I get asked a lot of questions about hiking and usually, it’s about gear. Since I haven’t done a backpacking gear post yet, I figured it’s time I change this!
I hiked Iceland during the summer of 2017 which, yes indeed, is somewhat of an oxymoron – Icelandic summers aren’t quite what you would expect from a usual ‘summer’. As a thru-hiker, I can tell you now that Iceland doesn’t have any official long distance trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail in the US or the Te Araroa in New Zealand. But it does have plenty multi-day hikes, a significant amount of people doing a month-long cross-country trek through the Highlands and then there’s the odd one out like myself, who reckons it’s fun to make up their own 2,500 km long thru-hike through the country (spoiler: it’s not fun, but that’s not the point of this post.)
Whatever you’re planning, you’ve probably figured out that Iceland is a little different from other places, which is predominantly due to the weather. Most people will hike around during summer but the temperatures are still significantly lower than anywhere else during that time of year, and don’t even get me started on the wind chill.
I hiked from the end of May until the middle of September and trust me, I found myself in almost every type of weather and temperature that you don’t want to find yourself facing during a hike. If you are in Iceland for that long, you will be cold and wet, a cruel wind will cut your face almost every single day and your gear will be perpetually wet.
Some areas are prone to sandstorms and all the river crossings will keep your feet icy cold with sometimes little chance to dry out. Fog will appear out of nowhere and night temperatures will occasionally drop below freezing. If you are lucky, you will have mild temperatures and sun, but if you are in the country for a long time, there is no chance of avoiding bad weather. So while finding the right gear to bring might prove a cumbersome exercise, it’s absolutely essential.
In the months before my departure, I found myself spending endless days and nights researching gear, becoming somewhat of a temporary semi-expert on odd things like the technology behind quick charging electronics, how does down fill power work, and how do all these different fabrics actually keep me warm or dry. And all that research mostly accumulated into realising that I didn’t need most of those things at all. In the end, I arrived with a peculiarly small amount of things for the time I spent researching what to bring. But I guess that’s the beauty of it, really.
For most long hikes it’s not too big a deal if you get it wrong, anyways. Usually it’s okay to start a hike and change gear around as you go along (providing you have some extra cash to do so), but this isn’t as easy in Iceland. Once I left Reykjavik, there were no longer any stores to buy anything from. It would’ve been an expensive exercise to travel back and forth to Reykjavik for supplies – and for me, this wasn’t an option. So what I packed, I returned with. Luckily, I liked my gear. It worked well for the trip.
TOTAL BASE WEIGHT (minus food, water, but including toiletries) = 7.622 kg / 16.8 lb
You can find my Lighterpack here, which includes every weight per item.
In the sections below I’ll discuss everything I used and whether it worked for me or not. Keep in mind that while I hiked during Iceland’s summer, this is essentially a 3/4 season gear list. Considering the cold weather, I’d say a 7.6kg base weight is not bad. It lives within the lightweight ranges but is definitely not ultralight. While you could certainly go lighter, I would recommend being careful unless you really know yourself and your gear.
‘Iceland is very exposed, so I wouldn’t take any risks. Make sure your gear keeps you warm and dry!’
• Patagonia Torrentshell
• Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie
• Montbell Windbreaker
• Icebreaker Bodyfit 260 merino wool long sleeve
• Japanese Grey merino wool long sleeve
• Uniqlo AIRism sleeveless top
• Montbell SupportTec Light leggings
• Mountain Designs Shorts
• ExOfficio Underwear
• Injinji Trail socks
• Solomon Wings Pro 2 trail runners
• Patagonia Trucker cap
Okay, this section isn’t necessarily correct – I didn’t wear all of these clothes all the time. Sometimes it was actually warm and I just wore my merino wool base layers, but I listed all of these items under this section because most of the time it was that cold and I did wear this ridiculous amount of layers, including the Uniqlo down vest which I added to the ‘Packed’ section. If I actually did have a sunny day, it would almost always get cold later in the afternoon, and I would end up wearing most layers again. I should probably add that while I do run really cold as a person, it also just WAS that cold.
