How to prepare for trekking Iceland? All you need to know about multi-day backpacking trekking tours is laid out here. Multi-day trekking and backpacking Iceland is the best thing you can actually do in this country. It is challenging, but the views, variety of Icelandic landscapes, feeling of remoteness and uniqueness are the best reward for all your efforts. Yet trekking Iceland without some preparation is simply… irresponsible. Therefore, if you’re planning on trekking or hiking Iceland, here is all practical information you need to know to prepare for your Icelandic outdoor adventure.
I usually travel very spontaneously and yet, visiting Iceland was my most planned and prepared trip. Why? This was my first time in Iceland and all kinds of information on backpacking and trekking in Iceland was useful to me, yet nowhere to find on the Internet. Also, I knew I was going on a trekking into Iceland’s most remote and off-path destinations, the Vatnajökull National Park. If I don’t prepare for this in advance, I might run into trouble. Now, having trekked in Icelandic highlands myself (Vatnajökull and Laugavegur), I have the experience and knowledge I want to share with you. If I had that knowledge I have right now before going to Iceland, the whole experience would be just less stressful.
Spis Treści // Table of Contents
- 1 Trekking Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland – it’s all about the glaciers!
- 2 Trekking Iceland off-path in the Vatnajökull National Park
- 3 When to visit Iceland for trekking? In August!
- 4 Trekking Iceland off-path: what to pack for a multi-day backpacking tour in Vatnajökull
- 5 The only right way to dress in Iceland – layers
- 6 What to wear for trekking during the day in Iceland?
- 7 Camping in Iceland – what to wear and what to do to stay warm in a tent?
- 8 What shoes to pack for multi-day trekking Iceland?
- 9 The right socks for trekking Iceland – forget the cotton (unless you want blisters)!
- 10 Useful clothes and accessories for trekking Iceland
- 11 Gear and equipment for trekking Iceland off-path
- 12 How to physically prepare for trekking Iceland
- 13 Fitness plan to prepare for multi-day backpacking trek in Iceland
- 14 Mental preparation for a multiday backpacking trekk in Iceland
- 15 Weather in Iceland – expect rain, always
- 16 Showers and toilettes availability in Vatnajökull National Park
- 17 Phone reception and internet connection in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland
- 18 How to stay safe while off-the-path trekking Iceland
- 19 Useful tips on trekking Iceland off-path
- 20 How to put up and take down a tent when it’s windy in Iceland
- 21 How to properly wear a large and heavy backpack while backpacking in Iceland?
- 22 Is it safe to drink water from rivers in Iceland?
- 23 How to cross rivers while trekking Iceland?
- 24 How to cross snow bridges while trekking Iceland?
- 25 Trekking – probably the best way to truly experience Iceland
Trekking Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland – it’s all about the glaciers!
Vatnajökull National Park is the largest one in Iceland and it’s also a home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. It’s located in the south-east of Iceland and it covers 8 percent of the whole country. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?!
Vatnajökull, however, is not just one glacier. It is also a source to many outlet glaciers, such as Síðujökull or the popular Skaftafellsjökull. What is an outlet glacier, you may ask. I didn’t know myself until an ice climbing instructor from Arctic Adventures explained this to me. When the snow falls down on the main glacier, the Vatnajökull, at one point there is so much of it, that it slides down. Since it’s a massive amount of snow, the upper parts pressure the lower parts and once the snow slides down, it actually forms ice. In short, outlet glaciers are channels of snow turned into ice, restricted by some natural obstacles. They kind of look like tongues.
Trekking Iceland off-path in the Vatnajökull National Park
Well, unlike, e.g. the Laugavegur trek, there are no official trails in the Vatnajökull National Park so you can’t just take a map, read some bits of information on the internet and set off. What’s more, the whole area is also completely beyond any access to mobile network or internet, so once you enter, you must really be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, and absolutely self-reliant.
Furthermore, there are no amenities on the way, which means that you must carry all the necessary food, clothing, and equipment for the duration of the trek wit you. You won’t be able to use any proper toilette or take showers either. The emergency huts are also not too frequent (I saw one only during 5 days). You need to have all your batteries charged and ideally, a power bank.
