Family Camper vacation in Iceland
8 Days, Two Kids, & A Camper van on the Ring Road of Iceland
“You’re doing what? You’re driving a camper van around Iceland for eight days with kids? Your kids?”
This was the common refrain we heard from our friends after I booked a camper van from Rent.is for a trip around the Ring road of Iceland. To be fair, our friends know our children well. Our two boys are 12 and 9 years old, and on the wild side. Picture two shaggy hockey players that never sit still and never stop wrestling with each other, and then add in some dirt and insatiable appetites. Our Ring road journey really began thirteen years ago this week when I married my best friend and travel partner. After years of traveling the world together, we’ve realized some things about one another. To summarize, my husband can sleep anywhere, eat anything, and never complains. On the other hand, my entire trip will go to hell if I don’t have a quiet place to sleep at night away from crowds. In addition, I need an endless supply of safe snacks in case the food choices get too adventurous. With good sleep and food, I can go anywhere. Fortunately, so can my little guys.
I was surprised to find little information about taking kids to Iceland, so I decided to record our experiences. First things first, though: “myth busting.”
First myth–It’s difficult to get there. The nonstop from Dulles was 5.5 h ours and inexpensive. Within several hours of the airport are some of the most beautiful sites in the world (we thought that Iceland was New Zealand, Ireland, Glacier National Park, Olympic National Park, and Jackson Hole all combined into one place). If you live on the East Coast of the United States, you could easily take a long weekend for a short trip to Iceland (though we would prefer to have 2-3 weeks there when we return).
Second myth–It’s too expensive. Hotels are easily the same prices as New York City and San Francisco, and food is just a little more than eating at Disney World, which admittedly is expensive. However, if you rent a camper van and use the local grocery stores, you can travel very reasonably. Cook your own dinners, eat the plentiful hot dogs for lunch, and save up a little money for some whale-watching and a few memorable restaurant meals of lamb and langoustines.
Before you Go.
When we travel with kids, we have some basic rules that have helped us survive many international journeys:
- Good sleep almost every night
- Feed everyone regularly.
- Pick activities for the kids.
- Pick activities for the adults.
Planning Your Lodging and Travel:
Rent the perfect camper van EARLY in y our planning process. It was quite easy to find camper vans that hold 2 people but much more difficult to find the larger camper vans that hold a family without upgrading to
a regular RV (recreational vehicle). We began looking for a van about four months before we went to Iceland and found very few to choose from that were large enough for 4-5 people. Working with Rent.is was very easy–you can compare the different vans on their website and they answered all of our emailed questions almost immediately (even late at night!)
When choosing the van, I went with a 5-person van, the Renault Master 5 .The larger van provided a larger lower bunk (great for the parents) and an extra seat in the van. One warning, there are three front seats and two in the rear. The back seats are rear-facing and only have one window. If family members have motion sickness, the California Camper Van (a Volkswagen) offers a lot more windows but less sleeping room for the adults.
When touring around, we had one of our kids in the middle seat up front for better views, and rotated one to the back at each stop.. There appear to be no laws that prohibit certain ages from riding in the front seat. Fortunately our kids are no longer in car seats or boosters.
Our van came with everything that one would need, including cooking supplies, two gas/butane stoves, 5 chairs, two nice tables (one for inside the van and one for outside) and some storage, along with a sink with a good amount of fresh water storage. We were at peak time in August, but still the van offered significant savings over sleeping in a hotel room every night and eating in restaurants. Our van was also equipped with a heater (yeah, you want one), a small fridge, nice sleeping bags and surprisingly comfortable foam mattresses. We did bring a lightweight tent in case the kids wanted to camp out for a night, but that was never used. We brought a 12×12 rain cover/ tarp from REI, and some collapsible poles in one of our checked bags. This was worth its weight in gold. The extra expense and weight in our luggage was w ell worth it to have a covered outdoor living area on the drizzle days and the reliable heavy dew that occurs in the evenings.
Our van also had room for all four of us to eat at a table inside the van in case of bad weather. While we were pretty lucky weather-wise, there were a few days of rain, and one day of seriously unbelievable wind. We definitely appreciated having several different eating areas.
After booking the van, I chose flights from the East Coast. Although the red-eye flights are the least expensive, the short flying time doesn’t allow for much sleep for anyone. We flew out of DC, a short drive from our house. Icelandair was great, with wonderful inflight entertainment. For the exotic allure of Iceland and most people believing it is a country being somewhere near the moon, it is a surprisingly short and easy flight. Be sure to watch the great Icelandair info videos on things to do and see. They are narrated by Icelandic goddesses. They are all pretty informative, and if nothing else, “Elfis” provides tips on driving in Iceland. Two rules you will learn: Don’t hit sheep…they are indeed everywhere, and watch your speed on the gravel.
