By Ryan Connolly on Mar 13, 2022 in Accessories, Clothing, Europe, Gadgets, Iceland, Luggage, Photography, Regions, Travel Equipment, Western Europe
Aside from, when is the best time to visit Icelandthe biggest follow-up question I tend to get is:
What should I pack when coming to Iceland?
Well firstly, you would assume (rightly and wrongly) that traveling to Iceland in winter is going to require a very different suitcase than if you are traveling in summer. After all, the winter is filled with snowy landscapes, blue ice caves and nighttime Northern Lights hunts. Whereas the summer is known for its 24 hours of daylight, the midnight sun and flourishing wildlife.
And yet, this list that I’m dubbing an evergreen list actually works quite well year round with only minor changes to the suitcase. The most notable being the sheer number of layers you intend on wearing each day, maybe 4 or 5 in winter but only 2 or 3 in summer. Aside from that, there seems to be a reason for bringing each one of the below items all year round. Quite handy for me really, being able to send the same response each time.
So how can a secluded, small island, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, skirting the Arctic Circle have an evergreen packing list?
Well happily (and sadly) the weather doesn’t fluctuate around the calendar year as much as you might think. This is thanks, in part, to the Gulf stream sending warm water from the equator year round. This forces winter to be a lot warmer than it should be and allows summer to stay quite cool.
However, the other thing that Iceland is known for is its temperate climate. Or, as I prefer to say, temperamental climate. That means, whether it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter any given day can be sunny, calm and warm or windy, cold and wet.
In short, you need to be prepared for all weather types (good and bad) all year round. All part of Iceland’s charm. So here it goes with the evergreen packing list. Feel free to comment if you think anything should be added.
Top 15 things to pack for Iceland
1. Hats, gloves and a buff
Whether it’s summer or winter is irrelevant for this one. Sometimes it gets cold and windy. Simple as that. In summer, you’re less likely to need them every day but on the days you do need them, like on a glacier hike or snowmobile tour, you’ll be glad you packed them. Scarves also work, though buffs tend to work better in the wind and allow a little more breathability if it’s covering your face.
2. Multiple layers
With a passing cloud, a gust of wind or a downpour of rain can change the warmest day into the coldest of your holiday. The opposite can be said if you’re on the way to a dormant volcano and happen to be perspiring quite a bit. It’s a little hard to take off a pair of ski pants half way up a hill if all you’re wearing underneath is your unmentionables. The same goes if you are walking along the Black Sand Beach in shorts and realise a warm pair of pants is more appropriate.
It’s always better to have a base layer (Merino wool is a favorite of mine) with a warm sweater and something thin and waterproof to protect you from the wind and rain. That’s a summer recommendation. In winter, I would echo the same sentiment but maybe make some of the layers a little more thick or add a few layers to that list.
3. Waterproof outer layer
If I was to get crazy about one thing on this list it would be this one. You would be surprised how many times a customer has shown up for a glacier hike in jeans and a jumper in the middle of winter. No matter how many layers you are wearing, if you get wet, you stay wet. There’s none of that warm summer breeze or midday heat to dry you off. So bring a thin (or thick) waterproof jacket and thin waterproof pants. Trust me, you’ll only look out of place not wearing them.
If I’m honest, any fully waterproof outer layer works well for your vacation as long as it isn’t too loose fitting like a plastic poncho since they don’t tend to survive very long in the wind.
4. Backpack or small day bag
This one is a bit of a no brainer. If you’re bringing lots of layers to add and remove throughout the day you’re going to need somewhere to carry them when not using them. As much as I love waterproof pants, I’d much rather have them in my backpack on a warm sunny day than on my legs causing me to sweat unnecessarily.
5. Reusable water bottle and/or Thermos
Water is clean and clear across the country thanks to all those melting glaciers so bringing a reusable bottle is far better for your wallet (and the environment) if you just fill up whenever you find a cold stream. If you decide to be smart and bring a big thermos then you can easily swap the water for a hot beverage on the nights that you’re out searching for the Northern Lights. Hot chocolate and marshmallows are never very far away as you drive through the coastal towns in Iceland.
6. Sunglasses and sunscreen
Yup, even this entry gets a year round sticker. Some of the worst sunburn (and snow blindness) I’ve experienced in Iceland was in winter. You’ll thank me for this advice when hiking on a glacier, entering a blue ice cave or walking through the snowy landscape in the middle of winter with the ‘barely rose’ sun reflecting off the white surfaces. During the darker days of the year the sun is perpetually in the ‘golden hour’ phase, so it can get a little painful for driving when the sun is constantly shining in your eyes.
Polarised sunglasses and Factor 30+ sunscreen are my recommendations but any protection will serve you well in Iceland.
7. Debit or credit cards (Visa, Mastercard or AMEX)
Everywhere uses card. Literally. I’ve personally not taken cash from an ATM a single time in the last 6 years for that reason. In fact, the only time you’re likely to use cash is if you decide to tip your guide or waiter. Tipping isn’t in Iceland but it is a mandatory nice gesture if you had a good time. You can tip in your local currency if easier.
