Iceland. The land of Ice and Fire. How on Earth do you prepare for a country with THAT as the headline?!
Every year, Iceland attracts throngs of tourists who are looking to escape….well…other tourists, at some of the more popular travel destinations. So much so that there are now articles telling you where to go if you want the Iceland experience, but not in Iceland, as over-tourism is a serious problem there.
But I still believe Iceland is well worth the trip. It’s been described as remote, other-worldly, and beautiful. My first time around I went during the winter for a chance at catching the Northern Lights. The second time I took to a camper van and drove the Ring Road during the summer. Some blogs will break this packing list up into winter vs spring/summer but I’m not sure why. I went in May and had it snow on me. The list below will give you the items I swear by (with links) to have the best time possible, with a few packing tips along the way. To note, this isn’t inclusive of the items I would also pack if you’re going to do a camper van. That’s a whole other ball game that we’ll tackle later.
Carry on – PacSafe Camsafe X25 Anti-Theft Camera Backpack
What you’re carrying is almost as important as how you’re carrying it. In this case, with the rough terrain, plenty of hiking, and amount of gear, you’ll want a solid backpack. For me being a photographer, I swear by the PacSafe Camsafe X25 Anti-Theft Camera Backpack. You can never be too safe when traveling, and the various anti-theft features of this bag (including steel cables in the straps, and stowing locks) put my mind at ease. The 25 Liters of storage is the perfect amount for a carry on, even with the entire bottom compartment going to camera gear. I easily stored a body, 2 lenses, a GoPro, and a drone in this bad boy. Also it has a built in rain cover that tucks away and is easy to get out, and get onto the bag very quickly. The weather changes quickly in Iceland so you want to be sure to be ready for any element. I chose this one, but they have tons of sizes and other great products so give them a try!
Day pack – REI 20L Stuff Travel Pack (or similar)
There are plenty of short trips that you won’t want to lug all of your camera gear around. Think a day trip to the Blue Lagoon. A quick walk around Reykjavík. A short hike to one Icelands famous natural hot springs. For those, you’ll just want the essentials. Your phone, a water bottle, a towel, and some snacks. For those, I use the REI Stuff Travel pack. It collapses into a pouch that easily stuffs into my larger backpack with plenty of pockets and space, including a water bottle sleeve. Really any similar pack will work.
The big pack – The North Face Terra 65
This pack has gotten me through more countries than any other. I first got it when I was backpacking around Europe. People debate backpacking packs like no other so I’ll keep this brief. If you’re like me, you might not know exactly what you need and are overwhelmed by all of the options on the market. Let’s stick to the facts for The North Face Terra 65: The North Face is a great brand and is dependable, the brand has great quality, this is a sub $200 product, and it’s a top loader so you can stuff all you need in there. Although I’ve got the amazon link here, I HIGHLY recommend going to an REI to try this out first. Fit is extremely important, and their staff can help fit the pack to your exact torso.
The big pack part 2 – Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Pack
Doing one of the famous weekend getaways to Iceland and don’t need the full deal 65L North Face pack? Then you might want to consider the Osprey Farpoint 40L. This is NOT a top loader, but rather 1 main compartment that zippers open. It still holds a ton, and with some internal cinching straps can keep your gear locked and loaded. Importantly, it can for sure be used as carry on and put into the overhead compartment. Just use the zippered back panel to stow away the backpack straps, and turn it into a duffel.
Although the above are great, you’ll definitely want to cop a few accessories to make sure you’re running around Iceland smoothly.
REI Pack Duffel
If you’re going to invest in a larger pack like the aforementioned 65L North Face one, then you should also consider getting a pack duffel to fit around it like this one from REI. It will fit around your entire backpack, with plenty of room for other items, and make sure there are no loose straps to be caught on conveyor belts, etc. Some people like to wrap their bags in plastic wrap, or put them in large clear trash bags but if they get searched then TSA will likely cut them off in the process so best to have one of these. It also collapses into a pouch and will tie to the outside of your backpack so once you get it off the belt, it’s easy to get moving. Also features an easy duffel strap, and a luggage card slot for your contact information.
REI Duck’s Back Rain Cover
Just like the PacSafe bag, it’s important to keep your gear safe especially with the changing weather in Iceland. Cop this cheap, and easy Ducks Back Rain Cover for the outside of your Backpacking Pack. Although it says 60L it will easily fit over the 65L bag.
Space Saver Bags
Not all space saver bags are created equally. Don’t waste your money on the ones that have electronic or hand pumps to get the air out, a simple roll will do just fine. What is important for a pack of space saver bags is DURABILITY and VARIETY. You’re going to be putting a lot of various clothing items in here so you want a range of sizes. You’ll also be packing, unpacking, rolling, and re-rolling these as you get from place to place so having good durability is key. These Swiss Gear Space Saving Bags got me through no less than 20 countries before one finally started to go, so definitely worth it.
