TOP 10 THINGS TO PACK FOR ICELAND

So you’ve booked your flight and planned your trip. Now for the really tricky part, what to pack for your dream holiday. This is a surprisingly difficult task, thanks to Iceland’s four seasons in one day style of weather. In fact, you’re just as likely to get warm, calm and sunny days as you are wet and windy, regardless of the time of year. This makes packing a little difficult. So we’ve created the ultimate packing list that works well all year round, with only minor variations.

If you’re here for a week you’ll likely experience all weather types that Iceland has to offer. The good, the bad and the windy!

Summary of the Top 10 Things to Pack For Iceland

Below is a quick summary of the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland but I strongly recommend reading on to learn more about the changing seasons and the different considerations you might have throughout the year:

  1. Hats, gloves and buff (yes, even in summer)

  2. Multiple layers with a good base layer (avoid cotton as a base layer)

  3. Waterproof jacket and pants (something light to go over your clothes)

  4. Small back pack (for water, snacks and shedding layers)

  5. Reusable water bottle and / or thermos (we hate single use plastic!)

  6. Sunscreen, sunglass, lipbalm and moisturiser (yes, even in winter)

  7. Working Credit Card (Visa and MasterCard are accepted everywhere)

  8. Camera and Tripod (or a really good phone)

  9. Waterproof hiking boots and comfy socks (dry feet = happy traveler)

  10. International SIM or Roaming phone (always check your roaming fees)

*You will not need to bring any technical equipment such as helmets, harness, crampons or any other specialist items while on tour with Hidden Iceland or any of our partners. 

What is the weather really like in Iceland?

Thanks in part to the gulf stream, Iceland is a lot warmer than you might think for a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean skirting the Arctic Circle. The warm waters that flow up from the Equator flow around Iceland all year round, allowing the winters to be unseasonably warm (compared to places of the same latitude) and for the summers to be surprising mild, despite up to 24 hours of daylight.

LUGGAGE TIP: Aim for one full sized suitcase and one small day pack. We have lots of space in our vehicles but there’s always a limit.

Is winter really that warm?

In winter, on the coldest and darkest days of the year, the average temperature is around 0-1 degrees Celsius (32-34 Fahrenheit) though it can fluctuate quite wildly above and below that number. That means lots of layers on some days and practically t-shirts on others. Believe it or not, this is quite a similar temperature to New York City, thanks to the gulf stream keeping us warm.

Is summer really that cold?

In summer, on the warmest and sunniest days of the year the average temperature is around 13-15 degrees Celsius (55 – 60 Fahrenheit). Just like winter, it can swing quite wildly above and below this number. We’ve experienced days as high as 25 Celsius (80 F) and days as low as 5 Celsius (41 F) in the middle of summer. Assume evenings will be chilly regardless of the day temperature.

For the purposes of the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland, consider summer to be from early May until the start of September and the remaining months in the winter camp.

What about the wind and the rain?

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.”

Regardless of the temperature and time of year, Iceland can get a little wet and windy at times. Don’t worry though, we also get lots of sun and calm days too. I promise! Thankfully, it’s rare to get long spells of bad weather at any time of year.

With that said, the stronger storms tend to confine themselves to winter, though summer is by no means immune. This is why we’ve added waterproofs and multiple layers to the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland. It is also the reason we only recommend self-driving from mid-April to mid-October. Any further into winter and an inexperienced driver might struggle with the conditions.

Is there a big difference between winter and summer packing?

Of course there are variations in what you should bring but the reality is that what’s good for summer is often good for winter. It tends to mostly come down to the sheer number of layers that you might wear in summer or winter (or spring and autumn for that matter).

Before you read on, just remember the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland is an evergreen list, so if you want a little more detail for specific clothing items then check out our winter packing list here. Or summer packing here. Either way, the below list will serve you well regardless of when you are travelling.

What about spring and autumn (fall)?

I’ll be using the term ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ throughout our Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland, with little mention of spring and autumn. This is mainly to keep the word count down and to reduce unnecessary explanations. The reality is, spring and autumn should really be regarded as winter when it comes to packing. Of course, it’s not usually as cold in April or October as it is in January or February but trust me when I say, it can definitely feel like winter on some days. For the purposes of this list, consider ‘summer’ from early May until the start of September and the remaining months in the ‘winter’ camp.

Fun Fact: The Viking Calendar divided its year into 2 equal parts, summer and winter. These days, all four seasons are recognised.

Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland

Please note, Hidden Iceland is in no way endorsed, sponsored or paid by any of the brands presented or linked in this blog post. 

1. Hats, gloves and a buff

Even in summer, the wind can get a little chilly on the skin so it’s always good to have something to cover up those extremities. This is even more important if you are doing a glacier hike, ice cave tour or longer hikes in the Icelandic nature.

