The Ultimate Arctic Winter Packing List
This post has been a loooong time coming, because it felt like such a big undertaking! See, this past January I got to take a bucket list trip with @farewhispers to Tromso, Norway. In the middle of January. 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And including three overnight Northern Light tours and a morning of dog sledding.
Have I mentioned I’m a southerner, and HATE cold???
(don’t let the picture fool you)
The trip was magical and all the equipment I ended up with worked perfectly. But the actual planning and figuring out what clothing and other gear I needed was really stressful! I’m a warm weather girl—typically avoid cold at all costs—so I literally have no winter clothing. I mean, a pair of cheap running tights and a big hoodie sweatshirt, that’s about it.
But I was venturing 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and I didn’t want to freeze to death, so I knew I had to create a functional winter wardrobe from scratch, and in only a couple months.
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What I learned about Arctic wear
I did gobs of research, read dozens of blog posts about packing for cold weather and Arctic winter, and pored through reviews. I quickly started to get a feel for different brands that rose to the top consistently, and the types of items that I’d need. These became my guiding principles as I assembled my Arctic wear winter wardrobe.
- Figure out where you need to invest in quality, and where you can cheap out. Below I talk about the areas I made those decisions in (and I was happy with all my choices), but this is a must to keep from breaking the bank.
- Really think through what you’ll be doing when you’re using the gear, and if you’ll truly use it (and for how long). For example I kept trying to sell myself on the idea of gloves under mittens, but the reality was I needed to use my camera 24/7 so I needed my fingers free (so I decided on “glittens”; now I have touchscreen gloves I adore). I was only going to be there three days, and no major hiking, so I felt like I could tough it out if something didn’t end up working (like my old boots).
- Fabric choice is key. Merino wool and silk are your friends for key bottom-layer pieces (merino wool is the more cost-effective of the two). Fleece-lined things can work elsewhere. Do your research on what to avoid (like cotton).
- Find brands that consistently get good reviews, and go big there. For instance, I discovered Minus33 and found that they had a lot of the basics that I needed. Their reviews were solid across the board and their prices decent, so I got socks and my neck gaiter, but also tested out a thermal (just decided I didn’t need another).
- Remember that the rest of your clothes don’t matter because you will literally be wearing your coat 80%+ of the time. So what’s under it almost never matters. Bring one “cute” (warm) outfit and call it a day.
Keep reading for my detailed recommendations for building the ultimate Arctic wear packing list for cold weather item-by-item and which brands will do the trick!
Going at a different time of year?? Here’s the Ultimate Packing List for Iceland in Summer
Venturing further south?? Here’s a Detailed Packing List for Bergen, Norway, in Winter
Just a note before we dive in—I don’t work directly with any of these brands, but I may make a small affiliate commission from any Amazon sales that come through clicks from my links (which I greatly appreciate, and at no extra cost to you). All opinions are, as always, completely my own!
One other note—I packed entirely in a carry-on for this trip (in my all-time fave carry-on, to be specific). Just because we’re talking bulkier winter clothes doesn’t mean you have to be weighed down by luggage. Strategy, people!
Start with a good coat, an absolute must
When it comes to Arctic wear, almost nothing is more important than your coat. I did TONS of research on the best winter coats for extreme cold and ended up ordering three different ones from Amazon and returning two of them, but this is what I went with.
I loooooooved this coat! It kept me warm the entire time we were gallivanting around the Arctic and could accommodate any number of layers (in that pic below I’m wearing a full snow jumpsuit under it)—without looking too bulky. But if I didn’t want to wear too many layers it kept me warm anyway. The color is gorgeous and really pops in pictures, it has good pockets (not tons, mind you), and a cute faux fur hood.
I recommend this coat unreservedly, it was really flattering and comfy and super affordable for a nice winter coat. 550 fillpower if those things matter to you (I honestly don’t really know what that means).
There was nothing wrong with the other two that I ordered, I quite liked them in fact. One felt just a tad lighter, and mostly it came down to fit and I couldn’t resist the red color. Here are the other two if you want to compare—you never know how something will fit you vs. me.
Invest in one merino wool or silk thermal top
This was one of the things I had the most trouble deciding on, but is probably priority #2 for Arctic wear. I wasn’t in love with the idea of this type of shirt…I hate high necklines and wool tends to make me itch and irritates my skin. I knew merino wool was much gentler, but to get a good merino wool or silk thermal is an investment. I was tempted to go cheap (like $10), but decided that I’d instead get one piece that I could keep for a long time (it still wasn’t super expensive). And I’m really happy I did.
