Are you planning on hiking in Iceland? Where are the most beautiful and challenging treks in Iceland? Are all hiking trails open throughout the year and what should be packed for those looking to undertake a long hike? Are there any easy hiking trails near Reykjavík? Read on to discover all there is to know about hiking in Iceland.
Iceland is a land that was seemingly sculpted with hikers in mind; every region of the country boasts fantastically unique trails, some of which suit those new to the activity, others that will challenge even the most experienced of cragsmen. Iceland, and especially its highlands, is a wildland with a plethora of roaring rivers, mountainous canyons and mystical valleys.
This abundance of opportunity is what makes hiking in Iceland so exciting—visitors here will often return, year after year, to tick off the next trail on their checklist. After all, if hiking in Iceland proves one thing, it's that no experience on the trail is quite the same as another. Whichever route awaits them, be it in the north, east, south or west, is sure to provide an experience unlike anything found elsewhere.
Thankfully, Iceland as a nation is all too aware of this blessing. The country boasts three sprawling National Parks, countless nature reserves and, each year, efforts are made by both the government and the population to bring forward further measures to preserve the island's unique flora and fauna.
The city’s art galleries display photographs, paintings and sculptures in tribute to the island’s astounding nature, from its cragged mountain peaks to its creeping glaciers. Even its most famous landmarks—Hallgrímskirkja, for instance, or the National Theatre, Þjóðleikhúsið—are deeply inspired by Iceland's dazzling natural aesthetic.
But we're looking to escape the city... So, without further ado, let's explore the ins and outs of hiking the great outdoors in Iceland.
Hiking in Iceland, as with anywhere, requires forethought, preparation and a little courage, all before setting out.
How long will you be hiking for? Is anyone, save you, aware of your plans and what is your estimated time of return? Do you know the phone number for the Icelandic emergency services, and have you packed the means to call them?
These are only a handful of the questions that should be circulating in your mind before tying the laces up on your hiking boots. Try to ask yourself silly questions, to envision every possible scenario that might occur and consider whether you'd be equipped to deal with it.
First of all, you should consider the distance of your hike, evaluate your own physical fitness and estimate how long you think the hike will take you. An easy method of doing this is to do some basic research, either online or through specific books relating to Icelandic hiking trails. There are a great many on the market, easily purchased at numerous tourist information centres across the country.
The information provided will quickly inform you as to the expected elevation, terrain and duration of your proposed hike, giving you at least some awareness of what you’re in for. If you happen to be a photographer, you will also need to consider what specific equipment to take, weighing up between which kit best suits your trek and what you can physically carry with you.
Regardless, once these basic assumptions have been made, you should have an idea as to the rest of the equipment you will need for the hike itself. For example, if you’re only planning on hiking a couple of kilometres, there’s little need for anything more than your camera, some warm clothing layers, a sturdy pair of boots and a bottle of water.
Note that most hikes in Iceland will have access to drinking water along the route (although not all of them) and it's safe to drink spring water in Iceland so you can almost always refill your bottle along the way.
Alternatively, if you’re planning on hiking throughout most of the day and making overnight stops, you will need far more, including a large backpack capable of storing all of your necessities.
Even in our modern era, maps are extremely useful and should be an essential component of your rucksack. Though it may not seem like it, it's incredibly easy to get lost and confused in the rugged, open expanse of the Icelandic wilderness, especially should the weather change for the worse mid-hike.
By having a map in your bag, you provide, at the very least, some security when it comes to navigating any unforeseen terrain. It's also useful for orientation, planning the hike's next stages, and deciphering exactly where certain attractions are.
Any hiker worth their salt will know that one of the most important contributions to your backpack is a first aid kit. This is particularly important in Iceland where the stretches of wilderness are vast and often difficult to navigate for rescue crews. If, god forbid, one was to suffer an injury, hikers should immediately call the Icelandic emergency telephone number, 112.
There is also a downloadable app which allows the emergency services to track a GPS of your location, making it easier for them to find you should a rescue be necessary. This is available for Android, Windows and iPhone and should be considered an essential for hiking here.
And whilst we're on the subject of self-preservation, it is crucial that you let somebody know of your plans before setting out on your hike. You can leave your travel plan here with Safetravel.is so that Iceland's search and rescue teams can react quickly in case something happens.
Hiking in Iceland is as safe as anywhere else on the planet. That does nothing to diminish, however, how necessary it is to be aware of potential dangers whilst out exploring the wilderness.
A lot can be done to mitigate this potential, coming down to making sure that you’ve packed everything you’ll need on the trail (i.e. medical kit, maps, clothing, etc.) A prepared hiker is far safer from harm than one who is not.
