Photo by Philip Gunkel
Do you dream of waking up to the sunrise across a magnificent fjord? Or of falling asleep amongst a range of beautiful mountains with the Northern Lights dancing overhead? If so, there are no better options for you than taking a camping holiday to Iceland.
Taking guided tours to visit the sites or driving from accommodation to accommodation around the island are both excellent ways to see the country.
Camping, however, is the only true way to fully immerse yourself in the incredible nature of Iceland.
Although the uninhabited landscape and unpredictable weather raise certain challenges, never before has this option been more accessible or inviting.
If the idea of such a life-changing experience appeals to you, keep reading for the best tips on camping in Iceland.
Camping is a passion of many Icelanders. It is somewhat of a national tradition every summer to pack up one’s belongings and join friends and families at one of the many unique campsites across the country.
The same appeal that brings locals out of their homes and into their tents extends to visitors.
Camping in Iceland is cheap, which is invaluable to travellers on a budget considering the relatively high prices in Iceland.
Camping is completely sustainable, so you can fall asleep amongst the nature knowing that your trip is having a minimal impact on it. It also allows you more independence than a hotel stay.
It is Iceland’s incredibly diverse scenery that draws most visitors, and without a base that must be returned to, a whole scope of sights become instantly more accessible.
More than any of the reasons above, however, camping in Iceland gives you a special perspective of the character of the landscape surrounding you.
From the insides of a hotel, you cannot hear the rustling of the breeze through fields of heather, nor the winds howling down the valleys of a mountain. You equally cannot taste the pure air as you wake up, nor feel as rosy and refreshed from sleeping through the cool of the night.
The experience is magical, and there are many options out there to make it as easy and stress-free as possible.
Although camping in Iceland is exhilarating and rewarding, it can be quite a hassle to organise all the equipment needed and to plan which campsites will serve you best in advance.
Thankfully, there are a number of options available that cover most of these issues for you.
The best is undoubtedly an eight-day self-drive tour, which will take you all around Iceland’s famous ring road. With this package, you’ll be provided with a 4X4 vehicle, allowing you to traverse almost every road in the country, complete with a rooftop tent, camping equipment such as chairs and tables, a USB charger and a cooler.
All vehicles come insured, and with a GPS navigation system helping you easily find the sights and Iceland's campgrounds.
This tour also comes with a camping card, which allows you to stay at over 40 different campsites across the country without paying on the spot or pre-booking. It basically provides the thrill of camping with the convenience of a hotel.
This tour also comes with a custom-made itinerary that guides you to the country’s must-see locations, as well as many lesser-known sites where you can escape the crowds and still enjoy the wonders of Iceland’s incredible nature.
It is also tailored to guide you to the many geothermal pools across the country. This will help you to spend more time basking and relaxing, no matter where you are heading, after a long day of travelling.
Photo credit: Breathe Iceland
Of course, there are many more options for those wishing to camp in Iceland.
Visitors with their own equipment and plans simply need to rent a vehicle to set off.
Also, travellers put off by the risk of sleeping outdoors in inclement weather have a wealth of campervan options to choose from.
Regardless of which of these you choose, it is still a wise idea to purchase a camping card, to save money and help guarantee a place to settle down for the night.
If you plan on going down one of these routes, however, you need to make sure that you know where you are going, particularly regarding local services. No one wants to run out of fuel in the middle of the highlands.
The high tourist season in Iceland is from late May to August, making campsites notoriously crowded during this time. There is almost always a great mixture of campervans and tents in these spots from every early evening onwards during these months.
If your aim is to avoid the crowds, campsites are usually open from April to September every year. This gives you the opportunity to aim for months such as April and September to gain more tranquillity.
However, the trade-off is always going to be the weather. The high season usually has the best weather (by Iceland’s standards) with a warmer temperature and less temperamental rain, wind and snow.
It’s particularly important to focus on the high season if you are camping in a tent. The last thing you want is to end up being forced to sleep through an April snow blizzard.
If you’re planning on visiting during the summer months, you will get the added benefit of resting under the mesmerising midnight sun. This occurs in Iceland between May 21st - July 30th and is truly a spectacle to behold.
However, if you’re not good with sleep I’d suggest bringing a sleeping mask with you to avoid any potential insomnia that could impact your sightseeing during the daytime.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to rent a campervan you will have more flexibility to aim for the months outside of peak season (April & September).
If you are willing to trade better weather for fewer tourists, this is the best time for you. In these months you will also have a chance of viewing the elusive Northern Lights in the evening after dark.
As thrilling and easy as camping in Iceland can be, there are a few risks that you should take into account. The most notable of these is, of course, the country’s notorious weather.
Even in summer, the weather is unpredictable, with the potential for high winds and all sorts of precipitation.
This can make sleeping an impossibility and roads inaccessible.
