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Hiking in Iceland

Iceland, a Nordic island nation, is a haven for hikers around the world. Its diverse landscapes of volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs, and waterfalls create a unique hiking experience that combines the elements of fire and ice in a mesmerizing dance.

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This article will guide you through everything you need to know about hiking in Iceland, from the best trails and preparation tips to safety and accommodation.

The Allure of Icelandic Landscapes

The Icelandic landscapes offer a plethora of visual delights and challenges that attract adventurers. The contrasting scenes of black volcanic fields next to the shimmering ice caps are not just breathtaking but also provide a unique terrain for hiking enthusiasts.

Best Time to Hike in Iceland

The prime hiking season in Iceland is during the summer (June to August) when the weather is milder and trails are more accessible. However, be prepared for crowds during this period. Shoulder seasons (May and September) offer fewer crowds and can still have pleasant weather.

Types of Hikes

  • Day Hikes: Abundant throughout Iceland, with varying difficulty levels. Popular ones include Glymur Waterfall, Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck, and trails within national parks.
  • Multi-Day Treks: Offer deeper immersion in Iceland’s backcountry. The Laugavegur Trail and Fimmvörðuháls are the most popular multi-day options.

Preparing for Your Hiking Adventure

Essential Gear for Hiking in Iceland

To enjoy the rugged beauty of Iceland’s trails, you must be well-prepared. This section covers the essential gear, including clothing suitable for Iceland’s unpredictable weather, navigation tools to keep you on track, and safety equipment for emergency situations.

  • Clothing: Layering is key in Iceland. You’ll need waterproof and windproof jackets and pants, thermal layers, and sturdy hiking boots.
  • Navigation Tools: A reliable GPS device, a compass, and physical maps of the area are essential, given the remote nature of many Icelandic trails.
  • Safety Equipment: Always carry a first-aid kit, a whistle for emergencies, and know the location of the nearest rescue services.

Physical and Mental Preparation

Hiking in Iceland can be challenging. This section discusses the importance of physical conditioning and mental preparation to tackle the trails confidently.

Must-Visit Hiking Trails in Iceland

The Laugavegur Trail

Explore the Laugavegur Trail, Iceland’s most famous hiking route, which takes you through some of the country’s most stunning landscapes, including hot springs, mountains, and glaciers.

The Route:

The Laugavegur Trail stretches approximately 55 kilometers (34 miles) through Iceland’s southern highlands. It typically takes 4-6 days to complete.

  • Starting Point: Landmannalaugar, a geothermal wonderland of colorful mountains and natural hot springs.
  • Ending Point: Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), a lush valley nestled between three glaciers.
Iconic Landscapes

The Laugavegur Trail will take you through mind-blowing landscapes:

  • Rhyolite Mountains: Rainbow-hued mountains formed by geothermal activity, a signature of Landmannalaugar.
  • Obsidian Desert: Hrafntinnusker, a stark, black obsidian field with potential snow patches lingering even in the summer.
  • Glaciers: Views of the mighty Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers.
  • Black Sand Deserts: Crossing the Mælifellssandur desert offers a sense of otherworldly desolation.
  • Emerald Valleys: The trail ends in the surprisingly green Þórsmörk valley.
Logistics
  • Hut Accommodations: Basic huts are located along the route, providing shelter and simple meals (book in advance).
  • Guided Tours: Several companies offer guided Laugavegur hikes, taking care of logistics and potentially offering more comfort.
  • Season: The trail is only open from late June to mid-September due to harsh winter conditions.
Why is the Laugavegur Trail Famous?
  • Incredible Diversity: In just a few days, you experience a stunning array of Icelandic landscapes.
  • Accessibility: While challenging, it’s manageable for hikers with moderate experience.
  • National Geographic Recognition: Designated one of the world’s best hikes.