This shirt was absolutely perfect for what I needed. I was surprised to see that the reviews are good but not great. In reading through them it seems some people had the previous version and it was softer, while this one isn’t quite as soft. I can’t speak to the previous version, but it wasn’t itchy, was lightweight so layered really well, and I literally wore it for three days straight (including overnight one night) and it didn’t get stinky or gross at all. The sleeves and arms will be a bit long for people like me with shorter arms and torso, but that’s not a big deal when you’re layering like this, and helps keep you warmer.
Additional top layers–I recommend zip-up
As you can see in the pic above, I always had a second layer on top of my merino thermal. I brought a few, including a couple fleece ones (one from Target, one from Eddie Bauer) but ended up preferring the more lightweight athletic material one in the pic above. It’s nothing special, just a $20-30 workout top from Target, but it was nice and breathable, which let the merino do its job (getting rid of moisture), and wasn’t too bulky.
This is definitely an area you can skimp on quality, as long as your bottom layers are really good. The pic below shows the Eddie Bauer fleece one I brought. But what I found was the fleece fabric created friction with other layers, so I wasn’t quite as fond of it as a material.
Something like this is perfect, in athletic dri-fit (moisture-wicking) fabric.
At least one pair of fleece-lined thermal bottoms
Absolutely key. I really debated doing merino wool here too, but the cost of everything was stacking up and I decided that 1) I don’t sweat as much on my bottom half so moisture was less of a concern, and 2) my legs don’t get as cold anyway. Plus I tried a couple pairs of merino leggings and didn’t love them so I decided to go with fleece-lined instead.
I brought two different pairs with me (after testing some Eddie Bauer and Columbia ones I wasn’t in love with) and both worked great. I ended up wearing the SEJORA ones a little more just due to fit (they were a little shorter with a good waistline), but definitely used both. They kept me warm and are both crazy affordable (like seriously $10).
Yogipace Women’s Water Resistant Fleece Lined Thermal Tights – these are a newer find, actually got them for running and am completely in love (these are workout pants, so are more like $35)
Honestly, these have all become a mainstay in any kind of packing for cold weather, and even my winter day-to-day life at home.
Layer those under windproof fleece-lined pants
I really struggled to find something I liked here, and finally ended up really loving the pair I chose. Unfortunately Columbia seems to have discontinued them and doesn’t have anything remotely similar (which is weird).
So this is the other pair I bought and ended up returning, just didn’t love the waistband fit quite as much (these were a little snugger, with the fleece-lined leggings underneath you may want to go up a size). Otherwise the quality was good and I know they would have done the job.
Merino wool socks, & a couple pairs of wool-blend
This is another must-have in Arctic wear, and these socks were perfect. I was worried that the spandex parts around my ankles and calves would dig in eventually and bother me, but they really didn’t much even though I wore these socks non-stop for three full days.
Similar to the thermal top, having your main pair of socks be 100% merino wool is important since they won’t allow moisture to make you cold and they won’t get gross and smelly. Do not just bring your regular socks and call it a day!
I used these Minus33 socks as my main layer, and then a wool blend pair of ankle socks on top of them. I had found some Champion brand wool blend ones that I’d been using for running on cold mornings that were perfect—I just wish I’d brought two or three pairs instead of just one.
I can’t find my favorite Champion wool blend ankle socks on Amazon (I bought them at Target), but these Zensah ankle socks are a good alternate that’s still affordable and gets good reviews.
These Smartwool No-Show socks are also another great thin layer. Perfect for a third layer in the Arctic, or even keeping your feet cool and dry in the desert (I wore them in Jordan as well!).
Waterproof boots with some insulation
So I lucked out here—my mom randomly dug out a pair of snow boots from like Walmart that we bought when I was 13, that she’d had in the closet since then. So when I was home for Thanksgiving I picked them up and they worked great. Not perfect, definitely got chilly on occasion, but did the trick vs. shelling out big bucks.
This one is harder for me to steer you in the right direction, because there were still some nights when my feet were ice cubes. If you have it in your budget, I’d go big here (as long as you’ll use them again).
Below are a couple recommendations that came highly recommended by other bloggers who travel in the Arctic a lot, but I can’t vouch for them myself (they’re both on my Amazon wishlist). Otherwise, I’d suggest trying a sporting goods store and seeing if you can get the kind that hunters or similar would wear. You want waterproof and warm.
I also got these hiking boots for a recent summer Iceland trip, and they would work well with waterproofing IF you’re not planning on trekking through lots of high snowbanks (they don’t come up as high, but were very warm & comfy).
Neck gaiter (merino wool)
I had literally never heard of a neck gaiter before researching this trip. But it’s actually magical. It basically can replace a scarf and can do double duty as a loose turtleneck as well as a scarf. I hate real turtlenecks, so the looseness and ability to remove when inside was magical.
It protects the gaps between your shirt/coat neckline and any headgear, but you can pull it up over your mouth and/or nose if it’s super cold or windy. Versatile and lightweight. One of my new favorite Arctic gear discoveries—I have a feeling I’ll be wearing this on really cold runs in the future.
