Visiting Iceland for the Northern Lights? Be Sure To Pack These 10 Things

Northern lights above people camping next to river with campfire

The most northern areas of Iceland practically bumped into the Arctic Circle, but most travelers are surprised by Iceland’s weather once they visit. If you’re looking to travel in the late fall or winter, you’ll need to plan for cold, wet, and windy conditions – but it’s not the snowed-in Tundra that many people expect. For example, Reykjavík—in the middle of winter—might drop to 31 °F but will generally be quite manageable with two essential packing tips. 

Build your winter pack list for Iceland on the idea of layering your outfits and prioritizing waterproof materials. It’s not necessarily the air temperature but the constantly changing weather conditions that can cause challenges. The wind and rain can kick up any moment, and being damp when temps are hovering in a reasonably mild high-30s scenario can leave you quite cold. On the other hand, when the sun is out, it’s intense. Layering waterproof pieces will help you make quick adjustments throughout the day.

1. Iceland Travel Requires a Raincoat

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Image Credit: Backcountry

The first thing to consider is a raincoat designed to withstand the elements. Although this is similar to what you'd find on an Iceland packing list for summer, it's critical nonetheless. You’ll want to invest in a serious raincoat if you’re going to Iceland—something more technical than what you’d wear around town, running errands. Backcountry’s Runoff 2.5L Rain Jacket is waterproof, breathable, and offers the big-time bonus of packing into its pocket.

2. Pack a Versatile Merino Wool Sweater

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Image Credit: Royal Robbins

Merino wool is an excellent choice for Iceland packing lists because it’s incredibly insulating and resists odors, making it your go-to layering piece. A thin merino wool sweater is perfect to put over a simple base layer. These two layers and a waterproof coat will generally be a good combination. You don’t necessarily need a super thick wool sweater; merino wool is a workhorse fabric. A thinner merino wool sweater—like the Royal Robbins Westlands Fairisle Sweater–and a base layer are far more versatile than a bulky sweater. You can easily stuff your merino layer into a daypack and always have it on hand.

3. Stock up on Waterproof Bags

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Image Credit: Chums

Even when it’s not raining in Iceland, visiting the many waterfalls will put you up close and personal with wet conditions. Walking behind one of Iceland’s waterfalls is a bucket list adventure, but the mist and spray coming off the falls can be intense. Bring a waterproof cover for your daypack and invest in a small, fully waterproof hip-pack style bag to protect your phone, wallet, and passport from potential water damage. The 4L roll-top Downstream Bag from Chums can be used as a waist or shoulder bag. Its simple design also has pack-flat benefits to reduce bulk in your luggage.

4. Bring a Windbreaker

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Image Credit: Icebreakers

The wind in Iceland catches people by surprise. A good raincoat should help keep you comfortable. Still, consider a separate windbreaker to go hiking or get involved with more rigorous activities. These kinds of adventures will create a lot more body heat. This Merino Cotton Windbreaker from Icebreakers protects from light rain and wind—but also helps “dump” excess heat through its mesh underarm gussets and special back panel. Plus, the bright colors photograph well against the potentially gray and rainy backdrop.

5. Ignore the Puddles and Snow With Gaiters

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Image Credit: Kahtoola

Often, the natural attractions in Iceland are readily available to tourists—just drive up, park, and walk on over to mind-blowing sights such as the famed waterfall Gullfoss. Sometimes, you have to do a bit of light walking, and depending on Mother Nature’s mood, there may be puddles. Plus, if it’s snowy, you’ll want to protect the bottom of your pants from getting damp. The Kahtoola waterproof NAVAgaiter™ GTX Ultra-Tough Gaiter hugs the leg closely, keeping the elements out, and the bottom stirrup-style strap keeps them from riding up.