What’s more, given that Iceland is visited by approximately 3 mln tourists each year and you see crowds behind each corner, once you enter Vatnajökull, you will see NO ONE. Literally, no one, apart from your small group and the guide.
Because of that, the safest option to explore this incredibly beautiful and remote piece of Iceland is with an experienced guide. I travel solo as often as I can, but if I want to see something inaccessible otherwise, I don’t want to risk my safety. Trekking I did in Vatnajökull was with Trek Iceland and having experienced how they organise such multi-day backpacking treks myself, I can honestly recommend their services. Sure, I’ve collaborated with them, but recommending was not planned. This is my personal opinion which I would state regardless of our cooperation.
When to visit Iceland for trekking? In August!
What’s the best time to visit Iceland? For trekking, hiking, and all sorts of outdoor sports – August is my ultimate answer. To stay fair, I don’t know what the conditions were exactly like in June or July, but while I was in Iceland (the first two weeks of August), I experienced only 3 (yes, THREE) days of showers and one day of really (I mean, REALLY) strong wind. Literally, I couldn’t have even dreamt of better weather. The group that did the trek in July had…. 8 days of rain out of 9, so I guess you have your answer here.
During trekking from Laki to Núpsstaðaskógur in the Vatnajökull National Park, it rained for only about two hours. Read more here. Temperatures were really good, around 12 Celsius degrees during the day, between 3 and 7 at night. You’ll find more practical information on clothing and gear to keep you warm later in this post.
Also, when I was finishing the Laugavegur trek, I got a weather alert on my phone saying that gale force winds and heavy rains were about to start in the highlands and it was around 10th August. In short: go early August; the weather is the most predictable and welcoming at that time.
Trekking Iceland off-path: what to pack for a multi-day backpacking tour in Vatnajökull
I’ve heard a funny but very true saying about Icelandic weather. Actually two sayings; “three things are certain in Iceland: rain, rain, and rain”, and “if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes and it will change”. And as funny as they sound, they are actually true. ;-)
You want to be prepared for all kinds of weather and I spent AGES looking for some reliable information what exactly to pack for my trekking tour in Iceland, I shall also add, without getting broke while buying all the equipment. So, here we go, the ultimate backpacking packing list for trekking Iceland!
The only right way to dress in Iceland – layers
Rule number one: layers. Always dress in layers. As you walk, it can get hot, but the moment you stop moving, your body will start losing heat very quickly. Rule number two: forget cotton. Cotton is actually the WORST possible fabric you might take to Iceland since it gets dry very long, it doesn’t insulate you against cold, and it doesn’t protect you from rain or wind. It’s just doesn’t work at all for trekking in Iceland. Wool and synthetics are the best.
What to wear for trekking during the day in Iceland?
I was more than fine to be dressed in trekking trousers from a very light, quick-dry material with detachable pantlegs for river crossings. On top, I usually had a quick-dry sports t-shirt, and if it was a bit colder, a fleece jumper. Both were rather thin.
For the day when it was extremely windy, on top of my t-shirt, I was wearing a softshell from a Polish company, 4F. This one, to be precise, but any other good quality softshell will do just fine. Wind can significantly decrease the perceived temperature, so a softshell is a must to keep you warm.
I also had a rain jacket, from 4F. As much as their softshell did well, the rain jacket was a disappointment. On the first day of trekking we had approximately 2 hours of rain and my coat got absolutely wet. The inner part of the coat felt super cold and moist and that’s not a result I was expecting from a coat that was supposed to withhold 8000 mm of rain. Also, I can’t call this coat breathable. When I was wearing it, I was actually sweating a lot.
Now, I would buy a more expensive but more water resistant coat with Gore-Tex. Two ladies from my trekking group were wearing ARC’TERYX and their coats withheld basically everything and were super breathable. The only drawback is the price, but if you are an outdoor person and hike a lot, it’s a good value for money.
Camping in Iceland – what to wear and what to do to stay warm in a tent?
Merino wool! That’s my ultimate answer. I get cold super quickly and my sleeping bag wasn’t the best, so the merino wool is basically what saved me a lot of stress. I also had a pair of knee-long merino wool socks.
