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How to pack a light, carry-on bag for your next winter vacation.

Travelling light in winter requires a carefully thought through winter travel capsule wardrobe. This post is jam-packed with packing tips, so your bag stays light!

We've just been away for ten days in the South Island of New Zealand. With temperatures ranging from 2 to 15 degrees Celsius (that's 35 - 60F), I needed to be prepared for anything the weather-gods threw at me, but I still wanted to pack a light carry-on bag. 

I flew with six kilos of gear - so how did I do it?

There are no affiliates in this post. Brands I mention and link to are the ones I use and love.

Our winter destination of Lake Tekapo, Queenstown and Central Otago, New Zealand.

What's the one question you ask before packing?


It is crucial to think about what you plan to do while you are away.

Are you sightseeing? Hiking? Skiing? Dancing? Night clubbing? Fine or casual dining? Biking?

Thinking about what you plan to do will help you focus on what you need to pack. As you start going through your wardrobe, make sure you've got these activities covered.

Hiking near Lake Tekapo. Packing for changeable weather conditions.

Pack clothing you can layer to keep warm in winter.

Layering clothes is another crucial key to keeping your carry-on bag light. Merino or thermal clothing keeps heat in and has odour-reducing qualities, meaning they don't need washing after every wear. 

Packing clothes that mix and match helps to keep all those layers coordinated and working well together.

Under my shirt and jacket are THREE merino layers! And under that scarf is a merino neck buff.

Picking the best shoes for winter.

The best travel shoes are the ones you are comfortable in and do the job you require them to do. 

I ended up packing two pairs of boots. A dressy pair that were great for at night and around town, and a pair of waterproof Teva's. (These ones are over 5 years old, so no longer stocked.) It didn't stop them getting muddy from our hikes, but my feet were always warm in them.

Oops! Pleased I took two pairs of boots. Once dry, these brushed clean.

Wear your heaviest and bulkiest clothing on flights.

Heavy and bulky clothing take up a lot of space and weight in your carry-on bag.

My heaviest items were a jean jacket, jeans and my hiking boots, so they got worn on the plane. 

Titrate toiletries.

Reduce the amount of toiletries you pack by swapping liquid toiletries to solid toiletries. Think...

  • Toothpaste tablets
  • Shampoo & conditioner bars (like from Ethique)
  • Deodorant sticks (yep, like from Ethique)
  • Moisturiser bars (again, from Ethique) ... I'm a bit of a fan of these guys.

I've got a whole blogpost on how to pack light with toiletries and cosmetics. You can read it here.

Can you spy my small toiletry bag? I measured out how much I needed for ten days away.

What if you find you've left something behind?

This happens to the best of us. Don't let it ruin your holiday. Here's a few tips I've used. 

Borrow it - If staying with friends and family, they're usually happy to give you extra layers. Many hotels and Airbnb's have complimentary umbrellas. Just ask.

Hire it - So you decide that the snow looks too tempting, but you didn't pack any snow gear? There are always places to hire outdoor equipment. 

Op shop - Op shops, second-hand clothing stores, or recycled boutiques - these are a great option to pick up some extra layers at a fraction of the price. 

Don't forget to pack those extra winter essentials.

When I went to Europe, I didn't pack an umbrella. I did pack a fairly flimsy rain poncho that became like clingfilm in the rain and wind. For this trip I left my raincoat behind, but packed my umbrella. I was prepared to take the chance that any rain could be managed by my trusty travel brollie.

It got put to great use on a couple of walks, and was the difference between feeling miserable, and feeling great!

For the flight home, it was tucked into the side pocket of my carry-on daybag. I was so glad I did. We landed at Hamilton airport in torrential rain. I was the only one not moaning about the rain as we walked across the tarmac to the airport terminal.

One packed umbrella and one borrowed. Made this two-hour walk in the rain so much more comfortable.

'Scrambling down the bank' gear! The things I do for a pic! Can you believe the colour of that water on such a gloomy day?!

Here's what I packed in my winter travel capsule wardrobe.

✈️ = flight clothes

  • Jeans ✈️
  • Denim jacket✈️
  • Merino long sleeve✈️
  • Merino tee✈️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Hiking boots + socks✈️
  • Linen shirt✈️
  • Scarf✈️
  • Merino leggings
  • Hiking pants
  • A long dress
  • Smart ankle boots
  • Stockings 
  • Socks
  • Merino cardigan
  • Puffer jacket
  • Another linen shirt
  • Merino tunic
  • Neck buff
  • Merino gloves 
  • Merino underwear
  • Umbrella

⭐️⭐️⭐️ the star of the wardrobe was the simple Merino Country tee. It was my base layer. Everything else went on top of it and got no odour. 

Most days I would wear ...

• the merino tee

• the long sleeved tee

• the merino tunic

• a linen shirt over everything 

• and then one of my jackets or the merino cardigan.

And I didn't feel all bulked-up or restricted by the layers. 

For dinners I wore the tee shirt + long sleeved tee under the dress with my denim jacket on top, my scarf, stockings and smart boots. 

I hung the merino tee up every night to air it. Nothing special. By morning it was ready to wear - no smells. 

That huge list above...looks like this in reality.

Don't pack what will already be provided at your accomodation.

It's very easy to check what is provided where you are staying before you leave home. 

It's highly unlikely you'll need to pack towels and face cloths, a hairdryer, shampoo, body wash, iron, coffee maker, etc.

Sometimes a short call or email  to check what is available in your room or from reception, is all it takes to realise you can leave something at home.

Handwashing reduces the amount of clothing you need to carry.

I washed my jeans once when my husband did a load of washing. 

I didn't wash my merino socks at all. 

I hand-washed my merino underwear and it dried overnight easily.

If you can hand wash your clothes - and we're only talking two or three items - not a washer load, then you can travel for a very long time on a reduced travel capsule wardrobe.

Stunning views towards Ben Lomond above the gondola in Queenstown, NZ

But Katherine, that's not extreme winter conditions you travelled in...

Ok, so New Zealand winters aren't as severe as other countries - but our weather can still be deadly.

Borrowing or hiring critical outdoor gear are the main ways of getting around the issue. 

BUT...if you need to pack this big stuff, and there are no alternatives...just pack it. There's no shame in checking a bag in, and there's certainly no shame in being safe and warm.

You do what works for you! 

Are you keen to try and pack a light carry-on bag for your next winter vacation?

If a carry-on bag seems daunting to you, start with an easier or more achievable goal...

  • Try packing four pairs of shoes instead of six.
  • Take only the amount of toiletries you need for the days you are away.
  • Try to reduce your bag weight by five kilos or eleven pounds.

Small steps to change will help you realise that you can travel with a lighter bag, that's easier on your body (less struggling), and easier on your budget (less luggage fees).

Personally, I love the simplicity of travelling with less. I love the ease of getting on and off flights and having no luggage delays, and no lost luggage. 

I also love not having so many clothing options - it takes away the decision fatigue! 

But as always, practice what you plan to pack before you go. 

  • Will it cover all those occasions? 
  • Do you feel comfortable and happy in the different outfit combinations? 
  • Have you doubled up on anything?

Need more inspiration?

Check out my friend Laureen's blog on packing a carry-on bag and capsule wardrobe for their three-week trip in England, France and the US. It's a great read.

Goodluck with your travel planning.

Katherine xo


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