Winter is an incredible time to visit Iceland, and offers the best chance to see the Northern Lights there. However, winter travel has its challenges and requires a bit more packing 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.
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Waterproof winter coat
This is important. It’s going to be cold. 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.
Packable down jacket
I travel constantly for work, and this is by far my favorite travel accessory. It’s 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 the trip 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 available colors. 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, 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.
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.
Shoes and Socks
Waterproof hiking boots
For the days that you don’t need the rubber boots, waterproof hiking boots are perfect for walking around. They give the traction you need on unpaved or slippery paths without a lot of bulk. I decided to invest in new boots before this trip 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 Colorado, 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.
Waterproof ankle boots
I love these rubber ankle boots for travel. I initially bought them for November in Paris, but they were perfect 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. 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.
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.
I don’t really like taller socks. Every pair I own that isn’t specifically for softball is ankle high, so I had to buy some for Iceland because my hiking boots are higher. 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.
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 some flannel-lined jeans, these skinny jeans with fleece are actually pretty cute.
Temperatures were right at or a little above freezing for most of my trip, 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.
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.
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 small enough to fit in my purse, but 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 also 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.
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.
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.
Food is expensive in Iceland, and out in the more remote areas, it’s sometimes hard to find food. 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.
Looking for more Iceland tips? Check out these posts:
- Your Perfect Six-Day Southern Iceland Itinerary
- 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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