What to Wear in Iceland: A Guide for Every Season

Shawn Forno

Packing for Iceland isn’t that hard—you just have to know what’s waiting for you. Pack some durable weather gear (and lots of socks), but also make sure you’re equipped to rub elbows with the locals at some of the trendy watering holes and clubs around town. Because at the end of the day, Iceland is a lot more than just glaciers, waterfalls, and ponies.

Iceland. This rugged island is home to stunning glaciers, epic waterfalls, and one of the best underground music scenes in Europe. And despite the recent shutdown of Wow Air, Iceland is still one of the better places to score a free layover on your way to, or from, Europe. So it’s no surprise that Iceland (home to just 334,000 people) received more than 2 million tourists in 2017.

But there are a few surprises in store for the unwary tourists that flock to Iceland every year. The steep prices, brutal cold snaps that happen all year long (yes, even during the summer), and the nearly constant wind make Iceland a…challenging place to pack for.

But don’t panic. You can pack the right clothing and gear to prepare for the dangerously hip Reykjavik bar scene, icy northern winds, and plethora of Instagrammable moments you’re sure to experience on your trip to Iceland. And you can do it all in a carry on backpack. 

Here’s how to pack and what to wear in Iceland for season.

What to Wear in Iceland: Preparing for Extremes

It’s Always Cold: Bring (Good) Layers

There’s a reason they call it “Iceland.” Hint: It’s because it gets really cold. Don’t fall for the edited pictures on Instagram or the charming pics of the Blue Lagoon. The weather in Iceland is mostly cold, wet, windy, overcast, and cold (yeah, I said it twice).

The confusing thing about visiting Iceland during the summer is that the sun is up nearly 24 hours a day. But remember, Iceland is just a smidge south of the Arctic Circle. So “sun” doesn’t necessarily mean “warmth.” It can be light all day long and still hover just above (or below!) freezing.

You’re (hopefully) going to spend a fair bit of time outside. Driving the southern coastal road, walking near glaciers, and jumping in front of waterfalls for #blessed photos. Heck, thousands of visitors even car camp around the island. The last thing you want is to be cold every time you set foot outside.

Bring Multiple Layers

Including a good lightweight fleece or travel sweatshirt. It’s nice to have a stylish sweater for going out, but if it’s paper thin or doesn’t actually keep you warm, you’ll just bury it under your coat most days. Merino wool shirts also provide a great base layer that you can strip down to if the weather cooperates.

I spent an entire summer in Iceland a few years ago, and the only time I was really warm was in a hot pool. Seriously, I had to layer up nearly all of my clothing everyday just to stay warm at night since I was camping for large stretches of it.

There’s a saying in Iceland, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Make sure you’re prepared for whatever with good layers that you actually like wearing.

It’s Always Windy: Bring a Light Coat 

The constant, and often savage wind catches a lot of tourists off guard. Iceland doesn’t really have any trees, let alone forests, so there aren’t any windbreaks to blunt the strong winds that come off the North Atlantic.

It can get so windy in Iceland that residents frequently receive hurricane-level wind warnings and are warned to stay inside or at least avoid driving if they can. The storm that wrecked Vik in 2015 clocked winds over 140mph. And despite local warnings, many tourists still decided to drive in that storm. It didn’t go well.

This isn’t meant to scare you, but it should jolt you into realizing that Iceland is a windy place. That means, bring a windbreaker or light outer layer or shell to shield you from the wind. You’re gonna need it.

Check windfinder for high wind and weather advisories in Iceland, especially if you’re driving around the island.

Everything is Expensive

Thanks to the steep prices and scarcity of certain “everyday” items, you can’t just “pick up” the things you need when you land. Packing for Iceland isn’t like packing for Thailand . If you need toothpaste, it’s gonna cost triple what you’re used to paying for it.

If you really need any specific toiletries or grooming products to look your dapper best, make sure you pack them because you’re not gonna want to pay triple what you pay back home for hair gel (if they even have it at the store).

Clothing prices can be even more brutal. I needed to buy a wool knit cap since Iceland was a lot colder than I expected it to be in summer, but the cheapest options was a bargain basement style beanie from a gas station. And it cost $50USD. I actually laughed out loud at the prices in the retail stores in town.

