Marvel over the magnificent, ancient glaciers that adorn Iceland’s incredible landscape. Opportunities to hike upon these rare wonders, walk alongside their crevasses and clamber up their icy walls, cannot be found in many places across the world; yet here, the opportunities are abundant. Read ahead for all you need to know about glaciers and glacier hiking in Iceland.
The world atop one of Iceland’s glaciers is ethereal, awe-inspiring, and exhilarating. Their beauty is undeniable, with walls of powder white snow, veins of black ash, and stretches of electric blue ice. The crevasses that snake across them grumble with the sounds of the living ice beneath your feet, and the ridges and shapes formed by the glacier seem supernatural.
Glacier hiking is thus an increasingly popular activity in Iceland. With opportunities to do so from many places in the country, conveniently including Reykjavík, more and more people are starting to explore the ice and speak of the wonders found there.
For those new to Iceland and new to glaciers, however, the whole idea can be quite daunting. Many questions are common: Is glacier hiking safe? What experience and equipment do I need to glacier hike? What even is a glacier? All these questions will be answered in this comprehensive guide to glacier hiking in Iceland.
- See also: Glacier & Ice Cap tours
What is a Glacier?
Photo Credit: Glacier hiking & ice climbing tour from Reykjavík
A glacier, put simply, is a body of ice that exists throughout the year that is constantly moving under its own weight. Over time, often centuries, in areas where there is more snow falling than melting, snow will slowly compact into a single, icy structure. This occurs mostly over mountain ranges and around the poles.
Glaciers move due to a variety of reasons. The force of gravity pulls them down, and either because the weight of the ice causes internal deformation, or because the land underneath is lubricated with liquid water, they start to slide. This distinguishes a glacier from, say, a lake that is frozen all year, or sea ice.
The term ‘ice cap’ refers to a glacier, or a set of conjoining glaciers, that are less than 50,000 kilometres squard; all of Iceland’s glaciers fall into this category. ‘Ice sheets’ are glaciers that cover a larger area, and can only be found in the Antarctic and Greenland.
Photo credit: Heli-glacier hike day tour from Reykjavík
Some glaciers are shrinking, due to disappear within years, while others are defying expectations and growing. Some consist almost entirely of freshwater; others are described as rock glaciers due to the amount of sediment and debris frozen into their ice.
It is rather telling of the glacier hiking opportunities in Iceland that it is a temperate country with 11% of its land surface covered in glaciers.
The Glaciers of Iceland
Iceland’s cold, wet weather and many mountains provide the perfect conditions for glaciers to form; there is an abundance of them across the country, with many close to Reykjavík. They include the largest and second largest glaciers in Europe, Vatnajökull and Langjökull respectively.
The glaciers of Iceland have many features that make them incredibly special. One of these is their colouration. True glaciers (which excludes rock glaciers) are predominantly white because of the fact they consist of compacted snow.
When ice deforms under intense pressure, however, it becomes so dense that it forces all air particles out of it. This gives parts of some glaciers an electric blue colour that is so vivid and ethereal that it barely appears natural. Because of Iceland’s raw volcanism, much of the ice also veined with black ash, some of which dates back centuries.
- See also: Volcanoes in Iceland
These veins of ash are just one example of why glaciers are fascinating to scientists. They freeze history within their bodies, and through their layers, experts can discover a wealth of knowledge about climate conditions, geological events, and even ancient life in times gone by.
Considering that some glaciers are potentially millions of years old, they are essential for understanding so much about the history of the world. Iceland’s glaciers started forming 2,500 years ago, but still hold a huge wealth of knowledge.
Photo Credit: Snaefellsjökull glacier hiking tour
It is possible to see these layers of history without damaging glaciers, by exploring their crevasses; these are the deep, vertical cracks that open due to the tensile strain caused by glacial movement. While amateur glacier hikers will not be descending into these openings, or even getting close to them, they provide an excellent research tool for scientists.
Even without climbing into them and learning about the processes of the earth, however, these crevasses are still fascinating. They are dramatic, daunting and beautiful, and those walking around them can hear the ever-changing world within the glacier echoing up from their depths.
Water that enters these crevasses often erodes its way out of the glacier, creating another incredible feature: ice caves. These unreal formations are sought after by many visitors coming to Iceland during the winter months, and their beauty is otherworldly.
To many, they are the most magnificent sight to be had in all of Iceland. Ice caves are very dependent on conditions, however, and do not form every year, or necessarily last throughout.
Those who do not give the ice caves the title of ‘the most beautiful sight in Iceland’ will most likely credit it to Jökuksárlón glacier lagoon.
