“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” this common Icelandic phrase is more than just a cliché that makes an appearance on fridge magnets in souvenir stores all over Iceland. And then there are terms such as ‘window weather’- the kind that looks great from a window but is downright ridiculous when you step out the door. On my recent winter visit, I found that the weather and visibility anywhere in Iceland can change drastically within a few minutes. This being my first time in snow and ice and real winter, I spent a lot of time researching packing lists for Iceland. Apart from the obvious question of how to pack for Iceland and what to wear in Iceland in winter, I had specific questions like:
- Do people dress up to go to dinner in Iceland?
- What do people wear to bars and pubs in Iceland?
- What is the winter fashion in Iceland?
- What kind of boots to wear in Iceland in winter?
- Do you need waterproof pants for Iceland?
- What could I miss in my Iceland winter packing list (it’s not like I could buy it there for cheap)?
You can’t blame me- I’d never seen snow like I did in Iceland, and I was anxious about being well-prepared for my trip. Plus I knew I’d be spending time in the capital Reykjavik and didn’t want to look at least acceptably fashionable while going to dinner or pubs.
I’m happy to report I enjoyed every minute of my trip and was comfortably warm at all times, even while hiking in a snow-covered national park in North Iceland or on a glacier on the South Coast.
A common misconception is that Iceland is unbearably cold in winter. Due to the North Atlantic Drift of the Gulf Stream, winter in Iceland is relatively mild, especially in the south and west, compared to the extreme temperatures in parts of Finland and Sweden. Still, winter temperatures are around or below freezing, and if you take into account the wind chill, it feels like much below freezing point.
So why would anyone want to visit in winter?
I couldn’t be happier that I chose to visit Iceland in winter, especially now that tourism is booming in the country and everything, from accommodation to tours, is expensive in summer. Plus I got to see the Northern Lights (only in winter) which was a huge bonus. In February, I still had plenty of daylight to explore outdoors (8-9 hours) and many parts of the country felt remote with hardly any other tourists. Prices were affordable and that was important to me as I was on a strict budget. After seeing the Icelandic snow-covered landscape of mountains and frozen waterfalls under the beautiful wintertime Arctic light, there’s nothing I would change about my experience- it was more perfect that I could have imagined.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been the case had if my Iceland packing list for winter wasn’t well-researched and on point, especially as a winter newbie (yes there’s such a thing if you grew up somewhere it doesn’t snow, or rain much, or get cold ever). If you’re not warm and toasty, there’s no way you can enjoy hiking on a glacier, exploring a lava-tube or an ice cave, or wandering the snowy streets of Reykjavik in winter. And with shopping in Iceland being as expensive as it is, there is no way I could have bought any big items locally such as a winter coat or boots. The price tags on the clothing stores in Iceland are ridiculous.
Here’s what I packed for a two-week long trip to Iceland in winter.
What to Wear in Iceland in Winter
Clothing and Footwear
- 1 North Face Suzanne Tri-Climate Winter Coat This solid waterproof winter coat is totally worth the price! I was super warm even at the lowest temperature that I experienced during my visit (-15 degrees Celsius) and in the dead of the night hunting for the Northern Lights. With a few additional layers underneath, this coat would work amazingly even in much lower temperatures. Plus the design is great- simple, classic and with a nice nipped fit at the waist that flatters the body. What I love most about it is that it works well for both wet outdoor activities as well as walking around in trendy downtown Reykjavik.
- 2 Dressy Sweaters (sequined and all-to wear to nice restaurants or pubs in Reykjavik)
- 1 Columbia Waterproof Pant (these are the ones I took but this cheaper alternative from Columbia would have worked just fine.) You need them to tread behind waterfalls because you will get drenched from the spray or if you plan to go skiing.
- 1 Columbia Anytime Outdoor Pant (Warm, water-resistant) I absolutely love how warm and comfy these pants are and how well they fit. They’re perfect for outdoorsy activities and look great if you have them on in the city under a nice sweater and winter coat.
- 1 Salomon Hiking Pant (Warm)
- 1 Saucony Tights (very warm and comfy, and great price)
- 1 Pair of Jeggings and 2 Pairs of Trendy Leggings (to wear in the city)
Base Layers, Underwear and Accessories:
- 3 Base Layer Bottoms/ Long Johns (2 Columbia Mid-Weight Tights and 1 Icebreaker Merino)
- 3 Base Layer Tops (1-Merino Wool, 2 from Marks & Spencer)
- Underwear and Lingerie
- 1 Bikini (you want to carry this so you can experience the magic of a hot spring or a thermal spa such as the Blue Lagoon. Even in winter. Especially in winter.)
- 2 PJs and a couple Tank Tops
- 2 Knit Caps (get something cute for the photos!)
- Fast-drying Microfiber Travel towel
- 2 Warm Buffs/Scarves (when the wind threatens to slap your face, you will be so thankful for one of these)
- 2 Pairs Gloves (1 from Columbia which were useful in the snow and 1 thick woolen)
- Make-Up, Sunscreen, and Lip Balm (Your lips will get chapped a lot because of the dry wind, so this is a must)
- Sunglasses (In winter, the sunlight reflects on the snow and you’ll need sunglasses when you’re outdoors)
- CamelBak Water Bottle (The water in Iceland is fresh and pure and you can fill up your bottle as you go. There is absolutely no need to buy bottled water in Iceland, please don’t be that tourist.)
