Great Backpacking Destination: Iceland

backpacking destination
On one of Iceland’s best-known trails.

Iceland is made for backpacking. It has a wealth of trails that are supported by smart amenities and relatively easy to access. The country has embraced the backpacker, with plenty of touring groups, sports shops and hostels. Here are some other reasons why it’s a great backpacking destination.

Incredible Scenery

Icelanders realize what makes the country special: incredible scenery. Much of the land is young since it straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Some lava flows are just 20 years old. This creates some dramatic landscape unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. The scenery also changes quickly. Walk three miles, and the scenery changes completely.

backpacking destination
Trails everywhere. And lots of solitude.

High-Quality Huts

Major hiking routes have sturdy, high-quality huts ever eight miles or so. You can book reservations there, or just pitch a tent nearby (you’re not supposed to camp outside designated areas along the hiking routes). “Hut” is a bit of a misnomer since these structures actually have bathrooms and cooking facilities. Those who are tent camping can still use the bathrooms, but not the cooking gear.

backpacking destination
How’s that for a sweet hut? Amenities like this make Iceland a perfect backpacking destination.

Iceland isn’t the only backpacking destination to have incredible huts – New Zealand is also solid in this respect, as are many Scandinavian and Nordic areas.

No Dangerous Animals

I live in Arizona. Backpacking here brings the risk of rattlesnakes, scorpions and other potentially painful creepy-crawlies. We might have the Grand Canyon and very diverse scenery, but the state is just not set up to be backpacking destination. Iceland is a different story. Aside from sheep and harmless insects, the only animal you might encounter in the Icelandic back country is the Arctic fox – or possibly a Speedo-clad German taking a dip in a natural hot spring. In reality, the foxes are seldom seen and are too small to present a real threat.

Lots of Daylight During Summer

One of the challenges of backpacking can be the sudden drop in temperature when night falls. In Iceland, that’s not much of a concern. That’s because you’ll have about 22 hours of daylight. Even when the sun dips below the horizon, the sky still stays fairly light. That means no rushing to set up camp and dive into your tent and sleeping bag before the temperature turns frigid.

Solitude for Your Inner Hermit

Iceland is a decent-sized country. But it has only about 300,000 people in in it. So it’s slightly smaller than my home state, yet its population is about the size of a Phoenix suburb. That adds up to some empty space. Even at the popular Landmannalaugar hiking area, I hiked for hours at times without encountering another person. You’ll feel like you’re in some post-apocalyptic world with that sort of scenery, silence and solitude. Even areas like Dimmuborgir and the psuedocrater fields near Kirkjubaejarklaustur seem remote and rarely traveled.

Words of Warning

Though Iceland’s summer temperatures are often mild, things can change quickly. A driving rain can appear out of nowhere, with howling wind to accompany it.

The weather can do more than make you uncomfortable: It can kill you. In the mid-90s, a hiker died during a freak summer blizzard. He was just about a mile from the safety of the Hrafntinnusker Hut.

Plan ahead. Dress well. Bring the right gear. Then, you’ll be ready to have a great experience at any Iceland backpacking destination.

Adventurous Ideas to Go to Iceland

go to iceland
A hike you shouldn’t miss if you go to Iceland.

I started this blog for one reason: to give people ideas for finding the right adventure for them. My favorite days as a blogger are not when an advertiser throws some cash my way. It’s when someone writes and says something like "Hey, I got the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe using your tips."

So I was fired up to get a message from a friend who decided to go to Iceland -- and promised to mine my blog for ideas.

Rather than make my friend Katie leaf through dozens of post, I decided to compile some ideas to help her go to Iceland. These will be perfect for anyone who plans to go to Iceland. Katie did say "you probably went more rugged than I will go." Fair enough -- I think I can help Katie find the right adventure for her taste.

Katie has her plane ticket and her new hiking boots -- let’s see what we can do for her! (And be sure to check out a more recent post with even more Iceland info!)