Before going to sleep in my sleeping bag, I would jog and do four series of squats to warm up. Remember, the temperature you put into your sleeping bag stays there. If you’re cold when getting into the sleeping bag, you will get even colder during the night.
For sleeping, I wore the merino wool long johns and woollen socks for my lower body. For the upper body, I had more layers on: a quick-dry t-shirt, a merino wool long-sleeved shirt, and a thicker fleece jumper. I felt quite comfortable, but one night got super cold – to the point of nearly shivering – despite all the layers.
I also had warmers from Decathlon, which were super useful to quickly increase the temperature in the sleeping bag. More information about warmers later in this post.
Just to show you the contrast between a good and an average sleeping bag, my tent-mate, Andrea, was actually UNDRESSING because she felt warm enough in her sleeping bag. Mine was Decathlon Forclaz 0o comfort, extreme -5o, hers was some natural down from geese feathers up to -15o comfort and it MADE the difference. Next time I’m backpacking Iceland, I am going with a better sleeping bag for sure.
What shoes to pack for multi-day trekking Iceland?
Comfortable, well broken-into, waterproof, with good ankle support. The terrain in the Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland is extremely diverse. You’ll be walking on moss, (knee-high) grass, mud, volcanic ash, gravel, rocks, stones, snow, and volcanic rocks. The terrain is uneven almost at all times. Either you walk uphill, downhill or on lava fields which are super bumpy.
The right socks for trekking Iceland – forget the cotton (unless you want blisters)!
Another CRUCIAL thing is having good socks. Forget anything that has cotton, seriously. Although I didn’t break my shoes into before trekking Iceland, I didn’t get any blisters because I had awesome socks. They were thick, synthetic, breathable, and quick-dry. I bought them in a Polish online shop but you can find something similar in all sports shops.
Useful clothes and accessories for trekking Iceland
A hat is a must. I didn’t wear any hut during the windiest day of the trek and woke up with a horrible headache the next day.
Gloves. I didn’t pack any gloves and regretted that later. Your hands get cold the quickest and it’s not the most pleasant feeling ever.
Wading shoes for crossing rivers. The stones in the rivers can be very slippery and wearing the wading shoes you have more grip on the surface. I also used those wading shoes for walking around the camping sites to let my legs rest from the hiking boots.
Sunglasses to protect you from light reflecting on the snow and from volcanic ash and sand in windy days.
Swimming suite. Day three of the trekking was so awesome partly due to the fact that we all could just sit and relax in a hot spring. I know one girl went to the hot spring in the evening when she was alone and she enjoyed the bath being naked. But still take your swimming suit.
Gaiters. I used them twice and only during the Laugavegur trek when it got super muddy after long hours of rain. They might be also useful for the Vatnajökull trekking when it rains, however, I was lucky enough not to have rain. :) In any case, better take them. They don’t weight much and can keep your trousers dry and clean for longer.
Gear and equipment for trekking Iceland off-path
Sleeping bag. A good, warm sleeping bag. As I’ve written above, the one I took didn’t really keep me warm. I had to wear a lot of layers on my upper body to stay warm and I also used warmers. My tent partner had a natural down sleeping bag to -15oC comfort and she could wear just underwear and still stay warm.
If you are a woman, you probably get colder quicker than an average man, so I would suggest taking a sleeping bag with comfort range of temperatures larger than you expect to experience. For example, for summer in Iceland, I would still take the -15oC sleeping bag instead of the one I had (0oC comfort).
Also, remember that the temperature you put into a sleeping bag will stay there. If you get to sleep feeling cold, you will not miraculously warm up in the sleeping bag. On the contrary, because you won’t be moving, you will get even colder. What to do about that? I did physical exercises before getting to my sleeping bag and it worked well. Run, jump, do squats and you’ll be fine.
Warmers. If you don’t have a good sleeping bag, I would suggest buying warmers. I had the most basic ones from Decathlon and they did well. The large ones last for about 10 hours, the small ones for 5 hours, but once they get warm, they nearly burn. I would put them on my hips and my butt, because these parts were always the coldest and took the longest time to warm up.
Power bank. You will not be able to charge anything during the complete trek, so remember to charge all your batteries, especially if you want to take photos, and take a power bank. Charging your phone is useless, because there is no reception anyway. Unless you want to use your phone for something else.
