Imagine experiencing the incredible beauty of Iceland's glaciers while zooming across the ice sheets. Read more to find out all you need to know about snowmobiling in Iceland.
Photo by Noel Bauza
Iceland is the perfect holiday destination for adrenaline junkies the world over. Options for audacious activity are seemingly unlimited; one day, you might be dry suit diving between two tectonic plates, the next, roaring at high speeds across the black sand desert of Solheimasandur in an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle).
Mid-week, there is always hiking across the kaleidoscope hills of Landmannalaugar, before retreating excitedly to the Atlantic coast for some kayaking. Round all of that off with some off-piste skiing or, perhaps, a subterranean voyage down some hidden and eerie lava cave network, and I’d say, a pretty action-packed holiday has been fulfilled.
There is, however, one activity still available the year-round that promises just as many thrills, if not more, than those listed above - snowmobiling across the smooth terrain of Iceland’s largest glaciers!
For those who aren’t from such places as Minnesota, Finland or British Columbia (to name just a few), it’s a likely bet that snowmobiling is something of a foreign entity to you. That once could be said for humanity the world over, with mankind - the Wright brothers, specifically - conquering air travel in 1903, five years before anyone managed to find mechanical means of traversing Arctic landscapes.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Boombardier
This achievement fell to French-Canadian inventor, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who first began selling his seven-passenger B7 snowmobiles in the mid-thirties. These were huge machines, closer to steam locomotives than the sleek, agile snowmobiles we’re so accustomed to today.
After the Second World War, Bombardier was instrumental in developing smaller, one and two-seat snowmobiles for the recreational market. Though business was slow to begin, by his death in the sixties, thousands of units were on sale across North America.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Boombardier
Since that day, recreational snowmobiling has grown into a true giant of winter sports, with trails across the globe now dedicated to thrill-seekers exploring nature from an altogether new perspective.
Almost every place, where the climate and conditions are right, have people embraced the sport, from the USA to Argentina. Iceland is no exception, with its enormous glacier sheets and open fields of blanketed snow providing a pristine riding environment for newcomers and pros alike.
Snowmobiling has quickly garnered a lingo of its own - a rich if not eccentric vocabulary that can be difficult to understand for newcomers.
Recreational snowmobiling is often referred to as trail riding, freestyle or snowcross. On the more peculiar end of the spectrum, snowmobilers might also be heard using the phrases boondocking, grass drags and ditch banging to describe the same thing.
A mixture of snow and dirt is called, somewhat unsurprisingly, snirt, whilst snowmobilers themselves are called Sled Heads. The machine itself could, depending on who you're talking to, be labelled a ski-doo, mustard bucket or banana. Taking your buddy home after a snowmobile breakdown is called Brokeback Riding... and this goes on and on, progressively making less sense.
If this all seems a little over your head, fear not; the wind on your face and the snow under your engine need no definition. It is a feeling of both meditative serenity and pure, untarnished exhilaration (I'm inventing the word medhilirating to describe it, in fact.)
Snowmobiling guides in Iceland are fun, friendly and highly experienced, with many having been engaged in the sport since they were young. This experience is invaluable. Knowledge of the terrain, the best trails and the obvious dangers are all second nature to them.
With that being said, it should come as no surprise that guides are able to easily instruct visitors on the basics of snowmobiling, from the machine’s manoeuvrability to important safety precautions. Don’t let any of that intimidate you - snowmobiles here, though powerful, are still specifically designated for beginners, meaning they are perfectly easy to operate. The most important thought to hold onto is "one hand for the brake, one for the throttle." The rest should be fairly self-explanatory.
Oh... and make sure you don't get bucked! ('Snowmobiling talk' for falling off, I absolutely assure you!)
Photo by Svanhildur Sif Halldórsdóttir
Snowmobiles in Iceland have been said to be more powerful than the average recreational sleds found elsewhere, and are capable of exceeding speeds of 70km/hr. Don’t be surprised to find the machine jolting beneath you at the slightest pull of the throttle... you're now in control of one powerful steed and it's best to remember as much!
Skimming around at excessively high speeds is not advised, nor commended. With that being said, speed here is still the name of the game, just be careful to take your banana at a pace that you feel comfortable with.
If white-outs (blizzards) occur on the mountain, guides will instruct their tours to keep the speed down or may even cancel the trip. As with any extreme sport, the best riders are the most respectful riders.
Snowmobilers will often instruct their visitors to be 'defensive drivers'. This means having a strong awareness as to the potential dangers, as well as an attentiveness to the machine and environment. Make sure to keep yourself open toward these potential hazards:
Being self-confident and protected are two of the most important qualities in a snowmobiler. It is when these fundamental traits are mastered that the idea of `real freedom strikes the rider, when the true potential of the snowmobile and the sport become as clear as the trails ahead. It is this very reason why snowmobiling today has such an enormous following the world over.
As with any adventurous activity, it is highly recommended to have at least a rudimentary awareness of the equipment commonly used.
The snowmobiles in Iceland are both one seat and “2-Up” snowmobiles, meaning the choice is yours as to whether you take the driving seat or tag along as a passenger. Drivers must be 18 years old and hold a current international driver’s license, whilst the minimum age for passengers is 6 years old (though this does differ between companies - make sure to check with your tour provider beforehand!) Drinking any alcohol prior to a tour departure is forbidden - drink driving is the leading cause of snowmobiling fatalities.
For outerwear, guides will provide waterproof winter overalls (usually a polyester onesie), a pair of thick gloves, a balaclava and (surprise, surprise) a helmet. Visitors should bring on their trip: warm clothing, good hiking shoes, a camera and a packed lunch (food amenities are, of course, non-existent on the glaciers.)
