We have a saying in Iceland: If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute. The weather in Iceland is ever changing and unpredictable, so you need to be prepared for everything. Here you can find tips on what to wear in Iceland for all travel styles.
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Weather and Climate in Iceland
Iceland’s climate is considerably milder than you would expect, considering its location is just south of the Arctic Circle. The reason behind this is that a part of the warm Gulf Stream, the Irminger Current, flows along the southern and the western coasts of the island, moderating the weather pattern and making the winters even warmer than in Central and Northern Europe.
When choosing the time of your visit, the first thing you should do is to check the average weather conditions for each season. Of course, no one can tell you exactly what the weather is going to be like, but the seasons have some general characteristics that you can certainly prepare for. The weather in Iceland, however, can be notoriously variable. The best you can do is to expect every type of weather.
The climate in Iceland is subarctic near the southern coastal area. A very strong characteristic of this kind of climate is long winters, which - in Iceland’s case - are not extremely cold, but the temperatures remain close to freezing for 5 to 7 months. The summers are short and moderately mild with +10°C to +20°C (50 to 68 F) daytime temperatures, although, they can sometimes drop lower or rise higher.
The climate is somewhat different in the interior of the country, which is mostly comprised of the Icelandic Highlands. An Arctic tundra climate persists there, with the soil permanently frozen for much of the year. There are two main seasons, a long and very cold winter and a short, cold to mid-summer.
This tundra area is extremely windy, with winds often blowing upwards of 50 to 150 km/h (14 to 40 m/s or 30 to 93 mph). The highest wind speed measured last winter (January of 2018) was 262 km/h (72 m/s or 163 mph). However, in terms of precipitation, this area is very dry and almost desert-like.
Average Temperatures, Precipitation and Wind Speed
The Icelandic winter is relatively mild for such a northerly latitude. The average temperature in Reykjavík, on the southern coast and the lowlands is around 0 °C (32 °F) in winter. The northern part of the island is usually somewhat cooler than the south.
The tundra in the Highlands can expect an average of around −10 °C (14 °F). The lowest temperature on record is −39.7 °C (−39.5 °F).
The ocean currents bring plenty of wind and precipitation along the way, which peaks between October and March. The driest months are May, June and July.
Iceland is a windy country. The average wind speed ranges between 13-26 km/h (8-16 mph, 3.6 - 7.2 m/s). The winter months are the windiest, wind speed peak between December and February with 22-26 km/h on average, which can easily be twice as high in the Highlands. Violent wind gusts are not exactly something which seldom happens in some lowland valleys either!
Seasons in Iceland: What to Wear in Winter
The old Icelandic calendar split the year into just two seasons: seven months of winter (October-April), and five months of summer (May-September). The two seasons are quite distinct but the swing in temperature is small. What makes the difference is mainly the amount of daylight and the type of precipitation.
In winter, we have only 4 to 7 hours of daylight, somewhat less in the northern part of the country. The shortest day is December 21st when the sun rises at 11:22 and sets at 15:29 in Reykjavík. The sky never brightens up completely in the few hours in between. So be prepared for cold, windy and even stormy conditions with possibly a lot of snow or rain and long, dark nights, mornings and evenings. In mid-winter from just before noon to mid-afternoon is the lightest time.
Choosing the right clothing is crucial, even if you are not planning to take long walks outside. Dress in at least three layers. Standing in the darkness waiting for the Northern Lights requires particularly good insulation since you will be standing around with very little activity. It’s a good idea to have some reusable pocket warmers to use during the lengthy waiting period.
If you plan to drive out of the city and visit some waterfalls, black sand beaches or other tourist attractions, pay extra attention to windproof and waterproof outer layers. Good, warm, sturdy and waterproof boots, warm and windproof hats and gloves, and a cozy scarf are necessary.
The best thing to do is to have a pair of spikes or crampons with you - some of the tourist attractions and even some sidewalks in Reykjavík can be coated in solid ice in winter.
Dress smart and make sure that you can easily remove one or two layers when you sit back in a heated car or stop for a coffee or lunch. You will spend your day jumping in and out, going from freezing into the warm and back again.
Seasons in Iceland: What to Wear in Summer
In summer, we have 15 to 20 hours of daylight - even more in the north. From late April, the sun doesn’t go far below the horizon, the nights stay so bright that we don’t need to use any streetlamps from late April to late August.