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Fimmvörðuháls Pass

This challenging hike offers breathtaking views of waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanic landscapes. It’s a must-do for experienced hikers seeking an adrenaline rush. Let’s dive into what makes it so special:

The Trail:
  • Location: Situated between Skógar (home to the majestic Skógafoss waterfall) and Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) in southern Iceland.
  • Distance: Approximately 22-25 kilometers (14-16 miles), depending on your exact route.
  • Elevation Gain: Significant elevation gain of around 1,000 meters (3,280 feet).
  • Terrain: Varied and challenging, including steep ascents, river crossings, and potentially snowfields even in summer.
Stunning Scenery:
  • Waterfalls: The trail takes you past numerous cascading waterfalls, offering stunning photo opportunities.
  • Volcanic Landscapes: Hike through a land shaped by fire, with lava fields, craters (including the newer Magni and Móði craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption), and steaming volcanic vents.
  • Glacier Views: Witness stunning views of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers.
Logistics
  • One-Day or Two-Day Hike: Can be done as a very long day hike or split into two days with an overnight at the Baldvinsskáli hut.
  • Transportation: The Fimmvörðuháls hike is a point-to-point trail, so you’ll need to arrange transportation back to your starting point. 4×4 buses are available for this purpose.
Important Considerations
  • Experience Level: Best suited for experienced hikers with good fitness levels due to its length and challenging terrain.
  • Weather: Be prepared for Iceland’s unpredictable weather (rain, wind, cold) and pack accordingly.
  • Gear: Sturdy hiking boots, waterproof/windproof clothing, layers, and potentially crampons for snowfields are essential.
Why Hike Fimmvörðuháls Pass
  • Adrenaline and Challenge: A true test of physical endurance with rewarding views.
  • Iconic Icelandic Landscapes: Experience the raw beauty of Iceland’s waterfalls, volcanoes, and glaciers up close.
  • Bragging Rights: Completing this hike is a badge of honor among outdoors enthusiasts.

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

For those seeking solitude and unspoiled nature, the trails in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve are the perfect choice. This remote area in the Westfjords is only accessible by boat and offers unparalleled beauty and wildlife sightings. Here’s a look into why this remote corner of Iceland is so special:

Untouched Wilderness:
    • Isolation: Hornstrandir’s remoteness and limited accessibility have kept it pristine. You’ll often find yourself with no other hikers in sight.
    • Abandoned Settlements: Remnants of old farms and settlements dot the landscape, adding a historical touch to the wilderness experience.
    • Wildlife: Hornstrandir is famous for its Arctic fox population. You might also spot seals, whales, and a variety of birdlife.
The Hiking Experience
  • Challenging Trails: No established trails exist in Hornstrandir. Hiking here is more of an adventure, requiring navigation skills and a sense of exploration.
  • Terrain: Expect rugged coastal paths, mountain passes, river crossings, and potentially snow-covered areas.
  • Coastal Beauty: Hike past dramatic cliffs, secluded coves, and beaches untouched by crowds.
Logistics
  • Boat Access: Ferries to Hornstrandir operate from Ísafjörður in the Westfjords during summer months (June to August).
  • Camping: Wild camping is the norm in Hornstrandir. Pack all your essentials for a multi-day trek.
  • Guided Tours: A few companies offer guided trips in Hornstrandir for those who prefer more support.
Why Hike Hornstrandir
  • True Escape: If you want to get away from it all and experience raw Icelandic nature, Hornstrandir is the place.
  • Wildlife encounters: chances of spotting Arctic foxes and other creatures are high.
  • Sense of Exploration: This is hiking for those who love the challenge of navigating wild landscapes.

Important Note: Hornstrandir is for experienced hikers with good self-sufficiency skills. Careful planning and preparation are crucial for a safe and enjoyable trip.

Hiking in Iceland’s Unique Terrain

Volcanic Landscapes

Hiking through Iceland’s volcanic landscapes offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This section explores the unique features of volcanic trails and the mesmerizing beauty of lava fields and craters.

