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A group of people by Skógafoss.
Photo: A group of people by Skógafoss..

Fimmvörðuháls: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide

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If you’re planning on a hike in the Highland while you’re in Iceland, Fimmvörðuháls is a great option. It’s one of the most popular day hikes in Iceland and for a good reason. Taking you past more than 20 waterfalls, through barren landscape, between two glaciers, and down into the lush natural paradise of Þórsmörk, it’s one of the most diverse routes you can take in the Icelandic wilderness within a day. This guide to hiking Fimmvörðuháls will tell you everything you need to know about how to get there, what to expect on the way, whether it’s suitable for children, and much more.

When can you make the Fimmvörðuháls hike?

Technically, Fimmvörðuháls is open all year round, but mid-June to the end of August is the ideal time, especially if you’re going without a guide. It’s the time you’ll be most likely to get decent weather and good trail conditions, which will make your journey both more enjoyable and safe. During the off-season, conditions can be difficult due to storms and heavy snow on the ground, and planning transportation to and from the trail will be hard. You should only hike Fimmvörðuháls during the off-season if you’re an experienced hiker or with a guide. The video below will give you an idea of what the conditions are like during the hiking season.

Guided or unguided

During the hiking season, the Fimmvörðuháls hike can be done on your own. This might be the better option for photographers wanting to capture the unique Icelandic landscape or those who just want to take some extra time to enjoy the Highland, as it allows you complete freedom of speed. If you choose to go unguided, make sure to familiarize yourself with the trail beforehand and bring a GPS device and/or a map and a compass.

For less experienced hikers, those who don’t feel confident making the trip on their own, or social butterflies who want to hike with a larger group, there are plenty of guided tours available from May to September.

What to wear on your hike

Don’t underestimate the weather. Even if the forecast is great for Skógar and Þórsmörk, your starting and ending points, the conditions can be completely different and rapidly changing once you’re higher up.

To maximize your safety and comfort, it’s recommended to wear three layers on your journey:

  • 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. If you tend to get easily cold, or if the forecast is particularly grim, an extra sweater in the backpack is a good idea.

Additionally, you should have thermal gloves and headwear, socks made from wool or synthetics, and waterproof hiking boots, such as those on the image below. These are crucial, as there will be snow on the way. If you don’t have the proper equipment or space in your luggage to bring it, you can make use of a hiking and camping equipment rental.

Sturdy hiking boots.
Photo: Matti Blume, Wikimedia. Sturdy hiking boots.

What to bring – and what to leave on the bus

Although Iceland is known for its many rivers, there are none for a good deal of the Fimmvörðuháls trail. This means that you’ll have to bring water for the whole day in your backpack. It’s also a good idea to have hot water, hot chocolate, coffee or tea.

Assuming you’ve already had breakfast, you should bring lunch, dinner and plenty of snacks. An example of food for the day would be as follows:

  • Snacks – a pack of biscuits, a bag of nuts, raisins and chocolate, a granola bar, an apple, and a package of Icelandic fish jerky.
  • Lunch – a sandwich or two with hummus and vegetables or ham and cheese, a package of instant soup, and a snack.
  • Dinner – pasta with cream sauce or a package of freeze-dried food, a hot drink, and a snack.

Other than food, you should bring:

  • A first-aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Sunglasses
  • An extra pair of socks
  • Blister plasters or tape
  • A GPS and/or map and compass.

Those planning to stay the night in Þórsmörk do not have to carry additional things with them on the hike. You can leave your tents, sleeping bags and anything else you won’t need during the day on the bus, and the driver will drop them off at your accommodations. To do this, you’ll just have to make sure that the bus you choose is actually going there, have your things clearly labelled, and let the driver know.

Which direction to hike in

Since the hike is a point-to-point, there are, of course, two ways to do it. The most popular way is to start from Skógar and make your way into Þórsmörk. That means you’ll be facing the 20-plus waterfalls of the hike on the way up, have a slow but long inclination and the beautiful sight of Þórsmörk coming down. However, it’s entirely possible to do it the other way around. Many mountain runners prefer that, for example, as starting from Þórsmörk gives you a steeper but shorter inclination.

A group of people by Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar.
A group of people by Skógafoss waterfall in Skógar.

What to expect on the hike

While the hike is not the most difficult you can take, it is challenging and not suitable for those with poor physical health. Be sure to get some training in if you’re not used to hiking.

The trail itself is 24 km [15 miles] from Skógar to Básar (or the other way around) and has about 1000 metres [0.6 miles] ascent. On average, it takes eight to ten hours to complete. However, this is highly dependent on your physical form, how often and long you stop to admire the surrounding nature, and whether you struggle with heights. Some people take less than seven hours, while others take 14. Where you’re going to sleep once you get down to Þórsmörk is also a factor, but we’ll get to that further down in the guide.

There are several places where you’ll need to swallow your fear of heights if you have it. There are a couple of steep hills to climb up and down and some places where the path gets very narrow. For a few meters, you’ll have to hold on to a rope to get across a ledge.

There will be snow – maybe even a lot – and the importance of wearing proper hiking boots cannot be stressed enough. Don’t head off wearing sandals or trainers. You’ll end up with wet shoes, cold feet, and a far less enjoyable journey.

Fimmvörðuháls during summer, covered in snow.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. Fimmvörðuháls during summer, covered in snow.

