Has global warming snatched away your childhood dreams of domestic snowball fights, building lopsided snowmen, and partying with an attractive Nordic people?
Iceland. For reigniting these old desires…
Welcome to a country where you can ‘enjoy’ a minefield of glacial crevices, have a group bath without questions being asked, and play with dogs who may also be your local bus service.
Travelling Iceland is a joy! The country being one of the safest and most highly educated in the world.
However, that doesn’t mean that a trip here is trial free. Iceland is famously pricey, has temperature issues, and is short on people. Hence my EPIC guide to backpacking Iceland, primed to give you the chilly island experience of a lifetime, and help you make at least one friend.
Let’s slide into it!
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- Why Go Backpacking in Iceland?
- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking Iceland
- Best Places to Visit in Iceland
- Top Things to Do in Iceland
- Backpacker Accommodation in Iceland
- Iceland Backpacking Costs
- Best Time to Travel To Iceland
- Staying Safe in Iceland
- How To Get Into Iceland
- How To Get Around Iceland
- Working in Iceland
- Icelandic Culture
- What To Eat in Iceland
- Brief History of Iceland
- Some Unique Experiences in Iceland
- FAQs on Backpacking Iceland
- Final Thoughts on Backpacking Iceland
Why Go Backpacking in Iceland?
So you’ve decided to move off of your mother’s couch and explore a chilly Island? That is fantastic news. I’m proud of you.
It is easy to spend weeks and weeks exploring Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. Soaking in the geothermic hot springs, trekking through the highlands, exploring the fjords by stand-up paddleboard, partying in Reykjavik. Chasing those stunning waterfalls… 😉
Generally, however, the main route for tourists, especially for the first time, is Iceland’s Ring Road: Iceland’s one highway that loops around the entire island. To get off the beaten path, you just have to head to the northern part of Iceland (many tourists using the 7-day layover do not make it here or have to drive through quickly).
Then there’s the backcountry hiking in the highlands in the middle (only accessible in summer) and the most remote part of Iceland, the western fjords.
Below we have covered the best travel itinerary for Iceland: the Ring Road! With more time, you can also tack on the eastern fjords, western fjords, and highlands; however, you need a 4wd vehicle to reach these places. The ring road was built for 2wd cars.
Backpacking Iceland 10 Week Itinerary: The Ring Road
Of all the Iceland backpacking trails on offer, this is the quintessential one. With ten days you can see a lot of Iceland. While this itinerary is possible in less time, keep in mind there is so much to see in between destinations that the more time you have, the better!
Furthermore, you can do this itinerary in either direction since it’s one big circle! There’s no right or wrong way, but for the sake of simplicity, we’re going clockwise for this itinerary.
Starting in the trendy capital, Reykjavik, make your way to counterclockwise to Upper Borgarfjorour where you can explore the countryside and lava tubes.
Next, head Stykkishólmur, a village overlooking the bay.
If you have more than 10 days, you can add on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula for horseback riding, coastal trail hiking, and glacier tours! Snaefellsnes National Park has a lot of hiking options, bird cliffs, volcanic craters, lava tubes and beautiful flowers. Go to Öndverdarnes for whale-watching tours and puffin viewing (in July/August).
Continuing north, head to Tröllaskagi for beautiful views of mountains and deep valleys. Myvatn region is home to a lake and volcanic craters. The Town Höfn to the east is a good base to visit the ice cap at Vanajökull.
Next visit Vík, a basalt-columned beach where you can view puffins!
From here, you can hike in the highlands, or continue west and add on the two impressive waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, and finally end with the Golden Circle (see the itinerary below).
Backpacking Iceland 5-Day Itinerary: The Golden Circle
This is a popular itinerary for anyone visiting Iceland for less than a week, which is now quite common due to Wow Air’s affordable lay-overs.
First, make the day drive out to Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfalls!
The Golden Circle is, as the name suggests, a loop around drive close to Reykjavik. The drive takes you to Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss where you can view its spectacular double cascade.
Next, visit the famous Geysir, another one of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions.
Next, head to Pingvellir National Park to see the continental plates tearing apart. This is where you can actually dive between two continental plates!
An awesome add on to the standard, tried and tested Golden Circle tour is a day trip to Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue. The glacier was used as a Game of Thrones location so is a must visit for fans of the show.
Best Places to Visit in Iceland
Reykjavik is where you will be kicking off your backpacking adventure in Iceland unless you’ve bucked the trend and come to shore via boat. The capital city is quaint, cosy, and charming. The city is utterly charming and compact so it kinda doesn’t matter where you stay in Reykjavik although if you can get near to the centre, then do.
There are plenty of great restaurants, top hostels to have fun at, and intriguing places to visit, like the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka the penis museum).
One to two days is all you’ll need in Reykjavik, as the population is only 120,000. Be sure to spend some time walking the city streets, trying the local food of Iceland. If the idea of whale blubber doesn’t delight your taste buds, you’ll be surprised to hear that vegan Reykjavik is a huge scene. Perfect for those less venturous.
Backpacking the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the popular tourist route just outside the capital of Reykjavik which includes Gullfoss, the geyser Strokkur, and Þingvellir National Park. These are considered a must-see on every backpacking Iceland itinerary, though they are also the most “touristy” sights in all of Iceland.
While you should still visit each you will want to budget your time – there are much more intimate sights to see while backpacking Iceland that are equally as stunning! To avoid the crowds, get there early! Laugarvatn is a popular resting spot among backpacking travelling the golden circle, so it is worth checking accommodation there if you want to meet some backpacking pals.
