Icelandic nature can be very dangerous, even deadly. Prevent accidents by reading about Iceland's most dangerous aspects and be informed about the dangers in Iceland.
Sadly, a number of tourists have died in Iceland due to the extreme contrasts in the weather and in the nature. Many instances could've been prevented if people had been more aware of their location and the possible dangers that the Icelandic nature can hold. The country is often named 'the land of ice and fire', and that name should not be taken lightly.
In light of a recent fatal accident taking place at one of Iceland's most popular tourist destination in Reynisfjara beach, we decided to pile together Iceland's most dangerous aspects, in hope that this article can inform many travellers about the (sometimes almost invisible) dangers of Iceland, and prevent many accidents from happening.
Before traveling in Iceland, read about how to drive Iceland safely and inform yourself about the Icelandic search and rescue teams. Make sure you leave your travel plan with the search and rescue teams, and avoid making preventable mistakes, so you don't need to waste their valuable time. We want our travellers to travel safely and go back in one piece!
Deadly Icelandic beaches
Tourist in danger at Reynisfjara beach. Picture by Ulrich Pittroff.
Some of Iceland's beaches are incredibly popular tourist destinations, especially the black Reynisfjara beach on the south coast of Iceland. Millions of people have visited this stunning area, where you can admire the pitch black sand, the linear basalt columns and last but not least: the impressive waves of the North Atlantic sea.
These waves however are EXTREMELY unpredictable. They can be very high and large, and the undercurrent in the ice-cold sea is very strong. Sneaker waves can also occur - when a single wave is much larger than the other ones, sneaking up far onto the beach.
There are many big rocks in the area, that have sharp edges where the waves crash. Visually the waves look spectacular, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that tourists (and locals) can spend hours watching them and taking pictures and videos. The danger lies in getting too close to the waves. Even if it's a nice and calm day and you feel like you're at a safe distance, then suddenly a big wave can come and sweep you out to sea.
Someone gets caught by the waves almost EVERY DAY! Whereas most people just get slightly wet clothes or shoes, some get their camera equipment ruined (which is quite common) and tragically, a few people have died.
In February 2016 a 40 year old Chinese man was standing atop this middle rock on the above picture, when a sudden wave took him out to sea where he drowned. His wife and two children were with him but unable to do anything to save him.
In 2007 a 75 year old woman from the USA got caught by a wave and drowned. Three people jumped in to try to save her but couldn't reach her and put themselves in great danger at the same time.
The most recent tragedy took place in January 2017, when a German woman in her fifties was caught by a wave and washed ashore a couple of hours later. She was travelling with her husband and two children, thereof a son in his thirties that also got caught by a wave but managed to get back to the shores alive.
In 2013 a four year old girl ran straight towards the waves, but fortunately a guide reacted quickly and managed to run after her and swiftly pick her up before the next wave.
All of these incidents took place on nice and sunny clear days - so you can imagine what the waves can be like in the middle of winter when it can be stormy and snowing.
Djúpalónssandur. Picture by Vísir.
Take extra care when you go to Reynisfjara - as well as any other beach in Iceland. Another beautiful and popular black beach is Djúpalónssandur on Snæfellsnes, where people have gotten caught in the surf, although no-one has died there, so far.
Don't turn your back to the sea and don't get lost in taking that selfie. The waves are much stronger than you'd expect.
The unstable icebergs in glacier lagoons
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular destinations, and it's not hard to understand why. Impressive icebergs float around in a large lagoon, that's nestled by Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
In wintertime you can catch the auroras dancing overhead, sometimes reflected in the lagoon and the ice in it. This is a photographer's heaven.
When you go to the lagoon, you will see signs that forbid people to walk on the ice in the lagoon. There are normally a number of tour guides in the area, all of whom will tell people not to walk on the ice. Nevertheless, there always seem to be a few people that either are oblivious to the danger, or ignore it and walk on the ice (or even swim in the lagoon!) to a floating iceberg - often for that ever-so-precious selfie.
Tourists in danger by Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Picture by Gylfi Blöndal.
Although the ice may be connected to land when you arrive, and looks safe to walk on, it can easily break off from the land. If you find yourself stranded on a block of ice in the lagoon, you're in serious danger since the ice can tip over - meaning you'd fall into the ice cold water, or might even get trapped underneath the iceberg itself. The water is so cold that people can only stay in it for a few minutes before they'd get hypothermia and die, and the current in the calm lagoon is strong and can easily carry people out to sea.
