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Iceland has quickly become the trendiest travel destination in the world over the last five years. The small island started hitting bucket lists everywhere when nature photographers and cultural aficionados returned from the Nordic destination with dazzling pictures and stories of otherworldly landscapes, where the sometimes bleak Northern areas provide the perfect backdrop for waterfalls, glaciers, and frigid beaches.
Now, people are continuously drawn to Iceland’s rugged environment that seems suited to its Viking past and yet still incorporates a modern charm within its cities and people. Because of its isolation, which flirts with the Arctic Circle, Iceland is not a cheap destination, but with its popularity with adventurous voyagers there are a number of different backpacker friendly ways of seeing the country. Check out our backpacking guidelines below.
Ways to See Iceland
Arguably the biggest appeal of Iceland is its unreal natural beauty. With near-endless hours of sunlight in the summer, day hiking takes on a new meaning, and with diversity ranging from lava fields to ice caves, camping is a picturesque approach to affordable accommodation. Consider taking a hiking tour or backpacking trip to the Westfjords, a northern portion of the country in the shape of an antler that sees very minimal visitation from tourists. The few people that live there are citizens of tiny traditional fishing villages. For some wild camping, head out to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, a beautiful sanctuary with an excess of campgrounds and a great place to observe unique wildlife during the day, such as Arctic foxes or whales breaching off the coast. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the climate in Iceland can be cold, rainy, snowy, and windy in the most extreme ways, and while bad weather can roll in every day of the year, for camping, reservations during the summer months are highly recommended.
Recently, renting a car and road tripping around the island has become a popular way to see all of Iceland. The Ring Road is a highway that traverses the circumference of the island and will take drivers through some of the most remote and gorgeous roads in the world. While a traditional car rental is fine, the best way to navigate the Ring Road is to rent and live out of a camper van (#vanlife). While the road could theoretically be completed in around a day, travelers are recommended to take seven to ten days to fully explore the sites offered along the road. The drive will take you to famous sites including the Golden Circle, home of Thingvellir National Park, Skogafoss waterfall, and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, which is the most photographed natural feature in Iceland, as its cascades are in the foreground of a view complete with a shark-finned mountain peak. While camper vans are complete with beds and makeshift kitchens, be sure to pack a sleeping bag, as nights can be cold. Stock up in Reykjavik on food as grocery stores can be hard to come by on the back roads of the Ring Road. Recently, Iceland has changed its laws, disallowing camper vans from parking anywhere overnight. Instead, you’ll need to set up camp at designated campsites.
Because of the increase in popularity, Iceland’s capital has received global focus as a vacation destination; so much so that many people don’t realize it is far from a mega-city. While Reykjavik performs like a full-grown city, and possesses around half of the country’s entire population, only about 125,000 people live within the town’s borders. To put that into perspective, Topeka, Kansas has a similar population. Reykjavik still has plenty to do though. The city is well known for a rambunctious nightlife scene, friendly locals, and an immerging Nordic foodie culture.
The perfect way to spend a day in Reykjavik would be to visit the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor spa that’s outside of town where visitors can swim around the natural hot springs, then return to the city center to explore its quaint streets before having a traditional meal of either seafood or lamb (but be warned many of these dishes may still have a face), and finish the night bar hopping, since everywhere in the city is walkable. Or just outside of the city is Raufarholshellir (better known as ‘The Lava Tunnel’), one of the longest lava tubes in Iceland, where tourists can enter with their headlamps and explore its many striking geological features. The city is changing quickly, tourism saw a near 300% increase between the years of 2010 and 2015, and now locals joke the construction crane is the new national bird. Icelandic people are very friendly although conversations on tourism can be met with attitudes ranging from beguiled excitement to protective concerns about preserving the island’s culture.
Cities other than the Capital:
Nearly all tourists visit Rekyavik and while the capital may be the hub of culture, other small towns on the island offer a more unique look at Icelandic culture.
Hofn– Literally translating simply to “harbor”, Hofn, more so than anywhere else, is a good spot to sit seaside and watch fishermen bring in the daily catch. Check out local glaciers for ice-caving as well.
Vik– The southernmost town in Iceland, Vik serves as a jumping point to many of the country’s volcanic, black sand beaches. Make sure to plan ahead as Vik’s accommodations are limited in the summer.
Akureyri– A good place to get a buzz on, this fishing port is home to the world-renowned brewers of Einstock Brewery.
Places to Stay
Here are our favorite places to stay, on a backpacker’s budget, in each of the previously mentioned cities.
Reykjavik: Kex Hostel Reykjavik
Hofn: Hotel Hofn
Vik: Farmhouse Lodge
Akureyri: Akureyri H.I. Cottages
I had no idea that the main city (i’ll Mess up the spelling of I attempt it lol) was so small! Thank you for the comparison. That puts it into perspective!
There are so many beautiful waterfalls in this country as you rightly put it. I would certainly opt for the road trip and make sure I go all the way on the Ring Road to explore Iceland’s beauties.
Iceland is BEAUTIFUL! We did rent a car but I do think a camper would be interesting. Maybe not for the winter haha but during the warmer months.
Iceland is at the top of my bucket list. I would love to do a road trip.
Iceland is definitely amazing! We would love to climb those mountains—we’re rock climbers and mountaineers—and hike those prairies. Visiting Iceland is actually one of our life bucketlist. 🙂 Is there a rock climbing scene/community there? With all those wonderful cliffs, I’m inclined to believe so.
I loved Iceland when I visited, and would return in a heartbeat. I saw most of the places you mentioned, but would like to see more off the beaten track places. The landscape is awesome too!
My friend made 1500 km on bicycles around Iceland. They camped just everywhere. I am not willing to do that as well, but cannot find anyone who would agree to go with me.
I’m literally headed there this Friday and you’re getting me beyond excited! I actually wanted to try camping, but I’m visiting with my parents so this isn’t something they’d enjoy. Would be epic to experience the nature there first hand tho.
your post made me want to do Iceland RIGHT NOW! It looks amazing and I am saving it for when I plan my trip there. fingers crossed hopefully I get to go next year!
Anna- so happy to hear you enjoyed the article! drop us a line when you make it out there, we would love to hear some stories.