How to Pack for Multiple Climates: 30 Days, Two Seasons, One Carry-on

Master this and you can pack for anything, like a pro.

Packing a suitcase is no easy feat, whether you’re packing for a few days away or planning an extended vacation. But when it comes to packing for a month? Most don’t of us don’t even know where to start.

As someone who prides herself on the ability to pack light, I knew I had my work cut out for me when I decided to take a 30-day trip back to my hometown. I might have been able to work my packing magic well enough if I only had to worry about a summer wardrobe.

But in addition to spending time in the Midwestern United States, I would also be taking a 10-day family vacation in South Africa during their winter season.

If you’ve ever spent time in the Midwest during the summertime, you’re familiar with the oppressive humidity. The only way to tolerate the heat is to opt for lightweight fabrics, and wear as little clothing as you can get away with – airy tanks, breezy dresses, and loose fitting items.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I compulsively checked the weather in the two South African cities I would be staying, Cape Town, and Hoedspruit. The forecast for both locations ranged between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit – cold, windy, and rainy.

So, how exactly does one pack for such drastically different climates without overdoing it?

1. Take Care of Your Cold Weather Essentials First

You’ve got to give priority to your warm outer layers. Yes, they’re bulky. Yes, they’ll take up a lot of space in your suitcase. But if that means that you’ll avoid being wet and miserable, it’s worth it. Always.

You can keep it simple with the basics; a good waterproof puffer jacket will keep you warm and dry on the worst of days, and it can also be compressed into a small section of your backpack or suitcase. I also brought a winter beanie, a pair of gloves, and a Buff that could double as a scarf.

To cover my bases with footwear, I packed one pair of waterproof hiking boots. Did I look super cute on my South African adventure? Not really. Did they take up a good portion of my suitcase? Yep. But not a day went by where I regretted bringing them along.

2. Layers, Layers, Layers

Layers are a no-brainer when it comes to preparing for multiple climates. In addition to my puffer jacket, I also brought one jean jacket, one hoodie, one cardigan, three long-sleeve shirts, two tees, and four sleeveless tops. Most days in Cape Town I layered my puffer jacket with a hoodie, a heavy flannel, and a tee.

I also brought leggings that could double as an additional layer under my jeans if needed. Back home in Chicago, my lightweight cardigan or jean jacket kept me comfortable on the occasional chilly night. Pack items that you can layer in multiple ways. Not sure if it will work? Try everything on before it earns the space in your bag.

3. Pack For Versatility

When you’re taking an extended trip, it’s easy to over-pack in anticipation of wardrobe boredom. You might find yourself imagining highly specific scenarios where you would need those electric blue strappy sandals, even if those electric blue strappy sandals really only work with one outfit.

I like to be ruthless with my clothing. If it can’t be worn multiple ways, it rarely comes along for the ride. My maxi dress worked as both a formal option paired with some dangly earrings, and a casual option under a jean jacket and with a pair of Birkenstocks.

I styled my lightweight flannel with a pair of jean shorts and sneakers for coffee with an old friend, and then unbuttoned over a sleeveless dress for a day at the museum.

Also, can we talk about high-waisted lounge trousers? These are a godsend. You can wear them as sweatpants in the morning, and throw on a pair of heels to dress them up at night.

I highly recommend making a list of all the clothing you want to pack, and then grouping items together to coordinate a wide range of potential outfits. And then trying everything on, layers and all, to make sure you like the way it looks.

Here is my itemized packing list for thirty days:

  • 1 waterproof puffer jacket
  • 1 jean jacket
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 cardigan
  • 3 long sleeve shirts – heavy flannel, lightweight flannel, turtleneck
  • 2 tees
  • 4 sleeveless tops
  • 2 dresses – 1 maxi dress, 1 short dress
  • 3 pairs pants – 1 pair jeans, 1 pair lounge trousers, 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair shorts

I ended up packing 19 articles of clothing, in addition to 3 hats (beanie, sun hat, and baseball cap), 1 swimsuit, 4 pairs of shoes (hiking boots, sneakers, sandals, loafers), 10 pairs of undies, 2 bras (1 bralette, 1 sports bra), and 4 pairs of socks. Everything managed to fit into a single carry-on and a backpack.

Trust me, the amount of planning, list-making, packing/unpacking/repacking that goes into it is all worth it. And if you can avoid the additional fee for a checked bag? No question.

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