Clothes for Early May

Spring in Iceland is likely to have all the weather — sometimes even in the same day. (“If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes!”, we heard dozens of times). So – what to wear? The answer? Layers. Of course.

During our two weeks we had all the weather you can imagine: sun, cloudy, foggy, raining, sleeting, hailing, little square cubes of ice pelting us at 30mph, snow, and a full-fledged blizzard. And yes, most of that was in one day. It started out sunny and blue-skied, and devolved into a blinding snowstorm with about ten feet of visibility.

Mark bundled up against the wind
Mark bundled up against the wind

Through it all is the wind. When they say Iceland is windy, they aren’t kidding. Every day had enough wind to be blustery and chilly, and a few times it was strong enough to rock the car (and us!) when we got caught by gusts.

Like everyone else, I will repeat the mantra of every single person telling you what to pack for Iceland — LAYERS.  It’s so easy to add another t-shirt, or take off a layer of fleece to stay comfortable, you don’t need to have a single jacket or shirt for each possible temperature. Cold? Add another shirt or a fleece. Hot? Take them back off.  Layers are critical — you don’t want to overheat and sweat in your clothes while you hike around, then freeze when you stop moving because all your clothes are sweaty and damp. Being able to adjust the thermostat, as it were, with various long underwear and shirts and jackets is key.

Long underwear (silk or wool), then t-shirt/long sleeve shirt and pants, then fleece or sweatshirt, then waterproof jacket. You can add or remove layers as needed. I found that most days, a silk undershirt and long-sleeved t-shirt was plenty under my coat. Hike up a few steep hills an you end up taking the coat off anyway.

I basically scoured the web for suggested packing lists for Iceland, and ended up packing (and wearing) the following for a 15 day trip. I’ll start with the inside layer —

  • Silk long underwear (1 pair bottoms, 2 t-shirts)  — these things pack down to the size of a deck of cards and are remarkably warm. Many people swear by merino wool (which can be pricey) or the new techno-materials for the underlayer. Wool stays warm when wet, and most modern stuff is treated to avoid smelling like a damp sheep, and the UnderArmor sorts of stuff can wick away moisture. I prefer silk because of the very light weight + warmth factor. It’s remarkably warm for how thin it is. I really like Wintersilks, both lightweight and midweight. They are often on sale.
  • 8 pairs underwear/2 bras

And for actual clothes, the middle layer(s) you can stack up or strip off as you want. This is where I habitually overpack, but I tried to pare it down as much as possible–

  • Wool hiking socks (3 pairs) — Smartwool or Vermont Tough are my favorites, and look for actual hiking socks with good padding. You’re going to be in those hiking boots a lot.
  • Black stretch pants (2 pairs) — or leggings or hiking pants or whatever you like.
  • Long sleeve t-shirts (2) — try for natural fibers, and if you tend to be cold, add in a mock turtleneck.
  • Tank tops (2)

And the outer layer, which, really, is more important than anything else. Waterproof, rainproof, windproof is critical —

  • completely rainproof/windproof coat with a hood – not just water resistant, but waterproof, with taped seams and everything. Get one that is long enough to cover your butt or you’ll end up sitting in damp pants, and get a hood so when it rains you don’t have water sluicing down your back.
  • Fleece liner for coat (which I wore separately a few times, but never actually as a coat liner.) — a fleece half-zip is perfect. If you can find a windproof one (these from Columbia are great) even better.
  • rainproof and windproof pants — once again, not just resistant, but waterproof is important. If it does rain horizontally, you want to stay dry.
  • wool hat — something that covers your ears is a good choice
  • windproof gloves — or mittens
  • scarf/gaiter
  • Good hiking boots — I fancy Keens, Targhee IIs, waterproof and well broken-in

I also brought a few pairs of those stretchy mini-gloves, to stash in pockets and camera bag, just in case. Mr. Phouka had a windproof fleece hat, and after a few days I wished I had one, too. It made him look ridiculous, but it worked.

I never even wore the bottoms of my silk long underwear — thick knit pants were plenty, and I never bothered with the rainproof pants, either. We did get rained on, but it was never enough to get really soaked. Mr Phouka tends to run colder than I do, so he often wore silk, a short-sleeved shirt, a heavy sweatshirt, and his coat. He broke out the rainproof paints once or twice, mostly to cut the wind.

And, of course, the normal toiletries and such – shampoo, conditioner, deoderant, sunscreen.  I slept in the tank top and underwear.  Washing out the silk long underwear every day was easy, and it dried in, literally, minutes.


  • Swimsuit — absolutely essential, you are going to want to soak in those hot tubs
  • Microfiber Pack towel — thin, and dries quickly

I packed a few other things that I didn’t use, so I’d probably not pack a second fleece or a sweatshirt, nor a dedicated rain coat next time I go. They take up room and I didn’t need them.

There were laundry facilities at a few of the campsites we stayed at, and the guesthouse in Hellisholar had a washer and dryer we used, so it is possible (if not always easy) to do laundry once or twice on the trip. Hostels, if you choose that route, nearly always have laundry facilities available. Just be sure to check that they have actual dryers and not just ‘drying closets”. It’s very humid in Iceland and heavy clothes won’t dry well without some serious heat.

Jeans are often noted as being a bad choice in Iceland – heavy and hard to get dry if they get wet in the rain or snow. That said, Mr Phouka wore jeans for a good portion of time when it was windy and sunny, and had no problems.

Of course, travel in mid-summer or mid-winter will require slightly different choices — shorts in summer, heavier layers in winter. But the same principle applies: Layers. You probably don’t need heavy-duty wool underwear in July, but you’ll want shorts and short-sleeved shirts (and more sunscreen). In December, you’ll want a heavy lined coat and extra shirts or turtlenecks.

Here are a few packing lists from other people, for a different perspective and idea for different seasons:

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