Mountain Biking on Singletrack Gnar in Iceland

Pro style MTB play video

I had to try mountain biking in Iceland. How often can I pedal on a volcano and soak in a hot springs in the middle of a ride?

(Want to see live action? Here’s the video, or click the ridiculous photo above!)

With only two days between our camper van trip and our trek in the highlands, I opted for two MTB day trips out of Reykyavik. I chose Icebike Adventures because their reviews were good, they were the first company to start running mountain bike tours in Iceland, and their website was slick. Chelsea opted to rest up in Reykyavik and hang with her folks, so it was just me and other mountain bikers from Italy, Belgium, and Virginia.

Views south to the ocean on the Steamer Trail.

Views south to the ocean on the Steamer Trail.

My cheery guide, Magne (badass Viking name!), picked me up in a lifted Land Rover Defender with big tires and an even bigger sense of style. Many of the Super Jeeps in Iceland cost $100k-$250k and live on pavement. Not so with the Defender.

Trailhead start MTB Iceland

We roared out of town, past a huge geothermal plant that provides all of Reykyavik’s hot water. Soon we were in the volcanic hills east of town.

Skipping the road, Magne blasted through 30 river crossings in the Defender, blowing walls of water into the air. The little boy in me giggled; the adult hooted in appreciation.

MTB approach Iceland

The Trips

I rode with Icebike for two separate trips, the Steamer trail and the Edge trail. These can be combined into one day if you’re feeling up for it. I’d recommend the Edge first so you can relax in the hot pools later in the day.

My take: If you don’t have much time in Iceland and want a cool experience with bubbling mud pools and a soak in a hot springs, go for the Steamer. If you want to ride XC singletrack through lava fields and log more distance, go for the Edge trail.

Rip-roarin' fun on the Edge Trail.

Rip-roarin’ fun on the Edge Trail.

Ride #1: Steamer Trail

This 14k (8 mile) ride starts across a crushed lava field, then climbs up to a viewpoint. There are bubbling mud pots (a cameraman boiled his foot there a couple years back) and a few curious sheep might say hi.

Then there’s some fun, mildly-rowdy singletrack down to the halfway point in Reykyadalur, the “foggy valley.” A bubbling hot stream sprouts from the hills; don’t jump in the top or you’ll be a boiled tourist. Halfway down, the water cools enough to enjoy. You’ll have to share with other tourists, but hey, aren’t hot pools and mountain biking enough?

Fun fun fun on the Steamer Trail.

Fun fun fun on the Steamer Trail.

From there, traverse through a steamy section of trail, then blast downhill on double and single track. You’ll have the option to finish with 15 minutes zipping through grassland singletrack at the bottom.

Crack a beer, say skál (cheers!) to your fellow riders, and head for town.

Dropping into the Steamer Trail.

Singletrack on the Steamer Trail.

Now that's a snack break location. (Steamer Trail)

Now that’s a snack break location. (Steamer Trail)

Ride #2: Edge Trail

Looking for more riding and less soaking? Hit the Edge trail. It’s 23k (14 miles) of rip-roaring fun through a quintessential Icelandic landscape.

Riding the Edge Trail.

Riding through ancient moss-covered lava on the Edge Trail.

According to Magne, there are only about 100 serious mountain bikers in Iceland. This means trails are empty and running into another car at a trailhead is a weird occurrence. Given how fun the terrain is, I expect that to increase dramatically in the coming years, though apparently trail maintenance is a pain with the harsh winters.  I wouldn’t be out there doing trail work in freezing spring sleet, that’s for sure.

Edge Trail starts at a trailhead on the shoulder of an extinct volcano. You’ll pedal past moss-covered lava or down rough, chunky trails that will test your technical skills. Finish up through grassy plains and fields of flowers, over rough bridges, and right into the eastern edge of Reykyavik. Edge was my favorite ride of the two that I did.

As our guide quipped, "busy day at the trailhead!" Iceland's MTB scene is still developing.

AARGH, congested trails are the WORST.

Cranking along the Edge Trail.

Cranking along the Edge Trail.

The Bikes

I ride a nice mountain bike back home and have higher expectations than most. Rental bikes, as a rule, tend to SUCK. Tourists destroy them and many times it seems they are maintained with a rusty hacksaw by a hiker who hates mountain bikes.