Packing tip: After 1 or 2 days, turn 1 of the larger ones into your dirty laundry packer to keep the rest smelling fresh.
Backpacking can get messy, especially when everything is just getting tossed into your pack. Keeping some items grouped for easy access is key, so highly suggest getting a range of sizes in some REI Ditty Stuff Sacks. Great for chargers/wires, snacks, etc. to quickly grab.
Without a doubt most of what you are packing for such a harsh climate will be clothing. The name of the game here people is LAYERS. I’ll say it 6 more times. Layers, layers, layers, layers, layers, and layers. A typical day in the summer could start with a cool morning 50 degree morning, followed by high 60’s in your t-shirt, then snowing as you’re crossing through the mountains, and finally 30’s overnight. Also I feel like not a lot of blogs address mens clothing so hopefully this will give you guys a few directions to head in.
- Jeans – Avoid the jeans, they do terrible after getting wet and are heavy
- Sweats – Same with sweats, don’t bother. Maybe 1 thin pair for sleeping in but that’s about it
- Pants – So if no jeans, and no sweats then what pants?! Go for a pair of athletic joggers or if you’re feeling it pick up a pair of those nerdy traveler pants you always see at REI. You’ll look great in them, I promise.
- T-Shirts – You’ll probably use way less t-shirts than you think. Pack functional colors and fits that you could wear to a coffee shop or on a hike
- Going out? – A legitimate question to ask yourself. If you’re not going to be in the city (ie maybe going out easy for Glaciers) do you REALLY need those going out shoes?
- Bathing suit – Bathing suit is a yes, Blue Lagoon. Hot springs. The works. All times of year.
- Underwear – Guys, for underwear. You need compression or briefs. CAn’t be transitioning from driving to hiking a glacier without the cash and prizes secured.
- Shades – Sunglasses are a definite, especially in the winter. Snow glare is real and can suck if you’re driving
- Goggles – On that topic. If you have a pair of snow goggles for sure bring them. The wind can be brutal and it’s nice to have, but not necessary
- Winter hat – I don’t swear by any specific one. I have a Yea Nice beanie that donates to the homeless, and also a Love Your Mellon. The North Face has some good standard ones, just make sure it fits your noggin!
- Winter gloves – Again, nothing specific here. You want water proof FOR SURE. Check out your local ski/snowboard house and get a pair of them.
- Glove liners – Are you a photographer or planning to take pictures? Consider getting a pair of glove liners. They’re too thin for your main gloves but are great when you take off your gloves to change a camera setting to keep your hands a little warm.
- Sneakers – If you have the space, stuff a pair in for walking around the city. If not, then just focus on making sure you have a comfortable pair of hiking boots which I’ll detail out below.
- Sandals – I bet you didn’t expect this to be here. If you plan on showering at any of the campsites you’ll want to be sure to have a plastic pair of sandals to go into the shower with.
I wish I could tell you a base number of socks that would be appropriate to pack for X days, but that’s just not how this works. The golden rule for Iceland should be: think you’ve packed enough socks? Think again. A wet, cold, muddy earth awaits you with multi-varied activities and terrains. One day you could be walking around the city and hours later hiking. So if you have the space, put in extra socks. You won’t regret it.
Packing tip: When it comes to packing socks, start with putting them into your shoes and boots. Shoes and boots take up a LOT of room in backpacks so your best bet is to utilize that space by stuffing as many pairs of socks in as possible. After that think about other objects that have weird negative space around them where you can stuff a pair or 2.
When it comes to buying socks there isn’t a specific brand I swear by but more features. Comfort above all is key, and so is quick drying. Darn Tough makes a damn good pair of hiking socks and the colors are pretty neutral so you could get away with wearing them out for a night on the town.
Rain Jacket – Spring/Summer
Undoubtably this is going to be one of the most important things you pack on your entire trip. Besides the actual weather, you’ll also be present for some amazing water shows put on by waterfalls and those can get pretty darn misty. Important here is during the summer you’re going to want those LAYERS and likely will have a sweatshirt on underneath this. Therefore you want a shell that is wind proof as well as water resistant. Don’t overspend and get something insulated as it will take up way too much space in your bag. Unfortunately the jacket I use is from my days as an adidas employee and isn’t offered anymore. However, going with a sport company offers you the advantages of a company that puts serious technology into a product that is meant for mass market, so you should check out the line adidas has of rain jackets.
Going to ignore my advice and get a thick jacket anyways? Fine. If you have the space I would say pack a poncho or a rain jacket that rolls into a pouch for some of those warmer days.
I could geek out about all my sweatshirts and why certain ones rock over others, but by this point you’re probably thinking “Matt, just get me the links to what you have.” Sweatshirts: Nothing too fluffy, try for no hood, warm, preferably zipper. Easy enough? REI Active Pursuits should have what you need.
