Hiking in South Iceland
A Rewarding Adventure For Those Who Prepare
South Iceland offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the world for backpackers, from ice floes and glaciers to volcanic basalt columns and moss-covered volcanic highlands. However, Iceland’s unpredictable weather and often harsh terrain offers some special challenges for hikers, so it’s important to be well prepared.
Before You Leave
Food in Iceland can be expensive, so some backpackers may find it cheaper to bring in their two kilogram per person food allotment in dry goods and supplement this with local foods that keep well. Icelandic cheese, smoked salmon (lax and gravlax), smoked meats, rye pancakes (flatkökur) and skyr (a yogurt-like cultured milk product) all keep well for several days on the trail if unopened.
Iceland is notorious for its high winds, and while winter-grade tents aren’t necessary during the high tourist season from May to September, 3-season tents and sturdy stakes are a good idea. A rain fly is a must. Packing appropriate clothes for any weather condition is also important: as with wilderness camping anywhere else, layer for flexibility and avoid wearing cotton. Don’t forget a swimsuit—natural hot springs are abundant in the highlands.
Ensuring that your backpacking frame makes it safely through checked baggage may take a little effort. Internal frame packs are the easiest to check: simply make sure all loose straps are tied off and tucked away securely. External frame packs can easily lose important pieces both in flight and in the cargo spaces of Icelandic buses. Securely taping down stabilizing pins and wires will reduce the chances of losing a vital part, but be sure to bring several spare pins just in case.
After You Arrive
The capital of Reykjavík is usually the first stop for stocking up before heading into the countryside. After purchasing food, many backpackers will want to buy fuel for camp stoves. While established campsites and huts often have regular stoves for campers, wild campers will need backpacking stoves. Fuel for Primus camp stoves is readily available at outdoor stores like 66º North and Cintamani, as well as at most petrol stations, for about $10 per canister.
Most of the popular campsites and trailheads can be accessed by the excellent BSÍ bus system, although traveling long distances can cost a few hundred dollars. Schedules are available in the BSÍ bus terminal in Reykjavík. Prices vary. Many travelers to Iceland hitchhike, and it is generally considered to be relatively safe, as well as a way to reach locations off the bus routes.
Many common destinations, such as the Westman Islands and Skaftafell National Park, offer campgrounds, which cost about $7. Reservations are unnecessary. On the popular trails like the overland route from Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk, sleeping bag accommodations in “huts” can be rented. The beds fill up quickly in tourist season, so it’s wise to book several months in advance, but camping is usually allowed in an area around the huts. Wild camping is permitted in most parts of Iceland outside of national parks and private land.
Be aware of safety concerns. Hikers in the highlands will often have to ford frigid and sometimes unpredictable glacial streams. Use care and pay attention to warning signs. Do your research before you set out.
Exploring South Iceland
South Iceland houses two national parks, Thingvellir and Skaftafell. Thingvellir, a World Heritage site a few hours from Reykjavík, has hosted many important events in Icelandic history since the Althing general assembly was established in 930. Thingvellir is the only place in the world where it is possible to walk across a mid-ocean ridge. Lake Thingvallavatn hosts 52 bird species year-round, as well as about 30 occasional visitors—most visitors come to see the great northern diver (common loon).
Skaftafell, located in the southeast, is famous for its glaciers and waterfalls, particularly the dramatic Svartifoss (Black Falls), which cascades over pillars of black columnar basalt. Several local outfitters offer guided glacier climbing and backpacking tours of the area. A short bus ride away is the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón, whose dramatic floating icebergs have been scenery for movies such as Beowulf and Die Another Day. Visitors are likely to see seals fishing in the icy waters, as well as a variety of sea- and shorebirds. Jökulsárlón is worth at least a day’s visit.
Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk or the reverse along Laugavegurinnn, the “Hot Springs Route,” is one of the most popular hikes in south Iceland. The 53-kilometer hike takes a minimum of four days, and passes through the volcanic highlands to end at Landmannalaugar, a colorful, windswept campsite on the edge of a lava field, or the scenic Thórsmörk Valley.
Heimaey (“Home Island”), the only inhabited island in the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), is another popular destination, particularly in early August, when the baby puffins take flight. The island is small and can easily be hiked end-to-end in a day—no wild camping here—but there’s a lot to see, from climbing Eldfell (which last erupted in 1973, forcing the temporary evacuation of the island) to taking a boat ride around the island’s bird cliffs. The campsite here offers showers and a small kitchen.
Spur-of-the-moment backpackers can find more suggestions in the travel section of Reykjavik’s free English-language newspaper, The Grapevine, or pick up a copy of Outdoors & Travel in Iceland at one of the duty-free stores. Just be sure to check safety bulletins before setting out into the interior.
With careful planning and preparation, a hiking trip to Iceland will be a safe and memorable experience. Don’t forget spare batteries and plenty of film or memory cards for your camera.