- 4 Long-sleeved Active Wear Tops (for layering on outdoor activities)
- 2 Nice Tops and 1 Turtleneck (to wear to dinner or somewhere nice in Reykjavik)
- 5 Pairs of Warm Icebreaker Socks. Generally, base layers and socks of Merino wool are highly recommended for two reasons. One, they’re super warm and comfy, and two, they’re moisture wicking so you don’t sweat. You can wear them repeatedly and they remain odor-free. Though they might be slightly more expensive than other base layers, they’re totally worth it.
- 1 Columbia Winter Hiking Boots I wore these ankle-high boots while hiking and also to pubs and restaurants in Reykjavik. They didn’t cost a fortune and I think they could be the best hiking boots for Iceland that can also be worn in the city. They’re waterproof, warm, super comfortable, and work well in snow and rain. I hate paying extra luggage fees to airlines and there was no way I’d carry more than one pair of boots- I couldn’t have made a better choice because of their versatility.
- Since you’re visiting in winter, consider getting an affordable pair of Yaktrax for your hiking boots. These prevent you from slipping on the snow and ice while walking or hiking and making a complete ass of yourself. Like I did. Just saying.
- I also like the base layers, gloves, boots, and socks offered by Columbia. I find that Columbia is relatively affordable versus other brands and it has the Omni Heat technology that works very well in extremely cold conditions.
- Don’t count on buying warm clothes in Iceland because shopping is very expensive. Though, you can buy hats, scarves, socks, or warm mittens made of Icelandic wool. You might also want to splurge on a traditional Icelandic sweater called Lopapeysur but don’t expect anything under $200-250. If you have your heart set on one, check the Red Cross second-hand stores in Downtown Reykjavik. If you want a sweater made of Icelandic wool, check out Geysir- I bought a tan colored sweater for 8000kr.
- Finally, remember that layering is important while dressing in the Icelandic winter. Also, note that people in Reykjavik are smartly dressed. In restaurants and pubs, though the vibe may be laid back and casual, you don’t exactly want to look like you just showed up from a day-long hike. So pack at least a few neutral colors, basics, and pieces that are multifunctional. If it were summer, I’d probably pack one nice dress or a skirt that I could wear under a sweater and over leggings for a slightly more glamorous look.
- You will most definitely need a Day pack for when you go hiking or just about any outdoor activity- get a proper Day pack because bringing your purse or tote along is just not a good idea. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen and it’s not pretty.
Camera and Gear
I carry most of my gear in my Carry On- the Under Armour Storm Undeniable II Backpack except for my tripod that goes into my checked-in bag.
- Mefoto Roadtrip Tripod
- If you’re into photography, or traveling during the Northern Lights season, then a tripod is a must to photograph them and to get those amazing long exposure shots of silky smooth waterfalls and dramatic stormy skies. I bought the Mefoto Roadtrip Tripod in January for my Sony Alpha a6000 and couldn’t be happier; it’s lightweight, packs up nice and compact, and is way cheaper than other travel tripods with the same level of functionality.
- Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Camera
- Lightweight, compact, beautiful, and super functional; for me this is the ideal camera for travel photographers. I would never carry anything heavier than this on my travels. To get the best photos of Iceland’s amazing landscapes, those long-exposure silky-smooth waterfall photos and most of all the Northern Lights, I ordered this affordable wide angle lens -the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 DN Lens for Sony NEX E-mount . I also got a ten stop ND Filter at a good price to experiment with long exposure photography and was happy with the results.
- Remote Shutter
- I knew I’d be doing long exposure photography and photographing the Northern Lights, so I got myself this cool wireless remote shutter by Foto&Tech, which is also great by the way, for using a tripod to take nice photos of yourself when traveling solo.
- Extra Batteries
- Filming and photographing in extremely cold temperatures, such as those when you’re trying to photograph the Northern Lights, can drain out your batteries very quickly. Imagine waiting for a few hours to see the Aurora, setting up your tripod, braving the cold, and having your battery die on you. That would be an epic face-palm moment and something I wanted to avoid, so I bought extra batteries for my Sony Alpha a6000.
- GoPro HERO 4 Silver
- I bought my first GoPro- the HERO4 Silver specifically for my Iceland trip as a birthday present to myself because I knew I’d be doing adventurous things like hiking on a glacier, walking behind waterfalls, and exploring lava tubes.
Plus, the wide-angle feature makes it easy to film the beautiful panoramic landscapes, and you can take it into a hot spring, into waterfalls, or shoot a drivelapse even in snowy, dusty conditions. To me, it was a no-brainer. I was on a budget, so I ordered this set of mounts and accessories from Amazon at a great price and used the different mounts while filming.
Here’s a video that I made from the trip, shot both on the GoPro and my Sony a6000.
- Macbook Air 13”
That was my packing list for Iceland in winter. If you’ve been to Iceland or somewhere with similar temperatures in winter, what would you add to this list?
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Planning a trip to Iceland? Check out my Ultimate Guide to Reykjavik for First-Timers, 2 Day Itinerary for the South Coast, Day trip to Landmannalaugar and Highlights of West Iceland. Or go to my Iceland Travel Blog.