7 day road trip and camping around Iceland
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
<All pics are fully raw and unedited to give real taste of our adventure>
I was sitting on my desk, mulling over the computer codes I was writing in the beautiful town of Bratislava, when Marek entered the office and said, "Flights are really cheap to Iceland, are you interested in coming?" I said Yesss!
1.5 months later, we were on the flight to Reykjavik.
You will fall in love with Iceland at the first sight. Airplane glides on the island from over the ocean, and everything is black at the coast. Later we find out that they are lava fields! Puffins hanging from the airport ceiling, interesting looking currency bills and coins, strong winds, and just a relief and happiness that we are finally here!
Now, Iceland is very expensive (very does not even cover what I mean), and we were 3 poor PhD students. For example, a single bed in dorm costs anywhere between 50-100 euros per night, depending on peak season. Private rooms go above 150 euros. Extrapolate that over 7 days for 3 men, and we are talking big bucks! Then food and traveling around, it's capable of making a big volcano sized hole in your wallet!
How did we even think about it then? It took a lot of planning and a sense of adventure. We definitely couldn't afford hostels or hotels, so we decided for camping. We had just 1 big trolley bag with our tents, sleeping bags, and kitchen items, so that we don't have to pay for extra luggage. We booked a car that we would take around the country, camp somewhere in the nights, and cook our own food with minimal grocery shopping : That was our plan for the ultimate Boys' Road Trip!
We took our car and went to see the West coast near the airport where they have lava fields. The wind was strong and it was raining a bit, and it was already getting dark, so our goal for 1st night was just to explore surrounding area and find a place for camping. The ocean was wild there, with almost 50 feet high waves crashing with the coast. The road was long and empty (we did see some sheep!), and surrounded by black dried lava everywhere, and nothing else! We got down to explore the lava fields after half an hour of driving and it was amazing!! It was like we are on some another planet.
It started raining heavily so we couldn't find to camp, so first night we spent in car at a parking lot of some hot spring. Jackets on, and wrapped in our sleeping bags, we pushed through the cold night. In general we woke up 2-3 times in night due to rain and wind splashing on the car, but it was 'fine'. Bloody awesome though.
Leiðarendi lava cave, Gulfoss waterfalls, Strokkur geyser, Tectonic plates, Black church
Now all 3 of us have divided tasks between us. Marek will drive (none of the rest had license or required experience), Tomas will look after logistics and be the navigator, and I would plan our day to day trip itinerary with things we all decided to see. We all will take as many pictures as we can.
We woke up and left very early after using the free WC there (around 6-7). The road was empty as usual. We made a stop near some big lake (which was not even in itinerary), but that was our plan: using itinerary as a guide, and not a rule. Where we could explore, we will.
We reached the lava cave, which was basically a giant hole in the ground covered with the preserved moss (explained later). We didn't have proper gear for full-on exploration, so we went in as far as we could, and decided to return back from the point where even flashlights wouldn't pierce the darkness. Anyone remember the scene from Pixar's Incredibles- 1 movie, where the 2 superkids run out of a cave due to flaming rocket exhaust? This cave was basically that.
This day was to see the touristic spots off the Golden circle route (it's the big highway that goes around Iceland). We next drove to Gulfoss waterfalls, which is like a double-decker waterfall (one over another!). It was windy there, and we were regretting not bringing our thick jackets from car (lesson learned!). And also lot of tourists, but this was our first major waterfall, so we were really excited!
Next touristic spot was the 1000 year old Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 6-10 mins, and has no waiting lines as compared to other geysers around the world. People just gather around and watch. Every eruption is 25-40 metres high. I don't have a good picture of it, since I was more focused on watching. But it's glorious, definitely look up on internet.
That was enough tourism for us this day, so we decided to go and look at the tectonic plates that divide Europe and American continents. We all wanted to see them, and were really excited! We first had our lunch near the plates, for which we cooked pasta with vegetables and tomato sauce on our mini stove, and gulped it down with some juice. Very filling if you are on a shoestring budget. My friends had some meat slices with bread, but I am vegetarian so I had a banana.
