Iceland is MAGICAL. It took no time at all for me to fall head over heels in love. And back in April, I was lucky enough to spend 16 incredible days road-tripping around this beautiful, alien world. Before I went, I had tons of questions about the logistics of camping in such a sparsely populated and cold country. Through research before I went, and lessons learned along the way, I’ve picked up tons of information and tips on the best way to get around Iceland in a campervan (easily applicable to brave(er) souls wishing to camp in tents, too).
I personally think campervanning around Iceland is the best possible way to explore, and the following two posts should give you all of the information you need to enjoy an unforgettable trip to the land of fire and ice, including daily budgets, packing lists and much, much more.
What to pack
“When people ask me what the weather will be like today,” said Dísa, the owner of Skjaldarvik Guesthouse just outside of Akureyri, “I tell them; look out of the window. And dress like an onion.”
In essence, Icelandic weather is two things:
- Cold (generally!)
It’s worth remembering that when you’re road-tripping Iceland in a campervan, and you don’t have the benefit of a warm guesthouse to escape to at night to recharge and warm up. With that in mind, my Iceland clothes packing list looked something like this (adjust numbers needed depending on duration of your stay/size of luggage/access to washing facilities. Obvious items e.g. underwear, omitted):
- Thermal tops x7
- Thermal leggings x4
- Water resistant hiking trousers x2
- Fleece jumper x2
- Wind resistant, waterproof, WARM coat x1
- Lightweight waterproof jacket x1
- Scarf, hat and gloves (you may appreciate having more than one of each if they get wet!)
- Fleece snood
- Thermal socks
- Swimming costume x2
- Hiking boots
- Snow boots
There’s no real difference between campervanning and camping, so think about the practical items that you’re going to need to get by day to day.
- WARM sleeping bag – some mornings we woke to icicles on the bottom of the car, but we were toasty and warm all night. Why? Super warm sleeping bags, fleece liners and ALL the thermals.
- First aid kit – for when you tear your knee open on a bit of lava (true story).
- Battery pack – for charging phones and cameras on the go. This one is excellent.
- Inverter – for plugging USB charger leads into your car while you drive.
- Water bottle – it’s beneficial to buy three or four 2l bottles at the start of the trip, and then refill them for the rest of your time at campsites and petrol stations.
- Camping stove, pans, plates, cutlery for cooking – hopefully this stuff comes with your van – make sure to check!
- Gas canisters – Make sure you have plenty of gas for cooking, but don’t stress, as you can always buy more at petrol stations.
- Sat Nav – You may be able to get by without it… but nice to have.
- Sunglasses – You may think that this one is unnecessary – but trust me – snow blindness is real and incredibly irritating. Sunglasses are the one item I didn’t bring but wish I had!
- Baby wipes – for when you don’t have the option of showering/washing up properly…
- Kitchen towel – Perpetually useful.
There are no hard and fast rules on the best foods to buy to cook on your camping stove. We lived off lots of pasta, noodles and potatoes, but we didn’t struggle to find supermarkets for fresh food like veg, yoghurt, milk, cheese and bread. It’s worth going to either Bonus, Kronan or Netto if you can, because these supermarkets are by far the cheapest (read cheapEST – not cheap!). There is an abundance of these stores in and around Reykjavik but they do become harder to find elsewhere in the country.
As such, I’d recommend getting all of your dried/preservable foods at the start of the trip, plus as much fresh stuff as you can eat before it goes bad (remembering that happily the temperature in your van will essentially be keeping it refrigerated… and dwelling less on the fact that it will be keeping you refrigerated too). You can top up on fresh items that you can’t live without, e.g. Skyr, cheese, more cheese and definitely more Skyr, along the way.
Apart from the limitations offered by a single saucepan and frying pan, we ate fairly similar foodstuffs to what we would at home, and we often stayed in campsites that offered better cooking facilities in order to branch out in our meal making! One thing I recommend you buying at every opportunity (and there will be plenty) is Icelandic flatbread, called flatkaka, because the stuff is like the crack of the flour world. SO good.
I’ve covered in full the camera equipment you’ll need for capturing amazing photographs of Iceland and the Northern lights here.
How long to stay
Well that entirely depends! I’d personally recommend a minimum of a week if you are planning to drive the ring road, any less and you’ll be doing nothing but driving, and whilst this is a pretty joyous experience in beautiful beautiful Iceland with it’s empty, windy roads, you will want to get out and explore plenty too! I had two weeks on the road plus a couple of days in Reykjavik, and could have happily stayed longer (like, forever). Budget in this expensive country is likely to be your biggest limiting factor, so work out what you can afford and what stuff you really NEED to see, plus where that stuff is, and then decide what works best for you.
If you’re hoping to catch the Northern lights, I’d also suggest a minimum of a week to increase your chances of striking lucky. I explain that in more detail in my post about how to find the northern lights.
Where to pee, park up and preen
Well. Toilets are really not that hard to find, let me tell you. There’s no need to squat down by the side of the road (and in fact, please don’t! It’s a really big problem in Iceland these days and not respectful of this beautiful country at all!). You can go to the loo in any petrol station, at any tourist attraction car park or in any campsite. Which brings me on to…
Parking up for the night. You have two options, really. You can park up in any lay-by or rest area providing that there isn’t any ‘no parking’ signs. Places like car parks for tourist attractions usually say no overnight parking, for instance. Areas where it’s safe and legal to park turn up all of the time, which is great when you’re driving in the evening, as you really can just pull over when you get tired. It also means you can stumble upon some lovely and secluded spots to sleep.