Keflavík is actually where the Icelandic airport is. Often, visitors will bypass it and head straight to Reykjavik, but there is still intrigue to be had here!
The small town of Keflavík used to be a U.S. military airbase, and was known as the ‘Liverpool of the North’. There is a museum to commemorate Keflavík’s role as the rock ‘n’ roll power of Iceland. It even has some videos…
However, with a population of around 15,000, it definitely gives off small-town vibes, so maybe spend a day here on the way to Reykjavik, or use it as a base to explore the Reykjanesfólkvangur, which is an awesome nature preserve nearby!
Seljalandsfoss lies just east of Reykjavik as you approach Vík on the main highway. It is the main bus stop and tourist draw, so it can get quite busy but is definitely a site you should not miss.
What sets this 60m waterfall apart from the numerous waterfalls across Iceland is that you can walk in behind it for an interesting perspective. This is one of the few waterfalls that has a tourist booth, selling souvenirs as well as some food.
The village of Vik is a noteworthy stop on any backpacking trip through Iceland due to the glistening black sand beaches that line the coast. Where there aren’t beaches there are scenic cliffs, often enveloped in fog. T
hese are home to Iceland’s most sought-after bird: the puffin! Hike up the nearby hill (where a small church is located) for a better view of the area.
Another noteworthy waterfall while backpacking Iceland is the Skógafoss. Its width and height make it a rather picturesque sight. The mist that forms at the bottom also leaves an almost-permanent rainbow, which can make for some great photos. Legend has it that there is treasure hidden at the base of the waterfall, so keep your eyes peeled.
At the base is a restaurant, small hotel, and campground. Skógafoss is also a starting point for an epic 30km hike that takes you over glaciers and between two volcanoes: the Fimmvörðuháls Trail.
Hike The Laugavegur Trail and Fimmvörðuháls Trail
If you are driving the Ring Road you really need to get out of the car to experience Iceland. You can’t truly get a sense of the place until you start trudging over its Martian landscape. There are tons of short hikes in every town and village, but if you have the time (and are up for some adventure) then I suggest doing these hikes.
The trekking starts in the gorgeous geothermal paradise, Landmannalaugar. The area is getting to be world known for its multicolored rhyolite mountains and warm hot springs that locals have enjoyed soaking in throughout the centuries. The scenery is filled with great contrast and colors as the hike takes you into the highlands.
If you hire a local guide you will find them to be super knowledgeable and will tell you the history of the flora and fauna. You can spend your night in mountain huts or camping (whichever you prefer) in remote and beautiful locations.
The locations include gorgeous places like Alftavatn, Hrafntinnusker and Thorsmork.
If you are not traveling with a tent while backpacking Iceland, there are huts you can stay in along the way and in the national park, however having a top-tier tent will give you a lot more options and help save you some cash.
This town is a quaint, charming little speck on the east coast. It has quite the artistic community, and is known to be something of a bohemian village, pretty popular amongst travellers backpacking Iceland.
What I found most stunning, however, was the drive into the town. The road was a winding, gravelly incline that provided some incredible views.
Coasting down the mountain into town was a memorable moment. Give it a try! There are also some nice hikes in the area if you want to stretch your legs.
What do you know, yet another waterfall! Located near Skaftafel in one of Iceland’s three national parks, Svartifoss is surrounded by dark black columns that give it a rather ominous look.
The park itself is also worth exploring, as it covers approximately 14% of Iceland itself. There are areas designated for camping, as well as hiking trails throughout. Stop in at one of the visitor centres for additional info, maps, or to book a guided tour.
Most backpackers tend to stay around the Hvolsvollur area as there isn’t much for accommodation around Svartifoss
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A definite must in any backpacking Iceland itinerary is a stop at this glacial lake. Located in southeast Iceland, on the outskirts of Vatnajökull National park (the park where Svartifoss is located),
Jökulsárlón offers an up close and personal look at the melting glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. With icebergs floating along the waters, and with some beautifully photogenic colours, this is a great place to relax and explore. Keep an eye out for seals, who often feed in the area before winter.
If you want to get off the land and into the glacial lagoon you can take a zodiac tour. You’ll learn a lot of really neat info about the glacial lake, though the price might be steep for the budget traveller (8500ISK). Not sure if it’s for you? Check out a review by bloggers Justin and Lauren.
Considered the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss is a really incredible sight. The roads getting here are a bit tricky, as they are in very poor shape, so you’ll need to drive slow and budget some extra time. Once you arrive you won’t be able to cross over from one side to the other, but both sides offer some incredibly gorgeous views so you needn’t worry too much.
There are no railings along the cliff so you can get dangerously close to the falls. I found this to be a really great place to just kick back and enjoy the view. A must-visit while backpacking Iceland.
In between Dettifoss and Goðafoss lies Lake Mývatn, a scenic area worth visiting if you are into hiking – or Game of Thrones. The lake, and many locations nearby, have been featured in the HBO show and there are some G.O.T tours that you can book!
There is also a geothermal lagoon (Mývatn Nature Baths) which you can soak in after hiking the area. Worth a quick stop nearby is Hverir, a geothermal area with numerous smoking and bubbling craters. The place reeks a bit, but is a neat pit-stop.
A stone’s throw away from Dettifoss is yet another majestic waterfall: Goðafoss, Waterfall of the Gods. Naturally, anything titled “…of the Gods” is probably worth adding to your itinerary, and Goðafoss is no exception.
It’s located right near Akureyri, one of the larger cities in Iceland, so it’s quite easy to access. Because it is located near both Mývatn and Dettifoss, you can likely visit all three on the same day.
