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Packing light, but packing warm

So my wife and I are in Banff right now and heading to Jasper tomorrow for the rest of our first vacation in two years. We're from Calgary and we've done this route before. But one detail making it different this time is the commitment to pack light even though we really don't need to. Call it an experiment for our trip next June to Scotland which, from the weather we've been tracking this summer can be similar to here.

We're doing it the RS way with one carry-on size suitcase each. We did this in June 2019 for out RS Loire to the South of France tour, but that was pretty much a warm weather trip with no need for warmer clothes. Not so in Banff and Jasper where I'm currently wearing a long sleeve light sweater. Which brings me to my question to those with more experience than us. Do you light packers feel the RS packing strategy can be as effective in cooler climates where some thicker clothing will be required as it is in warm climate locations?

Posted by
3330 posts

Don’t be so sure it will be cool. We were in Scotland once, in July, and the temps were in the 90’s. I wore the one pair of bermudas that I had brought, almost every day.

That being said, fleece is your friend. I have a light-weight fleece vest that I bring on almost every trip that isn’t to tropical climes. With a windbreaker over it, I can weather anything I might encounter in June.

Posted by
284 posts

Great question Allan.
I hope to travel fall 2022 starting in Bulgaria in September, Italy and Spain in October and early November and then maybe London for a week or so in early to mid November. I think I am ok with clothes, a few long sleeve T-shirts will not take up much rooms. A coat is a little more of a problem but I think a packable down that I can put in a vacume bag to start with should be ok.
I am worried about shoes. I want sandles to start with and more heavy shoes for London in Novembe. It is weight more than size I am worried about. Do not really want to wear the boots onto the plane in September.

Are you getting smoke from the BC fires in Banff. Its beautiful out there. I used to live in Calgary for a number of years and loved going to the mountains.

Posted by
2927 posts

Yes, I do think/know the RS strategy can be as effective in cooler climates. I've almost always packed in a carry on, well since 1977. We travel at various times from autumn to spring; never summer. The key to cold weather packing is making sure the extremities are well addressed. A hat, earmuffs, scarf and solid shoes are the key. Layers are the next key. You don't need a heavy coat. An example: I would wear a long-sleeved tee, an overshirt, a vest (some pack up very small) and a light jacket together on colder days, and fewer of these items on warmer days. These items all pack away very easily. Some trips I've ditched the overshirt and vest and just had a boiled wool sweater, and light jacket. I often don't need all the layers, even in December and January in Europe. As I'm usually going same season to same season, I'll wear my vest, jacket and shoes on the plane. Leather gloves, which I always take, fit in the pocket of my jacket. So all I really need to find room for is a winter hat, earmuffs and scarf, which fit easily in nooks and crannies of my suitcase.

Thanks, Allan, for a packing discussion!

Posted by
842 posts

Our last international trip included hiking in the Outer Hebrides and the West Highlands of Scotland in early September. It literally blew a gale in the Outer Hebrides. I use a 38 liter Osprey backpack which meets most international carry on standards. I wore my hiking shoes but packed lightweight sneakers and dress sandals. For warmth, layering is important. I pack a cashmere sweater (which can be dressed up), a packable down jacket (down alternative also works) and a waterproof rain jacket with hood. I also brought a wool hat and gloves and rain pants. All of that along with 5 changes of clothes fit in my bag with room for 3 liters of scotch on the way home. :-) My husband packs similarly but with the added addition of having to wear his suit coat on the plane and also managing a travel CPAP.

Posted by
122 posts

I haven't been to Scotland, but have been to Iceland in the winter several times with a carry-on only. I'm a woman, so my prospective may help your wife more than you. I do think it's possible to follow the RS checklist, with swaps appropriate for the conditions. For me, it's merino wool (smartwool) for tops, which can be lightweight and non-bulky in a suitcase. For my bottoms, I find that traveling with silk bottoms (similar to cuddleduds brand) under a pair of waterproof/wind resistant pants tends to keep me warm enough. I also rely on a packable down jacket with a lightweight rain jacket to go over the down when needed is enough to keep me warm in most situations. And because I can layer or not later depending on the weather, I'm good for a large temperature swing and most weather conditions.
I hope this helps, and that you have a great trip!