In most situations, hikers are fine with their merino wool base layer, a down jacket and a hard shell. In Iceland you may want to add a fleece to this set up. I needed the extra layers on top of this. In fact, I could’ve used more – during the first week it got so cold I knew I was never going to be able to continue hiking into the shoulder season.
A versatile layering system works well for hiking. Icebreaker is great for their merino wool tops, I love the Patagonia Torrentshell and Montbell has some amazing lightweight items. None of these brands are particularly cheap but most of the items I used in Iceland are things I already had in Tasmania and Japan, and they still lived to tell the tale. Heck, they still live on after Iceland so the quality is worth the price tag to me.
Socks: I really have a love / hate relationship with Injinji toe socks. The material is amazing. So far they are the only socks that don’t overheat my feet (unlike Darn Toughs or merino wool socks…) but the toe bits take up too much space and squish my toes in a funny way that makes my nails deform. I know they are supposed to help against blisters but I’m not too prone to those – in fact, the one time I did get blisters in Iceland, was in between two toes…
Shoes: I should probably give props to these shoes. I wore them some 600 km in Japan and subsequently the entire 2,500 km hike in Iceland. They survived. Well, okay, they fell apart about 500 km before the end, but because they don’t have shops that sell anything in Iceland I couldn’t get any new ones. I found some basic insoles to help against the holes that had formed on the inside.
MAIN GEAR + SLEEPING SYSTEM
• Osprey Aura 50 backpack
• Hilleberg Akto (sand)
• Vargo Titanium nail pegs x4 (additional)
• Enlightened Equipment Revelation 850DT 20℉ quilt
• ExPed Fold drybag UL S (for quilt)
• Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated Mat Regular
• Osprey Raincover backpack (medium)
It’s a pretty solid portable home / bed system!
Backpack: The Osprey Aura is very comfortable, and the 50l is enough: I managed to stuff in over two weeks worth of food! Okay, with my hiker hunger I was admittedly very (very) hungry, but I wouldn’t have been able to carry more weight anyways.
Shelter: It took me a long time to decide which tent to get. I couldn’t make up my mind between the Tarptent Scarp I and the Hilleberg Akto. All in all, they would amount to a similar weight and both have a similar design. Initially I wanted a freestanding tent to be able to deal with problematic surfaces, but I couldn’t find a good one. I did consider getting the Scarp with the additional poles that make the tent freestanding, but I decided it adds too much weight to the whole set-up.
I ended up with the Hilleberg for several reasons: I really likes the sand/yellow colour and the outer fly sits pretty tight against the ground, so there is little chance for sand or rain to get blown in during storms. Being able to just buy it in the UK rather than having to import it from the US was (unfortunately) also a plus.
I survived a couple of intense storms and myself and all my gear live to tell the tale. I think that’s a pretty good and essential start!
Shelter: There’s quite a bit of flapping of tent fabric with the Akto but I don’t think there will be many better options in the storms I encountered. Needless to say, I stayed dry and all my gear is still intact. The Akto is also very good at trapping warmth. It was distinctly warmer in my tent than it was outside, which was good because it was often freezing cold.
While it wasn’t freestanding, I did manage to set it up on a variety of problematic surfaces, so you don’t need to worry about that too much. If the ground was too hard, I used the thin nail pegs and rocks to bash them into the ground, and I tied the guy lines to bigger rocks. For soft soil I used garbage bags filled with lightweight rocks or sand to create anchor points. It wasn’t always easy, but I always managed. Another pro is the colour – I was often wild camping and the brown colour disguised my tent perfectly. Sometimes it looked just like a rock – I loved it.
Rain cover: Like I said, everything survived the trip – apart from the rain cover that got ripped off my pack while I was walking along the ring road one day, quite possibly swallowed by the relentless sea, never to be seen again. After that I always made sure to attach my (new) cover to my pack with a tiny carabiner.
