Iceland really is something else. Landscapes that look utterly out of this world, horses that literally prance across the volcanic plains, and ice glaciers that are at once so still, yet always moving, grumbling as they shift.
Hotels are comfortable sure, and tours give you local insight and tell you all about the history, but if there is one way that really is better than any other to make the most of this incredible place, it’s in a campervan. I always say the best thing about camping is that you don’t have to leave the nature to go to sleep inside a house. And nowhere more-so than Iceland will you want to stay in the heart of nature.
We spent a week in a Go Campers 4x4 exploring the south and west coast of Iceland, and it’s hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done. Go Campers can sort out everything you need from sleeping bags to an internet connection while on the road, so all that’s left to do it switch on the GPS and find something to eat. That said, there are a few things that are really useful to know before you go. So here are 14 things we learned about campervanning around Iceland.
1. Camp sites vary greatly in quality
At some spots around the island you’ll find excellent hot showers, cooking facilities and camp spots. At others there will be no hot water, not much space to wash the dishes and plenty of mud. The online reviews are a guide, but take them with a grain of salt. Basically, don’t expect much and everything will be better from there.
2. There are camp sites everywhere
Literally at every waterfall, or halfway between you’ll find a campground. Many are only open during the summer months (June-August) so if you’re traveling outside of this time like us, make sure you’re checking the dates of operation. Even campsites that are closed in winter will usually leave their gates open, as the locals prefer campers parking in the designated campsites over any old place in the wilderness. See what campgrounds are open on the Iceland tourism website.
3. You can't see everything
Iceland might be small but it’s absolutely chock-a-block with amazing sites. The Golden Circle is a good route to take if you only have a few days to a week, as this has a high concentration of waterfalls, geothermal sites, beaches and volcanoes. That said, taking the ring road all the way around will show you much more remote and unique landscapes, including some of the country’s biggest waterfalls. To do this you’ll need at least 10 days.
4. Seriously watch the wind
The first thing written on the Go Campers campervan rental guidelines is ‘when you open your car door, hold onto it’. The Icelandic language apparently has over 100 words for wind, so prevalent it is. The wind gusts can be so strong you’ll have trouble walking in one spot, then around the corner, protected by a mountain ridge, it’ll be dead calm.
5. Supermarket food isn't always cheaper than cafeteria meals
The backpacker in me says buy everything at the supermarket and cook it yourself. In Iceland however, supermarket food is still very expensive, and in reality, eating a hot lamb goulash at the service station cafeteria might actually work out the same price as cooking pesto pasta in the van - but with a whole heap more nutrients. Two minute noodles, fresh pastries and skyr yogurt/cheese are things you should definitely head to the supermarket for.
On the note of supermarkets, Iceland’s population is tiny, so if you’re going beyond Vik on the ring road/golden circle route, supermarkets become few and far between. Stock up while you can and don’t expect the next town on the map to necessarily have one.
6. Skyr is a life-giving thing and you should eat as much of it as you can
Skyr might technically be cheese but don’t let that put you off. It tastes like yogurt and is an excellent energy boost when it’s freezing outside.
7. Watch the Aurora forecast & cloud cover closely, then drive to wherever the hell it’s going to be clear
We drove for 6 hours one afternoon just because the forecast had changed and there was one patch of cloudless sky on the island. The Aurora Borealis isn’t very reliable, and thanks to a cluster of factors like solar flares, atmospheric pressure, particle density, and of course cloud cover, the chances of you seeing it aren’t actually that high. So if the forecast says KP3 or above, get yourself to where it’s going to be clear ASAP. The Icelandic weather bureau forecaster is exceptional, almost to the minute, but keep an eye on it as it can change very rapidly. See the Iceland weather bureau here.
8. Wear a raincoat when visiting waterfalls
Seriously they're huge, and the amount of spray they produce is proportionate. Also if you’ve got a camera with you, bring a shower cap for it. You can thank me later.
9. Turn down side roads - that's why you're in a camper van
You might struggle to find many of the most epic sites on google maps, so if you see something that looks interesting, turn off towards it, even though it’s probably not on the map. Heading to sites further away from the ring road means you’ll also escape many of the crowds, as your buses and many tourists tend to stick to the main waterfalls a few hundred meters off the main drag.
10. Budget for the fact that fuel is really expensive then get over it
Seriously, you’ll be driving a lot and it’s exorbitant. Don’t question the cashier at the station like I saw some tourists do. Iceland imports all of its fuel, so you pay for that.
11. Don't be a tosser, or a collector
Iceland’s ecosystem is fragile. Don’t copy other tourists you see collecting pebbles from he famous black beaches, or leave your rubbish where you had a picnic lunch. Take your own stuff with you, leave the rest here where it belongs.
12. The thermal pools are good, but you need to seek them out
Before visiting Iceland I’d seen tonnes of photos of the thermal pools, so assumed they’d be fairly well signposted or accessible from the main roads. When we arrived however, we found quite the opposite. It took a fair amount of researching online to find where they were. There are a fair few small ones in the wilderness, but there are also some in local communities you can access. You’ll find these are only open during the summer months though, the rest of the year they’re either closed or only accessible to locals.
13. Research where you want to go and save the pins to a map
Before we got to Iceland, Jacques had done a tonne of research on all of the waterfalls, canyons, beaches and iceberg lagoons we wanted to see and photograph. As with the thermal pools, most sites are either signposted on the road right as you reach them, and some not at all. So find out where the places are you want to go, find them on Google maps and save the pin. This was literally the only reference we had for finding anything and made our trip so much easier.
14. Make a seriously good playlist, you'll be driving a lot
Then download it because much of iceland doesn’t have great internet so you don’t want to rely on that.
15. You will feel big feelings
Sit with them, and the landscape for a while. You're only here now, not next week.