What to Expect when Hiking in Iceland
This week, we are putting out some basic pointers about how to love hiking in Iceland. We also want to make sure that you not only get the most out of it but also stay safe in the (sometimes harsh and unforgiving) Icelandic nature.
Wonderful though it is, hiking in Iceland is not to be taken lightly. There are various kinds of preparations that you should make in order to get the most out of it; these will help you to feel comfortable while you’re out there, stay safe and come away with some amazing memories.
Expect: epic scenery!
Hiking. Iceland. It’s an epic combination, and Iceland has some of the world’s most amazing hiking trails: even National Geographic agrees, naming the Fimmvörðuháls (Fimmvorduhals) Pass as one of the best trails in the world.
Expect: changing weather
First and foremost, you can expect the weather in Iceland to change. How do you prepare for changing weather? Layers.
You will get warm as you hike, especially as you ascend, and you will likely break a sweat. Sometimes it could be cold, but it's best to wear less while you hike, even if it's a bit cold at the beginning. When you stop for a break or you stop for an extended amount of time, this is when you will want to layer up with some insulation, with some down or synthetic insulation which packs down for transportability. You will lose heat quite rapidly when you are idle.
Expect: rivers that need fording
Expect river crossings in the Highlands. If the water is BELOW the ankle, you can carefully wade through in your waterproof hiking boots or wherever the line is.
If the water is over your boots, you will have to take them off: it’s all part of the fun!
Sometimes, you have to plan to go around the rivers and find the way. If you are doing this kind of hike, you will probably want a guide that knows the way, it can be a considerable detour in places.
Expect: bad weather
Iceland has a different definition of bad to most places. What most Europeans would consider being “good” weather is brilliant weather in Iceland, and “bad” weather becomes good weather, and “bad” weather becomes terrible weather. Here’s a table to help you translate:
Icelandic description: Amazing
Reality for most visitors: Pretty good
Icelandic description: Good
Reality for most visitors: Close to bad
Icelandic description: Bad
Reality for most visitors: Terrible
Icelandic description: Terrible
Reality for most visitors: Don't even leave the house!
Expect worse bad weather than most people would be used to. The Icelanders have a different measuring standard for these things
High winds, driving, multi-directional rain, even if just for a spell, can catch you unawares at any stage of the journey. Many times, visitors to Iceland don’t listen to the locals: when the locals say “the weather is going to be bad” most often this means “the weather will be terrible!”
If you have absolutely wonderful weather for the whole of your journey, then count your lucky stars! This is very rare, and something that most people can only hope and indeed dream of!
Having said that, these conditions do pose their own challenges, like not getting sunburnt (VERY easily done in Iceland) and avoiding dehydration.
Expect: relatively steep ascents
Iceland is a land of glaciers, canyons, mountains, and rivers. These rivers eroded their way through to their current levels over millions of years, and the vistas over these formations are spectacular.
Getting up these trails can be rather steep, but totally worth it. The vistas will repay you handsomely.
Go slowly, there’s no rush. If you want to reach a peak for sunrise or sunset, allow yourself plenty of time.
Potential Pitfalls and mental preparation: over-commitment and tunnel vision
Dieter Van Holder, one of our expert guides, specifically warns against over-commitment (biting off more than you can chew) and tunnel vision (being too focused on the goal/summit/end of the trail) rather than the actual hike itself.
Most accidents happen with hikers. That’s right. Not climbers, not alpinists, not mountain bikers… The largest number of people that have serious accidents were simply walking. Of course, this only happens to big city fools doing outrageously stupid things right? The truth is that if you go out often enough, you will sooner or later find yourself in some kind of trouble. Over-commitment and tunnel vision then become a leading cause for more trouble.
If you are not used to hiking large distances (more than 2 hours) or relatively steep ascents, then work yourself into it: take a shorter hike and build up to your target (if you have one). Likewise with ascents; take them slowly, and work your way up.
Iceland is moody. It’s the land of moody, in fact. Moodiness brings fog and mist, which can be thick, which means you often can’t walk through it, where the visibility can drop to less than 10 meters.
In these situations, the ultimate failsafe is to sit down and wait for the fog to pass. It is often transitory, and you can be on your way pretty soon. Failing that, your navigation has to be on point. GPS is great but you should not depend on it. Make sure you have a map and compass and are able to take bearings from the map. Take plenty of spare batteries for the GPS, a standard handheld model lasts 12 hours on a fresh pair. Take rechargeable batteries too, they are better for the environment.
Inform Safe Travel of your journey
This is an invaluable resource. When you undertake any kind of journey in Iceland, log your trip details in Safe Travel, when you start and when you end. If you don’t turn up where you are supposed to be, then it will be possible to know that something has gone wrong, and a rescue attempt can be made.
It is possible to rent emergency beacons from Safe Travel, so if you end up in trouble, you can let someone know right away. It’s definitely worth it!
Fare thee well, fellow travelers!
We hope all these pointers have pointed (see what we did there?) you in the right direction. If you pack properly, are in good shape, and plan appropriately, you will have a lifetime of memories. All we hope for is that we made that more likely. Fare thee well.
About the Author
Hailing from London and born into a British/Brazilian/Italian household, Joseph came to Iceland originally to complete a master’s degree in Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Iceland: the rest is history.
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