I’m just back from a couple weeks in Iceland, exploring remote corners of the Central Highland deserts, and just soaking up the silence and that clean subarctic air.
I’ll be writing a feature about the trip for Outpost magazine, so I don’t want to say too much about it here. At least, not until I’ve cut my notes together into article form.
But I would like to share a few tips that you likely haven’t read before.
Several will be of interest to any prospective Iceland traveler. And a few will only interest people like me, who want to enjoy the good weather of late July and August while avoiding the insane tourist traffic jam of the Ring Road.
Okay, so let’s get straight to it…
Rent a 4×4 (…And Know How to Use It)
Renting a car can be shockingly expensive in Iceland. And treating yourself to a full sized 4×4 can induce a sudden heart attack in the unprepared. But that car will make all the difference.
I saw so many people renting smaller four wheel drive vehicles, like those toy Suzuki “jeeps” or the cheap Dacia Duster. And I guess they’re okay if all you want is to drive the usual gravel roads, like the folks we saw venturing into the main arteries of the highlands with white knuckles on the wheel. But those low clearance cars will only take you so far.
If you want to get a taste of true solitude, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle like this Toyota Land Cruiser:
Off road driving is illegal in Iceland. And no one with even a touch of sensitivity would consider it anyway, because the land is fragile, and the marks you leave on that beautiful moss and lichen, and across those broad dusty flats, take decades to fade.
But thankfully, there are all sorts of small 4×4 tracks, and they’ll lead you to some truly incredible places. You might bump into the occasional Icelander out there who’s seeking solitude too. But most of the time you’ll be completely alone.
A Toyota Land Cruiser is reliable and tough. It’s got the power to crawl over anything you’ll encounter, and a high enough clearance to cross any river you’d care to attempt.
But please, before you venture into the back country, make sure you know how to use it. Don’t bust the suspension by slamming over rocks or stream beds. Know how and why to use 4-low and differential lock. And know how to negotiate river crossings — and when not to.
Don’t worry if you’re new to using four-wheel drives as expedition vehicles. You can gain confidence along with a baseline of knowledge by taking a one or two day driving course. Land Rover offers a good one at Eastnor Castle in England, and in a few other UK and European locations. And they’ve published a pretty good DVD of basic techniques, too (see The Essential Guide to Off-Road Driving).
So yeah, save your money and go all out on a serious rental car. You won’t regret it.
This is closely tied to my next tip…
Buy Map Sheets (…And Study Them Closely)
You’ll never find those amazing hidden places by relying on your car’s SatNav or a pocket GPS. You need to buy a good set of topographical maps, and spend some time studying them.
I bought five of the 1:200,000 Mál og Menning Regional Maps (numbers 1, 7, 8, 4 and 5, if you’re interested). They’re widely available in Iceland, and you can also order online from Stanfords in the UK.
Sheet number 8 covers the Central Highlands, and by the time I was done with it, it was torn in several places and creased enough in others to give it its own unintended topography.
The 1:200,000 will show you all sorts of 4×4 tracks, in addition to the smaller gravel F-roads. But don’t just study those. Look closely at the contour lines and try to envision the land you’ll be passing through. You can find some interesting bits of geography that will make great campsites or places to explore.
If you’re planning to hike, you’ll want more detailed maps of those specific areas.
And there’s one other thing you’ll want to do…
Check the Weather (…Frequently)
Everyone in Iceland will tell you that if you don’t like the weather, just wait half an hour. In one part of the Central Highlands we saw sunshine, mist, pissing rain, snow, and rainbow-laced skies, all within an hour.
Make it a habit to consult the Icelandic Meteorological Office website every day. You’ll see a detailed breakdown for each region of the country. Yes, it’s a smallish island, but the weather can vary enormously from place to place.
Forecasts are generally reliable for one to two days, and pure fiction beyond that.
Pay special attention to the wind forecast, in addition to temperature and precipitation. It may determine the sort of terrain in which you’ll want to camp.
But don’t worry if it’s cold, because you will have heeded my next piece of advice…
Stock Up on Duty Free at Keflavik (…I Mean, Really Stock Up)
The cost of alcohol in Iceland is catastrophic. Ordering a glass of house wine or a beer with dinner can add 1/3 to the price of a restaurant meal.
