Circumnavigate the entire country. That was the one goal I had in mind from the moment I started planning our trip to Iceland. I had read so much about the Ring Road and my Instagram feed was inundated with beautiful images of remote glaciers, fjords and waterfalls. I read dozens of blog posts, scanned endless TripAdvisor forums and watched countless videos on YouTube all in search of the perfect itinerary. The more I researched, the more overwhelmed I felt. There were so many "must sees", and as with any great vacation, simply not enough time.
As my Icelandair flight touched down at Keflavik Airport, I felt woefully unprepared. Thankfully, we had 2 days in Reykjavik before we were scheduled to set off on our road trip. Jen and I spent hours each night doing some last minute research. We created a Google map with all the places we had to visit. This is what it ended up looking like:
Needless to say, we were planning to bite off way more than we could chew. As we sat in our campervan that first morning ready to embark on this awesome adventure, a sudden feeling of "what now?" rushed over us. I wasn't even sure if I was supposed to turn left or right to leave the hotel parking lot. It's at that moment you just say "fuck it" and start driving. If I can give one word of advice to everyone planning their own Iceland road trip, it would be to not over prepare. Nothing is going to go exactly as planned. One tiny road closure could completely alter your trip. To get the most out of this adventure, you have to be flexible, adventurous and spontaneous.
I'm not even going to attempt to propose an itinerary. Instead, I just wanted to share a few key tips before you hit the road!
1. Give yourself plenty of time
Iceland is a relatively small country. It's about the same size as Ohio. In fact, the Ring Road is just over 800 miles long. If you were to drive without stopping, it would only take 15 hours to circumnavigate. With that in mind, you might think you would only need a few days to travel around the entire country and hit up the best sites. Wrong. This sounds so cliched, but this road trip is all about the journey, not the destination. We loved the top attractions like Seljalandsfoss and Jökulsárlón. However, the true highlight of the trip was the drive itself. We constantly found ourselves taking detours, exploring tiny hamlets or simply pulling to the side of the road and soaking in the views. As a general rule of thumb, I would allocate at least 8-10 days to circle the country. Even then, you might feel pretty rushed. In the summer months when many of the F-roads open up to the the highlands and the Westfjords, you could easily spend an entire month exploring Iceland.
2. Go "off-season"
The most popular time to visit Iceland is without a doubt the peak summer months from June to August. The temperature rises, the highland roads open up and the sun doesn't set until midnight. On the flip side, prices skyrocket during these popular months and you will likely have to deal with more crowds throughout your trip. Additionally, you won't be able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful northern lights due to the endless daylight. I would suggest visiting during the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn). The landscape is arguably even more dramatic and you'll be able to find travel and accommodation options at much more reasonable rates.
3. Rent a campervan
If you want complete freedom and flexibility, the best mode of transportation is a campervan. You don't have to worry about booking accommodations every single night or rushing to the next pit stop to make your reservation. In Iceland, a "law of survival" legally allows you to park your van pretty much anywhere overnight. We camped out in front of a waterfall one night and behind a gas station the next. Don't worry, the gas station wasn't as sketchy as it sounds. More on that later. If you visit during the peak summer seasons, multiple camp sites open up around the country and offer full amenities for guests. There are tons of reputable campervan companies in Reykjavik. We ended up picking a smaller family-owned operator called Cozy Campers. It ended up being a great decision as they were extremely friendly and accommodating. They extended our return time so we didn't have to rush back to Reykjavik on our very last day.
4. Don't forget the essentials
In addition to plenty of layers, here are a few other necessities to pick up before you head out on your road trip!
- Lonely Planet Iceland Guide: The most comprehensive (and recently updated) guide book for Iceland. Many of their excursion and restaurant recommendations (shockingly) were spot on.
- iPad mini and Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader: I knew I was going to take hundred if not thousands of photos on my Sony a6000. The lightning converter allowed me to quickly upload all my hi-res photos to my iPad, sync them in my Google Drive account and edit them with Snapseed and VSCO. It also allowed me to leave my laptop at home and save a significant amount of space when packing.
