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How to Pack for Cold, Rainy Weather

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London’s rainy weather is legendary, but the key to enjoying it is smart packing.

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London’s rainy weather is legendary, but the key to enjoying it is smart packing.

Whether you’re headed to a notoriously damp destination or simply traveling during the rainy season, a soggy pair of shoes or a soaked sweater can turn a good trip miserable, and fast. Here’s what to bring along to stay warm, dry, and comfortable.

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If I come across another preachy packing list for rainy destinations that reads like a lecture from my mother, I’ll scream. Like loud button-down shirts and socks with sandals, the cheap rain ponchos most lists recommend will brand anyone a “tourist.” And if you manage to fit the suggested rain boots, umbrella, and rain pants into your carry-on, there’s a chance you won’t have room for any other clothing. 

Savvy travelers need to pack efficiently, especially when visiting places where the weather can be fickle. You don’t want to be stuck in jeans and a wool sweater during a rainy afternoon stroll in Ireland, or suffocating in Gore-Tex and rubber boots when the sun comes out in Portland, but you also don’t want to overpack. The key is to rely on the kinds of clothes that do double duty and a sophisticated system of waterproof pouches. Here’s what you need to know:

 

Go with a hard-shell suitcase

AFAR’s love for hard-shell suitcases is well-documented, but the style is even more important in the rain. A hard-shell suitcase such as Away’s the Bigger Carry-On will hold up in the mad dash from the airport doors to your taxi and fend off splashes when you’re rolling along a sidewalk to your hotel. Soft-shell suitcases will usually protect your clothes in similar situations, but their fabric exteriors absorb and hold in moisture, which, if your bag gets wet repeatedly over the course of your trip, can lead to a general dampness inside. And no one wants that. Note that most hard-shell suitcases don’t have waterproof zippers, so even these won’t keep out every drop if left in a deluge.

Buy Now: Away the Bigger Carry-On, $245, awaytravel.com

Of course, there are those who prefer to shoulder their bags. If you’re one of those, please choose a waterproof or water-resistant backpack. Unless you’re backpacking through rain on an extended trek, you shouldn’t worry about fumbling for a rainproof cover, especially not when there are so many great waterproof options available that also fit in the overhead bin.

A wool sweater might be the perfect pick while you’re cozied up in an Irish pub, but it’ll end up waterlogged if you don’t throw a jacket over it for your visit to the Cliffs of Mohr.

Umbrella or no?

I categorically refuse to pack an umbrella. Even a compact one takes up precious space in my overstuffed bag, and I hate lugging it around when I’m exploring a new city. Chances are, I’m going to forget it at a museum, break it, or—worse—poke a stranger in the eye. And hotels in rainy places often provide them anyway. 

I prefer a jacket with a sturdy, deep hood, which protects me from heavy or windy rain but still lets me see what’s going on (see more on this below), or felted wool hats, which are naturally resistant to water—just ask the gauchos in Argentina. But while hats provide better views, they can be hard to pack and are better for city walks or coastal hikes in intermittent showers than they are for sustained rain.

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If you must bring an umbrella, don’t sacrifice quality for small size. There’s no point in bringing an umbrella halfway around the world if you’re just going to buy another one when yours breaks immediately. While you can find options that fit in the palm of your hand, those don’t usually have the wind-resistant construction you want in unpredictable weather. Take it from 8,600 happy reviewers on Amazon and go with the Repel Windproof Travel Umbrella, which packs down to a light 11.5 inches and has strong, fiberglass ribs.

Buy Now: Repel Windproof Travel Umbrella with Teflon Coating, $23, amazon.com 

Picking the perfect jacket

As we agreed above, unless you want to stick out like a sore thumb, forget the poncho. They’re unwieldy, loud, and wrestling your way out of one can leave you as wet as if you hadn’t worn one at all. And it’s not like there’s a derth of packable, stylish rain jackets. We’ve even rounded up and reviewed the best rain jackets for all types of travelers and travel situations—whether you’re looking for something city sleek or adventure appropriate. 

For me, the versatile all-star for rainy season travel is a mid-length, hooded, flannel-lined waxed canvas jacket, like Barbour’s Wood Warbler Waxed Cotton Jacket. While it’s weather-resistant rather than waterproof, it’s still my go-to during San Francisco’s wet springtime, and it’s the only outer layer I bring on work trips to New York in fall or on vacations in London. This rugged style of jacket stands up to the elements and keeps me from dashing from shop awning to shop awning, but it doesn’t look out of place on a dry day, either. It’s heavy enough to keep me warm without piling on layers, but the hood comfortably accommodates a beanie if it’s a particularly chilly day. Waxed jackets have their roots in workwear, so most styles also feature helpful details you won’t even know you needed until you use them, such as handwarmer pockets and ribbed cuffs.