If you’re starting from Skógar, you’ll head into the barren landscape after you pass the last stretch of the waterfalls and river. This part can feel rather tedious compared to the first, but we promise it will all be well and truly worth it. The views coming down into Þórsmörk in the last leg of the journey are beyond this world.

Should you spend the night in Þórsmörk?

Many people drive out, do the hike, and head back on the same day, but if you have time, Þórsmörk is an amazing place to spend it in. You should also keep in mind that you’re most likely dependent on the highland bus to get out of Þórsmörk. This means that if you don’t spend the night, the bus schedule will restrict your time for things going wrong on the way or exploring the area once you’re down. The last bus usually leaves at 8 PM, and assuming you took the bus to Skógar, you will have started the hike around 11 AM, giving you just about nine hours to complete it. Having sleeping arrangements allows you to take your time on the hike without having to worry about missing the bus.

You can book a sleeping space in a cabin in Básar, Langidalur or Húsadalur, or you could bring a tent. For those wanting a bit of luxury or romance after a long and tiring day, there’s also glamping available, but beware that this is located in Húsadalur. Of the three places you can sleep in, Húsadalur is the furthest away from the end of the hiking trail and getting there will add about 2-3 hours to your journey. Básar is the nearest and, thus, the most popular amongst hikers. Langidalur lies in between the two, adding two kilometres [1.2 miles] to your trip. These all have their unique characteristics, and should you want to experience all of them, you can always plan to stay a few days. Keep in mind that there are limited sleeping spaces, so book yours in advance!

The view from Valahnúkur mountain in Þórsmörk, a popular hike amongst those staying there.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. The view from Valahnúkur mountain in Þórsmörk, a popular hike amongst those staying there.

If 24 km [15 miles] in a day is not your jam, you can make the hike into a two-day trip and stay a night in either Fimmvörðuskáli or Baldvinsskáli. They are conveniently situated about midway through. You can also choose to hike the trail for a few kilometres and turn back the same way, making it a round-trip of any length you desire. From either end of it, you’ll have epic scenery along the way: the long trail of waterfalls alongside the path from Skógar or the breathtaking view of Þórsmörk below as you hike up the trail and back down again. You could even bring a blanket and some food and set up a picnic along the way. Lastly, there’s the option of seeing Fimmvörðuháls from above on a helecopter tour, in case you’re not able to or don’t want to hike.

Is Fimmvörðuháls suitable for children?

It depends on their hiking experience, physical capability, and enthusiasm. Most companies offering guided tours require a minimum age of 12 or 13 years. This is also a good guideline for families going on their own, but of course, you know your child/children best and will be able to assess their ability based on previous experiences. If you’ve never hiked with them before, doing a test hike is a good idea, and keep in mind that Fimmvörðuháls will probably be a bit more challenging. If you’re worried about it being too hard for them, the suggestions above, making it a two-day hike or only doing part of it, are excellent options.

On the last stretch of the waterfall part of Fimmvörðuháls.
Photo: Erik Pomrenke. On the last stretch of the waterfall part of Fimmvörðuháls.

Getting to and from Fimmvörðuháls

Since the Fimmvörðuháls trail is a point-to-point hike, not a circle, and because of how the highland buses are scheduled, this will probably be the trickiest part of your planning. The fact that you need a 4×4 and experience with river crossing to get in and out of Þórsmörk also restricts your options somewhat. There are several ways you can do this.

  • The most hassle-free option is to book a guided tour that includes transportation. You will need to make no other arrangements than getting to the meeting point. This might be particularly enticing for families with children, but it is also one of the more expensive ways.
  • If you don’t want a guided tour, the next best option would be to have a designated driver who drops you off at the starting point and picks you up at the end. This is a great solution if only part of the group you’re travelling with is doing the hike, and it’s by far the cheapest one. You’ll only need to buy a ticket to or from Þórsmörk to Brú Base Camp, Seljalandsfoss, or Hvolsvöllur, depending on the bus company.
  • A similar situation can be worked out if you have two cars. This will allow you to leave one car at Skógar and one at whichever bus stop you choose to get on/off the bus to or from Þórsmörk. This means that you can drive all the way to Skógar in the morning, hike to Þórsmörk, take the bus to a chosen bus stop and drive back to Skógar to pick up the second car (or the other way around).
  • A fourth option is to get a ticket with one of the highland buses from Reykjavík: A one-way ticket to your starting point, Skógar or Básar (if you’re starting in Þórsmörk, don’t choose Langidalur or Húsadalur!), and a one-way ticket back to Reykjavík from your ending point. Make sure that if your ending point is Þórsmörk, you pick the correct hut for pick-up: Básar, Langidalur or Húsadalur. Each bus company only goes to one or two of the three. If your ticket just says ‘Þórsmörk’, check with the company you bought it from. Those staying the night in Þórsmörk don’t have to worry too much about the timetable, but if you’re planning a one-day trip, make sure that a) you book your ticket back from Básar and b) you know the time you have to be down by.
  • Similarly, if you’re already on the South Coast and got there by car, you can hop on the bus somewhere along the way between Reykjavík and your starting point. This could be in Selfoss, Hella, or Hvolsvöllur, but the stops will be slightly different between bus companies. Just make sure that the bus you take on your way back stops at the same place you left your car. Note that there is no bus that runs from Þórsmörk to Skógar, so leaving your car there at the start of your hike is not a great option. If you do this, you’ll have to take a taxi once you’re out of Þórsmörk to get back to it, which will be very expensive.

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