When Alex and I decided to rent a car and go wild camping through Iceland, I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be like. But boy, am I so glad we did it! Wild camping is my new favorite hobby, and I’m sharing all about our travels in this post!
Iceland was one of those pristine, untouchable places I had always read about but never thought I would get to experience myself. When my boyfriend and I secured super cheap tickets through WOW Air for the last 2 weeks of August, we decided to truly commit to how we felt Iceland should be explored: via car and via nature.
We embarked on an adventure that neither one of us has ever done before: a road tripping, wild camping adventure through Iceland with groceries packed in our luggage and little money to spend. We experienced a rough and extreme adventure that only Iceland can offer.
We caught our 6 hour red-eye flight from Baltimore-Washington airport and I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight. Well, I slept 15 minutes and Alex slept 45 minutes. So, needless to say, I was a bit cranky when I first woke up. But upon viewing the spectacular, vivid cotton candy sky outside our window as the sun began to peep out above the horizon, my mood instantly turned. I was beyond ready to see the beautiful countryside of Iceland! Intense winds and freezing cold temperatures greeted us upon landing…in mid August. After grabbing our luggage and finding our rental car service, we hopped in a car to go meet our dear friend for the next 2 weeks: a red Hyundai Tucson 4×4. Freedom! Sweet, sweet liberation! It was so nice to be on the road. It didn’t take long to notice how quickly our little car took up gas though…and how expensive it was to refill the tank! Gas – correction everything – in Iceland is ridiculously expensive, guys. We filled up the gas tank ($120) and off we went into the bright unknown!
Our first stop was the Golden Circle. Although we did not plan any of our roadtrip, I had circled a select few places in my Pocket Lonely Planet and we stopped off spontaneously at other locations along the way. Note: Southern Iceland is much more touristy than any of the other regions in Iceland, and there is good reason for it!
…a spectacular waterfall with rainbows galore! My camera lens and tripod got massively sprayed with mist…be warned.
Geiser and Strokkur – the famous Geiser stopped spurting up water in the early 1900s. Now, it’s loyal neighbor, the ever-reliable Strokkur shoots up water every 10 minutes. I, of course, lost my contacts and photographed these beauties without any sight, but it was worth every second.
The entire day I was dozing off in the passenger seat, the car riding along the gravel roads gently putting me to sleep. The farmlands are flat, wide and spread out as far as the eye can see. Golden fields filled with Icelandic sheep, horses and rolling green hills, dark purple mountains in the distance. We took a break at Gamla Laugin – a geothermal pool located in a small, greenhouse town called Fludir. This broad, calm geothermal pool was lovely to soak in. Mist and wildflowers surrounded us as well as a walking trail along the local river and sizzling geysers.
TIP: Be sure to take a shower prior to getting in any hot spring in Iceland. Icelandic locals are stern about washing (without a bathing suit) and they emphasize it so much, they make fun of it on local greeting cards!
We decided to set up camp at a nearby campsite right on the grassy hill of famous waterfall Seljalandsfoss. While we were planning to go wild camping through Iceland the majority of our trip, we found this waterfall and couldn’t not hitch a tent next to it!
What’s great about camping at this relatively cheap camp site ($12) was its easy access to hiking trails and waterfalls on site. We climbed a few mountains and walked to Seljalandsfoss with the rest of the tourists and photographers and hiked underneath the mossy-green cave with it’s icy, cold water flowing into the river. Despite the crowds, it is such a sight to see. After cooking breakfast in the campsite’s kitchen, we continued on down south, stopping at nearby natural wonders I found in my Pocket Lonely Planet. I navigated, and Alex drove. This was our routine.
I discovered 5 secret gems along our way down South and all of them were within an hour’s drive! Our first stop was a local pool built in the 1920s. We hiked 15 minutes to a nearby river valley where an empty and peaceful natural hot springs were nestled, surrounded completely by mountains.
10 minutes later, along Route 1, we encountered the 62m high Skógafoss waterfall towering over a rocky cliff at the western edge of Skógar. Dramatic, windy and surrounded by soaring birds, we climbed the steep staircase along the falls to witness a magical view of the countryside and a pack of sheep (always in 3!) drinking the fresh Icelandic water.
We continued on to Solheimajokull, an easy glacial tongue to reach. This icy outlet unfurls from the main ice cap and made for a quiet 800 meter stroll along the ice. Heck – all the strolls in Iceland are quiet! It is deafeningly silent here in Iceland, and I loved it.
