Visiting Iceland: 14 dos and don'ts
The number of visitors to small, ravishingly beautiful Iceland is soaring – and Iceland’s news has been busy with stories of tourists getting into difficulties. When travellers get things wrong, it can be a matter of etiquette, or the destruction of the pristine environment. But it can also be life-threatening for both the visitor and the search and rescue operations mounted to save them.
Here are our tips on how to avoid social pratfalls, treat the environment responsibly and have a safe, brilliant and informed trip.
Do: Understand your impact on Iceland
Iceland has a population of around 320,000. Before travellers started arriving in droves (about a million per year now), most Icelandic sights, from thundering waterfall Skógafoss and basalt beach Reynisfjara to the wild interiors at Landmannalaugar & Þórsmörk, had no need for big car parks, safety placards or hordes of park rangers. Developing an infrastructure that can cope with its appreciative new visitors while maintaining the untouched feeling of one of the world’s most unique landscapes is a major challenge for Iceland.
Do: Use common sense
We’ve seen tourists stroll onto Sólheimajökull glacier in sneakers and light jackets. Recent incidents include a family trying to drive across Langjökull glacier in a small SUV, a teenager jumping into 2°C (35°F) waters at Þingvellir National Park on a dare and tourists being sucked into the waves at black-sand Djúpalónssandur beach.
Though Iceland’s dramatic terrain is perilous, you may find no safety rails beside cliff edges, and no ropes alongside plummeting waterfalls. Icelanders would prefer not to mar their beauty with obvious signs or railings, and count on people to be smart. And if there are signs or barriers, heed them.
Do: Take the weather seriously
You may encounter bus tours and droves of visitors in popular places, but Icelandic weather is highly volatile, no matter where you are. A sunny day can quickly turn to snow flurries, and the stakes get even higher as you head into the true wilds. Never underestimate the weather – get a forecast at the Icelandic Met Office (en.vedur.is).
Do: Dress appropriately & pack serious gear
How to have a brilliant holiday in Iceland? Be smart and safe. Bring good maps (available at Reykjavík bookstores like Mál og Menning), appropriate gear, plus, you’ve heard it before: common sense. Consult a proper hiking or cold-weather packing list. If you had no access to a car or building, would you be warm and dry enough with what you were wearing? No hiking in jeans, no climbing on glaciers without proper guidance, no fording rivers in subcompact cars, no camping without hardcore waterproof tents. Then just relax and enjoy all that beauty, no fear required.
Being prepared can open up great wilderness areas such as the Westfjords’ beautiful Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, known for its Arctic foxes, spectacular birding cliffs and unspoiled hiking and camping.
Do: Plan ahead
Having your own wheels in Iceland is a wonderful treat: it allows you to roam the grand countryside at your leisure. Always prepare before setting out: investigate driving times and road conditions (via the Icelandic Road Administration, vegagerdin.is), weather forecasts, safety issues, and if you’re hiking, trail conditions and requirements. Ask locals, who will know the tricks and troubles of each place. Then listen. Plan an itinerary that’s realistic for you. You don’t want to be caught on a hillside in fog or sleet (whether on foot or in your car) with no food and water and no idea how to get back to humankind.
Visit Safe Travel (safetravel.is) is a site run by ICE-SAR (Icelandic Search & Rescue), with travel and weather alerts and information, a smartphone app (useful in emergencies), and procedures for filing a travel plan.
Another good information source is Ferðafélag Íslands (the Icelandic Touring Association; fi.is) which runs many huts, campgrounds and hiking trails.
Lonely Planet has tips on Icelandic conditions.
Do: If driving, stick to appropriate roads
Know which roads are accessible in the type of vehicle you're driving. Beyond Iceland’s main Ring Road (Route 1), fingers of sealed road or gravel stretch out to most communities, until you reach the F Roads, bumpy tracks only passable by 4WD. F roads are truly unsafe for small cars. If you travel on them in a hired 2WD you invalidate your insurance. Steer clear, hire a 4WD, or take a 4WD bus or super-Jeep tour. Similarly, trying to ford a river in a 2WD vehicle or low-slung 4WD is asking for trouble.
Don’t: Drive off-road
Never drive off-road. It’s illegal and incredibly damaging to the fragile environment. Cavalier tourists leave tracks where they’ve flouted the rule, and those tracks entice others to do the same. Even with a 4WD, stick to marked roads.
Do: Take a Tour
Iceland’s tour operators are a professional and knowledgeable bunch and can get you out into rugged country via super-Jeep, amphibious bus, snowmobile, helicopter and more. Going on a tour can offer insights and guidance through dangerous landscape you shouldn’t be tackling alone.
Do: Travel responsibly & sustainably
Remember the basics of responsible travel: don’t litter, reduce your footprint, leave places better than you found them and protect wild animals and natural flora. This applies to popular sights like the Golden Circle as well as the wild interior where it’s just you, the glaciers and volcanoes. Check out nature.is for tips on sustainable travel in Iceland.
Do: Appreciate Icelanders
Icelanders are a generally hardy and open-minded group with a dry but vibrant sense of humour. They tend to speak impeccable English, and are game for a chat, or to tell you about their favourite places to go. Respecting local etiquette and laws (along with not whingeing about the weather, or how hard it is to get to the natural wonders) will go a long way in endearing you to them, and open opportunities for local connections.
Do: Expect to remove your shoes indoors
Icelanders often remove their shoes indoors. Pack flip-flops or slippers for indoors.
Do: Always shower with soap before taking a dip
Part of the unique gift of Iceland’s volcanic landscape are the excellent natural hot springs you’ll find, from town centre to fjordside. It’s practically a national pastime to hit the local hotpot, soak and gossip. It is, however, an absolute mandatory hygiene and etiquette rule to wash thoroughly with soap before donning your swimsuit to enter their hot springs and pools. Most pools are untreated with chemicals, so cleanliness is a real factor. Whether you’re at the famous Blue Lagoon, or the remote Krossneslaug, there’s no quicker way to disgust an Icelander than to jump in dirty. You should also take your shoes off and put them on the rack provided as you enter the changing room.
Do: Drink the tap water
It’s pure and wonderful; Icelanders will look at you askance if you ask for bottled water.
Do: Be creative and have a laugh
Icelanders are broad in their curiosities – it seems like half of them are in a band, or making some sort of art or craft. They’re used to thinking big, and having fun. Get out there and join them.