Your Iceland Road Trip: The Things You Really Need To Know
Even without having any immediate Iceland travel plans for the longest time, I had known the names of famous Icelandic waterfalls for years. It seems pretty impossible to go on social media these days without seeing a mysteriously foggy Iceland photo within the first three minutes.
Thus I’ll spare you the “land of fire and ice” tropes and cut right to the chase: Because surprisingly, despite the numerous blog posts and social media coverage on Iceland travel tips out there, I somehow couldn’t find the information I needed to prepare for the road trip on Iceland’s Ring Road that Steffen (the husband) and I were planning this summer.
There are so many Iceland packing lists online, but not one could answer the questions I had regarding road tripping and life in a camper van. Most articles just say things like “wear layers and don’t forget to bring your camera”. Obviously, duh.
But beyond that? What about toilets in Iceland? How well equipped are camp sites in Iceland? Which roads can you drive with a camper? What kinds of food can you buy there? Are showers cold in Iceland?
Here are the things that I learned and that I wished I had known before departing on our eleven day road trip along Iceland’s Ring Road.
You’ll only need ISK for showers and bathrooms
In our experience, even the smallest little fish and chips shack in the middle of nowhere will take credit cards — but you might need Icelandic króna coins to pay for toilets and camp site showers eventually.
And let me tell you, it’s not fun to realize that the machine in the shower only takes 50s when you’re already fully shampooed, the water is out after 2 minutes, and you notice that you only have 100s left. (Steffen, my hero, luckily threw coins through a little window to save me!)
A word on showers at Icelandic camp sites
… might not have warm water (experienced in Þingvellir National Park, that doesn’t have any geothermal activity close by) … might be outdoors (experienced in Stykkishólmur) … might be communal (experienced in Selfoss) … might cost a lot (200 ISK for a minute of hot water in Seyðisfjörður) … might be non-existent (experienced in Borgarnes) … might have an intense sulphur smell (experienced in Reykjavík)
Camper vans don’t have any mirrors inside the car
I have to admit that I did feel a little gross living the camper van life, but applying make-up in the morning helped making me feel slightly more human. Since camp site bathrooms tend to be overcrowded in the mornings (and might not even have mirrors), I usually did my make-up in the car.
Morning bathroom situation in Borgarnes (not staged, I really got ready there!)
I didn’t know that camper vans apparently don’t have any (!) mirrors inside the car though and I was really glad I had a small mirror in my wash bag.
I don’t know if all campers out there are mirror-free, but if you want to wear make-up on your road trip, I certainly recommend packing an extra pocket mirror.
Dry shampoo and beanies are a girl’s best friends
Let’s just say, the looks you receive for washing your hair in a filthy camp site sink range from irritated to hostile. And most camp site and gas station sinks even have signs prohibiting washing anything but your hands in them.
Dry shampoo is (as usual) a life saver though and if all else fails, you’ll be wearing a hat / head band / beanie most of the time in Iceland anyways so don’t even worry about dirty hair too much.
Is my hair dirty or not? Good thing you can’t tell!
I was also glad I had my hair cut before the trip: Dry shampooing / high speed washing / air drying it would have been a whole lot more annoying with longer hair.
Choose layers of fleece and active wear over cotton
Everybody recommends the ‘onion principle’ (aka all of the layers) for traveling in Iceland, but I have something to add to that: try to avoid cotton clothes.
I thought I’d wear cute chambrays or flannel shirts, but I gave that up after the first day and chose being warm as my priority over looking stylish.
It’s a good thing that it’s socially acceptable to wear active wear outside the gym these days, so embrace that trend in Iceland and pick spandex and fleece over cotton. The big advantages of active wear:
a) It dries so much faster than cotton.
b) It keeps you warm even when it’s wet.
c) Most sights include (mini) hikes anyways so wearing workout clothes actually makes sense.
I didn’t plan to camouflage into the ice that day, but I’m digging it!