- Snow Peak Titanium Mug and Coffee Drip: I'm a sucker for a good pour over coffee, especially when you're sipping it while watching the sun rise over snow-capped mountains. Snow Peak's collapsible coffee drip provided the perfect compact and easy-to-clean solution.
- No Foreign Transaction Fee Credit Card with Chip: Don't bother carrying too much cash on you while in Iceland. Literally every place in the country accepts and prefers credit cards. Just make sure you have a credit card with a chip as most places won't allow you to swipe your card. Although it's not currently very prevalent in the US, it's also extremely helpful to have a PIN-enabled credit card. Many machine readers (particularly at gas stations) require this. No one wants to see your John Hancock.
- Pocket WiFi: Connectivity is great throughout the entire country, even in some of the remotest corners we visited. Before leaving Reykjavik, we picked up a pocket WiFi from Iceland Camping Equipment. We chose this over standard pre-paid SIM cards as it enabled us to access the internet from all of our devices simultaneously.
- Bose Portable Speaker: Although 4G connectivity is pretty much ubiquitous, the radio can be very spotty outside of Reykjavik. We spent long stretches of our ride listening to static. Additionally, unless you love Icelandic reggae (yes, it's really a thing), you should consider supplying your own music. Most campervans won't be USB or bluetooth compatible, so it's helpful to bring a portable speaker.
5. Pick a direction
The last critical decision you need to make before embarking is whether to travel clockwise or counterclockwise around the island. The reason I say to save this for last is because the natural elements in Iceland can change in a heart beat. Keep an eye out for shifting weather conditions throughout the island as they might force you to change up your itinerary. Additionally, depending on the time of year, you can choose to visit North or South Iceland first to capture the most sunlight. If you're chasing the Northern Lights, visibility is extremely temperamental and varies throughout the country at any given time. This is why we ultimately chose to travel counterclockwise. The visibility in the south was great during the first few days and allowed us to see the Northern Lights on 3 consecutive nights.
6. Stay alert
I've said this a few times already, but it's worth repeating. The weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable. One minute, it will be warm and sunny without a cloud in the sky. 30 minutes later, you could be driving right into a snow storm. That's exactly what happened to us. As we curved along the eastern fjords towards the sprawling town (population: 2,000) of Egilsstaðir, mother nature threw us a curveball. We found ourselves in a complete whiteout with minimal visibility. While we originally planned on driving straight to Mývatn, we were forced so stop in the town overnight due to deteriorating road conditions. Thankfully, we stayed up to date with Vegagerðin (road.is), the official website for Iceland's road administration. The site provides nearly real time updates on road closures and dangerous driving conditions. It was invaluable throughout our journey in flagging upcoming detours. Another important website to bookmark on your phone is vedur.is. In addition to real-time weather conditions, the site provides a very helpful aurora forecast.
7. Take a dip
There's no better way to relax before and after a long day of driving than a dip in one of Iceland's countless public geothermal pools. These naturally heated hot pots are great places to unwind and even mingle with the locals. If you're traveling via campervan, they're also great places to take a quick shower and clean up a bit. Just make sure you follow the rules. You must shower naked before getting in the water with your bathing suit on. Our favorite public pool was in the small town of Hofsós. The ultra-modern facilities are spotless, and the swimming pool sits right on the edge overlooking Skagafjörður
8. Enjoy the surf & turf
If you love lamb and lobster, you will love Icelandic cuisine. Almost every single one of our meals included one or both of those ingredients. From lamb stew to grilled lobster, we couldn't get enough.
9. Drink from the tap
Of all the things you will have to pay for in Iceland, water is not one of them. You can find clean, fresh drinking water pretty much everywhere, including gas station bathrooms. If you still prefer to drop 500 Icelandic Króna on a bottled of water, be prepared for some awkward looks at checkout.
10. Find a great travel companion
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, find a great travel companion for your adventure! Jen perfectly offset my naturally cautious and tense demeanor. It didn't hurt that she was more than happy to take the wheel from time to time. More importantly, we survived 2 weeks in a van without killing one another :)