After 4 hours contemplating the beauty of these glaciers, we got back in the car and headed South to another nearby glacier lagoon – Svínafellsjökull a gorgeous ice blue glacier with a frozen lake at the base. Hardly any cars were parked and less touristy than other glacier lagoons, we hopped out and began hiking some steep cliffs that decorated the icy waters below. I freaked myself out climbing the loose rubble and rocks up the cliff and decided to let Alex continue on while I anxiously watched. This was a great spot for fellow photographers, and we saw tons of drones flying around capturing footage!
Before we arrived in Vik, we stopped at 2 black sand beaches: Reynisfjara, with its cluster of sea stacks and climbable stone pillars and breathtaking Dyrholaey, with its rocky plateaus and huge stone sea arch. We observed puffins and the tall golden grasses along the rocky sea cliffs, snapping a few pictures and having some good quality talks overlooking the waters. Growing up in San Diego, I am very used to beautiful sea cliffs and beaches, but Iceland still managed to stun me with its natural beauty.
We drove and listened to our trusty GPS which we named “Harry” – although Harry got us in a lot of sticky situations and ended up making us more lost than we were to start out with – and headed farther South, inching closer to the nearest town, Vik.
Large towns in Iceland are often tiny, with only a gas station, church, some horses and a few houses and motels. We expected the first large town on our route to be bigger, but the empty space with nothing to do was quite refreshing for our New Yorker minds. Pulling up to the only campsite in Vik and hearing that the price to pitch a tent on some grass was over $20 each, we decided to let fate decide where we’d sleep. So, on we drove, the sun setting behind us, and rural countryside ahead.
After driving for 20 minutes, we found a nearby pull off, explored some quiet roads, and low and behold we discovered a farm… that people lived on! Nervously, Alex and I asked if we could sleep on their farm, and they graciously allowed us to pitch our tent next to the sheep.
It was a magical first of wild camping for us, but watching the sun set behind the mountains and the rich, golden sun rise with the grazing sheep and horses in the morning, was pure magic. It was silent, with only our breath and voices making any sounds. At 5 am the next morning, we packed up the tent and drove off with Harry to a destination far east, an adventure we had yet to experience in life: arctic glaciers
Still in my pajamas and glasses after wild camping on the farm, I ran out of the car and right next to the freezing waters. These massive ice burgs and glaciers drifted out to sea and it took my breath along with it. We sat on some nearby rocks, watching seals swimming among the ice and walked the entire rim of the lagoon, wearing out my memory cards in the process.
We took it all in: the stillness, the quiet, and the empty lagoon in the first few hours of morning before we played a few card games in the café nearby. Warm and toasty, we grabbed some coffee and I pulled out my dad’s card deck. With my brazen decision to leave my smartphone behind at home during our trip, it was purifying to play card games at a tiny Icelandic cafe instead of reading news articles and updates.
The glaciers were closer to the South East side of Iceland, and with nothing else to venture off to along the Eastern coast (and not enough savings the extreme cost of gas…), we decided to head back the way we came from. But this time, we were to stop and visit the overly-hyped Sólheimasandur plane wreck.
Back in 1973 a United States Navy pilot ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur. Luckily, everyone on that plane survived, but the remains are still located along the sand. There was no sign on the road to point out where to turn and the plane cannot be seen from the road, but we noticed a parking lot with a bunch of cars parked and figured that’s where we’d find it. Alex and I arrived at the wreck at golden hour, which was perfect, because the lighting magically lit up the plane and there were less crowds!
Photographers, models and even a film was being shot at the wreckage, and we spent an hour on site taking in all the action. Artists climbed and posed and stood on top of the plane, while Alex and I studied all the ripped cords and pilot’s seat that was still present. A photographer’s dream, with the white abandoned plane on the black sand, it looked like it came straight out of a sci-fi film. Despite the crowds and the exhausting walk along the sand, it is worth walking the 2 hours to see this haunted beauty.
During out first 5 days in Iceland, we wild camped on farms, along roads and even slept in our car when it got too dark to pitch a tent! We befriended horses and sheep, ate Trader Joe soups, and watched the sun rise and fall with each passing day. We hiked long hours and spent many hours in the car listening to the radio, playing car games, and enjoying the silence between us. Southern Iceland is much more touristy than any of the other regions in Iceland, but for good reason: the landscapes and natural wonders (waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, beaches) are some of the best Iceland offers. Iceland was unlike anything we had seen back home in the states or abroad, and they made for memories that’ll last forever.
While wild camping in Iceland was intense, as waking up in the frigid cold and not knowing where we could sleep or not was challenging, it made for some of our favorite memories together, and we can’t wait to do it again soon.
If you have any questions or are planning a trip to Iceland, I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or email me and I’ll help out in any way I can!
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September 2, 2017
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