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How to dress in layers in Iceland

It’s January. We have snow outside and a couple of days ago I almost froze my (not so) little bottom off walking in the middle of nowhere to see some waterfall. The thermometer in the car said -5°C but with the windchill, it felt a lot colder. I took my mittens off for a minute to take the photo above and I thought my fingers were going to fall off.

Now, you may think that I’m complaining. That I long for palm trees and cocktails and endless stretches of white sand beaches. OK, so that actually doesn’t sound that bad but the snow and the cold are a welcome break from the darkness and at times record-breaking rain that we’ve been experiencing here in Reykjavík this winter.

You see, the cold brings blue skies and light so beautiful that for a moment you doubt it can be natural. There’s a crispness to the air and the ice crystals are like glitter on the ground. The snow and the frost lighten the mood and make everything extra beautiful somehow. Until it gets warmer again and the snow turns into gray slush that is.

Here in Iceland, like in many places around the world, we have been experiencing weird weather as of late. The summer in Reykjavík was unusually cool and wet and the winter all over has been strangely warm. A couple of weeks ago we saw temperatures around 15°C in East Iceland which is warmer than most summer days in Reykjavík.

Because of that, our guests have been even more confused about what to pack than usual but even though we’re somewhat perplexed about the weather too – my advice about how to dress for Iceland has not changed.


First, a very important disclaimer

The clothes that I own and am posting photos of below as an example is not something that I just went out to the store and bought all at once. I’ve been slowly building up my gear, piece by piece, and because I spend (or at least spent and will hopefully be spending again) a lot of time outside I’ve invested in good pieces that should last me a while.

Most of these items were expensive. Some very expensive.

You absolutely do not have to run out and buy a lot of expensive gear because you’re coming to Iceland for 5 days. If you live in a warm place where you’ll get little use out of it, it makes no sense whatsoever.

What I want to do with this post is just show you how I (and most people who spend a lot of time outside in Iceland) dress so you can take the basic principle of it and apply it the way that makes the most sense for you and your needs and budget.

It’s also worth mentioning that I don’t wear most of this stuff on a day-to-day basis. I wear this when I go out and do tours and travel around the country with my family. Here in Reykjavík, I wear a lot of jeans and dresses and whatever coat that works best with that outfit. I’m a bit of a coat and jacket hoarder and I really should work on that. For the environment and all.

Lastly, although it may seem that way – I am not sponsored by 66°North. Like many Icelandic businesses, we get a discount when we shop with them but most of the items below I bought before we got this discount.

I’m not cool enough to be sponsored by them. They only sponsor rappers and movie stars. And people much prettier than I am.

I like their products. A lot of outdoor clothing brands have a lot of crazy neon colors but I like the earthy more muted colors they often have. We also don’t have a great variety when it comes to outdoor clothing here in Iceland, especially not if you’re a plus size woman. 66°North is not very plus size friendly (they’re actually kind of unfriendly in that department  – their size charts are all over the place) but some items they offer in bigger sizes and sometimes I buy stuff from their men’s department because it suits me better.

I’m also not sponsored by Thorvaldsen Bazar even though I mention them in this post. I don’t think the little old ladies that run that place even know what influencer marketing is – plus that you can’t buy space on this blog.

Just thought I should clear that up to avoid any misunderstanding.

Oh, and they’re all wrinkled and stuff because I use these items all the time and I don’t have time wash them and lay them out flat to make them presentable for you. I’m a busy woman, ya’ll.

Dressing in layers

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while this advice is not going to come as a surprise to you. The best way to dress for the Icelandic weather, no matter what time of year it is, is to dress in layers that are easy to peel off and put on again as needed.

Here’s why.

1: The weather in Iceland is always changing. If you stay for a week you might experience anything between -10°C and 10°C and every type of precipitation there is. Possibly all in the same day.  Not to mention various degrees of hurricane force winds.

