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 on to find out all there is to know about Glacier Tours 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.
No wonder then that glacier tours are among the most popular experiences here in Iceland for visiting guests. They incorporate all of the fun and adventure that can be had can on Iceland’s ice caps, from glacier hiking, ice-climbing, snowmobiling, ice-caving and even man-made ice tunnels.
For those new to Iceland and new to glaciers, however, the whole idea can be quite daunting. Many questions are common: are glacier tours safe? What experience and equipment do I need to go glacier hiking, ice-caving or snowmobiling in Iceland? Quite frankly, what even is a glacier? All these questions will be answered in this comprehensive guide to glacier tours in Iceland.
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 tour opportunities in Iceland that it is a temperate country with 11% of its land surface covered in glaciers.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons
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.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by David Elliott
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.
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, many will likely argue that there is no better choice than partaking in a glacier hike.
Photo Credit: Glacier walk on Vatnajökull - away from the crowd
Picture walking across a field of endless ice. No doubt, the thought is quite a daunting one. Images from movies and television often depict it as an incredibly dangerous activity, with people tumbling down crevices, saving one another with ropes and grappling hooks, or sliding off cliffs… the lucky ones dangle from the edge precariously with an ice axe.
In other words, it seems that drama is in no short supply on the ice.
With the right equipment, knowledge and guide, glacier tours in Iceland are, of course, completely safe and exhilarating even for those without experience. Please keep in mind that all three of these factors are essential, and you should not be climbing, hiking or snowmobiling on an ice cap if you lack any of them.
The conditions required to be allowed on a glacier tour 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. Once again, ice caving is usually limited to those twelve and up, and snowmobiling tours limit those without a full international driver's license to sit as passengers on the snowmobile.
As a side note, 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 tours require specialist equipment, but almost all tour operators will provide this. You will not be using each piece of equipment for every glacier tour, though our list provides a general overview on what to expect. 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. They also look cool on photos.
Helmet: Helmets needed for glacier hiking, ice-caving and ice climbing 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. Snowmobiling helmets, however, will be more suited to the task at hand.
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. Your guide will show you how they work and take care of all necessary rope work. They are also used in more advanced glacier tours 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.
Photo Credit: Pixabay, photo by Csharker
All you need to bring are warm, insulating clothes (think wool and fleece, not 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.
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.
There are a number of tour activities in Iceland where the country’s glaciers take the starring role. Many visitors, over the course of their holiday, choose to engage in each activity, revisiting the glaciers numerous times to undertake very different experiences.
A snowmobiling tour can hardly be compared with an ice caving trip in terms of a similar, human experience. Others choose to discover Iceland’s glaciers through one route, and one route alone, meaning it is important to clarify exactly what type of glacier tours are available, and just what they consist of.
Glacier Hiking is one of the most popular tour activities in Iceland, encapsulating and bringing forth some of the country’s greatest known highlights; awe-inspiring nature, thrilling adventure, incredible panoramic vistas and a whole heap of fun.
For those looking to see the Land of Ice and Fire at its fullest, there is simply no shying away from said title’s frostier half, and hiking the glaciers is a fantastic place to begin. Why? Because actually ascending the ice cap, one foot after the other brings you just about as close as you can come to this astounding feat of nature.
With such proximity, the drama and enormity of the ice cap, as seen from its base, gives way to an artistic intricacy, where you can see first hand the different shades of blue, the delicate ice sculptures and heaving crevasses.
The activity is open to newcomers, meaning no previous experience scaling glaciers is necessary. At the very beginning of the tour, you will be provided with a safety briefing pointing out some of the potential hazards on the glacier.
To keep it light, your guide will also provide you with some relevant information about Iceland's ice caps, from their formation to their current behaviour. They will also provide you with all the necessary equipment (just make sure to bring sturdy hiking boots and warm clothing.)
As an added extra to glacier hiking, many visitors choose to partake in a spot of ice climbing. Iceland's glaciers are not flat, but instead characterised by their dramatic slopes, mountainous peaks and icy valleys. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to get the harness out, ready the ice-axes and begin your daring ascent. Throughout the experience, you will be safely attached to both the ice wall and your guide, meaning that should you fall, you'll swing harmlessly to the side.
Ice Caving is, perhaps, the only other type of glacier tour that really gets you up close and personal with the country’s ice caps. In fact, they put you directly inside of one… enclosed and enraptured by gleaming walls of sparkling ice, you'll feel firsthand what it's like to be dominated, on all sides, by the glories of Mother Nature.
Iceland's ice caves are one of the popular visitor destinations during the winter months. The only natural ice caves accessible during the summer are those found nearby the volcano Katla, within Mýrdalsjökull glacier, though these are noticeably less blue. This is because volcanic ash has become trapped within the ice here, giving it a multi-shaded appearance.
Many of Iceland’s ice caves are small and isolated, comprised of numerous twisting tunnels and outlets. Others resemble a natural cathedral, with high, sloping ceilings that, often, allow in thin rays of sunlight to illuminate the cave interior.
