Camping in Iceland

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, you may be considering travelling to Iceland to enjoy the waterfalls, the hikes and the spectacular 24 hours of daylight.  But, in case you weren’t already aware, accommodation in Iceland is quite expensive.  Like, LUDICROUSLY expensive.  A hotel can be an average of $300 and even a private room in the Reykjavik hostel in July (high season) was about $185 a night.  A bunk with shared bathroom in a hostel is about $75.  Even Airbnb’s are more money than you might expect (like, $150 for a mattress on the floor of a living room).  Well, if you enjoy spending time out of doors, camping is a fun and inexpensive way to see Iceland.

Let me say, right off the bat, that camping in Iceland is much nicer than camping in North America.  First of all, the bugs don’t bite.  Secondly, there are no predators so you don’t have to worry about bear cans or locking food in your car.  Thirdly, the facilities in Iceland are fabulous – kitchen, bathrooms, wifi, leftover food and gear (including propane gas canisters) from other campers, recycling facilities and tourist info.  You can rent gear in Reykjavik if you don’t want to bring your own but we already had our own minimalist gear and Icelandair allows two large, checked bags so we knew we could bring everything we needed.

Iceland has a fantastic attitude towards camping.  Many Icelandic people take advantage of the warmer weather and the 24-hour sun to travel and vacation.  There are just as many Icelandic people in the campgrounds as there are tourists.  You can also wild camp, which means just pitch a tent anywhere, but I am a firm believer in camping in designated spots so that I’m not impacting fragile vegetation that, in a climate such as Iceland’s, can take centuries to recover.

We found this great savings card online called, quite succinctly, the Campingcard Iceland.  It allows 30 days of camping for up to a family of four (two adults and two children under 16).  For 149€, it allows you to camp at more than 40 campsites all over Iceland.  There are campsites everywhere in Iceland so you don’t need this card but we thought we’d give it a shot since we had no real itinerary and it comes with a booklet with maps and tourist info.  You still need to pay taxes of 100 ISK a night per person but that’s nothing compared to paying 273 000 ISK for a night in the hostel.  It’s also worth noting that the fabulous Reykjavik and Thingvellir campsites are not included in this card but prices are still unbeatable compared to a hotel (approx. 2100 ISK a night per person – about $28 – in Reykjavik and 1300 ISK – about $18 – in Thingvellir National Park).

We spent our first three nights in Iceland at the Reykjavik Campsite.  It was one of the best campsites we’ve ever stayed at.  Hands down.  Without a doubt.  This is not wilderness camping in a provincial park.  This is hostel living in a tent instead of a bunk.

The facilities are clean, well-organized and had everything we needed.  It is situated directly behind the hostel and group activities and tours can be organized at the campsite.  The info centre sold the City Card, which allows free entry into a lot of sites as well as public transit.  There is a bus stop right at the campsite/hostel and goes directly downtown.  It was easy to get to everything we wanted to see, the cooking facilities were quite large and there was always hot water.  But even if there wasn’t hot water, you could go next door to Laugardalur, the largest geothermal pool in Reykjavik for a shower and soak in the hot pots.   The campsite holds up to 900 campers and is environmentally sustainable.

All the campsites have outlets in the huts for charging.  We brought a small battery pack and we also charged our devices via USB port in our rental car so we had no issues.

The campsites in Iceland are covered in thick, lush grass.  I don’t know how they do it, considering the traffic they have but it’s beautifully comfortable.  We brought sleeping pads with us and it was almost like a mattress.  Just be forewarned that tent walls don’t block out the 24 hour sun so bring an eye mask because the 24 hour light can really mess with your sleep patterns.

There are no reservations for any campsites in Iceland so you just arrive and pick a spot.  If there is no attendant there, then set up and come back to the office later.  In some of the smaller sites we stayed at, someone just arrived at the campsite and checked your tent for tags.  If you didn’t have a tag for the campground, they settled up your bill and if you weren’t there, they left a note on your tent telling you how much you owed and where you could pay it (ex. at the tourist information office in town).

Our collection of tags from all the campsites we stayed at. A source of pride for us.