2: Although it may be cold outside, houses in Iceland are heated very well so if you’re walking around town and then you want to stop somewhere for coffee – you need to be able to take off and put on layers accordingly. If you’re only wearing ski pants that you can’t take off, you’re going to boil inside.

3: Speaking of ski pants and parkas – this type of clothing can be very restrictive and limit your mobility. Many of you are coming to Iceland to do exciting outdoor activities and you need to be able to move freely to participate. Or at least it’s better.

The good thing about these layers as opposed to a parka, for example, is that you can use them year round. It just depends on how you mix and match them.

A good base layer

Your base layer is the layer next to your skin so you want it to be soft and comfortable but also have good insulation qualities. I personally love these merino wool long johns and top and I wear them year round. In winter, depending on what I’m doing and where I’m going, I might wear my long johns under my jeans or under my waterproof outer layer if I’m going to be outside for a while. I even wear them under leggings when I’m wearing a skirt. In the summer I will wear them at night when we go camping.

Thin merino wool makes a great base layer because it keeps you warm but it still breathes or absorbs the moisture so your sweat has a way out instead of staying on your skin where it cools down and ultimately makes you cold. Like cotton does. If you’re not a fan of wool you can also find these in good technical fabrics that have similar qualities to the wool but without the itch that many complain about.

I don’t know if it’s just my Icelandic DNA but I cannot understand how someone would find merino wool itchy unless they’re allergic to it because it’s really soft.

A middle layer

I usually only worry about a middle layer on top as my legs don’t get as cold as my upper body but if I need it I have really comfortable fleece pants that I can use.

When I go hiking or I know I’m going to be outside for a while, I tend to choose jackets that are waterproof and that are easy to move in (often called a shell). Because those tend to be quite thin, I need a good middle layer to wear underneath them.

If it’s not too cold, I will choose a thin fleece sweater like the one on the left. I remember the time when fleece sweaters were these bulky ugly things that could hardly fit under a jacket but today we have these awesome warm sweaters that are really thin and are perfect for outdoor activities.

If it’s really cold, I often choose my lopapeysa (a woolen pullover that every Icelander owns) instead of the fleece sweater and this keeps me toasty warm. The great thing about wool is that it can absorb a lot of moisture and it doesn’t lose its ability to keep you warm even though it gets wet.

My lopapeysa, that I knitted myself, is a little bit big and has a fancy wide neckline that is not the best for outdoor activities when it’s cold outside. I didn’t knit it for that and if I was knitting a new one to use solely as a middle layer – I would make it tighter and with a higher neckline.

A lot of people also use a thin down or Primaloft jacket as their middle layer which I think would work well too. Especially if it’s one of those that you can pack into practically nothing to keep in your backpack. I have a Primaloft jacket that I don’t use often because it’s a bit tight (too many cinnamon buns from Brauð&Co) but it’s pretty warm.

In the summer and when it’s warmer, I often skip the middle layer and just keep it in my backpack in case I need it

A good waterproof outer layer

What people often don’t realize about Iceland is how wet it can get. It rains a lot both in the summer and winter but especially in winter and then we often have snow which can be wet too.

When people ask me whether they should bring their ski gear, which is not typically all that waterproof, I always urge them to bring layers instead and good waterproof outerwear.

A lot of people own rubbery raincoats and although those are fine when it’s warmer outside unless they’re lined they’re not that great when it’s cold. Both because the rubber is not very warm but also because it’s not a material that breathes very well so the heat we give away when we move has nowhere to go. Which will ultimately make you colder as the moisture cools down.

Although the jacket and pants above don’t look like much, they’re actually more than enough most days if I get the base and middle layers right. Both are wind and waterproof (10.000 mm) and they’re extremely comfortable to move in. Plus they breathe really well.

The problem with a lot of big parkas is that although they’re warm they’re often very heavy and they’re not that comfortable to move in. Then when you start to walk you get really warm and you can’t take them off because they’re big and bulky and you’d boil if you were wearing a lot of warm layers underneath.

If I was going snowmobiling or ATVing or something like that, I would probably wear my parka but for almost anything else I’d wear something like this that is light and comfortable.