Icebike impressed me with their well-maintained, quality Scott full-suspension bikes. The bikes easily handled any of the terrain we encountered (or was that my wannabe-pro skills?). Size-wise, get a large bike if you’re my height (5’10”). A medium is for someone shorter than 5’9”.

Magne putting out the sign vibe.

Magne putting out the sign vibe.

More Options

Both trails were great and I’d recommend either. Steamer is fairly short, but the hot pools halfway are a cool experience. It’s a better trip for a beginner. Edge is rowdier (and more fun) and you’ll work harder, but hey, that’s all part of the fun!

If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t get to experience the heli-biking that Icebike also offers. After all, what’s cooler than landing in a heli on top of a volcano and biking straight off the side? I’ll just have to come back for that, and also for some multi-day trips in the Iceland highlands. SO MUCH TO DO.

Thanks for showing me around, Icebike!

Valley view mid-ride on the Steamer trail.

Valley view mid-ride on the Steamer trail.

Moonscape Trekking in the Icelandic Highlands

Trekking Iceland highlands canyon

In 2010, Iceland’s impossible-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. The resulting plume of ash shut down air traffic in Europe, and all eyes were suddenly on Iceland. “Hey, what IS that place?” asked people around the world. “I thought Iceland was just a big, boring glacier?”

Nope! Turns out Iceland is green (and Greenland icy) and features spectacular scenery. Especially in the middle of the country, where hut-to-hut treks weave through a surreal landscape of volcanoes, glaciers, and hissing sulfurous vents.

We crossed dozens of streams and hissing steam vents along our route.

After 2.5 great weeks in our camper van, we laced up our hiking shoes and headed out for five days and 55 miles of hut-to-hut trekking in the highlands. It was hands-down one of the coolest hiking experiences I’ve had.

For the first three days, there were no trails. Our destination was a GPS point over distant mountains and we simply hiked over whatever lay between us and shelter. Switchbacks? Pfffft. Just get to the top any possible way. My kinda hike! (We did have a guide to show us the way.)

Trekking Iceland highlands

Chelsea and I travel a lot, but we rarely plan ahead. This creates issues when there are, say, limited sleeping berths in huts. Luckily, her mom is a genius planner and we joined her parents for the trek. Hey, at least we aren’t living at home with them! As usual, C’s folks were tough as hell and hiked 10-15 miles a day on uneven, tricky terrain. (Linda, thanks for handling everything.)

We tromped up volcanic slopes and waded glacial-melt rivers. At lunch we’d sit in thick green moss with views of expansive valleys. Smoking fumaroles belched sulfur and steam, waterfalls poured off cliffs, and we even rambled through short, gnarled birch forests. Our final day was a stunning climb up to the location of the 2010 eruption, a pass between Eyjafjallajökull and the sleeping giant Katla.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Sleeping in Style

Iceland’s highlands are sprinkled with sleeping huts, remnants of the sheep herding days of yore. Instead of drunk shepherds, these huts now frequently house trekkers exploring the middle of the country.

We stayed in four different huts, each with a different feel. All featured a kitchen with (cold) running water, a propane stove, and flush toilets. A giant pot of water was kept hot on the stove to fuel hikers with tea and coffee.

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times...

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times…

The one similarity: nightly snoring contests a chainsaw festival would envy. To fight the rippling snorts of tired hikers, bring good ear plugs or your life will suck! I’m a light sleeper, but with ear plugs was able to zonk out every night. (Chelsea’s pro tip: not all earplugs are the same. Look at the rating on the package before you buy and test them out before the trip to make sure they fit your ears and get the job done. She obviously didn’t sleep as well as I did.)

Trekking Iceland highlands colorful hills

How’s The Weather, Wally?

We hiked in early August, but the Arctic Circle ain’t famous for sunny, warm weather. Most days we donned rain jackets to ward off a stinging-cold shower for at least part of the day. Expect to hike at least part of the time in gusting wind and rain. At least the clouds add to the moody mystique and keep noses from getting sunburned.

Still, inclement weather simply added extra zest, and thanks to many warnings, we were prepared. Remember, it’s not bad weather if you have the right gear. (Or have lived in the rainy Pacific NW.)

