So you’ve decided to go to Iceland, “The Land of Fire and Ice.” Widely recognized for its stunning glacial lagoon and prevalence of active volcanos, Iceland is also home to an abundance of natural hot springs, curious wildlife, environmentally-conscious people and more beauty than you could ever hope to see in a lifetime. But how to navigate such a tiny foreign land that has so much to offer?
After spending 2 weeks amongst the lava fields, Icelandic horses, peaceful solitude and chilly night skies, we came to the conclusion that THE ONLY WAY to see Iceland is on your own terms. Now that can mean different things for different people, but for us that meant living in a simple, tiny portable home that allowed us to become a part of Iceland, and Iceland a part of us.
With various farm stays and quaint hotels to stay in, which undoubtedly help support the local communities, we personally have a hard time being tied down by reservations that limit our freedom to explore. Plus with sunset not happening until 10pm in April, and even later during the summer months, why go inside?!
Another thing to note about the towns that the b&b’s are located in is that they are SMALL. Like literally nothing more than MAYBE a gas station and a grocery store, and if you’re lucky that gas station has a coffee machine… but it may not open till 10am, or later if they decide to milk a few more cows before going in that morning. And food/everything is more expensive in Iceland, $30 is the typical cost for a meal at even the simplest of places. For this reason we loved having our kitchen on hand whenever we needed a meal or something warm to drink.
But isn’t Iceland freezing?! How did you survive in a van?! While these are both very valid concerns, with proper preparations you can weather Iceland’s unpredictable weather patterns and be quite happy in your #rollinghome. Plus, think about those (badass) people who choose to backpack or bike across the island… makes car camping sound like a breeze right?
Let’s get down to business. After spending 11 nights sleeping in 20 degree weather, hiking mountains, scaling craters and navigating roads with names we couldn’t even begin to pronounce, here’s our guide to traveling around Iceland in a camper van, with success:
1. Buy a guide book and mark the places you want to want to visit before leaving. This will help with mapping out your adventure once you arrive. We always go for Lonely Planet, they’re well organized, cater towards an active audience and offer options for all sorts of budgeting.
2. Rent your camper from a reputable company. We love Kuku Campers. They were great to work with, offer airport transport and don’t hit you with any mandatory hidden insurance fees, though, with all the gravel roads, we opted in for the windshield coverage. The camper was clean and comfy, came stocked with all the essential cooking utensils and got great gas mileage. Be sure to watch our AWESOME video tour of our Kuku Camper here!
3. Along with the fact that cafes and grocery stores have unpredictable hours, the first thing you’ll want to do after picking up your camper is stock up on provisions – especially if you are traveling during the off season, like we were, because we found 80% of all cafes and restaurants to be CLOSED. Below is a slightly understandable store schedule:
There are literally 3 cities you can count on having things open, at fairly normal hours, throughout the year: Reykjavik, Akureyri and Selfoss. If you’re working with a budget you’ll want to hit up the airport’s Duty-Free or a local Vinbudin for any adult drinkies, Bonus, the most affordable grocer, and I’m pretty sure we visited the N1 gas stations aka. local hangout, in every city – once you go you’ll understand.
PS – Don’t expect to be able to read anything in the grocery store. Hummus was one of the only recognizable words we found. BUY Skyr, their incredible yogurt, and if you want to live like a local, which Drew is better at than I, eat lots of hot dogs and if you want to live like a tourist, try the air dried fish (oddly enough, most people find it to be quite tasty):
4. Ok, so you’ve got your edible supplies, now what about staying warm?! Pack light, but pack smart. We basically stuck to the 3-5 layer rule. Start with a reliable pair of wool long john’s, followed by a long sleeve, followed by a fleece, and if it’s windy out, which it ALWAYS is in Iceland, bring the hardest core wind breaker you can find. Pack wool socks, undies for each day, your warmest hat, ski gloves, Hot Hands and hard core hiking boots (make sure they’re broken in, these were the most valuable item of the trip).
5. Hygiene. The thing our families and friends seem the most concerned about always seems to be hygiene. “But how do you shower and where do you do your laundry?!” they ask. While laundry is not quite as easy to come by, though there is an awesome Laudromat Cafe/bar in Reykjavik, luckily heated pools and public showers are hugely popular in nearly every city and town across the island!
