Visiting Iceland in the winter is incredible, and this time of year offers the best chance to see the Northern Lights there. However, winter travel has its challenges and requires a bit more packing and preparation than a warm-weather beach vacation. Everything we found in Iceland was expensive, so you’ll want to bring everything you need to avoid making pricey purchases. Here’s my essential packing list for winter in Iceland. I left off the basics like underwear and a toothbrush because I have faith that you’ll know to bring things like that.
Iceland’s winter weather is cold and snowy and can be unpredictable. Coming from the northern United States, we were used to the cold, and temperatures in Iceland were actually warmer than they were at home for our entire stay. This is my ultimate list of what to pack for winter in Iceland.
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Outer Wear for winter in Iceland
The best coat for Iceland in winter: Columbia Whirlibird Interchange Jacket
This is important. It’s going to be cold. If you’re wondering what to wear in Iceland, the answer is going to start with a coat. Cold is a killer, so it’s important to set yourself up to be warm and safe by bringing a good coat. I’ve always been partial to Columbia coats like these. Mine is a couple years old now and no longer on sale but I love the ability to separate the two layers in case it warms up a little – and it did on my trip. Columbias also have a metallic heat blanket-style lining that keeps you warm without a lot of bulk. Make sure the outer shell is waterproof, as you’ll likely be encountering snow, rain, or mist from waterfalls. My advice? Pick one of the pretty, bright colors that’ll stand out in pictures, because you’re going to be wearing your coat in most of them.
Click here for the men’s version of the jacket.
Packable down jacket
This kind of jacket is perfect for your carry-on because (if you’re like me and traveling from a cold winter climate) you can wear it to the airport and then shove it in its stuff sack. I clip mine to my backpack with a carabiner, and then use it as a pillow on the flight. If you pack it flat in your suitcase, it takes up almost no room. These aren’t as warm as a waterproof ski jacket, but it’s nice to have a backup in case one gets wet (and it almost certainly will) or if you want something less bulky to wear out to dinner. This is the exact color I currently have, and I can usually get two full winters of daily wear out of them. (If you have access to a Costco, they usually sell these every winter at cheaper prices.)
I looked into buying these before my trip to Iceland but decided not to invest in them. I regretted this immensely on the day we explored Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui. I was completely soaked and had to change my jeans in the tiny, less than spotless bathroom in the parking lot, only to get pretty wet again at Skogafoss a little bit down the road. In addition to not wanting to carry them around in my luggage, I deemed them a little too dorky for vacation pictures. However, tons of people smarter than I am were wearing them wherever we went, so you won’t have to worry about looking out of place. This is the pair I came really close to buying based on the reviews and my loyalty to Columbia outerwear. I hope they serve you well and keep you drier than I was.
You’re going to need gloves when you’re walking around seeing the sights in Iceland, and since most of the country is incredibly photogenic, you’ll likely want to take some pictures along the way. Bringing touchscreen capable gloves will allow you to keep them on while using your phone or other electronics. If the touchscreen ones aren’t warm enough for you, bring thicker ski gloves that you can layer over them for more insulation. I like these as a base layer because they’re good for my short fingers.
A men’s version of the gloves can be found here.
You’ll want a good knit hat for when you’re not relying on the waterproof coat hood to keep your head warm. I went with a nice, all purpose black one that matched everything I brought.
I wasn’t familiar with these prior to the trip, but they were everywhere in Iceland. They’re a lot more comfortable than the neck warmer I brought. It gets fairly windy there, and you can pull them up over your face to protect it while still being able to breathe. If you don’t want to invest in one of those, my Columbia omni-shield one is fantastically warm, though not nearly as breathable. They come in all kinds of fun patterns, and the kids sizes even have Disney prints. An alternative would be a face mask, though I prefer the buff as it’s a little less cat-burglar-esque.