Hiking poles. Hiking poles saved my ass from getting wet, literally, a good few times. Many times you will have to cross rivers walking on stones. The stones sometimes move, sometimes they are slippery, and hiking poles are awesome to keep your balance and check the depth before you take the next step. Also, since there are quite a few moments when you walk steep up-or-downhill, hiking poles provide a pretty good support and can take some of the weight from your tired legs.
Tent. I had good tents on both trekkings. I can’t recall the name of the tent I had in Vatnajökull, but I had Fjord Nansen for Laugavegur. The most important parameter you should consider when choosing your tent for backpacking Iceland is water resistance and wind resistance. The tent skeleton should be aluminium, which is both strong and light.
Water bottle which you can tie to your backpack. For the Vatnajökull National Park, you don’t really need a bottle larger than 0.7 or 1 litre. Insanely clean rivers are basically every 1-2 hours so you can refill the bottles pretty often, without the need to carry all the supplies on your back. It’s a bit different for the Laugavegur trek where there are no river springs during the first two days, but I will cover that in a separate post.
Medical kit, pain killers. Well, this point is obvious, isn’t it?
Food. A LOT of food. Trek Iceland provides really awesome amount of food for this trek and as much as it might seem a lot, TAKE IT. You will absolutely need this. Backpacking on such a varying terrain makes your body burn a hell lot of calories which you need to refill quite often only not to collapse of exhaustion.
Out of interest, I was checking my Endomondo account on how many calories I would burn each day. It didn’t even know that I was carrying approximately 15 kg on my back and it still showed around 2000 burnt calories each day, which means I was actually burning even more due to backpack. It’s a lot. And you have to eat even if you don’t feel hungry, because not being hungry after so much movement means something is wrong with you and you can be in trouble.
I would recommend high-protein bars, all sorts of nuts if you’re not allergic, dried fruits, chocolate, isotonic gels, and cookies. I normally don’t eat sugar or sweets, and in Iceland I feel cookies basically saved me. Don’t bother about the weight, you will burn all of it, trust me.
Pocket knife. For cutting slices of cheese. ;-)
Cooking utensils, such as a fork, a spoon, a bowel. Jetboil.
Thermo bottle. 0.7l. I didn’t take one and I regretted it every single day of my stay in Iceland. One of the most pleasant moments on the trekking was when we had lunch breaks or dinners and would sit down together, drink tea, and chat. My tea lasted for just one cup and it got cold pretty quickly. If I had a thermo bottle, I could have a supply of hot tea for much longer, super useful also to get warm from the inside.
Sunscreen and lip balm. I am addicted to a lip balm so that goes without question. I didn’t take a sunscreen and finished the 5-day long trek being as red as a crab. Not funny. Take your sunscreen with you, don’t make my mistakes.
Headlight. Well, better take it although I didn’t use it even once. It was getting dark good after 11 and it still wasn’t pitch dark but quite dark. And we were heading to sleep around 9pm, getting up at 6am so I didn’t really need the artificial light. On the other hand, if you can’t fall asleep when it’s not completely dark, pack an eye mask. (I didn’t because I actually enjoyed falling asleep during golden daylight).
How to physically prepare for trekking Iceland
It all depends on how fit you are right now. On my trekking tour, there was a girl who trained for 8 months. And there were two guys who are super seasoned hikers and they didn’t do any extra preparation, but I’m sure they have better condition than an average Joe. There was also another guy who was slightly dragging behind everyone else but he is a smoker and he didn’t train for this. What about me? If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’ve been leading a pretty healthy and active lifestyle since March. This gives roughly 6 months of preparation, but I would go down to 4 when I was really working hard on improving my fitness.
Fitness plan to prepare for multi-day backpacking trek in Iceland
There are many ways, but I will go down to two, the most effective ones. The other girl that prepared for the trek used to hike with heavy backpack and increase the distance and weight with time. I don’t have patience for that so I chose the gym instead and my biggest discovery and love of this year: high intensity interval training and weight lifting.