The 24-hour light and the lack of reservations or designated campsites means that travellers are travelling at all hours of the night.  It is entirely possible that you could be woken up in the wee hours of the morning, in full daylight by someone setting up their tent right beside you.  This happened several times to us – once in a campground with almost nobody in it and once in a campground that was completely packed.  When we could, we always opted to set up in the corner and park the car on the other side to protect our space.  We’re Canadian and we’re used to having at least a foot of space between our tent and the next one.

The first photo is in Olafsvík.  At about 1 am, two older Spanish ladies parked their car and set up their tent in the small space between the white car and our tent.  In the 2nd photo, in Flókalundur, we had set up the camera just outside of our tent to give you an idea of space.  At about 3 am, a young east European couple set up their tent (while having a few beers) in the small grassy area you see in the foreground of the photo.  In both instances, I awoke to tent pegs being hammered into the ground beside my head.  The third photo is in Grindavík.  We were able to set up in a corner so we had space on one side and to block the wind, which was quite strong.  While we were out sightseeing (meaning, the car wasn’t there guarding space), this Icelandic trailer set up right beside us.  While it didn’t happen at every campground, this is completely normal here.  In Thingeyri, the last photo, we were able to set up in a corner, park the car beside us and position the picnic table in front of us.  If there was space available, we claimed a bit more.  If the campground was crowded, we tried to leave as much space as possible for other campers.

Camping at Tungudalur, on the outskirts of Isafjordur.

Cleanliness (or the lack thereof) is something that may deter some people from the idea of camping in Iceland.  But it’s not like the provincial parks or “wilderness campgrounds” we have here.  The facilities we experienced were much more spacious and better maintained than any sort of comfort station at a provincial park in Ontario.  The kitchen facilities allowed us to make any kind of meal we wanted.  There were often spices, salt and pepper leftover in kitchens, as well as staples like potatoes, onions and garlic.

Here are two photos of the facilities at the Isafjörður campsite.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think about taking photos of the facilities in the smaller campgrounds but every one we stopped at had some sort of enclosed kitchen with burners, microwave, sink and washing facilities, and a hut with toilets and showers. Laundry was only available at the larger campsites.  These shelters make camping much more bearable if you happen to be struck with bad weather.  We were very lucky and had rain only one day.

The campsites vary in size and in popularity.  The campsites closest to Reykjavik have the most “leftovers”.  The next time we go to Iceland, we’ll head south to Grindavík first, which is the last stop for many campers due to its proximity to Keflavik Airport.  There was an extraordinary amount of food, leftover propane canisters and hiking gear available free for the taking.  There’s really nothing in the town to see but it is close to the Blue Lagoon and on the way south when driving the Ring Road so the facilities are fabulous.

At the Varmaland campsite, north of Reykjavik, was the only time we experienced the facilities being not as clean.  And when I say “not as clean”, think of camping in Canada.  In Iceland, though, we had gotten used to a certain standard of convenience and cleanliness.

Camping at Thingvellir National Park was a little different because it was in a National Park and not in a town.  There are several options for camping in the park.  We opted to camp at the Vatnskot campground, because it was closest to the Silfra Fissure snorkelling meeting point.  This was considered the “rustic” option but Icelandic rustic camping isn’t like Canadian wilderness camping.  It means that there is no shower and there is no proper kitchen.  But there is a Ranger station, a toilet and a small shelter with a table and a sink.  In fact, there are two sinks.  One is for cooking and washing and one is for cleaning fish.  If you enjoy fishing, you can obtain a fishing permit to fish in Þingvallavatn, near the campsite.  We saw several fishermen wading into the very cold water to catch trout, plaice and char.

The next morning, as we were eating breakfast, we had several sheep and a gaggle of geese traipse by our tent.

Here’s a quick look through our GoPro.  (Bob is wearing a headlamp but he only needed it in the toilet because there was no light.)

One of the most wonderful things about camping in Iceland is waking up every morning to the spectacular views of mountains, waterfalls, the magical fjords and the gorgeous colours of the sky.   Iceland is a place to visit when you want to see unique and untouched natural wonders.   Being able to be witness to the marvels from the moment we woke up to the moment we fell asleep, made us feel like we were really experiencing what this incredible country has to offer.

 

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