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Travelling light with bulky winter clothing

Like many others I've discovered the joys of travelling light, using just a small bag which qualifies as airline carry-on luggage. But what happens if you want to go somewhere cold? Is it possible to enjoy the freedom of a carry-on bag yet have bulky warm clothing to cope with freezing conditions at your destination? That was the challenge I've faced when visiting Tasmania in winter. Here are two ways I've successfully dealt with the contradiction of small luggage and a big pile of cold-weather gear.

The bulky clothing I'm referring to includes:

I was wanting to conform to carry-on luggage restrictions of a single 105cm bag (19 x 13 x 9 inches) weighing up to 7kg (15.4 lb) plus one personal item. The above clothing may not be a huge list, but when piled up loosely it filled most of a suitable carry-on bag. There was little room left for all the other stuff needed for three or four weeks of travel.

Why did I need all that? Because my winter trips to Tasmania, which include the central plateau, involve:

Naturally I turned to the internet, and found some very useful websites with great tips on one-bag travel (see links below for some of them). As helpful as they are, they seem to be aimed mostly at people travelling in mild climates or in summer, staying in hotels, and doing typical sightseeing. They address challenges like keeping a smart shirt uncreased and rinsing clothes in hotel rooms, but say little about budget travel in winter with bulky blizzard-proof hiking clothes. The sort of gear I needed to take didn't appear compatible with one-bag travel.

Bulky winter clothing beside an undersized carry-on bag
BEFORE: Bulky winter clothing beside
an undersized carry-on bag.

Eventually I settled on one method for one trip, and an alternative for a subsequent trip. I'm sure they're not the only ways around a winter packing dilemma, and they won't suit everyone, but they have worked for me.

1. Compression sack

A compression sack is a small bag made of thin nylon-like material, normally used to store a sleeping bag. What makes it very useful are straps on the outside which enable it to be compressed ... very tightly.

I folded all the warm clothing listed above, stacked it in a rectangular pile inside the compression sack, then pulled the straps very tightly to squash it into a small, dense package. Then I sat on it. Under the hefty mass of my posterior the package became even smaller, and the straps kept it that way. After compression, the clothes which earlier filled most of the carry-on bag now ended up fitting neatly into one end of it, as shown in the photos.

Bulky clothing squashed inside a compression sack
AFTER: Bulky clothing compressed
very tightly inside a compression sack

The main advantage of this method was that I had all my stuff with me at all times. Also there was nothing to organise, and no cost (unlike the postal method). The disadvantage was that taking everything with me made it harder to keep the weight of the bag down. It ended up weighing nearly 8kg, but by carrying a few heavier items in my pockets while flying - camera, phone, PDA, batteries - I got the bag nearer to 7kg. It allowed me to travel by air with winter clothing and without checked luggage, but I felt there could be a better way. This led me to try ...

2. Posting gear ahead

My next winter trip to Tasmania included time in Melbourne on the way across, and a stop in Sydney on the way back. I only needed the bulky warm gear while in Tasmania, and didn't fancy carrying it with me for all the other parts of the trip. It made sense to pack the gear for Tasmania into a small parcel and post it directly to where I would be needing it, then post it home when I no longer needed it.

I used an Australia Post "Prepaid Parcel Post satchel", a large rugged plastic envelope allowing up to 3kg of stuff to be posted within Australia quite economically. I squeezed in most of the items listed earlier (minus the thermals and jumper which wouldn't fit), and added some small but dense items such as the maps and camping guide that wouldn't be needed outside of Tasmania.

An Australia Post 3kg prepaid parcel post satchel

The 1.5kg of stuff I posted across enabled my main bag to weigh less than 7kg and meet carry-on restrictions. This small weight saving also meant the difference between an overweight and bursting-at-the-seams day pack and one which was very easy to manage, and a joy to travel with.

Mail in Australia can usually be addressed in the format "Joe Bloggs, Care of post office, Smithtown 1234", then collected in person if you have ID to show that you're the recipient. It's not a bad idea to contact a suitable post office directly, to confirm they offer this service, and verify their opening hours. I posted my clothes package to my first Tasmanian destination two weeks ahead of time - one week for postage plus an extra week in case of delay.

Is it safe, you may ask, to send your travel gear through the mail? Nobody could guarantee anything 100%, but in over 30 years of sending mail in Australia, nothing I've sent has ever gone missing. That includes a lot of parcels containing camping gear or ski boots. As long as it is addressed correctly, I would trust a postal service with my mail more than I would trust any airline with checked luggage.

As for the cost, a prepaid 3kg satchel costs $11.20 and certified mail (receipts, some compensation for loss) is an extra $3.05 (2012 prices). For the convenience, and making carry-on travel possible with winter clothing, I think this is very reasonable, although bigger parcels could cost more. If you travel on the cheapest flights, taking checked-in luggage (rather than carry-on only) can cost an extra $10 or $12 per flight - so posting gear instead could be cost neutral or maybe even work out cheaper.

* * *

Having tried the use of a compression sack and the sending of gear by mail, I can answer my original question with a yes. It IS possible to enjoy the freedom of a light-weight carry-on bag and still have bulky warm clothing at your destination. At least it has been for me and my requirements, where some of my gear has only been needed at the destination but not while going to and from. I'm planning a mail bag for my next winter trip, and look forward to the liberating pleasure of travelling with a small load and yet still having with me everything I really need ... when I need it.

More information

One Bag - 'the art and science of travelling light', well organised information on just about all aspects of lightweight business and leisure travel - great place to start
One Bag, Qne World - a blog and forum revolving around travel using a single bag which fits within airline carry-on limits
The Travelite FAQ - more travel packing tips
Australia Post - prepaid parcel post satchels

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