Iceland is a unique country with very special weather conditions. Therefore travel preparations have to be taken a bit more seriously than when driving around central Europe or the US. I am sure many of you think to know about extreme weather. Believe me, for most people on the globe Iceland can take your weather experiences to a new level of extreme, with weather changes from warm sunshine to gale winds and snow within not even hours.
Speaking about weather conditions. Don’t expect anything. You might end up with a week of no rain by luck. But the weather on this island outpost is so incredibly unreliable that even the forecasts are wrong most of the time, even for the following day. Just don’t be disappointed if during your trip all the mountains were covered in low hanging clouds. It’s Iceland. There is only one solution: Keep your plans flexible.
If you are interested in photography check out my page with lots of photo tips for Iceland – including GPS data!
Iceland Trip Preparations:
Clothing and Safety:
In general make sure to have extremely wind proof and rain proof outdoor clothing! As a photographer and even as a standard traveler you will be out in nature for hours. Even in summer time pack one layer for freezing cold temperatures if going to the center parts. Snow in July or August is nothing exceptional in Iceland, especially in the highlands. If you don’t need the cold weather wear consider yourself as lucky.
Even if if the weather forecast promises 15°C, arctic winds can cool you down to freezing temperatures quickly. A very good wind blocker jacket is a must!
When planning to hike into nature prepare yourself with good maps and a an outdoor GPS device, even more if traveling alone. If you leave road no 1, the (mostly) paved ring road, make sure to leave your travel plans somewhere. If you don’t show up again they can send out SAR. No kidding, Iceland can be extremely dangerous in the highlands!
Two good resources for your safety: Download the App Iceland 112 where you can leave your current location with just a click, and an emergency call worst case. But keep in mind this only works when having network access (coverage is pretty impressive though!). Second is the website of travel.is where you can leave your travel plans. If really going off the beaten path alone which never is recommended carry an SOS beacon or a satellite phone. Don’t underestimate the power of Iceland’s nature!
Car Rental Iceland:
Which car to rent in Iceland? Pretty simple: As long as you want to stick to the more or less totally paved ring road any car will do it in summer time. Early spring and late autumn you will be glad to have a 4×4 already on the icy roads here. Icy plus storm blowing you off the street with the wrong car and tires. No fun next to cliffs…
If you intend to go for shooting great pictures anything else than a 4×4 is nonsense. You will want to go beyond the tarmac paved part of the island for sure. If really going into the highlands make sure to be allowed driving F-roads, which are the very bumpy ones you also have to cross rivers without bridges. I personally like to sleep in my car, not having to stick to prebooked hotels. Flexibility is king in Iceland.
Traveling alone you might consider a Suzuki Jimny which in my eyes is really high value for money. They are pretty good offroad for their size and will bring you pretty far even on tracks. Certainly even less limits you’ll have with Iceland style converted Toyota, Land Rover Defender, or similar. But you will only need those if you plan to go extreme side tracks in the highlands.
In all “major towns” you’ll have plenty of options to buy your daily needs. And in the smaller ones you will always find a place selling the most necessary things including food. Usually I tend to buy with the small stores to just keep them in business.
Some major brands:
Bonus usually is the “cheapest”. Actually nothing is cheap in Iceland.
Kronan is a bit more expensive though not really much better quality.
Samkaup is on the level between Kronan and Netto I would say. Good place to go, often the only one in small towns.
Netto is my favorite. More expensive than Bonus but much better products. Not just the quality but also the product range. Fruit and vegetables are usually pretty good from here. Not Italian level I am used to, but for Iceland it’s fine.
Hagkaup Seems like the highest quality grocery coming with a price, but not really extraordinary high. Worth to have a look into.
Eating in Iceland:
Well, let’s say Iceland is maybe not the country of finest food and greatest variety on the globe. My favorite for a quick affordable lunch is the soup of the day, usually a simple vegetable soup. The menus in restaurants list disturbingly many burgers compared to quality food. But well, that’s the new culture here. Traditional lamb and fish cost a kidney, but in the right place they are extremely delicious.
On the junk food side the quick and cheap options are a hotdog (Pylsa) or french fries in gas stations.
Things to try in Iceland:
Lamb soup or lamb steak in a good restaurant
A fish meal
Soups, soups, soups
Cakes, cakes, cakes
Should you be used to good coffee (like I am in Italy) you will have a very hard time. Coffee you get everywhere but usually tasting like …
Buying water in Iceland is total waste of money. Tap water has excellent quality and even from all mountain rivers you can drink the water. Just make sure the rives look and smell clean before filling your bottles.
If not booking hotels but trying to be close to our photography subjects, keeping ourselves clean can be kind of a challenge. Not so in Iceland where you have hotpots everywhere. Near to every town on the island has a public swimming pool, mostly supplied by natural hot spring water from nearby. We are speaking about natural water not heated up. Therefore the temperatures vary a bit from day to day. Most pools even offer several hotpots with different temperatures so you can choose which suits you best. In general they should have options between 38°C and 42°C, some even warmer. Entrance fees are pretty low and usually not much more than for the showers in campgrounds (except in Reykjavik where since summer 2016 they chose the path of ripping off one time visitors – tourists – at the public pools).
