Car Camping in Iceland: Home of the Brave

Sun Rays - Northern Iceland - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com

I was lucky enough to travel to Iceland for five days, and spent the entire time pinching myself to see if I was alive or just dreaming. It turns out, I was very much alive, and captured some images you must see.

They say a picture is worth one thousand words. Previously, I offered you several photos to help you better acquaint yourself with Reykjavik (CLICK HERE to see!). Now we’re headed to the Western Fjords, and up to Iceland’s second city Akureyri with 38(thousand) more photos chronicling Iceland’s astounding beauty.

Below, I’ll also give you a run-down of what led me to camp in a rented car for four days while there!

Stay Tuned for photos of other parts of the island – there are three stories in all. There really is no other way – it is just THAT amazing of a place! 

Take a look at the slideshow:

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As spontaneous as a volcano’s eruption, my trip came so swiftly that I had little time to react or plan.
Flights from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Reyjkavik can be found for as little as 40£ return (roughly 60USD)and are twice weekly. That means visitors have the option to take a holiday lasting either five days four nights, or four days three nights, depending on which departure day is chosen. I opted for the slightly longer trip, leaving Belfast on Saturday and returning the following Wednesday. The single plan I’d made before takeoff was my first night’s reservation at one of the country’s only hostels offering guests bed linens for use. The rest are ‘B.Y.O. Bed Linen’.

Travelers attempting to visit Iceland on a budget mainly recommend two things: hitchhiking and hot dogs. A combination of three characteristics make hitchhiking extremely easy: friendly locals, excited tourists, and a ring road which circles the island essentially leading everyone along the same path. As for the hotdogs, I’m going to assume their popularity has come from their relatively cheap price in comparison to the rest of the island’s prepared food options. That and their fun accompaniments like baked beans and squeaky cheese.

Another Icelandic tip brought to my attention is that camping is allowed everywhere except for private property. The land is ‘everyone’s land’ and that means roadside stops, campsites, parking lots and parks all allow overnight parking of vehicles. Because of this open law, small camper vans are extremely popular for visitors, providing both transportation and accommodation at a reasonable price.

With theses various tips in mind, I contemplated exactly what to do to see the best of Iceland in the five days I had to explore. I checked into my hostel the first night and began my research. Tour company after tour company offer expeditions to see puffins, thermal waters and icebergs at a minimum of 100 dollars for just a few hours of sight-seeing. While these attractions were all tempting, I couldn’t find it in my soul (or bank account) to fork over that much money for that little of time.

Not sure what the next days would entail, I walked Reykjavik’s peaceful streets and discovered charming tin-sided buildings in bold colors straight out of Crayola’s classic 8-pack crayon box. I visited the artistic pavilion Harpa with its honeycomb-like facade made of shining iridescent panels. I stopped into souvenir shops and a center for local artists with its own DJ spinning fresh tracks. And incredibly enough, I passed up the opportunity to dine at restaurants serving puffin, reindeer and whale. (Curious about Reykjavik? Click HERE to check out the city up-close)

The first night, as I lay in bed in a Pulp Fiction themed room at B47 Hostel, I looked into public transportation options to take me to sites such as The Blue Lagoon, Godafoss and Lake Myvatn. While possible, the travel times are long with many transfers and quickly accumulating fares. I fell asleep without a plan, believing that when the sun rose the next day one would come to fruition. The problem was that the sun never rose again, only because it never fully set! Summer sun is in fully swing at the end of May, meaning that the sky’s darkest moments are bright enough to see miles away without aide.

That problem soon became my answer.

Because there would always be a bit of light and because of Iceland’s open camping laws; because of high tour and public transportation costs; and because hostels require one’s own linens to be used or to be rented at substantial fees, I had come to a surprising realization: renting a car would be the most optimal way to reduce costs and maximize the number of sights seen.

For the cost of a tour company’s 9 hour expedition to Southern Iceland, I rented a car from Sunday noon until Wednesday noon. For two full days and two half days, I would be able to drive the island: stopping, sidetracking and sleeping as I pleased. I had no sleeping bag, no camping gear, and just the clothes I carry with me every day.

For the land of infinite freedoms, and the home of the real rough and tough brave, I felt that I’d be fitting in just right.

How did it work?
It worked surprisingly well.

White nights mean anytime I woke up, I could clearly see my surroundings.

Open camping means that whenever I reached a sleepy state, I looked for a little brown sign with an illustration of tree and tent, and pulled over for a snooze whether mid-day or at ‘night’

Sleeping without heat in temperatures hovering around freezing were eased by heated seats. If ever I woke up from frigid temperatures I started my car for a few minutes, warmed up my bones, and turned off the engine before once again falling into a comfortable sleep.

Various campsites on the island offer showers and toilets, plugins to recharge electronics, kitchens, and spaces for campsites. I slept in my car each night, but was still able to shower for a hefty fee equivalent to 50 euro cents.

As for blankets, I used everything from a long sweeper sweater to my towel, scarves, and even my backpack’s weatherproof cover.

For a pillow, one of the Ikea storage bags I keep my clothes zipped up in.

I tipped back the seat, locked the doors, tucked away most of my belongings and covered up as best as possible. Any gap in covers meant a whistle of cold air was welcomed to wake me, and I found that the very best cover for my lower body was actually the Quechua waterproof cover I use to keep my rucksack dry. It kept the heat in and cold out very well. (Note to Quechua: new marketing campaign for you!)

I was able to travel at my own pace, stop wherever and whenever, and gave those hazard lights a workout from heaps of road-side stops!

My sleep schedule was ridiculously sporadic. One night I went to bed at 11pm, woke the next morning at 3am, drove a few hours with various stops, and took a nap around 7am. Another night I managed to sleep a full eight hours, stopping at 9pm, writing and reading for a bit, and waking just after 6am the next day.

I encountered a few road closures and detours and witnessed but a single accident (Tourists rubbernecking at the dynamic landscapes and ultimately ending up nose-first in the land’s rocky terrain). There were a few sites I wasn’t able to reach, partly due to traveling in a small car without four-wheel drive, and partly due to time constraints. But there were so many more which I was able to see and experience. Going to Iceland and witnessing its wonders, no matter how brief and unplanned, led to some of the most exceptional five days I’ve had. Had Jonsi been sitting in the passenger seat singing his breathy tunes, I would’ve truly thought I’d gone to heaven.

Or click on an image and flip through the photos at your own pace:

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9 Comments

  1. This is great advice. I am planning a trip to Iceland in September/October of this year on the way to Europe and renting a camper van sounds like a great idea to see the most of the island. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. So good to know that you can sleep anywhere. I’m not good at sleeping in my car, but I’m assuming I could set up a tent just as easily.

  3. You are incredibly brave for sleeping in your car in Iceland! When I visited in winter, that would never have been an option, which now makes me think I should visit in summer to see how different it is (:

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