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 squared; 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.
- See also: Caves in Iceland
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 yeat, 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. Day 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.
Where to Glacier Hike in Iceland
Photo Credit: Sólheimajökull Glacier Expedition
Glacier hiking opportunities in Iceland are virtually endless. If you 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.
Those in good physical shape who seek a little more adventure can choose a tour that also incorporates an ice climb.
Photo Credit: Sólheimajökull glacier expedition
Following Sólheimajökull, the next most popular glacier to hike is Skaftafellsjökull in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve, an incredibly beautiful place of forests, waterfalls, mountain peaks and glacier tongues. It is also very close to other incredible wonders, such as the aforementioned Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and a hike on the ice here is just one of many wonderful activities the area has to offer.
Skaftafellsjökull is connected to the larger Vatnajökull ice cap; as Vatnajökull is so vast, there are other places on it that you can hike, which are lesser-known and thus less crowded. Tours here, however, are fewer than on other glaciers, and often private.
- See also: Skaftafell - a hiker's paradise
Photo Credit: Skaftafell glacier expedition
A bonus for those visiting Vatnajökull exists for fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones. It was on this glacier where many of the scenes north of the Wall were filmed. The Wall itself was created with CGI, but ‘built’ upon a shot of this glacier.
- See also: Snowmobiling tours in Iceland
Langjökull glacier is less popular amongst operators for hiking tours, in spite of its proximity to Reykjavík. It is, however, well-known for its ice tunnel. Unlike the ice caves at Vatnajökull, this not natural, having been carved into the sturdiest part of the glacier. The ice tunnel is the only place in the world where you can reliably 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.
The more fit and experienced can hike 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.
Another 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. The Snæfellsnes peninsula is nicknamed ‘Iceland in miniature’ because of the enormous diversity of scenery along a 90-kilometre stretch. Snæfellsjökull is often referred to as ‘the crown jewel of the peninsula’.
Photo Credit: Snaefellsjökull glacier hiking tour
While there are always a wealth of options available, not all glaciers are opened at all times. Some can only be accessed in winter, unless the weather is violent and stormy, in which case all glacier tours will be cancelled for safety reasons.
Regardless of the season, however, excursions onto glaciers are 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 from when experts can tell it is due to erupt, and when it goes off.
If you are aware of a warning such as this, it is imperative that you heed it. While there are no imminent eruptions, 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.