The first hazard to mention is, of course, the obvious one; the weather. Iceland's weather patterns are infamously unpredictable; one moment, you're basking under the glorious rays of the sunshine, the next you're running into the nearest shelter, a damp newspaper resting over your head as hailstones plummet the earth like tiny white meteorites.
Within the comfortable, sheltered confines of the city, weather like this is not such a big deal, but out in the wild of Iceland's hiking trails, the weather can cause serious concern and even become fatal.
Whether its rainfall making the trail unwalkable, the fog concealing the world around you or an incoming blizzard, the weather in Iceland is a force to be respected. Do not attempt to go hiking in undesirable conditions; doing so will seriously put you at risk, forcing emergency services into a rescue that very well could have been avoided.
For longer hikes, dehydration can be an issue. Now, while it's true that many of Iceland's rivers are glacial, and therefore drinkable, it is still advised that you carry water bottles with you. Read up on your desired hike before you go, to be aware of how many water sources are on the way. Fatigue can also be a factor, so a good number of energy bars is always a safe bet to ensure you have the stamina to complete the hike.
When it comes down to your own level of physical fitness, give yourself some leeway as to how challenging you're hoping your hike will be. Don't overestimate your abilities and set out on a 12 km hike, only to get stuck halfway. One of the great pleasures of hiking in Iceland is that the activity itself comes largely second to the great swathes of beautiful scenery. Take your time, enjoy the walk, and make sure you can get yourself back home.
And finally... animals. Thankfully, there are no bears, no wild cats, no mountain lions or wild boar to concern yourself with here. The only furry rascal you might stumble upon is an Arctic Fox, but there's almost no possibility any harm could come to you from such an encounter and it will likely scatter away quickly. That is, of course, unless you trip over its bushy tail.
Now that you’re fully packed for your adventure, as well as highly-educated on the trail’s potential hazards, you will have to decide exactly where you will be hiking. As previously mentioned, there are hiking trails in every single one of Iceland’s regions and each is as unique as it is picturesque. This can make actually deciding where to take your jaunt quite challenging in itself...
Some people even hike across the whole country, a hike from the north coast of Iceland to the south coast of Iceland takes approximately 18-20 days, and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. Remember, you will need to carry all of your gear.
Much shorter hikes, but still considered long hikes (1-6 days) are more popular, demanding for the average hiker, but manageable. Out of those, Laugavegurinn and Fimmvörðuháls are the country's most popular hikes, but other ones include hikes in Hornstrandir in the Westfjords or Víknaslóðir in the East Fjords. Shorter half-day hikes are possible all over the country, with several options around Reykjavík.
Each national park, and most campsites, will have suggested hiking trails in the area with varying difficulty. Often you can find the best information, and the most up to date, at the campsites in the country, so be sure to ask your campsite staff for tips and explore the maps at the national parks.
Below, we here at Guide to Iceland have compiled a list of the most popular hikes in the country, though, of course, where you choose to explore is entirely up to you.
Landmannalaugar (“The Pools of the People”) is widely regarded as Iceland’s premier hiking destination. As its name suggests, the geothermal activity in the area means Landmannalaugar’s rivers and streams are warm and perfect for bathing, the optimum way to relax after a day trekking.
On top of that, the rhyolite mountainous area is a kaleidoscopic marvel, all oranges, greens, purples and reds, sloping elegantly like waves on a multicoloured ocean. These colours have long made Landmannalaugar a must-see for the world's photographers. The Central Highlands, where Landmannalaugar rests, is only accessible in the summer months in Iceland, from late June or early July until the end of September, weather permitting.
There are three major hikes that can be undertaken at Landmannalaugar; the first is a 2-hour jaunt that takes you from the raven-black Laugahraun lava field—on which Landmannalaugar sits at the edge—to Mount Brennisteinsalda ("Sulphur Wave").
Brennisteinsalda is an 855 m volcano, its name deriving from the large sulphur spots that dot the mountain’s side. Due to the red of the iron, the dark blues of the volcanic ash, the green of the moss, Brennisteinsalda is considered to be the most colourful mountain in Iceland.
The second hike available is to the 940 m summit of Mount Bláhnjúkur (“Blue Peak”). Throughout the one hour hike, visitors won’t be able to help commenting on the dark blacks and blues of the surrounding lava flows and settled ash. The mountain sits beside Brennisteinsalda, and on a clear day, one can look out at five different glaciers from its peak, an absolute must for avid landscape photographs.
