The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her family of four goes on week-long ski trips and checks only one bag. Here’s how.

(iStock/Skiing requires a lot of gear. But how many sweaters do you really need?)
Placeholder while article actions load

Winter sports require huge amounts of gear, including equipment, warm clothes, waterproof outerwear, boots, helmets, gloves and more. Add a few regular outfits, and it might seem as if you need a steamer trunk for a far-off mountain vacation. You don’t, trust me. As a ski writer who has circled the globe in winter — both solo and with my family in tow — I’ve perfected the art of packing for a ski vacation without breaking my back or the bank (in checked luggage fees). It’s simple, provided that you’re willing to be disciplined and not overly concerned with fashion. Here's how to pack for a week-long ski trip for a family of four and check only one bag.

 Step 1: Select the right luggage

(Video: Rachel Walker for The Washington Post)

The single most important piece of luggage for a ski vacation is a boot bag. I always use my boot bag as my carry-on item when I fly. If the airline loses my luggage, I can rent comparable skis, but no rental boot will come close to giving me the fit and performance of my own. After years of shoving my ski boots, computer and a few other items into a slightly oversized book bag, I splurged on a Dakine Boot Pack 50L and haven’t looked back. This bag holds a pair of boots, helmet, goggles and gloves, and comes with straps so you can carry it like a backpack. This bag measures 19-by-14-by-13 inches, which differs from the airline standard of 9-by-14-by-22 inches for overhead compartment luggage. That said, I’ve never (yet) had trouble fitting my bag into the overhead compartment or been reprimanded by airline staff.

In 2017, my kids, then ages 5 and 7, insisted on getting their own boot bags to carry onboard. Fortunately, that year, Santa brought them both the Transpack Edge Jr., which has a 33-liter capacity and can haul all the same kid-size stuff I pack in my boot bag. They love it, and I love that they are learning to haul their own gear. But I make sure they don’t pack their bags so heavily that schlepping them around the airport becomes more work than it’s worth.

 You’ll also want a durable ski bag with wheels, preferably one that carries two pairs (or a snowboard bag that carries two boards) and weighs less than seven pounds. (You’ll pay to check this; if you do it right, you will not need a suitcase in addition to the ski bag.) My personal choice is the Dakine Fall Line Roller Ski Bag, which can hold two adult pairs of skis and two pairs of kids skis and poles. Though wheels aren’t necessary, they’re convenient and lighten the load.

  Step 2: Take a minimalist approach

Let’s be honest about how elegant you need to look on a ski vacation — not very. Even if you’re in the poshest resort in the world, you’re surrounded by folks who think it’s fun to slide down cold, snowy mountains on planks of wood. They’re a relatively quirky, down-to-earth bunch. Yes, I know about the fur stores in Vail, and I’ve window shopped at the Prada boutique in Aspen. Obviously, ski resorts have their share of fashionistas, and if you plan to go clubbing after skiing, feel free to throw in your glittery hot pants and party shirt. But most visitors can get through a week with a few select pieces of clothing and their base layers.  

For me, this weather-smart minimalist approach means bringing:

• Two base layer tops, one crew and one zip turtleneck. Wool is an ideal travel textile because it takes a long time to get smelly and layers easily. I typically wear my wool after a day on the slopes rather than changing into a new outfit.

• Two base layer bottoms. (Pick a neutral color like black or dark purple.)

• Three pairs of wool ski socks.

• One fleece layer. (My fleece is thin and zips, and has the fit of a slim windbreaker, which is great for layering.)

• One very compressible down jacket. (I love the Rab continuum jacket, despite its expense, because it is very warm and packs down to the size of my hand.)

• One waterproof, insulated ski jacket. (You’ll wear this on the plane.)

• One waterproof, insulated ski pant.

• Two T-shirts.

• One pair of nice jeans. (You’ll also wear these on the plane and anytime during the week when you’re not in ski pants.)

• One neutral wool sweater. (I always bring an old Eileen Fischer cashmere sweater that’s cozy, warm, and attractive; my friend always packs a gorgeous Norwegian ski sweater. Make sure you like whatever you pack, because you’ll wear it a lot this week.)

• One bathing suit.

• One pair of light pajamas.

• One pair of ski goggles.

• Ski helmet.

• Warm, waterproof mittens. (I swear by my Flylow Oven Mitt because I easily get cold hands.)

• Underwear.

• Fleece or down vest. (This is optional, but serves as my security blanket because I’m always afraid of under packing.)

•Warm hat.

•Neck warmer. (I prefer to use a Buff.)

•Packable slippers for the hotel or condo


•Toiletries, including a four-ounce bottle of sunscreen.

You might think that this is not nearly enough. It is. You’ll be surprised at how often you’re in your ski clothes during your mountain vacation — for my family, it’s breakfast, lunch and après, which almost always doubles as dinner — and how casual everyone around you is.

A family trades sand for powder on a spring break adventure in the Canadian Rockies

  Step 3: Pack like a pro

Roll and stuff. Fill any opening in your luggage and in and between your gear with clothing items. Your ski boots can double as underwear and sock holders. The bucket of your helmet will hold your puffy jacket. And so on.

Pack your boot bag first. It should contain your boots, one top and bottom base layer, a puffy jacket, goggles, mittens, socks and toiletries. If there’s still room, add in whatever else is important or would be difficult to rent or replace should your luggage go missing.

Then move onto the ski bag. I shove durable layers of clothes betwixt and between the equipment, being careful that the metal edges of the skis won’t cut them. I’ll put my ski pants and one of my wool base layers in the ski bag, along with those of my kids and spouse. The key here is not to exceed the 50-pound weight limit. If it’s close, I might choose to leave poles at home and rent them on-site. (Most gear shops rent poles for about $5 a day.) I’ve also been known to ditch the extra top and bottom base layers — for my entire family — and this was not the crisis you might expect.

Another alternative is to rent skis at your destination. My family did that for the first time on a 10-day trip to Banff and Lake Louise last spring. Renting from Black Tie Skis was convenient and allowed us to try the newest performance skis available. Of course, you pay for this convenience (rates can range from $30 to $65 per day, per person, depending on the location and quality of the equipment), and bringing your own equipment has its advantages.

Step 4: Have fun

If you've followed these steps, you’ve packed so well that the only thing you’ll have to think about after you arrive is suiting up, clicking into your bindings and jumping into the lift line for the best week you’ll have all winter.

Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.

More from Travel:

These ski resorts with expert slopes are also trying to cater to families with beginners

No snow required: Exploring Italy’s Dolomites during the offseason

A skier’s circuit: The ‘powder highway’ through the Canadian Rockies