Right as I got my first round of vaccinations, I started planning my first trip in over a year. Iceland had just opened back up to vaccinated visitors and since I had never been, it seemed like a no-brainer. So with 28 days to go, I started planning.
Before COVID-19, there was a few-year stretch when it seemed like everyone was going to Iceland. Whether it was Game of Thrones related or simply people beginning to appreciate the fantastic beauty of the island or, well, it’s probably a little of both. So I had seen my Instagram page filled with beautiful pictures of Icelandic scenery at every swipe.
I had even seen a few people doing the #vanlife thing over there. Which actually seemed like a pretty cool idea. So I started looking into it a bit more.
Iceland has a TON of campsites, all throughout the country. And basically, all the destinations you want to visit in Iceland are littered throughout the countryside. Let’s be honest, Reykjavik is a fine city, but the real show here is mother nature.
My flight was from Seattle to Iceland, with a stopover at JFK. The wrinkle in this trip was the COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements.
To get into Iceland, you need to have proof of vaccination and jump through some other hoops. It’s all well documented on their covid.is website, and I’m sure the policies are going to change. So I’d recommend keeping an eye on the requirements almost every day leading up to your trip.
Checking in at Sea-Tac was probably the most stressful part of the trip. International flights had a separate check-in line, ostensibly making sure all the paperwork is in order. During check-in, the gate agent started giving me a bunch of trouble, asking me things like why the vaccine card wasn’t laminated (it doesn’t have to be) and telling me the vaccine card expires (no, it doesn’t). At one point, they pulled up the same covid.is website and started reading the rules, which I had to direct her to the correct sections.
I’ll give them a bit of credit; there is a lot of confusion, and rules do change quickly in the era of COVID-19. But this didn’t really give me a ton of confidence in the rest of the border crossings.
Luckily the rest of the flight itself was relatively uneventful; Delta is always solid. Since it wasn’t a direct flight, the total trip time was around 11 hours. But about a week or so after I booked, Icelandair ended up opening direct routes from Seattle –> Reykjavik, which is about 7 hours.
Sidenote: the new Amex Centurion Lounge in JFK is dope.
I mainly stuck with my ultralight packing list this time around, with a few exceptions. I brought some additional camera and audio gear from Rode. Also no workout equipment this time around, it was a relatively short trip, and all the hiking will be enough.
One random thing I brought, last minute, was a few Patagonia Provisions meals. I figured since I’ll be embarking on a van trip and eating camp food, they would be good to have as backups. All you need to do is add some hot water, and you have a pretty nutritious meal. I’ll be honest, this was one of the best decisions I made. Sure, you can find some grocery stores, but sometimes it’s a bit out of the way, and you don’t really want to think about it. Having these bad boys ready to go was such a nice safety blanket. Also, groceries can be a touch expensive, so the Patagonia Provisions ended up being relatively cost-effective.
Another thing to note, it was fucking cold. Like really cold. I figured in May, I might be able to get away with my light Patagonia Nano Puff and an Unbound Merino Wool sweater. And I did survive, but I could see some people needing quite a bit more protection, especially from the wind. At times, the wind was almost unbearable and made it really damn hard to be outside. Fortunately, the Happy Camper managed to stay nice and toasty at night, so sleep was never an issue.
- Turkish towel – small, compact, and dries quickly. You’ll constantly be in and out of thermal spas and campsite showers. You’ll want this.
- Merino wool – all the hiking can work up quite a sweat; you’ll want something that dries quickly and isn’t smelly. And the layering potential of Merino wool will help you out when you’re going through multiple climates.
- Patagonia Meals – this was maybe the most clutch thing I brought with me. Just add water.
- Matador day pack – as always, these little things come in handy, especially with hiking.
- Headlamp – for nighttime hiking or volcano gazing, just in case.
When you’re trying to plan your Iceland road trip itinerary, you’ll predominantly see itineraries that include the Ring Road and the Golden Circle. And for a good reason, both of these are great routes with spectacular scenery to start with. But there are some other, less-known places that I wanted to stake out along the way.