In the picture of my husband at the top of this post, he’s wearing what looks like a parka. What you can’t see in this photo though is that this parka is actually a three-in-one garment where you have a Gore-Tex outer layer and a down jacket that you can zip away and then you can use both pieces separately. So it’s basically a middle layer and a waterproof outer layer (28.000 mm) in one and the same piece. A super smart albeit super expensive design (we got a good discount – otherwise we would never have bought it).

Don’t forget your head, hands and feet

One thing I see a lot of people get wrong is forgetting about their feet. We get a lot of people on our walking tours, for example, wearing winter gear from head to ankle but then their toes are freezing because they’re wearing normal cotton socks in their leather boots or sneakers.

What I think most Icelanders would do, myself included, is to wear woolen socks if it’s cold. The socks on the right are a modern take on a typical wool sock and although they’re not made out of the softest wool they do the job of keeping you warm nicely. You can find socks like that in different type of wool and thickness all over Iceland but just make sure you buy the right size because they can cause chafing if they’re too loose. Also, keep in mind that wool always gets bigger as you wear it so you want to buy it tight.

I wear these yellow socks (and a few more in different colors) with my jeans and dark brown Chelsea boots around town all the time and it’s actually pretty cute. I also wear them with my Nike’s which is less cute but I don’t care because I’m warm!

I would also recommend you get wool socks that are a little higher than normal socks or up to your calves. It’s just better when you need to walk in a bit of snow.

The socks on the left are merino wool hiking socks that I wear if I’m doing longer hikes. They’re not quite as warm as the typical wool socks but they’re designed for hiking boots and have a reinforced heel and toes and are just all around more comfortable for hikes. They’re obviously not as cute (if that’s an issue for you) but sometimes you just need to sacrifice cuteness for comfort.

Speaking of hiking, I have very sensitive skin on my feet so I always have to tape my heels with sports tape before I go on any hikes to avoid blisters. Sometimes, if it’s not too cold, I also wear a nylon sock underneath my hiking socks to try to minimize the chafing. Just a little tip if you were born with princess feet like me.

I always recommend you wear mittens rather than gloves for the simple reason that mittens tend to be warmer. I don’t know if I’m just making this up but I always say, when people ask me about this, that it’s because the fingers keep each other warm. You know, like if you get lost out in the snow with someone and you hug each other for warmth to stay alive –  because we’ve all been there, right?

I have two sets of mittens that I alternate. The pair on the right is made out of lighter merino wool (Kambgarn) and I use them year round and when it’s not very cold. The pair on the left I use when it’s colder but they’re both made out of thicker wool and they’re also lined with fleece which makes them really warm.

I bought the thicker mittens, by the way, at Thorvaldsen Bazar in Austurstræti which is a super cute little tourist shop where many of the items sold are handmade by volunteers and the proceeds go to a good cause. Definitely worth checking out.

I have yet to encounter a situation here in Iceland where these mittens have failed to keep me warm.

I own expensive gloves made out of some technical fabric that I bought when I first started doing my walking tours, and I see a lot of people wear on our tours, but I never wear them because they’re basically useless and do a lousy job at keeping you warm. Expensive is not always better.

Is it obvious that yellow is my favorite color?  By the way, I knitted this green hat and I’m super proud of it because it’s one of the best-knitted items I’ve ever produced. Which actually says more about my knitting skills than this hat, come to think of it.

Although it’s a myth, apparently, that we lose most of our heat through our heads I still feel like a hat or something to keep your ears warm is a must when it’s cold outside.

Now, I’m actually partial to my yellow headband because I like to wear my hair in a high ponytail when I travel/move a lot and headbands are most comfortable for that but I also have a yellow hat (not pictured here) that apparently I wear so much in my photos and in my Instagram stories that people recognize it before they recognize me in the streets.

When I did this winter hiking course once (we met 1-2 times a week for hikes with a guide and had to attend this workshop thing about winter gear) our instructor said that it was better to wear a hat than a headband but I think that is based on this myth that we lose all our body heat through the head. At least I don’t feel any colder with my headband than my hat.