If searching the web you will find plenty of natural hotpot pools outside in nature. I won’t give away all of Iceland’s secrets here but it is worth the effort of hunting them down. No entrance fee, no closing time, just a natural hot spring in the landscape. Very often with breathtaking views. Some you can reach easily by car, others you will have to hike to. The more difficult to reach them the more lonesome you will be in there. To get an idea what I am speaking about search for “Reykjadalur hot river”, a very popular hot stream pretty close to Reykjavik (about an hour walk uphill into the mountains to reach).
In some places you will find offers of terribly expensive natural pools: The Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, the Nature Bath near Myvatn lake, and in the Golden Circle the Iceland Spa of Laugarvatn. Cannot tell you how they are since I would never pay such entrance fees if having even better local pools just a couple of kilometers away for a fraction of cost or even for free.
Free Wifi in Iceland
Many gas stations all over the island offer free WiFi. They are also a good place to warm up during a rainy day if no cosy coffee place can be found around. Most coffee places and many restaurants also offer free WiFi. Sometimes you can even try to enter the lobby of the public pool or sports centers in town to get free internet access.
Most of the campgrounds will charge you for internet access.
Where to Go:
Though Iceland is a small island most probably you will have to pick one or two regions for exploring. The following lines are totally biased and show not more than my personal opinion. Others might have a different opinion.
The South and Southeast:
In summer months this area is more than crowded with travelers. One reason is the beauty of nature with waterfalls, glaciers, the glacier lagoon, and more. Also this area of Iceland is extremely simple to travel as long as sticking to the main road no 1.
Taking side steps to Landmannalaugar, Thorsmörk, Fjallaback, and Laki will make you experience outstanding landscapes, but a 4×4 will be needed (if not soon they start to pave even these parts, I would bet it will not take long anymore to Landmannlaugar). For some roads I’d even highly recommend a vehicle with quite a bit of ground clearance.
If you are into colorful stones the region around Höfn will be your new home. Check out the stone museum and ask them where to drive to find some of those crazy colored stones in nature.
The Eastern parts
The town of Egilsstadir is a good base to explore the eastern fjords as well as stuffing your car for a trip into the eastern highlands like route 910 to Askja.
Starting with the East fjords landscape is less changing now. It’s all about rugged mountains at the coastline, with little fishing villages which are often cut off from the rest of Iceland due to bad weather conditions. For bird watching in the east drive to the area of Bakkagerdi (Borgarfjördur).
A bit further north you will find another bird watching place at Vallaness peninsula. The area around is also beautiful – though it offers nothing special to see than plenty of abandoned houses and a wonderful coastline.
A good base to start exploring the north is Myvatn. Just around the lake you will find plenty of interesting places. Krafla Lava still smoking, the geothermal area of Hverir and Namaskard, the lake itself, of course. The impressive waterfalls Dettifoss and Selfoss are not far, as well as the impressive Asbyrgi canyon. With a good 4×4 famous Askia and the Viti crater are just a daytrip away.
Most famous places in the southern highlands are Landmannalaugar with its colorful mountains, and for good offroad drivers the route 210 (Maelifellsandur). I’d also highly recommend planning a side step to Laki craters, which are a place for sure you will never forget. It’s a landscape simply not from this world.
In the northern highlands of Iceland the most famous place probably are Askia, the Viti crater, and in the time of writing these lines also the new lava from the eruption of the volcano Bardarbunga. In the year 2015 near Askia a new spot for bathing in a river was discovered, created by the Bardarbunga lava. Walking the landscape around Askia you will feel like on the moon.
The central highlands are more an area to drive through than to make it an own destination, at least for classic travelers. It’s mostly stone desert. The western route (road 35, Kjölur route) might be a bit more interesting with passing the interesting landscape at Kerlingaföll. The direct route will take you to Hveravellir, a geothermal oasis in the surrounding hostile landscape. Test their natural hot tub. One of the best in the country – especially at night when watching the northern lights.
The eastern route (road 26, Sprengisandur route) is pain in the ass. Sorry to say. The road is is rally bad condition and several rivers have to be crossed. But its a fast shortcut to the north if you need, instead of driving around half of the island. In the north of the road you might take a side step to the laugarfell hut with its lovely natural pool. At the northern end of route F26 Aldejarfoss, a beautiful waterfall will await you.
For offroad interested drivers the track road F910 branching off Sprengisandur (Road 26) to Askia is an awesome drive. But please just go with a highly offroad capable car! You will not only cross rivers but also have to deal with driving on lava fields and passing deep sand. It’s really just for the off-road skilled, at best going in a convoy of two or three cars.
Whenever driving into the highlands drive slow. It’s better for your car and your health. Also be prepared with having plenty of fuel on board. The eastern route (F26) has no gas station for more than 250 km – if you drive straight through. Branching off you will quickly end up with about 400 km without supplies. No problem? Keep in mind, in the highlands gas consumption of your car can be much higher than on tarmac!
Personally I never drive into the highlands without food and water for a couple of days. Just in case. If you don’t need, the better it is.
West and Northwest
My feelings about the west are a bit mixed. The Snaefallsness peninsula gets a lot of attention from tourists presently. Actually I don’t really understand why. Sure it is beautiful with varying landscapes. But the northwest is definitely not more interesting than other parts of Iceland, in my eyes even less.
A bit of the same with the Westjords. Driving them all adds 1000 km to the counter. That is a looooong loooong drive. Again, landscapes are beautiful and some of the little towns are even charming. But is it worth the ride? Not so sure …