Sleeping mat / Quilt: Some nights the temperatures were so low that I felt the cold seep through my sleeping mat. A warmer pad or additional foam layer (especially during shoulder season) may have been useful. My sleeping bag also wasn’t quite warm enough. While my quilt may be sufficient for some, women tend to sleep colder than men and I definitely would’ve benefited from a 10℉ bag – that said, I sleep even colder than most so a 0℉ probably would’ve been best. Every night I would drape my raincoat and down layers over my quilt to keep me warm. Some nights it worked, some nights it didn’t. Sometimes it was so cold I couldn’t sleep. But I guess that’s Iceland for you.
Tent: I loved it until it started moulding a month and a half into the trip. Believe me when I say I was not impressed. Tiny little black specks littered the inner mesh above my head. I complained to Hilleberg when I got back – should 4 season gear not be able to deal with wet, 4 season weather? While my tent was often damp, it was also erected every single night. And this shelter is way too expensive to only last a month and a half. After some pushing, Hilleberg Sweden send me a new, but used inner. When I think of all the stories I hear of amazing customer service from US gear companies, I had expected to get a new one. Luckily, I think it was probably used in-house and the new-old inner actually looks like new.
CLOTHING PACKED (HIKING)
• Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Vest
• ExOfficio Underwear x1
• Injinji Trail socks x1
• Buff Merino wool tube
• Montane Prism gloves
• H&M Bikini top
• Montbell Versalite rain pants + stuff sack
• Eagle Creek Pack-It-Specter clothes cube medium
A lot of the time these items were actually on my body rather than in my pack!
Gloves: The Montane Prism gloves are LOVE. I just wish they were waterproof. If it doesn’t rain, they are the perfect warmth for Iceland and they were super light. If it did rain, I took them off and tied garbage bags around my hands. It sounds ridiculous but it kept my hands warm (although not actually dry because of the condensation…)
Rain pants: The Montbell rain pants were bought in Japan. While Montbell is Japanese, it’s also a popular brand in the US, but they only recently started selling online in Europe (although I’d suggest against procuring online – the prices are much steeper than they are in Japan or the US.) I LOVE Montbell though. It’s the first brand I saw when I started to get interested in hiking and I loved the colourful shops in Japan.
I bought quite a few things there and wish I could get some of their ultralight down jackets, but my shoulders are too wide (?) to fit in their jackets. I also realised that their sizing is adjusted for the different markets – I bought the rain paints in a size L to get the right length, even though the S fit much better.
The online store in Europe and US products would’ve given me the length I needed. A shame, because I hate how these huge trousers ruin my pictures (so superficial, yes.) Nevertheless they are efficient and ultra lightweight. They added protection and extra warmth when I needed it, and I love them for that. I don’t usually bring rain pants, but Iceland got so cold and wet that I know I’d really struggled if I’d had to do without.
No real cons, but I only used the bikini top twice, in local swimming pools (matched with normal (clean, yes) underwear) but the weight penalty is minimal – I selected them entirely by weight. I took some kitchen scales into H&M one day and weighed all their bikini tops before bothering to try them on. With 27 grams I think I succeeded!
CLOTHING PACKED (SLEEPING + CAMP)
• The North Face 100 Glacier 1/4 zip fleece
• Montbell Superior down pants + stuff sack
• Icebreaker Merino wool socks
• Muji Flip flops
I can’t live without one set of ‘clean’ camp clothes – my tent is my heaven, so everything inside needs to be clean. I could never be like those people that hike and sleep in the same outfit!
Fleece / Down pants: My happy outfit. The fleece was also a good backup for the really cold hiking days, although I only actually wore it a couple of times during the day.
Down: Can I just add that all this down is totally washable? Whenever I did laundry I added the down trousers and all the other down layers I have. I used whatever detergent I was able to buy at the campsite and everything would get clean and fluff up again in the tumble drier. (If anyone wonders, I would wear my Torrentshell and rain pants while I waited for everything in the laundry to finish – a big plus to bringing waterproofs!) Another consequence of having so many down items was that I always found myself in the midst of floating feathers in my tent, which I decided made everything feel more warm and homely at night.
