Going to Iceland and other Nordic Countries such as Norway and Finland in winter requires hard core winter outfit. Whether you are hiking or just taking a road trip, packing the proper clothes for your trip is essential as you want to stay warm and dry instead of cold and sorry. When it comes to packing for Iceland in winter, understand that you should be going for comfort over style. If you come from tropical country like me who only knows 2 seasons; dry and rainy season, packing for winter trip to these countries require some planning and shopping.
Winter in Iceland
Winter in Iceland and other Nordic Countries is between November and March. These are the darkest months of the year, with little sunlight. The year’s shortest day happens just before the Christmas holidays, on the 21st of December. On that day, there are only 4-5 hours of daylight. March is the longest day with sunlight during winter and is the last month to see natural ice cave and northern light.
In Iceland, winter is the most unpredictable season when it comes to the weather. Tours depend on weather and visibility so they can be canceled with just a few hours’ notice. The same with access to road. We went to Iceland in March which was supposed to be the the last month of winter but surprisingly there was a lot of snow and it was snowing almost everyday when we were there. Iceland is not as cold as what people think but the Icelandic wind is in a whole different level.
Before we go into what clothes to wear we need to understand what are the best fabrics to keep you warm.
The best fabrics to keep you warm
Wool: For winter activewear, wool is a great choice. Merino wool is especially popular, as it’s very warm and softer than other types of wool. It also wicks sweat and is particularly resistant to wear and odor, making it a good long-term option.
Cashmere: It is usually a material for luxury items Cashmere thread is made from the underfur of mountain goats that live in the Himalayas. This fabric is expensive because the manufacturing process is very difficult. The underfur of goats is combed out during the spring and the fabric has to be produced by hand. Cashmere is warmer that wool, in fact it can retain eight times more heat than wool and it is lightweight. However the downside is the price tag.
Silk: It’s best for use as a base layer rather than an outer one, as it wicks moisture and helps you to retain heat. It’s smooth and comfortable, but on the downside, it is mroe expensive.
Polyester: It is a synthetic material made mainly from woven plastic. It’s commonly used for base layers since it provides such good insulation and also outer layer as it can also repels water and keeps out the wind. Polyester isn’t quite as odor-resistant as natural materials like wool, but it is less expensive and more durable.
Nylon: Though nylon is not a particularly absorbent or warm material, it does wonders at keeping you dry. This synthetic material was designed to imitate silk, and it’s quite durable and perfect for use in both rain or snow. Wear nylon as your outer layer, and you’re guaranteed to stay dry.
Polypropylene: it is a durable, hydrophobic material that is good for intense physical activity due to its excellent moisture-wicking abilities. It’s not terribly warm, but if you’ll be sweating a lot during your winter activity, a polypropylene base layer might be right for you. One thing to note is that it is not resistant to heat, so you’ll need to be careful around fire or when drying gear made of this material.
Synthetic Blends: Many base layers and other winter clothes are actually a blend of natural and synthetic materials. For example a blend of merino wool and polyester will be soft, warm, durable, moisture-wicking, and resistant to odors, whereas pure wool or polyester might just have a few of these features. This kind of blend has the benefits of natural materials without a high price tag.
Fleece: This is one of the most versatile and dynamic materials available for making clothing, blankets, jackets, and other accessories. Fleece traps a barrier of air warmed by your own body temperature next to your skin. This means that cold air is trapped outside of the material and warm air is trapped inside. While fleece is trapping warmth close to your skin, its fibers are wicking moisture away from your skin and transferring it to the outside by a process called capillary action. That’s how fleece fabric continues to provide warmth even when it’s wet. For that reason, fleece fabric is used a lot for outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding, mountain climbing etc.
Down: it is a natural material—the down, or feathers, of ducks and geese. The more down that’s stuffed in your coat, the warmer it will be. Typically, a down coat will have a waterproof outer layer into which the insulation is placed. Like silk, down winter clothing can be on the pricier side, as it’s a natural material.
Gore-Tex: it is a waterproof, windproof material made of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE). This material is very strong, yet warm and breathable. It’s commonly used as an outer layer for winter coats or snow pants because of its ability to keep you dry in the wettest of weather. Gore-Tex can also be used in footwear like winter boots. —if you’re tramping through the snow in boots that aren’t waterproof, your feet will undoubtedly become wet and cold quite quickly, so durable, waterproof material is important.
You need to follow a few rules to stay warm and enjoy the outdoors during winter. The first rule is you have to layer your clothes. I’ve learned the hard way about how to layer properly from many many winter trips here’s my sharing on layering tips. It’s easier than you think.