My headband is lined with fleece so it’s really warm and my yellow hat has a bit of plastic inside of it to make it more windproof which really helps as well. But if it’s not windy, I think any old hat will do.

Bonus tip: The infamous buff

Hipsters (or whatever the cool kids are calling themselves these days) have a special love/hate relationship with this thing here above which is called a buff. Or, they love to hate it more like it. Actually, they might just love it now because everything that was very faux pas a few years ago is all the rage now all of a sudden (I’m looking at you, mom jeans!).

The buff is a multi-purpose item that can be used as a neck cowl, a headband and a hat or if you’re a competitor on Survivor: A skirt or a boob tube. The reason many people think it’s unbecoming is that a lot of companies here in Iceland decided a buff with their logo on it was the best thing to happen to their marketing department since branded pens so every home in Iceland has at least 10 of these and moms love them for their kids.

My buff, the one you can see in the photo above, is an upgraded version because it’s made out of merino wool and I bought it so it doesn’t have any ugly logos on it. I never go out of town without it and it’s genius when you want to keep your neck warm but you don’t want to bother with a bulky scarf.

I love it and I’m a proud buff user. Just don’t tell anyone about it.

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Learn to dress like a local for any season. Don't forget your hands and your toes ? #iceland #travel #winter
Learn to dress like a local for any season. Don't forget your hands and your toes ? #iceland #travel #winter

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  1. I love your sense of humour and excellent tips on how to dress in Iceland. I personally think you are gorgeous! When my husband and I camped around the country, we found woolen items a HUGE benefit to staying warm and dry. The only problem we had whilst traveling/camping with our two little boys was finding functioning washers and dryers (they are minimal in numbers at camp sites) and since the weather can be a bit damp/cool, wasn’t easy to keep those woolens clean 🙂

  2. Something that cracked me up about this post is toward the beginning, when you mention palm trees and cocktails and stretches of white sand beaches…I live in Florida, and I was just telling my boyfriend that I was super excited for our upcoming trip to Iceland because I need a break from “these damn palm trees and sunny beaches”. Haha!
    Also wanted to jump in with my personal experience when it comes to wool base layers…over the years I’ve found that it pays to shell out some cash for good wool base layers because the more expensive ones tend to not be itchy. That’s been my experience, but may not be the case for everyone. I find that Smartwool has really soft, really comfortable base layers but their sizing is sometimes a little off. I’ve had good luck with the Icebreaker brand, too.

  3. Good information as always! I guess I will be leaving my ski clothing at home and invest in your recommended items.

  4. I suffer from raynards and altho im not a cold person in general, my hands and feet suffer, so even with multiple pairs of socks (wool/hiking) my toes still end up cold in some circumstances. Same with gloves – i’ve not found something which really works. I wanted to get some mittens, because I am usually in Iceland doing photography, they are not super practical (i saw some lovely wool ones (with a puffin on, sorry…) but at £35 a bit too indulgent) – even the ‘proper’ photographers gloves with finger bits to lift up, im just not convinced would battle my raynards enough to justify the cost. my week last week in Akureyri was milder than the previous week and this current week, so i just about managed to get away with thin liner gloves because I was on and off coaches etc so it wasn’t as long as if i was solo – but my fingers suffered cos of fiddling with tripods and such and skin on my fingers started to split. (i also need a better tripod but thats another cost thats hard to justify for how much i use it lol) – but the change in the weather certainly did cause quite a packing dilemma 😉

    more rambling from me – sorry.

  5. I have been looking for what to wear in Iceland during the summer and I can’t find anything saying what to wear. how many layers should I need? (I will be in Iceland July 29 – Aug. 6)

    1. Post comment

      Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      It’s personal to each person – I would never wear my long johns in summer but if you’re from a warm climate you might be cold. It also depends on what you will be doing – it can be cold on a glacier even if it’s in the middle of summer.