My first venture into minimalist travel was November time, in part because this is one of the cheapest times to fly and I didn’t have much money. This also meant that I was looking for somewhere that was cheap to fly to, with low living costs. Being from the UK, the best I could find was a £20 ($25) return flight to Poland. As you can imagine, Poland in November is not the warmest place in the world. In the tropics, you need little more than a pair of beach shorts and a tank top, but in Poland, it was going to be much more difficult to keep all my packing down to a carry-on.
In the end, I ended up fitting everything into a 22-liter bag. With just one change of underwear and a spare T-shirt, I realized that it wasn’t as difficult as expected. There are just four factors to consider: size/weight, odor-resistance, frequency of washing, and drying time. For instance, bulky outerwear can be replaced by thin base layers, focusing on synthetic materials or merino wool. These weigh next to nothing, pack up small, are antibacterial so they don’t pick up smells or need frequent washing and dry quickly on the occasions when you do wash them.
If you are brave enough to bring just one spare pair of underwear, then choose something that can easily be washed every day or (in a worst-case scenario) worn for multiple consecutive days. Even if, like me, you are on a budget, being ultra-minimalist allows you to invest in the products that make it easy to survive cold climates with a limited wardrobe. Here are the top things to consider when packing base layers, outerwear, and accessories.
All About Those Base Layers
To slightly misquote Meghan Trainor, I’m all about that base. If you don’t already travel with thermal base layer clothing, then you won’t know that they are a complete game changer. Heat is lost from the body, so you need to be able to retain this as much as possible and a good thermal T-shirt or pair of leggings does this better than outerwear because it is right up against your body. Sock and glove liners can also add a crucial extra layer of insulation.
Furthermore, the base layers are thin and compressible, so they take up very little space in your bag. While you may only be able to fit one spare sweater or jacket, it is possible to fit several base layers in your backpack and barely notice they’re there. Often made of a thin yet durable material like polyester, this type of clothing offers the most value for space you can find.
There are even more benefits than their small size and high level of warmth, though. Most base layers are made by sports or outdoor companies, meaning that they wick away sweat and are odor-resistant. Using materials like elastine and merino wool, base layers tend not to pick up smells, despite being right up against your sweaty bits, so you can wear them for longer between washes. If the weather picks up or you are being particularly active, this sweat wicking process will also help to prevent overheating.
Even when they do become a bit wiffy, they have done so by protecting your mid and outer layers. This drastically cuts down the need to wash T-shirts, leaving you instead to sink wash just your base layers and underwear. Fortunately, the same material that makes these clothes odor resistant and lightweight also means that they dry quickly. Realistically, you could get by with just one thermal baselayer. Sink wash it before bed, wring out the excess moisture in a towel, and by the time you wake up, it should be completely dry and good to wear.
Invest in the Best Quality Outerwear
By owning half as much stuff, you are able to spend twice as much on the things you do own. Outdoor clothing and equipment can be expensive, but when you consider that it lasts far longer and that you are buying less items overall, it actually works out costing about the same. For my trip to Poland in winter, I brought along the Patagonia Nano Air jacket. This is a high end coat, but it packs in maximum warmth and water resistance, while being lightweight and extremely thin. This means that it was easy to stuff at the bottom of a 22 liter backpack when the weather was warm enough to go without.
Similarly, I had just one hoody and it was from the North Face. For most of your duration in a cold climate, you will be wearing bulky outer layers like hoodies and jackets, so bringing just one of each frees up a ton of space in your bag. Having said that, this particular clothing item, despite it’s incredible warmth, could fold up nice and thinly when storage was required.
These outerwear items should be largely protected from odor by your underlayers, so washing will be infrequent (does anyone ever really wash coats?). This is especially true when wearing high quality performance gear. If you’ve got protective longjohns on, then jeans can easily go a good two weeks or more without needing to be washed. Tracksuit bottoms also make a good warm underlayer and can then be worn while you lounge around your accommodation waiting for your jeans and hoody to be washed and dried.
Much of your warm clothing won’t need to go in the bag, meaning that you can bring the warmest accessories without worry. Nevertheless, choose high performance lightweight gloves and a thin beanie over a fluffy bobble hat, for those times when you are indoors and want a place to store these items. Just one thick pair of thermal socks can be worn for several days in a row due to a thin liner sock, which both adds much needed heat and protects the outer layer from sweat. A breathable, yet insulated boot is also essential, especially if there is any snow on the ground.
One part of minimalist travel that I haven’t gone into here is color. Dark neutral clothing makes it easier to mix and match between limited outfits, while hiding those unsightly dirty stains. It will also be less obvious that you are wearing the same outfit each day, if that’s something you’re self-conscious about. However, accessories are a chance to inject some color and personality into your outfit. A bright red scarf, stripey hat, or pink fluffy socks will help you to elevate your style and bring a little more joy to your trip.
Ultra-minimalism can seem daunting, but once you try it, you will find it liberating. You can make it easier on yourself with some forward planning, choosing the highest quality travel clothing which can be worn multiple times in a row, then washed and dried quickly. Find the thinnest and most lightweight hoody and coat that you can, but remember that you only really need one of each, which will be on your body the majority of the time. Focus your attention on thermal base layers and let your accessories inject some personality and fashion sense into your image. With some forethought and investment in the best items you can afford, minimalism for cold climates can be easy and enjoyable.