Flip flops: While the flip flops are perfect for camp and campsite showers, they are quite a danger if intended for river crossings. I wore them only if the water was low, with hardly a current, but they were still very slippery and could easily have done more harm than good.
I usually just wear my hiking shoes to cross rivers but since it got so cold in Iceland, I would cross in my shoes but take off my socks. Afterwards I would wrap my dry socks with two garbage bags each and then insert them back into the now cold and wet shoes. Those garbage bags proved absolute life savers to me.
• iPhone 5s + case
• Anker USB charger w/ 2 inputs
• Find Me SPOT + batteries
• Joby Tripod Griptight GorillaPod Magnetic
• Petzl E-lite headlamp
• Kindle E-reader
• Anker PowerCore powerbank 13,000 mAh
• Cables x 3 + ear phones
• Extra AAA lithium batteries x 2
• Moleskin Slim notebook
• Muji Technical pencil + refill + eraser
• Muji Wallet + cards
• Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil document pouch
Everything I need to journal and keep charged! I use my phone for everything – GPS, route planning and picture taking. Since I wasn’t hiking an established long-distance trail but put my own route together, I was always making sure I was headed in the right direction. Sometimes I had to do last-minute research on the conditions of roads or trail options. This obviously drains batteries – just as all the picture taking I did, which was often done with a timer and in burst-mode, killing batteries even faster than usual.
Powerbank: Anker does some of the best, smallest and lightest powerbanks so I would definitely recommend them. The 13,000 mAh was great. I have a 20,500 one as well, but it gets very big and heavy, so I tried out the smaller one. I managed just about! I kept my phone on airplane and low battery mode whenever I could and the powerbank would last me for about ten days at most.
Headlamp: For about a month it pretty much never even got dark so I only brought a tiny headlamp. It was perfect for reading at night once it did get dark and was lightweight enough for me not to mind carrying it when I didn’t really use it at all. I usually bring a small solar-powered lantern which I charge by attaching it to my pack during the day – it turns into a cosy tent light at night, but with the long daylight hours it was overkill for this trip, so I left it behind.
Tripod: While I love the GorillaPod, the screws attaching the head to the body get undone when they are constantly jostled about – I lost the head while walking the ring road one day and had to get a new one. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if I was in a country with cities and shops, but in Iceland I was pretty screwed. My parents had to send a new tripod from The Netherlands!
Batteries: Another huge con relating to Icelandic shops involve the lithium batteries I needed for my Spot. I used the Spot to track me during the day and I sent out a check-in message every night. The 4 lithium AAA batteries would last me over a month. In most countries, these are very standard batteries that you can buy in any supermarket. Not in Iceland. Surely you can buy them in Reykjavik, and I presume Akureyri, but anywhere else? No. Bring them with you. Again, I had to have my parents post these to me from The Netherlands.
And to compare – when I used Alkaline batteries, a set would last between 3 (the cheap sort) and 7 days (the better Duracell ones.) I wouldn’t advise using them as they are less reliable and very expensive to replace so often.
• Sea to Summit Drylite MicroTowel
• Sea to Summit Clothes line
• In 30 gr Sistema pots: body lotion / moisturiser/ tooth paste
• In 30 ml Muji spray bottle: deodorant
• In 15 gr Muji pot: peroxide
• Dr Bronner soap / tooth brush / scrub glove / scissors / nail clippers / lip balm / sunscreen / mascara / eyebrow pencil / tiger balm / anti-bacterial gel / ear plugs
• Eagle Creek Pack-It-Specter sac medium
FIRST AID KIT
• Plasters / Tape
• Tenacious Repair tape (for gear)
I admit I carry A LOT of toiletries compared to other thru-hikers. But I like to stay clean. My face gets very oily so I really need to clean this every morning and evening (wet wipes when I’m on trail and whatever cheap stuff the hand soap dispenser dispenses at campsites.) My feet on the other hand get so dry that they start itching horribly, driving me insane, so I carry body lotion to keep it all hydrated. I put everything in tiny Sistema or Muji pots so that I can only carry so much.