In the middle of summer, we welcome the magnificent Midnight Sun, the 3 to 4-hour-long beautiful, pink-orange show when the sunset turns directly into the sunrise. No wonder this is the favorite time to visit Iceland for most tourists!
The nights are usually a very similar temperature to the days in summer. However, the heat of direct sunshine can add an extra 5 degrees to how warm it actually feels when the skies are clear. Sunscreen and sunglasses are important accessories.
Summer temperatures do not rise too high. If the mercury reaches 15 degrees Celsius, we’re happy. Over 17 degrees and we go mad, many of us stopping work and taking off on a spontaneous sólafrí, or ‘sun-holiday’, which is completely acceptable in such good weather. As you can imagine, that doesn’t happen too often in one summer.
The weather in summer is quite friendly - compared to winter. Showers and windstorms can still occur at any time, especially in the mountains and highland areas, but less often than in winter. It is good to be prepared for everything, though!
As for clothing, dressing in layers applies to the summer season equally well. Wear windproof softshell clothing, polar insulation and, if you are not used to the chilly summer temperatures, you might need warm long johns and long-sleeved underwear.
Gloves and hats might be necessary if you go hiking on a glacier or in the mountains. Avoid high-heeled boots and bright sneakers. Be prepared for walking on sandy, rocky, bumpy or muddy ground.
Seasons in Iceland: What to Wear in Spring
We don’t really have spring in Iceland, but visitors often refer to the period between late March and late May as the spring season.
However, March is winter for us as the temperatures still cling close to zero degrees and we get a lot of snow. The temperatures begin to rise in April, but periods of freezing weather and snowfall are not uncommon well into mid-May. Leaves and flowers start to sprout in May, although the very tiny buds often start to show in April.
The weather in spring is quite changeable. After cold and windy periods, temperatures can rise quite high, up to 8 degrees on some better days. The mountain roads and the hiking trails in the Highlands are closed until mid-June, but the lowland areas are accessible.
The landscapes are brownish - when it’s not covered with snow - and the trails are muddy. The grass starts to turn to green in late April or May. In spring, it’s better to dress for winter conditions. Take care to have good insulation and a proper outer layer that shields you from the wind, snow and rain. Bring a warm hat and gloves, just in case you need them.
Seasons in Iceland: What to Wear in Autumn
The period that fits most closely to the season of autumn is from August until late October. The weather is usually rainy and windy - and notoriously unstable. However, the temperatures don’t normally drop by much more than a few degrees Celsius so soon after the summer.
There are not many forests in Iceland, but the few trees develop their autumn colors, and shrubs and moss begin to display increasing yellow and orange shades. The landscapes become marvelously colorful. This is the season for mushrooms and berries.
As for clothing, be prepared for wind and a lot of rain. Softshell won’t be enough, you will need a proper wind-stopper and a waterproof outer layer, providing more insulation than in summer.
Storms in Iceland
The frequency of storms is highest in the autumn and during the winter months. There are generally 10 to 20 stormy days per year in the lowlands, with average wind speeds exceeding 18 m/second. This figures more than doubles in the highland and exposed coastal areas, with upwards of 50 days per year. The large ice caps, and, in particular, Vatnajökull, can generate very strong katabatic winds when winds rush down from a higher level at great speed.
Always check the weather forecast, warnings and road conditions before heading out of the city. Never ignore a warning and do not travel to any area that you are advised not to go to. If you’re stuck in the city, just keep calm and chill in one of the geothermal pools, like the locals do. Better to be safe than sorry!
It is advisable to purchase full insurance if you rent a car. In some areas, especially along the south coast under the Vatnajökull glacier, sandstorms are quite a common phenomenon. If you find yourself in the midst of one, it will seriously harm the paint on your rental car, which is quite pricey to fix if your insurance coverage doesn´t extend to this kind of damage. Making sure you are covered for ash and sand damage is always the best way to go!
How to Dress for Hiking and Outdoor Activities in Iceland
If you plan to go hiking, it is advisable to select your clothing with extra care. Dress in at least three layers and choose quality, breathable and fast drying fabric.
Your undergarments need to move moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry, and helping to regulate body temperature as you sweat during physical activity. These undergarments should include a long-sleeved shirt and long johns (full-length underpants). Try to avoid fabrics with a high cotton content since they absorb moisture and don’t dry fast. This material stays moist and cools your body instead. Choose fast-drying, breathable fabric, for instance, fine merino wool.
