As you can see from this BBC documentary, the crew of this 2009 summertime journey from Denmark to Ireland in a Viking longship suffered from hypothermia (approx 00:20:00 into the video), even though they were wearing modern foul weather gear and clothing.

Like all experienced sailors, I'm sure the Vikings picked their weather windows carefully. Nonetheless, conditions around the North Sea are unpredictable and at times extreme. Most historically accurate illustrations of Viking garb show woolen hats, tunic-like shirts, pants, and leather shoes. Good for cool damp weather, but not enough for 24/7 soaking wind-driven rain and sea-spray. Did they have heavy-weather gear? Did they use fires or some type of fabric shelter while onboard? Do we have any record of what Vikings wore for these conditions? In other words, other than making educated guesses, do we have any knowledge of how Vikings adapted to cold wet windy conditions at sea?

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    Greenhouse gases notwithstanding, the North Atlantic weather was warmer then Jan 8, 2016 at 3:28
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    As a person with some sailing experience in the North Atlantic, I appreciate this question. Some people will argue that the Vikings were made of some stronger stuff than modern people:-)
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2016 at 5:53
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    @Semaphore - In both of Leif Erikson's two most well-known voyages he was blown off-course. The same goes for Bjarni Herjolfsson. Also, it is said that only about half of Eric the Red's fleet of settlement ships actually made it to Greenland (the rest either were lost at sea, or forced to turn back). So apparently getting caught in bad weather wasn't unheard of, and (some) folk managed to survive it somehow.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 8, 2016 at 14:37
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    @T.E.D. I was referring to the re-enactment's decision to sail in unfavourable weather due to time constraints. Point being them getting hypothermia doesn't necessarily tell us much about vikings getting or not getting the same.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 8, 2016 at 15:18
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    Wool is actually one of the few things that still provides insulation when wet.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 8, 2016 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


This is an interesting and difficult question. Unfortunately, not much is known of Viking equipment, including clothing, because such military goods were relatively expensive and rare. For example, in those times (800-1000 AD) it was common for people to go barefoot, shoes were so expensive. Written works from the time rarely discuss viking clothing in any great detail. Also, it is important to remember that clothing would be vastly different from one person and one area to another, the "vikings" having many different sub cultures. For example, what a Swedish viking from the lakes region might wear would likely be very different from that worn by one from Trondheim in Norway.

The most authoritative book on the subject is Paul Norlund's "Klaededragt i Oldtid og Middelalder" (1942) which unfortunately has never been translated into English.

From many different miscellaneous writings we can infer as a general rule the basic clothing was three layers: a linen "kirtle" or undergarment, a wool coat, and then a chainmail hauberk. Note that a "coat" at that time meant a long-sleeved garment that went down to the knees and usually had a hood. In addition to this well off soldiers would have a helmet and boots.

In addition to this basic pattern it is clear that many wore animal skins in one form or another, and this would especially be true in cold weather scenarios. For example, fur boots, fur mittens, fur hats and fur cloaks were all common articles of trade both among civilians and warriors. Note that by using a tallow or wax treatment hides can be made relatively waterproof.

Seafarers also probably used sealskin garments which were very expensive and valuable. Sealskin is waterproof and was used both for clothing and for dressing small boats. Sealskin can be made into caps, mittens, booties, tunics and other specialized gear for wet weather operations. Such valuable gear would be carefully removed and stowed when landfall was made.

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    Chain mail and other armor is not a part of clothing. Contrary to what they show in the movies, armor was worn only when absolutely necessary, that is in battle. Not only by the Vikings but by everyone. who could afford it.
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2016 at 22:53
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    @Alex: Not to mention, wearing that much metal even over two other insulating layers was a virtual guarantee of hypothermia, even in the North Atlantic of the Medieval Warm Period Jan 9, 2016 at 5:56
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    @alex plus, for obvious weight reasons, it's hard to see mail being routinely worn at sea! Jan 9, 2016 at 11:57
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    @TheMathemagician It was very expensive, not sure why. Maybe it is hard to catch seals? It was (and is) valuable because sealskin is very thin, tough and waterproof; so it is ideal for making wet weather clothing. Jan 11, 2016 at 21:17
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    Also, wool clothing becomes waterproof under the rain, so if they had one or several layers of wool and then linen or cotton, they probably were better equipped against elements than wannabe modern sailors wearing "modern" clothing.
    – Shautieh
    Jan 13, 2016 at 5:16

Jesse Byock in "Viking Age Iceland" reports "a type of rough woolen cloak (vararfeldr) that provided protection from the rain". A higher grade of the same wool was impregnated with animal fat and used for sailcloth. Furthermore, seal fat was "used to grease leather clothes, making them water repellent."

Staying dry by using a greased outer layer seems a very likely explanation.

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