This, and there is no other word for it, creates an ethereal ambience directly tied to the cave itself; stepping inside, it is quick as though you are stepping into another world, into the pages of magic and fantasy. Where exactly you can choose to explore whilst in the cave will be left to the discretion of your guide, who will be ever watchful for both weak points in the ice and exciting points of entry.
Snowmobiling in Iceland has, truly, made its mark as one of the most vital contributions to the country’s adventure scene. The reasons should come as little surprise. Whizzing across these ancient, frostbitten plains, snowmobiling provides its partakers with a real insight into the sheer enormity of a glacier.
With your hand on the throttle, you’ll feel like you could go on forever and ever. They really are that big, so big they defy the horizon. Snowmobiling is often considered to be the perfect balance between adrenaline-fuelled adventure and picturesque sightseeing.
Snowmobiling tours will often include a Super Jeep element within them. After all, you and your group will need to make your way to the snowmobiling base camp, or, at the very least, the spot from where you will begin snowmobiling. This requires your driver/guide to navigate some pretty hostile terrain, sometimes including unbridged river crossings, so sit back and enjoy the passing sights as you jostle and bump your way onto the ice cap itself.
Photo from Jokulsarlon Amphibious Boat Tour.
One of the more unique ways to experience Iceland’s glaciers is by boat. Now, I can hear what you’re saying.... how does one boat on an ice cap? Well, in fact, given the sheer size of Iceland’s ice caps, the large amount of meltwater accumulates into some truly stunning glacial lagoons, naturally found at the base of each ice cap.
The most famous of these, Jökulsárlón, is sometimes referred to as “The Crown Jewel of Iceland” given its breathtaking aesthetic beauty, though there are a number of other, often overlooked lagoons found across the country, including Breiðárlón, Fjallsárlón and Grænalón.
Boat tours allow visitors to get so close to the glacier's icebergs, they can almost touch them. They will also gain a closer perspective of the glacial lagoon's wildlife, its curious seal population and wealth of divebombing sea-birds. At Jökulsárlón, visitors have the chance to hop aboard an amphibious vessel, capable of also rolling on land, or a speedy Zodiac boat, adding a level of adrenaline to their time on the water.
Super Jeeps are something of an icon in modern-day tourism, not just in Iceland, but across the world. These mighty 4x4 vehicles are particularly suited to Iceland, however, thanks to their ability to traverse and overcome this country’s eclectic and challenging terrain. When it comes to tackling Iceland’s glaciers, they are an essential mode of transport.
Super Jeeps, normally, can only hold up to six passengers, creating an intimacy on your tour otherwise inaccessible. Super Jeeps are also more expensive to run per passenger than buses, meaning that if you’re a solo traveller, it is very likely the operator will wait until all seats are filled before allowing you to join.
As a side note, many visitors expect that a Super Jeep tour means they will be travelling off-road. Off-road driving is strictly illegal in Iceland, even when undertaken by Super Jeeps, and is met by heavy fines. The reasoning as to why this is the case comes down to Iceland's fragile ecosystem; when damage is done to the environment here, it often takes years, if not decades to recover.
However, there are plenty of mountain tracks to be found in Iceland that are only suitable for Super Jeeps, giving you the feeling of driving off-road, without damaging any of the nature.
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.
Partaking in glacier tours in the 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, cave explorations or snowmobile trips are much less likely to be rearranged due to conditions, which is perfect for those who have a tight schedule for their holidays.
Photo from Svinafellsjökull Glacier Hiking Tour
Clear weather also means the views of 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.
Photo from Glacier Hiking Tour from Reykjavík
Looking at the advantages of glacier tours 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 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 tours 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 tours 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.
Photo from Blue Ice Experience in Skaftafell
There are many glacier tours 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, be it through venturing inside with an ice-climbing tour, flying over above with an aerial sightseeing excursion or tackling the snowy plains on your own snowmobile.
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 can be found only a few hours’ driving 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.
Photo Credit: Skaftafell glacier expedition
Following Sólheimajökull, the next most popular glacier to hike is Svínafellsjökull 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 Svínafellsjökull 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. Svínafellsjökull is also renowned for its dramatic ridges, which make a walk on the ice more beautiful and impressive in itself.
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 and Reykjanes Peninsula.
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’.
Photo from Glacier Walk on Vatnajökull
The aforementioned Svínafellsjökull 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 covers 8% of Iceland’s surface, including dozens of its volcanoes such as the ever-rumbling Bárðarbunga, 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 are open, and they can also be explored when the weather conditions allow.
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 as well as snowmobiling trips.
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.
While there are always a wealth of glacier tour options available, not all glaciers are accessible at all times. As mentioned, some can only be accessed in summer; 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.
Glacier tours are, collectively, an incredible experience, but tragically, may not 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. Many 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 tours are 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.
Did you enjoy our article, The Ultimate Guide to Glacier Tours in Iceland? What types of glacier tour did you participate in whilst in Iceland, and what would you recommend for future visitors? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.