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Choosing a Route

There are tons of potential highland trekking routes. However, Nat Geo’s “Ultimate Adventure” article about the Laugavegurinn (also called Laugavegur) trail means that just about everyone starts at Landmannalaugar and ends at Skógar.

Thanks to Linda’s travel planning genius, we spent the first three days on a different, less-traveled route to the west that dovetailed with the main trek. We literally didn’t see a single other hiker those days, just open vistas.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain's lack of switchbacks.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain’s lack of switchbacks. No, the background is not CGI…

After hiking with just our group through empty landscapes, it was a shock on the 3rd night to arrive at a hut jam-packed with people and drying rain gear and see 75 tents pitched outside on any flat surface. It felt like a mountain favela, or perhaps like Everest base camp in busy season.

To avoid that, I highly recommend getting off the main trek. Any guide company (we used Fjallback) can set you up with a quieter, less-trafficked path. If you’re going with a group of friends, it will be even easier to select a remote trip. Even if you’re self-supported, the extra effort is totally worth it to reap the benefits of solitude in nature. Here’s a list and map of all the huts.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

Add It To the Bucket List

To see the remote, beautiful landscapes of Iceland, for my money there’s no better way than a trek in the highlands. The peaceful, lengthy communion with nature that I felt hiking for long hours left me tired, happy, and dreaming of visiting again. Don’t let the snoring in the huts or the inclement weather dissuade you – exploring the center of Iceland on foot is not to be missed.

Trekking Iceland highlands ridge

How to Travel Iceland in a Camper Van

Camper van Iceland night shot

There are many ways to explore Iceland. You can rent a car, bicycle tour, hitchhike, or take the public bus. My hands-down vote, however, is to travel Iceland in a camper van.

As part of a month-long trip in summer 2016, we spent 2.5 weeks exploring the perimeter of the island via van. We followed a counterclockwise loop, nipping off the Ring Road to check out quiet roads whenever possible.

Even in July, the crescendo of tourist season, our camper van created access to areas we otherwise would have skipped. As a way to streamline your travel experience, bask in the brilliant nature of Iceland, and still travel in relative comfort, it’s the way to go! (If you’re worried about finding bathrooms and showers, read on below.)

This post is aimed at helping anyone looking to rent a camper van in Iceland. Whether this is your first time traveling by van or you’re experienced like me and Chelsea, you’ll land ready to rumble.

Go Camper rental iceland

Benefits of Traveling Via Camper Van

We are not fans of planning an entire trip. It always leads to having to pass up fun opportunities. While it’s necessary to plan ahead to book a vehicle, a camper van creates an otherwise free-flowing schedule. The cheapest way to tour Iceland is to hitchhike and tent camp along the way, but we are no longer tough enough for such things.

Compared to renting a car and staying in hotel, you’ll save money by renting a van. On top of that, a van also allows you to carry lots of food so you can eat when you are hungry. Given that eating out usually costs at least $25/person, this can potentially save a boatload of money.

Beyond that, you’ll be able to linger in beautiful areas. The flexibility of not needing to stick to polite business hours for arriving at a hotel or a host’s home opens up hours of watching perfect sunsets or hiking late into the day.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

How to Choose Your Van

We’re experienced van travelers and know what makes for a comfortable vehicle. Unfortunately, most camper options were booked because we decided to head out with little notice. (High season – July and August – requires planning ahead by at least a few months, it seems.)

After contacting six different companies, we rented a simple camper van from the friendly folks at Go Campers. (Kuku Campers and Happy Campers are other solid options, from what I saw.) Their prices were competitive and customer service was great. I also like that their vans also have a small, simple logo instead of a bright, flashy designs on the side.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

From what I saw pricing various companies, a basic camper costs about $100/day in the low season. Add ~25% for high season. (For comparison, a rental car is somewhere around $60-$100/day in high season.) Mid-range campers start closer to $200 and feature amenities like a heater, sink, fridge, and live-in chef (if you ask nicely). We would have gone with a fancier camper, but they were all booked up.

If you aren’t comfortable driving a manual transmission, make sure to let your rental company know! From what I saw, many of campers are manuals, but there are also automatic options that cost a bit more.