Finally, hikers have the option of taking a 4-hour trek to Ljótipollur crater lake, known in English as "Ugly Puddle". Don’t let the name put you off, however, as this hike comprehensively demonstrates the staggering diversity of Landmannalaugar’s landscape. The name is a disservice to the ‘puddle’ itself; this deep, beautiful, trout-filled lake is surrounded on all sides by sloping red embankments, a stark contrast to dark gravel that surrounds it.
The most popular hiking routes in Iceland can be done separately or they can be connected. Between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk is the hike called Laugavegurinn, named after Reykjavik's main high street. Between Þórsmörk and Skógar is the hike called Fimmvörðuháls, or Five Cairn Neck.
On Laugavegurinn you won't find any souvenir stores, bars and cafes, clothing outlets or galleries, only spectacular scenery. This could confuse guests to the island; the truly unfortunate ones, the ones who trust their SatNav unreservedly, might find themselves driving off toward the Central Highlands when, in fact, they should be travelling to an inner-city hotel.
But if it's the hike you're after, then decide which way you want to go and travel by bus to either Landmannalaugar or Þórsmörk to start your 55 km (34 miles) long hike. Traditionally, the route takes 2-4 days with overnight stays at the mountain huts Hrafntinnusker, Hvanngil, Emstrur and Álftavatn. There are also mountain huts at the start and end of the hike, in Landmannalaugar and in Þórsmörk. If you have not booked a hut in advance, then it's also possible to camp by the huts (but you'll need to bring your own tent with you).
If 55 km isn't long enough for you, and you still thirst for more, then you can extend the hike by one more day by adding the trail Fimmvörðuháls, a particularly picturesque area between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. The route begins from Þórsmörk, continuing for 22 km (14 miles) past countless waterfalls, ice sheets and volcanic fissures to Skógar.
If you are only planning on hiking Fimmvörðuháls, but not Laugavegurinn, then it is more common to start at Skógar and end in Þórsmörk. The entire hike takes around 10-12 hours, and some people decide to do it over two days, spending one night in a cabin along the way.
Hikers through Fimmvörðuháls will climb up to 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) in order to navigate their way to the trail's end.
Or if you are driving yourself, you can leave your car at Hvolsvöllur and hop on a day tour into Þórsmörk on a super jeep, because you'll need to cross some serious unbridged rivers to get there. Then enjoy spending the day doing short hikes within Þórsmörk.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Mickaël Delcey
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, in the Westfjords, is one of the most isolated regions in the country, famous for its towering bird cliffs, complete lack of development and the inquisitive population of Arctic Foxes.
Hiking through Hornstrandir will present Icelandic nature like never before; the authenticity that comes with such an untouched environment is truly breathtaking and provides an experience unlike that found elsewhere in Iceland.
Hiking in Hornstrandir will likely take a lot more preparation than hiking anywhere else in Iceland. After all, the region has no shops, no roads, no permanent inhabitants. In essence, everything you will need for your hiking trip—and campsite (hiking Hornstrandir requires one overnight stay, at the very least)—will have to be brought with you from the mainland.
Photo by Jonatan Pie
To reach Hornstrandir, you will need to take a boat from either Ísafjörður or, alternatively, the tiny fishing hamlet of Bolungarvík. Arriving at the small harbour of Hesteyri, most hikers will choose to embark on a 15 km (9 miles) hike toward the picturesque bay of Hlöðuvík. Depending on your pace, this will usually take between 4-6 hours. There are a number of cabins at the bay, making it an ideal place to set up camp for the night.
On your second day, you will climb the steep slopes of Skálarkambur, a coastal mountain from where you will gain incredible panoramic views of the surrounding fjords. After reaching the other side of the mountain, you will hike a couple of kilometres down into a bay called Rekavík.
From here, you will continue your way to Hornvík where you can set up camp for the night. If there is an abundance of excess energy in your group, it is possible to hike a further couple of hours to the farmstead at Horn where, again, you can set up camp. By walking all the way to the farmstead on your second day, you will position yourself closer to the incredible bird cliffs (and the jewel of the Hornstrandir Reserve), Hornbjarg.
Hornbjarg is immediately enchanting. The scenery is a lush green and often decorated with an ethereal covering of cloud. Crawling (very carefully) to the cliff's edge, one will gain the perspective of a 500-metre vertical drop into the ocean, made all the more surreal by the hundreds of thousands of seabirds flying and nesting around the rock face.
Of course, use common sense while navigating your way around Hornbjarg; after all, it's a very, very long way to fall. The cliff face seen in the pictures is known as Kálfatindar.