The main thing to consider here is what charges you get from your own bank so do a little investigation before you come to avoid big charges. Also, it’s best to notify your bank that you’re traveling to Iceland before coming too to avoid your bank flagging fraud alerts while here.
8. Camera and tripod
A camera used to be a given but with smartphones getting better and better, you can even take pretty decent pictures of the Northern Lights on your phone these days. The main issue in Iceland with getting that perfect atmospheric waterfall picture or illuminating aurora is stable. Especially if it gets a little windy that day.
The more dedicated photographers among you may be imagining a 5 ft extendable and adjustable tripod. Sure, this is great. But even the hand sized tripods with a time delay on your camera will do the trick most of the time.
On a personal note, I wouldn’t recommend bringing your drone. Most places don’t allow them or if they do you will have to get a permit that tends to take longer to be approved than the length of your holiday. They aren’t so good on windy or wet days anyway. Not worth the extra weight in my opinion.
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9. Sturdy boots and warm socks
This applies year round. Don’t assume because it’s summer that a light pair of sneakers will do on an outdoor adventure. You can bring both of course but if you want to keep your feet dry, your ankles protected in uneven terrain (lots of that in Iceland) and your feet warm then a good pair of hiking boots and warm socks will be your new best friend.
Always remember to break in your boots before traveling with them. There’s nothing worse than walking through a volcanic landscape with blisters eroding your happiness levels. I’ve heard many different timescales for breaking in your boots. Anything from 100km of walking to wearing them around the house every day for a month. Either way, just make sure you’ve used them enough to feel comfortable before traveling.
10. A phone that works
This is a bit of a silly thing to say but having your phone set to international roaming can really help you feel connected while in Iceland. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of wifi but not in the wilderness when you’re walking along a 100 meter deep gorge. You can purchase international SIMs at the airport or from most phone shops and even a lot of grocery stores in downtown Reykjavík.
Another caveat to this is that Iceland can get pretty cold, which plays havoc with battery life. So if you have a travel sized battery pack that you can bring with you this will save you from missing out on that perfect picture just as your phone dies.
11. Fluffy things for the in between times
My colleague referred to her casual clothes as fluffy things so I promised her I would add it to this list. It’s true though. While in Iceland you’re not going to be spending all your time out in Iceland’s raw and wild nature. You’ll relax in hot pools, chill out in your hotel room and dine in some of the best restaurants you’ll ever encounter. So make sure to have something comfy to swap into. That could be your favorite pair of sneakers, a comfy pair of jeans, a fluffy sweater or even a nice pair of slippers. I have to admit I don’t go anywhere without my prized slippers these days. Got to keep those toes warm.
12. Fine dining attire
This is an odd one to add to the list since I’m effectively saying that this isn’t something you need to bring. Looking good is always fun. Who doesn’t love to get all dressed up for a night out or a fancy dinner. Feel free to bring a shirt and tie or elegant dress but I’m here to tell you that there are virtually no places that have a strict dress code to enter. Even at the Michelin recommended restaurants they won’t turn you away for not looking the part (within reason). So I’d say if you reach your luggage limit then this is the one to limit or at least double it up with some of the fluffy things that work in both settings. Jeans and a shirt is a perfectly reasonable attire to wear in all settings.
13. Snacks from home
Again, this isn’t a mandatory thing to bring. However, Iceland can be really quite expensive. And some of the snacks aren’t to everyone’s liking. I’m looking at you Harðfiskur (dried cod) so you might prefer to bring a long a few dozen power bars or snacks so you don’t eliminate half pf your spending money at the local gas station because you’re a little peckish.
14. Skin care products
Whether it’s sun damage or wind chill, I know all too well that a good moisturiser and lipbalm can feel like heaven after a day out in the cold. You can purchase these in Iceland too of course but the same applies as the snacks. We don’t have every brand and they do tend to be unnecessarily expensive.
OK, you got me. This last one isn’t evergreen per se. However, if you made it down to his part of the list then I’m willing to bet that you are really taking packing seriously so you don’t mind the extra tidbit, even if it doesn’t strictly speaking apply to summer travel ( most of the time). These are also known as yak traks and snow chains. Not to be mistaken with their much more extreme bigger brother, the crampon.
- First aid kit and other survival items like a map, compass and binoculars. The only reason this isn’t in the main list (anymore) is because a lot of these items are either provided while you’re on a tour (or in your hire car) or are attached to your super fancy new phone and camera. Still, nothing wrong with being over prepared, especially if you intend going off the beaten path at some point.
- Flip flops are great if you intend on visiting lots of natural hot pools to stop snow going between your toes.
- Quick dry towels can be folded up very small in your bag and are great for a quick dry off after you get out of a hot pool. It also works well as an impromptu picnic blanket or extra warm layer.
Thanks and happy packing!
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.
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