How should I dress for Iceland? I get this question a lot and it is understandable. Iceland’s volatile weather is world-famous. There is a well-worn phrase that is ‘Don’t like the weather? Just wait five minutes.’ Whoever came up with that phrase forgot to add. ‘You might dislike it even more than, so be grateful for what you got now’
Iceland ain’t Disneyland
The answer to the question how to dress for Iceland can perhaps best be answered with this little anecdote. I was hiking the Laugavegur trail in high summer. I had a large backpack with clothes for every contingency. The worst thing on hikes in Iceland is cotton or denim. These fabrics absorb water and cold and sadly have contributed to the death of inexperienced hikers who venture out in the Icelandic highlands dressed like they are strolling down the main street of Disneyland. Well, Iceland ain’t Disneyland.
Dry fit fits Iceland
On my Laugavegur hike I used every item of clothing in my backpack, every day, many times. So perhaps, I started out in early morning in freezing cold, high wind and driving rain. Underneath a waterproof shell jacket I had a dry fit t-shirt and a dry fit sweater. I wore sturdy hiking boots and woolen socks, shorts, dry-fit hiking trousers and soft shell trousers. I had a sweater made from Icelandic wool in my bag for those cold nights. Then an hour later, the sun was out and the wind died down. It became a race to get out of all of these layers and I was down to my shorts and t-shirt. My backpack got stuffed with all the protective clothing. And so on and so forth.
Icelandic wool is a magical shield of heat
I also remember being on Vatnajökull glacier when a strong northern wind hit us and people were hunkered down, waiting to see if we had literally to crawl down because of bad weather. But I took out my Icelandic woolen sweater and put it and put my windproof jacket on over it. It was like being cloaked in a shield of heat. As a result, waiting it out on the windswept and barren glacial plain until things calmed down and visibility was restored was just fine by me.
What do you mean by layers?
We are going to talk about layers a lot. But what does that mean? Well, layers are simply the method of wearing many items of clothing instead of just one or two. So for example, if you are going on a hike you might wear one very thick trousers which you hope you will really protect you from the elements. But this might be a mistake. You might be OK to begin with but then things start to heat up. You will be super hot and drenched in sweat and as a result you will not get no joy from your hike. A better method would be to wear woolen underwear which breaths, Thin dry fit shorts, dry fit pants and then a outer soft shell which dampens wind and protects against rain. All of these items ‘breathe’ so the risk of sweating is greatly reduced If things heat up sufficiently, you can simply ditch your shell and trousers and show off your beautiful legs.
We are not all hiking across glaciers or the highlands. But in general think about the following when packing clothes for Iceland.
In Iceland you want to be wearing waterproof shoes and boots. If you are going on a hike or joining a tour to a glacier I recommend sturdy hiking boots and woolen socks. Never go on an Icelandic glacier alone, join a tour with an experienced guide. Make sure you have broken your hiking boots in before going on hikes.
If you are coming to Iceland in winter, expect things to be snowy, cold and wet. In summer, just be prepared for little less cold and wet! It is a good idea to wear trail running shoes when you are getting around in summer. Hiking boots would be a complete overkill for a summer road trip of course.
Yet again, think layers. You will need protection from wind, rain and cold. In winter, add snow, frost and sleet into the mix. If you are traveling in winter, going on a hike or a tour avoid jeans like the plague. Have an outer layer of waterproof soft shell trousers and water-resistant and breathable and warm dry fit trousers underneath.
Jackets and sweaters
A good down jacket is essential for winter. These long dark nights were you are hunting for the northern lights are really cold! I also like woolen sweaters or sweaters made from dry fit fabric. In summer you want jackets that are water and wind resistant.
Gloves, socks and hats
I would always keep gloves and hats handy.
Don’t wear leather gloves. They look good but I find them to get cold, especially in winter. I would go for rugged and water-resistant gloves. I advice against cotton socks for long walks or hikes.
Use woolen socks instead. It is a good option to bring hiking socks. Have back up gloves, hats and socks if things get wet. Speaking of things getting wet. I like to wear dry fit shorts for those trips to swimming pools, baths and spas here in Iceland.
What to do if the sun is out?
Yes, the sun does shine in Iceland and like most things here, it can get a bit extreme. In fall and spring the sun is low on the sky and this can cause drivers to be blinded. So bring sunglasses to Iceland! And if you are on a glacier and the sun is shining, please make sure that you apply sunscreen and a lot of it. The white surface acts like a magnifier for sunlight. The sun is also strong in summer so bring sunscreen and sunglasses and enjoy!
How to dress in Iceland when going out on the town in Reykjavik?
Just wear your regular clothes but remember you need to stay warm. You are not ascending to a glacier although the weather can get ‘interesting’ of course. Remember, you may not want to look like somebody who is going up on Vatnajökull glacier on a Saturday night!
Weather forecasts in Iceland at your fingertips
When in Iceland, you can follow the weather reports and forecast at the Icelandic Met Office.