When researching a packing list for Iceland, I found many lists from travellers from the USA, and a lot of fashion tips. Forgive me but I am neither. I am British and my appearance is low on my list of priorities. What I want, is comfort.
My research and developments took two visits to refine. As a result, my UK winter wardrobe has also changed. I realised, we British dress inefficiently. It's not our fault. Fashion shops sell thin coats and base layers are thought of as something you just wear if you are going skiing. If you are planning to aurora hunt in the early hours of the morning, and you don't want to be one of the crowd huddled on the bus, refusing to leave because of the cold, then read on.
Please be aware that Iceland is very expensive, so unless you want to indulge, you will want to buy everything before you go. I even go so far as to pack food to take with me. I'm starting with clothing.
Starting from the feet up...
Feet I recommend packing two pairs of snow boots with good grips on the bottom to cope with varying terrain. The spare pair is in the event your first pair break or get wet. You may not get to wear both, but do you really want to miss out on a trip because you have wet or broken boots?
You will need a selection of socks; merino thick socks and regular day socks. Merino socks can be worn around 3-4 times before needing a fresh pair.
What I did: One pair was a snow boot from Sketchers with low grip but very warm. The other pair is a very grippy snow boot from Mountain Warehouse. I basically lived in the latter pair, but wore the first pair to breakfast as they were much more worn in and looked less obvious as a snow boot. During the day I wore one pair of the thick socks, and the evening saw me in one thin plus one thick.
Legs Merino base layer leggings are amazing, as are thick fleece lined leggings. A varying combination of these and regular jeans are sufficient for day and night.
I don't recommend waterproof trousers if you are on a day tour. I wore them once on a day of relentless rain, and the water transferred to my seat on the bus creating a wet seat and ended up making me more cold. With jeans, if you sit near the bus heaters, they will dry them out between stops. Also depending on your coat and boot length, your legs may not be that exposed.
What I did: I stocked up on merino from Aldi and got regular fleece leggings from New Look. I wore either fleece leggings in the day, or a base layer and jeans. And did the same for the night plus an extra layer.
Tops More merino and wise layering. Merino base layer long sleeved tops are amazing for the bottom layer. Your mid-layer can be a merino hoodie, or a mid-weight polyester fleece-lined hoodie. And your top layer will be your coat which we will cover next.
Check the fabric composition of everything you buy as this will impact on your comfort.
What I did: I got long sleeved merino tops from Aldi, a thin merino hoodie and a fleece hoodie from Mountain Warehouse. The days I started with just the thin merino hoodie under my coat, and the nights I wore all of them. I found as the days went on that I began to acclimatise to the temperature and stopped wearing my coat during the day. Indoors are often well heated if you are just having a day of wandering Reykjavik shops and museums.
Coats I suggest two coats for the same reasons as the two pairs of boots. If one becomes extremely wet, you may not have time to dry it before your next adventure. I suggest a couple of slightly different coats as although Icelandic weather is unpredictable, you will get some idea of which is the best for the day.
What I did: I bought one highly waterproof, lined, fully adjustable mid-length coat from Trespass. This was fantastic for heavy rain and has lots of pockets. On one very rainy day tour I was able to pop my G11 camera in one of the pockets, a credit card in the sleeve and off I went. My other coat is a long padded type with thumb holes from M&S. It covers my knees and is so cosy - perfect for Northern Light hunting. While everyone else was freezing and running back to the bus, I felt like I could take a nap in the snow and still be warm.
What others did: I’ll never forget advising someone who was due to go to Iceland who had a thin outdoor jacket they were planning to take. She admitted that she was already cold wearing it in the UK. But was determined that she didn't need anything thicker. When she returned, she reported that she spent her trip deeply cold, couldn’t partake in some of the activities she had paid for, instead sitting on the tour buses next to the heater in misery. She felt it was a disappointment and tars anything Iceland with the same label.