Posted by
2147 posts

I did the xmas markets in Europe Dec 2019 with carry-on only. I think a full length raincoat and/or rain pants are essential. The pants add warmth and dryness. Make sure your raincoat REALLY is waterproof, as it can really come down in Scotland, and I found an umbrella useless, so a raincoat with a secure hood is best. Also, use a waterproof spray on your shoes.

For the xmas markets, I had a long down winter coat, but for Scotland a packable down jacket under a raincoat should suffice.
Also for our winter trip, we really didn't need good clothes because we were outside for the xmas markets or exploring the small towns. I had a total of four outfits. I had thermal layers which absorbed any sweat , and were easy to sink wash.

So, absolutely, I've done the carry-on in cold climates. Safe travels!

Posted by
32 posts

I'm a one back-pack gal, no matter where I go/when: Iceland in Nov, Banff in Dec, Egypt in May. Having been to Scotland in June with RST (only a carry-on + purse): I highly recommend a packable coat. Yes-a real, live coat: lightweight but waterproof or heavily water-resistant. Leather / hiking shoes which are rain resistant, breathable for warmer days. Dress in layers: tees/polos/shirts that you can layer under a sweater (and that coat). I rarely pack more than 3 bottoms (slacks / women may want one of these to be a skirt) + 5 tops (ea. top matches w/ ea bottom) + 1-2 sweaters (wool/cashmere/fleece). Scotland is great! And you will be mucking in a bit of mud on the RST: sheep farm, historic sites. Have a great time!

Posted by
10120 posts

We have used the one bag approach — plus a day pack — for trips even in winter. Paris, Vienna, the Berner Oberland, London, and more. Layers, merino wool, a good coat or jacket, tights under my slacks, occasionally long merino underwear. For fall through winter travel my wardrobe is pretty much the same with a warmer coat when it is more wintry. We’ll be in the Alps and Dolomites soon. My typical outfit is long sleeve tee, light technical, and a light rain jacket. Waterproof shoes and gloves complete the ensemble.

Posted by
6470 posts

I always pack for light for warmth on each Fall or early Winter trip to the UK.

As noted fleece is your friend. My preference is the Land’s End brand. I also take capilene as a base layer in case it’s needed. Well worn waterproof jacket, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, gloves, scarf, Smart Wool brand socks and slouchie round out my daily attire. 2 pair KEEN shoes, black slip ons and the low cut Voyager for hiking.

It can be done.

Posted by
3789 posts

I was in Newfoundland in July a few years sgo. There was a heat wave and then it rained. Sideways. I didn't have waterproof pants and only one full pair of shoes....other footwear was sandals. Scotland can also rain sideways, so plan for that.
Do you ski? If so, then invest in merino wool base layers, or silk base layers for DW. Kim Allan is the Canadian online shop for the silk wear. When I say i vest, that is what I consider them when $100 a piece. MEC or Sail will also offer base layers. Buy on sale. If you sign up for the Kim Allan emails, you can be notified for their sales too. The also offer a long or short sleepwear that packs down to very small, so the extra space can go towards dry outerwear.
I also suggest one extra set of clothes than you think you need, to contend with clothes not drying in all depends on weather forecasts and frequency of moves.

Posted by
5262 posts

Oh boy, another packing discussion!

Wray is right about layers and extremities. For me, a hooded Goretex shell parka that reaches my knees (wish I could find something longer), lightweight down "puffer" jacket, watch cap with Thinsulate lining, and wool socks if I expect my feet to get wet. Waterproofing the shoes helps but not always. I just got some lighweight gloves that I might take to a place like Scotland or Jasper, but probably not in summer unless I expect to spend lots of time outdoors.

I haven't taken long johns (sorry, "base layer" is the au courant term) on a non-camping non-winter trip, but I might if I expected pants to get and stay wet. I wear fleece at home but it's a little heavy and bulky for pack-light travel.

For me the hat is key, not just because my remaining hair is inadequate. On a cold fall day in Madrid I wore the puffer jacket but left the watch cap in the hotel, regretting that a few hours later. Luckily a tour mate loaned me his baseball cap which helped just enough. Supposedly you lose 25% of body heat from an uncovered head. Not to mention the misery of a wet head, hence the hooded parka. Forget umbrellas.

Posted by
7991 posts

We had this problem packing for visits above the Arctic Circle and also for the major Scandinavian cities. We pack light and this worked perfectly. The answer was buying Ice Breaker brand merino layers, lightweight but warm. REI had them or they have their own store in NYC too.

