At the end of November, I will be travelling with my girlfriend to Sweden’s northernmost town: Kiruna.
We’ll start by flying from Warsaw to Stockholm, where we will spend most of the day. At 22:50 that same night, we will board the sleeper train to Kiruna. Here, we will spend three nights in the hope of catching the Northern Lights.
Inhabited for at least 6000 years by humans, reindeer and moose, Kiruna was founded in 1900. It is home to world’s largest iron ore mine and, to prevent Kiruna from falling into it, the whole town is being moved 3km to the east. It takes roughly 16 hours to reach by train from Stockholm but is one of the best places in the world to spot the Northern Lights.
Kiruna is also close to the world-famous Ice Hotel and Abisko National Park. Located north of the Arctic Circle, it has 30 days without sun and a 24-hour day from the end of May.
It isn’t cheap, but offers a truly unforgettable adventure.
I always travel with a carry-on backpack — it used to be a 22-litre, taking only the things I absolutely needed. For this trip, there may be one or two items that aren’t completely essential, but will take anyway. For instance, I will wear one hoody and pack the other. Although one is probably enough for five days, I have absolutely no idea which one to pick and it would be nice to test them both out.
However, this is still an ultra-minimalist packing list.
I need to get everything into one small bag for the Ryanair flight to avoid the extra charge. I will of course wear the bulky coat, trousers and shoes, so everything not worn should fit nicely into my 32-litre Jack Wolfskin backpack. On top of these clothes, we have a fair amount of equipment including large water bottles, thermal flasks for hot drinks, head torches, metal bowls with plastic sporks, and a ton of dried food. Not to mention toiletries and phone chargers. I won’t be taking my laptop. I’m going to enjoy a few days without working for once.
In this list, you will find all the clothes I intend to take.
Hopefully this will inspire you if you are taking a similar winter trip and wish to pack light. There is a mixture of high-end expensive products where it was necessary and some super cheap items. In general, paying more for a few high quality items that will last a lifetime is better. However, I didn’t own most of these things before I booked the trip and had to buy them. After spending a lot, it was important to find a few cheaper items too. Actually, I think some of the cheap stuff — such as the Aldi brand T-shirt — are really high quality.
I’ve numbered the items from 1–9, starting from the top left of the photo above and going clockwise. The only thing not on there is a warm hat, which I am yet to buy. I’ll probably go for something quite expensive from either North Face or Under Armour. Come to think of it, despite owning Under Armour boxers and shoes, nothing on this list is that brand. They’re one of the best outdoor companies so I think an Under Armour hat would be a good purchase to balance out all the North Face.
Anyway, here’s the minimalist packing list for a few days in Kiruna. Although we are only travelling for five days, these are the same clothes I’d take for a much longer stay, since it is really all you need.
1) North Face Winter Hiking Shoes
One of the most expensive items on the list are these perfect North Face boots. They have a winter grip sole designed for walking on ice, thermal insulation for temperatures down to -32°C, and they are fully waterproof. The last thing you want is cold or wet feet, so investing in a solid pair of hiking shoes is essential. Although built for the snow, they are not like other snow boots and can be used for hiking even when it’s not so cold out.
If you’re going to spend a lot, you might as well get something that’s multi-purpose.
We intend to do a lot of walking through the cold, dark, snowy, Swedish countryside. I can’t think of anything better than a comfortable pair of North Face boots made exactly for that situation.
2) Mountain Warehouse Ski Jacket
I spent a long time looking for the right ski jacket. Part of the problem was that I was shopping in summer before stores had their winter lines and I wanted something that didn’t look out of place in the city.
This jacket from mountain warehouse is lightweight, but fully insulated for sub-zero weather.
Unzipped with a T-shirt it doesn’t get too hot in Autumn, but with layers underneath it should keep me toasty in the Arctic Circle. Again, fairly expensive, but it’s a well-made, multifunctional coat which will last a long time. It’s also a nice shade of blue.
3) Nevica Ski Trousers
Trousers are a difficult one. If you don’t plan to go skiing, then spending a lot on ski trousers seems silly. Can you get by in Kiruna with just regular jeans and thermal long johns? I don’t know, never been. However, these Nevica trousers from Sports Direct were on sale and therefore worth purchasing.
They are fully waterproof and insulated, so I should be warm and dry in the snow.
Whether they’ll look out of place in Stockholm or if I’ll ever wear them again is still to be seen. For when I am up to my waist in snow, though, they’ll undoubtedly be perfect.
4) 2 x Travel T-Shirts
For everything other than outerwear, I’ve basically gone for the standard minimalist 2-of-everything approach. Pack one, wear one. (Or wash one, wear one once you reach the hotel). I have a Mountain Warehouse T-shirt already which my mum gave me. It isn’t too thick, but it’s not thin either. It is polyester, quick-dry, and odour-resistant. It’ll add one more layer of insulation and packs up small when I’m not wearing it.
It seems like the perfect item to slot between my base-layer and my mid-layer.
The other T-shirt is something I found in Aldi (or maybe Lidl, I can’t remember). It was in that weird mishmash middle aisle of strange, unrelated products. I skipped the bike racks, hot tubs and tennis ball launchers, and looked through the clothes. I found a plain black, sports T-shirt of sorts. It’s actually really comfortable, well fitting and warm. It’s a little thicker than my other T-shirt. I can’t remember what it cost, but it was really cheap. Again, it’s just another simple, lightweight layer to add if it gets too cold.