Winter Jacket – Winter (obvi)
Undoubtably one of the things you should invest the most money in. DO NOT SKIMP ON YOUR JACKET. Get something functional. You’ll want water resistant at the very least, for sure wind resistant. I’m a big fan of jackets that have the zipped inner that you can trade in and out. Hood is a good idea and usually the best jackets have detachable hoods. I also would not buy this one online, but the link is included below. Jacket fit is very important and you want to be sure you can move your arms freely, have enough room for some base layers, and have good amounts of motion in it.
My jacket of choice for a while now has been The Columbia Alpine Action. I got mine pretty cheap because I chose the worse color so it was on clearance but this bad boy should run you close to $200. Don’t go for the snowboard jackets, I’ve found they’re typically more shell to keep boarders dry and moving freely. I like the Columbia jacket because it allows me to put on some other layers, and has a cool Omni Heat inner that reflects my body heat back to keep me warm.
Don’t say layers. DON’T SAY LAYERS. Ok, we’re back. Layers. Besides a bulkier sweatshirt layer, you’ll want a thinner base layer that is wicking and can easily fit under your other clothing. Easy to pack and compress down as well. I’d also recommend getting the same for your pants. adidas Alphaskin would be my go-to choice here. Again, can’t go wrong with sport specific companies, these guys built for your standard human.
Boots (Winter and Spring/Summer)
Second to your jacket that you aren’t skimping on, you’ll want to invest in a good pair of boots. Depending on the time of year you’re going to Iceland this could either be a pair of winter snow boots or hiking boots. Comfort is the name of the game here people, and support. Do yourself, and whoever you’re traveling with, a favor and get some dryer sheets or those shoe balls to keep your feet smelling fresh after a day of hiking.
Spring/Summer Hiking Boot – For a pair of hiking boots you’re either looking for mid or talls. Don’t go for the lows. It doesn’t offer enough support. Even if you’re not planning on doing a larger hike you’ll want a good pair of boots because all of the terrain can have uncertain footing and a twisted ankle would not be a good start to your trip. My boot of choice for a few trips now has been the Moab 2 Mid hiker by Merrell. Merrell always puts out solid products so you can be sure it’ll stand up to the challenge. These are super comfortable, have a Vibram outsole for grip, are water resistant, and are a pretty neutral color so I felt comfortable wearing them around the city as well as on hikes.
Winter Boot – You’ll want a lot of similar features in your winter boot, perhaps one that is more water resistant (because you know, snow) and also a little grippier (because you know, ice.) Don’t go overboard with grip if you’ll be doing one of the famous Iceland glacier hikes. They’re likely going to deem your boots not fit for such harsh conditions and are going to give you a pair, with crampons, anyway. I’ve got a pair of Merrell snow boots, similar to the above, with just a slightly higher ankle support, and more ice grip on the bottom.
Not quite sure if I would consider this clothing but it fits in with boots. As mentioned, if you plan on doing a glacier hike the guides will probably give you some heavy duty crampons. But for your own adventures around the island you might want to consider an easy pair to just slip on the outside of your boots. I’ve got this pair from Weanas which are cheap, but still good quality. Necessary? Maybe not. Glad I had them to track through the snow at night chasing down the Northern Lights? for sure.
How on earth are you going to brag to all of your friends about visiting a place that looks like another planet if you don’t bring a good enough camera to capture it? Even if you don’t feel super comfortable with settings, you can still take some fantastic photos of the beautiful landscapes that Iceland has to offer. Baseline is you’re going to want a good phone camera to brag on Instagram. For this, you can’t beat the Google Pixel 3/3a. For sure the standard right now for phone camera quality and a lot of my pictures are shot on this. But let’s move into DSLR land.
I shoot on the Canon EOS Rebel T6. Great mid to entry level camera at a reasonable price point. I won’t geek out too much on the settings but the WiFi shooting is key for capturing the Northern Lights. You’re going to need a LONG shutter speed in order to get a good capture and don’t want your camera moving at all during this time. Yes, this means you’ll need to bring a tripod as well if you want to capture the elusive Aurora Borealis. Once it’s hooked up you’ll want to press the shutter with a remote, or your phone, to make sure you get a picture that isn’t blurry.
I’ve got a 18-55mm lens that I use for the most part but also have a zoom 55-250mm. You can probably get away with just 1 lens for a quick weekend trip.
I’ll be honest, I’m new to the drone world but am a big fan. I caught a ton of great waterfall shots up close with my drone and it’s for sure a good investment if you have the funds for it. There are a few areas in Iceland that you can’t have drones but I found plenty where it was totally fine.
My entry level drone choice is the DJI Spark Fly More combo with the remote. The remote makes it much easier, especially flying in some tough winds so you might as well invest. The spark is compact, has a good battery life, great camera quality, and is easy to pick up for your average photographer. A few accessories below to make shooting with it a great experience.
