How to prepare for a multiday trek in Iceland

Friday, September 16, 2016

blog by Kinga from floatingmyboat.com:

Trekking and backpacking Iceland is the best thing you can actually do in this country.  It is challenging, but the views, variety of landscapes, feeling of remoteness and uniqueness are the best reward for all your efforts. Yet going to backpack and trek in Iceland without some preparation is simply… irresponsible. Therefore, if you’re planning on trekking or hiking in Iceland, here is all practical information you need to know to prepare for your Icelandic outdoor adventure. 

I usually travel very spontaneously and yet, visiting Iceland was my most planned and prepared trip. Why? This was my first time in Iceland and all kinds of information on backpacking and trekking in Iceland was useful to me, yet nowhere to find on the Internet. Also, I knew I was going to trek in one of  Iceland’s most remote and off-path destinations, the Vatnajökull National Park and that if I don’t prepare for this in advance, I might run into trouble. Now, having trekked in Icelandic highlands myself (Vatnajökull and Laugavegur), I have the experience and knowledge I want to share with you. If I had that knowledge I have right now before going to Iceland, the whole experience would be just less stressful.

WHAT TO PACK FOR A MULTIDAY BACKPACKING TREKKING IN ICELAND?

I’ve heard a funny but very true saying about Icelandic weather. Actually two sayings; “three things are certain in Iceland: rain, rain, and rain”, and “if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes and it will change”. And as funny as they sound, they are actually true. 

You want to be prepared for all kinds of weather and I spent AGES looking for some reliable information what exactly to pack for my trekking tour in Iceland, I shall also add, without getting broke while buying all the equipment. So, here we go, the ultimate backpacking packing list for trekking Iceland!

THE ONLY RIGHT WAY TO DRESS IN ICELAND – LAYERS

Rule number one: layers. Always dress in layers. As you walk, it can get hot, but the moment you stop moving, your body will start losing heat very quickly. Rule number two: forget cotton. Cotton is actually the WORST possible fabric you might take to Iceland since it gets dry very long, it doesn’t insulate you against cold, and it doesn’t protect you from rain or wind. It’s just doesn’t work at all for trekking in Iceland. Wool and synthetics are the best.

WHAT TO WEAR FOR TREKKING DURING THE DAY IN ICELAND?

I was more than fine to be dressed in trekking trousers from a very light, quick-dry material with detachable pantlegs for river crossings. On top, I usually had a quick-dry sports t-shirt, and if it was a bit colder, a fleece jumper. Both were rather thin.

For the day when it was extremely windy, on top of my t-shirt, I was wearing a softshell from a Polish company, 4F. But any other good quality softshell will do just fine. Wind can significantly decrease the perceived temperature, so a softshell is a must to keep you warm.

I also had a rain jacket, from 4F. As much as their softshell did well, the rain jacket was a disappointment. On the first day of trekking we had approximately 2 hours of rain and my coat got absolutely wet. The inner part of the coat felt super cold and moist and that’s not a result I was expecting from a coat that was supposed to withhold 8000 mm of rain. Also, I can’t call this coat breathable. When I was wearing it, I was actually sweating a lot.

Now, I would buy a more expensive but more water resistant coat with Gore-Tex. Two ladies from my trekking group were wearing ARC’TERYX and their coats withheld basically everything and were super breathable. The only drawback is the price, but if you are an outdoor person and hike a lot, it’s a good value for money.

CAMPING IN ICELAND – WHAT TO WEAR AND WHAT TO DO TO STAY WARM IN A TENT?

Merino wool! That’s my ultimate answer. I get cold super quickly and my sleeping bag wasn’t the best, so the merino wool is basically what saved me a lot of stress. I also had a pair of knee-long merino wool socks.

Before going to sleep in my sleeping bag, I would jog and do four series of squats to warm up. Remember, the temperature you put into your sleeping bag stays there. If you’re cold when getting into the sleeping bag, you will get even colder during the night.

For sleeping, I wore the merino wool long johns and woollen socks for my lower bodyFor the upper body, I had more layers on: a quick-dry t-shirt, a merino wool long-sleeved shirt, and a thicker fleece jumper. I felt quite comfortable, but one night got super cold – to the point of nearly shivering – despite all the layers.

I also had warmers from Decathlon, which were super useful to quickly increase the temperature in the sleeping bag. More information about warmers later in this post.

