Yes, It’s Possible to Travel Carry-On Only for a Ski Trip

The trick is packing thinner layers, rather than bulky separates.

Yes, It’s Possible to Travel Carry-On Only for a Ski Trip

As long as you’re renting your skis or snowboard, it’s easy to travel carry-on only this winter.

Photo by Shutterstock

Even if you plan on renting your skis or snowboard, a ski trip packing list requires quite a few more parts than your typical tropical vacation. You’ll need goggles, gloves, boots, and thick socks—not to mention what you’ll be donning off the slopes.

So you might be surprised to find that it’s entirely possible to pack for a long-weekend ski vacation (or even a weeklong one) with just carry-on luggage. We don’t need to tell you to wear your bulkiest jacket and sweater and clunkiest boots on the plane instead of stuffing them into your carry-on. But you’ll want to make sure the gear you pack inside your case is easy to compress, too, so you can maximize what fits inside (packing cubes, like Paravel Compression Cubes, $55, can do wonders for that).

The payoff? You don’t have to worry about a tight flight connection delaying your bag and leaving you out in the cold, with no warm layers, quite literally. And if you’re traveling with friends, showing up with a small carry-on makes it all the easier for everyone and their things to fit in a rental car, too.

Opt for a max-capacity carry-on

All carry-on luggage is not created the same. For a hardshell roller that’s compact enough to fit into the overhead bin, but capable of cramming enough on- and off-the-mountain clothing options for several days, you can’t go wrong with Paravel’s Aviator Carry-On Plus ($295). This recycled polycarbonate case weighs just 8.5 pounds but offers a capacity of 52.1 liters inside. And the interior compression board acts like a magic wand for abracadabra-ing every last thing you need within. Do note that larger carry-ons like this one (its dimensions are 14.7 x 22.7 x 9.6 inches) are fine if you’re flying domestic U.S. airlines. But international carriers may enforce stricter carry-on size restrictions.

If you’re looking for a soft case that can squeeze easily among the many other bags in your rental car, minimalist packers we know rave about all you can pack inside a Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack ($299). It has a compartment for your laptop, weighs less than five pounds, and has a capacity of 35 liters for your stuff.

For a larger soft case that’s still carry-on compliant, AFAR editor Lyndsey Matthews packed for a recent five-night ski trip to Lake Tahoe using her Small North Face Base Camp Duffle ($129). With a capacity of 50 liters in a compact 13 x 21 x 13 inches, the expedition-style bag has a rugged construction to withstand some dragging, if need be, and compression straps that shrink it down even more once you’ve got everything inside. The backpack style straps aren’t the most comfortable for carrying long distances, but will get you through an airport and down a plane’s aisle with ease.

The merino wool base layers by Kari Traa are stylish enough to wear off the slopes, too.

The merino wool base layers by Kari Traa are stylish enough to wear off the slopes, too.

Courtesy of Kari Traa

Merino wool is your friend

Merino wool base layers are a must for staying warm on the mountain and hardly take up any space in your bag. The best part of merino (beyond the fact that it’s uber-warm) is that it doesn’t trap odor-causing bacteria like synthetic materials do. Just hang your woolen underthings to air out after a day on the mountain, and you’ll be amazed by how fresh they will be the next day. For four days on the mountain, you can easily get away with packing just two pairs of merino base layers without creating a stench.

For warmth and style, we can’t get enough of Kari Traa’s 100 percent merino base layers for women (from $75), which are pretty enough to shed your top layer for après. With styles for men and women, New Zealand–based brand Icebreaker makes some lush 100 percent merino base layers, too, that you can consider as investment pieces, like the Women’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Half Zip Thermal Top ($105) and the Men’s Merino 260 Zone Half Zip and Leggings ($130 and $140).

The Mission Snow Shell by Aether is waterproof and has pockets in all the right places.

The Mission Snow Shell by Aether is waterproof and has pockets in all the right places.

