Updated: Sep 30, 2022
No one has the holiday of a lifetime whilst schlepping ridiculously heavy bags around. But oftentimes it can be easy to overpack for travel abroad, especially when choosing your clothes for Iceland.
For example, you might think that as you are renting a campervan, you can always leave stuff behind while you set about exploring on foot. However, even if that is true, you’ll end up lugging your bags around more often than you might imagine.
On the other hand, taking only what you deem as ‘the essentials’ can be just as problematic. While it might seem like washing your smelly socks every few days is a fine idea, getting them clean will turn out to be the easy part – waiting for them to dry is a whole other story. You’ll soon be looking at your backpack and wondering why you didn’t tuck an extra pair in that side pocket.
Yet, throwing every item of winter clothing you own into your bag is, well, overkill. There’s a sweet spot somewhere between the two where you get it just right. Here we give you all the tools needed to find that ideal balance, so you can be sure you’re packing the right clothes for your Icelandic adventure.
Why packing matters
Iceland is a truly unique spot on the map, an incredible country with so much to see and do. But even the most majestic scenery and once-in-a-lifetime activities won’t be much fun if you’re not prepared. Leaving your gloves behind is likely to send you straight into the nearest outdoor gear shop before you exclaim the words, “I can’t feel my fingers!”
Imagine how frustrating it would be if instead of standing around in the cold in the hope of spotting the Northern Lights – by the way, that’s the fun part – all you want to do is sit in the van because your feet are beginning to resemble blocks of ice. Don’t be that traveler. Thinking about what to wear in Iceland needs careful thought, preferably before you leave home.
What you won’t need to take
Iceland’s not a cheap country, but should you need to buy gear you’ve left behind, it is possible to purchase it locally.
One of those iconic wool sweaters (ask for a Lopapeysa if you want to treat yourself) makes a brilliant souvenir from Iceland, but if the budget doesn’t stretch to that, you could always buy a pair of hand-knitted socks. You can wear them while you’re traveling and then take them home at the end of your trip.
If you plan to visit Vatnajökull’s spectacular ice caves, head out on a RIB to spot whales, drive a snowmobile, ride a horse or go diving in Silfra fissure. Since you’ll do so with a guide, there’s absolutely no need to invest in expensive gear.
These specialist tour operators will kit you out with the essentials to keep you safe, whether that be dry suits, helmets, crampons, or warm overalls. All you’ll need to sort out is what goes underneath, preferably sweat-wicking and breathable thermal wear.
How to cope with the cold
It’s not so much the cold that’s the issue when it comes to packing the right clothes for Iceland. In fact, even in the depths of winter, Iceland’s mid-Atlantic location gives it what’s known as a maritime climate.
This means that Iceland resembles Britain more than Siberia in the depths of winter. In Reykjavík, for instance, it’s actually pretty rare for temperatures to plummet way below freezing.
But no matter what time of year you come, the weather and the wind in Iceland are notoriously changeable. Damp conditions and, of course, the dreaded wind chill factor can make temperatures feel much lower than they really are.
One of the best pieces of advice we can give you is to ensure your top layers are windproof and waterproof. That way you’ll be super snug no matter what the Land of Fire and Ice decides to throw at you.
Another pro-trick to keeping yourself warm even when the weather is doing its best to freeze you solid is to ensure moisture is wicked away from your skin. Avoid fabrics such as cotton; when you sweat as they get wet and – crucially – stay wet. Instead, choose a base layer that’s purposely designed for hiking or outdoor activities that keeps the moisture off your skin.
So what to wear in Iceland?
It’s really important to wear layers that can be added or taken off as the weather changes. Here are a few essentials for your packing list:
The base layer – ideally thermal, wool, or specialist fabric
A couple of fleeces or woolly sweaters
Weatherproof trousers that dry easily – Iceland’s no place for double denim
Warm hat, gloves, scarf, and plenty of thick socks
A decent coat that’s going to keep you warm and dry
Comfortable boots – but make sure you wear them first
Since you’ll be focusing on keeping warm and preparing for bad weather, you might overlook one very important item: your swimsuit or swimming trunks. No matter what time you come to Iceland, even if it’s blowing a gale or there’s thick snow on the ground, you are going to need this for the country’s famous thermal baths. Optimists will chuck in a pair of sunglasses as well.
What to pack for a July trip
In some ways, packing for summer is the hardest of all seasons. Many travelers come to Iceland from warmer countries, and it’s hard to think about thick jumpers or hats and gloves when the sun’s baking hot.
You could get lucky: sometimes Iceland’s weather in July and August can feel very summery indeed, with temperatures reaching the heady heights of approximately 20°C and clear blue skies ideal for outdoor pursuits.
Unfortunately, most times if you travel to Iceland in summer it’s hardly going to be short sleeves and flip-flops weather. It’s far more common for temperatures to be mild, but even then it’s not uncommon to experience days around 13 to 15°C. In reality, there’s a chance of any kind of weather – wind, rain, sleet, or even snow. The bottom line: set your expectations accordingly.
When sorting out clothes for Iceland in July you’ll need to pack for all eventualities, which can be a little frustrating if some gear you haul over sits in your suitcase until you get back home again. But it’s better to be over-prepared and to have in hand what you need, rather than be unprepared and miserable.
Other items you’ll be glad you packed
Packing’s not all about clothes, of course. In this modern age when we’re all lost without our mobile phones, don’t leave behind your charger and an adapter. If the power sockets in your own country are different from those common in Iceland, you’ll be glad you didn’t leave this helpful gadget off your list.
Don’t forget your batteries either. Cold weather can drain a battery surprisingly quickly. Bring plenty of memory cards too – Iceland’s photogenic landscape demands it.
Save money on drinks by packing a refillable water bottle. Iceland’s tap water is perfectly safe to drink and being able to top up your water bottle in this way will mean you don’t have to keep shelling out for drinks at cafés or supermarkets. Not to mention you’ll be benefiting the environment if you can ditch that single-use plastic.
Now you’re sorted in terms of what clothes and accessories should be in your suitcase or backpack for a trip to Iceland. Next, all you need to think about is what's going to carry you around. Get yourself sorted with one of our campervans or motorhomes and your Icelandic escapade can begin!