Iceland is a raw beauty. It is the country with the lowest population density in Europe, and you can go many kilometers without seeing a single house (although there are a lot of sheep), and large parts of Iceland remain untouched by humans. You will not see many places like this strange island in the North Atlantic on this earth, and in fact, a lot of the landscapes make you think you accidentally travelled to the moon. Furthermore, it is a very diverse place; two continental places meet, and volcanoes are next to glaciers, and next to green meadows lie black beaches overshadowed by high mountains. The land of ice and fire is hard to grasp until you’ve been there, and after only a week there, I still feel I’ve not nearly seen enough of it.
I admit that I’ve caught up with the trend relatively late – Iceland is currently experiencing a huge surge in tourism, in part due to decreasing flight prices, and I’ve somehow just managed to travel in this period. In fact, I was a bit surprised by the number of tourists I encountered in Iceland and how ‘busy’ the roads were (by no means close to traffic in other countries but still much more than I expected). Although flights are probably the only cheap thing you will encounter during your Iceland travels, the scenery will definitely make up for it. It’s truly out of this world – it is not for nothing that NASA held their Apollo Astronaut Training in the highlands of Iceland in the 1960s.
For maximal freedom and to save a bit of money, I opted for exploring Iceland in a camper van by Happy Campers, and indeed, me and my friend were happy campers. The car provided us with everything we needed – a gas cooker, fridge, pots & camping dishes/cutlery, a water tank & sink, wifi, a bed/sofa, pillows, and a heating system independent from the main battery and in part powered by a solar panel on the roof. With this being my first camping holiday, I was glad to have all this camping ‘luxury’; the only thing we were lacking were toilets and a shower.
Iceland recently introduced new camping laws, so we were not quite as free as we hoped. It used to have the “freedom to roam”, similar to Norway and Scotland, where you can camp anywhere unless the land is private property, but this no longer applies – possibly because of the huge influx of tourists these days. I assume a few people did not clean up after themselves, and in addition, if it is mandatory to stay in campsites, more money can be made from tourism. I agree that both these things are valid reasons, but it is a bit of a shame – I would have preferred waking up surrounded by nothing but nature instead of the chattering of other campsite guests, but in the end, we didn’t mind so much as it was nice to have a sheltered place with a toilet, the possibility to shower and warm water to do the dishes in the evenings.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
By no means I know too much about Icelandic culture and background, but it is certainly a very interesting country. What struck me first was an obvious difference to other Scandinavian countries: the houses are not pretty colourful wood huts, they look (on average) rather run-down. This is potentially due to the harsh weather and frequent storms that make upkeep a costly thing, but nonetheless this saddened me a bit. However, Iceland was not a very rich country until recently, where they are doing much better. New modern houses have appeared on the island, which will certainly continue to be built in the future.
Iceland is in many ways a country to look up to – it is rated first on the Global Peace Index with no standing army. Most houses are left unlocked, because Iceland is one of the countries with the lowest crime rates. Iceland jailed their corrupt bankers after the financial crash in 2008 (what many countries fail to do), and it runs almost completely on renewable energy due to its geothermal power sources. This is the reason some of the water in the capital and other towns smells of sulfur, but it is nowhere near as bad as I imagined after reading up on it, and it is a small price to pay for using ‘clean’ energy.
Based on some previous research, we decided not to go for the full golden circle since we only had 6 days. Most guides and blogs will tell you that you need at least 10 days. In retrospect, we could have managed to do the whole island – we had quite a lot of time on our hands each day due to an early rise (7am on average). On the other hand, it was useful to have some ‘free’ time to explore and stop whenever we wanted. If you go to Iceland, you will stop a lot, as the views just completely knock you off your feet.
We decided to visit Snæfellsnes Peninsula and set up camp there for the first night, to visit the famous Kirkjufell, and explore some other sights while there. After that, our planned route took us to the south of Iceland – to visit the black beach, the glacier lagoon and many more places. We drove via Vik to Hofn (and all the way back to Reykjavik via Geysir) along Route 1. I was surprised in what good condition this road was – it reminded me rather of an American Highway than what I expected from a road in Iceland. The roads are also mostly straight and you can drive them with ease. At times, it might even get boring because it is so easy to drive – luckily, the picturesque and otherworldly scenery will keep you wide awake.