In the hopes of starting the trip out well-rested, we chose to arrive late at night and to pay for a hotel in Keflavik. Hotel Keilir was one of the few hotels that I found that offered a “family” room, which had four single beds. Most other hotels would have required booking two rooms to house our family, which was simply too expensive.
Packing and going:
So, what do you want to bring? Bring multiple water-resistant, warm layers and good gore-tex, waterproof shoes or hiking boots. In August, the high temperatures were in the mid-fifties and the lows were in the forties. Other important items included head lamps/torches, rain gear, flip-flops for the showers and geothermal areas and warm jackets for sitting outside at night. If you are a light sleeper, eye masks are a must. My husband and children had zero problems sleeping and never used them. I certainly did.
Lightweight easy/fast drying travel towels (large size) are a great for showers and the hot springs. I had one large one for each person. Importantly, the towels (along with a roll of duct tape) can also be used to cover windows to keep out ambient light while you’re sleeping.
With four people in a van for eight days, organization was a must. In the hopes of keeping the van organized, we used different colored packing cubes for each family member ( there is limited storage in the vans other than keeping everything in your bags). Once we got to the van, we stored our large duffels under the bunks and would just pull out the appropriate cube for each child/adult when needed. They worked incredibly well, and avoided the mess of pulling huge roller bags out and digging through them. If you have a “gear hammock” or a net that you can suspend from the van roof, bring it along. We didn’t have a gear hammock, so we fashioned one out of100 feet of paracord. The extra space was invaluable.
Finally, a word about planning for cooking in the van. Rent.is provided everything that we absolutely needed. They had a very nice cook stove that ran off butane, and another small canister stove that ran off butane/propane canisters. There was a new canister of each in the cooking bin. Extra fuel is available at almost any gas station or camp stop but wasn’t cheap. There were plates, stainless forks, spoons, knives, cutting boards, scrubbers, whisks, spatulas, and serving spoons. I would say if you do a lot of cooking, bring one or two of your favorite knifes. My husband is particular and it was really nice to have a decent chef knife along, though the knives in the kit worked very well. Insulated coffee cups from home were helpful for coffee, soup, oatmeal, and l ate night beverages. The final thing to consider would be a small cooler. The refrigerator in the van can hold a tiny amount of milk and yogurt, and a cooler would be a great addition to hold eggs, beer, cheese, etc. We were unable to find a cooler during our travels so we substituted a plastic bin with a lid, and just added a bag of ice each day. .
Day 1—Hotel night in Keflavik
Plan ahead for day 1. If your flight lands late (and many do, judging by the airport that was absolutely bursting at midnight when we landed), you will need a hotel room before you get to your van. Rent.is will pick you up the next morning from your hotel and drive you to the rental office where you get to meet your home for the trip (editor’s note: Pickup and drop-off service has ceased). Our nonstop flight from Dulles arrived at Keflavik at 11:40pm local time (7:40pm our time). Knowing that many things were closed outside of the airport, we had our first hot dogs (an Iceland staple) before even getting to baggage claim. With dinner complete, we were fortified for a trip into Duty-Free for some supplies. Alcohol is significantly cheaper in Duty-free than on the road, so we grabbed some wine and some Baileys for our hot chocolate. We’ve never been impressed with Duty Free in the past, but it is imperative to use before you leave the airport if you want any alcohol during your trip. Decent Icelandic vodka or the things like the local spirit Brennivin in the airport is $25 a liter. Buying the same bottle in one of the Vinbúðin stores on the road will set you back $60 or more. Wine is roughly double outside the airport. No other foods need to be bought in duty-free unless you want specific snacks or treats that you might not find in the many Icelandic grocery stores.
A taxi to the hotel was a necessary expense after the long travel day…$45. Taxis are easily obtained from the taxi line just to the left once you exit the airport. THERE IS NO UBER IN ICELAND. It was a quick drive to the hotel. Luckily, once we arrived at the hotel, everyone put on their eyeshades, slept through the hotel’s breakfast, and were ready to go in the late morning.
Day 2—Camping at Þingvellir National Park
After a quick breakfast in the room, the Rent.is SUV picked us up and returned us to the airport car rental area to pick up the camper van. They were very nice and efficient. They ran through the operations of the van and its amenities including the free unlimited wireless.
After this short but helpful orientation, we headed to the Bónus store, where we bought supplies for the week (sliced meat, milk, cereal, yogurts, noodles, pesto, ramen, tortillas, bananas, avocados, beans, orange juice, fruit, and snacks). A side note, we were under the impression from several tourist books that most stores in Iceland had very limited hours, but we never had an issue with stores being closed since we usually traveled during daytime/evening hours.