Posted by
882 posts

When I was in Scotland in May, there was one day where people were wearing parkas, and I was wishing for one. So, something warm and waterproof gear will be essential, I think.

You've received a lot of good advice already. I'm going to Amsterdam and Italy (central and north-ish) in November, so I'm facing a similar packing plan. I'm expecting some days will be warm, but that when it's cold and rainy, I'll really feel it, as I always feel damp cold more.

I'm bringing a jacket that is a puffer-type on the torso with sweater-like, removable sleeves, and a removable hood and faux-fur collar. So, it can transform from a hooded puffer to a vest, with or without hood. Then, I purchased a travel pillow case, and I'm going to roll up the jacket lengthwise and stuff it into the pillowcase to make a travel pillow. (I've already tested this out, and it works well. I'll have room to squash a hat and gloves in there, too.) In addition, I'm bringing a good quality rain poncho that packs into its own pocket. I'm bringing water repellent ankle boots, and I'll wear these on the plane, and I'll also bring a pair of shoes that are also water resistant.

I'm bringing a couple of tank tops to layer with. Unfortunately, I can't wear wool, even merino, or else I'd definitely bring some items made with that, as others have suggested.

Good luck. Enjoy your trip.

(A fellow Calgarian.)

Posted by
21305 posts

I did 26 days in Scotland during July 2019. I think I may have been a bit lucky with the temperature, but I ran into a fair amount or rain, and it tends to cool off a lot if it rains most of the day. That trip had begun in early April in northern Andalucia, and that's where I encountered the coldest wet days. Thinking about Scotland (and knowing I'm very cold-natured) I had packed a pair of merino wool long johns and a pair of polypropylene long johns. On the few days I expected it to be chilly and very wet, I wore both those base layers under a pair of 97% nylon slacks. The latter are not rain pants, but they shed water fairly well. Those in conjunction with the long johns kept me from getting chilled to the bone. Companies making those nylon slacks for women include PrAna, Eddie Bauer and Columbia. The latter companies probably have a men's equivalent. My Columbia slacks are a bit thinner and might not be as warm. They also run just a bit smaller.

I don't know that there's a good solution for feet other than boots that extend well above the ankle. I had waterproof shoes, but rain running down my pants got my socks wet, so my feet did end up wet. If it had been colder, that would have been more of an issue. As it was, it was just an annoyance. I took the inner soles out and the shoes dried overnight.

Posted by
3713 posts

I've found that packing light for cooler and wetter climates than Tucson is just as easy as for warmer ones. Like in the past, my carry-on 2-wheeled roller bag for my next trip will either be my "big" one (22x14x9, 41 liters), my International one (20.25x14x8, 36 liters) or my new European-sized one (19.5x16x8, 38 liters). I'll keep the full weight down to about 20 pounds.

Sometimes the trick of packing light has more to do with the shape of the bag and how the packing is done than with the bag's capacity. And, of course, with planning to wear some things more than once and doing laundry along the way.

I think layers are better and more versatile than "thicker clothing." Include at least one thin wool top if you can tolerate it. Fleece if you're like me and can't.

Take something for rain, preferably with a hood. Include a watch cap for when it isn't raining or if the fleece lacks a hood. Also include a pair of gloves, and a scarf or 2.

Lightweight long underwear bottoms combine well with lightweight, easy wash and hang to dry pants for added warmth. A light long underwear top under any other top adds warmth and stretches the utility of that top.

For me, breathable waterproof boots and socks that will help keep my feet dry and warm are essential, especially since I wear them all day, everyday on my trips. Many recommend Smartwool socks. I like Sockwell medium compression ones.

So the items I listed were base layers and outer ones, but nothing in-between. The reason for that is an amusing story on the forum from years ago.

The OP was very concerned about how she pulled her travel wardrobe together and wanted everything just right. When she looked at her pictures at the end of the trip, she realized that in almost every one, she was wearing the same coat, scarf and hat. The lesson I learned from that was to pay a bit more attention to my outerwear when I travel where I'll spend a lot of time in it.

In 2016 I did a 6-week trip to England and Scotland from May 1 to mid-June. I did have and used all the types of garments listed above, but it was much colder than I expected. I didn't have a fleece top of any kind and that would've made all the difference. I think a puffer jacket would've been overkill.