Just to show you the contrast between a good and an average sleeping bag, my tent-mate, Andrea, was actually UNDRESSING because she felt warm enough in her sleeping bag. Mine was Decathlon Forclaz 0comfort, extreme -5o, hers was some natural down from geese feathers up to -15o comfort and it MADE the difference. Next time I’m backpacking Iceland, I am going with a better sleeping bag for sure.

A pretty awesome spot for a camping site, isn’t it?

WHAT SHOES TO PACK FOR MULITDAY TREKKING IN ICELAND?

Comfortable, well broken-into, waterproof, with good ankle support. The terrain in the Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland is extremely diverse. You’ll be walking on moss, (knee-high) grass, mud, volcanic ash, gravel, rocks, stones, snow, and volcanic rocks. The terrain is uneven almost at all times. Either you walk uphill, downhill or on lava fields which are super bumpy.

I bought Decathlon hiking boots, and can absolutely recommend them. Comparing with other brands, they are super cheap and they really did WELL on the trek. Ankle support is really good.  Water resistance is also good. I crossed some rivers wearing those shoes and they didn’t leak at all. The water was not deep, maybe up to 7-10 centimetres, but still, great job.

THE RIGHT SOCKS FOR TREKKING ICELAND – FORGET THE COTTON (UNLESS YOU WANT BLISTERS)!

Another CRUCIAL thing is having good socks. Forget anything that has cotton, seriously. Although I didn’t break my shoes into before trekking Iceland, I didn’t get any blisters because I had awesome socks. They were thick, synthetic, breathable, and quick-dry. I bought them in a Polish online shop but you can find something similar in all sports shops.

USEFUL CLOTHES AND ACCESSORIES YOU SHOULD PACK FOR TREKKING ICELAND

A hat is a must. I didn’t wear any hut during the windiest day of the trek and woke up with a horrible headache the next day.

Gloves. I didn’t pack any gloves and regretted that later. Your hands get cold the quickest and it’s not the most pleasant feeling ever.

Wading shoes for crossing rivers. The stones in the rivers can be very slippery and wearing the wading shoes you have more grip on the surface. I also used those wading shoes for walking around the camping sites to let my legs rest from the hiking boots.

Sunglasses to protect you from light reflecting on the snow and from volcanic ash and sand in windy days.

Swimming suite. Day three of the trekking was so awesome partly due to the fact that we all could just sit and relax in a hot spring. I know one girl went to the hot spring in the evening when she was alone and she enjoyed the bath being naked. But still take your swimming suit.

Gaiters. I used them twice and only during the Laugavegur trek when it got super muddy after long hours of rain. They might be also useful for the Vatnajökull trekking when it rains, however, I was lucky enough not to have rain.  In any case, better take them. They don’t weight much and can keep your trousers dry and clean for longer.

GEAR AND EQUIPMENT YOU NEED FOR BACKPACKING TREK IN ICELAND

Sleeping bag. A good, warm sleeping bag. As I’ve written above, the one I took didn’t really keep me warm. I had to wear a lot of layers on my upper body to stay warm and I also used warmers. My tent partner had a natural down sleeping bag to -15oC comfort and she could wear just underwear and still stay warm.

If you are a woman, you probably get colder quicker than an average man, so I would suggest taking a sleeping bag with comfort range of temperatures larger than you expect to experience. For example, for summer in Iceland, I would still take the -15oC sleeping bag instead of the one I had (0oC comfort).

Also, remember that the temperature you put into a sleeping bag will stay there. If you get to sleep feeling cold, you will not miraculously warm up in the sleeping bag. On the contrary, because you won’t be moving, you will get even colder. What to do about that? I did physical exercises before getting to my sleeping bag and it worked well. Run, jump, do squats and you’ll be fine.

Warmers. If you don’t have a good sleeping bag, I would suggest buying warmers. I had the most basic ones from Decathlon and they did well. The large ones last for about 10 hours, the small ones for 5 hours, but once they get warm, they nearly burn. I would put them on my hips and my butt, because these parts were always the coldest and took the longest time to warm up.

Power bank. You will not be able to charge anything during the complete trek, so remember to charge all your batteries, especially if you want to take photos, and take a power bank. Charging your phone is useless, because there is no reception anyway. Unless you want to use your phone for something else.

Hiking poles. Hiking poles saved my ass from getting wet, literally, a good few times. Many times you will have to cross rivers walking on stones. The stones sometimes move, sometimes they are slippery, and hiking poles are awesome to keep your balance and check the depth before you take the next step. Also, since there are quite a few moments when you walk steep up-or-downhill, hiking poles provide a pretty good support and can take some of the weight from your tired legs.

