Knowing what to take on a trip can often be tricky. What we pack depends on where we are going, when we are going, and what we plan on doing. The weather plays a large part – will it be hot, cold, dry, wet, humid, etc. ? Will you be hiking/spending time in the outdoors? Do you need to have “nice clothes” for an event or a fancy dinner? Do you plan to picnic or do other activities that require, or are enhanced by additional gear?
Choosing what photography gear to bring is a whole other discussion and one I will probably address at some point in another post, but here is my input on what to bring for a trip in Iceland where you plan to explore the outdoors and are not planning on attending any fancy events.
- First and foremost, bring money. And lots of it. Note that it is essential to have a chip and pin card with you. There are unattended locations such as rural petrol stations, parking points, etc. that require one of these. American credit cards are chip and signature, which are fine for restaurants, stores, etc., but won’t work for automated situations. Your regular ATM card and PIN will do fine, as long as you bring them with you! Iceland is mostly a non-cash society and you could probably get away without any cash if you really wanted to.
- A coin purse or pouch. On this trip, we’ve needed 4 different currencies (US dollar, Euro, British Pound, and Icelandic Kronor). Having a place to stash the currencies you don’t need at the present is very helpful.
- A European electrical adapter – Iceland uses the same type of plugs as continental Europe.
- US travel adapter with USB ports. There are other models, but the link takes you to the one I use. These things help in a few ways: (a) The 2.1 A USB ports mean I can charge two devices quickly – phone, tablets, etc. without additional USB chargers. (b) In addition to the 2 USB devices, you can use one electrical adapter to connect 3 US plugs (assuming the devices will handle European 240V 50Hz electricity). This means, for instance, that I can plug in my camera’s battery charger and my computer without needing another adapter. Also, in some hotels plugs are scarce, so being able to share one plug with multiple devices really helps. (c) At some airports often all the plugs may be used by other passengers for charging their phones. With this adapter, most people don’t mind you plugging their charger into this adapter, allowing you to also charge your stuff at the same time.
- Phone/tablet charging cables. I like to bring an extra one just in case and I make sure that one of my cables is extra long (about 15′). Often the wall outlets may not be where you want them and having a long cord can be really helpful.
- USB battery. When overseas I find that my phone drains really quickly and I can be out of battery power by lunchtime if I am not careful. Also, when traveling I tend to use the GPS a lot and also do quite a bit of searching, so being able to charge my phone on the go is important. I have also found that many cars that are equipped with USB ports only provide a low current, not the high current needed to properly charge modern phones. These ports will provide some power, but generally the phone will discharge faster than it is being charged up, albeit a little slower. I find that I often need to use my battery in the rental car to keep the phone fully charged.
- Magnetic car vent mount. A friend gave me one of these a year ago and it is fantastic, especially for travel. It takes up almost no space, but allows you to keep your phone accessible for use as a GPS, etc. Buy more than one – you will probably forget them in your rental car from time to time!
- Camera (or use your phone!). If you bring a camera, make sure to bring the charger, a spare battery and plenty of media.
- Binoculars. There is lots to see, and especially if you want to see birds like puffins, this makes a big difference.
- Good hats. I generally travel to cooler climates with two different pieces of headgear. A brimmed hat that is good for dealing with rain or sun and a beanie to keep my head warm when it gets really cold. Occasionally I have to use both at the same time!
- Waterproof hiking boots. You might get away with walking shoes, but they need to be waterproof. It is miserable to walk with cold, wet feet! You want the boots to be a little big so you can wear two pairs of socks.
- Socks. Wearing two pairs at once not only keeps your feet warmer, but avoids blistering. Generally you want a thinner pair of inner socks and a thicker heavy duty hiking sock to wear over them. Because you’ll have the inner socks on, you can wear these outer heavy duty socks a few times before they need washing, so you only need to bring a couple of pairs of the outer socks, but more of the inner socks. Good quality, thick hiking wool outersocks, such as SmartWool are highly recommended.
- Sandals. I like buckle up Tevas. These work well if you are going swimming, or if you need something to protect your feet on the way to the bathroom at night. With heavier duty sandals, you can even use them in place of shoes if you are walking around town and it isn’t too cold.
- Waterproof, breathable outer pants. These are essential – it is going to rain and without them your lower body will get soaked and eventually drip into your boots. Don’t bother with non-breathable pants – you might as well put your legs into plastic bin liners. Very soon your own perspiration will build up inside the pants and you’ll end up wet anyway. Even if it isn’t raining, it is often cold due to high winds. Having a second outer layer of pants works well in this case. Unless it is frigid, I don’t bother with inner leggings/long johns.
