Iceland has become one of the most talked-about tourist destinations in the world over the last few years. With the combination of the global attention from when Eyjafjallajokull (don’t ask me to pronounce that) erupted in 2010, the natural Instagram-ability of this beautiful country, and the relatively cheap flights available (looking at you, WOW Air), Iceland has become especially popular among backpackers and young travellers.
Recently, I spent a long weekend in Reykjavik, and it was amazing- but it was also very cold. Going in the winter gives travellers the chance to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but it also means you have to pack a lot of warm clothing to keep the cold out. This is no problem if you are willing to check a bag, but for people like me who are trying to avoid paying extra fees during travel, it becomes more of a challenge. Is it possible to pack everything you need to stay warm in Iceland into a single backpack? Yes, yes it is. Buckle up, make sure your seat-backs and tray tables are in the upright and locked position, and please give your attention to the flight attendant (aka me) as I take you through how to pack a backpack for winter in Iceland.
Step One: Pick a Backpack
Though perhaps an obvious first step, picking a good backpack is crucial. If you already have your prefered travel backpack, great! Skip this step. If not, I suggest figuring out what your priorities are in your travels and doing some homework on backpacks that suit your needs. If you plan to really ‘rough it’ and take the bag on hiking/camping trips, your needs will be different than someone who plans to stay exclusively in places that offer beds. There are a lot of great backpack buying guides out there that I suggest you check out to figure out what is right for you. Just to name a few: Outdoor Gear Lab, Savvy Backpacker, and TripSavvy. I personally use an REI Co-op Up Load Pack for all of my trips (see similar here). When I chose this bag, I was looking for something that was durable, held a lot, fit under the seat of an airplane, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
At some point in the future, I would like to use a front-load backpack, since those make it easier for travellers to find what they need without unpacking everything, so that may be something to consider. Bottom line, pick the backpack that fits your travel needs.
The Base Layer
Never underestimate the importance of the bottom layer when dressing for warmth! When you pack a backpack for winter in Iceland, lightweight, thermal underwear cannot be stressed enough. Be sure you have at least two pairs of tops and bottoms (depending on how long your trip is).
I used this pair I found on Amazon. They were inexpensive (~$15 each) and worked like a charm. I don’t suggest wearing these on the plane though. You never know what the cabin temperature will be like, and trying to take these off in an airplane bathroom would be an adventure. Luckily, these are very thin and fit nicely into a backpack.
Pack wool socks. Do it. I am guilty of always underestimating how cold my toes will be. I think that I’ll be fine because I’m wearing warm boots. Pack. Wool. Socks.
If you can swing it, Merino wool socks are the way to go because they are extremely warm. If you don’t want to spend that much on socks, Merino wool blends (like the ones above) are available at much more reasonable prices.
Wool socks can be a little tricky when trying to pack light because they are so bulky. To avoid taking up too much space in your backpack with socks, only pack maybe two pairs. “But that’s not nearly enough socks for my trip!” I hear you. But the goal here is to pack light. Instead of loading up on bulky wool socks, pack enough pairs of thin base layer socks to last your entire trip. Throw those babies on underneath the wool socks and boom, you now have the warmth of wool socks AND the joy of a clean pair of socks on every day.
The Second Layer
This layer is what people will see when you walk indoors (i.e. museums, restaurants, etc.) and is basically just your everyday clothing. This layer can be as simple as jeans and a casual top (long-sleeved to hide your base layer) and probably doesn’t require a special shopping trip. My go-to was a pair of black pants and a loose long-sleeved shirt. For trips like this, I pack pants that are a little too large, because they will be going over thermal pants.
My goal with this layer is to be appropriately dressed for wandering through a museum, eating dinner at a sit-down restaurant, and going out for a drink. When you are travelling on a time-frame, you never know if you will have time to stop by your hostel to get changed, so this layer is a catch-all outfit. I usually pack one outfit for every two days of travel to save space.
The outwear portion of your outfit comes in two parts: the sweater and the jacket. I am a big fan of oversized sweaters, which are perfect for situations like this. You probably have one of these in your closet already, so you don’t have to put much thought into this one.