Glacier lagoons, or glacier lakes, are formed by retreating glaciers and filled with their meltwater. They are often small and dirty, due to the sediments that were frozen in the ice. Jökulsárlón, however, is vast, blue and beautiful, and fills with massive icebergs breaking off from a glacial tongue.
- See also: Amazing aquamarine ice caves in Vatnajökull glacier
- See also: Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon - the crown jewel of Iceland's nature
With the many gorgeous features caused by the glaciers and their accessibility, there has been a surge in tourist infrastructure to allow people to explore them in the manner that they like. Tours to the ice caves, trips to the glacier lagoon, and snowmobiling excursions are all popular options.
To fully appreciate and learn about the glaciers, however, there is no better choice than partaking in a glacier hike.
Glacier Hiking in Iceland
Photo Credit: Glacier walk on Vatnajökull - away from the crowd
When one pictures walking across fields of ice, it can be quite a daunting thought. Images from movies and television often depict it as an incredibly dangerous activity, with people tumbling down crevices, pulling others with them on the rope, or sliding off cliffs and dangling from the edge with an ice axe.
With the right equipment, knowledge and guide, however, glacier hiking in Iceland is safe and exhilarating even for those without experience. Please keep in mind that all three of these things are essential, and you should not be climbing an ice cap if you lack any of them.
The conditions required to be allowed on a glacier hike are rather few. You must be at least eight to ten years old to partake on most simple hikes, and at least twelve to fourteen to partake in an ice climb as well, with some variation between tour operators. You must be in reasonably good health, as walking in the specialist equipment and over ice is a little challenging.
As a side note, only those able to follow the instructions of a guide without question or hesitation should book a glacier tour. While it is very unlikely that something would ever go wrong, glaciers have inherent dangers, and accidents can and do happen.
Photo Credit: Skaftafell glacier expedition
Glacier hiking requires specialist equipment, but almost all tour operators will provide this. This equipment includes:
Crampons: Crampons are spiked devices that attach around a boot, which secure your footing on ice and snow and allow you to climb ice-walls.
Ice axes: Ice axes are an essential safety tool, which aid hikers up steep slopes, allow you to climb ice walls, and are insurance against sliding down a hill should you lose your footing.
Helmet: Helmets needed for glacier hiking are not extravagant, and hats can be worn underneath; they are simply a safety procedure to protect against falls and any falling ice from above.
Harness with carabiners and various ropes: These are used mainly for ice climbing on beginner excursions on the glacier, so that if you lose your grip and fall you won’t be injured in any way. You guide will show you how they work and take care of all necessary rope work. They are also used in more advanced glacier hiking to keep groups together and safe in rough weather, and where it is suspected that crevasses could be hidden under a thin veil of fresh snow.
All you need to bring are warm, insulating clothes (think wool and fleece over cotton), with thermals beneath and weather-proof layers on top. Thin gloves will help protect you without compromising your dexterity, and hats will be appreciated. Sunglasses and sunscreen are also important, as the sunlight reflecting off the ice is often dazzling and intense.
Perhaps the most important thing glacier hikers must bring themselves or rent out is sturdy hiking boots. Crampons are ineffective in flimsy shoes or trainers and can fall off, posing a danger to those below. It should go without saying that any shoe with a significant heel is not appropriate.
- See also: What to pack for travel in Iceland
Photo Credit: Glacier hiking & ice climbing tour from Reykjavík
Non-essential gear that you may value includes a walking pole, for those worried they will not be sure enough on their feet, and a camera. There is no doubt that you will wish to enshrine the unbelievable vistas you will witness from the glacier into something you can look back on for the rest of your life.
If you book a glacier hike in Iceland, be sure to check whether your tour provider requires you to bring anything extra.
When is the Best Time to Glacier Hike in Iceland?
Photo from 2 Day Tour to Jokulsarlon
Most glacier hikes can be enjoyed throughout the year, but there are undeniable advantages to doing it in different seasons. Iceland really only has a summer that runs from May to September, and a winter that runs from October to April, and the glaciers are vastly different throughout both of these times.
Glacier Hiking in Summer
Photo from Skaftafell Glacier Hiking Wonders
Glacier hiking in summer has some very obvious advantages. Firstly, the conditions are likely to be a lot more pleasant. While Iceland can be windy, rainy and cloudy at any time of the year, any adverse conditions will be a lot more bearable in the warmer months.
Furthermore, you are much more likely to be able to enjoy sunlight as you hike at this time.