And yes, I also carry some make-up which will sound insane to most but I like to feel somewhat presentable when I’m in town. Also my eyebrows have bleached so much from being outdoors all the time that I look stupid without colouring them in. Real life problems, you know.
Deodorant: Water-based deodorant is amazing! Normal deodorant often stains clothes, and just starts to smell worse when you can’t actually clean yourself or your clothes. But water-based deodorant is fresh and keeps me from feeling gross. I came to Iceland with a Neal’s Yard deodorant and it was gorgeous. I also love the Sage from Weleda. I only found the Weleda Citrus scent in Iceland – this one is also nice but a little bit less effective.
Scrub glove: Never underestimate how amazing a scrub glove feels when you haven’t showered in over a week.
I used the clothes line maybe twice and the string never.
FOOD + DRINK
• Sawyer Mini water filter
• Sawyer Water pouch x2 (1x 1L + 1x 2L)
• Plastic water bottle x2
• Sea to Summit Titanium cutlery set + bag
• Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 2l stuff sack
• Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 13l stuff sack
You probably expected to find a stove here, but there isn’t: I hike stoveless and always have. I cold soak couscous or mashed potatoes in ziplock bags and add things like beans, tomatoes and tuna. Everything I eat is cold and I have no problems with it, despite the weather being equally freezing at night.
While you could argue that going stoveless saves weight, it only does so if you are careful about your food choices. If I was packing instant noodles and cold soaking them for dinner (not as gross as it sounds), then that would probably be the case, but I prefer to offset the weight gained by packing healthier (and heavier) foods instead, so I still consume a variety of nutrients and vitamins that my body needs to be able to finish my hike!
I carry the small plastic bottle for my morning cold coffee and chocolate milk mix drink. The small stuff sack is for storing things like drink powders and ziplock bags and the big one is reserved for food. Although in reality it carries only half or a third of my food – the rest finds itself stuffed in less-elegant plastic shopping bags.
Water pouches: The lightweight water pouches were only really needed a few times when I had to carry water for the entire day – usually there’s so much water near the trail that I just fill up the one 500ml water bottle and drink right through the Sawyer mini filter as I go.
Cutlery: The entire cutlery set of spoon, knife and fork weren’t really needed. Although I used all of it, the fork was overkill and the knife wasn’t actually sharp enough to cut anything – I did (somewhat) successfully use it to scoop coffee and chocolate milk powder into the bottle every morning.
For the next trip to New Zealand I only brought the spoon and added a tiny plastic measuring cup for the powders, which worked very well. The knife is still obsolete, anything that requires cutting I do with my teeth (no, I probably don’t make for a very charming dinner companion…)
Gear I didn’t have but could’ve used
I’ve never used trekking poles before and although the terrain doesn’t necessarily require them, there were a couple of times when I really wished I’d had some. First for those darnit river crossings. Some days they were endless. The water was icy cold and sometimes deep and sometimes swift and it was always scary, mostly because I didn’t grow up with things like this. Trekking poles would’ve made my life a lot easier and the river crossing less dangerous and faster.
Then there were the steep mountain sections. Now there weren’t too many of these, but I remember the steepest snow covered ascent on the Fimmvörðuháls trail and being really, really happy I wasn’t going in the other direction, because I’m not sure how I would’ve made it down. Then there was that descent in Lónsöræfi close to Mulaskali hut, when a storm threatened to blow me off the narrow ridge on the way down and I had to concentrate very hard to get to the bottom, safe. Now I wouldn’t say the Icelandic terrain really requires trekking poles, but they certainly would’ve, on occasion, made my life a whole lot easier.
Gear I wish existed but doesn’t
Invariably, when you’re hiking your feet will get wet. Either because of rain or river crossings, but it’s an unfortunate inevitablity. Sometimes it’s warm outside, and it doesn’t matter. Your shoes get wet during the day and you keep on walking and leave everything to dry overnight and all is good. I do that. It works. This is not for those times. This is when you’re somewhere wet and cold and once your shoes and feet get wet, you are wet and cold and nothing is ever going to dry or warm up again and it’s miserable.