Iceland is super expensive, so unless you’re rolling in dough, don’t expect to pick up any essentials in country.

Everyone is Cooler Than You

Icelanders are hip as hell. Maybe it’s because Bjork comes from here, but this whole country just oozes cool. Cutting edge fashion and outstanding local musicians fuel the bar and nightlife scene in Reykjavik, and it’s tough not to stand out like a sore thumb when you visit. 

Seriously, everyone in Iceland looks like they just stepped out of a modeling agency with a fresh haircut and a perfectly tailored shirt or effortlessly high waisted jeans. Plus, they’re all super tall. I’m 6’1” and I felt like a shrimp.

The bar scene in Reykjavik is definitely worth checking out, but you’ll definitely want to upgrade your standard “backpacker” look with a few trendy pieces so you don’t look like you’re wearing a scarlet “T” when you step through the door. The “T” is for tourist, gosh. Read a book.

For men, a crisp fitted short sleeve button up is always a safe option. A nice fitted merino shirt is fine, but even young guys in Iceland tend to favor button-ups and collars. And ditch the cargo shorts for a pair of slim fit travel pants. 

Ladies, it’s a little tougher to nail the fashion trends since they move so quickly, but the “half bun” was literally everywhere when I visited, as well as chunky jeans and oversized shirts. Again, it’s impossible to know what’s going to be stylish next year, but basically dress like you just stepped out of an art studio in Brooklyn and you’re all set.

However, the biggest “what to wear” tip for men and women is to bring a stylish pair of shoes. Please. Please, for the love of god, don’t wear your crappy hiking boots to the bar. I know you bought them for your glacier hike tomorrow (hiking boots suck all the time by the way), but you’ll stand out immediately if you rock a pair of hiking boots to the club. Unless that’s the thing next summer. I don’t know what anything means anymore.

What to Wear in Iceland: Summer (June – August)

Iceland Summer Essentials:

Ladies, unless you just really love your skirts, Iceland is a better destination for pants. If you do bring a skirt, bring a pair of fleece lined tights or leggings to go under them, even in summer.

Summer is easily the most popular time of year to visit Iceland, but remember that doesn’t mean to pack for a beach vacation (even though you should totally visit the black sand beach near Vik).

Bring multiple monochromatic basic layers—merino wool t-shirts are my weapon of choice—as well as some nice wool socks and long sleeve shirts to keep you warm. If you really want to upgrade your look for summer while staying the perfect amount of warm, get a stylish, functional shirt/jacket (I call them “shackets”).

Shackets look awesome, you can wear them inside or in the courtyard at bars to stay warm, and they really do keep you warm—especially on windy days. I pop the collar on my Edgevale Shirt Jacket for extra protection from wind, rain, or even sun, and the extra deep pockets are perfect for carrying around a snack, book, or even my point and shoot camera without having to lug a daybag along.

Make sure to pack a bathing suit for quick dips in the ocean, but more importantly for the hot pools you’ll no doubt sample during your trip. Even if you only visit the Blue Lagoon, a swimsuit is always a good idea.

Finally, bring a hat to protect you from the sun, wind, rain, and cold because odds are you’ll experience all four even during the summer in Iceland. Wool knit caps are a safe bet for chilly nights, but travel hats like are great for keeping the sun off your face.

What to Wear in Iceland: Winter (December – March)

Iceland Winter Essentials:

  • Merino base layers
  • Long sleeve henley shirt
  • Button up shirt or blouse (for going out)
  • Stylish slim fit travel pants
  • Swimsuit (yup, even in winter)
  • Hat or wool cap
  • Shacket
  • Winter coat
  • Wool socks
  • Gloves you can use your phone with (taking them off sucks)

Over the last few years, winter travel to Iceland has become nearly as popular as summer trips. Largely part to the popularity of northern lights style tours, but also as a way to avoid the growing crowds of summer tourists.

Iceland also plays host to several world-class music festivals during the winter, like Sonar every February. Suffice it to say, if you visit Iceland in the winter, you’re going to bring a lot of heavier winter gear.

Invest in a good winter coat but also make sure to bring breathable merino base layers for when you’re actually inside. Nothing sucks more than layering up only to strip down the second you walk inside. Icelandic venues know how to stay warm in winter, and you’ll likely be in at least a few crowded sweaty clubs swaying to some solid tunes. Make sure you don’t accidentally overheat.