My fitness routine is like that: 7 minutes of warm-up (e.g. jogging 7km/h), around 45-55 minutes of weight lifting (I focused on legs and arms predominantly, but also did some exercises for my belly muscles). Hip thrusts, leg curls, leg extensions, squats with weights, sumo squats, steps forward with core bag (I did 10kg-15kg), plunk, press-ups were the base of my workout. Three rounds 12-15 repetitions each. To wrap up one session on the gym, I also did 15 minutes of interval running on a treadmill. 45 seconds of sprint, 45 seconds of a walk until 15 minutes ended.
The benefits? Immense. I lost quite a lot of fat, increased my endurance and strength, and improved my breathing capacity. Despite all the long hours of walking uphill with a heavy backpack, I didn’t get sore muscles even once during the WHOLE trek. If this doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what else will.
Mental preparation for a multiday backpacking trekk in Iceland
Now we’re getting to the most interesting part! Why would you even bother about preparing mentally for a multiday backpacking trekking in Iceland? I’ll tell you why. If you have not done backpacking trekking for more than 2 days in a row, there are quite a few things that might surprise you. Let’s take them one by one.
Weather in Iceland – expect rain, always
First thing you need to mentally prepare for is the weather. Iceland is beautiful at all times, but whether you enjoy this beauty or not can somehow depend on whether you’re soaked to the skin or not.
The weather is absolutely beyond your control. Rain is beyond your control. If you have a certain amount of time to spend in Iceland and the weather is not too gorgeous the only reasonable thing to do is to stay positive despite the weather.
It rains? Put your rainproof clothing on and still enjoy the experience. It’s cold? Put your merino wool jumper and still enjoy being outdoors. Really, Iceland is too awesome to waste time fretting about the weather. And it will rain at some point FOR SURE. Seriously, FOR SURE.
Showers and toilettes availability in Vatnajökull National Park
Another thing you must be ready to start enjoying is lack of showers and toilettes. For a few days, you will brush your teeth using ice cold water from the rivers and wet wipes will be your bath. I assure you, though, that this sounds way scarier than it actually is. After the first two days, you’ll notice with a surprise that you still look good despite not taking showers.
I am crazy about my hair and was stressed about not being able to wash it for five days in a row. I bought a dry shampoo and used it twice and only to decrease the weight of my backpack. IF you stay so much time outdoors, your body reacts differently than during a normal office job. Your hair will do just fine, trust me. And if this still doesn’t convince you, remember that all the other participants of the trek are in exactly the same situation and, in fact, no one cares about your looks. :)
Phone reception and internet connection in Vatnajökull National Park in Iceland
Be ready to be cut off from social media and your phone. Tell your relatives and friends when you set off and when you come back so that they won’t worry when you are unavailable for a few days. The most important thing, though, is to enjoy every second of being without any connection with the outer world.
You will notice how much time you waste for checking Facebook or your mail and once you come back from the trek, you will no longer want that. It’s a really cool mind-clearing experience I would recommend to everyone.
I bought a sim card in NOVA with 5GB of Internet and I used maybe a portion of it since there were no chances to spend time on the Internet. It doesn’t really matter what provider you choose, in the Vatnajökull National Park you will be cut off regardless of the network you choose.
How to stay safe while off-the-path trekking Iceland
If you decide to do the same trekking as I did, you will be with a very experienced guide. If you’re lucky, maybe you will walk with Bryn who’s a really kick-ass ranger/superhuman who will not only make it safe, but also teach you some useful tricks.
However, if you do some other trekking (especially Laugavegur) without a guide, download this app SafeTravel.IS and register yourself online. Based on GPS signal, you just click and the app sends your coordinates to the rescue team database. If something happens, it’s easier and faster form them to locate you and reach you.
Also, this app sends you weather alerts which are very important for hikers in Iceland. I got an alert about crossing the glacier river Thronga and approaching gale force winds. Knowing that, you can actually prepare yourself or change your plans last minute.
Useful tips on trekking Iceland off-path
If I had known those “survival” tips on trekking Iceland before actually going to Iceland, I would have felt more comfortable and confident. Anyway, I learned those pretty quickly mostly thanks to the guide we had from Trek Iceland, Bryn. He trekked in more countries than I have actually visited and it was a really great experience to be learning from him. In this section you will find all practical information on crossing rivers, putting up a tent when it’s windy in Iceland, adjusting your backpack for longer hikes, etc. :)
How to put up and take down a tent when it’s windy in Iceland
Putting up and taking down when it’s windy is a bit more complicated than in normal conditions. What you should start with, is fastening the tent to the ground, and to be more precise, fastening it from the windward side. Thanks to that, it won’t escape when you insert the skeleton into the pockets of the tent.
