How to travel Iceland without a schedule
My partner, Eric, and I just got back from a 6-day trip to Iceland. We weren’t quite sure what we wanted to see beforehand… and that was okay! We rented a 2-person camper van for four days, picked up a travel guide, and were set.
Here are a few of the things we did and learned that helped us have a great time without a schedule.
Our trusty steed.
Know that you won’t see everything
While Iceland may feel like a small country (we are from Canada), pretty much every square metre of it is awesome and worth exploring. So unless you have a month or more, make sure to discuss your travel priorities beforehand, and accept that you won’t be able to do it all.
This was my second visit to Iceland, so we planned our trip around Eric’s love of hiking and hot pots and our mutual dislike for crowds and selfies.
Getting so close to the Dynjandi waterfall was cool enough to warrant a selfie.
Here is a non-selfie version.
Over-planning for a road trip in Iceland can be impractical. On one hand, you never know when you are going to happen upon something beautiful and weird that you just have to check out. On the other hand, changeable weather, gravel roads full of pot-holes, and unexpected sheep blockades can throw a wrench into even the most thought-out plans.
Sheep causing a traffic jam on the road to Stykkishólmur. It didn’t actually hamper any plans.
We found that travelling around in our camper van was a great way to incorporate flexibility and spontaneity into our trip. We didn’t need hotel, hostel, or campsite reservations, and we could go wherever the road took us.
A couple of snail friends I made after an impromptu stop off Highway 63.
Check the weather
The Vedur.is website has the best weather forecasts for all regions in Iceland. Remember that the weather here is variable throughout the day and that when it’s raining in one area, it may be sunny and dry 15-30 minutes down the road. At Vedur.is, you can zoom into a specific region and view hour-by-hour forecasts for the different weather stations. Also notice that “vedur” kinda sounds like “weather”. 🙂
All three of these views were helpful for deciding where to go next (Vedur.is).
You don’t have to only plan around sunny, clear weather.
Driving above the clouds was a far more unique experience.
Make sure you can get internet and cell reception
The WiFi hotspot included with the camper van rental was helpful for some regions, but did not receive a signal in all areas. Make sure to have at least one phone with data so you can always access the weather and Google Maps. Being able to make calls was also useful for checking if campgrounds were open and for booking ferries.
Some phone plans allow you to roam internationally for a fixed price per day. If yours does not, make sure your phone is unlocked before arriving, and purchase a prepaid SIM card from a carrier in Reykjavik. I got mine from Vodafone, but I think Simmin might have better coverage.
Officially, you are supposed to park your camper van in campgrounds. This was very easy as there is a campground in virtually every town and on many of the farms around the countryside. However, we were traveling in mid-September, which is shoulder season for tourism. During peak season, from June – August, some campgrounds might not even have vacancy for camper vans. And in the off-season, many campgrounds are closed, so you should call beforehand.
Read more: All year campsites in Iceland
The most we ended up paying for accommodations was 3000 ISK (1500 ISK per person), and the least was 2000 ISK per car. Most campgrounds have reviews on Google about the types of services they provide, such as a communal kitchen area and warm showers, which you can take into account when deciding where to stop for the night.
Our stay at Snorrastaðir Farm Campground the first night.
Some of my favourite memories from the trip were the random stops we made that were not in any guidebook. While there are many spectacular locations to explore, remember that you are representing all tourists as you do so. Only park your car off the road and in locations that are safe to do. Be conscious of blind corners and poor weather conditions.
A little hike down to the water on the way from Bíldudalur to Dynjandi.
In addition, be sensitive of the environment and your impact on it. Definitely don’t leave any trash around, but also pay attention to where you are walking and the vegetation you are disturbing. Some mosses and lichen are very delicate and take decades to grow back, so avoid walking in these areas. If there are multiple people walking where there are no distinct trails, don’t walk single file to avoid creating new paths and thus destroying vegetation.
Read more: The Icelandic Pledge
I felt a little guilty about lying down here, but it was oh so comfy. Also this heather is much heartier than lichen.
Iceland is notoriously expensive. One of the surest ways of saving money is purchasing groceries and preparing your own food using the kitchen supplies included with the camper van.
While we ate a lot of homemade sandwiches and pasta, we made one exception: hotel buffet breakfasts! For around 2500 ISK and within a 30-minute drive of wherever we were, we could have a delicious and varied breakfast of eggs, meats, fish, cereals, granola, and Icelandic favorites like Skýr, in addition to unlimited coffee and tea. The fresh bread was always better than our store bought loaf, and we really liked the toppings they came with, like pickled herring and lox. We used our breakfast times to plan for the upcoming day, check the weather, and freshen up.
Place names and pronunciation
Remembering places can be very difficult for non-Icelandic speakers. Most place names in Iceland are conjugations of two or more smaller words, making them quite long and difficult to tell apart. There are also unfamiliar letters and accents, rendering some words unpronounceable to the uninitiated.
While it would be great to always use the correct name, sometimes the Icelandic names don’t stick well in your memory. We often used alternate, anglicized names instead to keep them straight. Borgarnes became “Board Games”, Snorrastaðir was “Snore-Ass Daughter”, and Dynjandi became “Danger Dee”. Even if they were pretty far off, it was much easier to know what my traveling companion was talking about when he referenced placenames.
But if you want to sound more educated when asking for directions, it helps to know a few words and how to pronounce them.
Common placename words:
- vatn -> water
- laug -> pool
- foss -> waterfall
- jökull -> glacier
- fjörður -> fjord
- fjall -> mountain
- vegur -> road
- eyja -> island
E.g. The big volcano that erupted in 2010 was called Eyjafjallajökull, or island-mountain-glacier.
Lake Vatnsdalvatn (“water-valley-water”). It’s very watery.
- Þþ -> (th) as in ‘thought’
- Ðð -> (th) as in ‘there’
- Ææ -> (eye) as in ‘light’
Commonly mispronounced letters:
- Öö -> (uh) as in ‘look’
- Jj -> (y) as in ‘yolk’
- Áá -> (ow) as in ‘cow’
- Éé -> (yu) as in ‘yuck’
Before arriving, we had a pretty ambitious schedule planned: drive to Mývatn in the North-East, go west to the Westfjords, and then south to the airport. But after rainy forecasts and a waterslide-induced neck injury, we decided to scrap that plan and go scheduleless. Instead, we just started driving north to see how far we could get before needing to turn around. We made a detour off the Ring Road to a little hot pot just after “Board Games” (Borgarnes), and the next day ended up driving to Stykkishólmur and taking the ferry across to the Westfjords. Here is the final route… none of it was planned!
Day 1 Day 2
Day 3 Day 4
While four days is a very short amount of time to spend driving in Iceland, we had a fantastic time. We soaked in 4 hot pots, did 4 small hikes with no other people in sight, saw 1 major tourist attraction (the Dynjandi waterfalls), and played 3 actual board games. We covered over 600 km in 9 hours of driving plus two 2.5-hour ferry rides. The landscapes were incredible, the experiences were unique, and we would totally come back for more!
Post-trip road mud art.
Read more: 5 short & sweet days in Iceland
Happy Camping! #CamperStories
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