Courtesy of Aether

Go for a two-part system on top, instead of one thick ski jacket

Instead of a bulky, all-in-one ski jacket, opt for a light down or synthetic puffer jacket layered under a thin shell jacket—a perfect combo for keeping wind and cold at bay (especially with those merino layers as your base). And while down is great for guarding your body heat, it loses its insulating qualities if it gets wet. So you might want to opt for a synthetic puffer instead.

Combining the best of both worlds, Arc’teryx’s Cerium LT Hoody ($379, available in men’s and women’s sizing) comes with extra warm 850-fill power down and synthetic insulation strategically placed in areas where moisture is likely to build up. You can wear it on the plane to ward off the chills or stuff it into its pouch and use it as a travel pillow. For a synthetic and water-resistant midlayer with good heat-retaining properties, we like Patagonia’s Nano Puff Hoody ($249, for women and men) and Arc’teryx’s Atom LT Hoody ($259, for men and women).

For a shell, look for something that’s windproof and waterproof—preferably with enforced zippers designed to keep the elements out. Stio’s Credential Jacket for women ($359, was $599) comes in lively blue and yellow hues that will make you stand out on the slopes (because there’s nothing less inspiring than a black jacket and black pants charging through a bluebird day like a shadow in an Instagram shot).

For men, Mountain Hardwear’s Firefall/2 Jacket ($250) also comes in a range of colors and is waterproof and snow ready—with an internal powder skirt and Velcro closures at the cuffs to keep the white stuff out. And new in Aether’s Ski 2022 collection, the waterproof and wind-resistant Mission Snow Shell ($895) is another top pick for quality and style, with a three-layer Gore-Tex shell and a high collar that’s insulated with PrimaLoft to keep you extra cozy.

Lightweight ski pants do exist

There are a lot of insulated ski pants out there. And they’re surely toasty. But unless conditions are exceptionally cold on the mountain, legs can keep plenty warm with just a base layer and a thin shell sheathing them. In short, you don’t need anything too bulky here when it comes to ski pants. So look for softshell and lightweight pants that fold down small and leave plenty of room underneath for your base layers to pull the weight of providing interior warmth.

We love the purple pop of the North Face’s Freethinker Futurelight Pant for women ($450), as well as its removable suspenders that keep them riding as high-waisted and fitted as you like. And Arc’teryx’s Beta LT Pant Hadron for men ($350) are waterproof and windproof thanks to Gore-Tex while providing a solid resistance to abrasions you’d expect from a far heavier pant.

One pair of shoes will suffice

Provided you’re renting ski or snowboard boots once you get to the mountains, you might be able to get away with only packing one pair of shoes (make them boots) for a short trip. Pick ones that will keep you safe and dry on snowy sidewalks but also stylish enough to wear to après-ski. The waterproof Lucie Sneaker Boot by Forsake ($150) will keep your feet dry and looks cute styled with tights and a sweater dress. For men, the waterproof suede Explorer Boot by Sorel ($105, was $140) fits like a sneaker but has heavy-duty rubber soles with great traction for navigating snowy terrain.
If you just need something cozy to transition from your hotel room down to the lobby restaurant, we also love the unisex Glerup Slipper Boots ($155) with their grippy rubber bottoms and 100 percent natural wool felt uppers.

Other tips for packing light for a ski trip

  • Ski goggles, sunglasses, gloves, and socks can all be stuffed inside boots in your bag or in the exterior pocket of the jacket you wear onboard.
  • Buy sunscreen, hand warmers, and other inexpensive accessories when you get where you’re going to save on space.
  • If you’re BYO’ing your helmet, clip it onto your hand luggage or backpack instead of trying to pack it inside—no gate crew or flight attendant will argue if you explain you’re taking measures to protect your head.
  • Don’t overdo it with the après-ski attire. Ski towns are inherently casual. Even in a place like Aspen or St. Moritz, there’s always a bar or restaurant where you can come as you are and dress down in a sweater and leggings or jeans. One pair of pants and a sweater or two will be enough.
Terry Ward is a Florida-based travel writer whose work appears in CNN, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.
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