Akureyri is one of the few urban areas that you will find while backpacking in Iceland. It’s located along the northern coast, right in the middle of the island, and offers up a chance at getting back to modern life if you’ve been semi off the grid as you explore (though if you’ve been enjoying your low-key living then consider passing through).
While it’s predominantly a fishing centre and port, the cozy city has everything you need. Even if you’re just passing by, it’s a good place to stock up on groceries or any other harder-to-find items.
Akureyri is quite small and easy to stroll around. Consider visiting the old Catholic church (built in 1912) or take a hike along any of the overlooking hills for some great views.
Off the Beaten Path in Iceland
Because there aren’t that many people, and Iceland is exceedingly large, it is actually relatively easy to get off the beaten path. However, people generally tend to know about the best stuff, so don’t miss out on some of the more frequented destinations. Anyway, here’s how to avoid the crowds in Iceland!
Or you could just walk off (but don’t fall down a glacier).
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Backpacking the Westfjords
Situated in the northwest corner of Iceland, the Westfjords make up a HUGE chunk of the island. If you only have 7 or so days then you will likely skip this section as you will want a day or two just to drive the coasts and take in the gorgeous scenery.
Very few travellers explore the west fjords while backpacking Iceland, so you will meet much fewer people here (except during Puffin season, as the Latrabjarg Peninsula is one of the prime Puffin-viewing areas).
Hike the Snaefellsness National Park
On my last day of backpacking in Iceland, I had the opportunity to park my car by the ocean and spend the day hiking up the mountains and volcanoes near Snaefellsjokull. The wind was sharp and unrelenting, and the sheep trails we followed- challenging and rewarding.
The highlight, however, was when we reached the glacier. Trudging around a glacier, all alone on a volcano, is truly a unique experience. Words really can’t do it justice, but it was the perfect way to end my adventure. Don’t miss the national park if you’re in the area!
You can book glacier-walking tours if you are feeling adventurous, though they aren’t cheap. Ranging from a few hours to all day, glacier hikes can cost anywhere from 10,000-40,000ISK. You can hike up to the glacier yourself and explore it on foot, however, you need to be VERY careful. There are plenty of deep crevasses that will end your backpacking adventure very quickly!
Top Things to Do in Iceland
1. Drive the Ring Road
This is one of the most iconic road trips in the world! With so many beautiful sights along the way, you have to drive at least part of this highway!
2. Watch the Northern Lights
If you happen to be in Iceland from September to mid-April you will likely be able to catch one of the most incredible sights in the world: the Northern Lights. While they are best seen in a secluded area without light pollution, I happened to see them in downtown Reykjavik – so keep your eyes peeled.
If you are arriving in late August or early May you may still have a shot at catching them, so ask some locals when you arrive. Hostel and campground staff, as well as Airbnb and hotel hosts, will be able to tell you if you’ve got a shot. I’ve had the privilege of seeing them twice in my life, and I can say without hesitation that they are experiences I will never ever forget.
For the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s worth booking a tour that takes you out to sea as this is where there is the least light pollution – you can book Northern Lights tours with Travelade.
3. Bird watching: Puffins!
Puffin season falls between mid-May and mid-August. If you happen to be backpacking across Iceland during those times (which are some of the best times of year to visit Iceland) then you’ll be able to go out and spot some of these cute little things. If you’re big into birds then you will want to arrange a proper tour with a company that can take you out to the best sights (likely by boat).
The casual observer can try their hand at spotting them along many of Iceland’s cliffs, and you can always ask the locals where you are staying for some advice. The largest populations are found on the Westman Islands, and other sizeable colonies can be found in the West Fjords and Borgarfjörður Eystri on the east coast.
Definitely don’t miss seeing puffins on your trip as they’re threatened due to climate change and overhunting.
4. Hike the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls Trail
This 5-day trail takes you through the beautiful highlands of Iceland.
5. Go Whale Watching
You can go whale watching almost anywhere in Iceland, though most tours run out of the south (Reykjavik) or the north (Akureyri). The prime season is between April and September during which there are over 20 different types of whales you can spot. You can find some of the best value whale watching trips at Travelade.
6. Join a snowmobile tour or walk on a glacier
Iceland is known for its extremely cold weather – so why not make use of it? If you’re visiting during the winter, you should think about joining a guided snowmobile tour or a glacier hike. Glaciers in Iceland are among the best natural wonders in the world. In fact, the country’s glaciers are so great that you can see them from space!
Exploring Iceland’s nature is a breathtaking experience, but we’d recommend going with someone who knows the area, as it can also be fairly dangerous. Joining a guided tour will guarantee a great time, but also keep you safe!
7. Scuba dive between two continental plates
Most tours last a few hours and cost around 10,000 ISK. If you’re brave enough, why not jump in with the whales and go scuba diving in Silfra!
8. Fish in the Highlands
For an adventure with a difference, join an experience Icelandic fisherman and head into the highlands on a fishing trip.
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Backpacker Accommodation in Iceland
Hostels, guest houses, hotels & Icelandic home stays are your best bet for accommodation whilst backpacking Iceland. Prices vary depending on vary depending on the location & the time of year you visit.
A lot of the best hostels in Reykjavik and Iceland are a bit pricey, but they offer good value.
Hostels and Guesthouses (or BnBs) are your next cheapest option in Iceland. Hostels are really only found in the main city of Reykjavik although more are starting to pop up around the ring road. Out with the city, BnBs or Guesthouses are your cheapest option. Expect to pay around $35 – $40 a night. Check out the awesome Loft Hostel in Reykjavik.