I definitely packed too much (I’m still learning how to pack efficiently), but here’s what I actually needed:
– 4 tops
– 4 pairs of spandex leggings
– 1 pair of jeans (to wear in Reykjavík)
– 4 cotton t-shirts
– 1 chambray
– 1 long-sleeve fleece shirt
– 1 fleece zipper hoodie (which I was basically wearing non-stop!)
– 2 cotton hoodies
– 1 dressier long-sleeve, 1 nicer pullover (to wear in Reykjavík)
– 1 pair of waterproof rain pants
– 1 lightweight waterproof jacket
– 1 warmer windproof jacket
– several pairs of quick-dry active wear socks
– 1 beanie
– 1 fleece buff
– 2 scarves
– 1 pair of running gloves
– hiking shoes
– 1 bathing suit
– city-compatible sneakers
– plastic flip flops (for camp site showers)
– sweat pants and a large cotton shirt to sleep in
I was also pretty glad I brought clothes in various sizes, because I could layer several tops and jackets on top of each other without ruining any zippers (even though that meant looking like a whale).
Whale watching in Husavík (Ha!): I’m wearing a top, a t-shirt, a fleece shirt, a zipper hoodie, a fleece hoodie, a buff, and a warm coat — and brought an extra scarf, too!
The Ring Road is not always paved
I heard the highland roads in Iceland are insane, but little did we know that even Iceland’s major highway is an unsealed road sometimes. You’ll need some serious nerves and mad driving skills to get to the major sights sometimes.
Meet our van!
Don’t freak out if you suddenly find yourself on a gravel road, but make sure you didn’t accidentally end up on an F road if you’re not driving a 4×4.
And definitely get gravel damage covered by your rental car insurance!
This is what the Ring Road looks like in Eastern Iceland!
Also: If those unsealed gravel roads make you nervous, DO NOT take the eastern road to Dettifoss. That “street” is absolutely brutal and my jaw hurt for hours from all the bumps.
Spot our van?
And speaking of driving in Iceland: Those wild sheep are maniacs, they’ll jump in front of your car out of nowhere. Oh and seagulls are maniacs too sometimes.
Bring a lot of snacks
It’s not a secret that Iceland is expensive and that it’s smart to bring snacks and cooking supplies from home to be gentle on your travel budget. Here’s what I packed:
– my homemade granola (a mix of oats, ground nuts, flax seeds, buckwheat, quinoa flakes and the like toasted with coconut oil, maple syrup, and cinnamon) – mixed nuts (protein-heavy snack for me) – beef jerky (protein-heavy snack for Steffen) – pepper, sweet paprika spice, and vegetable broth for cooking – various CLIF bars and Raw Bite protein bars (as hiking fuel, more than pictured) – brown rice – quinoa – red lentils – soy ‘ground meat’
Breakfast essentials in Iceland
Don’t worry, this is not sponsored, I just really like the combination of energy bars and waterfalls while hiking.
Keep in mind though that you can only bring a limited amount of weight in food into the country: If you plan on bringing food to Iceland, I’d pick comparably light items that increase volume when cooked.
Bónus supermarkets will help lower your (food) expenses
Bónus is the closest thing Iceland has to Trader Joe’s and if you don’t want to spend an absurd amount of money on food, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for the big yellow supermarkets with that weirdly smiling pig logo.
There are a lot of Bónus markets in the greater Reykjavík area, but the further you leave the peninsula behind you, the sparse supermarkets become.
We actually created a dedicated Bonús map so we would never miss one to stock up on our necessities — especially for when we were in the more remote areas of Northern and Eastern Iceland.
If you can’t find a Bónus supermarket, Krónan is a good option too.
When we felt fancy for breakfast: Whole grain bread, cheese, fried eggs, and cucumber.
Most days we’d just have skyr with nuts and granola for breakfast: Quick, heathy and satisfying. Lunch was usually a sandwich.