The same rules apply as summer travel to Iceland—bring what you need because it’s expensive (and difficult) to pick up essentials in Iceland. Don’t expect to buy a cheap fleece to keep you warm.

And finally, you should absolutely invest in a stylish sweater for going out. They love their sweaters there. Get one with a llama on it and use it as a conversation starter. You’re welcome.

What to Wear in Iceland: Spring (March-May)

Iceland Spring Essentials:

  • 3+ Merino t-shirts
  • Waterproof shell or windbreaker
  • LOTS of socks (to change out of at the end of the day)
  • Button up shirt or blouse (for going out)
  • Stylish slim fit water-resistant travel pants
  • Swimsuit
  • Waterproof hat
  • Shacket for chilly days
  • Wool socks (seriously, pack lots of good socks) 

Spring is actually hands down the least popular time to visit Iceland, and it’s easy to see why. The weather is a jerk.

Springtime in Iceland while potentially beautiful can also be wet, cold, and miserable. It’s the unpredictability of that time of year that tends to keep people away, especially if they can only squeeze in a long weekend trip. You don’t want to fly all the way to Iceland only to get stuck in a frigid monsoon for four days.

That being said, if you’re willing to risk it for the biscuit, Iceland in Spring can be a traveler’s dream. Fewer tourists mean cheaper accommodation and excursions, better availability for all sorts of things, and lighter crowds at all the sights you want to visit—like Jokulsarlon, aka “Glacier Lake.”

Make sure to pack a light rainproof outer layer or shell, and bring all the socks you have. Just stuff your backpack with socks because nothing makes you feel like more of a human than putting on a fresh pair of clean dry socks after a day of gooshy mud and cold drizzle.

If you’re a photographer, get excited about spring in Iceland. Sure, you’ll probably get soaked, but there’s a lot of stunning beauty out there that’s ripe for the taking before the summer crowds.

What to Wear in Iceland: Fall (September – November)

Iceland Fall Essentials:

  • 3+ Merino t-shirts
  • Gloves that work with your phone (it sucks to take them off)
  • Shacket
  • Long sleeve henley shirt
  • Gloves
  • Button up shirt or blouse(for going out)
  • Stylish slim fit travel pants
  • Swimsuit
  • Hat or wool cap
  • Wool socks
  • Shoes that aren’t hiking boots

I love Iceland in the Fall. It’s almost liberating when the “surprising” chill of summer becomes the predictable brisk autumn weather. Maybe it’s just knowing that you’re going to be cold most days, so you can actually prepare for that kind of weather.

Bring a few good layers and a sweater that you like to wear. I recommend packing a base layer of leggings, since they double as great pajama pants if you don’t need them during the day.

If you have a dope scarf or a cool woolen cap, now is the time to rock em. Also, bring a pair of gloves that work with your phone so you don’t have to take them off every time you want to snap a photo (which will be literally all the time).

Fall exploration can be a little messy so, bring extra socks and a good pair of approach shoes. Your pants are also likely to get wet and/or muddy, so make sure you have a few pairs of quick dry pants so you can run around during the day and still look good at night.

Fall is the time of year when everyone spends time in bars, clubs, venues, and house parties. You’ll likely split your time between outdoor spendor and intimate music venues so make sure you don’t just pack for the waterfalls. Bring some stylish cozy winter attire (“winter” gear in the US is equivalent to Iceland’s “fall”), and prioritize at least one stylish outer layer to double as your evening look.

And make sure you bring some grooming products. If you want to get up close and personal with the locals, you have to look (and smell) like you know how to take care of yourself. In fact, I recommend getting a haircut before you visit. You gotta look sharp to get in with the locals.

TL;DR: 

Dress like you know how to travel, and you might just get to know the people that live there too.

  • Iceland is always cold. Pack multiple (good) merino layers
  • Iceland is super windy. Bring a windbreaker or thin outer shell coat, even in summer
  • Iceland is hip as hell. Make sure to pack at least a few “looks” for going out. It doesn’t have to be hyper fashionable, but a cool sweater, button up shirt, or even stylish hairdo goes a long way toward breaking the ice with the locals
  • Iceland is expensive. Bring everything you need, because it costs a lot to resupply in Iceland

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