As a non-outdoorsy person, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled to Iceland last summer with my husband. He loves hiking, and though I’m a less experienced adventurer, it sounded like I’d be able to admire Iceland’s stunning waterfalls and sculpture-esque lava formations without a long backpacking resumé. That turned out to be true, and I also found much else to adore in this country: the Icelandic legends known as sagas, the troll murals decorating the tiny Northern towns, and of course, the spa-like thermal lagoons.
My husband and I drove the Ring Road, a 21-hour route that circles the island and serves as a grand tour of Iceland’s natural wonders. People have done it in five days, but we gave ourselves the luxury of ten. This allowed us more leisure time to admire the hot springs, tectonic rifts, and five-foot ice crystals washed ashore on the aptly named Diamond Beach.
Given that I’m an inexperienced outdoorswoman, my main concern before the trip was preparedness — an anxiety exacerbated by the call-out box in my guidebook labeled, “Ways You Can Die in Iceland.” (These included falling into a crater and getting seared by a geyser.) Luckily, these dangers didn’t feel that menacing once we arrived. More accurate were the book’s warnings that the weather in Iceland changes quickly, and that our comfort would be contingent on proper packing.
Because I had zero hiking gear, I had to start from scratch in fulfilling our guidebook’s suggested packing list. To this end, I found REI to be an amazing resource. The gear I brought helped me calm my nerves pre-trip, kept me caffeinated during five-hour drives with no available stops, and ensured I could maintain some aesthetic self-expression in the wilderness. Follow the checklist below, and I promise you’ll be comfortable (and stylish) not only on the trail, but at the base of the waterfall, along the crater rim, and — you get it.
If you drive the Ring Road, there will be 50-mile stretches in Iceland without coffee, but no need to panic. This mini espresso maker saved me those mornings we hit the road before daybreak. Just don’t forget to pack some ground coffee beans!
Sledding as a kid might have turned me off from “base layers” for life. Luckily, I found this line of Kari Traa ware, designed by the Nordic Olympic skier herself. Instead of itchy and ill-fitting, these thermal underwear items are sleek-looking and warm (without making you sweaty). They’re both stylish and functional, a winning combination.
I’m a Rick Steves fangirl, and his Iceland guide does not disappoint. Most useful were the driving instructions, with specific route recommendations that maximize scenic views and steer you clear of dangerous hairpin turns.
The entire Ring Road takes approximately 21 hours to drive. That’s equivalent to three podcast series, two audiobooks, or a whole lot of playlists. Given that most rental cars in Iceland don’t come with a phone port, you’ll be thanking the Icelandic gods for this car-friendly bluetooth speaker.
Iceland can be dark — as in, pitch black. After sunset in up north in Myvátn, the roads were so dark that we weren’t sure we were driving on pavement. Enter this portable mini-flashlight, which, in addition to the iPhone flashlight feature, helped us avoid landing in a ditch.
I wanted a hiking backpack that I could get dirty and then throw in the washing machine. It had to be big enough to fit gear, water bottles, snacks, and our guidebook; it also had to look cute. That’s a tall order, but luckily the Himawari Travel School Backpack fulfilled all these criteria, and more.
After trying this three-in-one jacket, I’m doubtful I’ll ever go back to plain parkas or puffers. This multi-layer coat works well in Iceland’s rapidly changing weather patterns. Wear the fleece on brisk, sunny days; don the waterproof windbreaker during drizzles; or attach the two to make yourself a fleece-lined winter coat.
Those of you with long hair, rejoice. There is finally a ponytail-friendly beanie! No more having to choose between wearing your hair up and fitting a hat on your head.
If you end up hiking in the rain, these water resistant Merrells will be your best (and most comfortable) bet for keeping your feet dry.