Initially, I planned on just doing the Snaefellsness Penninsula and the Westfjords and taking it pretty slow. After meeting some people and deciding to caravan together, my itinerary changed a bit. We went to the Snaefellsnes Penninsula, but instead of going north to the Westfjords, we went down south the Golden Circle and even more south to Diamond Beach. Since I ended up having a few more days than them, I managed to go see the Westfjords anyway, but much more abbreviated.
It’s wasn’t the most efficient route, but in hindsight, I think I’m happy with the modifications. I spent a lot more time driving but managed to see some really incredible places, like Diamond Beach, that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Plus, I think there might have been too much downtime without all the driving. After a couple days, driving just became part of the experience.
- Fagradalsfjall – it might not be erupting when you’re there, but if it is, check it out. Or some other volcano. It’s awesome.
- Diamon Beach – Almost as impressive as the volcano.
- Westfjords – Jagged peaks crashing into the sea, small villages nestled between gigantic fjords, and giant waterfalls. And even better, no tourists. It is quite the drive up there, though; weaving in and out of the fjords takes a while. And to make it worse, some of the roads are a bit rough. Take them slow and enjoy the views.
- Glymur – An enjoyable hike with an iconic waterfall. Hike the whole loop, but be prepared to get your feet wet and ford the river.
Lodging & Transportation through Iceland
Since I took a campervan this Iceland road trip, these two go hand in hand. I did some research, and several companies are willing to rent you a camper van to get around Iceland. After a bit of research, I landed on Happy Campers for my Iceland road trip. Price and review-wise, they seemed to stick out above the rest.
My experience with Happy Camper is overall solid. The pickup and drop-off process is easy; they even provide a shuttle to and from the airport. I rented the Happy 1, which was their smallest car, and since I was solo, it seemed like the perfect size. If you’re going with two people, this would be a pretty tight fit, but possible. It also handled everything I threw at it, including some dirt roads up.
The van itself was well equipped with almost everything you need: stove and gas, cooler, utensils, pots/pans. The one thing they didn’t have was a coffee cup, so I’d recommend bringing one (I just ended up using takeout coffee cups). Or just get the Aeropress Go and make it easy on yourself. The storage was a bit frustrating at times, but it’s a small space, so I suppose that’s inevitable.
The heater got plenty toasty at night and was never cold, despite the crazy wind and relatively cold temperatures in May. They offer sleeping bags, but I definitely wouldn’t take or bring one; you won’t need it. The bed itself was a fold-out futon situation, which was…fine. Nothing to write home about, but nothing too uncomfortable to sleep.
My friends ended up renting from Indie Campers. The van was much bigger and cheaper, and I think a bit more affordable. Still, the quality was definitely not up to Happy Campers’ level. They had issues with missing equipment, their heater didn’t work, and the pickup/drop-off experience was worse (no shuttle). But I will say, the size of their van was much bigger, which was really nice for hanging out at the end of a long day.
One tip I kept seeing repeatedly was about the few amount of gas stations throughout Iceland. I never really ran into any issues or was frankly concerned about my fuel gauge at any point along the trip. Those diesel vans are efficient as hell, and very rarely did I get below a half tank. I mean, don’t be stupid and if you’re going to be somewhere more remote, like the Snaefellsness, Westfjords, or Highlands, be sure to gas up when you can. But if you’re planning on staying on the Ring Road, don’t worry about it.
What’s fantastic about van-lifing/camping around Iceland is the vast number of campsites littered throughout the country. Some of the campervan rental companies have campsite maps for easy reference:
A good chunk of these Icelandic campsites is pretty well equipped too. We’re talking showers, laundry facilities, kitchens, electricity hookups, and even swimming pools (yeah, swimming pools). So even though you’re camping, it’s not exactly “roughing it,” like you might think.
Better yet, you typically do not need to make reservations ahead of time. That said, if you have a big party or are traveling during peak seasons, it might not hurt.