Being a skydiver and a general hooligan a GoPro is a must. It can be very overwhelming to know what to shop for here, but you really can’t go wrong with the last few generations of GoPros. They all shoot in 4k, have fantastic battery life, and are easy to use. My particular choice is the GoPro Hero5 Session. The session comes in at a lower price point, but you’ll notice doesn’t have a screen like the other versions. This might put off people but with todays versions of GoPros all having WiFi, you’ll be watching your videos on your phone anyway to upload/edit them directly after. The session out of the box, without a casing, is durable and waterproof making it an idea “pull out of your bag and start shooting right away” kind of gadget. It’s smaller size as well makes it ideal to fit in your pocket to be on the go.
Pictured to the right is for sure not me in Iceland, but me jumping into a river with my GoPro buckled to my head, just to prove to you that you don’t need a waterproof case for it!
So now that you’ve got your base, what are some of the other need to buys for your camera to capture those landscapes?
- Tripod (as discussed.) Avoid the single leg one. Also make sure you can fit it. The PacSafe camera bag as previously mentioned in this blog has a convenient side pouch for a tripod.
- A lens tulip/hood is a good idea especially in bad weather.
- Similarly, because of bad weather, make sure you have a good microfiber cloth to clean off lenses.
- A nice to have – get this case from Kiorafoto to hold all of your SD cards in a waterproof case. Yes I’ve dropped mine before. Yes it sucks when they break. On that note, get a few extra SD/MicroSD cards while you’re at it.
- You wouldn’t want to miss a great shot just because of a little rain, would you? Didn’t think so. So get yourself this rain cover from Alutra
- Something I’ve always worried about is landing my DJI Spark in tough landscapes so I did myself a favor and got these skids to land it on beaches, etc.
- With such a heavy investment, you might want to consider investing in a good carrying case for your drone. The one I have is waterproof, has room for the remote, and also a joystick lock.
- GoPro accessories are the bread and butter of any good action camera guru. Get yourself a GoPro Casey to hold them all as well as the 3-way arm with a built in tripod
In no particular order, here is a small section of my travel gear/gadgets that I love that can be used for this trip, or any other trip.
- Passport Holder – RFID scanning is a real thing for people trying to steal your passports. Also, you never know when you might drop it or get something on it so do yourself a favor and get a passport holder. I’ve had this leather one from Alban for quite some time and it works really well, and also has a back pocket that is perfect for storing luggage receipts and boarding passes.
- Travel toilet paper – This one is for all my auto immune warriors out there, that might have Crohns/Colitis. There are some LONG drives between towns and gas stations and…well…you never know when nature will strike. I keep a roll of this in my bag and another in my luggage on all of my trips. Yes I’ve used it. Yes I’ve been glad I have it.
- Travel Plug / Converter – For sure need one of these and suggested to get a universal one with some USB slots for all your phones and tablets. This one from Yiview as gotten me through a few trips and many different countries. It has 4 USB ports which is great for everything I have to charge. Just please, make sure you measure up the wattage you’re putting into it. You might also consider, if not all of your devices are USB, getting something like this to give yourself 3 extra plugs.
- Portable Battery Pack – A great investment is to get one of the portable battery packs. Key here is making sure you have one with enough charge to give you a few devices worth of power. I went ahead and got this Solar powered one from Allsolar because it felt durable in my hands in case I dropped it, and it’s water/shock resistant not to mention having 3 USB outputs and you can charge it with the sun!
- Sleeping Mask – Heard the term midnight sun tossed around? During the summer, you can expect only a few hours of night time so if you’re a light sleeper you might want to consider a sleeping mask to get you enough shut eye during the night.
- Headlamp – Similarly, during the winter you can expect like 5 solid hours of sunlight. Therefore I’d recommend bringing a headlamp. I got this one from Aennon which has a few different settings.
- Car Mount – Planning to rent a car (as you should) and drive through the country? That means you’ll be doing a lot of navigating. Highly suggest bringing your own car mount, like this one from WizGear, to hook your phone up to the vent.
- Travel Towel – You’ll want a quick dry travel towel especially if you’re planning to visit some of the natural hot springs. Get this multi-towel from REI which has a convenient carrying bag and also a small hook to hang it up
- Toiletries Bag – Mine is several years out of date by now, so no direct link, but copped it from REI. Key here is making sure you have a removable pouch to bring shampoo etc. into the shower, a hook to hang it on the back of bathroom doors, and potentially also a mirror!
- Water bottle – The drinking water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world. Don’t bother getting bottled water, and get yourself a Yeti to fill it back up over and over again.
That’s it! For now. If you’re planning on living out of a camper van, you’ll want this list plus so much more which I will for sure detail later. Any other pieces of gear that I might have missed??