How to layer for cold weather
First is choosing your base layers. These are the layer of clothing closest to your skin, and they help regulate your temperature. They’re designed to keep heat in while wicking sweat away from your skin to keep you comfortable and warm when you’re switching between hot indoor spaces and cold outside climates, or doing outdoor winter activities. Base layers come in both tops and bottoms, and are meant to be fitted close to your skin.
The common material for base layers are merino wool, silk, synthetic (some sort of polyester or polyester blend) and bamboo. The warmest base layer is usually merino wool, but if your skin is sensitive to wool, go for synthetic blend.
Mid layers mean what you wear in between base layer and outer layer. So you can wear 1 or 2 tops depending on how cold it is outside and whether they can still fit in nicely after you put on your outer layer. I used 2 tops when we went hunting for northern light. Most likely you won’t need to shop for this as you will already have them in your wardrobe. My favourite fabrics for mid layers are merino wool, lightweight wool, cashmere and fleece.
Your pants come as mid layer. Wear fleece lined pants and if you are going for Glacier walk or Ice cave tour, wear waterproof pants.
Having the right outer layer helps to protect you from the harsh elements like rain, wind, and snow. You need to get Insulated jacket/shell which is windproof, waterproof and can stand below zero Celcius. With the proper layers worn underneath, this top-layer jacket keeps the wind from robbing you of heat. Remember that all of your layers should be breathable for the layering system to work.
I got mine from Columbia which can stand below zero Celcius with its omni heat property. North Face also have very good selection but their pricing is higher than Columbia.
Other accessories you need to pack
- Sturdy waterproof hiking boots with a good grip that can keep you warm and comfortable for long walking. Remember that you are going to walk outdoors on snowy and icy ground so your boots have to be comfortable instead of nice looking only. Got mine from Columbia also. Decathlon also has nice selections for more affordable price.
- Wool thick socks – bring several. I double my wool socks when we went for ice cave tour and northern light tour
- Spike/Cleats. The walks to the waterfall can be very slippery and having spike/cleats on your shoes are super helpful and safe too. If you can’t buy it online you can get them in supermarket in Iceland or Norway. If you’re going for glacier hike or ice cave your provider will give you the heavy duty crampon. The spike/cleat I mention here is a simple one but can save you from tripping as during winter the footpath can be very slippery.
- Scarves from wool or cashmere
- Wool knit hats or ear muff to cover your ears as they can cold easily
- Waterproof Gloves – get the one with a tip for touch screen phone
- Bathing suit/swimsuit. Yes believe it or not, you do need one when you are traveling to Iceland in winter! Hot springs in Iceland are warm all year round, so you want to make sure you have a swimsuit so you can take a dip.
- Hot hands. These are life saviors when we were chasing northern light as we had to stand outdoor for a long period of time. You can buy this in Iceland too. But I got mine from online marketplace
Where we shop for Winter gears
Outdoor Winter Gear stores such as North Face and Columbia. For more affordable options you can buy at Decathlon or Mountain Warehouse (if you’re based in the UK). They have various winter collection of jackets, mid layer fleece, base layer, pants, hats, gloves, and boots. I got our outer jackets and boots from Columbia but for my kids I bought their boots from Decathlon as I don’t want to pay a fortune when their feet are still growing.
Cold Wear Stores (if you are based in Indonesia and Singapore). Cold Wear is a Singapore-based company which carries a wide collection of winter jackets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves as well as travel-related accessories and they have stores in Singapore and Jakarta. I bought merino wool base layers here and also waterproof jacket for my then 6 years old daughter here. They carry a good selection of winter gears for children and adult.
Uniqlo, a Japanese brand which sells casual clothes for all kind of season. They don’t specifically cater for outdoor winter items but they do provide a nice selection of winter clothes for reasonable price. They have a good selection of base layers which comes in three types from regular Heattech, Extra Warm and Ultra Warm (the warmest), mid layers, outer layer such as down/puffer jackets and other accessories such as shawl, hats, gloves etc. I bought various mid layers, fleece pants and accessories like shawls, hats, and gloves from them.
Ali Express, an online retail service based in China and owned by the Alibaba Group. Launched in 2010, it is made up of small businesses in China and other locations, such as Singapore, that offer products to international online buyers. I bought several accessories here like wool socks, gloves, hats, cleats, hot hands and also winter clothes for my 6 years old daughter. The shipping can take up to 1 month so do not shop here if you need to have your items urgently.
What are the other options?
If you can’t fit all the above into your check-in bag, or if you think all those high-quality jackets and pants are too expensive, you might want to consider renting option. If you book tours, some Tour provider such as Northern Light tour usually rent a bulky jacket or parka to help ward off the coldness during northern light hunting. Ice Cave and Glacier walk tour also rent waterproof hiking boots. For general winter outdoor clothes you can rent from Iceland Cover and Iceland Camping Equipment.
I hope our tips help. Let us know in comment section if you have other tips 😉