Your middle layer should retain your own body heat effectively in order to keep you warm. The required thickness depends on the season. A long-sleeved fleece or wool sweater, or a duck down jacket are good options. Wear insulated hiking pants in winter and simple softshell pants in summer.
The outer shell layer protects you from wind and rain. Both your shell jacket and trousers should provide good water and wind protection whilst letting your skin breathe.
Sturdy, broken-in, waterproof hiking boots are necessary when hiking in Iceland. In the winter months, you will need crampons as well. The easiest hiking trails can become very dangerous and slippery at this time of the year.
How to Dress for a Road Trip in Iceland
If you are not planning to take long walks outside, you can dress somewhat more in tune with fashion and less for functionality. Still, if you are planning to visit waterfalls and hot springs, you will need a warm coat and good, sturdy boots. The Icelandic winds can make you feel uncomfortably cold very quickly if you are not dressed for the variable weather conditions.
For a road trip, you need comfortable clothes since you will spend long hours in the car. So, you should avoid wearing items of clothing which are tight and restrictive.
Dress in layers. Make sure the outer and insulation layers are easy to adjust or remove when you hop back into the car, you can put your extra layers back on when you head out again. You will probably stop once or twice every hour on your way around the Golden Circle or along the South Coast. The best choice is to have a warm, long coat that covers your body down to your knees.
Make sure your boots are comfortable and not too warm for sitting in the car for the whole day. Leather boots are recommended: they are waterproof and warm enough for walking outside. Avoid wearing high-heeled boots or sneakers.
The Icelandic Lopapeysa
When you are traveling in Iceland, you will very likely notice that many locals are wearing knitted sweaters with various circular yoke patterns around the neck and shoulders.
This is what we call a “lopapeysa”, (sweater ‘peysa’ made of “lopi”, an unspun wool). The knitted sweater has, of course, been part of Icelanders everyday clothing for centuries on this cold and windy island.
But the characteristic circular yoke pattern came into fashion in the mid-20th century and has been becoming increasingly popular for visitors to Iceland. Supposedly, the pattern originates from the traditional Greenlandic women's costume.
Buying a lopapeysa for yourself is absolutely recommended. It is the perfect insulation layer for any season. Thanks to the dual-fibre structure of Icelandic sheep fleece, Icelandic wool is quite soft and even more durable.
Just make sure when you buy it that you choose a sweater which has been handmade locally. These are always of excellent quality, and another plus, you give support to the local handknitting association.
How to Dress for Cities and Nightlife
If you would like to jump into the culture and nightlife, but don’t want to be spotted a mile away as a tourist, do not wear hiking gear when walking on Laugavegur in downtown Reykjavík.
To fit right in with the locals, be a hipster or think glam! Don’t wear a parka in summer, instead just add a few more layers of clothing. A vintage fur coat or biking jacket will also do the trick, especially in winter.
There are some more relaxed places such as Prikið, Húrra, The Icelandic Bar, Lebowski or Kaffibarinn where you can wear just about anything (besides tourist clothing). But if you are planning a night of dancing at Austur, Petersen Svítan, Loftið or B5 go for something a bit fancier, sneakers and anything too relaxed can make it more difficult to get it.
Always good to keep in mind for the ladies, Icelanders wear more pants/jeans, jumpsuits than dresses, open high heels might lead to bruised toes and a thick coat, fur or anything similar is essential in winter!
Always good to keep in mind for the gentlemen, sneakers and a hoodie might lead to you not getting in, ties or a bowtie is overdoing it and a jacket is necessary especially in winter.
The Ultimate Packing Checklist for all Travel Styles
- Long-sleeved undergarment
- Wool or fleece sweater
- Down jacket or parka in winter
- Water repellent and windproof softshell jacket in summer
- Sturdy, waterproof boots
- Warm wool socks in winter
- Softshell pants for hiking in summer
- Insulated softshell pants in winter
- Bathing suit and towel
- Gloves, hat// balaclava / scarf
- Own water bottle
- Lip balm, hand cream, sun protection
- Hand warmers
- Sandals/neoprene socks for multi-day hikes (river crossing)
- Waterproof bag for hiking or hot spring hunt
- Waterproof cover for the daypack
- Medical first aid kit
What you don’t need in Iceland
- Bug repellent spray