Winter is a wonderful time to visit Iceland. Not only will you have a higher chance of seeing the northern lights, but you’ll also enjoy fewer tourists and stunning winter scenery as well as the potential for lots of snow! But when it comes to packing for Iceland, that’s where it can get difficult.
I’ve got packing down to a fine art. I know exactly what to take for a city break, a week in the sun and even a month in Australia. What’s more, I fit everything into a small carry-on which makes travelling so much easier. But when packing for Iceland, I was stepping into new territory. There was so much conflicting advice online about what to pack for Iceland. Would I need crampons? What about waterproof trousers? How many layers would I need?
Having now spent 7 days in the land of fire and ice, I wanted to give you the lowdown on what to pack and what to leave at home with this winter packing list for Iceland. We’ll cover everything you need to include on your packing list for Iceland from clothes and footwear to accessories and photography equipment. I hope this Iceland packing list helps you!
How cold are Icelandic winters?
The weather in Iceland changes rapidly no matter the season. There is a saying in Iceland: ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.’ So, it’s important to be prepared for quickly changing weather conditions and adapt accordingly.
There is a common misconception that Icelandic winters are always sub-zero but you may be surprised to know that winters in Iceland aren’t actually that cold. Average temperatures in Reykjavik in January are around 0°C but it’s the windchill that makes it feel much colder so layers and windproof clothing are a must.
Winter packing list for Iceland
Whether you’re visiting Iceland in winter or summer, you’ll 100% need to pack waterproof trousers if you intend to visit some of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. The beautiful waterfalls are best enjoyed up close but this means you’re likely to get soaking wet from the spray. Donning my waterproof trousers before approaching the waterfall meant I could enjoy Iceland’s natural beauty without worrying about sitting in soaking wet clothes all day.
I bought these waterproof trousers from Amazon and I’d highly recommend them! Not only are they a steal at £12 but they were completely waterproof and packed up really small in my hand luggage.
If you only pack one thing for Iceland, make it a warm, windproof jacket. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be warm but also protected from that bitter Icelandic wind. On the whole, Icelandic winters are fairly mild compared to other places but it’s the wind that really bites. I’d suggest investing in a down jacket, like this down jacket from Millets. I purchased this coat about two months ago and can’t stress enough how much I have benefitted from it.
The only problem with down jackets is that they are typically not waterproof. Space wise it may be better to take one jacket that is both windproof and waterproof but as I’m so in love with my down jacket, I decided to take an extra coat that’s waterproof to wear over the top of the down jacket when at waterfalls and in bad weather. The good thing is, down jackets pack up extremely small and don’t take too much space in your carry-on. I’ve used this Karrimor waterproof jacket for the last four years.
Waterproof, windproof and warm – the three main criteria for all outer layers on your trip to Iceland. It goes without saying that you’ll need a good pair of gloves in Iceland, especially if you plan on taking part in snow or ice-based activities such as glacier hikes and ice cave tours. I had a basic pair of ski gloves which I used for a snowboarding trip last year but I’d recommend purchasing some gloves which allow you to operate your smartphone without having to remove your gloves every two minutes.
Hat and scarf
Another obvious choice to add to your packing list for Iceland is a warm hat and scarf. I didn’t invest in anything fancy here, I simply packed a warm bobble hat and big woolen scarf knitted by my mum. Both items kept me warm and cosy but if you do want to go one step further, I’d suggest investing in a waterproof, thermal hat. I also took a multifunctional scarf which works as a snood or headband for the days when we were hiking. I didn’t always want to carry a huge scarf with me, so the hiking snood was perfect for keeping me warm, without being too heavy and cumbersome.
Nature is the name of the game in Iceland and, even if you don’t plan on doing much hiking, you’ll do a fair amount of walking on uneven ground that may or may not be icy, so be sure to invest in a good pair of waterproof hiking boots with good grip for your Iceland packing list. If you buy new boots for this trip, break them in before you go so you don’t have to worry about blisters during your trip and make sure you buy boots that are big enough to wear at least two pairs of thermal socks. Finally, if you’re worried about packing space, wear your hiking boots on the plane.
Not the most glamourous of items to include on your packing list for Iceland but you’ll be thankful you did! It might seem that normal cotton clothing would suffice, but under so many layers you’ll need breathable thermal layers that wick away sweat quickly, keeping you warm and dry. My husband raves about merino wool base layers and while I’m yet to try merino wool myself I know that its wicking and fast-drying properties are the reason it’s the base layer of choice for many! If you’re travelling for longer than three or four days, I’d recommend investing in at least two pairs of leggings and two thermal tops – one to wash and one to wear.
As mentioned, layers are extremely important for Iceland’s changing weather conditions. On your top half, you’ll want to include at least two additional layers in addition to your thermal base layer, whether this be a t-shirt, fleece or hoodie. Of course, only taking hand-luggage meant I had limited space so I took four t-shirts with me, a hoodie and a polar-neck jumper and washed all my clothes halfway through the week.