Your final day at Hornstrandir will see you hike up over a mountain pass from Hornvík bay into the fjord, Veiðileysufjörður. From here you will take a boat back to the mainland where, personally, we recommend a fish dinner at the famous restaurant, Tjöruhúsið Restaurant in Ísafjörður.
Between the towns of Borgarfjörður Eystri and Seyðisfjörður is a spectacular hike that is 55 km (same length as Laugavegurinn), often hiked in 4 days. However, there are several other trails in the area, called Víknaslóðir or 'The Trails of the Inlets' and it's recommended to spend from 5 up to 10 days hiking in the area.
A detailed trail map is available in bookstores in Iceland, to give you an overview of all the different trails. The area is split up into the North and South area, but it's also possible to do a quick overview of the whole area in 5 days. In total, there are trails of around 150 km in the area, and this is considered one of the best hiking destinations in Iceland.
Expect dramatic mountains, spectacular seafront views, stunning beaches, beautiful fjords, colourful mountains, green valleys, hidden elves & trolls and azure blue waters.
Note that hiking in this area should only be attempted in the summer season, as the roads leading to Borgarfjörður Eystri (or the East of Iceland in general) may be closed off in winter due to heavy snow. So you wouldn't even be able to reach the start of your destination, and the huts along the way are not open in wintertime to keep you warm.
There are, of course, several shorter hikes to be found in Iceland's countryside. As already mentioned, there are often several hiking options from most campsites in Iceland, and it's a wise move to ask the locals about the best hikes.
But the three National Parks in Iceland also boast some beautiful, but accessible hikes. Here they are, in order of difficulty.
In Þingvellir National Park almost every visitor to Iceland hikes through the massive gorge Almannagjá. The word 'hike' may not even be appropriate, it's more of a stroll. Here are wide paths, many of which have wooden slats and therefore accessible for people in wheelchairs.
At the top of Almannagjá you'll have a view over Iceland's largest lake, Þingvallavatn, but after a short 15-minute walk or so down the gorge you'll be up close with Öxarárfoss waterfall.
In Snæfellsjökull National Park there's a popular but very easy 30-minute hike between the tiny hamlets of Arnarstapi and Hellnar on Snæfellsnes peninsula (1-hour return hike). That takes you along the beautiful coastline, with several arched rocks, pillars, basalt columns and a view towards Snæfellsjökull glacier the whole route. This walk is mostly on flat land, with very minimal ups and downs on a narrow path.
In Vatnajökull National Park there is a beautiful waterfall called Svartifoss, or Black Falls. From the visitor centre at Skaftafell it is a moderately easy hike, that takes about 45 minutes one way.
The hike is uphill to the waterfall, and downhill coming back the same way (or similar way). There are dozens of more demanding hikes available from Skaftafell, including glacier hiking and perhaps the most demanding trail in the area to Iceland's tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur.
For the hike to Hvannadalshnúkur you don't need much experience, but you'll need plenty of stamina and need to go with a guide as hikers are required to hike in a harness and a line. The hike in total is about 10-15 hours.
If you're just looking for a short, half-day hiking trip from Reykjavík, then you have plenty of options. Following are just a few examples and we urge you to look up more options.
Almost all those arriving in Iceland will visit the Reykjanes Peninsula at one point or another during their trip. After all, this is the home of Keflavik International Airport, the world famous Blue Lagoon Spa, “The Bridge Between The Continents”, Krýsuvík geothermal area and numerous other cultural attractions and towns.
The Reykjanes Peninsula is one of the better choices for those looking to hike an area local to Reykjavik. The landscape of the peninsula is dark, diverse, cragged and full of opportunity, be it the great swathes of geothermal activity, the hidden cave networks, the towering mountains or the scenic coastlines.
One of the most popular and accessible hikes on the Reykjanes Peninsula is climbing to the summit of the cone-shaped, hyaloclastite mountain, Keilir. The mountain peaks at 390 metres, with steep, sweeping sides that can pose quite a challenge to the unfit and the underprepared. In fact, due to the steep elevation, many hikers choose to summit Keilir when there is still frost on the ground so as to avoid slipping on the mud and loose gravel.
Another route available is hiking from the sleepy fishing settlement of Hafnir toward the low lying cliffs, Hafnaberg. Hafnaberg is a local favourite amongst birdwatchers and visitors can expect to see nesting razorbills, fulmars, guillemots and kittiwakes, among other species.