I'm planning a 5-week trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales for next summer. I've been monitoring the weather for Dublin, Belfast and Cardiff. The temperatures in all 3 have been running from mid-50s lows to mid-60s highs with rain on most days.

Of course I'll check for historical data, and for current weather before packing, but I'll probably be packing the same layers I listed above. There's plenty of time to work out my typical in-betweens of 8 or fewer tops and 3 bottoms, including what I wear on the plane. I'm not a "2 neutral colors and an accent one" kind of person. I tend to use a scarf or a picture for my inspiration. Like this scarf. Or this picture.

Posted by
5648 posts

Fleece is a friend, as noted above, and so is down. A little dan go a long way, and there are thinner down garments, and puffier, Michelin Man versions. Both are light, but the thinner, more packable jackets or coats are far less bulky. Still, for Iceland, I was able to cram a seriously expedition worthy coat into a small stuff sack m, with a lot of squishing and poking. A down jacket can be re-proofed by slapping it several times, as it reinflates.

Whatever you do, if your single carry-on bag is about filled to its limit, wear your jacket aboard the plane. Drape it over your arm as you go through the airport and onto the plane, if it’s too warm to wear, but you can then stuff it in the overhead bin, loose, and it’s not taking up space in your bag. You can even stash small items in the pockets, giving you additional storage capacity.

Wool’s a warm friend, too, but can often be bulky. Scotland’s also a fabulous place to buy a wool sweater. They do have a few sheep there.

Posted by
5706 posts

Why try to squeeze stuff into a small bag? Do what the Brits would do going to similar climates and take a bigger checked bag so you don’t have the dilemma of what to leave behind. You would be unlucky in June if you need ear muffs, scarves and gloves in Scotland.

You need 2 pairs of waterproof shoes plus a pair of sandals. I was in Scotland this June and we had a wide range of temperatures, but as it was the driest June on record, little rain. It was still cool enough most days to need a light fleece during the day (12-15 degrees) but plenty sunscreen, even though London was roasting in 30 + degrees at the time.

Posted by
2414 posts

Do what the Brits would do going to similar climates and take a
bigger checked bag so you don’t have the dilemma of what to leave
behind. You would be unlucky in June if you need ear muffs, scarves
and gloves in Scotland.

We're not opposed to that, but we have discovered as we're travelling place to place and hauling luggage with us that the RS method makes sense. That's why we're experimenting with small luggage on our current trip even though we don't really need to. On Monday in Banff it was 31C (88F), today it's currently 6C (43F) and raining. Luckily around here we're used to packing for all climates, but not used to squeezing it into a small suitcase.

Good tips on the layers and brands. My 1st choice for winter and summer, wet and dry, is Eddie Bauer.

Wendy, the smoke has been terrible. We couldn't even see the mountains on Sunday and we'd get back to our hotel smelling like a campfire.

Posted by
3789 posts

I don't have direct experience but if you are planning rural activities, learn about midges. They bite and swarm. It might define long sleeves that can roll up, or need to pack bug spray. Some take hats with head nets. No fashion statement but might help keep sanity.

Posted by
2414 posts

We were just discussing midges today. Does a DEET based bug spray work on them?

Posted by
381 posts

Former Rick Steves’ guide and packing guru Sarah Murdoch did a Facebook live presentation last night on packing for different climates. She’s leaving Wednesday to lead consecutive tours in Italy, Sicily and then Iceland. She had a Cotopaxi backpack weighing 20 lbs plus a Tom Bhin day bag, with everything she’s taking for the month. Some great tips about packing in general (layers!). If you’re on Facebook you can find her at Adventures with Sarah.

Posted by
7701 posts

Dick and Lo — what is a “watch cap?” I am intrigued

Posted by
99 posts

I can think of worse places than Scotland to be forced to buy a sweater, should the weather prove cooler than anticipated!

Posted by
6795 posts

Allan, consider that you will be wearing much of the heavier layers instead of carrying it your luggage. I'll wear my jacket and/or sweaters on the plane; will fit jammed under the seat if I take it off, or works as a pillow. I think the key is to just take one of things like sweaters, not multiple. Fewer pants/shirts since you wont be sweating as much. And we've occasionally bought cheap layers or gloves when we get there, when necessary. Checking a bag is not a sin, and sometimes bigger people need bigger clothes anyway.

