If you are anything like me, you google “What to pack [location] [month/season]” in the days and weeks leading up to your trip departure. I especially do this when I am traveling to a destination where I don’t know what to expect as far as the weather is concerned. Perhaps googling is how you ended up reading this post. Welcome!
A friend and I booked flights to Iceland on a whim when Iceland’s most punctual airline, WOW, was running a sale. $285RT, direct, out of one of our local airports. $285 for a round trip flight to Europe doesn’t even meet my cost threshold for purchases I need to really think about, so we booked it. During the booking process, they are very clear about their baggage limits and fees, but we were so caught up in our high of finding such a great airfare deal that we didn’t think twice about it. A few hours later I sent my friend a text: “um, our baggage limit is one 5kg/11lb bag, TOTAL, unless we want to pay with our first born child for extra weight or checked baggage.” That’s right, 11lbs, one bag. Not one bag AND one personal item. One bag. 11lbs.
Packing for cold weather travel is all about layering, not about wearing the bulkiest items in your wardrobe. Not only will you save space (and weight!) by not packing thick sweaters and bulky jackets, you will have items that can be utilized in multiple ways based on weather and activities. Additionally, several thin layers will be warmer than one thick layer because the air trapped between the layers will serve as thermal insulation (at least that’s what science and google tell me). After researching FOR DAYS about what I should pack for Iceland, how much all my various stuff weighed (such as my Kelty backpack, and what various daybag options I had), what are the warmest, lightest baselayers I could purchase, and whether or not the iPad I planned to stick down the back of my pants would count towards my weight limit, here is what I decided to pack:
Tops. We were mostly outdoors sightseeing for this trip, so that was my main consideration when packing. But I also wanted a top that I could wear out for a nice dinner.
- 2 Long Sleeve Merino wool crew shirts
- 1 Waffle Henley
Pants. Again we were outdoors for most of this trip, so I needed comfortable pants that would also keep my legs toasty, but also fit in if we went out to experience Reykjavik’s hoppin’ nightlife (says the girl who likes to be in bed by 10pm on the average day).
- 1 pair Dark denim
- 1 pair Under Armour ColdGear™ tights
- 1 pair merino wool leggings
I can wear the merino leggings under jeans or my UA tights and the UA tights under my jeans or as pants in their own right, meaning each item can be used in at least two ways.
Shoes. Following the same logic as the clothes above, I packed two pairs of shoes that could cover all activities from climbing snow mounds to rockin’ out in the club.
- 1 pair Waterproof boots
- 1 pair Ankle booties
- 1 Waterproof Down jacket
- 1 Fleece lined hat (bonus points if it has a pompom!)
- 1 Scarf
- 1 pair Wool gloves/mittens (or glomitts)
Warm layers. All the various base and mid layers that will keep you warm.
- 1 Fleece
- 1 Under Armour GoldGear™ base layer shirt (between October-April, I never go anywhere without one)
- 2 Uniqlo HeatTech camisoles
- 4 pairs Wool socks (2 thick pairs + 2 liner pairs)
Random Items. Those random items that are specific to certain activities.
- 1 Bathing suit (for the Blue Lagoon)
I’m picky about the gear I bring, as trying to keep track of everything when you are sharing a room with 4 other people, or running between train transfers can really be a pain in the derriere. Here’s what I brought:
- Weekender bag
- Small crossbody purse (for transit/nights out, but also small enough to shove into larger bag [or hide under a jacket behind your back…] for that pesky “one bag only” rule)
- Change purse for cash/cards/tickets
- Small journal and pen (for notes, so I don’t look like an asshat with my nose in my phone while on tours)
- Noise canceling headphones to drown out the screaming baby in the aisle behind me
- Eye mask/neck pillow to sleep on the plane
- iPad (organize notes, edit photos, watch movies, read)
- Basic toiletries
- Outlet Adapter and various charging cables
Wardrobe & Packing Tips
Make sure every clothing item you pack goes with everything else. Notice everything I packed is in the pink/purple and gray family. This creates multiple outfit options, and keeps me from looking like I got dressed in the dark.
Only take 1-2 pairs of thick wool socks, but carry several thinner pairs to wear underneath. It’s cold, so you aren’t going to sweat profusely, and you can re-wear the thicker pair of sock 3 or 4 times before you need to wash them, cutting down on the amount of bulk you need to carry.
For cold-weather travel gear, quality is of the utmost importance. Plan ahead and purchase items you need on sale. I bought a Columbia down coat for 50% off on Black Friday, and it is the best coat I’ve ever owned. I also picked up some merino wool base layers from the REI outlet. They are last season’s styles, but who cares?
Use packing cubes to keep everything compact and organized. This is especially crucial if living out of a backpack.
The free samples from Sephora/Ulta/etc. are a great way to keep using your favorite beauty products while traveling, with the added bonus of being able to shed items/weight as you use them up. I don’t feel bad about tossing an unused packet of face cream, but having to carry around a bulky jar of night cream and bring home the unused stuff is annoying.
If I Had To Do it Over Again
First, I would just pay for extra baggage, but I’ll go into that more in my review of Wow Airlines. We managed to get around that 5kg/11lbs bag limit, barely, but only by wearing several layers to check in and packing items like cameras and iPads in our respective purses and hiding those under clothes at both check-in and boarding.
I would also have left the ankle boots at home as I never even took them out of my bag. (This would be for winter, I would probably still pack a second pair of shoes in warmer months.) We would leave the apartment in the morning, and not return until we were finished with our activities for the day and ready to go to bed. Additionally, everyone in Reykjavik just wore their snow boots out to dinner/shopping anyway. Additionally, I would have left my mini tripod at home, as it was useless for the Northern Lights tour I bought it for, as well as any landscape shots I would have wanted to take take on our Golden Circle tour. Note to self – purchase proper travel tripod before England/Scotland. Finally, I would have left my sunglasses at home. It never really got very bright during the day, even with the snow on the ground, and trying to keep track of them and not break them was not worth the stress it caused.
On the flip side, if I had to adhere to a bag limit like this again, I would definitely make sure I packed my foot massage ball (broken ankle + bad feet + makeshift arch supports + walking 8+ miles a day = sore footsies), as well as slipper socks for the apartment. Many apartments in Iceland don’t have central heating, and we opted to only keep the bathroom and bedrooms heated, and not the living area since we were never home to use it. You still had to walk through it to get to the bathrooms, however, and a 3am bathroom run over a hardwood floor was quite the shock. Finally, I would (have remembered to) pack band aids. I always pack them, because I’m a klutz, but when it’s cold and dry, the slightest thing can rip your skin open, and I was constantly begging band aids off my friend.