The cliffs of Hafnaberg are also a well-known observation point for looking out for whales, dolphins and seals swimming off the Reykjanes coastline. Just make sure not to stand too close to the cliff's edge; the rocks are notoriously unstable, so best to keep a few metres back to save any unpleasant accidents.
Those partaking in the Hafnir-Hafnaberg hike will also have the opportunity to see two other major attractions of the Reykjanes Peninsula. The first is the “Bridge Between the Continents”, otherwise known as Miðlína or ‘Leif The Lucky Bridge’, a 15-metre walkway between the exposed North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. On one side of the bridge, a plaque reads “Welcome to America”, on the other, “Welcome to Europe”.
Photo from Hot Spring Hike of Reykjadalur Valley
Reykjadalur Valley ('Steam Valley') is another option for those looking to explore the region surrounding Reykjavík to its fullest. As the name implies, Reykjadalur is a geothermal area, as popular amongst hikers as it is to those who enjoy relaxing in natural hot pools and rivers. Of course, there’s no reason to choose one or another; destressing your body in a hot pool is probably the best, most immediate means of relaxing your muscles post-hike.
Reykjadalur Valley is considered a semi-easy hike, roughly two hours each way, and thus makes for the perfect half day trip. The hike itself is approximately 7 km long and encompasses a fantastic diversity of natural attractions, from steaming vents to dramatic mountainscapes to rumbling waterfalls.
Glymur is Iceland's second tallest waterfall, after Morsárfoss that's much less accessible, far in the highlands. Reaching Glymur however only requires an hour drive north from Reykjavík, to the bottom of Hvalfjörður fjord, and then an additional couple of hours hiking.
The hike is of medium difficulty, going through a natural cave and crossing a river on a big tree trunk before needing to climb a fairly steep mountainside. The scenery is stunning and varied however, and if you find the climb too tiresome then you don't need to go all the way to the top of the waterfall, and you'll be able to get a good view of it after only an hour or so of hiking.
It's possible to hike up to the top of the waterfall on both sides of the river, but then you can cross the river itself at the top of the waterfall (depending on the conditions), only a few metres from the actual drop!
In total the hike is about 3-3.5 hours. To get to the starting point you'll need to rent a car and drive to the parking lot nearby in Botnsdalur as there are no bus routes going there.
Another, much longer hike (19 km) called Leggjabrjótur (Legbraker) also starts from the same location and ends at Þingvellir. That hike is about 6-6,5 hours, but only goes one way.
Esjan is the Reykjavík mountain, looking over the city just on its outskirts. To reach the roots of the mountain and the start of the hike you can simply take an inner city bus, Strætó number 57 or 29. The bus stop is called 'Esjurætur - Hiking Center'.
The mountain is not that tall, only 914 metres, but don't let that deceive you - it's a rather demanding hike, especially right at the top where some climbing is necessary. There are ropes and steps provided for the climb at the top.
It is, of course, also possible to hike only short sections of it, as the hike up is divided into 6 sections, with the top one being at Þverfellshorn, at 780 metres high. This is the most common hiking route to the top of Esjan, although other routes are also available.
Photo by Toby Elliott
Climbing all the way to the top is not recommended in winter time except for experienced hikers, and the conditions each day should always be taken into consideration - there have been fatal incidents when an avalanche occurred during a time of year with heavy snow.
However, the route is suitable even for young children, the views are great, it's accessible all year round (weather depending) and the hike to the top is only around 2 hours, and much quicker going down. Estimated total time is 3-4 hours.
Less than a 30-minute drive from the centre of Reykjavík is the short mountain Helgafell. It's very near to the town of Hafnarfjörður, and a popular hiking destination for locals.
Although the mountain is only 338 metres tall, it only takes an hour to an hour and a half to hike it (so perfect to take kids along with you) then you're still rewarded with an impressive view over Reykjavík and towards Reykjanes peninsula.
Most people start the hike from Kaldárbotnar, where an obvious trail can be found. The first part of the trail is along flat lava, until you reach the northeast side of the mountain and then you can hike up the side of the mountain, all the way to the top.
The aforementioned regions are only a taste of the fantastic hiking opportunities in Iceland. For those arriving, be content in the knowledge that pretty much wherever you go here is, in one way or another, a great place for hiking.
Other notable regions include the area surrounding Lake Mývatn such as Dimmuborgir and Hverfjall, various locations in Southern Iceland, the coastlines of the southern part of the East Fjords, Snæfellsnes Peninsula and more locations in the Icelandic Highlands, such as Kerlingarfjöll or Hveravellir.
So don't delay! Time to take the path less trodden, and experience for yourself the majesty of Icelandic hiking!
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