Kim, we call them knit caps around here, and I think they call them toques in Canada. The ubiquitous soft cap worn by stereotypical burglars, skiers, and sailors on the night "watch".

Posted by
9917 posts

@ Lo!! I LOVE that scarf! Has more orange in it than I like but I am very attracted to it. What a great piece around which to build a fall capsule wardrobe!

@ Kim - A Watch cap is a knitted (or crocheted) pull on hat, good for standing watch on a ship or otherwise on military duty or participating in activities in the cold. Also known as a beanie, skully, skullcap, toboggan (I've heard that is a Southern term but I also grew up in OK and we did not use it).

Allan. I'm pretty cold tolerant but I really appreciated having lightweight Smartwool glove liners while going out to Iona in the driving rain one June.

I've converted my winter wardrobe to being a long-sleeve Drifit shirt (packs down small) with a puffy vest with a rain layer. That will be too much for Scotland in June but the Drifit shirt and rain layer will be essential.

Posted by
38 posts

Fleece and a rain jacket (separate/ together) can get you through an amazing range of weather. I spent 10 days in Ireland & from the picks you would think I never changed clothes! Alternated 2 pairs of jeans, same fleece every day, and a clean T shirt every day saw I always felt clean.

I am now hooked on wool (Woolx is my favorite). Wore a Woolx T from US to Brazil (hot and cold on plane, steamy upon arrival) washed it out in the sink, rolled in towel, and it was all dry & fresh again the next day! Now I'm planning 2 weeks in Italy in a rollaboard and sling bag.

Posted by
2414 posts

Back from my trip and I know we can do it. Lowest temperature we faced as we walked out the door one morning was 1 degree celsius (34F), and warmest fternoon was 33C (92F), heavy rain, light rain, sunshine, and days where the sun was blocked out by the forest fires in BC.

As many of you pointed out, layers are the key. My concern was packing a heavy fleece layer, but some of the clothing I picked out for this trip will work comfortably and warmly in multi thin layers that will pack easily in a small backpack for day trips.

Posted by
342 posts

From a lightweight backpacker's perspective, fleece is much heavier and bulkier than a puffy for the same warmth. I stopped travelling with fleece 20 years ago.

Posted by
7701 posts

Aha ! The watch cap. Thanks, Stan and Pam (love the burglars and skiers comment.)

I guess I almost took a watch cap with my on my Norway trip. I took a wool pullover hat but not with the rollback rim. I hardly had need of it, but the morning I had to wait 3 hours in the chilly gloom of a Gudvangen morning — and come to think of it, on the ferry too — I was extremely happy to have it.

And Pam — I had no idea you had grown up in Oklahoma !

To the person who thinks they may end up with some warm weather in Amsterdam and northern Italy in November . . . I would be surprised, but I guess you could get lucky

I'm going to Amsterdam and Italy (central and north-ish) in November, so I'm facing a similar packing plan. I'm expecting some days will be warm,

Posted by
5151 posts

Kim, have you not figured out by now that almost everyone has an Oklahoma tie? I have ceased being amazed by the people who respond to a post or PM me, who know where Sapulpa is. One person with whom we have traveled (Lo?) said her family used to come through here regularly, on their way to visit another relative.

And a month or so ago, I had a PM from someone who was born in Drumright, and whose cousin is a prominent businessman here in Sapulpa, and is a friend of my brother.

Back to the topic: Some years ago we did the Best of London in mid-February, and used the same smallish backpacks we always use. I think the only modifications I made were to take one pair of heavier pants (corduroy jeans) to replace one of the lightweight pair of pants I normally take, and to pack my silk long undies. I didn't take a coat, but I did (as usual) pack a cardigan and a windbreaker. So I would go out in my heavier pants, with silk undies. On top I had the silkies; a long-sleeved top; my cardigan, zipped up; and the windbreaker (which I had sprayed with something to make it water-resistant) as a final layer. I don't recall ever being very uncomfortable, even though I hate hate being cold.

I cannot for the life of me remember what kind of hat I had.

One reason we just modified our normal packing list was, after the London tour, we headed off to Palermo to join the Best of Sicily tour! So most of our medium or light-weight clothes were still needed. And a straw hat for that part of the trip.