Lastly, let’s talk insurance. All companies will try to sell it to you. If you don’t have coverage, be warned that there is gravel on ALL roads (paved or not) and you may come back with a few chips. When the pavement runs out, you’ll be warned with the sign Malbik Endar. (It translates as “Norse God of Potholes Attacked Here.”)

Open roads in the east fjords.

Open roads…

How to Not Smell Like a Dirty Dirtbagger (aka Staying Clean)

Let’s get this out of the way: Stop worrying about finding frequent showers or toilets (WC, as they say here). It is easy to find a shower and bathroom in almost every town. That said, there are no rest stops, but gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores all have easy-access bathrooms. Worse-case, in the more remote areas you may need to scurry off the road to find a nice sheltering rock…

One option for staying clean is to jump in a frozen fjord. PFFFFT. Go with one of the signature elements of Iceland: Geothermically-heated pools in almost any town, no matter the population. For ~$5, you get access to a shower and the soaking pools, not to mention the occasional sauna and gym facilities. Our favorites: overlooking the ocean at Hofsós in the north, a great fjord view in Patreksfjordur, and the seaside ones in Drangsnes.

I mentioned this in my previous post and will restate it: before jumping in the pool, you MUST take a real shower. (Don’t worry, showers aren’t co-ed, and some places even have private stalls.) Take off your swimsuit, scrub your dirty parts per the handy instructional diagrams, and then put your suit back on. Nudity in the pools is not a thing here, so don’t plan on airing your junk for all to see unless you want to be the seriously weird foreigner. (And probably get kicked out.)

A perfect black sand beach in southern Iceland.

Sorry, no pool pics. How about a black sand beach instead?

How Much Time Is Needed For My Trip and Where Should I Go?

If you’re cruising the 870 mile Ring Road, 10 days seems to be the accepted won’t-crush-your-spirit-and-go-home-exhausted trip duration. Clockwise or counterclockwise – who cares? Since it’s a circle, I vote for choosing where the weather is best and heading that way.

We tend to travel slower than many people. Our goal for this trip was less than 2-3 hours each day driving. In 2.5 weeks, we were able to visit almost every area of the island without feeling rushed.

If you want the quiet solitude and scenery of many of the pictures in this post, head to the eastern or western fjords. (The western were our favorites.) Lots of wild camping, fewer people (less than 20% of tourists in Iceland go to the west fjords), and stunning scenery. As soon as you get off the Ring Road, you’ll see less traffic and tour buses. Always a positive in my opinion!

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

Where to Sleep

There are well-signed campgrounds everywhere in Iceland, often right in town. Any map will show you where they are. Most feature cooking, shower, and laundry facilities, plus water refill opportunities. They cost about $10/person.

Until recently, the Swedish idea of Allmansrätten was the law of the land. (Camp anywhere for one night.) Since July 1, 2016, this is no longer legal in Iceland, and it’s probably a good thing with tourism BOOMING. If you want to camp on someone’s property, you need to find the landowner and ask them. I vote for just staying in campgrounds. (To be clear, we wild camped all but three nights and found out about the new law only upon returning our camper. Ooooops.)

Breath-mint hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Don’t camp on private land without asking! We simply admired these newly-wrapped hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Staying Connected

Iceland’s affordable internet and cellphone access beats the pants off Europe and North America. Since I work remotely while we travel, staying connected is a priority. It is SO easy here. Even if you are on vacation and checked out of work, it could come in handy to access directions, find things to do/see, check business hours and locations, research an interesting topic or just make a phone call.

There is fast, reliable cell coverage almost everywhere in Iceland. It’s also super cheap. Using my unlocked iPhone, I simply picked up a Nova SIM card at the duty-free store at the airport and added data to it. For $40, I got 50 GB of data (1/12 the cost of data in the U.S.).

Since you’ll likely have a number of items that require charging (headlamp, phone, camera, computer, etc), I recommend bringing some kind of rechargeable battery pack with multiple USB ports on it like this one. Then you can plug that into the inverter while you drive and charge multiple items.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for. (Shot not staged – I wrote an offer for a new employee here!)

Pack Efficiently

It may be tempting to bring a ton of gear. “Hey, we’re car camping, and I use that inflatable couch sometimes…” Don’t do it!

