When my family spent 2 weeks in Iceland this past fall, surviving cold weather was my top concern. Coming from Arizona and now Texas, I tend to go overboard when it comes to preparing for cold weather and packing for this trip was no exception. I knew that our first and most important prep was our bodies — packing the right type of shoes and clothing to keep us warm from the skin out.
Start with your skin
No matter what the temperature and weather conditions are, get ready at the skin, or base, layer. My favorite base layer is made of silk — my ancient “silkies” from REI. They’ve been in my dresser drawer for about 30 years and still get the job done. Silk is an excellent fabric for a base layer and when used as long underwear, they’re comfy. I like the fact that the next layer of clothing glides over the silk fabric. The one downside to silk is that it’s best for moderately cold temperatures, as I learned in Iceland. There, I layered my silkies with fleece lined tights and kept pretty warm.
If you opt for a different fabric, consider synthetic fibers or Merino wool. Of the 2, I greatly prefer wool. As I learned with my wool socks, you can wear them again and again and again without much worry about body odor, a feature you won’t find with synthetic fibers or silk. However, Merino wool can be very expensive. I bought my Merino base layer top on clearance at REI, and even then, it was about $50. If you tend to get and stay cold or spend a lot of time in cold weather, it would be a worthy purchase.
One final consideration with this base layer, or layers, depending on the weather, is your own tendency to be cold or on the hot side. My poor daughter had a tougher time in the chilly Iceland outdoors than I did because she is pretty much permanently cold! In her case, a heavyweight base layer would be best. Just read the labels and look for the words “heavyweight” or a “midweight”, if you’d like something slightly lighter.
I mentioned fleece lined tights and these are a wonder! From the moment I put them on, I knew my world was permanently rocked. Not only did they feel great, but I could wear them under jeans, my silkies, ski pants, or anything else. They even look good worn with a skirt, and, if worn as leggings, they’re suitable for cool weather just about anywhere. No need to hoard them for Arctic blasts!
Not all brands are the same, so try one brand first before buying additional pairs. We started with an and actually prefer those to the Muk-luk brand we purchased later.
Your feet are next
If your base layers are keeping your body warm, socks and shoes are the next most important consideration. If you were to splurge on any one thing for cold weather survival, it would be socks and shoes. You can trudge an awful long way if your feet are warm and comfortable, and you can pick up good quality coats and jackets at second hand stores, but that isn’t nearly so easy when it comes to shoes.
I highly recommend getting waterproof boots, even if you aren’t anticipating being in wet weather. If you buy a great pair of boots or heavy walking shoes, they’ll last for years, if not decades. You never know what weather conditions you’ll encounter in that time, so you might as well plan for protection from wet weather.
When I bought my most recent pair of boots, I knew I was making an investment. I went to 2 different stores, tried on maybe half a dozen different pairs and settled on a pair of KEENs. I love them. Now that I’m back in civilization and far from fjords and glaciers, I still wear them every chance I get. I paid right around $165 for them and expect them to last until I die. Seriously. My daughter’s Vasque boots are as beloved to her.
Shopping for these boots, I asked the salesperson to point out which boots were waterproof and we based our decisions on those. You’ll also need to decide if you want low or high tops. I wanted a little more ankle support, so I went with high tops.
If you already have boots but they aren’t waterproof, pack a tube of multi-purpose Shoe Goo, or spray them with a waterproofing spray. I recommend keeping these in your emergency kit or glove box, since you’ll most likely encounter wet conditions away from home.
Add 2 or 3 pairs of wool blend socks, and you’re set. Personally, that’s my first and only choice. They are soft and cushy, incredibly comfortable, and I can wear them for days without them stinking. That’s pretty remarkable. Smartwool is an excellent brand, but on the expensive side, and as you’re shopping for them, you’ll find some pretty cute vintage designs. Wool blends usually include some spandex, a little nylon, but steer away from blends that include cotton.
Now for the rest of you
If your feed are solidly shod in wool socks and comfortable, waterproof boots, you are well on your way to comfortably endurng chilly, winter weather. Now it’s time for layers of clothing.
Around my house, jeans are #1 for every single season. Right now as I type this, I’m wearing jeans and without looking, I’ll be at least one other family member is, too. For cold weather, though, we had to change our tune. My husband and daughter packed one pair of jeans and wore them with base layers, Propper longjohns for him, but most of the time was spent wearing lighter, quick-dry pants.
Those lightweight pants over our base layers did very well for this particular autumn trip, and on the coldest days and nights, we wore 2 base layers each! The lighter weight pants allowed for freer movement. Since we weren’t in full winter weather yet, we didn’t need anything heavier, but if we did, I’d opt for wool pants and a pair of waterproof pants. Iceland has thousands of waterfalls around the entire island and hiking to them can be a wet adventure. Another popular activity is glacier hiking which, again, brings the opportunity to be cold and wet!
Those wool pants should be maybe one size bigger to allow for some shrinkage as well as the layers you may wear underneath. Here’s some more excellent advice for choosing cold-weather pants.
Surviving Iceland from the waist up!
Looking back, it’s funny that I never tired of gearing up every morning for cold weather. I naturally like chilly days, but growing up in the Southwest and most days wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, you might think all the layering would grow tiresome, but it didn’t. It was just a part of our day, getting ready to enjoy something new in the gorgeous Iceland countryside.
Prior to our trip, my final investment piece was a water-resistant softshell jacket lined with a very thin fleece. Made by Marmot, it has numerous features that helped me adapt to wet weather and super chilly nights. It even has an inner band that snaps around my hips to prevent cold air from traveling up through the bottom of the jacket. Bright raspberry red insured that I couldn’t get lost from my family, at least not easily!
A softshell jacket is breathable, wick sweat away from your skin, and are comfortable in all kinds of temperatures. My son’s Marmot jacket was pricey but it built to last, even with growth spurts. The fact that it was a bright tomato red helped identify his location on so many occasions. He was entranced with being outside in a gorgeous environment and tended to wander away, down the sides of cliffs, up mountainsides, enjoying some solitude.
As far as other layers went, we wore combinations of t-shirts (both long sleeve and short sleeve), wool tops, and anything else we happened to have. I knew that our base layers, socks, boots, and jackets would do most of the work in keeping us warm, so we were more casual with our shirts.
Finishing off our daily ensembles were warm gloves, knitted caps and scarves. As a souvenir, I purchased an Icelandic wool scarf and wore it constantly. I was amazed by how warm it kept my neck. This is that exact scarf! Caps kept our heads warm — a necessity, and was the final piece of clothing I put on every day. Since we were sleeping in a camper van, I often went to sleep at night with it on my head! Here’s a pick of the inside of that van. GoCampers was the company we selected, and they were terrific to work with.
If you can stay warm in Iceland…
…you can stay warm anywhere! If we ever really want a cold weather challenge, we’ll head over there during the winter where icy winds are powerful enough to knock cars off the roads! In fact, on our first night in our camper van, the winds howled so loudly that I was convinced we were in the middle of a hurricane.
The payoff for all this cold weather preparation? Incomparable beauty. Again and again and again we commented to each other how no photograph could ever capture the beauty that we discovered every mile along the way. On 3 special occasions, we were treated to the indescribable experience of the Northern Lights, once from our airplane flying in to Keflavik. Yes, we got to see endless miles of the lights. What a great memory.
Life is about making memories with the people you love, and what made this trip so special was not only the beauty and being with family, but the fact that we were equipped and prepared to fully ENJOY the experience and not huddled in front of a tiny space heater!
On to the next adventure…