Airbnb in Iceland: Often cheaper than the pricey hotels, but still offering more privacy than a hostel. AirBnB is wicked, I’ve used it all over the world and even in the most rural of areas! Iceland was no different.
The Best Places To Stay in Iceland
We have listed our top hostel picks in the table below. However, for more ideas, check out our epic write-up on the best hostels in Iceland here.
Or you can find out where the best places to stay in Iceland are so you can be as close as possible to the attractions (or parties for that matter).
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?!|
|Reykjavik||Reykjavik – Loft HI Hostel||This eco hostel was named the Best Hostel in Iceland at the 2015 Oscars. Here the beer is cold & cheap! Get social on the lovely terrace while taking in the breathtaking city view|
|Akureyri||Akureyri Backpackers||These are possibly the best bathrooms I have ever seen a hostel. This hostel is immaculate & modern. They even have a free sauna!|
|Keflavik||Start Hostel||Budget accommodation, super close to Keflavik International Airport. Perfect gateway to explore the hidden gems of the Reykjanes Peninsula.|
|Snaefellsbaer||The Freezer||This is a great backpacker hostel, with live music, stand up comedy & open mic nights. It’s got a good social vibe & super friendly staff.|
Camping in Iceland
Perfect for travellers that like spontaneity; there are over two hundred campsites around Iceland and you don’t have to book in advance for any of them! The campsites have everything you need from charging points to warm showers. If you like to venture off the track and into the wilderness well rejoice travellers!
Wild camping in Iceland is allowed all over except close to residential buildings, protected areas, and on cultivated land (i.e. a fenced grass field is also cultivated land). So you want to camp in Iceland next to a waterfall, away from towns to get the best view of the northern lights or on top of a mountain? Go for it!
Camping in Iceland will save you a ton of money on accommodation and guess what? You can still get all the comforts that hostels offer. But how you ask? Iceland has LOADS of public swimming and heated pools, perfect to take a dip in and freshen up. Iceland has no water shortage so lay back and enjoy my friends.
Some of these pools are free but others will charge up to five dollars for a dip, a reasonable cost of not repelling people with your smell… Miss your wifi, need to charge your phone or just want some soda whilst camping in Iceland?
I have camped all over the world and honestly, I would take a tent over a hostel any day. So people, grab your tent because camping in Iceland is incredible.
Iceland Backpacking Costs
Iceland is expensive. In fact it is one of the most expensive countries on earth to visit. We’re talking $25 for a bowl of soup expensive. If you are staying in hotels and private rooms, eating out frequently and joining the best tours in Iceland, you can expect to spend hundreds of dollars a day…
Let’s start with accommodation. Hostel dorm beds are quite nice, but will run you $50 a night. Camping, however, only costs around $20 per person at designated campgrounds. If you have a tent, you can wild camp throughout Iceland for free.
Food in Iceland is extremely expensive since they import everything. Eating out is pricey, but grocery stores like Bonus have decent prices! Generally, plan to stick to dry food versus produce if you’re on a backpacker budget.
If indeed you do decide to rent a car for your Iceland backpacking trip, be sure to book your rental in advance to ensure you get the best deal for yourself. Make sure you also purchase a RentalCover.com policy to cover your vehicle against any common damages such as tires, windscreens, theft, and more at a fraction of the price you would pay at the rental desk.
A Daily Budget in Iceland
|Expense||Broke Backpacker||Frugal Traveler||Creature of Comfort|
|Totals per day||$77||$152||$298|
Money in Iceland
It is rare for people in Iceland to carry money, most people will use credit cards, even to buy ice cream! They are widely accepted, the only time you will have to use cash is on the bus. Just be careful when you’re in the bar… rounds seem like a great idea until you check your bank balance the next day.
Iceland uses the Icelandic Króna. As of May 2023, 1 USD = 136.78 ISK. This roughly means that you should be dividing by 140 whenever you buy stuff. Not a nice conversion rate!
More helpfully, 2000 ISK is around $15.
Card readers are common, you can ask for cash back, and there are ATMs dotted around towns and cities.
Anyway, for all things money, The Broke Backpacker strongly advocates for using Wise! Wise is a 100% FREE platform with much lower fees than Paypal or traditional banks. And it’s even better than Western Union…
Travel Tips – Iceland on a Budget
- Camp: With plenty of gorgeous places, Iceland can be a great place to camp in rural areas. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best tents to take backpacking. Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous and want to save some cash, consider picking up a backpacking hammock.
- Cook your own food: If you are on a tight budget, you can save money by cooking your own food. I recommend bringing a portable backpacking stove.
- Book your transportation early: Both plane and bus tickets are much cheaper if you purchase them in advance.
- Couchsurf: Icelandic people are awesome, and I am so grateful I was able to explore its cities with local friends. Check out couchsurfing to make some real friendships and see this country from the perspective of locals.
- Pack a travel water bottle and save money every day!
Why You Should Travel to Iceland with a Water Bottle
Plastic washes up on even the most pristine beaches… so do your part and keep the Big Blue beautiful
You aren’t going to save the world overnight, but you might as well be part of the solution and not the problem. When you travel to some of the world’s most remote places, you come to realise the full extent of the plastic problem. And I hope you become more inspired to continue being a responsible traveller.
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Best Time to Travel To Iceland
As its name suggests, Iceland is quite cold outside of summer. Hell, it’s cold during summer, but during summer you have long days (24-hour days in June), more sunny days, and less rain. That said weather in Iceland is unpredictable, and you can always get clouds, rain, sun, or wind, sometimes all in one day.