Typically it costs money to stay at the campsites, but it’s not too much; around $10-20/night is what I found to be average. There’s a campsite host that will greet you when you get there (or the following morning) to collect payment. That said, if you’re traveling in the offseason, sometimes you won’t have to pay.
Note: Off-season camping can be hit or miss with some campsites, especially during COVID. During my trip, some were “closed,” but that just meant that the facilities weren’t operating at full capacity, but you could still stay the night.
I’d recommend having a general idea of which campsite you’re aiming to stay at ahead of time. Like I mentioned, it’s pretty easy to make itinerary modifications on the fly, but if you need special accommodations, better safe than sorry.
One downside to camping during COVID-19 and somewhat of a shoulder season is that the campsites were largely quiet. There might be one or two more cars, but the vast majority of the campsites I stayed at alone. If you’re going during peak season, I bet camping in Iceland would be a great place to meet new people.
- Happy Campers – Overall, really positive experience with renting from them.
- Gas is expensive – Prepare to spend a couple hundred dollars on gas. But don’t feel like you need to as up EVERY time you see one like other blogs recommend (especially if you’re on the ring road).
Food & Drink
When you’re in Iceland, you’ll need to try a few things: fish and chips, langoustine, Icelandic hotdog, and every kind of seafood you can get your dirty hands on. Food, mainly eating out, is expensive. There’s really no way around it. Expect dinner in Reykjavik to run you at least $50 a person at a quality restaurant. And while it might be cheaper in smaller towns, that will be about the market rate for grub.
During my time in Reykjavik, I tried a few places but was largely underwhelmed. Islenski barinn was good; I’d try the Languoustine dog. Braud and Co had lovely pastries. But I was just as happy eating food in some random town as I was eating in Reykjavik. I didn’t really go to any of the really upscale places, though, so I can’t speak to their fine dining.
Since I rented a van, most of my meals were at camp. Most campervan rentals will give you a little propane stove and some essential cooking equipment to boil water or do some light sautéing. So like you do with usual camping, you’ll want to keep this in mind when planning out meals. Pasta, rice, beans, eggs are all excellent choices. The morning I set off, I went to the store and made a quick shopping trip for the staples and then just picked up some random extras at grocery stores along the way. The Patagonia Provision meals I talked about above really did come in handy. It was nice knowing I always had a good dinner if I wanted it.
Water in Iceland is another topic. The water is indeed fantastic, even out of a gas station faucet. The volcanic rock acts as a natural filter, leaving vast freshwater reserves throughout the country. So bring a water bottle. I’d actually recommend at least two, and just fill up whenever you can.
Some blogs tell you to buy liquor in the Duty-Free store because booze in Iceland is so expensive. To be honest, I wouldn’t worry about that. To me, it seems like one tip that everyone just started doing and telling themselves. Will it save you some cash? Sure. Is buying booze in Iceland going to require a mortgage? No.
What is more concerning is that you can only buy booze in state-run liquor stores. These can be hard to come by sometimes, so it’s not a bad idea to get a little extra when you can. Don’t be fooled by the “beer” in grocery stores; it can’t be above 2.5% ABV. You can imagine what a shock this is when you realize it only after getting to your campsite…
Oh, and try the local hooch, brennivín.
- Tjöruhúsið – Incredible seafood restaurant in the Westfjords. One of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
- Friðheimar – a restaurant inside a geothermal greenhouse located on the Golden Circle. The food is really tasty and overall fantastic ambiance and vibes. Try the cocktails at your own risk…s
- Issi – Really damn good fish and chips near the airport, and it won’t set you back $20. If you need a quick bite before or after a flight, definitely check them out.
- Brennivín – the Icelandic liquor that has played a critical role in the country’s history.
After getting a taste of vanlife during my Iceland road trip, I can’t recommend experiencing the country every other way. Sure, there are long days of driving, but each day was filled with beautiful sights and adventure. Plus, I could imagine that, if the campsites were bustling, it would be a fantastic place to meet people. Without a doubt, it’s the best way to get around Iceland.