A Quick Guide to Hiking in Iceland

A group of people hiking in Landmannalaugar.

With endless mountains, natural wonders, and out-of-this-world sceneries, Iceland was made for hiking. No matter where in the country you are, a great hike is waiting for you just around the corner. Some are short and sweet, others are long and adventurous, but they all offer a serene experience of the magnificent Icelandic nature. If you’re headed to the mountains or Highland for an adventure, our guide to hiking in Iceland is here to help make the journey as safe and enjoyable as possible. 

Before you go

Never leave for a hike without telling someone where you’re going and for how long. Submit your travel plans to Safe Travel so that authorities can provide you with assistance as quickly as possible in emergencies. Make sure to have the Icelandic emergency service number written down and a phone to call them. To minimize the chances of getting caught in extreme weather, check the forecast on vedur.is before you leave for your hike and be on the lookout for weather warnings.

Get the lay of the land. How long is the hike? What’s the expected elevation? What’s the terrain like? Do some basic research online or get yourself a book about hiking routes in Iceland. That way, you’ll know what to expect and whether the hike is suitable for you. To ensure safety and protect the ecosystem, always follow a marked trail.

If you want to go glacier hiking, book a tour. While incredible places to hike, the glaciers can be extremely dangerous if you don’t know your way around them, so having a guide is imperative. The tour office will also provide you with the necessary equipment.

Hikers getting ready for Sólheimajökull glacier hike.
Photo: Golli. Hikers getting ready for Sólheimajökull glacier hike.

How to dress for hiking in Iceland

Dressing for hiking in Iceland can be tricky, as you never really know what the weather has in store for you. It’s always ready to catch you off guard with strong gusts of wind and unexpected rain, especially up in the mountains. The combined power of precipitation, wind, and cold temperatures is frequently underestimated, which can lead to hypothermia. 

In the Icelandic climate, layers are your best friend. They will allow you to adapt to changing conditions and be prepared for the unexpected. Wear:

  • A base layer of wool or synthetic thermal underwear.
  • A middle layer for insulation, wool or synthetics. 
  • A wind and water-resistant, but breathable, outer layer.

Leave your cotton clothes at home. They won’t keep you warm when they get moist from sweat or wet from snow and rain. Additionally, you should have thermal gloves, headwear, and hiking socks made from wool or synthetics. Even when the weather is great, bring the layers along in your backpack. 

On a good summer day, short hikes on well-kept trails, such as trails leading up to popular waterfalls, can be made in your average trainers. For longer hikes or hikes made in cold or wet conditions, sturdy hiking boots are essential. 

A person looking over a valley on Laugavegur trail, one of the longer hikes in Iceland.
Photo: Berglind. A person looking over a valley on Laugavegur trail, one of the longer hikes in Iceland.

What to have in your backpack

In addition to having the appropriate attire, there are several things you should have in your backpack:

  • Should there be snow, bring crampons. 
  • A GPS device, map, and compass. Even on well-marked trails, you might get caught in a snowstorm or heavy fog and lose your sense of direction. If you get lost and can’t situate yourself with the help of your equipment, call for help, sit down and wait. When using a map on your phone, make sure to download it.
  • A charging bank so the phone won’t run out of battery.
  • A first aid kit for minor accidents and emergencies.
  • Liquids and food, even for short hikes – you never know what might happen. 
  • If you’re headed out on a multi-day hike, don’t forget your camping equipment and extra clothes!

If you don’t have all the equipment you need or the luggage space to bring it, you can rent anything you might need, from gloves and boots to tents and GPS devices.

People hiking in fog on Hornstrandir.
Photo: Golli. People hiking in fog on Hornstrandir.

Crossing rivers

Having to cross rivers while hiking is common in Iceland. They vary hugely in size and current strength, so it‘s important to assess each river carefully before crossing. If your trail has a large river that you can‘t wade without getting your hiking shoes soaked, bring wading shoes, sandals or trainers. These will be better for crossing than going barefoot. 

Make sure that you don‘t have anything tied tightly to you, and loosen the straps on your backpack. If you fall into a river that is deep or has a strong current, it‘s better to be able to quickly let go of your things. 

The best place to cross is often where the water is more spread out, as narrower parts are usually deeper and have a stronger current. Don‘t follow the same path as a jeep without making sure it‘s a good place to cross on foot – it might not be. After finding a suitable path, it‘s advised to make the crossing three or four together, with arms clasped at the elbows. 

Exploring the Wilderness of Iceland in a Day: The Best Day Hikes Near Reykjavík

Landmannalaugar tourist

Iceland, with its dramatic landscapes and untouched wilderness, is the perfect spot for outdoor and hiking enthusiasts to visit. The land is known for glaciers, volcanoes, captivating cliff sides and breathtaking panoramic sceneries, making it an ideal destination for those seeking the perfect hiking experience. Hiking in Reykjavík and around the capital could be the perfect option for those wanting to explore the wilderness in close proximity. 