Go to Iceland, Go Inside a Volcano

I love volcanoes, especially if they’re still spewing something. But an extinct volcano can offer something, too. Especially Thrihnukagigur volcano, which is just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik. It’s the only volcano in the world that I know that is extinct, yet has a its magma chamber fully intact. The Inside the Volcano tour takes you more than 400 feet into the depths of Thrihnukagigur.

I was in Iceland before this tour started, and I wail at my misfortune on a daily basis. This is not something any visitor to Iceland should miss.

Sign up for the Miđnæturhlaup

June 23 is the date for the MiÄ‘næturhlaup, a great race in Reykjavik with 5k, 10k and half-marathon distances. All the races start and finish at the Laugardalslaug geothermally heated pools – a perfect way to kick back after running -- and to meet locals. It’s also a good shot at glory: I love telling people that I was the first American finisher the year I ran. Of course, there were only three Americans, and my wife would’ve cooked me if we’d run the half-marathon instead of the 10k.

Since this is right in the middle of Reykjavik, it’s easy to sign up and get to the venue.

Glacier Lagoon, go to Iceland, Jokullsarlon
The Jokullsarlon, or glacier lagoon. Awesome!

Blue Waters, Ancient Ice

Just try pronouncing Jökulsárlón like an Icelander: I dare you. It translates into "glacier lagoon," and you’ll see the word "Jökull" all over the place. Anyway, the word sound cool – but seeing the Jökulsarlon in person will blow you away. Check the image, and bear in mind that it’s straight out of my camera. No photo editing or processing whatsoever. I’d also recommend the boat tour. Our guide fished a hunk of ice out of the glacier lagoon and chipped bits off for everyone to taste. We did a full day of glacier hiking combined with a visit to the glacier lagoon, which we arranged through Glacier Guides. I recommend them highly, especially if they’re still cruising around in a yellow school bus with a cute dog named Hekla.

Jökullsarlon is a haul from Reykjavik. We spent a night camping nearby at Skaftafell National Park, and a second night further west in Vik. Vik is nice, but not a must if you’re crunched for time when you go to Iceland.

landmannalaugar, go to iceland
My GPS track for a hike in Landmannalaugar.

Be a Highlander

OK, I know Katie thinks she doesn’t want to go too rugged. But I think she must get out to the highlands. I’d recommend that she takes a morning bus from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar. From there, she can do an eight-mile hike on the Laugavegur trail through some of the most unearthly scenery she’s ever seen. By the time she arrives at Hrafntinnusker Hut, she’ll have hiked past volcanic plugs, fumaroles, Technicolor rocks of all sorts, an incredible field of glossy, black obsidian boulders and the scenery used in the opening shots of the movie Prometheus. What’s really funny is when a ranger at the trailhead says "Oh, it’s really crowded today" and then you don’t see another person for the next two hours. Have a look at this post for more photos.

You can turn this into a three-day hike by pressing on toward Thorsmork, or you can return to Landmannalaugar and catch a bus to Skaftafell National Park or Kirkjubaejarklaustur (aka Klaustur, for short).

waterfall iceland
One of Iceland’s many waterfalls. But this one freezes in winter to become The Wall in the HBO series “A Game of Thrones.”

It takes a good four hours to get to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik. Much of the trip is over bumpy dirt roads that have, by early June, been open for less than week (many of the highland roads are closed during much of the year – the terrain is that rugged). But I can’t in good conscience tell anyone to go to Iceland and give this area a miss. If you don’t travel with a tent, you can book a bunk at Hrafntinnusker hut.

To the North

66°North is an Icelandic clothing brand you’ll see everywhere – at trailheads, at coffee shops, you name it. Icelanders seem to pride themselves on enduring the north, and doing themselves up in 66°North was a manifestation of that pride. But there’s north and then there’s NORTH! To get further up the globe, I recommend that Katie hops on a plane to Akureyri, and then either rents a car or takes a bus to the area near Myvatn (which means Midge Lake). There are hotels and hostels around the lake, but I’d stay on the north side near the Vogar Farm Guesthouse campground. From there, Katie would be close to the Myvatn Nature Baths (a less-touristy and less-expensive Blue Lagoon), the Dimmuborgir lava field, Hverfjall crater and other cool spots. It’s also a very serene area. Do avoid the chocolate-covered black licorice at the gas stations, though.