Again, people tend to misjudge how stable and safe the natural attractions in Iceland are, that can lead to fatal incidents.
The unpredictable (and sometimes fatal) weather
There's a saying in Iceland that goes "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes". The weather can suddenly change - and is constantly changing. It can change dramatically in the same place in a matter of seconds, and also change drastically from one location to the next one.
With the vast scenery, you can literally see where there's rain on your right hand side, but sun on the left one. The weather can be dramatically different depending on your location in the country (it can be sunny and nice in Reykjavík where you start your day - but a snowstorm in the highlands). This means you can drive through rain, snow, sun, wind and fog, all within the same hour - or even in a matter of few minutes. And you should never underestimate the windchill factor in Iceland.
This also means that you can hike through the same conditions.
Whereas snowstorms tend to mainly take place in wintertime, they have been known to take place in the middle of summer as well - and are more likely to take place in the highlands, where you won't find much shelter or traffic.
Hiking in Iceland is a wonderful way to explore the country, and very popular. When you go hiking in Iceland however, you need to be prepared for any type of weather. Even in summertime. Bring layers of wool and/or fleece and avoid wearing cotton or denim, as they get cold and lose their insulation capabilities when wet.
The most popular hiking route in Iceland is 'Laugavegurinn', named after Reykjavík's busiest shopping street. Even though it's a busy route, you can still feel like the only one on it. In 2004, on a clear summer's day in the end of June, a 25 year old Israeli man started the hike from Landmannalaugar. He was poorly dressed, in sneakers, light trousers and a light jacket. The staff at Landmannalaugar warned him not to go hiking in this outfit since the route crosses a glacier and he might get cold, but he went nonetheless. Four hours later he called the Icelandic Search and Rescue teams as he was completely lost in a thick fog, and getting very cold. A team of about 70 people went looking for him, but he was found dead, only 1 km away from a hut where he could've found shelter from the cold. This is just one example of someone that was killed in Iceland due to insufficient clothing, many more have frozen to death in the cold and unpredictable weather.
Never underestimate how quickly the weather can turn, and ALWAYS make sure that you're prepared for any kind of weather. Here's a handy guide to help you pack for travel in Iceland.
Other dangers in Iceland
We've listed the main dangers in Iceland. Whatever activity you plan on doing in Iceland, be sure to inform yourself of the location before doing anything rash. Look out for information signs in the areas where you are traveling.
Other dangers include falling into cracks on glaciers, getting stuck inside unstable ice caves or burning yourself on hot springs. Never go hiking on a glacier or enter an ice cave unless you're with someone that knows the area and the landscape extremely well.
Be careful around hot springs and don't step too close - you may not fall in but the surrounding mud can be just as hot and your feet could sink into it.
Take note that off-road and off-track driving is illegal in Iceland. The tracks can sometimes be hard to see, but are still regarded as roads. If you can't see a clear track, then you're driving off-road and you're both damaging the nature, and possibly putting yourself at a great risk.
Driving in the highlands requires a 4WD car, as well as driving towards the popular plane wreck in south Iceland. Do NOT attempt to drive to the plane wreck or in the highlands on a low car that doesn't have a 4 wheel drive. Your car will most likely get stuck, and you may have to wait a long time before receiving help (as well as pay for the damages to the car).
Be careful when driving in Iceland, there are many single lane bridges and if you have an accident somewhere or get stuck, then there tend to be long distances to the nearest gas station, police station or hospital.
Some people are concerned about dangerous animals in Iceland. You have nothing to fear from the Icelandic animals, except perhaps some birds attacking you when they're protecting their eggs. Only be careful not to hit any birds, sheep, cows or reindeers whilst driving, you may wound or kill the animals, and the crash can also harm yourself.
Although Iceland is a volcanic island, then you also don't need to fear earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. No-one has ever been seriously harmed directly due to an earthquake nor a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Find out more about volcanoes in Iceland here.
So to keep safe in Iceland: Read about the location where you're traveling, prepare yourself for all kinds of weather, check the weather forecast, dress warmly, inform people where you are going and don't ignore local advice and/or warning signs. They're there for a reason.