It is thus important to check the forecast before setting out or settling down. Although please note that being a far-flung rock in the North Atlantic means that weather forecasts are never 100% reliable here.
It is always better to have some idea of what is ahead, however, than no idea at all.
The Icelandic Search and Rescue team also has a website that warns travellers of closed roads or roads exposed to weather-related risks.
Another thing to bear in mind while camping around Iceland is to ensure you are aware of the services en route.
Iceland is a sparsely populated country with enormous stretches of uninhabited land. While this is a significant part of its magical appeal, it can leave the unprepared stranded.
It is therefore always essential to ensure you travel with enough food and water, to have a charged phone in your vehicle, to possess several layers of warm clothes, and, if possible, to have a container with spare fuel.
Those following an itinerary, or sticking largely to Route 1, are much less likely to encounter this problem, but it never hurts to take precautions.
A final issue that you need to be aware of is, essentially, how to camp.
Before setting off on a camping trip around Iceland, you should be aware of the basics, such as how to erect your tent, and how to use a gas cooker.
It seems simple, but a few practice rounds with unfamiliar equipment can save you from avoidable problems further down the road.
Although much of Iceland’s nature is completely uninhabited and barren, it is highly encouraged and, in fact, quickly becoming law to only camp within designated campsites.
Designated campsites help to preserve the wilds of the country, avoids overstepping the mark when it comes to staying on private property and ensures your safety.
The campsites in Iceland are as diverse as their settings.
Most campsites have a full range of services, including showers, bathrooms, electricity and nearby restaurants or shops. Many of them are simply a cordoned off-field or a stretch of beach with no amenities available.
The campsites to which you can access free admission on self-drive tours usually have decent facilities, and the services at each can be seen on the camping card website.
Before setting off on a trip, it is also important to check when the campsites you plan to attend are open. Naturally, they are only open during the summer months, but the specific dates vary.
Many are open all the way from May to September. But a few, especially those in more remote areas, or areas susceptible to inclement weather, may only be accessible from June to August.
Photo credit: Wikimedia, creative commons, photo by Pietro Valocchi
In November 2015, as a direct response to the ever-increasing visitor numbers to Iceland, the Ministry of Camping put forward new legislation making changes as to where people are permitted to camp out.
One of the most important changes here is to know, as of 2015, it is illegal to camp in tents, trailers, caravans, campervans, or anything of the like, outside of a designated campsite UNLESS there is written permission from the landowner.
At the end of 2017, the Chief of Police for Iceland’s South Coast also announced that “wild camping” in the region was no longer legal.
Consequently, those who relieve themselves on land they are illegally inhabiting will be fined and made to clean up their own mess.
It should be considered that whilst specific rules for each Icelandic municipality differs somewhat when it comes to camping regulations, the zeitgeist of opinion appears to be moving in favour of the South. Before long, it is expected that all off-road camping in Iceland will be illegal.
You are also not permitted to camp outside of designated areas within any of Iceland’s three National Parks: Þingvellir National Park, Vatnajökull National Park and Snæfellsjökull National Park.
To reiterate, If you are in a campervan, caravan, tent trailer or something similar, including a 4X4 vehicle with a tent on the roof, you must retire each night to a campsite no matter where you are in the country.
Other locations where camping is forbidden, in alphabetical order, include Álafoss, Dimmuborgir, Dyrhólaey, Fjallabak, Hverfjall, Kirkjugolf, Mývatn and Jökulsárgljúfur.
Many other locations quickly add to this list, so make sure to check the area regulations yourself as to where is and is not permissible for overnight camping stays.
If, against all advice, you just have a tent and choose to settle out in nature, then, of course, ensure that you leave it exactly as you found it, and do not set open fires.
Also ensure you do not leave behind any waste, regardless of whether it is biodegradable or not.
Always make sure to never drive off-road to reach a site, under any circumstances. Off-road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland.
Lastly, it is also imperative that you do not lift up or shift around the haunting moss that covers much of the landscape, as it grows incredibly slowly and the impact you make on it could last decades.
Icelanders are very protective of their moss, and if you appreciate it as you should, you will quickly learn why.
To be able to travel around this beautiful country with very few restrictions is a liberating and thrilling experience.
From the beautiful fjords and dramatic mountains to the stretches of twisted lava and fields of volcanic sand, a camping trip around Iceland will bring you wonder after wonder.
Whether taking our self-drive packages for your convenience or going it alone, so long as you respect nature and take all necessary precautions, this trip promises to be the adventure of a lifetime.
Camping in Iceland is a wonderful experience and adventure no matter what time of year you choose to partake. From tranquil resting under the midnight sun or gazing up in awe at the Northern Lights, it’s an adventure not to be missed. We’d love to answer any questions or hear about any of your experiences camping in Iceland in the comments below.