What do you pack for a winter trip to Iceland? You don’t want to end up freezing, so warm clothing is essential. But you probably also don’t want to overpack and pay for excess baggage. A winter jacket, warm bottoms and sturdy shoes are a good starting point. What else is there? The weather in the winter is unpredictable and the forecast can change on short notice.
The average temperature in Reykjavík in January is around 0°C (or 31-32°F) but the first half of January was unusually cold this year, just like most of December, which was the coldest December of the century with temperatures down to around -15°C (or 5°F) in the capital area. The road from the main airport was also closed for almost two days shortly before Christmas, causing disruptions to flights and travel plans for a lot of people. But these are exceptions and not the rule. Still, travellers should take precautions while packing and be prepared for a variety of conditions in the Icelandic winter.
The packing list will depend a lot on what you are going to do. Are you mostly staying in town? Are you going on organised day tours or are you renting a car to drive around in the countryside? If you are staying in town the whole time or only going on organised day tours, you will need less advanced clothing than if you plan to go with a rental car and hike in the countryside. For those renting a car to do a self-drive tour in Iceland, we highly recommend reading our guide to driving in Iceland, and to check safetravel.is and road.is for information on road closures.
Clothing and Footwear
On some days, a thick woollen sweater (lopapeysa) might be enough, but on colder and stormy days, a proper insulated winter jacket would be better. In all cases, a wind and waterproof outer layer would be a good choice. For mid-layer, thick sweaters or fleece jackets can be great between the jacket and the base layer.
In terms of footwear, good waterproof winter shoes are recommended although lighter street shoes will suffice when there is no snow, at least if you are mostly staying in the city. Non-slip soles or snow studs/crampons to put under them are also a smart choice. Note that studs like Yaktrax are good for around the city, but for any serious outdoor winter activity, like glacier hiking, you will need proper crampons. If you will be trekking e.g. around waterfalls, shoes with good grip are necessary, many people have slipped in these places wearing boots with thin soles and limited or no grip.
Layering is a good way to be prepared for anything and thermal underwear are popular as they keep people warm without being heavy. Wool tights or long johns are called föðurland in Icelandic which means fatherland. The origin of the term in this meaning is unknown. A multipurpose jacket would be a good bet as well due to the unpredictability of winter weather, there could be rain and there could also be snow, even on the same day. So we definitely recommend a rain-proof outer layer, including trousers.
Travellers should also note that for many more adventurous outdoor activities, such as snowmobiling and glacier excursions, that your trip vendor will likely provide any special equipment you need, like snow suits or specialised footwear. If you have any questions, feel free to contact our Reykjavík Tourist Information, or else ask your vendor.
Warm gloves (or mittens, often better to keep the heat), a hat (e.g. a beanie) and possibly a scarf or neck gaiter are wise choices. Snood masks are very popular among Icelanders as well, and can be found in most outdoor outfitters. Sunglasses and sunscreen are also items that should be on your packing list. Even though daylight is scarce in the winter in Iceland, the sun is low and can be very bright and if you are walking in snow, the reflection from the snow can easily blind you if you are not wearing sunglasses. If your adventures take you near a glacier or ski-slope, then you may also consider skiing goggles. Thermal socks or wool socks are also indispensable.
Medicine is available in pharmacies in Iceland but often requires a prescription, so it’s better to have them with you if you know you will need them. Some travellers might be disappointed to know that some medicines for the common cold are unavailable in Iceland, but travellers are allowed to bring a small amount for personal use. A backpack for putting the layers of clothing in when you need is optional but can be useful. Swimwear is recommended if you want to visit the geothermal pools or natural baths. A credit card would be recommended but cash is not necessary, as cards are accepted almost everywhere. A battery pack or a car charger for your phone could come in handy. If you go on a road trip, your battery might drain fast from using the GPS and extra power will not hurt.
Your packing list will depend on what you intend to do in Iceland. You can get away with a slimmer list if you only plan to stay in town but should add items accordingly if you want to explore the countryside.
Highly recommended items:
- A waterproof insulated winter jacket
- Proper waterproof winter shoes with good tread
- Thermal under layer
- Hat (e.g. a beanie)
- Thermal socks or wool socks
- Credit card
Nice to have items:
- A backpack
- A battery pack
Are you already in Iceland and feeling cold and miserable because you didn’t pack everything on the list? You can buy the missing items in these stores:
- BYKO is a hardware store that also sells good workwear, including merino wool tights, rainwear, hats and gloves. Their prices will generally be lower than in most of the outdoor clothing stores but the quality should be decent nonetheless. They have two shops in the capital area, one in Grandi close to downtown and the other is in Kópavogur.
- Ellingsen is an outerwear store with a good variety of clothing to keep you warm, shoes, gear and equipment for hiking, including headlights and walking sticks. Their main store is located in Grandi, close to downtown Reykjavík.
- Alparnir has a shop on Skólavörðustígur 10 downtown (or on “the rainbow street” as some tourists call it). They offer quality outerwear and great service.
- 66°North is the best known and oldest Icelandic outerwear brand, founded in 1926. They focus on high quality outdoor clothing and their prices are also in the high range. They have three shops downtown Reykjavík and an outlet in Skeifan.
- Icewear is another Icelandic outerwear brand with several shops downtown and an outlet in Skeifan.