Though Icelandic nature is packed with hiking trails and treks countrywide, there is no need to go far, as many stunning day-hikes can be enjoyed in and near Reykjavík. So, for those with limited time or those who want to spend their time enjoying the vicinity of the capital area, there are numerous possibilities to explore the raw nature of Iceland within reach. 

Below, we will delve into hiking in Reykjavík and the best day hikes in and near the city. 

Glymur Waterfall Iceland hiking near Reykjavík
Photo: Berglind – Glymur Waterfall

 

Best day hikes in Reykjavík city

Hiking in Reykjavík is a popular attraction for travellers and locals. Hikers and explorers can find trails to journey over and find a bit of nature’s peace and quiet within the hustle and bustle of the city.

 

Úlfarsfell Mountain Hike Reykjavík

Úlfarsfell Mountain is in Reykjavík, located about 15-minute drive from the city’s centre making it a perfect hiking adventure in Reykjavík. The hike is relatively easy, with ascent only about 160 m [524 ft]. The total trail is a loop, about 3.9 km [2.4 mil] long and takes about an average of 1.5 hours to complete. The Úlfarsfell mountain trail is open all year and is very popular, where visitors can choose to hike, bike or run.

Below you can find the parking lot for Úlfarsfell mountain.

 

Viðey Island Hike in Reykjavík

The cultural and historically rich island of Viðey is located just off the coast of Reykjavík’s centre, only about a 5-20 minute boat ride away. The island is only about 1.7 km² [0.65 mi²] large but is a popular destination for travellers and locals due to its combination of art, history and nature.

On the island, there are several hiking trails, each of them well-marked, where visitors can enjoy the rugged and beautiful landscape of Viðey. Different difficulty levels are available, ranging from slower, easier walks to more challenging hikes. However, hikers should be able to tread most of the paths easily. 

On Viðey Island is the Imagine Peace Tower, created by Yoko Ono as a memorial to John Lennon, first lit in 2007. One of the island’s most popular hiking trails is the one leading to the Peace Tower memorial site. Hikers walk through beautiful scenic landscapes and get to learn more about the island’s history and the story of the peace tower. 

The Reykjavík Imagine Peace Tower Tour can be booked here

To hike at Viðey Island, you can take the ferry that drives from the Old Harbour over the summer months but from the Skarfabakki Pier over the winter months. You can see the full ferry schedule here. 

The Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland by night - Hiking Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. The Imagine Peace Tower hike Reykjavík

 

Elliðaárdalur Valley Hiking in Reykjavík

Elliðaárdalur valley is located just at Reykjavík’s edge and offers lovely walking and biking paths. You can find forested areas, slow rivers, waterfalls, and even a cafe in the valley. Elliðaárdalur is the perfect spot for a calm nature walk near the city. You can end the trip with a hot cup of coffee at the cafe Á Bistro or walk to Árbæjarlaug swimming pool for a dip in the hot tub while overlooking the valley. 

Below you can find parking in Elliðárdalur valley. It is also possible to park in front of Á Bistro.

 

Best day hikes near Reykjavík city

Near Reykjavík, there are several breathtaking hikes, which can be accessed easily by car and some by public transport.

 

Helgafell Mountain

Helgafell Mountain is located in Hafnarfjörður on the Reykjanes peninsula. The hike is generally considered a moderately challenging one with an elevation gain of about 292 m [958 ft] and is approximately 6.1 km [3.8 mil] long. In Iceland, other mountains possess the same name, as Helgafell is directly translated to “Holy Mountain”, so do not get confused with Helgafell, located on the Snæfellsnes peninsula as it is a bit further from Reykjavík. 

The hike usually takes about 2 hours to finish, and hikers walk through gorgeous, rugged landscapes with a mix of flora and fauna. Hikers can, for instance, see moss-covered lava rocks and experience Icelandic bird life. Once reaching the summit, the panoramic views of Hafnarfjörður reward tired hikers, making the experience worth the challenge.

Below you can find the parking lot for Helgafell Mountain.

 

Esja Mountain 

Located about 10 km [6.2 mil] from Reykjavík’s centre is Esja mountain, a very popular hike, especially in the summertime. The trail’s total length is about 7.7 km [4.8 mil] with 731 m [2400 ft] elevation gain and is usually considered a challenging route. However, most people only walk up to what is called “Steinn”, which means rock, where you reach 600 m [1970 ft] in elevation gain. The route up to there is considered a moderate one, where people of all ages hike up. 

Hiking up to Esja Mountain is an experience characterised by the contrasts of volcanic rocks, lush flora and panoramic views. The trail can be quite uneven at points, so wearing sturdy hiking boots is recommended. 

The mountain’s proximity to the capital makes it an accessible and rewarding destination for both locals and tourists.

Below you can find the parking lot for Esja Mountain.