We also visited the Highlands of Iceland, namely Landmannalaugar, on the interior. As our van did not have a 4 wheel drive, we had to take a bus from Hella there, but it would not have been fun to drive that road (20 km/h mostly because of really bad potholes and several river crossings). The view in Landmannalaugar was so beautiful I was glad we decided to do this tour.
The last stop on our road trip was in Reykjavik. Iceland’s capital is cosy but not great for camping in a van – the nearest campsite where campers are allowed is outside, so we had to book a last minute airbnb to spend a night in the city. It is very interesting, with many cafes, bars and a lot of street art. Overall, a day in Rekjavik probably sufficed us – it’s not a very big city and there’s not too much to see!
The campsites… well, some were better than others. I have highlighted the ones we stayed at and left a short review for each of them. A definitive recommendation are Selfoss and Hofn, and a place I cannot recommend is Grundarfjordur – although the views are nice (but everything else is not so much).
You will need to pay, on average, around 1250-1500 kr / person per night, and usually, showers cost extra (between 50-400 kr for 2-4 minutes).
SOME TIPS & TRICKS.
- Travel towel. Just get it, and thank me later.
- No need to take out cash. you can pay almost everywhere by card.
- Get a car inverter. Charge your phone and other devices while driving – sockets are rare at campsites.
- Take hitchhikers with you. Especially in the summer season, there are some hitchhikers on the way. We took one with us from Hofn to Skaftafell and he told us he tried for a few hours and no-one stopped. Considering the many cars that are on the ring road, this is a shame and I’m sure most people still have space in the car. Plus, you get to know interesting people – do a little good on your holidays!
- Clean up after yourself. We have to do everything to protect this beautiful nature, otherwise it won’t last.
- Plan your meals. This especially applies when camping. I loved being able to cook anywhere I wanted with our gas stove! Although I found the supermarkets to be more frequent than other guides recommended, it is good to have a plan what you are going to eat when and not let anything go to waste / not have enough. In addition, food in Iceland is more expensive than you might be used to. The cheapest option to buy groceries is Bonus, but netto is also great.
- If you want to have a campsite beer in the evening, stock up at the airport. This will be the cheapest place – plus, you can’t buy beer in supermarkets, only in a special shop called Vinbudin with strange opening hours.
- Get out in nature. The only way to truly experience Iceland’s raw beauty is to breathe its fresh air and be surrounded by nothing but nature.
- Get up early. You will get the most out of the day and avoid large crowds, at least in the morning hours.
- Swim in the natural hot springs. I doesn’t always have to be the Blue lagoon! Most of the natural springs are free as far as I know. We visited the one in Landmannalaugar and it was magical. Beware – they charge you if you want to have a shower afterwards (it’s 500 kr for use of the ‘facilities’ = toilets, and then another 500 kr for a warm shower…). A bit cheeky in my opinion.
- Go and see Icelandic horses. I wouldn’t really call myself a particular horse fan but I loved the icelandic horses and did a little riding tour – they are very calm and despite having never been on a horse in my life, I immediately felt safe and connected with the horse. I only wish I could’ve done more horseback riding while I was in Iceland!
- Be respectful. This should be an everyday rule anyway, but be particularly respectful to nature (don’t throw rocks at seals or kick the horses constantly while riding them – sadly all things I had to see), don’t trash the toilets, and be respectful to other guests at campsites and sights.
- Prepare for the weather. Icelandic weather is very temperamental, with sun, wind and heavy rain changing all the time. It also depends on the time of year you are going at – for example, in August, the average temperature is between 9-13 degrees celsius, so you might not need winter clothes all the time. And don’t forget swimwear for the hot springs!
and please DONT:
- Annoy other people, e.g. by climing onto sights (especially the Solheimasandur plane wrecks) when there are clearly many people trying to get pictures of it. The worst I’ve seen was a girl climbing on, having pictures taken for 3 minutes, struggled to get off only to climb up again shortly after because apparently the pictures weren’t instagrammable enough. If you really do want pictures with these sights, go early in order to avoid annoying too many people.
- Throw trash out of the car window. It’s sad that this has to even be mentioned, but I saw it a few times and it was really infuriating for me.
- Drive like an idiot. Just because the roads are emptier, this doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen.
- Endanger yourself just for a selfie. Iceland is as dangerous as it is beautiful – take care.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I’m happy to help 🙂