A hat that’s big enough and thick enough to cover to the bottom of your ears is pivotal here. There’s nothing worse than cold wind on your ears. As long as you have a hood on your jacket you don’t need to worry too much about waterproof versions. A standard 66 North beanie will be fine in summer (and probably winter) though we do enjoy seeing our customers try to squeeze their helmets over the ‘stylish’ Arctic hats, equipped with ear flaps.

A thin, waterproof pair of Sealskinz gloves (or equivalent) will do in summer but maybe a thicker version in winter is better. Even a fluffy pair of mittens will serve you well if you aren’t aiming to be too dextrous most of the time.

Any standard buff will do really. You want something that can stretch up to cover the skin up to nose and down to the neck. Breathability is key here. Scarves are ok but they do tend to play havoc in the wind. This item is less important in summer, though you’ll be happy you have it when the wind picks up on the odd day.

2. Layers (top and bottom)

The temperature can change quickly in Iceland, especially if you’re out in nature, exerting yourself.

So rather than bringing a big puffy pair of ski pants or ski jacket, consider the multi-layer method.

For pants, start with non-cotton, thermal underwear like long johns or leggings. This should be under a warm water resistant pant. In winter, swapping the outdoor pants for ski-pants is ok to do but make sure you have something less extreme for the car journeys and warmer moments.

For top half, a long sleeved non-cotton base layer under a light sweater will do. Then a warmer down jacket to go over this will work well as your standard 3 layers that you can combine or swap in and out of through the warm days and cooler summer nights. In winter, a ski jacket or substantial winter jacket is a good idea to add to this.

For both top and bottom, simply add a layer or three to comfort in winter. As I said, being able to add and remove layers is key to handling Iceland’s ever changing environment. Many of our guides love to have the hand made Lopapeysa sweaters as one of their layers of choice. You can purchase these in most local towns and villages and are considered quite stylish.

3. Waterproof outer layer

So many travellers overlook their lower half when it comes to packing. However, keeping yourself dry all over is pivotal to staying warm and happy. A thin waterproof outer layer is best combined with multiple warm inner layers that you can take on and off, especially in summer. On a warm sunny day you might be in shorts and t-shirt but you’ll be pleased that you brought along your waterproofs if the weather changes suddenly. With that said, there’s nothing wrong with bringing ski pants and ski jacket in the winter months, but they are unlikely to be a good idea in late spring and summer. You’ll simply be too hot. Most people get away with layers and waterproofs all year round instead.

Thankfully, we do lend our customers 66 North waterproof pants and jacket when on tour. This is 1000 ISK per item (2 for 1500 ISK) if you are joining a small group tour. It’s included in the price if you are on a private tour. Get in touch to arrange a visit to our offices if you are self-driving. We don’t recommend buying the single use plastic ponchos for a multitude of obvious reason.

4. Small back pack

Considering the weather is so changeable in Iceland all year round then you’re going to want to have a small pack with you. Aside from carrying snacks, water and your camera, it’s also good for adding and removing layers. The only thing worse than being too cold in Iceland is being stuck in too many layers and being too hot. Especially when hill-walking near a dormant volcano or hiking in the highlands of Iceland.

Any brand will do but try to bring one that has a waterproof cover or is fully waterproof if you want avoid the contents getting wet.

5. Reusable water bottle and/or Thermos

Icelanders hate plastic waste and we hope you do too. Many cold water sources in Iceland, whether it’s from the tap, a local river, or on a glacier, are clean and fresh (and tasty). Just make sure you consult with your guide first before dipping your hands in. Even in Iceland, it’s prudent to only drink close to the water source and from springs. You never know what has happened upstream.

So rather than buying multiple plastic bottles, just bring along your favourite re-usable bottle. The environment (and the locals) will thank you for it and they’ll always let you fill up for free.

Many of our guides use Nalgene bottles but you might prefer a thermos to keep your fresh water cold (or your hot chocolate hot).

6. Sunscreen, Sunglasses, Lipbalm and Moisturiser

Yes, this is a year round suggestion. Summer is of course a little sunnier and warmer but in winter you also get that golden hour that seems to last all day long with sun streaming directly into your eyes. Couple that with the reflection of the ice and snow, while on a glacier hike or nature walk, and you’ll be happy you have some protection from the sun. Hydrating cream and lip balm are always nice to have, especially after a windy day.

Anything above Factor 30 is a good idea for sunblock. Polarised sunglasses are also a good idea, though anything with a UV filter will likely suffice.

7. Credit cards that work internationally (cash is rarely used)

Iceland does still use cash but it’s less and less prevalent. Everywhere (and I mean everywhere) takes card. Even the toilets if you’re unlucky enough to find one that charges you. You can of course still take cash out in local currency at the airport or an ATM if you want, but you’ll find that you end up using it for tipping more than anything else. Btw, tipping isn’t mandatory in Iceland but it is a nice gesture. You can tip in your local currency if easier. We debated not including this one on the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland but considering the amount of times we get asked about cash and tipping we thought it was only fair to give it a spot.

