Updated: Jan 16
Camping in Iceland has to be one of the best ways to really appreciate the rugged, natural beauty of this country. There are few ways to travel between major centers, so a vehicle is required to get out of the city. Once we looked into the cost of renting a vehicle versus taking tours and started looking for accommodations, renting a campervan became a logical decision allowing us to lengthen our stay and see more of the country.
There are many practical reasons for budget travellers to consider camping in Iceland. Iceland is expensive. This tiny northern island nation has little agriculture or manufacturing, meaning that many goods are imported. Hotels are very expensive and are mainly located in the two large cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri. Accommodations outside of these cities are harder to find, although there are smaller guest houses and B&Bs scattered throughout. Assuming that you will cook at least some of your meals and coffee, camping can also make significant savings for your food budget. Future posts will deal with some of the specific sights and excursions in greater detail.
We chose to rent a campervan from Kuku Campers, which offers wildly-painted campervans of all types and sizes. Because we are cheap and very low-maintenance we chose a very 2 seater minivan basic rig. It had a double bed and an ingenious design that included full "kitchen" supplies/sink at the back and room to stow our backpacks and gear under the bed. We weren't concerned about toilets or showers, since we knew we would be using campsites. We were given a brand new vehicle to "break in". I guess they took one look at us "mature" ladies and decided we weren't likely to be taking F roads, or careening along the fjords and gravel roads.
KuKu Campers packed the van with everything we needed except sleeping bags and pillows, which we brought with us. We prepared most of our own meals using the provided supplies. We always eat well when we travel and this trip was no exception. We enjoyed our regular grocery store runs (mainly to resupply Hraun) because we always eat well and this trip was not going to be an exception. For North Americans, it is interesting to see the differences in available proteins. In Iceland, the meat aisle is filled with all different cuts and presentations of lamb and seafood, with significantly less beef, chicken, and pork.
There are hundreds of campgrounds all over Iceland – many of which are located right next to some of the most stunning natural attractions on the island. We camped in front of waterfalls, next to shorelines, and on hillsides and mountains. Wild camping is no longer acceptable due to damage caused by increased tourism and careless tourists. Camping fees are incredibly reasonable (average $10 CAD per night) and campsite amenities are plentiful, even in the smallest of campgrounds. Some campsites charge per person. Much like everything else in Iceland, camping fees can usually be paid by a chip debit or credit card. There is a camping pass available (160 EUR) that might prove more economical for people planning to spend more time in Iceland, however, be aware it isn't accepted at all sites. We didn't use this option as the reviews warned us that many of the included campsites were further along the trunk roads.
The Ring Road, or #1 Highway, is exactly what you would expect: a road that circles the country. All the main communities are located on the highway or off one of the trunk roads that branch off of the main highway. The road is, at times, a beautifully graded highway and, at other times, an unpaved gravel road. For the vast majority of the journey, there were very few vehicles. However, when we sank into soft lava on the side of the road, we were pulled out and on our way in less than 45 minutes thanks to the cheerful assistance of multiple passing locals. Trunk roads are usually numbered. Trunk roads named with an "F" are Fjall (mountain) roads and are only accessible with high lift 4x4 vehicles, by law. These roads are generally in the interior highlands and are very well marked with large warning signs. These roads are usually closed over the winter months, and often do not open until late May/June. We had no problem avoiding F roads, choosing to take a tour when we wanted to hike in Landmannalaugar. Even with the lifted 4x4 bus, the driver got out to check the depth of every stream crossing.
We were struck by how popular camping is with the Icelandic people. Many campgrounds don't have designated pads, leading groups to set up in little camping "neighbourhoods". The equipment, comforts, and rigs are cleverly created and show a huge range of camping luxuries. Even the smallest campsites fill with locals on summer weekends. On clear nights, teens and children often slept on mattresses outside of the tent or rig.
Common amenities we found at almost every campsite included some sort of building that included potable water, basic kitchen facilities (sink, hot plate), bathrooms with hot showers, and beautifully maintained grounds with trash receptacles. Almost every campground had WIFI available, most of the time at no cost. Some had children's playgrounds and coin-laundry facilities. Some campsites were part of the grounds of a guest house or hotel. In each of these situations, campers were welcomed to use the lobbies and lounges in the main building.
We joined locals at community pools and hotpots daily. We made a point to stop and enjoy every natural hot pot we came across.
Every town has at least one campground, usually located in the center of town. Fees are usually collected in the evening or morning. Some smaller campgrounds had an honour cash box available. There isn't a reservation system. All sites are first come, first served but due to the field camping style there is always room. The only crowded campground we encountered was in Reykjavik.
We enjoyed the slow pace moving around the country, stopping whenever either one of us saw something pretty or spontaneously following a sign to something interesting. We stopped at many strange museums and fascinating sod houses.
We petted horses and arctic foxes, and ate many many boxes of a tasty treat called "Hraun". The road took us up and down over mountains and around fjords with stunning views around every corner.
We spent an afternoon whale-watching in Husavik, crossing the Arctic Circle. We walked on black and red sand beaches and marvelled at the amazing coastlines.
After a quiet night next to a vast golden beach we spent one of our best days ever in Latrabarg: high on the cliffs at the most western point in Europe, ridiculously happy amongst thousands of nesting puffins.
These beautiful birds have no fear of humans and pose beautifully. They only come to land for nesting in large colonies. The rest of the time they spend alone at sea. They make little to no noise on land, so even though we were surrounded by thousands of birds, it was very peaceful. Bonus: It's impossible to take a bad puffin photo.
Choosing to self-drive and camp will take you through little communities and their unique celebrations requiring colourful decorating of homes, parks, and roadways with the theme of the festival.
Our non-schedule allowed us to stop and enjoy any thermal pool discovered. We built stone sculptures on top of bare mountains and hiked through lava fields. We were soaked by waterfalls, rain and mist. We visited multiple Icelandic wool shops (me) and more than a few quilt displays/shops (ATB). This trip covered the month of July and the first week of August. When we first arrived, there was no darkness overnight but noticeably lengthened over the weeks. We wore long pants, long-sleeved tops, and sweaters. We kept ourselves cozy overnight with plenty of layers and our sleeping bags. Icelanders are very proud of their rugged land and are happy to share it with respectful visitors. We found ourselves savouring many beautiful moments.
And... then suddenly, we were stunned to realize that we were going to have to miss the entire Snæfellsnes Peninsula, because we simply ran out of time. Luckily we have a plan for that (it happens often) and have added it to our ever-expanding list of places that we will visit on our "Second Chances Tour". What's the best place you've camped? What are your thoughts on international road tripping in a campervan? Share in the comments.
There will be future posts on some of the fabulous activities we experienced and places we visited. Become a member to get notified of new content, for access to our members' only forum, and to receive the monthly newsletter full of chatty news and useful travel links and recommendations.