Glacial Terrains

Iceland’s glaciers offer another world of hiking experiences. Learn about the challenges and rewards of trekking across glacial terrains and the importance of having a guide for these adventures.

Waterfall Trails

Iceland is famed for its waterfalls, and many hiking trails offer the chance to see these natural wonders up close. Discover the most scenic waterfall hikes and what makes them special.

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Good to Know

Country
Iceland
Visa Requirements
Visa in not needed for EU. Everyone else needs a visa.
Languages spoken
Icelandic
Currency used
Area (km2)
102,775[3] km2

Safety and Regulations While Hiking in Iceland

Understanding the Weather

Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable, with sudden changes that can impact your hike. This section provides tips on how to stay safe by understanding and preparing for Iceland’s weather conditions.

Iceland’s Weather: The Unpredictable Factor

  • Rapid Changes: Sunny skies can quickly turn to rain, wind, or even snow – and back again – all within the same day.
  • The Wind Factor: Iceland is windy! Strong gusts can add a significant chill factor and make walking difficult, especially on exposed ridges.
  • Regional Variation: Weather can vary greatly even within short distances. What’s calm in one area could be stormy just over the mountain.

How to Prepare

  1. Check the Forecast: Consult the Icelandic Meteorological Office (https://en.vedur.is/) for the most updated forecasts. Pay attention to wind speed and direction, too.
  2. Pack for Everything: Layers are your best friend. Include:
    • Waterproof and windproof outer layers (jacket and pants)
    • Warm base layers (wool or synthetic)
    • Hat, gloves, and a buff for changing conditions
    • Extra warm socks to switch into if yours get wet
  3. Be Flexible: Have backup plans. If the weather looks dangerous for your main hike, consider shorter and more sheltered routes. Don’t be afraid to change plans if conditions turn unexpectedly.
  4. Know Your Limits: Don’t overestimate your abilities. If you feel unsure, err on the side of caution. Hiking in challenging conditions requires experience.
Respecting the Environment

As you explore Iceland’s natural beauty, it’s crucial to follow Leave No Trace principles to protect the environment. Learn about the regulations and best practices for hiking responsibly in Iceland.

Core Leave No Trace Principles

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Research trails, weather, regulations, and your own experience level. Pack the right gear to minimize your impact.
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stick to marked trails to avoid damaging vegetation. Camp only in designated areas (wild camping is mostly prohibited in Iceland).
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack out everything you brought in, including food scraps and litter. If toilets are not available, follow proper disposal guidelines for human waste.
  4. Leave What You Find: Don’t disturb natural objects like rocks, plants, or historical artifacts. Admire, but don’t take them with you.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Wildfires are a rare but potential risk in Iceland. Build fires only where permitted and be sure they are thoroughly extinguished before leaving.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe animals from a distance. Don’t feed, chase, or disturb them.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Share the trails, keep noise levels down, and practice good trail etiquette.

Iceland-Specific Regulations and Considerations

  • Off-Roading is Prohibited: Driving off designated roads damages sensitive ecosystems and is strictly illegal.
  • Drones: Be aware of drone regulations in specific areas and always avoid flying near wildlife or other hikers.
  • Fragile Vegetation: Iceland’s moss and other vegetation are slow-growing and very easily damaged. Stay on trails!
  • Geothermal Areas: Stick to boardwalks and paths. Boiling mud can cause severe burns, and the ground may be unstable.

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Accommodation and Logistics

Camping in the Wild

For the adventurous, camping in the wild offers a unique way to experience Iceland’s natural beauty. Find out about the rules, best practices, and tips for camping in Iceland’s wilderness areas.

Restrictions on Wild Camping:

  • Generally Prohibited: Wild camping (outside designated campsites) is largely prohibited, especially in populated areas, national parks, and on cultivated land. This is to protect Iceland’s fragile environment and manage the impact of tourism.
  • Tents Only: Even where allowed, wild camping is restricted to traditional tents for a single night and away from settlements. Camping in campervans, motorhomes, or similar vehicles is only allowed in designated campsites.
  • Landowner Permission: In some very limited cases, you may camp on uncultivated, privately-owned land if you obtain specific permission from the landowner. This can be difficult to arrange.