We had 3pm reservations at the Blue Lagoon, which had been booked online several months in advance (book well ahead). Kids that are ages 12 and under are admitted free with their parents, which makes this unforgettable experience reasonably affordable for a family. Although the Blue Lagoon sees a lot of tourists, it never felt overcrowded, was professionally done, and the kids just loved it. Questioning which package to get? Comfort gives you towels…go for it. We had no reason to need a bathrobe anywhere. I can imagine on really cold, windy days, it might be necessary but it is a pretty short walk between the locker room and the warm water.
After several hours at the Lagoon, we were clean and showered, and drove to our first stop, Þingvellir. Despite being less than an hour from the airport, it felt like the national park that it is and was a gorgeous and quiet place to camp for the night. The quietest campsites are in the field across from the information center (go far left for the most privacy). There was plenty of room for the kids to play Frisbee and soccer.
Day 3 –Camping at Þakgil
Our third day came early at 4am when our 12yo fell out of the top bunk. Although there is a side rail on one end of the top bunk, the combination of two restless boys and slippery sleeping bags were too much for our son who had slept backwards on the bed. No injuries reported, and we even made it back to bed for a few more hours. They flipped ends thereafter and no further gravity assisted unexpected bed exits occurred. We had an extremely long day that day as we did the entire Golden Circle (Þingvellir, the geyser in Haukardalur and Gullfoss). While a long day, it is easily doable.
If you want to explore Þingvellir around the lake or spend extra time at Gullfoss, then it might be a two-day event.
Overnight was at a beautiful and REMOTE campground called Þakgil outside of Vik. The drive begins five kilometers east of Vik and then is over 15 km north into the mountains. The dirt road had to be taken very slowly and carefully with the van, and the steep curves might not appeal to nervous drivers. However, the end canyon and cave was well worth the drive. It was another quiet and gorgeous night of stories, soccer and dinner.
Day 4 —Camping at Skaftafell
The morning started with the scenic drive back to Vik, where we hiked on the black sand beach with incredible views and beautiful weather. We did the steep hike to top the bluff at west end of town with gorgeous views of bird-covered cliffs and the glacier in the distance. Literally, we drove to the top of the town, and found three other cars. A great quick lunch hike with well-marked switchbacks.
After a stop for ice, we drove to Fjaðrárgljúfur and hiked up the canyon. A short drive brought us to Skaftafell National Park.
There is only one campground in the park, but after driving to the far west end of the campground, we had few neighbors and a beautiful view, but a long walk to the bathroom. As a light sleeper, I’m fine with that sacrifice. Third and final hike of the day was to Svartifoss Falls. This brought some protests from the youngsters but was well worth it. (though if you want the best photos, get up there in the morning)
Day 5– Camping at Höfn
With the eyeshades and window covers, we slept late again. On the day prior, we signed up for a glacier walk at 11:30 with Iceland Mountain Guides. I would recommend booking well in advance, since we only got our tour after another family cancelled. There are three companies in main visitor area and all seem to be very organized. The kids were thrilled to learn how to use crampons and ice axes for the first time and our guide, Ian, was brilliant in keeping our wild children from falling in any crevasses. This was not inexpensive but the glacier walk was a true highlight. Round trip was around 3 hours and was filled with scientific information including about glacier formation.
After some snacks, we visited the glacier and ice creations at Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón Beach. Kids loved seeing seals swimming among the icebergs and we also took the opportunity to gather some ice for our “cooler box” (Free ice…lots of it). This place is unbelievable beautiful. It can be surprisingly crowded and we did encounter a traffic snarl getting across the bridge but it should not be missed.
As a treat for surviving several days in a small space together, we had a wonderful dinner in Höfn at Pakkhús restaurant. Although they don’t take reservations, we had no difficulty getting in at 5:30pm for an unforgettable meal of langoustines and lamb. We had plans to stay the night outside of Höfn near the Viking Café, whose owners have built a replica of a Viking village for a movie set. However, when we arrived at 8pm, we realized that the campground was actually a tiny parking lot already full of campers, and we returned to Höfn to stay in the city campground. It was crowded, but they have plenty of space and a BIG plus here- they will wash and fold your laundry for very little money. Do this first when you get into town as the laundry service gets filled up quickly.
Day 6–Camping at Atlavik
Before we left town, we headed for the community pool. It is a very nice aquatic center with two large hot tubs, a large heated lap pool, and also several water-slides! It rained that morning but the kids didn’t mind the rain and we enjoyed the hot tubs.
The place also has very nice showers, and no lines compared to the campground. After a few hours of water fun and relaxation, we treated ourselves to an anniversary lunch of langoustines at Humarhöfnin (yeah, it’s worth it…the langoustines are famous here and for good reason).
After rolling out of this amazing lunch, we headed up the coast of Eastern Iceland along the fjords. We spent the overnight at the Atlavik campground on the shore of Lagarfljót, where we searched for the rumored lake monster.