Shoes and Socks for winter in Iceland
The best hiking boots for Iceland: Colombia Women’s Dakota Drifter
Keeping your feet warm and dry is one of the most important considerations when packing for winter in Iceland. Waterproof hiking boots are perfect for walking around Iceland’s terrain. They give the traction you need on unpaved or slippery paths without a lot of bulk. I went with a mid-rise height that hits above the ankle for both support and protection from deeper snow. I decided to invest in new boots for Iceland because my old ones hadn’t been worn in years and were getting stiff. I was lucky enough to have gift cards to cover these at the mall, and I love them. Since getting back from Iceland, I’ve also done some hiking in the Colorado Rockies, and they performed just as well on a sweltering day in Colorado Springs as they did over ice and snow. As an added bonus, they look enough like normal shoes that you can wear them into restaurants or museums without looking odd. Make sure you wear them around to break them in before your trip, as there’s nothing worse than ending up with an unexpected blister when you’re walking around on vacation.
The second best boots for winter in Iceland: Khombu Women’s Jazzy Snow Boot
I love these rubber ankle boots for wintertravel. I initially bought them for November in Paris, but they were the perfect addition to my packing list for winter in Iceland as well. They’re waterproof for a few inches and water resistant above it, and lined with warm fur, so your feet won’t freeze. I can’t stress how excited I was to find these because one of my biggest complaints is that so many women’s boots aren’t lined. They kept my feet dry while wading through a stream to view Gljufrabui, and because they’re only ankle height, they take up less space in your luggage. They’re also super comfy. Unlike most rubber rain boots that don’t have much padding in the sole, these are great for walking around all day and the laces mean that they won’t be slipping off of your feet.
The only icy day we had was in Reykjavik, but these rubber crampons helped a lot. If you’re not used to walking on ice and snow, you may want to buy a pair of these. They slip over your shoes/boots, and take up almost no luggage space, so they’re a perfect addition for the trip. We just kept ours on the floor of the car, and popped them on when it looked like they’d be needed. There are a variety of colors and styles available online, as well.
The best socks for winter in Iceland: Kirkland Signature Women’s Trail Socks
I had to buy wool socks for Iceland because I fundamentally don’t like socks that are made for adults (I may or may not have a drawer full of kids’ socks that have Star Wars and Disney characters on them). I’m pretty obsessed with Costco (Kirkland Signature is their house brand), so when I saw these for sale, I grabbed a pack immediately. My feet are almost constantly freezing, but I stayed nice and toasty all trip long. Even when we were stuck on top of a glacier for a while, my feet never got cold. People who know me will attest that this is a minor miracle. Wool socks can be pricey, and while these aren’t 100% wool, they’re way cheaper than any I found at sporting goods stores. Plus, the colors available are a lot cuter than most of the ones I found at places like Bass Pro and REI.
Clothing to pack for winter in Iceland
Fleece sweatshirts without hoods
You’ll need something to be your top layer, and a fleece top or fleece-lined sweatshirt without a hood is ideal. As much as I love hoodies, wearing them under a ski jacket always ends up annoying me because the hood adds too much bulk in back, especially since I used the hood on my waterproof coat a lot. These fleece-lined sweatshirts are the warmest things I own, and really cut down on the layers needed.
Flannel or fleece-lined jeans
If you’re concerned about being cold, these type of jeans will give you extra warmth without feeling like you’re wearing a bunch of layers. As a northerner, I was perfectly at home in Iceland’s winter climate, but people who aren’t used to the cold may struggle with it. Unlike most flannel-lined jeans, these skinny jeans with fleece are actually pretty cute. They’ll be the perfect addition to your packing list for winter in Iceland. Mine ran just a touch small, so check out their sizing chart and order a size or two up if in doubt.
Temperatures were right at or a little above freezing for most of my week in Iceland, so I was able to get away with only a sweatshirt most days, but I made use of my layers the day we went out on the glacier. I’ve always enjoyed Cuddle Duds for skiing because they provide extra warmth without a lot of bulk. They’re a lot thinner than traditional thermals, and you can get tops and bottoms.
