Preparation

Clothing in Iceland: What to pack and what to wear

There was a point in our trip planning where we realized we had no idea what we needed to pack. We had plane tickets and lodging figured out. But what did we need to bring with us?

First, make sure you know what the average temperature is for the time of year you will be visiting Iceland. Here’s a graph, taken from our Hours of Daylight in Iceland post. You’ll notice that it isn’t as cold as you may fear, at least in Reykjavik—average highs are above freezing year-round:

temp
Source: http://www.holiday-weather.com/reykjavik/averages/

But, realize that Icelandic weather doesn’t like to stick close to the average all of the time. There are summer days where the high will be 70, and summer days where the high will be 35. The 35 is somewhat unusual, though it was more common in the summer of 2015; Iceland Review called that summer the “Coldest Summer in Decades.” Also note that the wind in certain parts of the country can be much stronger than you are used to; a temperature of 50 degrees feels very different with a constant 30 mile per hour wind.

Next, think about what kind of vacation you plan to have. Will you be outside all day on a multi-hour hike with a picnic lunch? Or will you be wandering around downtown Reykjavik, spending time inside of stores and museums? In either case, you will still need warm clothing and layers, but you may not need to buy as much in the latter case.

Regardless, here are our three main points to remember:

  1. Layers are good, for both warmth and flexibility
  2. Cotton is bad, and wool is good, especially for the base layer
  3. A windproof outer layer is also good

Let’s go over these in a little more detail.

Layers

When you need to dress warmly, just use more layers. The air trapped between your layers gets warm from your body heat, and acts as an extra insulator. Down jackets actually do this too, but they are bulky to pack. Also, if most of your insulation is coming from one jacket, you can’t make yourself “just a little bit” cooler; it’s all or none.

You’re usually going for 3 or 4 layers in total on the top, and typically 1 or 2 on the bottom. Two layers on top can be fine for warmer days in Iceland, and a long hike on a freezing cold and windy day could call for 5 if don’t have a lot of wool.

The base layer in Iceland: think wool

Wool is amazing, and you should invest in some. Yes, I said invest, as wool is usually expensive. But a wool base layer- that is, the layer closest to your body- will keep you comfortable and warm. Wool is warm, it’s breathable, it stays warm when wet, and it doesn’t absorb odors. Yes, you’ll want to wash your wool base layers eventually, but you really can hang it up unwashed and wear it again the next day. You can pack less and worry less about laundry during your vacation.

For adults, you’ll typically pay  $50 or more per piece (top and bottom) for a good wool baselayer. We bought sets made by Smartwool and Icebreaker. But, check out the Meriwool brand on Amazon (formerly called Elementex): Here’s a men’s 100% wool base layer shirt and the comparable women’s shirt. These are currently $34.99 each, are a good weight, and have very good reviews. The oldest reviews are from December 2016, so they are new to Amazon; the price may be bumped up at some point if they sell well.

The pants from the same company are also $34.99: Men’s pants and women’s pants.

Wash them infrequently (and gently), and these should serve you well long after your vacation is over.

Some people worry that the wool base layer will be itchy. We didn’t have any problems, though a very small percentage of people online (maybe 5%?) complain about itchiness. Some of those people say the problem goes away after a few wearings.

Some people worry that the wool base layer will be itchy. We didn’t have any problems, though a very small percentage of people online (maybe 5%?) complain about itchiness. Some of those people say the problem goes away after a few wearings.

Base Layers for Kids

For our kids, we opted for the Helly Hansen wool base layer set, which have a layer of other fabric underneath the wool. Up to size 9 is called “Kid’s HH Warm Base Layer,” and larger sizes (actually 8 through 16) is called “Kid’s Junior HH Warm Base Layer.” These are NOT your typical sizes; it tries to stick closely to age, not the sizes you may be used to. See the size chart on Helly Hansen’s web site.

These Helly Hansen base layers are not 100% wool, and I don’t like that they don’t actually tell you how much wool is in the small sizes. They are actually all 57% wool, and have a layer of wool on the outside: “Combining the unique Lifa® fiber technology next to skin to keep you dry, with a premium Merino wool exterior with superior insulating and wicking properties.” What I do like is that the elbows and knees are reinforced with fleece. Our kids must have worn their shirts 40 or more days while we were in Iceland, and many of them are still wearing them often at home. They are holding up very well.


A 2 layer summer day, with (57%) wool underneath!

The middle layers

I’m a little bit less concerned about the middle layers– it seems silly to spend a lot on warm clothes that are just going to get sandwiched between your wool and your outer layer. I had a merino wool sweater that I brought and wore as a second or third layer. The only thing warmer than a layer of wool is two layers of wool!

The kids would usually just wear a regular long-sleeved shirt next, followed by a fleece jacket. And that was enough for most typical summer days for us. If it’s winter, you could add an extra layer in there. Something like wool base layer–> shirt–> sweater–> fleece.