What you need is something to keep your feet from turning to ice popsicles while wearing those darnit borderline frozen, drenched shoes. Something warm and dry. Something like waterproof socks, except not waterproof socks. Because I had a pair. They are heavy and sweaty and give you blisters and one of mine started leaking when I was ploughing through the mud in Tasmania. I replaced them with bin bags and while they’re light and easy, they’re not perfect. You always have to wear two, because one is undoubtedly going to burst, and then one of your toes always ends up squeezed in some corner, which is kind of annoying. They also look stupid in pictures (because I’m vain, y’all.)
So here comes my solution: a waterproof oversock, made out of a lightweight material, like a tent fabric, for example. You wear them over your normal socks, with a string at the top to draw them tight. Yes, your feet will perspire so your socks will end up getting wet anyways. But sweaty socks are much better than river-drenched socks. Sweaty socks dry overnight, soaked ones don’t.
So if someone has the genius inclination to produce a pair of these, please send me a sample. I will be delighted to test them. Thank you and bye.
Waterproof gloves that are lightweight and warm
Yes, all of those in one. Is that really too much to ask? Can I say that I love my Montane Prism gloves and why can they not exist as a waterproof version? WHY?
Some UL thoughts
As I mentioned before, I am not an ultralight hiker. I am lightweight and do try to be more lightweight, but I don’t think I will ever be ultralight. Why? I don’t hike distances long enough to get away with carrying less food, I get too cold to do with less clothes, and I don’t hike from sunrise to sunset because I simply get too tired and because I enjoy sitting in my tent at night to relax, think about the day and read my book. So I carry more food, clothes and luxuries than some others would.
At the same time, my gear is pretty lightweight, apart from my tent, which is a solid 4 season shelter but is worth the weight considering the conditions I faced over such a long trip, and the fact that I was doing it all alone.
So while it’s certainly possible for people to hike with less, for the average backpacker, this gear list is very reasonable, safe and feasible. I would certainly suggest that if you are carrying more, you are carrying too much. If your pack is heavier, it doesn’t need to be – try and switch to lighter and smaller gear options.
Personally I’m about to do a complete gear overhaul and it’s crazy to see how much weight you can safe by just replacing every single piece of kit by something just a little bit lighter. But it does get expensive.
When it comes to going UL in Iceland: be careful. It might not suit the Icelandic weather conditions. Even during summer, it is not a normal 3 season hiking destination: the winds will freeze your bits off and storms threaten to destroy your tent. Fog appears out of nowhere, it is consistently cold and wet and some areas are prone to sandstorms. You need gear you can trust, because once you are out there, there is nowhere to hide.
A final note on navigation, even though I didn’t carry any specific gear for this. The route I took was not an existing long-distance trail, so I did my research beforehand and kept spreadsheets on my phone that summarised my route and all the resupply points.
I used my phone for everything: it carried the spreadsheet and stored images of local maps I had found. I used the Maps.me app for navigation, as it includes pretty much all hiking routes. Maps.me doesn’t use data as you download the maps once and then use them offline. Usually it also shows the elevation, but for some reason this information is missing on the Iceland maps – it shows the entire country being completely flat, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth! Other than that it was a great tool.
I had also bought and downloaded Gaia GPS which is much more advanced app, but I never fully learned how to use it, so I never did. It would’ve been useful though – there were a few situations where I followed unmarked trails and struggled to find the route. Having an app that can download GPX files and show the elevation would have helped me in some sticky situations.
That was another super long post but I hope that helped! Gear is a huge animal, but I kind of love it. The things we bring on a long hike are our lives and our homes. It’s important to have gear you can rely on and that you love.
Are you planning a trip to Iceland or another cold and unreliable destination? Do you have any other questions about gear or hiking in Iceland? Let me know in the comments below!
Blog Overview: An Iceland Expedition