The final essential clothing item is a swimsuit. Take one even if you don’t intend on going anywhere to bathe. It may crop up as an option and with Iceland how can you not experience it if it is on offer? Something to note – be aware that the tourist hot spring venues (such as The Blue Lagoon) will be much cooler than the nature fuelled hot tubs. Iceland also have a policy that you shower naked before entering any hot tub. Many places do not have private showers. If this panics you, don’t worry, I have advice. My trick is to get naked in the toilet and wrap my towel around me. Carry my swimsuit to the showers and then I kind of lurk about messing with my towel/swimsuit/drink water until it’s fairly quiet. Then I drop my towel nearby and shower, quickly! I keep my swimsuit with me so that when I am done I pull that on super fast and strut out of the showers like nothing happened. For those of you that don’t need these techniques, I applaud you. So bear this in mind when you select your swimsuit.
What I did: My staple is currently a pair of swim shorts and a tankini top. Not too revealing and warm enough for the dashes between the changing rooms.
Accessories and other essentials I have packed various things over the trips and many have come back home barely or unworn. Other things have been upgraded and others remained a staple. Among these were;
Thick gloves and snow gloves. I suggest a pair of touchscreen gloves and a couple of pairs of fingerless gloves (thin and thick).
Sunglasses are essential. The sun is very bright when it is out, especially if bouncing off any snow.
A hat or a wooly headband is a good idea.
A really decent waterproof backpack or a regular backpack with a waterproof cover.
Portable phone charger. Most places have WiFi so you will have plenty of opportunity to use your phone.
Round pin plug converter.
Paperwork – tickets, passport.
Travel friendly credit card (don’t worry too much about cash, it's rarely needed).
Essential medication. I often take a small amount of painkillers and salts in case I eat something bad.
Water bottle. I did take a flask one year but never used it.
Plenty of snacks – this will save you a lot of money.
Wash bag including sunscreen. Yes you can still get burnt in winter!
Self-heating pads. I took these for the Northern Lights and while they weren’t amazing, they took the edge off and enabled me to be outside for longer.
What I did: I wore touchscreen gloves most of the time and alternated the fingerless gloves on top depending on how cold it was. I wore sunglasses a lot. I wore my bobble hat a lot during one trip, and my wooly headband a lot during another. The headband was useful if I was wearing too much clothing with hoods, although I do have a soft spot for my ice queen bobble hat :)
I have tried backpack options, and currently use an army surplus molle bag from Amazon that is waterproof and has the ability to have extra pockets snapped on/off and also allows me to strap my coat to it in the event that I have acclimatised and not realised.
I always have an Anker battery bank. These are absolutely amazing and keep my phone charged for days. I currently use the Clarity card from Halifax as my travel card.
As for snacks, I pack oat bars, pot noodle, packet soups. Anything that can be made/eaten quickly to fend off hunger.
This had to have its own section. My Iceland camera to date has been a Canon G11. I now have a Canon M50 which is yet to make it's maiden voyage to Iceland. My G11 did't have GPS, so I would take one photo on my phone at each location specifically to enable me to add the location to my G11 photographs. When you're visiting 5-6 places a day, you start to lose track. Particularly if you are tired after a late night chasing Aurora. It is also nice to share something on Instagram straight away so that others are joining you on your trip as it happens. If you live on auto setting, this is the time to explore. You will need to set your camera differently for photographing the Northern Lights. You will absolutely need a tripod for this too. I got myself this one, which is really light, easy to run about with and helps me get the best pictures. The recent lesson I learnt is that you can video the Northern Lights if they are strong enough. I would highly recommend ensuring you google and test out how you would photograph the following scenes before you go to save time ADD LAURENCES GUIDES
I understand this all sounds like it could be expensive. You do need to budget for clothing for Iceland. If you don't dress appropriately, you may get cold, wet, uncomfortable and not be able to enjoy your trip. My suggestion is to shop around really early. Go online to Mountain Warehouse and Trespass and get lots to try on at home and pick through. Keep returning what you don't shortlist and order more until you find the perfect match for you. These sites do lots of sales so you can get expensive items for much less. Once you have your perfect outfits you will feel able to take any weather on. And each day will be purely focussed on what you get out of it. There is nothing like the feeling of scampering around a collapsed volcano in complete comfort with nothing holding you back.
To help you I have put together my packing list which you can edit to reflect your perfect packing list. Enjoy your adventure!
*Some links may be affiliates and generate money or gifts. I only share links to services of products I use myself and will update links if I find better – Clair