YOUR best friend just called with a lead on a great package trip to Montreal. In February. And there's that West End musical in London you've been dying to see. And, heaven forbid, you really need to visit Aunt Martha in Manitoba.
The winter airfares are rock bottom, but the packing? How many sweaters does it take to keep a Californian warm north of the 40th parallel? And how many fit in a roll-on bag?
Relax. A wintry vacation does not require a fur coat or a new wardrobe. With a few accessory pieces and some creative layering, California-weight clothing can keep you from freezing even while strolling Chicago's Magnificent Mile.
Cover up, head to toe. It is always easier to stay warm than to get warm. And to stay warm, you don't need a heavy coat, but a wind- and water-resistant outer layer to wear atop warm inner layers.
Search your closets thoroughly. If there is a roomy raincoat, a leather coat or a long, wind-resistant jacket hiding there, you can travel before spring. Really.
This weather-resistant outer layer should stop wind, rain and snow from getting inside, and should hold in body heat. Add a hood or carry an umbrella to stay dry from the top down.
Adding a hat, scarf and other accessories, especially if your overcoat is light, can keep you comfortable. You can lose as much as half your body heat through a bare head, so choose a hat that covers your ears (or add earmuffs or an ear band). Wool and fleece are the warmest options. A scarf retains heat around your neck and can cover your chin and nose too. Remember the Inuit adage that goes, "When your feet are cold, cover your head."
Once your cranium is toasty, heat up your feet. Or at least keep them dry. If you don't have insulated boots, treat a pair of leather boots with waterproofing silicone spray. That will also prevent staining from road salt. Boots with rubber soles and nonslip tread help with walking on ice and snow.
An inexpensive alternative: slip-on rubber overshoes that don't take up much room in your suitcase. But they won't be warm so also take your thickest socks.
Gloves or mittens that are insulated and wind-resistant also pack small but make a huge difference in your comfort.
Layer it on. Outdoors survival experts say multiple thin layers of clothing trap body heat best. Pack a variety of pieces so you can add or subtract to be comfortable. You should have long underwear (top and bottom), turtlenecks, shirts, vests, sweaters, jackets and pants to choose from.
A day in an overheated museum may demand layers that can be taken off and checked with your coat; outdoor sightseeing might require wearing every possible item.
Your first layer — long underwear — should be comfortable next to your skin and trap heat, not moisture. Smart choices are silk, wool or wicking polyester.
Silk, wool and polyester fleece have great heat-retaining properties so they are the best fabrics to wear for your middle layers too. Cotton is not warm, so a wool sweater is a better choice than a sweatshirt. Likewise, jeans and khakis are not warm, even over long underwear, so pack your wool slacks. Warm and dry socks are essential so pack several pair — and look for wool or wicking polyester for maximum warmth and breathability.
Before you pack, try it all on: undershirt, turtleneck, shirt, sweater, blazer and coat. The layers should be loose-fitting for maximum circulation; restricted blood flow from too-tight clothes will make you feel colder. Yes, you may be a Michelin Man look-alike. But you will not be cold.
Pack smart. Even if you are generally a "one small carry-on bag traveler," plan to check your bags. Winter is not the time to skimp on luggage space; generally, your winter wardrobe will take up twice as much room as clothing for summer trips. Plus you — and everyone else — will need space in the aircraft overhead bin for coats.
How can the bulky items be packed so they don't strain the latches of your suitcase? Try a compression bag — a reusable plastic bag that reduces the volume of the contents by up to 75%. A one-way valve allows air to be pushed out of the bag, leaving a flatter bundle. This works best with casual clothing and bulky winter things such as polyester fleece, sweaters, down jackets or vests, or dirty laundry — items where wrinkling is not an issue.
"Interfolding" is the most efficient and fastest method of packing a suitcase; it is also the most wrinkle-resistant. Interfolding uses alternating layers of clothing to cushion each other in the bag.
Here's how it works in a typical rectangular suitcase:
Select your longest item first. For a pair of pants, lay them out leg-over-leg and place the waist against the short end of the suitcase with the legs draped over the opposite edge. Position the next pair of pants going the other way, with legs draped over the opposite edge.
Place shorter items (jackets or shirts) with the tops at the hinged edge and the body draped over the handle side.
Placing a plastic dry-cleaner's bag between each layer reduces wrinkling.
Fill in the center with folded or rolled underwear, turtlenecks, sweaters and filled compression bags.
Finally, fold in the ends that are draped over the suitcase edges. They'll curve around the center of rolled sweaters and underwear, and that way won't get a sharp packing crease. Unpack as soon as you reach your destination and shake each item briskly, and then hang it up.
Leave room at the top of your suitcase and fill the space with bubble wrap because a full bag minimizes shifting and wrinkling. When packing to return home, toss the bubble wrap and fill the bag with all of those wonderful shopping treasures and souvenirs from your successful winter travels.
Susan Foster is the author of "Smart Packing for Today's Traveler" and can be reached at http://www.smartpacking.com .