Your other option is to sleep at campsites, which we personally favoured most nights. It’s just easier when you want to sit somewhere warm and well lit of an evening, need extra cooking facilities or a toilet in the middle of the night. I don’t recommend using the showers in campsites though, which are paid for by the minute using change. You’re much better off going to the incredible local pools dotted all over Iceland, and I discuss that in much more detail in my next post.
Paying for things
You may have already read it elsewhere, and it really is true; in Iceland, you can pay for virtually everything by card. Even the smallest of petrol stations in the middle of nowhere will take card. Considering that we were there for sixteen days, we had around GBP 80 in cash with us, and most of that we ended up using to pay for things we could have paid for with a card, just for the sake of using it up! You really only need cash in the form of change to pay for campsite showers (which I never used – see above!), and the occasional family run hot-tub or two (those I used in abundance). So do get some money out, but don’t get much. You’re better off making sure you have a good card which won’t charge you for overseas transactions, and which will give you a fair exchange rate.
What to budget
Iceland is not cheap. That’s an unfortunate fact. Your budget will as ever depend on a few things, mainly how flashy you want your campervan to be, how often you plan to eat in restaurants, and how many activities you want to do.
I personally opted for minimums in all three instances, and traveled during shoulder season when prices are lower, so consider this a tight budget, and splash any desired extra cash on big heated campers, yummy Icelandic food and amazing day tours from there.
- Campervan – EUR 95 – We got a category AB campervan from KuKu Campers – it was basic (no 4 wheel drive, no heater) and pretty small, and did absolutely everything we needed it to for the two weeks. I had no complaints or regrets whatsoever. Well, apart from renting a guitar – which never ended up getting played, had to be constantly moved out of the way, and landed up being the KuKu boss’s acoustic Fender when all the cheapy rental guitars had already been leant out… Boy, was that a pain…
- Insurance – EUR 55 – We got the works on van insurance, including gravel protection, sand and ash and a reduced excess. In the end we happily didn’t need any of it, but that’s not why we get insurance, is it? All car rentals in Iceland legally have to come with basic level of insurance included, but you can pay extra to reduce the often very high excess should a claim occur. We reduced ours from 2000 EUR to 500 EUR, and given that people often do experience issues such as strong winds damaging doors, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to limit your potential losses a little. Gravel protection means you are protected against any damage to the car or windscreen from gravel thrown up by driving on gravel roads, which is excluded on the basic insurance. You may think you only need to worry about this if you are getting a 4×4 and driving the F roads, but given that parts of route 1, the main ring road, are gravel, you categorically will end up driving on gravel roads and so it’s worth protecting yourself. Sand and ash is definitely the most frivolous of the three, since you’re only going to need it if either a volcano goes off, or the wind speeds go over 25 meters per second. But it’s worth remembering that this is Iceland, and both of those things DO happen from time to time, especially the high winds.
- Food – EUR 30 – based on two people eating three meals a day, averaging out cooking on the gas stove (including the cost of gas) most of the time, but with the occasional meal out. Meals in restaurants are going to set you back a minimum of 15 EUR per person for just a main realistically, but can be way way more.
- Activities – EUR 50 – Many of the things you’re going to be doing in Iceland will be totally free, including all of the natural wonders and national parks. Happy days! Some things however, such as skidooing on glaciers and whale watching, will be very expensive. I’m talking EUR 75 per person upwards. Museums are all paid entry, but not too expensive. This daily budget covering two people represents 2 paid activities per week, plus small optional donations when visiting some of the natural wonders, and some smaller cost activities such as thermal pools and museums.
- Petrol – EUR 30 – Coming from the UK, petrol was about the same cost in Iceland as back home, but it’s going to come as a nasty surprise if you are from the US. It cost us roughly 75 EUR to fill the tank from empty (but always fill up once you hit the half way mark – petrol stations are relatively frequent, but not frequent enough to take risks!). We got through around 2.5 tanks per week. If you were driving the whole ring road in one week rather than two, you would use more I imagine, though not double as we obviously did plenty of extra driving that there wouldn’t be time for in just a week.
- Misc other – EUR 20 – e.g. showering, road tolls, campsite fees.
Total two person budget per day – EUR 280
(one person budget per day, EUR 230)
Total for a week long trip for two people – EUR 1,960
Yikes, I hear you say! Indeed, indeed… But you get what you pay for, and I don’t regret a single Krona (apart from the guitar. I repeat: I regret the guitar). I can say with confidence that Iceland is worth it, if you can afford it. And there are definite ways to experience Iceland without spending as much, including hitchhiking, volunteering (try Workaway) and opting to not partake in expensive activities or eat in restaurants.
So there you have it! All of the essential must-knows that I can think of for a successful – and let’s be honest – unforgettable trip to an ethereal and magical country. If you’re hungry for more, keep reading to find out my tips and tricks.
Have you been on a road trip around Iceland? Please comment if you have anything extra to add!