The tectonic plates, as you can imagine, are amazing. Like 2 high ridges with a valley between them. Now with full stomachs and high spirits, we climbed some rocks and went into the valley, and basically we were in no man's land! At places at once, but this time they were continents, instead of the usual country or city.
From East we had come towards middle of Iceland (1/3rd way). We had to go back to North East, and we had 2 more places to see for the day, so we were running behind the schedule, as we were spending more time at each spot and on the road, adding new stops, just enjoying. Like they say, it's the journey that matters, and not the destination. :)
After a long drive, we reached Búðakirkja, or the Black church. Situated in pristine location, it gives you a vibe like nothing else. So peaceful and calm, with mountains in background! And the church is jet black with white windows and doors, which is unique in itself.
It was raining very lightly, so we decided to look for a place to camp. Now it's legal to do wild camping here, as long as you don't do it on private property or moss (you cannot even touch moss, which is natural preserved heritage and takes years to grow). It's the same moss that Justin Bieber stepped on, and is now hated widely in Iceland for that! It was a bit tough to find a good place, but we decided on a place behind a house, surrounded by mini 'hills'. It was even tougher to put up the tents due to wind, with things flying around, but after 15 minutes of hard work, we had our first tents up in Iceland!
Snæfellsnes peninsula and Arctic Coast Way: The coveted scenic drive
The wind was banging the tent, so we woke up few times in night. But it was ok, and we left early again. Today was going to be a super long day with a super long drive (longest of our trip, which technically we were supposed to end on Day 1). It was super rainy at 6 am. We saw Snæfellsjökull volcano through clouds and rain, and Tomas had found out of a crater over a hill somewhere closeby, so we hiked a bit. We did climbed some big hill, with wind pushing us down, but no crater on top, so maybe we climbed some wrong hill...But fun! We drove through Snæfellsnes peninsula through rain (beautiful nonetheless), and by 9 am, we reached some lake and had our breakfast by a Nordic totem pole.
So, we found a shortcut on Maps to the Coastal drive, so hopefully we would cover up on schedule. But it turned out to be an F-road! So in Iceland they have normal roads, and F-roads which are basically rough roads through mountains. Your tires can puncture, car can get stuck or broke down, or anything unimaginable with no help or people for kilometres, so you have to be very careful driving there. It's fun though. We drew very slowly through stones and valleys, discovered a waterfall, and made out of it somehow! Our car looked crazy afterwards, as if it survived some apocalypse!
Rest of our drive for the day was as smooth as it can be. Arctic Coast Way is a very beautiful scenic drive through fishing villages in Northern Iceland, and it was Lonely Planet's top destination for 2019. We saw small coastal villages, tunnels, lakes, waterfalls, mountains, and lots of beautiful nature on our drive. Instead of touristic Husavic (where you can go whale watching if you have extra money), we went to lesser known villages like Siglufjörður, and Svalbarðseyri where there is a unique orange colored lighthouse! Also, Icelandic people believe in elves and they build very small houses for them in their backyards, which are really cute! You can actually get an elf diploma in Reykjavik too!
After having our dinner there (Baguette sandwiches with fillings, and juice), we found a place to camp outside the town between mini-hills to 'save' us from wind, talked for a bit, and went to sleep around 8 pm. Not that the hills saved us, my tent fell on me in night due to wind, and we had to re-set it up according to frequently changing wind direction at around 1 am.
Total drive today was 7.5 hrs + stops + F-roading.
Godafoss falls, Lake Myvatn, Dimmuborgir fortress, Námaskarð, Viti crater
We woke up quite fresh at around 6 am, had our tea, and chatted for a while. Now the trip was going to be more relaxed, with less driving and more things to see. We were behind 3 stops on our schedule, so we added another stop in the itinerary, our next waterfall, Godafoss, or waterfall of the Gods. Legend says, an old chieftain threw old Norse gods' idols in the falls, declaring the nation's conversion to Christianity, and hence the name. It did look godly!