In the smaller vans, depending on the design, you shuffle your gear from the rear sleeping compartment up to the front seats when you want to lay down. Pack everything in easy-to-access duffel bags or small suitcases. Thank me when you quickly find your hat before a hike instead of unpacking the entire contents of your van.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Must-Have Items

To help me sleep during always-light summer nights, a sleep mask rocked my world. Ear plugs are always helpful for camping, and a thermos for hot tea or coffee on-the-go is handy and a zero waste option.

Chelsea wished she had brought her old-school hot water bottle to keep her warm at night. Consider bringing something like this if you sleep cold and your camper van doesn’t have a heater.

Metal water bottles are great for avoiding buying bottled water, especially since you can fill up at any waterfall with delicious, cold snow-melt water. Most gas stations have fill areas too, or a restaurant will help you out. (We found Icelanders so nice and helpful.)

We always travel with a couple of reusable bags for groceries/changes of clothing/dirty laundry/etc and they were always in use. Lastly, we also travel with wet wipes, a handy hygiene improvement device. These are available at prices you’re used to for purchase at any grocery store in Iceland.

Fresh water everywhere!

Fresh water everywhere!

Bring Warm Clothing

Pack light, but keep in mind you’re at the Arctic Circle. Bring base layers, insulating layers, windbreaking layers, a puffy jacket, high-quality rain jacket, warm socks, lined hat with great ear coverage, gloves, waterproof shoes and so on. The wind in Iceland cuts hard and you are almost guaranteed to do some exploring in the rain. We’ve also had a fair number of beautiful sunny days, to be clear. A 20 degree F sleeping bag will likely work, though Chelsea has had a few cold nights despite sleeping in all her layers in our heaterless camper.

I want to emphasize that waterproof shoes are key. I brought running shoes as well, but my feet were often a bit damp if I wore them on a hike through mossy or grassy areas. Even if it’s not actually raining, the trails are likely mushy or lined with wet foilage.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Check Van Supplies Before Leaving

You may feel the urge to floor it out of town in a jetlagged haze the second you get your camper keys. Resist that urge and go through the van’s kitchen and camp equipment to make sure you have everything you’ll need.

Knife? Cutting board? Lids for the pots? Scrub brush for dishes? Water jug? Inverter to charge your gear? Camp chairs? Make sure you leave with everything you were expecting. We hit the road with a van that was missing a knife and ended up having to buy one along the way.

Also, know how to access your spare tire. (Every car manual shows you how.) We picked up a shard of gravel and wound up with a flat in the middle of nowhere. It was an easy change for me, but if you aren’t comfortable changing a tire, you might want to prep yourself in advance. Goodyear and Firestone have stores in the bigger cities and fixed our flat for about $20.

We TOTALLY mistimed ski season.

Don’t forget your ski gear. We TOTALLY mistimed ski season…

Food Food Food!

Iceland may toe the Arctic Circle, but people here don’t just eat dried fish. Grocery stores are well-stocked and easy to find, at least in the big cities. Even in far-flung corners and tiny stores, we were pleasantly surprised to find some organic and vegan options.

Netto was our favorite store, but their discount brand Bonus is another good option for staples. Fruit and vegetables (many organic) are abundant, including grapes, blueberries and mangoes.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

To read labels, Google Translate is fantastic. (Download the offline version before you arrive.) Since we don’t eat any animal products, we use it to translate ingredient lists. That said, we found that many labels were in English, not to mention there often was a great selection of nondairy milks and cheeses and vegan meats. (Even soy yogurt in some places.) As a bonus, a vegan lifestyle mitigated how ineffective our cooler was since plants don’t spoil very quickly.

Lastly, if you’re buying alcohol for your trip, grab it at the airport when you arrive to avoid paying the luxury tax. We don’t drink much at all (except for kombucha!), but did snag a couple bottles of liquor for friends in Reykyavik.

You'll never find a grocery store at the top of a pass... But can you spot the van?

Fill the van with food so you can hang out in places like this! Can you spot the van?

Dealing with Basics: Laundry, Ice

Laundry is offered for about $10 (wash/dry) at most campgrounds. The frequently overcast skies made it tough to dry things, so dryers were nice! Since 100% of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy, you can feel good about supporting the local economy.