You can also see puffins in July and August! While summer has the most reliable weather for trekking, diving, and spending time outdoors, it’s also the most expensive time to visit Iceland, and many of the big attractions are quite crowded.
If you are just planning to road trip around the Ring Road (not attempting any multi-day/week hikes, then travelling outside of high season is a great time to backpack Iceland. April-May and September-October can still have sunny days.
Winter can also be a great time to visit Iceland if you are prepared for the snow and cold because you have a good chance of watching the Northern Lights! Plus, there is something beautiful about Iceland in winter! There are many parts of the island, however, that are inaccessible at this time.
Festivals in Iceland
Iceland hosts a wide variety of festivals that take place around the year — from traditional celebrations to seasonal festivals and musical extravaganzas, there is something for everybody! Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Winter Lights Festival: In February this weekend festival showcases beautiful light-art installations throughout the city centre, illuminating some of the most prominent buildings and public spaces.
- Reykjavik Art Festival: This isIceland’s premier cultural festival for local and international theatre, dance, visual art and music. Besides the emphasis on Icelandic culture, both past and present, the festival also hosts distinguished artists and performers from around the world. The festival spans several days at the end of May with programs to suit all ages and interests.
- Secret Solstice Festival: This multi-genre international music festival takes place inJune over multiple stages over four days and nights, under the midnight sun. Secret Solstice is a great festival to discover new artists as well as enjoy headliners like Radiohead and Die Antwood.
- Iceland Airwaves Music Festival: Taking place in October/November, this annual festival has exploded onto the international music scene, and plays throughout various venues in Reykjavík. Tickets do tend to sell out early and quickly for this event, but there are always some free off-venue shows to catch at bars and cafes around the city.
What to Pack for Iceland
It is no secret that Iceland can get pretty chilly. If you turn up in a vest and a pair of shorts, you are a massive dumbass. Bring a coat. Bring two coats. Pack that underlayer thing that sticks to you and gets really sweaty when you play sport.
In the winter, temperatures can average below zero. This means that at night, it gets really really cold. Don’t underestimate this, as I’ve told you to take a tent, and I would rather you not die. Don’t camp in winter.
In the summer, you’ll have better luck, with temperatures averaging around 15 degrees. You’ll still need a layer or two, but you should be fine when the sun is out. In summer, the sun actually never goes down (hence the midnight sun).
Don’t forget a nice set of clothes to go out in. Reykjavik nightlife can be some of the most inviting and entertaining. So in conclusion, bring trousers.
Essential Items for Backpacking Iceland
There are few things that are great for all situations. I added most to my Christmas list.
Travel Security Belt
This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off.
Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight, and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must.
Forget about Poker! Monopoly Deal is the single best travel card game that we have ever played. Works with 2-5 players and guarantees happy days.
Hanging Toiletry Bag
I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag. It’s a super-efficient way to organize your bathroom stuff. This one by Nomatic is splash-proof and made to last.
Staying Safe in Iceland
From a crime and theft perspective, Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world. When we talk about staying safe in Iceland, we are discussing driving and hiking safely in Iceland.
Double Check Your Roads: Unless you have rented an off-road vehicle, “F-Roads” in Iceland will be off limits. However, just because a road isn’t labelled an F-Road doesn’t mean it will be smooth. We encountered a handful of bumpy roads, including one INSANELY bumpy road en route to Dettifoss. These roads can really chew up your car. Be aware and drive carefully!
Watch the Weather: Iceland is known for its fickle weather and conditions can change rapidly. The fact the island is littered with active volcanoes, you may want to give some thought to staying safe. Especially if you are hiking; make sure you pack for all conditions and check the weather forecast before embarking on a hike.
Be Connected: I wouldn’t normally recommend being connected whilst travelling, but Iceland is a vast wilderness. Having mobile/data access is a great way to be prepared for emergencies. It will allow you to contact emergency services, as well as check the weather and keep up-to-date about ongoing emergencies. (There was an earthquake when I was there, which led to a volcano eruption warning. I wouldn’t have known about any of that if it wasn’t for our data access.)
Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll in Iceland
Iceland imposes extremely strict penalties for possessing drugs; even the smallest bit of magic mushrooms could land you a 30,000 kronur fine and/or jail time. Lately, the police have been rather chilled with small amounts of weed, but anything more than a tiny bit will get you into immediate trouble.
Although the consequences are stiff, it’s reasonably easy to get hold of illegal substances in Iceland especially in bigger cities like Reykjavik or Akureyri. It’s still worth getting advice on how to get fucked up well though. I know Icelandic prison is nice, but still.
It’s crazy to think that only 75 years ago beer was illegal in Iceland, and spirits & wine didn’t become legal until 1989! The nightlife in Iceland is booming, however. They typically head out late, rolling into nightclubs at 1 am. Icelandic women are beautiful & friendly, you can either meet ladies the old fashioned way at bars or on Tinder.
Travel Insurance in Iceland
Travelling without insurance is always a bad idea. Whilst it is unlikely you end up in a wheelchair or glacial pit, statistics will say that you are still on the radar…
ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.
They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.
SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!
Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.
How To Get Into Iceland
The international airport in Keflavik (KEF), just outside the capital city of Reykjavik, is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the island nation. Icelandair operates flights from most major North American and European hubs, and they also allow their passengers free stopovers for up to 7 days. If you’re not ready to dive into a full Icelandic adventure yet, this service is a great way to test the cultural waters.
The airport is a 45-minute shuttle ride from the city centre and a one-way ticket costs 2,200 ISK. Most major car rental companies have an office at the airport, though many of the smaller (and cheaper) companies have offices nearby. If you book with a smaller company they can pick you up upon arrival.
