Tips on Traveling in Iceland, Part 2: What to Pack

As noted in my previous blog, I decided to write this series of blogs in response to the numerous questions/messages I’ve been getting from friends and friends of friends who are planning to traveling to Iceland soon or are thinking of trying to book a trip after seeing/reading so much about this amazing place. I figured the best time to put this guide together was when I was still in the middle of my trip, so the information is still fresh in my mind. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s a certain aspect of travel you might be curious about. I’m definitely not an expert on Iceland, but hopefully my experiences might help you plan for your trip!

Alright, so the next topic I decided to tackle was “What specific things should I bring on my trip?” Although this might vary a bit, depending on the exact type of travel experience you’re planning, I think this overview should prove helpful to most people.

Although the clothing needs may vary somewhat based on the time of year you come, I think some sound year-round advice is to Bring Layers. I was here throughout the month of May and there was barely a day where I left the house without my winter coat. That doesn’t mean I desperately needed it every day, but I’m definitely grateful I had it. You will hear someone joke at least once while you’re here, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 15 minutes,” and yeah, that’s pretty true. Although I overall had good experience with the weather, there definitely were days where I saw sunshine, rain, hail, and furious winds within an 8-hour span.

It’s important to note that even though the elements outside can be quite temperamental, heat is relatively cheap in the country (thanks to its geothermal energy source), so most businesses and homes are nice and toasty (another joke is that people often will just open their windows instead of turning down their heat if it gets too hot because the cost of this utility is so cheap). This is also means you can take long, hot showers (my personal vice) without much guilt–I know I’ve traveled to other places where the cost of hot water was so expensive you had to be incredibly mindful of your use.

For this time of year, I’ve been more than fine wearing jeans, thermal socks, my hiking boots, a shirt with a fleece/jacket/sweater, along with my hat, coat, and my beloved turtle fur neck warmer (I seriously love this thing–I’m currently wearing it as a headband/hair wrap). Even if you’re coming during their “summer” months, anticipate for cooler temperatures and pack outer layers that are wind/waterproof, especially if you plan on trekking around along the coast/by the water.

Turtle Fur!

Turtle Fur doesn’t sponsor this blog… but they probably should.

And definitely bring hiking boots if you plan to venture outside of Reykjavik. One of the best parts about this country is that most of its beautiful natural wonders are very accessible to the public (very few places are roped off or really regulated), which means you’re able to admire them fairly close. But this also means you need to be prepared to be very careful and mindful of the conditions of the area on the days you’re traveling. The terrain here can be snowy, slippery, or rocky, and a pair of waterproof boots with good grip is critical if you’re planning on doing any sort of site-seeing outside of the city. It might seem silly to pack a scarf, gloves, and a hat to come here in the middle of June, but trust me–you’ll be thankful to have these once you’re here.

If you’re bringing any sort of electronic devices with you (kindle, cell phone, computer, etc) be sure you pick up some adapters before coming, too. You can pick up a pack fairly cheaply online and it will save you the stress of trying to find some while you’re here (along with saving you a few dollars). If you plan on renting a car, be sure you have a proper car charger for your phone, since rest stops are often few and far between and you’re likely to drain the battery using WiFi along the way or taking pictures. (I made the mistake of assuming my rental would have a USB port, but it was only a cigarette lighter. Fortunately another girl at the residency brought her charger, especially since I didn’t run across any gas stations in the country that had anything like this.)Which brings me to my next point: Be sure you look into your cell phone plan before heading here. I mentioned in my previous post about driving that thanks to my international data plan I was able to use my phone as my prime navigation device (which saved me about $400–the amount the car rental place wanted to charge me for a GPS). Having a great international data plan was extremely helpful for staying in touch with family and friends, sending pictures, and getting around the country.