Esja mountain hike seen from Reykjavík
Photo: Golli – Esja mountain seen from Reykjavík

 

Heiðmörk 

Heiðmörk is a national forest and a municipal conservation area offering multiple hiking routes for visitors. Situated just east of Reykjavík is the vast nature reserve that displays diverse nature, such as lava fields, woodlands and calm lakes. 

One of the most popular routes in Heiðmörk is the Brandskriki Loop, a 4 km [2.5 mil] route with 76 m [250 ft] elevation, making it an excellent running or walking path. 

Another popular hike in Heiðmörk is Búrfell volcano. The hike is a moderately easy one, about 6.6 km [4.1 mil] and has about 127 m [416 ft] elevation gain. The average time it takes to finish the hike is about 1.5 hours, depending on which route is chosen. The final destination offers stunning views from the top of the volcano’s crater over the beautiful surrounding area. 

Below you can find parking lot in Heiðmörk.

 

Vífilsfell Mountain

Vífilsfell mountain is an easy but beautiful hike, situated just outside of Reykjavík, in the Kópavogur district. The hike is 3.1 km [1.9 mil] long and has about 474 m [1555 ft] elevation gain. The views from the top display the panoramic scenery over the capital area and the nearby Bláfjöll mountains, which is a popular skiing destination during the winter. 

Below you can find parking lot for Vífilsfell Mountain.

 

Reykjadalur Valley Hot Springs

The hike in Reykjadalur Valley offers a different reward for hikers, apart from the scenic views, due to the hot springs situated at the trail’s end. The hike is located close to the town of Hveragerði, 50 km [31 mil] from Reykjavík, about a 45-minute drive. Therefore, hikers should remember to pack their most flattering bathing suit and a towel so they can lie and bathe in the hot thermal river water. 

The hike is about 8 km [5 mil] long with 340 m [1115 ft] elevation, but is considered a moderately easy hike suitable for most levels.

Below you can find parking lot for the Reykjadalur hot spring hike.

Two people enjoying Reykjadalur hot river in Iceland's winter, hiking near Reykjavík
Photo: Reykjadalur Hot Spring

 

Go inside of Þríhnúkagígur Volcano 

As Iceland is a volcanic island, many volcanoes are found there. However, not many of them offer the possibility of actually walking inside a volcano! In fact, Þríhnúkagígur Volcano is the only place on earth where you can descend into a gigantic lava crater and explore the magic. 

The tour to Þríhnúkagígur Volcano starts with a moderately easy hike for about 45-50 minutes, offering breathtaking sceneries of the surrounding area. Subsequently, hikers are descended about 120 m [400 ft] into the volcano in an open cable lift. This is truly a unique experience unlike any other, as it quite literally can not be done anywhere else in the world. 

The hiking tour can only be booked during the summer season. 

The tour to Þríhnúkagígur Volcano can be booked here.

 

Glymur waterfall

The hike to Glymur waterfall is a beautiful one, about 6.6 km [4.1 mil] with 340 m [1270 ft] elevation gain located in Hvalfjörður fjord. It is usually considered a moderately challenging one, whereas hikers should expect to spend half a day on the hike, but it takes about 3-4 hours on average. 

The hiking adventure takes you through beautiful landscapes where parts of the route can be quite challenging. As you approach the waterfall, hikers must go over rocks and cross a narrow log bridge over a river canyon. As you arrive, you are treated with the sight of the second-highest waterfall in Iceland: Glymur. 

Note that the hike can be very dangerous and should be undertaken with caution and appropriate hiking gear. The hike is best to embark on during the summer due to the pathway turning icy and slippery during winter.

Below you can find parking lot for the Glymur waterfall hike.

 

What Do I Need to Keep in Mind when Hiking in Iceland?

Timing can be a crucial factor when planning a hiking adventure in Iceland. The summer period from June to September offers the best conditions for hiking as the days are longer and the weather conditions are better. Nonetheless, the unpredictableness of the Icelandic weather is part of the charm, so hikers should be prepared for changes. 

So when hiking in Reykjavík, whether during summer or winter, being prepared for the weather is crucial. Hikers should dress in layers, wear solid footwear and bring appropriate hiking gear.

Another thing to keep in mind is to bring enough water and food to keep the energy up whilst exploring the astonishing views of Icelandic nature. 

Lastly, hikers should be mindful of the environment and leave no trace when visiting hiking sites. Respecting nature is crucial for preserving the beauty and the raw wilderness of Iceland.

 

What is the closest mountain to Reykjavík?

The closest mountain to hike in Reykjavík is Esja Mountain, which elegantly hovers over the city. The drive from Reykjavík’s centre is about 25 minutes, making it an accessible and attractive day hike option.

 

Is it safe to hike alone in Iceland?

Hiking in Reykjavík or Iceland alone is generally considered a safe option. However, hikers must keep in mind to have appropriate hiking gear, such as proper hiking boots, layering clothes, and to have enough water and food at hand. When hiking alone, it is also recommended to hike during the longest daylight hours, between June to September.