During the summer months it is possible to hitchhike into Reykjavik from the airport; however, since many car companies don’t actually leave from the airport this may take some time.
Entry Requirements for Iceland
Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement, so if you are from the EU then you do not need a visa. This also applies to citizens from Canada, America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. For a full list of countries that are exempt check the Directorate of Immigration’s website or contact your local consulate.
Travellers looking to stay past the 90-day limit will have to get creative, but we’re here to help and that’s why we wrote a complete guide on long-term travel in Europe.
How To Get Around Iceland
Car Rentals: The easiest way for backpacking Iceland is by renting a car. An entire industry has been built around the Icelandic road trip, so the process is incredibly simple. For price comparisons, companies like SAD Cars and Car Rental Iceland are a great place to start.
You generally have two options when it comes to renting a car: 2WD or 4WD. If you just plan on seeing the sights and driving the ring road (the main highway that circles Iceland) then a 2WD vehicle will suffice. If you crave some off-roading then you will definitely need a 4×4.
A less common (and slightly expensive) option is renting a camper van. This will save you on accommodation, though your upfront and fuel costs will be significantly higher.
Traveling by Bus in Iceland
Bus: Buses are the least flexible, most expensive way to see the country when you’re backpacking Iceland. I would avoid using them as your primary mode of transportation. If you do need to use them, Visit Iceland has all the pertinent details as some of the bus companies only operate in certain areas of the country. Make sure to have cash ready, the majority of bus services do not have card facilities.
Hitchhiking in Iceland
While backpacking Iceland, hitchhiking is very common. With so many people renting cars, not to mention all the friendly locals, you’ll never have to wait long for a ride. Just remember that the weather changes frequently here, so dress accordingly!
Hitchhiking solo or in a pair will increase your chances of snagging a ride; groups of 3 or more will have a hard time finding someone with enough room for them AND their bags. Keep in mind, however, that hitchhikers will be tied to the main highway; there is very little traffic on most other roads.
Onwards Travel from Iceland
Since Iceland is an island, the easiest and cheapest way to travel onwards from Iceland is by flight via Reykjavik. London, Paris, and Dublin often have the cheapest flight to Europe. Wow Air also flies to the USA affordably!
Working in Iceland
Iceland is a tempting place for plucky expats to try to their luck and find work. The minimum wage is $2400 per month and there is the prospect of tourism-related jobs for English speakers. However, this does need to be countenanced against VERY high living costs and rising unemployment.
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Work Visas In Iceland
Citizens of the EU and EEA are welcome to live and work in Iceland. Everybody else will need to obtain a visa. These can only be issued once a job offer has been secured and an employment contract signed.
Volunteer in Iceland
Volunteering abroad is an amazing way to experience a culture whilst giving something back. There are loads of different volunteer projects in Iceland ranging from teaching to animal care, to agriculture to pretty much everything!
Iceland isn’t a poor country by any means, but it’s often in need of volunteers to help preserve the natural environment. Most opportunities you’ll find are in farming and permaculture, but you’ll also come across gigs in social work and hospitality. Citizens from outside the EEA/EFTA will need to apply for a residence permit in order to volunteer.
Our go-to platform for finding volunteering gigs is Worldpackers who connect travellers with host projects. Have a look at the Worldpackers site and see if they have any exciting opportunities in Iceland before signing up.
Alternatively, Workaway is another excellent common platform used by travellers searching for volunteering opportunities. You can read our review of Workaway for more info on using this terrific platform.
Volunteer programs run through reputable work exchange programs like Worldpackers and platforms like Workaway are usually very well-managed and reputable. However, whenever you are volunteering do stay vigilant, especially when working with animals or children.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
Teaching English in Iceland
All Icelanders now learn English and therefore quality English teachers are generally welcome. However, to teach in Iceland, applicants will need a degree plus a teaching qualification.
You may also be disadvantaged when competing against Icelandic teachers who often speak English as well, or better, than native speakers. This is one country where simply being a native English speaker is not quite gonna cut it!
The people in Iceland are incredibly friendly and generally happy to help you out! I really enjoyed talking to Icelandics and learning about their country. Icelanders tend to be tough and hardy due to the harsh environment they live in. They are deeply involved in the farming and fishing industries.
Iceland Travel Phrases
Okay, it’s no secret that the Icelandic language isn’t easy to learn, let alone pronounce! That said, even though most people speak perfect English if you know a couple of Icelandic travel phrases, your efforts will always be appreciated!
If you want to really dive into the Icelandic language, go pick up The Little Book of Icelandic. The Icelandic language is a mystery to me, I honestly, can’t wrap my tongue around it. But this book is amazing, you’ll learn some fun slang words and of course, cheeky words and phrases. But it gives a humorous look on the language, culture, and history of Iceland. Seriously good book.
- Hello – Sæll
- How are you? – Hvað segir þú?
- What is your name? – Hvað heitir þú?
- Thank you – Takk [tahck]
- Where is the bathroom? – Hvar er klósettið? [hvar er kloh-settith]
- How much is this? – Hvað kostar þetta?[hvath koster thetta]
- No plastic bag – Engin plastpoki
- No straw please – Nei strá vinsamlegast
- No plastic cutlery please – Engin plast hnífapör vinsamlegast
- Where is? – Hvar er? [kvar er]
- Beer – Bjór
What To Eat in Iceland
There are a few staples in Iceland, including local fish and lamb, which should come at no surprise considering it’s an Iceland largely inhabited by sheep. Icelanders also eat whale, puffin, and shark, and even horse as a delicacy, which is controversial for visitors.