Our site was beachfront and spacious, but no sightings of the “lake worm.” This is a fantastic campground with sites surrounded by trees (all of the trees in Iceland appear to be here, because there aren’t many elsewhere). The lake is very opaque from glacial till…and very cold. Be aware, there is no check-in location; you just find a nice spot and in the morning, someone will come a round and swipe your card. Laundry is available.
Day 7– Camping at Lífsmótun
After reluctantly leaving our beautiful campsite, we stopped at the waterfalls Dettifoss and Selfoss. More waterfalls you say? Yeah, there are lots but these are worth it. Especially since there are multiple volcanic areas including the most recent big time lava activity in Iceland geologic history.
A short hike at the lava field at Leirhnjúkur provided a good geology lesson from my husband. After a quick stop at Stóra-viti of Krafla, we headed to the Mývatn Nature Baths for soaking and showers (kids again are free). The Mývatn baths were much more natural and scenic than the Blue Lagoon and the kids were surprised by the sulfur smell, whereas at the Blue Lagoon, it is almost non-existent. It’s definitely present at Mývatn but not off-putting and well worth the low cost of admission. Showers and amenities are very good.
Grjótagjá cave, famous for the “deflowering” of one of the characters of Game of Thrones allowed my children to learn the word “deflowering.”
Although we had planned to stay at Lake Mývatn for the night, we ran into larger than expected crowds, and instead drove on to a small town named Laugar. Home for the night was at Lifsmótun campground where all campsites are separated with hedges and shrubs allowing for lots of quiet and privacy. It’s curated like an English garden with high shrubs and very manicured lawns. The owners are very nice. This is absolutely worth driving a few extra kilometers to such a beautiful spot. By the way, the bathrooms/showers are: 1. Heated 2. Very nice and clean and 3. Not crowded. A heated shower/bathroom area is often taken for granted but not after 10 days in Iceland…it’s cherished.
Day 8– Camping at Hvamstangi
In the morning, we drove through the rain to Húsavik. After an informative stop at the Húsavik Whale Museum, we spent three hours whale-watching with Gentle Giants. I have no allegiance to any of the companies, and there are many in Húsavik, but the Gentle Giants boats were very nice, and our guide was outstanding. This was a true highlight of the trip. One might assume whale watching might be hit or miss but if there is one place you take a whale watching tour, this would be the place to go. We were surrounded by whales the entire trip. All rain and cold was forgotten after watching over twelve humpback whales. After a brief stop at very beautiful but “busy” Goðafoss waterfall, we had a great dinner at Akureyri Fish and Chips.
The campsite that night was completely unforgettable at Hvammstangi campground. Although we had a long walk to any facilities, our private campsite was next to a river at the top of the campground with a view of the fjord below.
Day 9 -- Camping at Þingvellir National Park
The morning was spent driving to Glýmur, for the hike to the overlook for the Glýmur waterfall.
Younger kids would not tolerate this hike well as there is a log-crossing over a river, many steep sections requiring a rope to aid climbing, and impressively sheer drop-offs at the viewpoint. A note on this: when Iceland guidebooks or signs says not for kids under 8 and sturdy hiking boots required…they mean it.
After passing several campgrounds that were very crowded and close to the road, we elected to return to Þingvellir to pack our things and organize the van. The Iceland wind blew all night, rocking the van like a ship in a storm. We had heard about epic wind during the winter but WOW, that was serious wind.
Day 10– Reykjavik
After the short drive to Reykjavik, we dropped off the van with sad goodbyes and headed to the town for a two night stay in a studio apartment in historic Reykjavik.
Lodging is plentiful but I would book well ahead if you are planning on going when we did (Cultural Day and the Iceland Marathon). I found a fantastic apartment in downtown through Orbitz. I was running the Iceland Half-Marathon and it was only a few blocks from the start.
The Marathon was very well attended (14,000 or so) but also very organized and an absolutely beautiful tour of the city and harbor.
After the marathon, the afternoon and evening was “Culture Night” in Iceland. This is a very, very big deal. They shut down the entire downtown area to cars, and you can take a bus into the city center for free.
There are more than 100,000 people that flood the city for the 300+ free events. In every street and city square, there are stages (literally everywhere), for bands/music and art along with vendors for handiwork/jewelry, and food and beverage trucks. Later in the night, everyone gathers at the main park for the final event, the Festival Concert at Arnarhóll. There was a massive outdoor stage at the city park Arnarhóll with an equally large crowd. They had many great bands and musicians and finished with an enormous fireworks display. It was truly incredible.
It happens around the third week of August every year on the same day as the Marathon, and if you are there in August, it should not be missed. We had the perfect ending to the perfect vacation.
Read more: Eva & Dani’s Icelandic story
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