Iceland is truly beautiful, and it is one of the safest countries in the world. However, that does not mean that there are not certain things to look out for when you are out enjoying pristine nature. So, here is a useful guide all about how to travel safely and general safety in Iceland and how to do your part to help keep it look amazing for years to come.
Weather and What to Pack
Ah, yes. The good old Icelandic weather. You certainly can’t set your watch by it, in fact, there is a phrase that describes the situation pretty well: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes”. It is, actually, very true. Icelandic weather is very unpredictable, and no matter what time of year you visit, one can never quite know what to expect. Summers in Iceland, whilst not exactly tropical, can be bright and warm, but cold snaps can happen, and they can be very wet. Winter can be very cold and harsh, but also incredibly beautiful. The trick is to always pack for any eventuality for travel safety in Iceland.
In the summer, we recommend that you bring with you lightweight, but water-resistant jackets and pants. It would also be recommended to have fleece mid-layers for those chillier moments. We recommend that you also bring a hat, gloves, and a good pair of sturdy, but comfortable hiking boots or snow boots. Some of the waterfalls are pretty wet (obviously) and the spray can soak you to the skin, so it’s best to be prepared and leave the Gucci sneakers at home.
In the winter, a good down jacket is recommended, something that will keep you warm and snug in the snow and cold, arctic winds. Also, a good fleece mid-layer and warm, thermal base layer. Woolen socks are also highly recommended to keep those little piggies toasty. Convertible mittens are a good idea because you don’t have to remove your gloves to take that all-important selfie.
Sunglasses are never a bad idea, especially in the winter. The sun is very low and can dazzle you. Especially if you are on a glacier, and surrounded by ice.
Always check the weather forecast before you go anywhere. Always. Especially in winter, but generally always. Got it? You don’t want to be caught in a blizzard or other bad weather-type situation. This brings us to our next topic.
Driving Safety in Iceland
Okay, you might consider yourself to be a safe driver. However, if you haven’t driven in Iceland before, you might be in for a surprise. In winter, no matter where you are going, or how good the weather looks outside the window, you might be heading for a situation you want no part of. For one thing, the wind in Iceland is extremely powerful. Winter winds, in extreme cases, can reach up to 40 meters per second (approximately 90 mph) More common winter winds are no joke either, and can be around 20 meters per second (approx 45 mph) Powerful winds, and blizzards are not recommended for travel unless absolutely necessary. So, driving safety in Iceland requires checking the weather forecast every single day before you leave (see that bit where we said always? Yeah, that). The official website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (www.vedur.is) will tell you all you need to know about the weather here. It isn’t unusual to change your plans to account for weather changes, but often it simply means that you head off in a different direction where the winds are calmer.
Road conditions are also something that you need to pay attention to. We recommend that you always check www.road.is for great information regarding the condition of the road, and whether they are safe to drive on, or if they have ice and snow. They even have web cameras set up in many locations, so you can actually see for yourself. It is really important to check this, because sometimes roads can be closed because of weather, flooding, landslides, etc. So, whenever you are taking a break, we recommend taking a look.
Many of the highland roads are closed over the winter and are simply impassable. Some do not open until June or July, depending on the previous winter.
In general, most of the places you will be driving are on paved roads. However, sometimes they can be on gravel roads. There is normally a sign telling you the gravel road is coming up, allowing you to slow your speed, or when you are turning down a gravel road.
Icelandic roads are very narrow, so you always need to be careful when driving in the countryside. Always be aware of other drivers pulling out of side roads, and likewise always take care when re-joining the road. Also, always remember not to stop on the side of the road. You are going to see awesome stuff. Believe us, we get it, but remember to park somewhere safe and off the main road whenever you want to take a snap of a pretty waterfall or a cute horse. It is also recommended to keep an eye out for sheep in the summer. Many of them hang around close to the roads, so just keep an eye out for them.
Iceland has a lot of single-lane bridges, so when you approach one, the general rule is to allow the closest one to pass first.
It is general, it is not necessary to hire a four-wheel-drive car in the summer unless you plan on visiting the highlands. However, we recommend hiring a four-wheel-drive car in the winter.
Hiking Safety in Iceland
Iceland is a great place to go hiking, whether that be for just a day, or over many days. The most popular trek is the Laugavegur trek, which stretches from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. However, you can’t just go anytime. The weather in the highlands can be extremely dangerous, and if you set off and don’t tell anyone where you are going, it means no one will come looking for you if you are lost in bad weather. The hiking season is only in the summer, between late June and September. Even then, there can often be snow and ice on the trails, so it is always best to ensure you are prepared.
Even an innocuous-looking mountain like Esja, which is very close to Reykjavík, can be treacherous in bad weather and at the wrong time of year.
No matter where you go, it is always recommended to visit www.safetravel.is, who give great advice on when to go and what to expect, and are the best source for advice on travel safety in Iceland.