Miscellaneous things to pack for Iceland in winter
A Good Camera
Every corner of Iceland appears to be photogenic, and you’ll want to snap pictures all day. My sister showed up with only her iPhone and her pictures just couldn’t compare to what the real cameras were capturing. My mom and I both bought Sony A6000 mirrorless cameras prior to the trip and I’m absolutely obsessed with mine. Mirrorless cameras offer near-DSLR quality images and controls without the bulk. My small carrying bag fits nicely in my carry-on backpack and it’s a lot better than hauling around a huge DSLR. The link pictured below includes a zoom lens in addition to the regular lens. You can order the camera without the extra lens for cheaper, which is what I did, but you’ll quickly realize that the zoom is necessary. If you want to see more examples of what the A6000 can do, check out this post of my top 25 pictures that will inspire you to visit Iceland in the winter.
Gorillapod mini tripod
I mainly used this for photographing the Northern Lights, and for a tiny little thing, it performed admirably. Make sure the screw fits in your camera, otherwise you’ll have to do some improvising like I did. This one is designed for DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but Joby also makes a model small enough to fit in my purse if you travel with a point-and-shoot. The Gorillapod isn’t something you’d use to shoot portraits, but it provides the stability necessary to take pictures with slow shutter speeds. It’s also able to be wrapped around things like tree branches and fences for additional angles. It may come in handy if you find yourself exploring remote areas and want to take a group photo with your camera’s self timer. Some of the models come with smartphone adapters as well, so you can use your phone if you don’t carry a camera.
One of Iceland’s big attractions is its natural hot springs. Whether you’re visiting the famous Blue Lagoon or taking a dip in one of the smaller local pools, you’re going to need a bathing suit. I got this one in my favorite color (pictured in the link image), and I love the straps on the sides of the bottom and the fact that it offers a bit more coverage up top. I struggle to find bikini tops because most of them are not designed for the kind of chest that I have, but this one keeps everything in place while still looking cute.
If you’re going to the Blue Lagoon and you didn’t pay for the upgraded package that includes a towel, you’ll have to bring your own. These mini towels don’t take up very much space, and will be perfect for drying off after you relax in the pool or one of Iceland’s hot springs. You’ll definitely need one if you plan to visit one of the smaller, non commercial pools in different areas of the country.
This is always handy to have, but it’s almost essential if you’re planning on sitting out at night waiting for the Northern Lights. Having this allowed me to tinker with my camera settings and tripod without worrying about draining my phone’s battery trying to see in the dark. This one is pretty rugged, so you don’t have to worry about it breaking in your checked luggage, and the clip on the side is surprisingly handy.
Hot beverages like coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are the perfect way to warm up when you’re out in winter weather. Much of Iceland is very remote, so you might find yourself driving for ages between restaurants or gas stations. This rugged thermos is the perfect way to keep your drinks hot on the road or while hiking. I use it all the time when I travel, and it does indeed keep drinks warm for hours and hours. I’m also a fan of the rubbery strap on it that allows me to clip it to my backpack if needed or just dangle it from my hand.
These are perfect for sitting out and watching the Northern Lights. It’s easy for your fingers to get cold while you’re not moving, so tucking a couple of these in your pockets is the perfect way to stay warm. The TSA does allow you to pack them in carry-ons and luggage as long as they don’t contain liquid (most air-activated ones do not), but you may want to check with your airline and government sites for regulations. Hot Hands is the name brand I’ve always used, and they make toe warmers designed for inside your shoes too.
If you’re more on the silly side, try one of these customizable, reusable hand warmers (you do need a microwave to heat them up) that you can get a person’s or pet’s face printed on. You’ll giggle every time you use one.
Food is expensive in Iceland, and out in the more remote areas, it’s sometimes hard to find. One morning, all we could find for breakfast was some gas station pastries (which, to be fair, were pretty good). Bring some protein bars, granola bars, or packs of nuts to tide you over if you find yourself in a spot with no food options. As an avid hot chocolate fan, I’d also recommend bringing some of that along.
Looking for more Iceland tips? Check out these posts:
- Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary
- Iceland’s Golden Circle in Winter
- Snowmobiling and Caving in the Vatnajökull Glacier
- The Best Spot to Ride Icelandic Horses
- 25 Pictures to Put Iceland on Your Winter Bucket List
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