Updated on February 12, 2020 by Asher Fergusson
What should I bring on my Iceland trip?
The country boasts a varied climate and landscapes with sulfur beds, hot springs, lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, and canyons, which can make planning what to wear in Iceland a bit challenging.
The lists and FAQs below will help you determine what to pack, what NOT to bring, and how to plan your trip. Remember to plan to enjoy the many opportunities for unique experiences!
What to Pack for Iceland – 17 Essentials
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Other Iceland packing list items not to forget
What to Wear in Iceland
Despite its name, Iceland is more of solar country than polar and glaciers cover only certain parts. The Gulf Stream causes frequent weather shifts. You may even experience four seasons in one day! As the joke goes, if you don’t like Icelandic weather, wait 5 minutes!
Women in Iceland keep it casual and cool, you won’t see many high heels. If you plan on spending more time in the city, find some fashionable sneakers or ankle boots that are comfortable enough for walking and nights out on the town. Year-round essentials include a warm jacket, long sleeve shirts, and skinny jeans paired with either short or tall boots. In the winter the temperatures can drop down so plan on wearing lots of layers, wool socks, a hat, scarf and down jacket. In the warmer months you might still have some chilly days, so a cute dress with a scarf, leggings and ankle boots is an excellent option.
Men’s fashion in Iceland is pretty straightforward. It’s casual, comfortable, and ready for the elements. No matter the season, jeans, boots and a long sleeve shirt or sweater paired with a jacket is the way to go. If you are traveling in the fall or winter, add some base layers to your outfit and pair with a down jacket. A hat is definitely an important item; make sure you bring at least one warm hat to protect your ears and head from the wind. You’ll want a scarf or neck warmer as well for an additional layer.
Precipitation on the island peaks October to February, with the southern and western parts receiving the most rainfall. The north, east, and interior regions have colder winter temperatures but warmer summers and less snow and rain. You will quickly learn that Iceland’s most influential element is the wind; in fact, the Icelandic language has around 156 words to describe the wind!
SPRING – April, May:
The spring is an excellent time for whale watching and seeing migratory birds. Not only is spring a beautiful time to visit Iceland, airfare is a little cheaper due to it being a less-popular tourist season.
Good waterproof hiking shoes are crucial, and quick-dry active fabrics are ideal.
Be sure to plan for rapidly fluctuating temperatures which can vary from quite cold to relatively comfortable. Tee shirts and light sweaters for layering are perfect, plus wool socks and a moisture-wicking scarf. Temperatures average from 30°F to 40°F (-1°C to 4°C).
SUMMER – June, July, August:
Certain parts of the summer see 24 hours of daylight. Summer is the high-season for tourism in Iceland so if you want to skip the crowds, consider traveling in the spring or fall. If you are set on visiting in this season, keep in mind you will need to book accommodations and your car rental months in advance and plan for higher prices.
Summer in Iceland still isn’t very warm. Weather can change rapidly so prepare for anything by wearing comfortable layers and bringing a good rain jacket. Convertible quick-drying pants are a perfect choice. A moisture-wicking scarf is always a good idea to keep moisture off of your skin, and active leggings and shirts are best when there’s a possibility you’ll be sweating from activities. Be sure to opt for waterproof hiking boots. Temperatures average from 45°F to 55°F (7°C to 13°C).
FALL – September, October:
Autumn begins Iceland’s off-season. During this time there are fewer tourists and the landscape is marked with vivid color changes in the local vegetation.
September is when the Northern Lights start making their appearance. If you are wanting to chase the Lights, head north to Húsavík.
Fall is a great time to visit Iceland, as many of the summer tourists have left, accommodations are easier to find, and the landscape is absolutely beautiful.
To best enjoy this season, you’ll need to be prepared for anything. Convertible quick-dry pants, a travel towel, and a rain jacket are must-haves. A windproof travel umbrella is an Iceland staple – the country is known for its wind. Jeans aren’t ideal since they take forever to dry, but active pants are a good alternative. Light gloves and a hat are good to have, and a moisture-wicking scarf is essential. A convertible coat is nice to bring so that you can adapt your warmth based on the weather. Temperatures average from 35°F to 45°F (2°C to 7°C).
WINTER – November, December, January, February, March:
During the winter months, you can often find package deals that include flights and accommodations, but be aware that the country is not as easy to drive around, which may hinder your exploration. Many roads become closed in the winter, so driving in Iceland during this time is no joke.
You will want good waterproof pants and boots for this season, as moisture on your skin can quickly lead to extreme discomfort and even dangerous health conditions like frostbite or hypothermia. To help prevent this, you should also bring moisture-wicking scarves, good active leggings and shirts, and layers that can easily be added or removed to suit your comfort and to prevent sweating. Don’t forget a heavier convertible coat, good gloves, a winter hat or two, and wool socks galore! Temperatures average from 25°F to 35°F (-4°C to 2°C).
What NOT to take to Iceland
FAQs about traveling in Iceland
1) What is the best way to travel while in Iceland?
The famous Ring Road is the main road that circles the entire island. It’s the best option for seeing the many geological sites and waterfalls.
If you want to experience more of Iceland, be aware you may need an off-road-capable vehicle to navigate the F roads.
Keep in mind that automatic cars are limited at car rental companies, so if you don’t know how to drive a manual it is important to book your car further in advance to ensure you get a vehicle with an automatic transmission. That being said, you should book your car rental early anyway – even if you travel during the off-season – just to be safe. If you can drive a manual you will save money on your rental, as manual cars are often far cheaper in price.
2) What is the time difference in Iceland?