The jacket, however, is very important. Again, there are tons of guides out there on choosing the right winter jacket, so doing some research is very important. Some things to consider when choosing a jacket are price, length (does it cover your thighs? Thighs get cold too!), and material. You want to make sure that your jacket is well insulated because insultation=warmth.
One bonus feature I like in jackets is interior pockets. Interior pockets (pockets on the inside of the jacket) are wonderful because you can throw your valuables, like your wallet and your hostel key, into the interior pocket and you don’t have to worry about anything falling out or getting pickpocketed. Another fun feature is a shell layer. This is when a jacket comes in two parts, the actual ‘jacket’, and a detachable light-weight raincoat layer that goes on top, or a ‘shell’. Check out an example here. This is brilliant for places like Iceland, where the weather is always changing.
The sweater and jacket layers are very big, and take up a lot of space in a backpack. The solution to this is to not put them in your backpack. Wear them to the airport. This is a little annoying as you go through security but is useful in the long run. Plus, I like to use my jacket as a pillow and my sweater as a blanket for those times when I try to trick myself into thinking I can sleep on a plane.
Please don’t confuse ‘accessories’ with ‘optional attire’. These finishing touches can make or break your warmth level.
We’ve already covered your sock situation, so your toes are halfway there! The next crucial part is shoes. I typically pack two or three pairs of shoes everywhere I go, but that is not feasible when trying to save space. The best way to pack a backpack for winter in Iceland is to not waste space with shoes. Get a good pair of snow boots (with solid tread because it gets icy there) and wear them to the airport. These are your shoes for the entire trip. Trust me, you won’t want any other types of shoes anyways. If you’re walking around Reykjavik, wear your snow boots. If you’re checking out the Golden Circle, wear your snow boots. if you’re going out for a drink at one of Reykjavik’s many great bars, wear your snow boots. It’s too icy for heels there anyways.
I wear the Women’s Mix Mid II Omni-Heat Boot in black from Columbia, and they keep my feet so warm. Bonus: They are also cute. Seriously, don’t pack heels.
Bring one large, warm scarf with you. Typically, I will wear this to the airport to save space in my bag. Sometimes though it gets too warm or the scarf gets in my way, so I tie it to the handle of my backpack.
Having a nice big scarf also has the added value of doubling as a blanket on the flight!
For extreme cold situations, I do my headwear in three parts: hat, earmuffs, balaclava.
When you are walking around in the city, usually a knit hat is sufficiently warm. Stores like H&M sell these pretty cheap.
If you leave the city for excursions or whatnot, it gets much colder. While earmuffs might seem like they don’t do much, they really can be much warmer than hats because their entire job is to keep your ears warm. Also, as silly as it sounds, wearing earmuffs on top of a knit hat is a very cute look (and SUPER warm). Try it. Thank me later.
The balaclava is for when you find yourself in extreme cold situations. This hood-like article of clothing came in handy for me at the continental divide and the Gullfoss waterfall. Both of these places were very windy, so I wanted to cover my face, not just my head. The balaclava broke the wind well and covered my mouth and nose. You probably won’t wear this as much as your hat, but you will be really glad you have it in certain situations.
Fingers, much like toes, get cold very easily. Especially if you are like me and are willing to risk your favorite pinky for a good photo. To combat this, I also do gloves in two layers. The first layer should be lightweight, skintight, and warm. Knit gloves are usually a good option. The second layer should be bulkier, well insulated, and waterproof. Bonus points if they are touch-screen compatible so you don’t have to take your hands out of your gloves to take photos with your phone. Amazon has a lot of great options.
These aren’t the first things you think of when packing for Iceland, but they come in handy. First, anytime there is snow on the ground, it makes everything very bright. Second, if you are in locations with strong wind, it’s important to protect your eyes and having sunglasses on will make the experience much more comfortable. You don’t need heavy duty ski goggles. Your day-to-day sunglasses are perfect.
All of these accessories take up very little space in your backpack, but be sure to pack them as flat as you can. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to shove your super wide backpack under the seat in front of you.
How to Pack a Backpack for Winter in Iceland Bonus: Swimsuit
Don’t forget to bring your favorite swimsuit along for the ride! Iceland is famous for its geothermal lagoons, and you won’t want to miss out on them!