in my suitcase every time, just to be prepared).
For outdoor activities like skiing, snowboarding, or more: Do some internet searching on the specific outdoor activity and follow their advice (like this, for example). I’m not that outdoorsy, so that topic goes way beyond the scope of this list!
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I have suffered wet socks many times because I forgot that snow is in fact frozen water. My shoes or boots that were not waterproof became soaked as soon as the snow began to melt. Then, I got a knockoff version of LL Bean Boots (Should have bought the real deal, mine hurt my feet). Now I have all-rubber, fleece lined boots (similar) and my feet stay warm and dry in the rain and snow.
Next, two words: Wool socks.
Do as I say, not as I do. I just wear jeans everywhere, all the time. And my legs are often cold! Pick up some long underwear to layer under your jeans, or look on Amazon for lined jeans or lined leggings and laugh at the head-scratching product images.
Lastly, you have to remember to pack a scarf, gloves, and a hat. A scarf is great for layering when the coat is too much but the sweatshirt is not quite enough. A hat that covers your ears is a great way to keep those protected. And lastly, the thing I always forget, gloves. Mittens look cute but it’s hard to do things while wearing them. You can even get gloves with special fingertips so you can still use your phone while wearing them.
Cute beanies available on Etsy!
Watch youtube videos made by vloggers in the area you will be visiting. They will recommend appropriate clothes for the season. Sometimes they are even specific to a particular month! I went back and found the helpful video that helped me when I was preparing for my trip to New York.
When visiting a cold climate, it’s important to wear appropriate clothing. If you don’t have what you need, there are more options than simply running to the store and buying one of everything. It’s definitely possible to gear up without spending an arm and a leg–freeing up more funds to spend when you’re traveling!
First, evaluate if various combinations of clothes you already own will be sufficient. Depending on the length of time you’ll be out in the cold, layering might be sufficient to get you from place to place.
The thrifty borrowing strategy needs to be brought back into style. If you need something more heavy-duty, put out a call on your social media channels. You may have a friend your size who regularly visits cold climates (or recently moved from a cold place).
Sometimes people grow out of their clothes, move, or want a different style, but the item has a lot of life left in it. Buy used gear from websites like Poshmark (use code MYFRIENDSTACI), Patagonia Worn Wear, or Play it Again Sports (this is where I bought my ski pants).
Depending on the length of your trip, it might make sense to rent a winter coat from a service like Rent the Runway. If I was going to a winter destination wedding I would rent a classy coat instead of buying one I might not have use for in the future. When we traveled to New York last March, I rented a long, medium-weight wool coat and was really happy with it. I got the chance to be on-trend without committing to a decade of photos in green plaid.
First, make sure to layer. Then you’ll need a coat (consider a long coat, consider a waterproof coat). You’ll want warm and thick socks (wool preferred). You will probably need boots. Don’t forget crucial accessories like a hat, scarf, and gloves. Try reaching out to friends before purchasing these items if you don’t plan on going cold places frequently!
What did I miss? Sound off in the comments!
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer, except where noted.