Again, due to limited luggage space, I had to simplify the clothing that I included on my packing list for Iceland. I wore a pair of blue jeans on the plane and packed a pair of black jeans in my luggage. Fortunately, with a pair of thermal leggings underneath and a pair of waterproof trousers on the top, my two pairs of jeans didn’t get dirty throughout the week, so I didn’t have to wash these while in Iceland.
As mentioned before, merino wool enjoys excellent thermal and quick drying properties so, if you can fork out for merino wool socks, they’ll keep your feet exceptionally warm and wick away sweat which will help to prevent blisters but, if not, opt for some thick hiking socks which will do a decent job too.
One ‘going out’ outfit
Reykjavik is one of the only cities I’ve been to in which you can wear ski gear all day and all night and not look out of place. That being said, if you do decide to go out on the town, you may want to add a ‘smarter’ outfit to your packing list for Iceland. By smarter, I mean jeans and a semi-nice top that you wouldn’t mind wearing in a bar or restaurant. Also, rather than wearing my hiking boots in the evenings, I packed a pair of sheepskin boots for wandering around the city.
It’s strange to include a swimsuit on the same list as thermal base layers and waterproof coats but you’ll kick yourself if you forget to add a swimsuit to your winter packing list for Iceland. If you plan on hitting up any of Iceland’s geothermal pools, such as the Blue Lagoon or a natural hot spring in the mountains, you’ll need to throw in a bikini. Whether or not you take a towel is up to you, but if you’re limited on space, you can hire a towel from most spas.
The jury is still out on this one as I received a lot of conflicting advice on whether crampons were a necessity or not. Originally, I wanted to buy a pair with metal spikes but these are not allowed in hand luggage for obvious reasons, so I opted for these crampons from Amazon instead. The ground around the waterfalls can become extremely slippery if the temperature drops below freezing so I decided to pack them in my carry-on just in case. Personally, I found that I didn’t really need them and only used them once during my trip but if weather conditions had been different, I imagine they’d have come in handy.
Camera and tripod
Whether you’re a photography enthusiast or not, you’re going to want to snap some photos of the incredible Icelandic landscape. Don’t put all your trust in a smartphone. Invest in a decent DSLR camera and learn a couple of easy settings to get you started.
I find that, as soon as people hear the word DSLR, they think ‘expensive’. But that doesn’t have to be the case. All images in this post were taken on a Nikon D7000, which is an older DSLR and therefore very reasonably priced. You can pick them up second hand between £100-200.
Additionally, if you intend to snap some great photos of the northern lights, you absolutely must bring a tripod or gorillapod – there’s no way around it!
You’ll need a backpack big enough to carry a change of clothes, bottle of water, camera and, if you’re on a budget, a supply of food for the day. If you purchase a waterproof rucksack to protect your gear from the changing Icelandic weather, even better!
Reusable water bottle
As a traveller, I try to ensure my impact on the planet is as minimal as possible. That includes making small changes like carrying a reusable water bottle rather than buying single use plastic bottles. I use this water bottle from Amazon for all my trips and not only has it saved tons of single use plastic, it’s also saved me money. The water in Iceland is very pure and fine to drink straight from the tap, so rather than buying water bottles, take a reusable water bottle and fill up each day.
OK, so this one is exactly a necessity for your Iceland packing list but I wanted to take a minute to highlight the beautiful handmade passport holders sold by my sister, Louise, in her Etsy shop, Knowle Craft. All her items are lovingly handmade at her home and I just love the geometric passport covers she has in her shop at the moment. You can even opt to have them personalised with your name! Check out her Etsy shop, give it a like and why not treat yourself to a cute passport cover or notebook cover for your travels?
These little things are life savers, especially if you plan to be out late at night hunting the northern lights. It makes such a difference to be able to access a heat source. I currently use these hand warmers which I purchased in bulk from Amazon. They stay hot for well over 10 hours but I don’t like the fact that they are single use so go in the bin after one day. I want to look into purchasing some hand warmers that can be used more than once but have yet to do that.
You’ve probably heard it said already…Iceland is expensive and if you’re on a budget like me, you’ll benefit from taking some food supplies with you in your luggage. I packed sachets of porridge and soup, dried noodles and pasta, granola bars and chocolate bars. Trust me when I say it came in handy!
If you really want to go to town on the budgeting front, pack a thermos and take soups or hot drinks out with you each day. Not only will this save you money on lunch and coffee stops but the warm beverage will be a welcome respite from the cold!
With only 5 hours daylight, chances are you’ll be out and about before the sun rises or after it sets. Pack a small flashlight or head torch and keep it in your backpack handy just in case you find yourself in need of a light source. This also comes in handy when out shooting the northern lights as you’ll need to see your camera to get the settings right.