Then, Lake Myvatn! This beautiful lake has seen quite a few volcanic eruptions, and you can see craters around it due to that. We also did some souvenir shopping there. Very unique. From there we went to Dimmuborgir, which is a lava fortress, where lava comes out of the ground and form high pillars (read science behind it online, it's very interesting), and left for Grjotagja cave, where Jon Snow and Ygritte did some 'stuff' in Game of Thrones. The water was warm there inside and smelled of sulfur. After making some guy jokes about the place, we moved on to my favorite place in Iceland, Námaskarð, which is basically Mars on Earth. Hot spring lake, red soil, sulfur extracts, and boiling mud pits, surrounded by yellow mountains, it's alien. We hiked to the top of a big hill, and the view was Mars.
My next favorite was Viti crater, which is a cyan lake inside a volcanic crater. It is so outworldly too, surrounded by lava fields! Tired after such a long day, near this crater we saw an open shower on the side of road. Without giving a second thought, we got out of car, got stripped, and took a nice shower in open! Although the wind was chilly, the water was surprising warm, maybe from some nearby hot spring. The cars passing by must have enjoyed a nice show!
The shower did make us sleepy, and we decided to stop after our next stop, Dettifoss waterfall, the most powerful and largest waterfall in Europe! We had our dinner there too, and hiked a bit to the waterfall. In one word, it was loud! Really strong!
By this time, today we realized that we missed out on 1 thing- checking the gas! We had 2 hrs of drive left to next gas station, almost 85 kms, and the gas meter was showing 100 kms. Now either we can go back half hour- 20 kms and get the tank filled, or take a risk and go forward since we still had good buffer. So we decided to go forward. It was good, but we missed 1 variable in our equation- the terrain! Slowly the road started getting steep and we entered a mountainous region. There we got really nervous, since now the car was consuming more petrol, and we may run out anytime. We kept checking the meter and the maps. I had even started checking how much time it would take for us to walk till the station - 7 hrs of walking, 5 hrs of walking, now 3. Finally we reached the station and we had less than 5 kms left in the tank. We took a deep breath of relief and laughed a lot. Later, next to an F-road and a farm nearby we put up our camps, blocked the winds by our car, and slept.
East coast: Seyðisfjörður, Vestrahorn mountain, Jökulsárlón iceberg beach, and glaciers
It was raining again, and instead of waiting for it to stop, we just packed our tents fast and left for the East coast. We had only 1 village to see on this side, and we reached there relatively early. East coast is totally different from West and North. Due to rains, the mountains were like people standing in shower, with water flowing all over them. The effect was such, that there were hundreds of small waterfalls everywhere!
We reached the town, Seyðisfjörður, and it became our favorite town in Iceland in an instant! Surrounded by mountains on the coast, with a lake in center, it has the most colorful houses we saw in the country. The main jewel of the town is the LGBTQ Rainbow street in front of the main church, which shows the open-mindedness of Icelanders. Make sure to spot the mini waterfalls in the background in pictures below.
We had pushed through last 2-3 days. We had decided before that our first days can be long and tiring, and last days will be more relaxing and easy, since we have to catch a flight later too. After this town we were on track with our itinerary, we came to South East and started seeing the coast with black sands.
After breakfast at a quick stop there, the Vestrahorn mountains and mirror beach. By this time it was raining so hard, that made it almost impossible to walk towards the beach. So we had to skip it.. uff the pain! But you don't get everything in life, atleast not at the time you desire. Good lesson for us. But there should be something for next time, right? The mountain was looking epic in this weather too, and we did see some mirror effect on ground as well!
Next was Jökulsárlón, which is a glacier beach! We could see actual icebergs floating on the water, small and big! Also, there were seals. Seeing them in their natural habitat was like a dream came through. See, we missed Vestrahorn mountain, but saw something else that was so unique and unplanned. Lot of places and experiences like this on this trip. So, another lesson learned that the universe gives us things at the most unexpected times, and even though we are sad about losing something, another good news is just around the corner! Also, CLIMATE CHANGE IS VERY REAL PEOPLE!
We were now on schedule with our itinerary, and the landscape had changed dramatically again! Lots of beaches and snow-tipped mountains were a norm. We were looking for glaciers that we can visit now. We went to one, and the entrance to it was closed, so we went ahead and found another one. This was my another dream coming true, seeing a glacier in real life! I always thought that I will have to go to Arctic circle or Antarctica for that (which definitely someday I will go, hopefully!), but seeing it here was so amazing! We had to hike for half hour or so, on a very narrow and slippery trail on a mountain, and it was soo worth it!
