Seven tips to help you pack for unpredictable weather

20 years of travelling has taught this writer to always dress like an onion! 🧅

3 mins
Written by:
Kerri Duncan

Travelling during a shoulder season has plenty of upsides. Dodging peak-season crowds is a major bonus – not to mention dodging peak-season prices! The downside of these in-between months is how the weather can be less than perfect, and often unpredictable. (That being said, climate change is making even peak season unpredictable these days, with summer snowfall in the same U.S. state that the hottest place on Earth just hit a near record-high tempature!)

Maybe you’re hunting for spring flower blooms in Holland, or autumnal sunset hues in Japan. Perhaps you simply want to visit a city like Birmingham in the UK, where the locals say you can experience every season in a single day. There are plenty of good reasons to travel when the weather is variable, but it sure makes packing luggage extra complicated. What do you bring when you could be basking in balmy sunshine one minute and drenched by freezing downpours the next?  

Over the last 20 years of travelling – and with plenty of trial and error – I’ve come across these tips that can help you pack for unpredictable weather, no matter where (or when) you’re going.

Photo by Klaus Nielsen

1. Research up a storm

Step one is to find out as much as you can about the climate of your destination/s before you go. Yes, I’m talking about unpredictable weather here, but just how cold can it get? Is snowfall possible? What’s the average rainfall? Does the heat tend to be humid or dry? How windy can it be? Answering some of these questions can help guide your decisions on what to prioritise.

Many places have local weather websites or apps you can download that provide more accurate, up-to-date data and predictions than the broad, international alternatives. Before going to Iceland recently, the top Google forecast for the capital city of Reykjavik told me there was a high chance of rain all day, every day. Then I downloaded the Icelandic Met Office app, Veður, and the outlook was much brighter. Rain was isolated to certain times of the day, and in specific places, making it much easier to work around. By keeping an eye on these resources in the weeks leading up to your trip, you can get a better idea of what to expect when you arrive.  

2. Dress like an onion

You’ve probably heard this before, but layers really are your best friend. Being able to quickly add or remove a layer is the easiest way to adapt to fluctuating temperatures and conditions. I find a breathable singlet or t-shirt to be as perfect for a warm-weather walk as it is a base for adding long-sleeve layers when chilly. Top it off with a waterproof and windproof outer layer and you’re pretty much ready for anything.

Opt for moisture-wicking base materials that keep you dry and insulated even when you work up a sweat. If you’re expecting really cold temperatures, consider thermal base layers made specifically to keep you warm. These come in a variety of weights, grades and materials, each with their own pros and cons. I find synthetic and Merino wool thermals to be the best options for managing body temperature and removing sweat. Cotton tends to retain moisture, which can lead to that cold, clammy feeling when wet.

Photo by Keira Burton

3. Multitask

Prioritise items that can be used in more than one situation. A lightweight scarf keeps my neck cosy, shields my shoulders from sunburn, and even doubles as a makeshift skirt and facemask. Packable raincoats are great for those pop-up tropical storms and can add an extra waterproof layer when it’s cold. A pair of flip-flops or slip-ons are great for visiting the beach, as well as ducking out to the toilet block on a snowy night – I’ve found out the hard way how fiddly bootstraps can be when I’m half asleep and need to pee!

Choose clothes that easily mix and match with other pieces, so you’re not stuck with the same outfit every day. Not only does it get boring to wear the same thing all the time, it also prevents any one item from getting too dirty. Having backup pieces means you can easily swap something out if it gets muddy or wet.

4. Mind those baggage restrictions

What you pack also comes down to your actual luggage restrictions. While international airlines tend to have higher checked luggage allowances, some of those smaller internal flights/buses/tours might allow less than you think, so make sure you know how much you can bring. Last-minute overweight fees can be hefty and really ruin the mood when checking in for transport. I’ll never forget the frantic morning I spent in a Spanish airport transferring from my international flight that allowed 20kg to my domestic one that only allowed 15kg. I wore a comical number of layers that day.

Think ahead about what style of luggage will suit your trip. A backpack might be best if you plan to do a lot of walking, where the ground might be rough or wet, or if you’re staying at accommodations with a lot of stairs. On the other hand, hardshell rolling suitcases are great for organising gear on a cruise or tour where your luggage won’t need to go off road. Internal packing cubes or bags can help declutter your stuff for easy access, as well as keep wet or dirty clothes from contaminating the clean ones.  

5. Heed local customs

Remember to respect the locals by bringing clothes suitable for their dress codes and customs. Even in very hot climates, you may be expected to cover your legs, shoulders, or head, especially when visiting religious buildings or monuments (my scarf comes in handy here as a quick shoulder cover). Not only will dressing accordingly help you blend in and connect with the local culture, but it can also prevent unintended offence and even legal trouble. Research your destination’s requirements and expectations before setting off to make sure you’re covered.

Photo by Photo by Stijn Dijkstra

6. Be flexible

Bad weather can really mess with your outdoor activity plans. No matter how prepared you may be, some things just aren’t safe to do in a storm or extreme heat. If there’s an activity you have your heart set on doing, try to allow a bit of wiggle room time-wise to allow for rescheduling. If the weather isn’t playing nice, many tour operators will allow a free change of date; and if you’re going hiking, for instance, sometimes waiting a day or two can greatly improve your overall experience.  

If your schedule is tight, have a backup plan for outdoor activities. You can avoid disappointment and make the most of your travel time if you have a plan B to get excited about. On a recent trip around Indonesia, for example, rough seas put a stop to my planned island ferry trip, so I spent a few wonderful days exploring a little inland village instead.    

7. Bring a sense of adventure

The most important thing you can pack is an open mind. Sorry to be cheesy, but it’s true – travelling is never going to go according to plan 100% of the time, especially when unpredictable weather is involved. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have an amazing time. Prepare as best you can, embrace the unexpected, and see every weather change as an adventure. Some of the best memories I’ve ever made came from moments I couldn’t predict!

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