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A Quick Guide to Hiking in Iceland

By Tanja Rasmussen

A group of people hiking in Landmannalaugar.
Photo: Photo: Golli. 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. 

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