- Good quality waterproof, breathable jacket with hood. Same reasoning as the pants! Note that unless I am going to a bitterly cold climate, I don’t generally use a heavy duty coat or jacket, but something that is midweight. Currently I am using a North Face jacket with a removable jacket, so this can become just a waterproof shell, or can serve as a midweight jacket, giving me a lot of flexibility. It is best to have this slightly large so that you can accommodate layers.
- Layers. The temperature is highly variable in Iceland. On a nice day you might wear just a base layer and a shirt, but if it turns cold and windy (let alone wet), you may need several more layers. It was bitterly cold yesterday, but I was very comfortable as I had on a base layer, a shirt, my Columbia Omni-Heat hoodie, and my North Face jacket and waterproof layer. Having layers allows you to “tune” your clothing needs.
- For a base layer, I really like using a thin turtle neck.
- For my middle layer, my Columbia Omni-Heat hoodie is super thin, but the reflective coating keeps me as warm as if I was wearing a much thicker jacket. I also own an Omni-Heat beanie.
- Gloves – preferably waterproof and I highly recommend either tech/touch gloves, or photographer’s gloves with detachable thumb and forefinger areas so you can operate a smartphone or camera without taking them off.
- Neckwear. Because I wear a turtle neck base layer and my jackets can zip up to my chin, I only travel with a scarf when going to extremely cold climates. However, if you feel the cold in your neck or don’t otherwise have good neck protection, bring a cowl or scarf.
- Daypack large enough to hold your jacket/outerpants/hat, guide book, lunch, etc.
- Water bottle – essential for day hikes and useful to have in the car for long drives.
- Swiss army knife, if you are taking a checked bag with you. This has bailed me out of lots of unforeseen problems.
- A good notebook or note taking app. We like to journal on our trips, but we also always seem to need scraps of paper for notes, directions, etc.
- Towels. Generally we don’t travel with these, but in Iceland one of the most fun activities is bathing in geothermal baths. You can rent towels if you go to a spa (doable, but an extra expense), but if you are going to an open-air river like Reykjadalur you’ll need to bring towels. If you are moving between locations you may not be able to borrow them from your hotel. Also, towels can be used like blankets for a picnic, although there are lots of picnic tables throughout the country.
- Sunglasses. In Iceland, the sun stays low in the sky for hours in the evening. If you are driving West, you’ll often find yourself with a strong sun in your eyes. If you wear regular or reading glasses, bring a spare pair!
- Duffel bag. I always pack one of these in addition to any suitcases. It can be helpful for shopping, having extra luggage space for things you’ve bought overseas, and also to use as a laundry bag. Yet it packs down into almost nothing.
- Travel shopping bags. We always have two with us. Supermarkets in most European countries charge for any shopping bags you take, but apart from that, these are also helpful for picnics, keeping loose stuff together in the car, etc.
- Picnic stuff. Iceland is very expensive and many of the places you visit are quite remote. Picnics are a good option for eating on the go and keeping costs manageable. A few items can really help make this much more practical. Our kit includes:
- Plastic plates
- Plastic bowls
- Cutlery sets
- Small cutting board
- Small sharp knife.
This assumes you are taking a checked bag as the knives can’t be carried on to a plane. We generally don’t bother with cups or glasses and just drink from the bottle, but you might want add cups or plastic glasses if you want to be a bit more refined.
- Zip lock bags – at least a few quart and gallon (or larger size). Good for keeping leftovers, but also for guarding leaky/messy/smelly items like peanut butter or cheese. Can also be used for wet swimsuits and other needs.
- Travel pack of wet wipes – good for using as napkins, wiping up messes, and temporarily cleaning plates until you get to somewhere where you can do it properly.
- Travel toilet paper. Just like regular toilet paper, but without the roll, so it takes up very little space. You hope you won’t need it, but usually most trips we do, at least once, and are very grateful to have it!
- Hanging toiletry bag. Space for your toiletries can be very limited in Iceland, even in hotels with decent size bathrooms. A toiletry bag with a hook gives you the chance to hang it on the shower door or somewhere else.
When packing I usually lay everything out first and ask do I really need it? Next question, can I fit it? Can I afford the weight? Often I can leave at least some of my initial choices behind. It is good to consider if you can buy something similar on the road if you need it. However, in Iceland that is likely to be expensive.
In general, less is more when traveling. The more stuff you have, the more there is to haul around the place and the more potential for it to get lost or stolen. In most countries cars are smaller than the US and they may have much less trunk space, often only enough for one decent sized suitcase. Also, most of the hotels we have stayed at did not have elevators, and so we have often had to carry all our luggage up several flights of stairs. The less to carry, the better!