Iceland in summer…woah. This country is majestic, rapturous, entrancing—the first thing you should pack is a thesaurus, because you’ll need it.
I just finished a six-week trip around Iceland—driving the Ring Road (a few times), stewing in secret hot pools, photographing glaciers, laughing at puffins landing, dodging suicidal sheep, and partying under the midnight sun at Secret Solstice music festival.
Iceland really is as cool as you imagine, and since you’re reading this, odds are you’re heading there soon, so listen up, because I have a secret to share with you about Iceland…
It’s Always Cold
Am I biased because I lucked into the coldest summer Iceland has had since 1979? Sure. Does that mean it was a fluke? Not really.
Every travel writer stresses Iceland’s “midnight sun” so much that it’s easy to forget you’re traveling above the Arctic Circle. And I totally get the mix up. Heck, I fell for it.
Sun = hot in most parts of the world—and all the travel blogs are right—it is sunny all damned time. But at Iceland’s latitude, 22 hours of sunshine just means that you can golf whenever you want, and it’s super hard to get any sleep. You can forget about sunbathing at 2 am.
So, this Iceland summer packing list is here to burst your bubble. I want to bum you out a little now so that when you get to Iceland, you’re nothing but prepared. Let’s get to it.
A Few Things to Know Before You Go About Iceland
Iceland is Expensive
Yes, travel is cheaper here than it was 10 years ago, but ignore what you’ve read about the 2008 Financial Crisis. Iceland is still not “cheap.” I saw a pair of winter gloves for $80 US, and blankets for well over $120 US. Don’t plan on buying what you need when you land unless you’re a baller.
The Weather is Fickle
A popular Icelandic saying is, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Hopefully you’re a glass half full kind of traveler.
You Can’t See the Forest…
Because there aren’t any trees. Camping is different in Iceland. Iceland’s near total lack of trees means there is very little cover from the savage wind, so make sure you prepare for chilly nights and bring a good shell jacket. A famous Icelandic joke even goes:
“What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?”
Answer: “Stand up.”
Now on to the Iceland Summer Packing List
Don’t Fear the Fjords: Wear Layers
Packing for Iceland in a carry on bag is totally doable. The Outbreaker 45 is the perfect bag for this trip because of it’s maximum carry on size, which will allow plenty of space to pack those bulkier layers and extra items for Iceland’s fickle weather.
- 2 x tank tops
- 3 x t-shirts
- 2 x henley shirts / thermals
- 1 x fleece
- 1 x shell jacket
- 1 x Wool Knit Cap
- 1 x Nau Jacket
- 1 x thick hiking socks
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—layers fix everything. Unless you’re extremely lucky, everyday in Iceland is a battle against the elements. At night it got below 0°C, while the daytime fluctuated between 15°C and 5°C. Hey, Americans, that’s a big temperature swing.
As always, I relied on my Nau “cranky jacket,” and a combination of tank tops, t-shirts, and thermals. Don’t pack thermals for your legs though—my trusty jeggings did just fine. Top it off with a wool cap you can wear in the morning then tuck behind your stretchy belt, and you’re ready for anything.
I hate hiking boots, and never recommend them—even for Iceland. But since you insist, try to find a pair you can wear out and about in town, because despite the allure of nature, even the most rugged traveler will down a few beers or delicious coffee in a trendy Reykjavik cafe.
Here are a few boots I can tolerate:
Danner Mountain Light Cascade is nice, but pricey—$350
Fracap’s Scarponcino Hiking Boot is as stylish as you’d expect from an Italian company, and is a decent step down in price at $250
Packsmith reader, Ian Lamb, pointed out this pair of Arc’teryx “Arcux Approach Shoes” ($250) that look functional and awesome.
and of course…Sperry Topsiders makes a mean Chukka Boot
Pack for Sleep
- 1 x eye mask
- 1 x set of ear plugs
- 1 x Bedphones headphones
- 1 x 3-season mummy sleeping bag
- 1 x bottle of Whiskey from Duty Free at the airport
The midnight sun is amazing. You will love it. You will frolick. You will sit in a hot tub at 11 pm and say stuff like, “Dude! Can you even…I mean…man!” Then you will try to sleep. And you will be angry.
Campers should bring a dark-colored tent to block some of the sunlight, but it can still be rough. Hostels are aren’t much better. Some, like the popular Kex in Reykjavik feature blackout curtains in the rooms during peak season (late June), but don’t count on it. Bring an eye mask or use your wool cap to cover your face while you sleep. It’s the only way.
Oh, and remember how much fun you had at 2 am the first night you arrived? Yeah, everyone does that. Bring earplugs if you want to sleep, or better yet rock the Bedphones headphones and drown them out with a playlist or podcast.
Bring Your A-Game for Icelandic Nightlife
- 1 x pair of nice shoes
- 1 x collared, button-up shirt
- See my Dapper Dude Packing List for carry on compatible grooming options
I love Reykjavik nightlife. Prikid, Kaffibarrin, Ananas, Lebowski’s, Bar 7, the list goes on.
Regardless where you go, Icelandic people look good. Like, really, really good. Perfectly cut and coifed hair (guys keep it high and tight, ladies rock a “half-bun” thing), patterned shirts buttoned all the way to the top. Designer boots and fresh to death sneakers—Icelanders are the most attractive/trendy people I’ve ever seen. Period.
If you want to strike up a conversation with a local (in person or on Tinder), don’t look like you just rolled out of a tent.
Bathing Suit – The best thing about Iceland (aside from the gorgeous, friendly people) is that it’s covered in hot pools, and not just the Blue Lagoon. You will spend a lot of time in your bathing suit. Wear a nice one.
Fast Drying Tek Towel – (see above)
Plug Adaptor/Power Converter – Save money and get yours before you land.
What NOT to Bring
A Headlamp – During June and July it’s light enough to read a book at 2 am. Seriously.
A Lock – Every pool, hostel, campground provides their own locks for rental. Yours is heavy and won’t fit.
A Money Belt – No one is going to steal from you in Iceland. They just aren’t.
When I was there in June 2015 a couple (from Switzerland) made front page news by going on a “crime spree” in the Westfjords.
Their crime: Stealing $377 (US) worth of goods from a grocery store, and a bag of duty free liquor from a woman that gave them a ride.
Their punishment: They reimbursed the store, wrote an apology letter to the woman, and were then released. They plan to leave Iceland in September.
I left my bag in a tent completely unattended for 4 days. Seriously. I took off with most of my stuff just sitting in the City Campsite in Laugardalur (Reykjavik). When I came back, it was all still there.
I also lost my wallet at a super busy bar on Friday night, It had a few hundred dollars in it (dumb) my ID, debit card, credit card, etc. I freaked out and cancelled everything only to receive a Facebook message the next morning from someone saying they’d found my wallet and wanted to meet up to give it back. All the money, cards, etc, were still there.
I love Iceland.
Go to Iceland. Do it. But prepared for anything, even in the summer.
- The “Midnight Sun” doesn’t mean it’s hot
- Fight the fjords with layers
- Bring good shoes for hiking AND dancing
- Bring at least one nice change of clothes
- No one is going to steal from you
Image: Ville Oksanen (flickr)