Something else cool: The road from Akureyri to Myvatn passes a waterfall that freezes in the winter; when it’s frozen, it stars as The Wall in the HBO series A Game of Thrones.

City Living

Reykjavik is as cool and artsy a city as Katie will find anywhere. She likes coffee shops if not coffee, and the city is loaded with them. And they are all regional – as far as I know, Iceland has kept the Starbucks invasion at bay. Katie is a reader, so she’ll love all the bookstores. It’s hard to walk a half-mile without running into one, a sign that this is a very literate society (another sign – all the beds have reading lights on both sides). Reykjavik also has a huge interest in fashion; women there cruise around in some pretty wild styles. And I saw a huge number of independent fashion businesses selling their wares for reasonable prices.

OK, so I hope this gets Katie started on her plans to go to Iceland. Next up, I’ll share some advice on gear for her trip.

Find out even more in my Quick Iceland Travel Guide.

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Hike Destinations: Landmannalaugar Versus Tongariro

hike destinations
Unearthly and unbelievable – a few miles away from Landmannalaugar in Iceland.

Bacon or chocolate? A pint of craft beer or a wedge of aged gouda? The family dog or cat?

Picking my favorite hike destination is just as hard. I can narrow it down to two:

The stretch of the Laugavegur trail (which the Best Muffin Blog calls the “oh wow” hike) that goes from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker in the remote highlands of Iceland. I once described the hike as a rip in the space-time continuum, especially in the perpetual gray of summer. The Technicolor mountains, volcanic fumaroles, lava plus and ash-dusted snow just adds to it.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If I overhear any so-called “traveler” blather about how everything worth seeing in New Zealand is in the South Island, I stop listening. Tongariro is why. From a barren, blasted volcanic hellscape to verdant rain forests, you’ll see some incredible stuff. Oh, and my ratings are for those who take the side trip up Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s just an incredible hike destination.

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The Iceland Diaries – Day 3

A valley on our way to Kirkjubaejarklaustur.

Wandering Justin’s Note: I’m woefully behind in my Iceland travel diary. No time like the present to start getting caught up!

I’m on a bus. It’s sliding backwards down a steep, muddy slope. Toward a drop-off, naturally.

I rarely think about my mortality. This is one of those times.

We slide to a stop before the precipice.

The driver drops into the lowest gear and guns the engine. And our backward slide resumes after we gain just a few feet.

Fat raindrops splatter against the bus. Droplets of mud have kicked up everywhere and obscured the view on the windows.

The driver halts are backwards descent again. If not for his nonchalance, I’d probably fetch my backpack and start walking. He produces a shovel from nowhere, Bugs Bunny-style, and gets out of the bus. I hear the shovel working against the ground. Continue reading

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.

Outdoor Adventure in Iceland

Find out about the incredible outdoor adventure you can find on the Landmannalaugar - Hrafntinnusker hike in Iceland.
Ice covered in fresh volcanic ash from the recent eruption.

On most trips, Sarah and I have allowed ourselves a few days to settle into our surroundings before an outdoor adventure. Not this time. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Iceland, we had our packs loaded again. And we were walking back to the BSI terminal to catch a bus to the centerpiece of our trip.

Outdoor Adventure
On top of the lava flow, less than a half-mile into the hike.

The roads to the Landmannalaugar region had just opened when we arrived. They were finally free of snow and mud – at least enough to allow buses to get through. And when I say "roads," for much of the trip that means dirt roads. Narrow dirt roads.

We quickly left Reykjavik behind – Sarah and I were already starving since we had to leave our guesthouse too early for breakfast (this caused a bit of consternation – they told us that they’d be willing to pack sandwiches for us next time -- very nice of them!).

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Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.
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Iceland for the Photographer – Tips and Locations

A glacier lagoon filled with icebergs.

Iceland for the Photographer
If you like traveling and taking photos, put Iceland high on your list of destinations. From people to landscapes, you’ll find plenty of amazing sights to aim your lenses at.
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