Note: Many dryers in Iceland use a water reservoir drawer at the top of the dryer instead of a plumbing drain. If you don’t empty this when you start the cycle, your clothes will NEVER dry.

Totally random, but finding ice for our cooler was surprisingly difficult at times. Big cities have bagged ice, but in smaller areas you’ll need to ask at gas stations or restaurants for them to bag some ice. Apparently people don’t travel with coolers? The grocery store Bonus consistently had it, but isn’t everywhere.

No, of COURSE this photo isn't staged. We always meditate in a sea of lupin...

We simply meditate in a sea of lupin instead of doing laundry. It’s advanced, I know.


Get After It!

Whaaaat else? Nothing at all! Rent that van, plan your trip, and have a kickass time.

If a van is in your budget and you want to maximize your flexibility for your trip to Iceland, I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone has questions, please fire away in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out. Rented a camper van recently and have feedback? Help future travelers out by posting a comment.

*Thanks to Go Campers for partnering with us on our van rental! We appreciate it, and can’t wait to get back to Iceland for another adventure.*

I hope you're ready for sunset locations like this!

I hope you’re ready for sunset locations like this!

Smitten with Iceland

Lovely Seljalandsfoss drops 180 feet. Wildflowers are firing this time of year!

Interested in visiting Iceland? Check out my guide for traveling here in a camper van!


It would be wrong if I didn’t immediately say WOW, Iceland is beautiful! The varied terrain, stunning waterfalls, glaciers, and sweeping vistas are stomping my expectations. If there was a I Heart Iceland shirt, I’d wear it.

A week into our trip, I’m struck by how everything here reminds me of somewhere else…almost. Instead, trying to reconcile the landscapes with past experiences – “this beach is like Big Sur mixed with New Zealand!” is proving impossible. I’m failing because Iceland is so singular, a unique island planted a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.

I’m writing this at 10:30pm and the sun won’t set for an hour. It takes forever to drop six inches on the horizon – golden hour wears out my camera batteries. The sky stays so light that we don’t even need a headlamp at night. Sadly, this means the Northern Lights don’t appear, but that just gives us an excuse to come back.

The tide rolling in at midnight...

The tide rolling in at midnight.

What Are We Up To?

In a big counter-clockwise loop, we’re exploring Iceland for a month via camper van. We’re on and off the Ring Road that encircles the island, nipping off on gravel roads to explore quiet corners whenever possible. Lots of wild camping in the van, plus miles of hiking, tons of photography, soaking in hot pools, and laying in soft, thick moss beds looking at the fjords dominate our days.

Once we’re all done, I’ll write a highlights post. This one aims to capture some interesting aspects of the country, the things that pop out at us.

Rollin' Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

Rollin’ Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

A Few Observations About Iceland

In a small town in the east fjords, we saw a guy in a leotard standing on the end of a long board over icy water. While his buddies hooted, he sawed away the part under his feet. Hack hack hack SPLASH into some seriously cold water. Welcome to an Icelandic bachelor party!

I haven’t seen a police car since leaving Reykyavik a week ago. Instead, there are speed cameras. Luckily, they announce their presence via a warning sign a few miles ahead of the actual camera. No surprises here, people. Even funnier, digital speed signs beam a smiley face at us when we’re under the limit and an angry red frown when I’m gunning our zippy little camper van.

Our friend Eli has hip flexibility to die for! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

Our friend Eli has flexibility in spades! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

When I’m in a foreign country, I’ll usually lead with a greeting in the local tongue. If I’m passable at the language, I’ll stick with that. Otherwise, I ask if they speak English. Don’t even bother in Iceland! Same as the Netherlands, everyone here has better grammar than me does.

A lovely feature in even the tiniest village is a geothermally-heated hot pool. Directions require showering naked and scrubbing all the dirty spots, with diagrams dictating what to wash. (Use your imagination.) Only THEN can you head to the pool – swimsuit on, please. Oddly enough, even though the pools are outside, I have yet to see any locals wearing sunglasses.