Buy Now: Barbour Wood Warbler Waxed Cotton Jacket, $450, orvis.com 

If you must pack an umbrella for your trip, make sure it’s high enough quality to be worth the extra weight.

Avoid jeans

Sad but true, jeans are a terrible choice for wet-weather travel. They don’t retain heat but they do retain moisture, so they get uncomfortably soggy quickly and take ages to dry. This poses a problem for those of us who mostly wear jeans. But unless you want to get your pants laundered regularly during a rainy trip, cut back on the jeans you pack.

I’m by no means suggesting you stock up on the swishy-sounding rain pants that look more appropriate on hiking trails than they do on city streets. Instead, go for pants with a water-resistant treatment, like Western Rise’s ready-for-anything Evolution Pant for men, or give a pair of twill pants a good Scotch-guarding. Leggings are an excellent option as well since they dry quickly once you’re safely back inside, and a fleece-lined pair keeps things extra cozy if the winds are whipping up. 

Buy Now: $149, westernrise.com

Opt for all-weather shoes 

I ask you, is anyone really packing rubber boots? Even if you do manage to roll, fold, or squish a pair into your bag, they’re never comfortable through long days of walking. Nor are they appropriate for more than walking around outside—and just how many pairs of shoes were you planning on bringing?

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The secret here is to look for shoes from outdoor adventure footwear companies like Sorel and Xtratuf. These brands make products for people who live in cold, wet climates, yes, but it’s not all practical, rugged hiking boots. There are often plenty of chic options in the mix as well that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional.  If you don’t already have a pair of shoes like this for your rainy day outings at home, they’re well worth the investment. I once intentionally slid down—and then climbed back up—a muddy hill in the rain in a pair of knee-high, heeled Sorels and my socks stayed as warm, dry, and clean as they would have if I’d spend the day stretching them toward a fireplace. 

Buy Now: Sorel Lolla II Tall Boot, $240, backcountry.com; Xtratuf Bristol Bay, $175, huckberry.com

Don’t forget the waterproof pouches

If you take anything away from this, it needs to be the importance of waterproof pouches or dry bags—and lots of them! What you wear in drizzly destinations is crucial, but keeping everything inside your suitcase dry is just as important. What’s the use of a good pair of boots if your socks got damp sitting under your rain jacket? This is where the pouches come in. If you insisted on bringing an umbrella, you’ll need a waterproof pouch to keep it in—those flimsy sleeves that most come with do little to contain residual raindrops if you stash it in a purse or backpack. If you’re stowing your rain jacket when the clouds clear, seal it up in a dry bag until you can lay it out to dry fully. If your cell phone isn’t waterproof (as many are these days), you’ll want a waterproof case or a waterproof pouch to keep it safe while you tote it around. As safe as your suitcase might be, a dry bag will keep your socks and underwear dry even if it’s been raining for days and everything else has gotten a little . . . musty. Bring more waterproof pouches than you need; you never know when you might need a place to store a scarf or hat that was dropped in a puddle. 

There are all manner of waterproof pouches out there. Sea to Summit’s dry bags are excellent options for a rain-jacket stuff sack or a waterproof laundry bag. I’ve also found bathing suit bags, like those from Wander Wet, to be effective for storing soaked clothes or keeping the contents of a purse dry. In a pinch, a Ziplock or two will do the trick, but these sorts of plastic bags rip easily and aren’t an environmentally friendly pick. 

Buy Now: Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack 13L, $19, amazon.com; Wander Wet Swimsuit Bag Medium, $36, amazon.com

Treat yourself to some reusable hand warmers

If you’re well prepared for rain, standing out in it while staying warm and dry can feel like a triumph. And hand warmers make the situation all the better. These days, there’s no need to worry about clogging landfills with disposable hand or foot warmers; there are now reusable options. You can find gel packs that can be activated in boiling water, but those only last a few hours. If you’re treating yourself, go all-out and get a rechargable electric version such as Fourheart Hand Warmers, which last long, heat up fast, and keep you toasty. 

Buy Now: Fourheart Hand Warmers, $24, amazon.com

Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.

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