6. Bring Extra Gloves

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Image Credit: UNIQLO

Gloves are small, so that makes it easy to pack extra. Though the temperatures are generally at an average winter chill level, you’ll want to swap out your gloves if they get too wet. Bring one pair of warm, waterproof gloves and a few pairs of thinner gloves. The advantage to having spare gloves is the option for layering, plus a go-to option for milder temperatures. Don’t forget to look for touchscreen-sensitive gloves, like the HEATTECH Lined Function Gloves from UNIQLO. Lean into cost-effective brands like this to stay warm and cozy while visiting Iceland on a budget

7. Don’t Forget Your Bathing Suit

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Image Credit: Andie Swim

Iceland is as famous for its many natural hot springs and soak holes as it is for its volcanoes and adventure. Most guided trips include visiting a soak hole, so plan ahead and bring a swimsuit. Usually, folks soak in a swimsuit and winter hat. If you’re a do-it-for-the-gram traveler, plan to ensure your hat complements the swimsuit. Andie Swim’s Tulum One Piece holds up nicely with a quick hotel sink wash, and the cherry red color pops in photos. Men and those who prefer swim trunks can’t go wrong with Vineyard Vines Chappy Swim Trunks—in over 30 prints.

8. Insulate With Base Layers

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Image Credit: Hot Chillys

If you’re traveling to Iceland in the winter, you can expect to wear base layers most days. These would be your first layer, closest to your skin. It should insulate while also being breathable to maximize comfort. Along those lines, avoid scratchy fabric. Hot Chillys offers Clima-Wool base layers in styles for children, men, and women, but the designs are great for those looking for genderless styles. The brand’s base layers rely on odor-resistant merino wool, which means you can get away with just one set—even if you’re there for a week.

9. Packability Is a Bonus for Icelandic Adventures

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Image Credit: Lolë

Your time would be well spent scouring the internet for versatile layers that pack down into its pocket or small pouch. Layering properly requires base layers, an in-between layer—such as a thin wool sweater, and an outer jacket as well. Sometimes, you might have one extra layer as well, as a backup. When the wind starts whipping around, you’ll be grateful to have a hat and a coat with a hood. Lolë makes this Base Insulated Jacket, boasting Primaloft® vegan insulation, a hood, and fantastic packability. Plus, it’s tested to temperatures as low as 14°F.

10. Don’t Skimp on Socks

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Image Credit: Heat Holders

Not only will you want a few pairs of socks for sightseeing in Iceland, but being cozy at the hotel will be important, too. Heat Holders offers thermal socks in three levels of thickness, and the LITE™ Crew Socks and ULTRA LITE™ options work well inside an already insulated hiking boot. If you plan to wear a rainboot, you might want to choose the brand’s ORIGINAL™ Socks. Back at the hotel, the ORIGINAL™ is excellent because it’s super thick, or go with the Cozy Slouch Lounge Socks.

Author: Melanie Carden


Melanie is a travel and adventure writer who grew up in the woods of New England. Her passion for riding UTVs on defunct train tracks as a child gave way to a lifelong passion for hiking. Moving to Alaska on her own at age 19 set the wheels in motion for a life of travel and adventure. Even when she tackled a seven-year passion project as a private chef, she kept traveling and has now visited over twenty countries. In her 20s, Mel began traveling solo, including diving with tiger sharks in the Bahamas and whale tracking in Baja, Mexico. Along the way, her interest in the National Parks led her to explore them in the less-traveled winter months, yielding lifelong memories of snowmobiling in Yosemite and wintery hikes in Yosemite. Whether it's the challenge of winter or being a January baby, she adores snowy adventures like dogsledding. She even took a day-long survivalist course with Mark D'Ambrosio from the History Channel's survivor-style show, “Alone.” If there's an opportunity to explore a winery in Austria, a snorkeling cove in the Galapagos, or a seaside Airstream camp in Cape Cod, you can be sure she'll always be ready—with the only luggage she ever travels with—a single backpack.

In 2017, Mel returned to college with a concentration in food and culture journalism, which included foraging and herbalism courses. During her tenure at UMass Amherst, Mel was a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor's Society. She won the UMass Presidential Jack Wilson Scholarship and the Amherst Alumni Association Senior Leadership Award. She graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA.