Saturday, November 5, 2016

A complete guide to camping in Iceland

Iceland is the most beautiful place in the world, that's a fact.

There’s nowhere else I’ve been that even comes close to holding a candle to that statement.  To experience Iceland’s sheer spectacular surroundings and connect with nature- you need to pitch a tent and camp while you’re here.

I recently traveled to Iceland for a couple weeks during the off-season in the end of October into early November. For 13 days I drove around the entire country exploring this country’s ultra-impressive collection of natural ‘wow’ spots in an effort to connect more with nature. On the way, I stopped at many small fishing villages that dot the Fjords, developed towns and two of Iceland’s biggest cities- Reykjavik and Akureyri. I like to travel on a budget, a tight one, saving as much as I can in accommodation so I can put it towards gas, the rental car and a few delicious meals or a cup of coffee. Plus this dirtbag-ish way is loads more enjoyable. There’s not this pressing time constraint binding you- you can come and go whenever, not have to worry about checking-in or out, cook your own food, get up in the middle of the night to watch the Northern Lights dance in the sky above and you meet some crazy-inspiring, awesome people traveling around with your exact same mindset. That makes for stove-top meals together and laughing with beers in hand under eachothers headlamps under the stars. So obviously, camping is always the way to go. Especially in Iceland.

True fact- you can pretty much camp anywhere in Iceland for free as long as it’s not on someone’s private land or marked with signage prohibiting it (you’ll see red and yellow signs saying ‘No Overnight Camping’). This could change, as the waves of tourists flock to Iceland. Do your research ahead of time to confirm.

Most established campsites have hot water showers, spot-less clean bathrooms and even WiFi. More developed, larger ones will have a common kitchen area or lounge along with electrical hook-ups for campervans and RVs. Speaking of the prior, renting campervans is an exploding trend right now and a clever way to explore the sprawling island. Places like GoIceland Car-Rental, Kuku CampersCampEasy and Happy Campers rent campervans that sleep two and sometimes up to six. Some even have kitchen sinks in them while most have a pull-out stove, WiFi and heaters that keep your living area warm when the car is off. Prices range from about $700-$1,000 USD for one week. The only downside- many of these campervans don’t have 4x4 capability (though a select, rare few do like this model!) so that means no F-Roads into The Highlands region of the country or some of the tracks that carve deep into some of the national park’s interior.  I rented a red Suzuki Jimny (Japan’s version of the Jeep) for two-weeks for a little under $600, with unlimited mileage, manual transmission and four-wheel-drive for off-road wandering (which happened every day). When I couldn’t pitch a tent due to hurricane-strong winds or pouring rain, I tumbled the back seat and folded-flat the passenger seat and easily put my blow-up sleeping pad and down-sleeping bag in place. I’m 6’2 and had a surprising amount of room. The Jimny was both warm and comfortable ‘lil RV that I could easily bomb-down Iceland’s notorious F-Roads and rocky detours off the ‘Ring Road’.

Iceland isn’t cheap, but it’s not at all as expensive as what people may exaggerate. Especially during the off-season months. I found prices fairly comparable (apart from gas, which when converted equaled out to like $6 per gallon) to what I paid for in the United States. All the campgrounds and campsites accept credit card for the night(s), bring coins ISK coins for shower/laundry at paid facilities. Prices are for one person per night. Some campsites only charge you by the night where as others may charge per person camping. If you arrive after-hours at a paid campground and the office is closed or there’s no-one around to take your payment, be honest and pay in the morning- your dollars are what keep these campgrounds (and national parks) afloat and maintained. Some campgrounds may have literally no way to pay for a night’s stay due to possibility of it being closed for the winter off-season, meaning the services (water, toilets, showers) could very well be shut-off. All-in-all I think I spent less than $100 on accommodations over the course of 13 days (including the hostel I stayed in my last night in Reykjavik).

-At the time of this post, written in November 2016, 1000 ISK = $9 USD
-Prices may change depending on when you visit.
-Some prices below include a 100 ISK guest accommodation tax.
-Some places may be closed or services shut-off in off-season.

Where can I camp for free (or almost free) in Iceland?

Skógar Campsite
Skógar, Southwest Iceland.

*1000 ISK. No WiFi. Hot Shower ($). Water fill-up.
*Pay at the window near bathroom when open.
*Right at the base of the mesmerizingly-cool Skógafoss waterfall.
*Close to the Solheimajokull glacier and Solheimasandur plane crash wreckage.

Campground/Vatnajökull National Park
Skafatell, Southeast Iceland.

*1400 ISK. WiFi. Hot Shower ($). Laundry ($). Water fill-up.
*Support Iceland’s stunning national parks!
*Most car campers camp in the parking lot right in front of the visitor center, grass patches for tent camping are to the left behind the buildings.
*Close to the trailhead for all hiking trails in Vatnajökull National Park including the trail for the Svartifoss waterfall and Skaftafellsjökull glacier.

Höfn Camping & Cottages
Höfn, Southeast Iceland.

*1200 ISK. WiFi ($). Hot shower. Water fill-up. Kitchen. Lounge. Electrical Hookups.
*Less than 10 minutes from the ‘Ring Road’.
*Great community lounge and kitchen area.
*General store sells beer, food and camping supplies.
*Jaw-dropping campsites along the bay for stellar sunrises.
*Across from an N1 full-service gas station.
*Within walking distance of downtown Höfn and its harbor.

Public Campsite
Egilsstaðir, Eastern Iceland
*1200 ISK. WiFi. Hot shower. Water fill-up. Kitchen. Lounge. Laundry ($). Electrical Hookups.
*Right next to and managed by the Eglisstaoir tourist information center.
*Super friendly, knowledgeable staff, did not charge me for coffee or WiFi during the off-season.
*I saw the Northern Lights here!
*Nearby grocery stores.
*Cross-road location for continuing on the ‘Ring Road’ or venturing into the gorgeous East Fjords.

Campground/Vatnajokull National Park
Asbyrgi, Northern Iceland.

*1600 ISK. Hot Shower ($). Water fill-up. Laundry ($). Electrical Hookups.
*Support Iceland’s stunning National Parks!
*Big campground with many secluded tent and RV/campervan sites.
*Pay at the visitor center or when a park ranger comes makes rounds.
*I saw a sky full of Northern Lights here! Best display of them.
*Close to the trailhead for all hiking trails in Vatnajokull National Park including the trail for the Eyjan outcropping which you can climb to see views of the forested canyon.
*Close to Dettifoss waterfall and northernmost point in Iceland, Hraunhafnartangi.
Reykjahlio, Northern Iceland.

*1400 ISK (Free?). WiFi. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*Tons of options for accommodation from tent camping to cabin rentals.
*Office was closed at night and in morning, therefore I did not pay.
*All services were winterized/not working. Maybe campground was closed?
*Close to the Myvatn Lake, Krafla geothermal area, Myvatn Nature Baths.
*Hard to find but uphill from the famous church, on the right.

Public Campsite
Borgarnes, West Iceland.

*750 ISK (Free?). No running water fill-up, toilets or showers. Electrical Hookups.
*All services were winterized/not working. Maybe campground was closed?
*Cool views of the Fjord and marshy shoreline in front of the campsite.
*There was not a ranger that came by to collect payments so I stayed here for free.
*Cross-roads location for if you want to continue on ‘Ring Road’ to Reykjavik or venture off into the nearby, incredible Snaefells Peninsula.
Tröð/Open Forest Entrance Area
Hellissandur, West Iceland.

*Free. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*Not an official campsite, main campground in town was closed for the year.
*Large grassy area near entrance to town’s Open Forest recreation area.
*Located right across the street from the N1 gas station.
*Nearest bathrooms, water fill-up and food store is at the neighboring gas station.
*Very close to Snaefellsjokull National Park!
*The Open Forest recreation area has some fun hiking trails right behind the camping area.
*Leave no trace, please respect the fact this is free public land available for us to camp on.
Public Campground
Stykkishólmur, West Iceland

*1000 ISK (Free?). WiFi. No running water fill-up, toilets or showers.
*All services were winterized/not working.
*There was not a place to pay so I stayed here for free.
*Can get very, very windy.
*The campground area and whole town have WiFi.
*Plenty of restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations just down the road.
*Stykkishólmur is a sweet little town to wander around.

Campground/Pingvellir National Park
Pingvellir, The Golden Circle

*1400 ISK. Hot shower. Water fill-up. Laundry ($).
*Support Iceland’s stunning national parks!
*Pay at the visitor center or when a park ranger comes makes rounds.
*Close to many hiking trails and Almannagja riff, where the tectonic plates meet.
*Camp either in the campground down the road towards the Oxararfoss waterfall, in the front parking *lot of the visitor center or in the grass campground near the bathroom and shower building.
*The visitor center has a café attached to it for a quick bite to eat.
*Located right on the main ‘Golden Circle’ route.
*Awesome view of the snowy mountains when you wake up.

Should I Bring A Tent?
Well you can, but you have to, must have a reliable, all-weather tent. In some places of the country like along the southeast coast and near the western Snaefells Peninsula- it can get seriously, aggressively windy, causing damage to a tent with not the strongest poles or fabric. I've got a solid three-season, Eureka Taron2 backpacking tent that fought the wind hard but it kept me dry and warm. Just make sure your tent is staked down well or weighted with nearby rocks and prepare for a gusty night. But wait there's can also downpour heavily or snow at any time, so make sure your tent can fend off those elements as well. Iceland's weather can be vicious, rough and unexpected...changing completely within a few seconds. Do your homework, bring the right gear and study the weather. Don't have a tent? Places like Iceland Camping Equipment Rental rent tents (along with other gear too). Remember you can always try it and sleep in the back of your rental car if things become dicey.

What About Food?
Buy groceries at a local joint like Bonus, they’re in almost every medium to bigger town or city and their prices are cheap. Not to mention, healthy, not processed food is a big plus when you’re camping. Don’t be shy about gas station food. Almost all full-service gas stations have a kitchen where they cook up soups, sandwiches and of course Iceland’s famous hotdogs. For the love of god, you have to eat one or several. Load up on onions (underneath the hotdog like Icelanders do). I spent about $60 for two-weeks’ worth of food. Living off PB&J (the peanut butter here is SO good), fresh produce, dehydrated cups of beefy noodles, cookies, tea and cereal every morning. Plus since it’s cold like all the time, you don’t need to refrigerate any of the milk or juice you buy. Grab a cardboard box from the grocery store and make it your cupboard for your trip. But! With all the money you’re saving on accommodation by camping and buying your own food, treat yourself to a few local meals. Half the fun of traveling to a new country is trying their food. Iceland has some bomb lobster caught right off the shore by the way…. and a few legendary craft beers.

How Do I Get Water?

I brought a Nalgene bottle and three collapsible Sawyer water bags for filling. Almost all entrances to the natural attractions and national parks along with most gas stations, but not all (despite what you read) will have a water fill-up. Don’t be afraid to ask. The water that comes out of the tap in Iceland may smell a bit funky but it’s the cleanest, most-pure water you’ll ever drink. Leave all your filters at home and don’t be a goof who buys bottle water in Iceland. Sustainability folks! One last tip- bring a small cup or keep one handy, like reuse the free cup of coffee you get from Olis gas stations when you fill up. Some sinks in the gas station bathrooms aren’t nearly deep or wide enough to fill-up a tall Nalgene bottle or soft water bag.

Cooking Gas?

So I wrote in an earlier post and it still stands true, it’s illegal to bring a canister of cooking gas on a plane. Even in checked baggage. Fear not, every gas station I went to sold them. There are three main types of camping fuel canisters you can buy. The traditional screw-on ones that thread into your camping stove (like my Primus), the taller green Coleman ones that hook-up to a larger camping stove and these blue click-on canisters that only work with its accompanying stove. Know the difference so you don’t accidentally buy the wrong-fitting canister. And open-fires are a big no-no in Iceland.

Will I be Alone?
No (and if you are don’t worry because Iceland is the safest country in the world)! I was so happy to see tons of other people my age in their 20s and 30s, camping out in tents, the backseat of their cars and rented campervans at every single campground. Even in late October and November. It’s way more fun of an environment than any 5-star hotel. When the sun goes down and it goes down very early, meet other travelers who love the camping ways. I met a lot of inspiring people in Iceland trekking around with their best friends or solo like myself. We all told stories, tried to solve the world’s problems over beer, ate dinner together and what’s the best….is you get to hear everyone’s suggestions and secret tips on where to explore. Let’s just say I got a lot of recommendations from fellow campers that weren’t otherwise listed in my guidebook. What was also cool was getting to see some of the same, familiar friends at the next region or town’s campsite again. Hey-hey! What's up?!

So please- get over to Iceland and admire this surreal land. Respect the fragile outdoors you’ll eagerly explore and have a blast. Have any questions or need help? Shoot me a direct-message on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll respond as soon as possible. I always like helping out fellow travelers, for me it’s paying it forward.