A Guide On What To Pack For Subzero Temperatures

I’m not a fan of the cold. But chasing the northern lights has been on my list for so long. I came close in Finland but that still didn’t happen. So I headed to Yellowknife, Canada for a second attempt. For this trip, I fit everything I needed for 5 days in 1 carry-on suitcase and a backpack. In this blog, I’ll share with you how I managed that.

Base Layer

Let’s start with the first layer, the one that touches your skin.

Choose items that are breathable and skin tight (but still comfortable). I chose moisture-wicking gym clothes: leggings and fitted tops. This is because moisture (your sweat) amplifies the cold. The easiest way to get sick is to get wet in the cold. So make sure you’re not drenched in your own sweat under the parka!

You can invest in merino wool base layer items because the material is soft, helps regulate body temperature and absorbs moisture well. I’m personally not a fan because even though it’s softer than regular wool, it still feels itchy on my skin. And it can be pricy!

Avoid cotton and silk-like materials! Although these materials are breathable, they don’t keep you warm. I made the bad decision to wear a cotton hoodie during my trip to Ireland and I could feel the cold through it on night walks even when it wasn’t subzero. Needless to say, I learned my lesson from that.

I also brought some thermal base layer tops made from polyester. You can find some made by Patagonia or Eddie Bauer.

For the base layer, I packed 2 thermal tops, 2 gym leggings, a gym t-shirt and 3 sports bras

Quick tip: take your trip’s number of days and divide in half. That should be the quantity for each of your base layer items (i.e. 5 days trip, 2-3 thermal tops). Just re-wear your clothes and do laundry if you have to.

Mid-Layers

The reason you want to have puffy layers is because the air trapped within those layers is what gives you warmth. There are 2 materials you can choose from.

First: fleece. I love fleece! It’s relatively lightweight, thick, and it dries up pretty quickly. I wore fleece-lined leggings and a fleece hoodie on top of the gym clothes. It’s the perfect mid-layer for outdoor activities like winter hike or cross-country skiing because it’s light.

This is my go-to fleece hoodie (with hidden hood) for hiking. In the fall or late summer, I would only wear this over a gym tank top

Second: wool. Wool is a great choice for the mid-layer if you don’t like synthetic materials. It’s also thick but can be heavier than fleece and doesn’t dry as quickly. I packed 2 wool sweaters, but only needed one.

Nothing stops you from layering a coat under another coat! I want to stay warm, but I also want to be conscious of my finances and my impact on the environment. So I didn’t want to invest thousands of dollars in a Canada Goose parka when I still have one in good condition that’s enough for me for the Ottawa (Canada) weather. Instead, I packed a light down-filled jacket that I used as my mid-layer underneath the parka. For hikes, I even ditched the parka in the car and only had this jacket as my outer layer.

Quick tip: again, take the number that is half of your trip’s length. That’s the total number of mid-layer items you should bring. Your mid-layer doesn’t absorb sweat and isn’t exposed to the elements, it’s the one that’s less likely to get dirty and should be reworn the most.

Outer Layer

Think about renting

Before we move on to the last layer, a quick piece of advice: if you’re from a tropical place and only ever need these items for this once-in-a-lifetime trip, then save money (and the planet!) by only renting the clothes and equipment you need. There are many places in Yellowknife where you can rent winter outerwear and pay a daily rate. Here’s a good list of companies you can contact.

Do your research and book ahead to reserve the outerwear you’ll need. Because I live in Ottawa, Canada, and our winters can be very harsh, I already have the things I need for this trip.

What I packed
This is what I wear when going on a windy hilltop or aurora hunting

For your down-filled parka, make sure it meets the following requirements:

  • It’s windproof. Because otherwise, you can feel the cold through your layers.
  • It’s water resistant or even waterproof. So if you fall in the snow, it doesn’t soak through and make your coat filling lose its puffy volume.
  • It has a hood that will protect your head from the wind.

On top of my 2 layers of leggings, I added a pair of snow pants. This is something that rental companies offer. Same concept as the parka, bring something that is waterproof, windproof, and has great insulation. If you decide to slide down on snow or ice, you won’t feel it!

Quick tip: wear what you can’t pack! I packed my snow pants in my suitcase but wore my parka on the plane with me.

Keep Your Extremities Warm

Your hands

Because I wanted to maintain a certain level of dexterity to handle my camera, for most of my trip, I only wore 1 pair of fleece gloves that were touchscreen compatible.

But you can layer even more on top. The rule of thumb is mittens are better than gloves. If where you are doesn’t sell such things, this is a small-enough investment that’s worth buying once you’re there. In Yellowknife, I would recommend Weaver & Devore Trading or Overlander, stores specialized in winter gears.

I didn’t have waterproof mittens so I brought a pair of ski gloves instead. They are waterproof and have super thick padding. I only used them once at the end of one of my hikes when I started losing feeling in my fingers.

If your hands are cold, insert some hand warmers inside your gloves. If you’re ok with non-vegan options, I would recommend a natural and reusable option like the ones from this local, sustainable and Indigenous business: Aurora Heat.

Your feet

This was a tricky one for me and no matter what I tried, my toes were always frozen after a certain amount of time, even though my winter boots have good insulation. Here are the things I tried:

Heat socks have brushed interior on the inside which is supposed to give extra warmth
  • Heat socks on top of base layer socks. They are thick and work well for a little while, but not enough for a couple of hours aurora hunting.
  • Layering wool socks on top of regular running socks. The issue here was that my base layer socks weren’t as moisture-wicking as I thought.
  • Natural, reusable foot warmers from Aurora Heat. This works pretty well for the top of your feet, but I found that it was the sole of my feet that were getting cold the fastest.
  • Sheepskin insoles. I found these at Weaver & Devore Trading in Old Town, Yellowknife. This kept my toes from freezing for the longest time.

Note: I always buy winter boots half- or full-size bigger than my regular shoe size to make room for thick socks and insoles.

Your head and face
The ski mask I wore

A toque (or elsewhere in the world, a “beanie”) should be enough for your head and when needed, just pull up the hood of your coat to add some extra protection from the wind.

You will need a scarf, a neck gaiter or a ski mask to protect your cheeks from cold burns.

Quick tip: best way to stay warm is to keep moving (hike, ski or walk). Once you get the blood circulation going, everything will warm up. So stay active!

Small Things That Will Make Your Life Easier

Lotions and lip balm

Keep your skin moisturized. Carry some lotion in your backpack for your hands during the day. Dry skin can be itchy, and extreme dry skin can crack and be painful. So take care and reapply lotion as often as needed. Same goes for lip balm if you don’t want chapped lips.

Sunglasses

Snow blindness is real! That’s when your eyes have been exposed to UV light reflected in ice or snow for too long. If you want extra protection, opt for ski goggles.

Sunscreen

Same thing as your eyes, protect your skin from UV rays too. You don’t need a lot, just on your face if you’re not wearing a ski mask or neck gaiter all the time.

Besides this list, I had my other travel essentials, all fit in a carry-on suitcase. All my camera gear was in my backpack.

Winter packing can be surprisingly simple and light: the tip is to not over pack and re-wear your clothes!

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