What I recommend buying in an Icelandic supermarket (to eat budget-friendly and somewhat healthy):
– canned beans and peas (filling and good source of protein) – pasta (filling, fast to prepare, very affordable) – sauces (marinara or pesto for pasta, BBQ or salsa for sandwiches) – tomatoes and cucumbers (to give those sandwiches a healthier feel) – butter, cheese, and ham (expensive, but what would a sandwich be without?) – skyr (great for breakfast and very Icelandic, of course) – wholegrain bread (white bread is cheaper though) – eggs and canned tuna (if you want a little extra protein) – onions (because they make everything taste better) – fruit and other veggies (if you want to splurge) – rice and cereal or oats (if you didn’t bring them from home, oats are actually quite affordable)
Dinner in Akureyri: Rice and lentils cooked with a sautéed red onion, served with a tikka masala sauce and tuna.
FYI: Bring a Swiss army knife if you want to open canned foods!
Dinner in Þingvellir: Pasta and a tomato sauce with sautéed onion, tuna, and peas.
What you probably won’t need (we bought all these things at the very first supermarket and realized that we didn’t really need them):
– (olive) oil
– dishwashing detergent
– toilet paper
All camp sites with cooking facilities have the items above for communal use, because many travelers end up leaving them behind. And even if there’s no communal salt, you can always borrow from someone (which also is a great way to get talking to fellow travelers).
I thought we’d need toilet paper, because I only made one real camping experience before — in France where you have to bring your own toilet paper at camp sites. In Iceland however I didn’t encounter a single toilet that didn’t provide it.
Quick breakfast: Plain skyr, nuts, granola, and banana.
Booze is pricey and hard to come by
Not to come off wrong here, but I do like a cold beer after a vacation day full of sightseeing and hiking.
Buying beer (or wine or liquor) in Iceland is quite the task though: Supermarkets sell only light beer and everything with a higher alcohol percentage is sold in government run stores called Vínbúðin.
There are 46 Vínbúðin stores in all of Iceland so you might not be able to find a drink in the more remote areas.
You don’t even want to know how much we paid for this.
My advice: Stock up on your preferred drinks at the duty free shop in the airport — booze will never be cheaper!
Duty free beer can in the sunset for the win.
Your day planning might center around gas stations
I probably never visited gas stations this frequently in my life before, but in Iceland I really learned to appreciate them.
We stopped at about three gas stations per day. Reason one: Restrooms. Reason two: Coffee.
Most gas stations in Iceland have loyalty programs and our rental car came with a little key chain that offered us a free coffee on every visit at a certain gas station chain (and there was a small gas discount too). We often even got coffee for the both of us for free!
Just keep in mind: Gas stations are sparse in the northern, eastern and central parts of Iceland and you should always fill up the tank if you have a chance. Also: Gas stations open late on Sundays so find an alternative for your morning coffee fix and bathroom break (or sleep in).
You might want to try a gas station soft serve, too!
So this time we opted for listening to crime novels, which was perfect because the suspense kept us awake and it also provided good who-is-the-murderer-small-talk-potential.
Say hi to our van!
Steffen also brought his iPad so we could watch Netflix at night. When staying at camp sites in off the beaten path locations, going out at night is usually not an option and common spaces are often either closed at night or outdoors (aka way too cold after sunset).
It sounds lame, but after a long day of exploring, crawling into our cozy sleeping bags with an episode of The Good Wife was seriously the best way to end our day.
And in other random things we brought that proved themselves to be very useful:
– a headlamp
– a medicine kit (if you’re clumsy like me)
– fast drying travel towels
– packing cubes (to keep the back of the van somewhat organized)
– a Swiss army knife
Background info: Steffen and I were traveling in Iceland for nine full days in August, we rented a small 2×2 camper van that came fully equipped with a stove and cooking supplies, a table, camping chairs, sleeping bags and pillows, a heating system, USB charging ports, and wifi (!).
Steffen thankfully did all of the driving, I planned our itinerary and activities. If you have any questions regarding the actual driving, ask them in the comments below and I’ll get Steffen to answer. I’ll share our detailed itinerary with tips in a following blog post, but definitely let me know if you have any questions already.