With eleven percent of its surface covered in glaciers, and snow blanketing swathes of the country for much of the year, there are a wealth of places where you can embark on a snowmobiling tour in Iceland. In all corners of the country, you will find plenty of opportunities for an exhilarating ride surrounded by incredible nature.
Langjökull - translated to “The Long Glacier” - is Iceland’s second-largest glacier, second only to Vatnajökull. Stretching over 953 square kilometres across the highlands of West Iceland, Langjökull’s ice sheet is considerably thicker than its rival, at certain points measuring up to 500m. Hidden beneath this solid glazing lie two or more volcanic calderas - craters brought about by the inward collapse of an ancient volcano. With that being said, the region surrounding Langjökull is, volcanically, relatively quiet compared to other areas, with only 32 eruptions over the last 10,000 years.
On a more positive note, be prepared for the grandeur of your environment. It’s hardly uncommon to feel dwarfed on Langjökull; with its sloping fields of powder and jutting ice valleys, snowmobilers will appear like nanoscopic specks of red polyester, zooming full-speed across a vista of pure and infinite white.
Travelling to the snowmobiling base camp at Langjökull offers up its own challenges, but a Super Jeep and qualified driver will transfer you to Langjökull from Reykjavik or, quite often, Gullfoss waterfall, due to the glacier’s easy access to the Golden Circle route.
It is common amongst visitors to Iceland to combine the snowmobiling at Langjökull with snorkelling tours at Silfra Fissure, in Þingvellir National Park, or the Golden Circle tour (including Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir and Þingvellir).
Photo from Snowmobiling Tour on Mýrdalsjökull Glacier
Mýrdalsjökull is the southernmost glacier in Iceland and the fourth-largest, with a 250m thick ice sheet concealing the 10km wide caldera of Katla volcano. As opposed to the mild volcanic activity of the surface and surroundings of Langjökull, Katla is defined as “very active”, with eruptions roughly every 13-95 years. Since 930AD, there have been sixteen recorded eruptions, the latest of which occurred in 1955, 1999 and 2011 (though, thankfully, these did not manage to break the glacier’s surface.)
Scientists always monitor all seismic activity of Katla closely, spurred on by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, just east of the glacier. The former President of Iceland, Ólafur Grímsson, stated on national television that the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was just "a mild rehearsal" and "it is not a question of if, but when, Katla will erupt".
Now, if that doesn’t add some adrenaline to your snowmobiling trip, I for one don't know what will.
The tour begins at base camp, Sólheimakot farm, where guides will brief their visitors on the necessary information and provide all of the required equipment and attire. Customers will then board a Super Jeep for a short commute up the mountain to the glacier. Here, the snowmobiles are allocated and the adventure truly begins.
Vatnajökull is Europe's largest glacier, as it covers eight percent of Iceland's land surface; to help give some idea of its scale, it is 1000 metres thick in certain areas and boasts over thirty outlet glaciers. It covers many active volcanoes, including Bárðabunga, which last went off in 2015 and is expected to erupt again at any time.
Snowmobiling tours on Vatnajökull run from March to October, providing you with opportunities to marvel over its vastness and shoot across its slopes all throughout summer. This is perfect for those travelling around the country, as the departure point, between the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and town of Höfn, is conveniently located right on the ring-road.
On this mighty ice cap, you can expect open plains of untouched snow, dramatic ridges of both ice and rock rising around you, and marvellous views across the stunning landscapes of Iceland.
Snowmobiling is also available from Iceland’s northernmost "city", Akureyri. Instead of glaciers, visitors here traverse the landscape of Súlumýrar, a grazing area 500m above sea level, close to Glerárdalur Canyon and Hólmarnir (“The Holmar”).
Snow blankets the area elegantly, creating a fantastic blank canvas for trailblazing. Súlumýrar is somewhat flatter and more open than its southern counterparts, resulting in a greater opportunity to push both the snowmobile and yourself.
The agreeably small hills here mean that jumping the snowmobile - aka; catching air - is also possible, giving the rider a greater insight into the extreme potential of the sport, and their own abilities.
Akureyri is a fantastically diverse and beautiful town, well worth a visit during any trip up North. Though notably quieter than Reykjavik, the town still boasts a number of attractions; make sure not to miss Akureyri Art Museum, Akureyri Museum or the famous Lutheran church and defacto symbol of the town, Akureyrarkirkja.
If that adrenaline is still rushing, however, one can take a break from the sled by viewing whales and dolphins off the Northern Coast or by taking a short boat ride to the minute Grimsey Island.
The famous Tröllaskagi—translated to “Troll’s Peninsula”—is another perfect destination for snowmobiling in Iceland, and is one of the sole areas open for longer, full-day adventures.
More famously known for its backcountry skiing trails, Tröllaskagi is a breathtaking, challenging and highly mountainous region, situated between the fjords Skagafjörður and Eyjafjörður, with its closest residential town being Dalvík.
Photo by Gunnar Freyr Gunnarsson
The area has a natural and undeniable magic about it, steeped in its deep-cut gorges, snowflaked valleys and wide-open plains. It also holds a fantastic reputation for flora and fauna, geological monoliths and bird watching. This all serves to add to the unique experience of the area.
There are literally hundreds of destinations to choose from as a professional snowmobiler, but for the vast majority of newcomers visiting Iceland who want to try their hand at sledding, the glacier snowmobiling tours are, truly, the cherry on the cake.
There is no other way to experience the heightened rush, the waves of speed, the state of excitement and the sheer wonder toward the highlights of Iceland's landscape. Ready for a ride?