Tent. I had good tents on both trekkings. I can’t recall the name of the tent I had in Vatnajökull, but I had Fjord Nansen for Laugavegur. The most important parameter you should consider when choosing your tent for backpacking Iceland is water resistance and wind resistance. The tent skeleton should be aluminium, which is both strong and light.

Water bottle which you can tie to your backpack. For the Vatnajökull National Park, you don’t really need a bottle larger than 0.7 or 1 litre. Insanely clean rivers are basically every 1-2 hours so you can refill the bottles pretty often, without the need to carry all the supplies on your back. It’s a bit different for the Laugavegur trek where there are no river springs during the first two days, but I will cover that in a separate post.

Medical kit, pain killers. Well, this point is obvious, isn’t it?

Food. A LOT of food. Trek Iceland provides really awesome amount of food for this trek and as much as it might seem a lot, TAKE IT. You will absolutely need this. Backpacking on such a varying terrain makes your body burn a hell lot of calories which you need to refill quite often only not to collapse of exhaustion.

Out of interest, I was checking my Endomondo account on how many calories I would burn each day. It didn’t even know that I was carrying approximately 15 kg on my back and it still showed around 2000 burnt calories each day, which means I was actually burning even more due to backpack. It’s a lot. And you have to eat even if you don’t feel hungry, because not being hungry after so much movement means something is wrong with you and you can be in trouble.

I would recommend high-protein bars, all sorts of nuts if you’re not allergic, dried fruits, chocolate, isotonic gels, and cookies. I normally don’t eat sugar or sweets, and in Iceland I feel cookies basically saved me. Don’t bother about the weight, you will burn all of it, trust me.

Pocket knife. For cutting slices of cheese. 

Cooking utensils, such as a fork, a spoon, a bowel. Jetboil.

Thermo bottle. 0.7l. I didn’t take one and I regretted it every single day of my stay in Iceland. One of the most pleasant moments on the trekking was when we had lunch breaks or dinners and would sit down together, drink tea, and chat. My tea lasted for just one cup and it got cold pretty quickly. If I had a thermo bottle, I could have a supply of hot tea for much longer, super useful also to get warm from the inside.

Sunscreen and lip balm. I am addicted to a lip balm so that goes without question. I didn’t take a sunscreen and finished the 5-day long trek being as red as a crab. Not funny. Take your sunscreen with you, don’t make my mistakes.

Headlight. Well, better take it although I didn’t use it even once. It was getting dark good after 11 and it still wasn’t pitch dark but quite dark. And we were heading to sleep around 9pm, getting up at 6am so I didn’t really need the artificial light. On the other hand, if you can’t fall asleep when it’s not completely dark, pack an eye mask. (I didn’t because I actually enjoyed falling asleep during golden daylight).

The kick-ass vally of Núpsstaðaskógur – currently my favourite place in Iceland

PHYSICAL PREPARATION FOR A MULTIDAY BACKPACKING TREK IN ICELAND

It all depends on how fit you are right now. On my trekking tour, there was a girl who trained for 8 months. And there were two guys who are super seasoned hikers and they didn’t do any extra preparation, but I’m sure they have better condition than an average Joe. There was also another guy who was slightly dragging behind everyone else but he is a smoker and he didn’t train for this. What about me? If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’ve been leading a pretty healthy and active lifestyle since March. This gives roughly 6 months of preparation, but I would go down to 4 when I was really working hard on improving my fitness.

MENTAL PREPARATION FOR A MULTIDAY BACKPACKING TREKKING IN ICELAND

Now we’re getting to the most interesting part! Why would you even bother about preparing mentally for a multiday backpacking trekking in Iceland? I’ll tell you why. If you have not done backpacking trekking for more than 2 days in a row, there are quite a few things that might surprise you. Let’s take them one by one.

USEFUL TIPS ON MULTIDAY BACKPACKING OFF-THE-PATH TREKKING IN ICELAND

If I had known those “survival” tips on trekking Iceland before actually going to Iceland, I would have felt more comfortable and confident. Anyway, I learned those pretty quickly mostly thanks to the guide we had from Trek Iceland, Bryn. He trekked in more countries than I have actually visited and it was a really great experience to be learning from him. In this section you will find all practical information on crossing rivers, putting up a tent when it’s windy in Iceland, adjusting your backpack for longer hikes, etc. 

The content of this blog can be found here. We thank Kinga for this wonderful sharing of tips and helpful info and welcome her anytime back on a trek with us :)