If you’re going to be out quite a bit in very cold weather, you may want to learn layering from people smarter than me. Check out the layering guide from REI or Sierra Trading Post.

The outer layer for Iceland

If it wasn’t raining, or even if it was just raining a little, most of us wore a fleece as an outer layer. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy; we’re not going for wool here. As an example, here is the fleece that one of our kids wore.

We also brought cheap rain gear with us. In fact, we bought the cheapest rain gear we could find. On the one hand, it worked well for the times we remembered to wear them. On the other hand, it kind of felt like wearing a few reusable bags that had been molded into the rough shape of a jacket. This is the set we bought for the kids; it’s only $25 for the top and the bottom. Here’s a woman’s set, and a men’s set. We only broke these out in heavy rain—a nicer rain set might see more use.

You could also wear a “regular” jacket as your outer layer, and this might be a better (warmer) idea if you’re not going in the summer. Make sure it’s large enough to fit over all of your layers that you’ll be wearing underneath; you may even want a fleece below this in winter. You don’t need a jacket rated to any extreme temperature here. Since you have 3 or 4 layers underneath, it’s less critical that this jacket by itself is super warm. Instead, look for windproof and waterproof properties. A “soft shell” jacket will do both wind and water well, though it might start to absorb some water in a downpour.

Here again, you need to think about your vacation plans. If you are planning an all-day hike, you need very a waterproof outer layer on the top and the bottom. If you’re going to do shorter excursions, a soft shell or an inexpensive rain layer will be fine. And if you’re willing to change your plans if it’s raining, a fleece might be fine.

Boots or Shoes?

We bought hiking boots for everyone, for a few reasons. First, we did a couple of tours that required crampons to be attached to sturdy shoes: A glacier hike and Into the Glacier. Second, some hikes had some slippery sections, and hiking boots provided modestly better traction.

If you’re not planning a lot of long hikes, I think good shoes with good traction can be enough. And if you have older kids, they can rent hiking boots for the glacier hike.

While we’re talking about footwear,  wool socks can also help keep your feet warm. Just make sure your wool socks have a lot of wool in them: Look for 70% or more. The first result in a search for wool socks on Amazon says: “Made of 54% Nylon, 25% Merino Wool, 16% Polypropelene, 5% Spandex.” Shouldn’t those be called nylon socks?

What about boat tours in Iceland?

Once you’re out on the water for a whale watching or fishing trip, the temperature can drop and the winds can increase. It would seem you need to go all out and wear as many layers as possible. But, most boat tours provide you with insulated coveralls to wear:

You still need a layer or two underneath, depending on the weather. That wool base layer could be all you need in the summertime!

Be sure to bring hats and gloves, since the coveralls won’t protect your head or hands. I don’t think there’s a magic formula for the right hats and gloves– just buy something you and your kids will want to wear. I do find that many hand-knitted Icelandic wool hats are not as warm as a “regular” beanie, because of the gaps in the fabric.

Bring options for warm weather too!

In the summertime, you can have days in the 60s. Here’s a picture from a 70 degree day in East Iceland:

It can happen. Surprisingly, it’s more common in the northern or eastern parts of the country. That doesn’t mean you necessarily need to bring shorts; just bring those layers and be ready to remove them as needed! Even a typical summer day in Reykjavik, with highs in the 50s, may only require a shirt and a jacket.

Icelandic Wool sweaters: Lopapeysa

You may be planning to buy a traditional hand-knitted Lopapeysa sweater as a souvenir from Iceland. (See my son wearing his in the top picture on this post.) If so, buy one early and you can wear it on your vacation. One of these sweaters can easily take the place of two layers. You may not want to wear it in the rain, though; it can get a little smelly! Note that these sweaters can cost $200 or more. I think the best place to get a quality sweater is the Handknitting store in Reykjavik.


That’s it! If you come from a climate that gets cold in the wintertime, Icelandic weather might not be that big of a change for you. Just remember a couple of points:

  1. The wind might be worse than you are used to, and you could be out on an Icelandic landscape with nothing to block the wind. If you park your car facing the wrong direction the wind can blow the door open with enough force to damage the hinges. (It’s not that common, but it does happen. Park with the car facing into the wind—otherwise, the wind could grab the door right out of your hand and force it open.)
  2. You may be outside a whole lot more in Iceland. At home, if it’s a cold, blustery day with strong winds and maybe some sleet, you’re probably not going to spend 3 hours outside hiking. That longer amount of time spent outside is where the wool and layers are going to benefit.

Let us know what you think!


Some of the links above are affiliate links. We only use affiliate links for products we either used or strongly recommend. So, the wool base layers have some affiliate links, but the cheap rain gear links are not. We really like wool base layers!

Clothing in Iceland: What to pack and what to wear was last modified: May 8th, 2017 by Eric