Most places accept Visa and MasterCard. AMEX is less widely used so have a back up card if this is your preferred payment provider.

8. Camera and Tripod (not drones)

You can replace the word camera with smart phone here if you have a newer model but it’s always good to have a camera with something to stabilise the picture like a tripod for those atmospheric shots. This is even more important if you want to get good pics of the Northern Lights (from September to April). Arguably, you could remove this from Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland and just designate one person in your group to be the photographer.

Drones are only permitted in some locations and often require permits. Considering you might not be able to fly them on the windier days anyway and we’d hasten to say that it’s really not worth bringing them a long most of the time, especially if you’re on small group tours with other guests around.

9. Waterproof hiking boots & warm socks

Good walking/ water resistant boots with good grip are a must for Iceland, especially in winter. Getting wet feet in Iceland isn’t generally a health risk since it doesn’t get too cold (most of the time) but it is a happiness risk. Walking around in wet feet all day is nothing short of miserable. Also, make sure you have a spare warm pair of insulated socks handy when you are out and about. Swapping into dry socks or adding an extra layer of warmth to your feet can really make the difference for those happiness levels too.

We lend AKU Hiking boots but anything that’s waterproof and has a sturdy base will do. Comfort is king in most cases. If you prefer to borrow ours (useful if you are trying to keep your luggage space down) it’ll be 1000 ISK for small group tours and included for private tours. Get in touch to arrange a visit to our offices if you are on a self-drive itinerary.

10. International SIM Card or a phone with roaming

You can purchase a local SIM Card in downtown Reykjavík. Wifi (especially on tour with us) is usually quite prevalent. However, if you are choosing to use the ‘roaming’ feature on your phone then we suggest checking your network rates before turning it on. It can get a little pricey depending on your network.

We hope this helped you figure out your packing needs for Iceland! Contact us if you have any further questions.

 

Special Thanks to Rachel Keenan from Sidetracked Magazine, Simon Svensson from Simon Svensson Photography and Norris Niman who provided most pictures on this blog post. Check out their Instagram pages for more great adventure pics. 

Honourable ‘nice to haves’

Smart and casual clothing.

Most restaurants, bars and clubs that you attend (with the exception of the Moss Restaurant at the Retreat Hotel and Tides Restaurant at The Reykjavík Edition) are quite informal, even the most expensive ones. This means you are able to show up wearing quite casual clothing without being turned away. Jeans and t-shirt tends to work in most cases. Saying that, being presentable is always a good plan for nights out of course. Either way, smart casual is fine in almost all circumstances.

Binoculars.

Some of our guests like to bring binoculars. This is only really warranted when you are bird watching in the summer months though. A camera with a good zoom lens often works just fine.

Map of Iceland.

This one is nice to have of course but it didn’t make it into the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland because you can purchase one easily in any local shop or gas station. Also, everything is ‘digital’ these days too, but in our mind nothing beats the feel of a scrunched up map with some notes scribbled on each location that you’ve visited.

Micro-spikes / Snow chains / Yaktrak

If you’re joining a Hidden Iceland tour, you’ll be given these in winter time for free but it’s always good to have your own when walking around the city. Not needed for spring or summer. This one would definitely be in the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland if it wasn’t for the fact that Hidden Iceland provide these on all our small group and private tours. Don’t mistake these for their much more extreme older sibling, the crampon which is only used on glaciers.

Battery pack and spare batteries.

The cold plays havoc with battery lifespans in Iceland so bring a battery pack or spare batteries if you are a little heavy on the picture taking side. This could arguably have made it into the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland but with our Hidden Iceland vehicle never being too far away we figure you can recharge regularly enough.

Flip flops and a quick drying towel

Having these can be quite pleasant if you are intending to go to hot pools out in nature. However, the reality is that most natural hot pools will have their own changing rooms unless you want to really go off the beaten path.

Shorts and T-shirt

This one didn’t make it in the Top 10 Things to Pack for Iceland since it sits firmly in the summer only side of travel. And even then it’s not strictly speaking necessary. There will be plenty of moments when shorts and t-shirt may be desired in summer but it’s never going to get so hot on any given day that a light base layer and light pants won’t also suffice.

Snacks from home

It’s no secret that food tends to be one of the more expensive items in Iceland so if you are looking to save some cash and don’t fancy tasting the local delicacies, then bring along some power bars and snacks for those days out on the road.

Basic medication

This worthy addition was suggested by a past customer. All our Hidden Iceland guides will have a first aid kit on any tour you join with us but beyond first aid requirements you will need to visit a local pharmacy which can be quite pricey, though generally very well stocked. So if you don’t want to shell out while in Iceland, make sure to bring along your essentials.

Ryan Connolly | Marketing Manager, Guide, Co - Owner | Hidden Iceland

Hi, I am Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing & Environmental Manager of Hidden Iceland.

I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about Iceland. I have been interviewed in ForbesConde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects.

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