Be warned: the weather here is variable. You may notice many of my pictures feature gray skies? It’s mid-July, but temps still skim the low 40s at night, the rain is cold, and the wind blowing off glaciers ain’t exactly a palm breeze in Tonga. Bring your warmest and most waterproof gear. Chelsea brought every item of winter clothing she owns and has her Eskimo impression nailed.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine at midnight is a good idea.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine is a good idea.

Dodging the Crowds

Apparently tourism to Iceland has tripled in the last six years. I won’t lie – the southern part of the country felt crowded. Get to the outskirts, though, and things calm down. As always, hike a mile past any attraction and you’re practically alone.

Our first two nights were at busy campgrounds. Since escaping outside day-trip-from-Reykyavik range, things have mellowed out. We’ve parked our Go Campers rental van in secluded spots and enjoyed peaceful, lingering sunsets with views like a nature preserve or a carpet of flowers in a mountain valley.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

For a quiet corner, head to the eastern fjords, home to a scant 11,000 people (and ~2.6 million sheep, I’d guess). Here, it’s clear tourism is still an ungainly, friendly teenager. Compared to a surly campground owner in the south, the campsites in the too-cute fjord town of Seydisfjourd didn’t even have an attendant on site between 12-8. It even featured honor-system laundry. I only hope tourists are respectful and don’t wreck the trusting spirit.

My friend Eli, whom I met 10 years ago couchsurfing in Spain, is guiding in Iceland this summer and joined us for the first few days of our journey on his weekend. Along with a little language instruction (the town of Hofn is pronounced HUP), he also shared that Iceland is experiencing some growing pains while dealing with the onslaught of tourism.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour. Definitely visit this town if you’re in the east!

As a small sliver of that, we searched for ice in Seydisfjour and the only place to get it was to have a grocery bag filled at the gas station. With so many camper vans rolling around, this is a missed opportunity for a local business. I’d wager next time we come through town, ice will be for sale.

That said, don’t worry about having cash on you. Every single merchant accepts credit cards, finding good food is simple, and travel logistics are easy. If you can travel in the U.S., you can travel in Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Iceland Won’t Empty Your Bank Account

Everyone will tell you Iceland is expensive. In a few areas, they’re right: car rentals, lodging, and restaurants carry a premium here. Otherwise, we’ve found prices to be quite reasonable, especially considering that mangoes and everything else come from SO FAR AWAY.

Don’t eat out unless you’re cool with $25+ entrees. (Iceland servers are paid well, so there’s no expectation of a tip.) We love the flexibility of renting a camper van, but it also makes sense since it combines lodging and transportation, not to mention takes away the need to book ahead.

Iceland, a land of contrasts... This view looks from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers that were added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

Iceland, a land of contrasts… This view is from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

When I compared prices for nice outdoor gear, items cost the same as Patagonia or Mountain Hardwear in the U.S. A bike rental in the fjords was $12/hr, a campground is ~$10/person, organic bananas are $1.50/lb, a cup of coffee costs $4, and groceries are shockingly similar to the U.S. There are also extensive affordable vegan options available (score!), which I’ll discuss in a comprehensive post later.

Iceland also wins big with their cheap, fast, get-coverage-anywhere data plans. For 1/12th the cost of data in the US, I got a Nova SIM card at the airport that I popped into my unlocked iPhone. Are we Americans getting scammed or what?! Apparently cell phone companies back home are staffed by crooks from Enron and Lehman Brothers.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. No signs, just anoooother waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. Just another waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

Come See For Yourself

If you follow me on Instagram, you may think I’m a paid shill for this country. Here’s a paraphrased recent photo caption: “THIS PLACE IS AWESOME. Yesterday, we woke up wild camped by a beach on the Arctic Ocean. Next was a whale watching tour, where blue and humpback whales surfaced around us. After an hour drive, we found bubbling volcanic activity and this scenic hike. We finished off soaking in a giant hot springs for a couple hours, calling it a day when it closed at midnight.”

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things...

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things…

Nope, Iceland isn’t paying me to be here. (Unfortunately!) I’m simply another fan after experiencing what this kickass country has to offer. Perhaps I use the word AWESOME in all-caps too much, but hey, I’m a child of the 80s.

Plus, sometimes tubular just doesn’t fit. All I know is I’m in love with this place. With almost three weeks to go, the fun is just getting started.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.