Note: You are REQUIRED to shower naked before and after swimming in the pools and hot tubs, and there are no private stalls. They say the Brit’s have their tea rooms, the Germans their Biergartens, the French their cafes and Icelanders their hot tubs. They take great pride in the cleanliness of their public pools and we were told that if you are caught showering in your bathing suit the “nudity police” will call you out – could you imagine! Needless to say, we got to see more than we bargained for… no photos for this one.
6. Clockwise or “anti-clockwise”?
That is the question. Depending on how much time you have you may just want to pick a home base and go from there. Many choose to stay in Reykjavik (busy city) and take day trips from there. Hali (very quaint village) is another great option. To do the entire 870-mile Ring Road, we recommend at least 10 days, but if you have just a week you can make it happen too, though it’d be a lot more driving and site seeing from the car.
How to choose which direction? We based our decision to go clockwise solely on the weather (we love Weather Underground), also Drew looked up where we were most likely to see the Northern Lights and with the days getting longer and longer we took the route that would get us there sooner.
We slept in a cave, next to a swan-filled lake, along a river, in a lava field, on top of a hill and next to a glacier. Iceland is very camper-van friendly, meaning there are very few spots where you will find a no RV/camping sign posted. Note: Add TP to the grocery list. We also felt remarkably safe, not for a moment did we ever feel we shouldn’t park somewhere for any reason other than needing the privacy to pop the inevitable squat. June 2016 UPDATE: With Iceland tourism booming (Kuku added 130 new campers to their fleet!) we’ve been told that locals are becoming more and more frustrated with campers parking at their leisure. We visited during a time when campers were quite rare so, in an effort to preserve this amazing piece of earth and honor the locals as you explore their land, we would like to encourage all our fellow adventurers to please try to stay at campsites and only use public restrooms whenever possible.
8. With so much beauty to be seen and appreciated it’s crucial that you take advantage of the freedom your camper van offers and stop when you feel so inspired. One of the major disadvantages of traveling with a tour guide or in a bus is that you are no longer free to go where your adventure calls. Here are some of the incredible sites our camper van allowed us to stop and appreciate on a whim.
9. While the street signs were relatively easy to follow, the pronunciation of EVERYTHING was not.
By the end of our trip we had resorted to referring to places by the first 3 – 5 letters. For instance, the place above became, “Djupa.” This was much easier for our American vocabularies to handle. Luckily Iceland was kind enough to use pictures to help let foreigners know when they are entering and exiting a city. See below:
With so much to say and not enough words in the English dictionary to convey the true majesty that makes up this magical “Island,” we hope that we’ve given you all the insight and inspiration you need to travel around Iceland in a camper van with as much success as we did.
Just about everyone speaks English.
“Takk feyrir” means thank you, that’s about all we could figure out how to say.
You don’t leave tips in Iceland.
Don’t worry about converting cash, they take credit everywhere, and prefer it. Just remember to let your credit card company know you’re going out of the country (they don’t like being called through Skype, which we learned the hard way).
One thing most people like to leave out when talking about Iceland is the fact that you smell sulphur A LOT, especially in places with high geothermal activity. Iceland has devised a brilliant system for heating water below the earth’s surface using these smelly hot springs and the countries numerous volcanoes… awesome right?! Yes, except for the fact that this causes hot water across the entire country to smell like farts, including your showers. Probably the only thing we don’t miss.
You CAN drink tap water, and rest assured that the cold water smells and tastes perfectly good and completely sulphur-free.
Each N1 has a very handy, and free, map of the surrounding areas with helpful tidbits you can’t find anywhere else. Stop in the local N1 when you arrive to a new town and pick up a delicious warm beverage from their nifty little expresso machines while you’re at it, unlimited refills 🙂
Other helpful and essential camper van supplies: a real road map (you can buy one at the Kuku office), baby wipes for washing dishes, paper towels, toilet paper (as previously noted), a car power converter (perfect for charging all your gear), extra memory cards for your camera, headlamps (for night-time outings and cooking once the sun goes down), candle (for setting the mood), plastic bags (for garbage), chap stick (two cuz you’ll probably lose one), bathing suit and towel for the public pools and a USB to phone cord so you can play your music while you enjoy the ride of a lifetime.