Iceland is a pricy place, but once you get here, there are a lot of reasonably priced accommodations if you want to try to save some bones. Many hostels, hotels, and guest houses offer even cheaper rates if you provide your own linens or sleeping bag, so if you’re able to fit those in your bag, be sure to. (Note: some places get a little funny if it says “sleeping bag” and you have sheets–I’m not sure why [mainly when trying to get the cheaper rate in hotels]. I never had a place deny us the rate, but keep this in mind/keep your answer vague if you get asked…) For this trip, I booked accommodations around the island using airbnb.com, booking.com, and just by showing up at a place and booking once I arrived. I wouldn’t recommend the latter if you’re trying to go to a really busy place like Reykjavík, because chances are you won’t be left with much at the last-minute, but we had no problems finding places at any of the smaller towns we came to. Beyond that, if you’re traveling in the off-season, you might even be able to negotiate price in person if it’s a particularly slow period (at one of the hostels we stayed at along the West Coast we were literally the only people there).

If you plan to visit any of the geothermal pools located around the island (I highly recommend you do!), definitely bring your bathing suit and a towel to avoid additional costs (and having to wear a rental suit. Ew.) Towels are pretty much available at all of the facilities, but you can save a good amount of money by picking up a travel towel (granted, they definitely don’t replace the lovely plush goodness of a regular towel, but they fit compactly in your suitcase and are also great to have on hand for whatever other “just in case” situation you might get into. (Again, if you’re planning on crashing at places “on the cheap,” you might need to provide your own towels as well…)

Since I was going away for a while and knew that I’d probably have a bunch of souvenirs I’d want to bring back with me, I took advantage of Icelandair’s generous luggage allowance, crammed all my stuff into one suitcase (it really wasn’t that much of a challenge), and also packed a large travel duffel bag. I admit that my packing wasn’t totally perfect (even with whittling down my stuff to one bag, I still managed to overpack…), but I’m definitely brushing the dirt off my shoulders for getting this bag. It’s given me such peace of mind to know I can easily carry the things I’d like to bring home without having to worry about going over the weight restrictions. And this bag is huge. Even with all the extra stuff I purchased, there’s still plenty of room for my winter coat. This bag will definitely be put to good use–for other travel adventures and just for shorter weekend/overnight trips.

Along these lines, another essential must for me was my lightweight, foldable backpack.  I literally used this every single day for all sorts of purposes–my general purse, to carry groceries (pro tip: Icelandic grocery stores charge you extra for bags), and even to carry my laptop on a couple occasions when I didn’t feel like schlepping my computer bag with me to the coffee shop. I realized how completely pointless it was for me to pack a purse (I think I maybe used it twice when I was in the city?) because this easily met my storage needs. The amount of pockets/compartments was perfect and it was extremely lightweight yet durable. Definitely pick one up if you’re taking a trip like this or do any sort of hiking/outdoor exploring!

If anyone out there has any other product recommendations they found helpful, please feel free to post about them in the comments. I always love hearing about new stuff to check out and try!

  1. I wonder if you could post a picture of your “fold able backpack” as that was a new one to me. Having been to Iceland a couple of times in June and once in February, I would also suggest a head lamp. When you are out looking at the northern lights one of the reasons you can see them easily is because there are few street lights. Also, in the winter when it gets dark very early, it is easy to get caught out at the sights as the sun goes down. In the summer, save the mask from the airline as the sun doesn’t go down until 11:00 p.m. or so. Your thoughts about layers and gloves, etc. are so spot on. I was dressed like winter in June on a whale watch boat. Love this blog and following your adventures – well written too!

  2. I’d love to hear about stuffing a sleeping bag into a carry on! I’m flying WOWair into Iceland next month and planning on sleeping in hostels. And, you got it, I didn’t fork out for a checked bag. I’ve got sheets and a fleece sac, but September! Will I freeze in that combo? I’m thinking a compact-ish backpack for the carry on, and the biggest ‘purse’ I’ve got with everything else. Thoughts? Am planning on a road trip – hello ring road!

  3. Hey Jennifer–great questions!

    Are you planning on exclusively staying in hostels, or will you be camping outside? If you’re planning on just sleeping indoors, then you should be OK with a sheets and a fleece blanket. The one nice thing about Iceland is that because they are able to geothermally heat their homes/buildings cheaply people keep their places EXTREMELY toasty. (It’s a joke, though true, that if people feel like their heat is too high, they simply open their window!)

    If you are planning on camping outside, I would say you would probably need something more substantial for warmth. Although there are compressed/compact options, I’m not sure if it’s something that you’d be able to stash in a bash without it compromising the baggage weight limit.