Even if you’re not Canadian, you’re going to want a cold beer at the end of your day’s driving, when you’re setting up your tent. And you’ll need a couple pulls off a bottle of schnapps to add a little warmth to your wilderness night, too.
Thankfully you can stock up on wines and other munitions of peace at a fraction of the price upon arrival. Keflavik Airport has a huge duty free shop right after the luggage collection belts, where you can buy everything from booze to liquorice. Take a lesson from the Icelanders on your flight and grab a shopping trolley.
In keeping with my theories on the spirits of place — that the landscape shapes the national drink — I’d like to recommend two particular bottles.
The first is Fjallagrasa, a schnapps made with Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica) hand picked in the highlands. It’s a wonderful drink. And it doesn’t just taste of the land you’ll be traveling through — it’s also an immunostimulant, and it can prevent the growth of bacteria and viruses. So yes, you could say this is a medical necessity.
The second spirt you’ll want to commune with is called Birkir. This is a schnapps that has been infused with Icelandic birch. It even comes with a stick in the bottle, which you are free to gnaw on if you so desire. This stuff is truly magical.
And of course, do try the traditional Brennivín (or “black death”), a fermented potato or grain schnapps flavoured with caraway. That became a staple of our camping provisions, too.
Okay, you’ve stocked up on books, booze and maps, and you’ve got a proper car.
There Are Waterfalls Everywhere (…Go Beyond the Ring Road)
Don’t get me wrong, the Ring Road — highway number 1, which circumnavigates most of the country — is a beautiful drive. You can see some incredible landscapes simply by following it, from bubbling mud pots to hot springs to more waterfalls than you can shake a dowsing rod at.
But that is exactly the problem.
From mid-July through August, the Ring Road is one big tourist traffic jam. Everyone and their grandmother — usually all riding in the same compact car — is blindly following it, and pulling up their RV’s or pitching a cathedral-sized tent at the usual overpopulated campgrounds along the way.
But there are waterfalls everywhere, and the most incredible ones are those you discover on your own. They’ll feel like a private gift of the land, something deeply personal, and they’ll stay in your memory in a way that the big waterfalls won’t, because you aren’t seeing them from a boardwalk with a couple hundred chatterboxes.
The most unforgettable memories of my time in Iceland are of those solitary camps in the highlands, and those lonely fjords of abandoned farms.
So are you ready to start planning your trip?
Great. Now take out your wallet, because like every serious traveler, you must…
Do Your Reading (…This Is Important)
No, I’m not talking about the Lonely Planet. And if you refer to the guidebook as “the bible”, you should probably stop reading my stuff right now.
I’m talking serious reading. The sort of background research that adds depth to your travels, that connects to you a people and a place, and that acts as a compass for your curiosity and your wanderings.
You’ll want to start with the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is your primer on Norse mythology, and it’s a hell of a good read.
Next, pick up the Sagas. These stories, set around 1000 to 1200 AD, describe the first settlers of Iceland and their descendants, and they’re filled with battles, boozing, adventures and the odd bit of sorcery. Yes, it’s a massive brick of a book. But at least read Egil’s Saga before you go, because the Sagas feel very current in Iceland, and you’ll find traces of them all over the land.
After that, I suggest dipping into the work of Iceland’s nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. Start with the novel Independent People. You’ll find yourself evaluating sheep in a way you never have before. And the main character, the stubborn, determined Bjartur of Summerhouses, will stick in your head long after you’ve turned the last page.
Finally, whet your appetite with some quality travel writing. I highly recommend Last Places by Lawrence Millman. The author follows Viking sea routes from the Shetland Islands to the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. And I guarantee that before you put this book down, you’ll be ordering everything else he’s written on the north.
So that’s it. You’re ready to go.
Oh yeah, one last thing…
Bring Wet Weather Gear (…You’ll Need It)
Bring wet weather gear.
An umbrella is useless in a place where the rain can come at you sideways, and from every minor compass point simultaneously. And even when it’s not pissing down, your rain pants will provide some protection from the biting winds.
Take a tent that’s been throughly tested in foul weather and high gusting wind.
Peg it down well, and don’t forget to add a few rocks — or you might just wake up in the Faeroe Islands.