When your tent is safely pinned to the ground, insert the skeleton, pitch the tent, and pin the remaining (leeward) side of the tent to the ground. In Iceland, it might get difficult since the ground is often rocky. In that case, before you start pitching your tent, collect a few stones that you will use to secure your tent from flying away.
How to properly wear a large and heavy backpack while backpacking in Iceland?
Everyone knows how to wear a backpack, don’t they? Well, I thought I knew until I felt pain in my arms on the second day of our trekking in Vatnajökull National Park. I am that type of person who doesn’t like suffering in silence so the moment I started feeling too uncomfortable, I told Bryn that something is wrong with my backpack. He easily identified what caused me pain. Arm straps.
I basically pulled them as close and tight to my body as possible thinking that’ the way it should be. Bryn loosened my arm straps so that his hand fitted between my arm and the strap and asked me to tighten the hip belt. I did as he asked, placed my backpack higher so that it rested properly on my hips and….. it solved the problem! How to check if you’re wearing your backpack in the right way? You’ll get some bruises on your hips after a day or two but your arms will thank you for this. :)
You might want to tighten your arm straps only when walking down steep walls when you really need to keep balance at all time and the backpack just can’t move even an inch for safety reasons. At all other times, make sure arm straps are a bit loose.
Is it safe to drink water from rivers in Iceland?
The short answer is: yes it is safe to drink water from rivers in Iceland. Especially in places of-the-beaten-path such as the Vatnajökull National Park, rivers are so clean; there is no harm in drinking water straight from them. What you should avoid, though, is drinking water from glacier rivers since the water might be dirty there.
How to tell the difference between a normal and a glacier river in Iceland? Normal rivers are very clear and transparent, usually also smaller than the glacier ones. Water in glacier rivers is usually more muddy, it’s not transparent but grey.
How to cross rivers while trekking Iceland?
My first suggestion would be to pack wading shoes. I’ve seen people doing it in flip flops or bare foot and, having the experience of crossing at least 10 rivers, I think it is irresponsible. Stones are slippery, sometimes you have to wade knee-deep, currents are strong, especially in glacier rivers. If you have comfortable and fitting wading shoes, your experience of crossing any river will be safer and more pleasant.
Look for the place where the river is the widest. Sometimes it means walking a bit off the path, but given the water is ice cold and the current can get strong, you really don’t want to wade hip-deep. Also, never ever look into the river while you’re crossing it. Look at the bank ahead of you, but never into the river since you might lose your balance.
Use hiking poles for extra support and checking the depth of the river. Don’t really lift your legs, just wade. Don’t fasten the straps of your backpack while crossing. If you fall, it will drag you down. And remember, it’s not as complicated as it seems. :)
How to cross snow bridges while trekking Iceland?
In the Vatnajökull National Park, I crossed only one snow bridge, but a lot smaller snow bridges while hiking the Laugavegur trek. The first and most important rule is to check if the snow bridge is thick enough to support your weight. This takes some experience and luckily, Bryn had that and was able to assess the risk before we crossed a snow bridge over a glacier river.
However, if you are alone, double (or even triple check) if the snow cap is thick enough to withhold your weight. Don’t just cross the bridge right away, check the stability with your hiking pole first.
Trekking – probably the best way to truly experience Iceland
Of course I am biased here! :) I love hiking, I love spending time outdoors, and especially surrounded by pristine nature. This is when I relax the most and am the happiest.
But there’s more to that than just being relaxed. Trekking in Iceland, especially off-the-path allowed me to stay away from the crowds, away from connection to the outer world, and have time to focus on myself.
The biggest takeaway from this trekking, though, is learning that my limits are way farther away than I thought. Hiking long hours, staying outdoors in lower temperatures, not showering for a few days in a row – that’s all doable and, in fact, not as scary as it seems.
This post was brought to you in collaboration with Trek Iceland.
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