Make sure to get merino wool, not fleece. Fleece will pick up a ton of moisture from sweat and your own breath if it’s covering your mouth/nose, and doesn’t breathe as well (and will get really cold once it’s wet).
Fleece/merino wool headband, gloves
This was one of the things that stressed me out the most, because I knew I had to find good hand coverings but also that I’d need to be able to use my camera and (touchscreen) phone constantly. But didn’t want to lose fingers to frostbite.
I read gobs of reviews and dithered over where I needed to compromise. I bought a few different pairs but ultimately decided to keep these ones. Having a convertible pair was a critical for me since photography is a core component of travel for me and I knew I’d be needing to take pictures constantly. Overall I was super happy with these ones and they’re really affordable.
I also love these thinner merino wool touchscreen gloves—they’re my everyday running gloves in the winter, but do a great job for taking photos too. For true Arctic cold they’ll need some help (like having your hands in your pockets from time to time), but they are a must for me any time I’m packing for cold weather.
For my headgear, I originally wanted to go with a cute winter beanie hat, but after looking at a ton of them and even buying (and returning) a few, I realized that it just wasn’t for me.
While I did buy a merino wool headband from REI (and like it a lot), I ended up loving my fleece headband from Old Navy. I’ve had it for years and run in it all the time during the winter. It shapes nicely over my ears, and was the perfect thing to wear under my coat’s hood (which was up most of the time). This one is similar:
Update: I got this cute and super warm/comfy hat for my recent summer trip to Iceland and it was great. Still a little awkward with the bun I always wear but kept me warm.
- I packed a carry-on rollaboard suitcase (my standby TravelPro) and bought this Osprey Celeste backpack as my carry-on. I’m not a backpack person but it made far more sense when navigating icy sidewalks and trekking through snow during Northern Lights tours.
- A “real” camera for any nighttime or low-light photography – I’ve had the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 and the the LX100, which I used for our Northern Lights tours. And I *just* (2020) bought a new camera, the Sony a6400, and am re-learning how to shoot manual.
- Extra batteries for your camera!!! The intense cold will kill your batteries so you need at least double the amount of extra batteries that you’d normally bring. I had 5 or 6 to be safe, and since I was doing long exposures at night trying to capture the Northern Lights, I definitely went through at least 4 per day.
- External battery charger – I use this Jackery one and it’s okay but I’m not completely in love with it. I just haven’t found another one that’s better. It holds a lot of charge and isn’t too bulky or heavy.
- My only complaint is that it doesn’t have a lock to keep it from turning on in my bag (which drains the battery). I haven’t found one that *does* though, so this will do in the meantime.
- Microfiber cloth for caring for your camera lenses (and glasses)
- Every time you go from being out in the cold to inside in the warm (and vice versa) your camera lens will fog up terribly and it will take a long time to go away. Try to transition slowly if possible, and be aware that wiping the fog away won’t really help (and can damage your lens).
- A legit tripod! I didn’t, and regretted it. Now, the good thing is that some Northern Lights tour companies will provide these for you, so make sure to ask. If they won’t, it’s worth investing in a decent travel one if Northern Lights photography is something you care about. This is my new favorite, took it to Petra.
- A super insulated water/hot beverage bottle for keeping cocoa or other drinks hot during long hours in the snow chasing the Northern Lights. This bottle wasn’t totally perfect (I struggled with a little messiness around the seal when I repeatedly took the lid on and off), but it really did the job on keeping things warm.
- I managed to pack all of this in my trusty life partner carry-on suitcase (and I wore my boots and carried my coat)
- I’d read that you should have goggles for dog sledding. I bought some (these came highly recommended and seemed good quality) but decided ultimately not to pack them since they took up so much space. Thankfully, we had the most gorgeous morning for dog sledding so nothing was really flying at our faces and we didn’t need them. But if you feel you should have them, I’d recommend these.
Hopefully all my research and experiences can help others plan their adventures to Iceland, Norway, or some other epic wintertime Arctic destination! For a non-winter person it was definitely a bit stressful to find the right Arctic wear, but now that I have it I’m stoked to plan another snowy adventure!
Are you planning for an epic trip? What burning Arctic wear packing questions did I not answer here?? Let me know in the comments, happy to help in any way!
Other posts to help you on your way:
- The Best All-Purpose Carry-On Suitcase
- 20+ Tips to Survive & Thrive on a Long Flight
- The Best Travel Pillows for Different Types of Sleepers
Take your new Arctic gear for a ride…
- 3 Days in Bergen, Norway (in January)
- A Night Chasing the Northern Lights
- 3 Days in Tromsø, Norway, During Polar Night
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