Camping in Iceland
Camping is great. We love it, too. The summer period is best, whether you be in a tent or camper van. There are lots of campsites around the country, and many have facilities for showering, washing dishes, barbecuing and some even have swimming pools. In the off-seasons, many close down or stay open at no cost, but with limited or no facilities. We don’t recommend camping in winter, but if you decide to camp in colder seasons, here are some recommendations.
Always check the weather forecast, if the winds are too harsh then it would not be a good idea to be so exposed. If there is a bad forecast, we recommend arranging alternative accommodation.
The nights are cold, so if you are staying in a tent, ensure that the tent and sleeping bags are four seasonal. Also, make sure to use a sleeping bag liner.
Ensure that you create a layer between your sleeping bag and the tent floor. A good quality sleeping mat is essential.
Cotton kills! Don’t wear cotton clothing in colder periods, ensure that you wear appropriate winter clothing and thermal under layers when going to sleep.
A good tip to remember is to keep your phone in the sleeping bag at night. Your body heat will ensure that the phone stays on. Cold weather drains the battery, and you want your phone to be on if you need it in an emergency.
Finally, always remember to camp at an official campsite. Whilst wild camping in Iceland is not technically illegal, there are a few rules:
- You can only camp on uncultivated land in the wilderness if there is no other registered campsite within a walkable distance.
- If you want to camp on uncultivated land, near a registered campsite, you need the landowner’s permission.
- You cannot camp in any of Iceland’s national parks and protected nature reserves without express permission. This includes Þingvellir, Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull National Park.
- Campfires are not permitted at any registered campsite, nor in the wilderness. The rules are a little unclear when it comes to beaches and caves, but the general rule is not to build one. Please ensure that you use a camping stove.
- You are not permitted to sleep in a motor vehicle, such as a camper van, motor home, or regular vehicle, anywhere other than a registered campsite.
Whilst it is very difficult to know whether or not you are on private land or near a registered campsite, and therefore unsure whether or not you are permitted to camp, we recommend that you simply use a registered campsite anyway. This is the wisest, safest and most respectable, and responsible thing to do. There are certainly more than enough registered campsites in Iceland, so you will have no trouble finding one. In fact, here is a useful website that lists campsites around Iceland to plan your journey.
General Tips for Responsible Travel and Safety in Iceland
One of the most important things to remember regarding travel safety in Iceland is that it is a country with a very fragile nature, and recovery from damage is very slow. It also has many hidden dangers if you do not heed warning signs. So, here are some things to remember to keep safe and respect the land
- Leave no trace. Always stay on marked trails at all times. Whether it be hiking, or at popular attractions. Just make sure that you stay behind barriers. These are placed for safety and to protect the surrounding area. It is actually illegal in Iceland to cross environmental barriers, so just be aware of your surroundings.
- Never go wandering in a hot spring area away from marked trails. The water is 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and the ground above it is quite brittle. So, just make sure you are on a marked and clear path.
- Please try to avoid standing on the moss that grows around Iceland. Whilst this is extremely lush and inviting, it is very delicate. Any damage caused to it can take decades to grow back.
- Be very careful at Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland. The waves are extremely powerful, and every 12th-14th wave is a sneaker wave that comes much further up the beach than others do. If you are too close to the water, these waves can take you off your feet, and it is difficult to get back up. Unfortunately, people have been taken by the waves at this beach who did not heed the warning signs. So, just make sure you are at a safe distance.
- Please do not go swimming at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The water is not only freezing, but the large icebergs can flip over at any time.
- Make sure that you do not climb up onto icebergs at the Diamond Beach, close to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. These icebergs can be swept out to sea in seconds, and people have had to be rescued before.
- Always make sure that you only venture onto a glacier with a professionally trained guide. Never, ever try to do this yourself. Glaciers are always moving and changing, and only professional guides know how to read them and where it is safe to walk. You don’t want to venture onto a glacier yourself and fall into a crevasse that was hidden by ice and snow. We recommend booking a glacier walk or ice-climbing trip with a professional company.
- Always ensure that you don’t go wandering into lava caves yourself, and not accompanied by a professional. Many lava caves are uncharted, and completely pitch black. You could get yourself hurt or lost. There are many caving trips that you can book around the country. Walking across moss-covered lava fields is not a good idea, either. You can fall into holes and hurt yourself.
- When stopping to take photos of anything you see, be it a waterfall, horses, or just something nice. Always make sure that you pull over to a safe place off the main road (but not off-road)
- Just remember to dress well, always check the weather and road conditions, observe all signs and generally respect the land.
- Finally, always remember to ignore people you see who do not observe the rules regarding responsible behavior and travel safety in Iceland. Most visitors to Iceland are very respectful, but there are those who behave irresponsibly. You can always report certain behavior to a ranger, staff member, or police officer (if you happen to see anyone in the area) The most common areas for this is at Dyrhólaey promontory, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, Skógafoss waterfall, amongst others. The boundaries are well-defined, but some still ignore them. Always take the high ground, report it if you can, and simply get on with the rest of your day enjoying this beautiful country