Where Can You Wild Camp (with Restrictions)?

  • Uncultivated Land: You may generally pitch a tent for one night on uncultivated land away from settlements if there is no campsite in the immediate vicinity, and provided you don’t cause damage.
  • Hiking Trails: When hiking long distances, you may be able to camp for a night or two away from campsites if necessary. This depends on specific locations.

Best Practices for Wild Camping (When Allowed):

  • Leave No Trace: Apply all Leave No Trace principles meticulously (see previous section).
  • Minimize Impact: Camp on durable surfaces, choose a discreet spot, and leave the area pristine.
  • Be Respectful: Avoid camping near private residences, and don’t make excessive noise.
  • Pack it Out: Take all waste with you, including food scraps and human waste if no toilet facilities are available.

Tips:

  • Research Thoroughly: Before setting out, investigate specific regulations for the area you intend to hike in to ensure wild camping is permissible.
  • Campsite Locator: Use websites or apps to find designated campsites along your route. This often provides a safer and more comfortable alternative to wild camping.
Local Accommodations

Iceland has a surprisingly diverse range of accommodation options catering to hikers and travelers of all preferences. Here’s a breakdown of the main types and how to find them:

Types of Accommodation

  • Mountain Huts: Basic but cozy huts operated by the Icelandic Touring Association located along popular trails like Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls. Offer bunks in shared dormitories, simple meals, and essential facilities.
    • Booking: Often necessary well in advance, especially during peak season. Book through the Ferðafélag Íslands website ()
  • Campgrounds: Iceland has numerous campsites, typically offering tent sites, some with facilities for campervans, plus showers, cooking areas, and other amenities. Ideal if you’re traveling with your own tent.
  • Guesthouses: Small, family-run establishments offering comfortable rooms and often a home-cooked breakfast. A great option for those desiring a bit more comfort and local interaction.
  • Farmstays: Experience authentic Icelandic life by staying on a working farm. Many offer cozy accommodation and a connection with local culture.
  • Hostels: Budget-friendly options, often with shared dormitories and common areas. Great for meeting fellow travelers.
    • Booking Sites: Booking.com, Hostelworld, etc.
  • Hotels: Iceland offers a range of hotels, from basic to luxury, especially in popular areas like Reykjavik or near the Golden Circle.
    • Booking Sites: Booking.com, Expedia, etc.

Tips for Finding Accommodation

  • Book Early: Especially during peak season (summer), popular accommodations fill up quickly. Plan and book well in advance.
  • Location Matters: Consider the location of your hikes when choosing where to stay. Staying near trailheads saves on transport time.
  • Check Amenities: Consider what’s essential for you – private bathrooms, meals, WiFi, laundry, etc.
  • Use a Combination: You might mix accommodation types for varied experiences. A mountain hut for a night on the trail, and a cozy guesthouse for a rest day in a village.

Hiking in Iceland

Connecting with Nature and Local Culture

Hiking in Iceland is not just about the physical journey; it’s also an opportunity to connect with nature and the local culture. Discover how hiking can offer insights into Iceland’s history, traditions, and way of life.

The Impact of Hiking on Personal Growth

Beyond the physical benefits, hiking in Iceland can have a profound impact on personal growth, offering lessons in resilience, patience, and the power of nature to inspire and heal.

Conclusion: Why Iceland Should Be Your Next Hiking Destination

Iceland offers an unparalleled hiking experience that combines the dramatic beauty of fire and ice with the thrill of exploring some of the world’s most unique landscapes. Whether you’re seeking solitude, adventure, or a deep connection with nature, hiking in Iceland provides an opportunity to challenge yourself and discover the transformative power of the great outdoors.

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