Decent weather means that you will often be able to hike in much more comfortable clothes (although you should bring warm, waterproof layers as insurance, of course), and will not have to cut your tour short in the case of somebody not being able to handle the cold. It also means that any reserved glacier hikes are much less likely to be cancelled due to conditions, which is perfect for those who have a tight schedule on their holidays.
Photo from Svinafellsjökull Glacier Hiking Tour
Clear weather also means the views across the landscapes surrounding the glaciers will be even better, whether you are looking across the verdant south, stunning Skaftafell Reserve, or the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. As will be discussed in more detail below, Iceland’s glaciers are positioned in very scenic places.
The chance to witness great views also applies to when you are travelling to and from the ice caps; the extended sunlight hours mean no landscapes will be obscured as you travel. As there are only four hours of sun in the depths of winter, your journeys in this time will need to be taken in darkness so you can make the most of the glacier when there.
The final reason why summer is advantageous over winter is the greater selection of glaciers you can hike. While the most popular, Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull, are open throughout the year, more tours run a day throughout summer, and Snæfellsjökull is only accessible in this season.
Glacier Hiking in Winter
Photo from Glacier Hiking Tour from Reykjavík
Looking at the advantages of glacier hiking in summer, you may understandably think it is obviously the best season to do it. You would, however, be quite mistaken.
Yes, in winter more glacier hiking tours are cancelled due to adverse weather, the experience is often more cold and challenging, and the views are often obscured by darkness or cloud cover. The glaciers themselves, however, are infinitesimally more beautiful.
The summer sun melts the outer ice of a glacier, revealing beneath it the layers of ash from eruptions that date back centuries; they, therefore, have large patches and streaks of grey and black running through the white snow. Though fascinating, it means the glaciers are not as beautiful as when they are armoured in newly frozen ice, as happens in winter. This ice is a striking, electric blue, so vivid that it barely seems natural.
The unreal, ethereal beauty of the ice is not the only advantage of glacier hiking in winter, however. If the weather is clear, then embarking on this activity will expose you to dramatic landscapes coated in gleaming snow. Such beautiful arctic vistas will leave you in no doubt as to why the producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones used Iceland to shoot many of the scenes North of the Wall.
Finally, glacier hiking in Iceland in winter can be a lot more fun for the adventurous seeking a challenge. While the ice caps are reasonably accessible in summer, it can be very rewarding to brave them in the conditions of winter, especially if you combine the activity with a daring ice climb.
What is the Best Place to Glacier Hike in Iceland?
Photo from Blue Ice Experience in Skaftafell
There are many glacier hiking opportunities in Iceland, and the choice can be a little overwhelming. Each glacier has its own distinct charm, and even those that cannot be easily hiked can often be explored in other ways.
- Find glacier tours here
Glacier Hiking on Sólheimajökull
Photo Credit: Sólheimajökull Glacier Expedition
If you are based in Reykjavík, there are daily tours from many providers which take you to the glacier Sólheimajökull, on the South Coast. These tours are available year-round.
Their popularity stems from the fact that this glacier is accessible for beginners, and just a few hours’ drive from Reykjavík. The trip over to it is very scenic, passing by beautiful sites such as the waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.
Trips up Sólheimajökull are perfect for those who simply want to try glacier hiking, learn about the glaciers, and get some great views without any extra frills. Most of these tours have the option for a pick-up from Reykjavík; if you choose to rent a car, however, you can organise meeting your guide and group on location.
Photo Credit: Sólheimajökull glacier expedition
The advantages of Sólheimajökull over other glaciers are threefold. Firstly, it is close to the capital; secondly, it is in a beautiful region; and thirdly, the narrowness of its formation makes ice-climbing easier and more enjoyable. Adding an ice-climb to your glacier hike is no problem for those who have a reasonable level of fitness, and are willing to brave the height.
- Find ice climbing tours here
Glacier Hiking from Skaftafell
Photo Credit: Skaftafell glacier expedition
Following Sólheimajökull, the next most popular glacier to hike is Svinafellsjökull in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve, an incredibly beautiful place of forests, waterfalls, mountain peaks and glacier tongues. This ice cap is also very close to other incredible wonders, such as the aforementioned Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
A hike on the ice here is just one of many wonderful activities the area has to offer.
The advantage of hiking Svinafellsjökull is thus largely its location. In clear weather from the top of the glacier, you can expect awe-inspiring views that will stay in your memory for life. Svinafellsjökull is also renowned for its dramatic ridges, which make a walk on the ice more beautiful and impressive in itself.