Iceland is on GMT time and is 4 hours ahead of New York.
3) Is Iceland expensive?
From car rentals to gas, food and accommodations, you will be surprised at how much you will spend in Iceland. Meals range from $15-25 USD per meal and a pint of beer could set you back $20 USD!
Consider purchasing some items such as alcohol or snacks at the duty-free store at the airport when you arrive, otherwise you will be spending double once you are traveling around. You may also bring in your own snacks and alcohol, but be sure to follow the strict customs limits regarding these items.
4) What is there to do around Iceland?
Not only are there lots of sights to see, just driving around and experiencing the gorgeous scenery is an activity in itself! I was absolutely blown away by the beauty I found there, it seemed no matter where I went I was surrounded by amazing sights. Here are some of the top sights I recommend visiting:
- Blue Lagoon– Iceland’s famous geothermal spa. It is not far from the Keflavik airport. Due to its increasing popularity reservations are required. It is well worth the visit so make sure you book a spot in advance online.
- Gulfoss– (Golden Falls) is one of Iceland’s most iconic and beloved waterfalls, found in the Hvítá river canyon in south Iceland. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down. It is truly a beautiful sight to behold.
- Kerid Crater– a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area in south Iceland, along the Golden Circle. You will see a small gravel parking lot off the main road, pull in and see the attendant to pay a small fee before walking to the viewpoints.
- Jökulsárlón– a glacial lagoon, bordering Vatnajökull National Park in southeastern Iceland. Its beautiful, still, blue waters are dotted with icebergs from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of larger Vatnajökull Glacier. The Glacier Lagoon flows through a short waterway into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving chunks of ice on a black sand beach. In winter, the fish-filled lagoon hosts hundreds of seals.
- Geysir– a famous hot spring in the geothermal area of Haukadalur Valley, found in southern Iceland on the famous Golden Circle route. There are several geysers to see and you can follow the marked paths to view them all. If you are lucky you might even see one erupt! There is a restaurant and gift shop located across the street, a great place to grab a bite and pick up some Icelandic souvenirs.
- Skógafoss– an amazing waterfall in southern Iceland found along the coastal route of the Ring Road. It has a drop of 60 meters and a width of 25 meters. You can walk right up to it, but be prepared to be drenched! On a day where the wind is blowing, your chances of being soaked are even higher. There is a staircase that you can take all the way to the top where a magnificent view awaits you.
- Vatnajökull National Park– a protected wilderness area in southern Iceland centered around the Vatnajökull glacier. Defined by massive glaciers, ice caves, snowy mountain peaks, active geothermal areas, and rivers, the region includes Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with icebergs, and the Svartifoss and Dettifosis waterfalls.
- Húsavík– also known as the whale watching capital of Iceland, this sleepy little fishing town has colorful houses, unique museums, and stunning views of snowcapped peaks across the bay. It is also an excellent location to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights!
5) How safe is Iceland?
The entire country of Iceland has a population of just 330,000 (comparable to the city of Santa Ana, CA), so there may be times on your travels that you won’t see another person for miles. In fact, there are more sheep than people on the island.
6) Where can I buy alcohol in Iceland?
Alcohol that is stronger than 2.25% isn’t sold in grocery stores in Iceland. Instead, you can buy alcohol in the state-owned liquor stores called Vínbúdin. I highly suggest purchasing any alcohol or spirits at the duty-free store in the Keflavik airport when you arrive, as it will save you a lot of money. If you are traveling on a budget, you may be surprised to find that a casual drink at a local bar is not so casual. Beer and mixed drinks alike are very expensive.
7) What is the best time of year to visit Iceland?
The best off- and shoulder-season times are the months of April, May, September, and October. These months have slightly less forgiving weather (October may be a bit cold for some) but tourism is far lower and prices will be back to their already-high normal amounts. The fall months are especially beautiful, as long as you plan your wardrobe appropriately!
8) What is Icelandic food like?
As you might guess, Iceland’s most popular foods are fish-based. It’s an island, so fishing is a critical part of the country’s economy. You will see plenty of seafood delicacies, including the famed dried stockfish. This high-protein jerky-like snack used to be served in lieu of bread since grains were so hard to come by. Plokkfiskur is a fish stew that is quite tasty, and shouldn’t be missed. Don’t forget to try the lamb, too! Sheep are the main livestock on the island, and Icelandic lamb is made in a variety of delicious ways. Root veggies are also common and are used in many dishes.
Some treats include:
- Rúgbrauð: Icelandic rye bread. Sweet and traditional, this bread is dense and very tasty.
- Pönnukökur: Icelandic pancakes! Similar to crepes, they’re thin and delicate, and often served with some sort of sugary filling.
- Snúður: Sweet, rolled cinnamon bread often served with chocolate.
9) Do I need to tip when paying for services?
On the other hand, it is not considered rude to tip (especially since tourism became a much bigger industry for the country), so leaving your change or a small amount of additional cash on the table for good service will always be appreciated.
10) What money is used in Iceland?
11) Is the water safe to drink?
Icelandic local water is perfectly safe, and you may actually be looked at askance if you head to the local market to stock up on bottled water. If you’re concerned, bring a filtered water bottle and carry it around with you to refill as needed. Some local water will have a slight sulfuric taste, which is natural and quite harmless.
Author: Nicole Crites
Nicole Crites is a freelance travel writer based in Hood River, Oregon.
Her passion for international travel and learning new languages has taken her all of the world. She spent a year in Brazil as a foreign exchange student in high school and studied International Relations & Business in college. She currently works in finance for the action sports company Dakine.