I didn’t actually try any Icelandic food as I was on a tight budget, didn’t eat out and contended myself with noodles and pasta which I cooked in my Airbnb.
Below I have listed a few more local dishes:
Skyr – Rich, creamy yogurt
Hangikjöt – Hung meat, like smoked lamb
Harofiskur – wind-dried haddock (like fish jerky)
Pylsur Icelandic Hotdogs
Rúgbrauo – Dark rye read baked underground with geothermal heat
Books to Read while Traveling Iceland
- Iceland: Land of the Sagas: Written by the awesome, Jon Krakauer who circumnavigated Iceland in summer and winter, finding tales of monks and Vikings, outlaws and adventurers, trolls and witches. While touring and photographing, they discover the myths and legends of Iceland’s stirring history while having some incredible adventures!
- Tales of Iceland: Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight: This book is hilarious! A group of American students hitting the road to Iceland to find the “supermodels that work at McDonald’s”. Read about their hilarious adventure partying, getting lost, offending the locals, and getting into ridiculous situations. This is a real-life, real good read if you like dark humour like me.. you will literally be howling with laughter!
- Iceland, Defrosted: Follow an Englishman’s adventure around Iceland. Less about wars over cod, flight-halting volcanoes, and globe-shattering financiers. More about relaxing in natural hot pots, sharing barbecues in howling winter storms, and eating waffles and rhubarb jam while watching playful Arctic foxes.Pretty much every backpacker’s ideal adventure…
- The Sagas of the Icelanders: Want to get some Icelandic stories from the locals but struggle with the language? Well, check this book out. A book of stories from locals in Iceland throughout the ages. Talking about the myths, culture, history, and landscape of Iceland. A must-read for the curious out there..
- Viking Age Iceland: The Vikings fascinate me, it’s one of the reasons I travelled to Iceland in the first place, to be honest. I couldn’t put this book down before heading on my backpacking Iceland adventure. Want to know about feasting, farming, the power of chieftains and the church, marriage, and the role of women? Or get lost in the world of blood feuds and violence? This history book will keep you reading, seriously guys, it’s awesome!
For some more literary inspiration, check out these other books on Iceland!
Brief History of Iceland
In the 9th century, the first Vikings arrived in Iceland and began to claim the land. Eventually, after the Norwegian kings sent missionaries to Iceland, many Icelandics were converted to Christianity.
Like much of Europe, Iceland went through the Reformation and its own struggles with monarchy. By the 20th century, much of Iceland began to prosper, and by 1944, Iceland broke all links with Denmark and their monarchy.
In 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected president of Iceland as the first elected woman president in the world!
Some Unique Experiences in Iceland
Pick Up Hitchhikers: Driving a car? Pick up some hitchhikers! Not only is picking up hitchhikers a nice thing to do while backpacking Iceland, it’s a great way to pick up some tips. Chances are they have been talking to locals as they thumb their way around which means they have likely picked up some useful travel info. Chat them up and see what you can find out!
Find Secluded Hot Pots: Searching for secret hot pots (natural hot springs) was a priority for my visit. I used hotpoticeland to discover the hidden gems, fitting them into my schedule as often as I could. There really is nothing like a midnight dip in a secluded hot pot, so be sure to bookmark the website. You can also ask your hostel staff or Airbnb host for local sites.
Try A Farm Guesthouse: If you want to add a unique, cozy stay to your trip then be sure to keep your eyes out for farm guesthouses like the Guesthouse Skalafell. They are virtually everywhere in Iceland so you won’t have a hard time finding one. They offer a very personal perspective to your trip, and the hosts are always full of great info and travel tips. We stayed at Solvanes, which we found on Airbnb. The hosts were lovely and the location serene and off-the-beaten-path.
Chill Out At The Freezer Hostel: When it comes to hostels, they can often be hit or miss. The Freezer, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, is a definite hit. Spacious, warm, inclusive, and owned by an amazingly friendly guy, The Freezer is a must. They host regular live music AND live theatre in the summer, have a great kitchen, and are located right next to a national park. This is a must if you are in the area and appreciate a chill atmosphere.
Things go wrong on the road ALL THE TIME. Be prepared for what life throws at you.
Buy an AMK Travel Medical Kit before you head out on your next adventure – don’t be daft!Buy on REI
Hiking In Iceland
One of the best ways to explore a country and really embrace it is to head off the road. Throw on your backpack, lace up your hiking boots and hit the hills. Iceland has some of the best day walks, multi-day tramps, mountains and waterfalls in the world. So seriously, what are you waiting for?
I spent a lot of time in the wilderness whilst backpacking Iceland. So amigo’s here are some of my favourite hikes you shouldn’t miss on your Iceland adventure…
Step into the wild, wade across glacial rivers and encounter anything from harsh lava fields to lush and fertile valleys. Sounds incredible right? For any experienced hiker and wilderness lover, this is the dream. On this seven-day wilderness experience, prepare to be challenged. You will be met by glaciers, glacial rivers and lagoons, waterfalls, lava fields and get a chance to soak in a hot spring as a reward.
The Vatnajokull Wilderness was the most incredible expedition I did in Iceland, however, it is absolutely not for the beginner hiker. The terrain is difficult, you will have to carry all supplies on your own back and unless you are tip top at navigation (compass and map, not gps guys); I would recommend hopping on one of the awesome organised trekking tours.
The hike is around seven days and you can expect to be walking ten to twenty plus kilometres per day. Most people will opt to camp on their way through the Vatnajokull wilderness, but if you’re not keen, there are a select few huts along the way.