- See also: Skaftafell | A Hiker's Paradise
Glacier Hiking on Snæfellsjökull
Photo Credit: Snaefellsjökull glacier hiking tour
A more challenging glacier hike can be found throughout the summer at Snæfellsjökull on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. You will get to reach the very top of the mountain, where you can see its famous twin peaks.
These peaks feature in the Jules Verne novel ‘A Journey to the Centre of the Earth’; it is said that the shadow of one will point to a cave that leads to the depths of the planet. Those who love literature, therefore, will enjoy seeing the place where the novel’s adventure begins.
You need not be a fan of the book, however, to find great appeal in this hike. In clear weather, your views from the top will be unmatched; it is possible that you will see across the ocean to the mountains of the Westfjords, Reykjanes Peninsula, and (in admittedly exceptional cases) across to Greenland.
This excursion, however, should only be attempted by those confident in their fitness; it is the most challenging glacier hike available on a day tour in Iceland.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is nicknamed ‘Iceland in miniature’ because of the enormous diversity of scenery and landmarks along its 90-kilometre stretch, adding vastly to any excursion in the region. Snæfellsjökull is often referred to as ‘the crown jewel of the peninsula’.
- See also: The magical Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Glacier Hiking on Vatnajökull
Photo from Glacier Walk on Vatnajökull
The aforementioned Svinafellsjökull is connected to the larger Vatnajökull ice cap; as Vatnajökull is so vast, however, there are other places on it that you can hike. These tours are lesser-known and thus less crowded, but fewer than on other glaciers.
They will, however, present you with snowscapes unmatched on any other tour. Vatnajökull cover 8% of Iceland’s surface, including dozens of its volcanoes such as the ever-rumbling Barðabunga, making a hike along it an experience unlike any other.
A more reliable and often more affordable way to explore Vatnajökull is to book a snowmobiling tour. Throughout the winter months, its ice caves open, and they can also be explored when the weather conditions allow.
Exploring Other Glaciers in Iceland
Langjökull glacier is less popular amongst operators for hiking tours, in spite of its proximity to Reykjavík, but is well-known for its ice tunnels. Unlike the ice caves at Vatnajökull, these are not natural, having been carved into the sturdiest part of the glacier. The ice tunnels are the only place in the world where you can reliably and safely walk inside of a glacier at any time of the year.
Photo Credit: Snowmobile tour from Reykjavík in a small group
Sólheimajökull, Skaftafellsjökull and Langjökull are the most visited glaciers, but it is possible to explore many others, through different means. Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s third largest glacier, can be explored by snowmobile. You can also explore an ice cave on this glacier, with departures leaving from Reykjavík and Vík.
You can also take a super-jeep tour to the top of the notorious peak of Eyjafjallajökull. This is the glacier that covers the volcano which erupted in 2010, causing widespread disruption to air travel.
Limits to Glacier Hiking in Iceland
While there are always a wealth of glacier hiking options available, not all glaciers are opened at all times. As mentioned, some can only be accessed in winter; if the weather is violent and stormy, all glacier tours will be cancelled for safety reasons.
Excursions onto glaciers are also banned if the volcanoes that exist beneath many of them start rumbling. Tours up Mount Hekla, which has small glaciers on it, are often stopped if seismic activity is increasing, as there is just a thirty-minute window between when experts can tell it is due to erupt and when it goes off. The same applies for tours to the ice caves on Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers Katla volcano.
If you are aware of an eruption warning, it is imperative that you heed it. While there are none imminent at the moment, several large volcanoes are due to go off soon. Exposing yourself to molten lava, poisonous ash and glacial floods will likely be somewhat of a dampener on your holiday.
- See also: Things to do during a storms in Iceland
Making the most of the glaciers
Glacier hiking is an incredible experience, but tragically, not one that may exist in Iceland in the years to come. Like most ice caps around the world, most of Iceland’s glaciers are retreating very quickly, escalated by a warming climate. Some experts say that Langjökull will no longer exist in 150 years, and the rest of the glaciers could be gone in 200.
Glaciers do grow and shrink naturally; for example, Sólheimajökull is much larger now than it was when Iceland was first settled, as the nation had a warmer climate at that time. Nowadays, however, it is shrinking the size of an Olympic swimming pool per year, and there is widespread consensus that these rates are not natural. All in all, Iceland is losing 11 billion tonnes of ice annually.
It is, therefore, a nearly essential Icelandic experience to visit a glacier while the chance still exists. Future generations will not be so lucky.
Glacier hiking is the most immersive way to enjoy the fascinating, desolate, otherworldly and awe-inspiring world of Iceland's ancient ice. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. Strap on your crampons, take your ice axe in hand, and start your glacier adventure.