We had a lot of daylight left, so we started going towards the Black beach, and camped mid way, a bit early than usual near some lava fields. We cooked a nice meal of pasta, sat together, ate and chat for sometime. Our schedule had changed, and I think it got adapted to the natural cycle of light and dark. We were sleeping by 7-8 pm, and daily waking up by 5-6 am. No screens, Netflix, binge watching series, etc., other than phone, which was used mostly just for GPS and taking pictures. We liked it :)
South: Black beach, crashed DC plane, and free hot spring bath
This was going to be a very relaxing day, we decided. We will take it very chill, we told ourselves, and that's what we took.
Reynisfjara, or Black beach, at Vik was, well, black. From every stone, to mountain, to each sand of grain, everything was black. Due to cloudy skies, the ocean also didn't have any color, so there was a natural black and white contrast. I filled some sand and few stones as souvenir from there. This is also the place where they shot a scene for Game of Thrones, I believe from East-Watch.
After a short drive, we had to hike almost 1 hr one way through black landscape with nothing around, to see a crashed and abandoned DC plane at Sólheimasandur. Straight out of some science fiction, the plane is lying there, broken, since 1973. No one died, and this military plane became a legend for Iceland visitors. While returning, we played a mini prank on people, and were saying loudly among ourselves, "2 hrs already walking back, how much more time!!". We did turn some heads..
Now we knew we were not going to pay for thermal baths in some expensive facility (some of which are artificial though as well). Tomas found out about a hike where there is a thermal swimming pool at the end, and we decided to spend remainder of our day there (it was our relaxing day, remember). The hike itself was beautiful, and the waters in the pool really warm. For people on shoestring budget, this free and non-touristy thermal hot spring in Iceland is called Seljavellir Geothermal Pool (on google maps). Changing rooms are a bit messy, but well it's for free!
By this time we had seen so many waterfalls that we joked whenever we saw a waterfall: '15,023'th waterfall, or '1 million,67002'nd waterfall! We drove till the border of capital city, Reykjavik, and found a place in hills for camping. Sun was out finally so we put our clothes out for drying. It was near a hot spring power plant, so a bit loud, but you get used to it. Next two days the weather was below 2 degrees in nights, and we would wake up with frozen feet.
Our final full day we spent in Reykjavik city. The sun was out finally and we had very clear skies! She has lot of unique things like amazing churches, museums, beaches, murals, colorful houses, and great food! My favorite was seeing a Nordic Jesus statue and an old funny news article about lack of police in a museum there.
That night we saw the full night sky finally, full of stars! It was also the night where they had turned on the John Lennon light, which was glowing as a white laser among the stars. We kept checking for Northern lights, but we didn't see it. We saw a lot of other things on the trip so we were not sad at all - always a next time, remember?
We took our time to wake up, ate nicely, and left for the city. We cleaned the car before giving it back, and went to airport. The whole trip we didn't drink at all because it was crazy expensive, but at the airport they were giving some alcohol for tasting, so we had few free shots to celebrate! From flight, we saw a volcano from top with clouds around it, as if it was waving us bye.
Iceland is amazing, so good that while writing this post I ran out of adjectives. Every part of it is unique, and even if you have very few days, you can see something that you haven't seen or imagined before. Camping is a good idea if you have a sense of adventure, but you need to make sure you have a good sleeping bag, as it is normal for temperatures to go below zero degrees at nights. Another practical tip is to have a really planned itinerary as it can get expensive there. Our major expense in this whole trip was car and petrol, rest we managed pretty easily. Try to stay out of touristic areas (definitely go to some!), and explore much as much on your own. Iceland has something for everyone, off the beaten route, so try to see as much as you can on this once in a lifetime adventure. And if you miss out on something, well, there is always a next time ;)
Cheers from the dream team, Marek, Tomas, and Anang :
When you come to Iceland, you will know the meaning of exception.
For my favorite high quality camera pics from Iceland, click here.
What part of Iceland is your favorite and you would like to visit, East, West, North, or South? Let me know in comments, and ask any questions if you have! :)