Camping offers the security of being able to sleep pretty much anywhere along the trail, great if your legs aren’t keen on walking twenty kilometres to the next hut that day.
The months of July and August are the best time to tackle this hike, the weather will be a little more reliable and you’re far enough away from the cold chill of winter. Tour companies tend to only run one tour a month, with limited spaces.
If this hike sounds like your ideal getaway and you want to hop on a tour, prepared to pay around 180,000 – 200,000 Icelandic Krona. Not cheap, but can you really put a price tag on the most incredible wilderness experience you’ll ever have…
Snæfellsjökull National Park
The first national park established in Iceland touches the sea and mountain tops, so you know it’s going to offer some of the best day hikes in Iceland. Walk along the stunning sea cliffs, overlooking volcanic beaches. Take in the historic lava streams that have shaped the landscape and cliffs you are standing on.
In the lowland part of the national park, you’ll find an ancient seabed, pushed out of the ocean at the end of the ice age. For geology lovers, try your luck at spotting some fossils in the rock. Those more into birds and marine life, sit by the coast and watch the ocean for passing whales and dolphins. Check the rocks for visiting puffins and other bird life.
Look to the North of the National Park and you’ll see the towering peaks and beautiful valleys beckoning you. Check out Eysteinsdalur Valley of Eysteinsdalur a starting point for many day and multi-day hikes into the mountain peaks above. There are many trails to choose from, you could do a quick thirty-minute loop or head off the grid for the next few days. The choice is yours!
Of course, the main attraction in this national park is the Snæfellsjökull Glacier which stands at 1,446m and is an epic hike. Snæfellsjökull glacier is said to be one of the seven great energy centres of the earth and is thought by many to have mysterious powers.
The view from the top overlooks the national park below; Reykjanes Peninsula on the south side and the Westfjords on the north side, as well as over the mountains of Snæfellsnes to the east.
Hikes don’t always involve mountains, the Snaefellsnes National Park has some incredible waterfalls that you absolutely must check out. The power and beauty behind them in this wilderness landscape is awesome. Definitely, don’t leave this National Park without taking a hike to the Bjarnarfoss Falls.
Head to the cliffs near Budir and squint your eyes. You’ll see a lady standing in the mist of the waterfall, a haze of droplets around her shoulders, you’ll probably see her from the road. Not his is not a ghost, just a beautiful shadow trick of the mind thanks to the waterfall and mountainous background.
The Laugavegur Trek
The longest hiking trail in Iceland, running 53km from the hot springs area of Landmannalaugar world known for its multicoloured rhyolite mountains and warm hot springs that locals have enjoyed soaking in throughout the centuries. The scenery is filled with great contrast and colours as the hike takes you into the highlands before ending in the glacial valley of Þórsmörk.
This is a popular and well-trodden trek in Iceland, for good reason. Following the trail, you’ll cross a multitude of different terrains and experience some seriously wicked views and landscapes.
This is a great multi-day trek for all levels of backpackers. However, you do have to be physically fit to enjoy it, you’ll be walking at least six hours plus a day.
The trek takes most people around five days to complete. for those keen hikers, it can be done much faster and for those wanting to spend more time enjoying the view, slower.
National Geographic has this hike on their list of the 20 best hikes in the world and they have a full reason to. During the tour, you are greeted with fields of obsidian, colourful mountains, black sands, hot springs, geysers, sparkling white glaciers and glacier rivers, elf churches and so much more.
The huts cost around forty dollars a night and to stay in the designated campsites, around ten dollars a night. I know which option I would go for… Camping outside of the designated campsites is technically ‘not allowed’ however, the rules are a little vague.
This was one of my favourite hikes in Iceland; it really was incredible. Anyone wanting to experience the wilderness without breaking the bank or requiring good wilderness skills should check this out. For more info on prepping for this trek, check out this awesome article for hiking the Laugavegur Trek.
Hiking in Iceland doesn’t stop here, want more once you finish the Laugavegur Trek well why not add on the Fimmvorduhals Trail…
For any photography lovers out there, this trail is for you. It is simply, stunning. Fimmvörðuháls is a 25 km hiking trail between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers in southern Iceland, for experienced (crazy) hikers, this can be done in a day. But why rush it?
Take at least three days to soak up and get through the incredible landscape. Like pretty much all trails in Iceland, the summer months of July and August are the best time to hike without too much worry. Saying this, you will still be crossing snowfields at the highest points of this trek.
This trek is relatively easy, there isn’t much incline or harsh downhill. The hardest part of the hike, getting over your fear of heights, clinging to the rope along the cats spine. Fimmvorduhals trail is spectacular, take your time to enjoy the magnificent waterfalls, perfect landscapes and beautiful scenery.
I wouldn’t recommend doing it in a day, you will race through it’s beauty and really, where’s the fun in that? Stay in the huts along the way or camp under the stars in the designated campsites. You will have to book the huts in advance online or in the information centres in the main towns.
Joining an Organized Tour in Iceland
Just like most countries, solo travel in Iceland is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travelers you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However—not all tour operators are created equal—that is for sure.
G Adventures is a solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in Iceland for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
FAQs on Backpacking Iceland
Here’s what people usually ask us about travelling around Iceland.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Iceland
Iceland offers dramatic scenery, wildlife, and otherwordly views you can’t get anywhere else in the world. It is clean and pristine.
So, what are you waiting for? Get on your hiking boots, load up your backpack and get out exploring some incredible hiking in Iceland.
Ditch your desk, pack your bags and go backpacking to Iceland!
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!