5) 2 x Thermal Base Layers
The base layer is the most important to get right. It needs to keep you warm, while wicking away sweat. Since it’s the closest to your body, it needs to be washed and dried quickly. Base layers are super thin and lightweight, so having a couple of really good ones is worth more than taking an extra hoody, especially if space saving is paramount. The first is from Kalenji, which is a brand I don’t know much about, but it’s quite cheap at Decathlon. When I say cheap, I don’t mean low quality, but good value.
I’ve worn this thermal T-shirt a few times and it’s warm and comfortable, without being clammy.
The other base layer T-shirt is another gift from my mum. It is Mountain Warehouse again, so you know it’s good quality. I’ve always loved Mountain Warehouse since they published my article on climbing Snowdon, something which I have never done. They also sell loads of cool travel accessories.
The shirt itself is merino wool — the holy grail of minimalist travellers.
I’ve only worn it once, but it’s warm and fits well. It will be interesting to see how these two compare out in the arctic weather.
6) 2 x Hoodies
Hoodies are a perfect mid-layer for freezing weather and just generally nice to wear year-round if you live in a cold country. The trick is in finding something which is warm, but also thin for when you need to pack it away. Again, I went for expensive and high quality here. I think this is the most expensive item on the list, above the shoes and coat. My hoody, from North Face, was absolutely not on sale. However, it’s just a really nice jumper.
It is very thin, but warm and comfortable with a nice hood.
Nothing to complain about. I think it would be totally fine to just take this for a five day trip and it wouldn’t need a wash until you got home, especially with two layers of merino and polyester beneath it.
However, because I live in an apartment with closet space, I did buy another hoody. This one is from Reebok and it’s one of their highest quality items. It’s a bit thicker and loose fitting than the North Face one. It was half off, but without discounts the two items are similarly priced. I actually prefer wearing the Reebok top because it’s just more comfortable. However, North Face seems like it should be better suited for extreme weather. In this moment of indecision, I will probably bring both as long as I have space. It’ll be interesting to switch between them and see which one I prefer wearing. At the moment, I really can’t pick one over the other. They’re both a lovely shade of blue.
7) 2 x Base Layer Trousers
Thermal pants, leggings, long johns…whatever you call them, let’s all agree that they are awesome. I’ve owned this North Face pair for ages and they’re great. They really keep you warm in winter, but never get too hot. They are thin and made of a nice, odour-resistant, quick-dry material. Fairly pricey, but worth it for the benefit you get from them. Because they are right next to the skin, I felt it would be a good idea to get one other pair.
Note that I have no boxer shorts — the thermal base layer works well enough as underwear.
The other pair aren’t really leggings, but thin tracksuit bottoms. I regularly wear them without underwear and they’re comfortable. I bought them because they were cheap. They are Kalenji from Decathlon again. They are a bit thicker though, so if it gets too cold I could put them on under my ski trousers. Looking at the weather report, it looks like the lowest temperature we’ll face will be -15°C. I am therefore unconvinced that a thick base layer and insulated ski trousers will be necessary. Nonetheless, that’s what I have so that’s what I’m bringing. At some point, I’ll want to wash my North Face leggings, so I’ll need something else to put on.
The other benefit is that they are perfect for sleeping in.
So when I get on the sleeper train at Stockholm, I can take my ski trousers off and instantly be in my sleep clothes without having to change in front of strangers on a train.
8) 3 x Socks
I think I’ll probably take three pairs of socks. I have these double layered socks from Quechua — another cheap but decent Decathlon brand. We will be hiking a lot, so I bought socks that are designed to prevent blisters. They are also quite thick so should be warm enough. They dry quickly as well, so I can wear a clean pair everyday by sink washing them before bed and letting them dry overnight.
I really don’t want to get cold feet though, so I’m bringing a thermal pair of socks just in case.
These can be worn on their own or as an extra layer. My boots should be warm enough, but I really don’t know, so I might as well bring one thicker pair just in case. They are made by Gelert, a Sports Direct brand. They were really cheap and probably not the best quality. They only came in packs of three, but I think packing one will suffice. This is one of those areas where I thought that it’s not worth spending loads for something I might not really need. I’m wearing a pair as I write this and they seem warm and comfortable, but they’re not really toasty like you’d expect thermal socks to be.
9) 2 x Gloves/Tribord Scarf
Last winter, I had a pair of cheap, fake leather gloves. When the winter dipped to around 11°C, my hands froze in them. I thought that if I’m heading to Lapland, then a decent set of gloves was in order. I found a pair from North Face, which are quite thin, but surprisingly warm.
They are comfortable and touch screen compatible, so that’s a solid base pair to allow me to still do things with my hands without them freezing off.
However, kind of like with the socks, I thought that an extra pair was needed just in case. So I found a pair of cheap mittens. Like really cheap. The cheapest in Decathlon. They’re from a brand I’ve never heard of called Wed’Ze, who make ski clothing. They do feel quite warm and comfortable, though. After spending so much on the North Face gloves, I thought I’m not going to invest in luxury ski mittens for a single trip. I’m sure these mittens will be fine for five days and then they can sit in the back of the cupboard until the next time it gets too cold for my normal gloves. They are waterproof and are suitable for temperatures down to -15°C. They could be worn alone or with the thinner pair for maximum heat.
I found a nice cheap scarf as well. I basically never wear a scarf, but this one looked good. It’s from some unknown brand called Tribord, but it fits perfectly underneath my coat and it’s so warm and comfortable. I think that it’ll do a good job despite its low price. It comes right up your neck and covers your chin or can sit over your nose. Best of all, it’s the same shade of blue as 90% of my clothes.
With the exception of a decent hat which I will get soon, that’s all the clothes I need for cold Kiruna. I will be fully protected from freezing temperatures and wet, heavy snow. It doesn’t seem like the end of November will be particularly cold anyway, with temperatures expected to be between 1°C and -15°C.