Winter is already upon us in Iceland. With temperatures hovering at or around freezing starting in October and staying there through November, December, January, and February, anyone visiting our small island needs to pack the right clothes for their trip. And as the reading on the mercury begins to dip, it’s time to break out the winter gear. So what exactly should you wear in Iceland to protect yourself from the cold and ensure that you stay warm and toasty? They say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Let’s make sure you bring the right items in your suitcase to be properly prepared to face the elements, stay insulated with layers, and make the most of your trip.
Winter Weather in Iceland
First things first, I want you to know what you’re facing weatherwise when it comes to Iceland in the winter. Some people picture a land filled with snowy landscapes, immense glaciers, nasty snowstorms, and subzero temperatures that will have your teeth chattering and give you hypothermia the moment you step outside. While this is an extreme, worst-case scenario, I can’t promise that you won’t experience some of these things. I think the temperature is the thing people most exaggerate. Yes, it gets cold. But Iceland is not some sub-Arctic tundra, at least not temperature-wise. Average temps are usually in the 30s and 40s ºF during the winter (low single-digits ºC). Overnight lows can dip down into the high 20s ºF (-2 or -3 ºC). So while no, it’s not quite bikini weather, it’s also not so cold that you will instantly turn into a human popsicle and freeze on the spot upon stepping outside.
While temperatures themselves are comparable to winter weather elsewhere, there’s another factor to take into account when dressing for Iceland in the winter. You will be visiting a very windy island. In fact, you’ll probably feel much colder from the wind itself rather than the temperature. On a typical day in places like Reykjavik, you’ll easily have gusts of 10-15 mph (16-24 kph) or slightly higher. As you can imagine, the wind chill, on top of already low temperatures, is a recipe for freezing your buns off while traveling. And we definitely don’t want that! So what’s your first line of defense? Not going! Just kidding. Iceland merits your time and attention, despite the cold. That being said, let’s see what you should pack and wear during your visit to make sure you’ve got all of your bases covered and the weather will be the last thing on your mind.
Four Layers of Happiness
If you read our blog post on how to dress for Iceland in the summer, you know that we are big fans of layering. Layers are great because you are comfortable at the outset and can just quickly remove what you don’t need as your body heats up. We recommended using the three-layer rule to stay warm when visiting during the days of the Midnight Sun. Now that the seasons have changed, you’ll need to adjust things just a bit. The secret to staying warm isn’t to just keep piling on layers and hoping for the best. In fact, it’s better to have a few thin layers made out of the right kind of material than tons of ineffective layers. Bigger and bulkier definitely does not mean better. So what should your four winter layers be for Iceland?
Clothing for Iceland: Base Layer – Wicks Moisture and Retains Body Heat
This is going to be the best one of the best pieces you can invest in for Iceland. Known as thermal underwear or long underwear, these items will be your foundation. You’ll want to choose materials that create a cushion of warm, dry air above your skin. Natural materials like Merino wool and silk or synthetics like polypropylene are an excellent choice for this. I wouldn’t recommend cotton because it has a tendency to absorb moisture (like sweat) and then hold it against your skin, which will actually cool you down.
What to Pack: Mid Layer – Materials That Move Moisture and Trap Warm Air
Your mid layers need to have a certain balance. You want them to absorb the moisture that has accumulated in your thermal underwear and then carry it to the surface where it can evaporate. Synthetics such as fleece are great here as is wool. The shirts, sweaters, and pants that you choose for this layer will need to trap the precious warm air that your body is producing and that your base layer is doing its best to hold onto.
Must-Have in Your Suitcase: Insulation Layer – Your Outer Garment
Now we’re getting to the big dogs. You’ve taken the time to select high-quality base layers and mid layers. We’ve got to find insulation to make sure we keep all of this heat as close to us as possible. In this case, you do want to have a thicker coat, jacket, or parka. Choose something with down, Thinsulate, Holofill, or another heavy duty type of insulation for this layer. A quick note about down. It tends to deflate and compress rather quickly once it gets wet and takes quite a while to dry. If you choose down, be very careful not to get it wet or damp. Synthetics tend to be better when dealing with wet weather.
What to Wear: A Shell Layer – Protection From the Elements
This next layer is crucial in Iceland. It’s not enough to just keep body heat IN. You’ll also want to focus on keeping the snow and the rain OUT. Additionally, when your shell layer also protects against wind, you will feel warmer than with a simple rain jacket. Buying a waterproof, breathable wind shell is your best bet.
Dressing for Iceland: Pants and Hats
If you don’t own a pair of flannel-lined jeans or pants, I suggest picking up at least one set. You’ll almost forget that you are hiking on a glacier with these special type of trousers in your corner. For your head, remember that you lose quite a bit of heat here. You’ll want to keep it covered at all times. Packing a wool beanie and/or using the snorkel hood on your parka are probably the best ways to stay warm.
Winter in Iceland: What to Pack and Wear
As you can tell, dressing for Icelandic weather is no joke. Just like booking your hotel or rental car, you need to plan in advance. Do your research on exactly what you need and prepare. It’s likely that you will have to buy clothing specifically for your trip. It’s all worth it though. The last thing you want is to be miserable on your trip because you came ill-prepared with poor clothing choices. Follow our guide, and you’ll be able to focus on what really matters: enjoying Iceland in the winter!