When we first started planning a December trip to Tromsø (with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights), we had to decide whether we’d return to the UK for the holidays or keep travelling around Europe.
After looking at a few destination options and costs, we decided to spend 4 nights, 5 days in Tromsø, and then head to Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest before venturing back to the UK for Hogmanay in Edinburgh. In total, we were looking at just over two weeks of travel.
To get the best deals on our airfare, we booked everything as hand luggage. Read: One carry-on bag.
Bold move considering how cold Europe can be in winter, and that we were headed to the arctic circle. And, considering that hand luggage in Europe is much smaller than in the States- this is the suitcase I used for the duration of our trip.
What you pack for any trip should depend first and foremost on the weather and then, account for the kinds of activities you plan on doing.
In Norway, we knew it’d be 20-30 Fahrenheit (Tromsø is near the coast and has a relatively mild climate), and in other places, 40-50 Fahrenheit.
Activity wise, in Norway, we planned on walking around the city, going on a reindeer excursion (indoor/outdoor), cross-country skiing and hunting for the Northern Lights. And, in our other destinations, we planned on walking around the cities, but knew it’d be easy to pop into places to warm up if we needed a break from the cold.
Packing for the arctic circle can be tricky in its own right- there aren’t really a ton of shops in Tromsø to buy things if you forget them (and, at the shops that do exist, things are outrageously expensive with the currency conversion).
How’d we manage it?
We each packed a few outfits that would easily layer and resolved to do laundry at our hotels in more budget friendly destinations (hi, Vienna + Budapest).
One last complication: We wanted to do as much of the trip as possible on a budget, which meant trying to find affordable, warm clothing.
Uniqlo to the rescue!
The majority of what we packed was from Uniqlo. We were so genuinely pleased with how great everything we bought worked out.
Two Weeks of Winter Travel in Europe in Hand Luggage
Very warm jacket: This jacket was a last minute purchase and the best thing I brought. It’s insanely warm, water resistant, has inside and outer pockets, and bonus- the outer pockets are lined with fleece so they keep hands toasty. Yes, it’s Mens. I couldn’t find any as durable in Womans (inventory was sparse), but given how puffy jackets like this are and how much layering I ended up doing, M/F really didn’t matter.
Lightweight down vest: A must for layering. Most days, I wore 1-2 base layers, this vest and the jacket and was so warm (in a good way) wherever we went.
Sorrel winter boots: Bring a pair of boots you’ve broken in that are roomy enough to layer multiple socks. I bought ones similar to these years ago when I lived in New York City, and was happy with how great traction was in snow.
Two pairs of of wool socks: Mine were similar to this- stretched to the knee, thick and with a cute pattern. On really cold days, I wore HeatTech socks, wool socks and then leg warmers on top of all of it.
Uniqlo HeatTech everything – leggings, tank tops, turtlenecks, crew necks, fleece pull-over, leg warmers, socks: The Uniqlo HeatTech line is amazing. Everything I bought kept me warm the entire trip. Most of what I purchased was from the Extra or Ultra warm lines. Not sponsored, just a huge fan.
Long, heavy cardigan: I brought one I’d bought from Asos a while ago that was duster length (extra long) and thick.
Thick yoga pants (2 pairs): When everyone told me not to bring jeans, I almost rejoiced. A holiday where I can justify yoga pants? Sign me up. Jeans simply aren’t stretchable enough to be layered the way you’ll need to do things if you’re in the arctic or spending entire days walking around European cities in the midst of winter. Instead, I brought two pairs of thick yoga pants to layer over my HeatTech leggings, which worked out great.
Black walking trainers: Essential for cities like Vienna/Bratislava/Budapest and Edinburgh where it’s cold, but not cold enough to warrant walking around in full-on snow boots. Boost remain my favourite basic black trainers.
Fleece black hat and fleece headband: Purchased both from a sporting goods store in the ski section. Both were great in keeping my ears/head warm. Most days, I wore the black hat and only used the headband if we’d be outside for long stretch of time.
Long and thick black wool scarf: A basic winter ware item I picked up for this season in London and ended up bringing on the trip in case I needed the extra warmth. Spoiler: I did.
A few pairs of gloves: I brought mammoth, insulated ski gloves and cheap, thin cotton gloves. Everyone actually recommends you bring mittens so your fingers aren’t separated, but I missed that memo. Turned out wearing the thin cotton gloves with the thick ski ones on top worked perfectly fine.
HotHands: These are great, I brought 6 pairs but only used 2 of them – the night we went to hunt for the Northern Lights. Other times, I was content with how warm I was.
Assortment of other things for the trip, e.g. two sets of pyjamas, regular socks, underwear, jewellery, toiletries, chargers, typical travel must-haves (medicine, band-aids, etc.), back-up batteries, Kindle, laptop, small purse, a selection of my favourite teas, and a few snack essentials (Lara bars, raw almonds).
We didn’t pack snow suits/snow pants, and were fine in the arctic. We were able to rent snow pants when we went cross-country skiing, and during our Northern Lights hunt, the tour company insisted we wear their industrial strength snow suits and winter boots. We were outside for 5+ hours and I never once really felt cold- awesome!
Fitting everything into a carry-on was tough, but with rolling clothes and organising in packing cubes, we managed. Laundry at two of our hotels was a key part of being able to fit everything into hand luggage. And, as always, everything I brought was black/neutral, which made layering a cinch.
Have you ever been to the arctic circle, or travelled around Europe in winter? What would you recommend visitors pack?
Hand luggage image credit: here.
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