Camping in Iceland, 2021
So if you read last month's write up by me, you know that our trip to Iceland was planned in about two weeks while we were still traveling in the West, having serious camper engine problems, needing to sort, pack, get our camper ready for 5 months of storage, and visiting with our ten year old granddaughter and family. All this while navigating covid rules for travel. So if our trip to Iceland seems less than ideal, yours might be a good bit better. This article is going to overwhelmingly deal with the practical rather than sightseeing because the sightseeing is pretty straight forward. Unless you rent a four wheel drive vehicle and it is August you are confined to Route 1, the ring road, and a few tributaries near Reykjavik.
We needed a full ten day stay in Iceland to meet the rules for entering England from a covid “green” country, so we planned for eleven to be careful. We knew that many people camped and circled the country on the ring road and since we consider ourselves super experienced campers decided that was our best route. Plus since we had no time for planning, and didn't know how full accommodations would be, nor how far we should travel each day, that seemed the only way. Luckily, most of the camper rental companies were allowing last minute cancellations, so we reserved a small camping car with Star rentals—literally a car with the seats taken out in the back, a platform and mattress substituted, with space underneath for luggage, cooler, one burner stove, pantry box, etc. It did have a Webasto heater, and if you wanted a cooler, sleeping bags, etc. you rented those extra. The cost was $90 a day for the camper with basic insurance included. We also ordered the Rick Steve's Iceland book to take with us. I wrote to our editor, Kathy, for any insights from their 6 weeks in their camper several years ago and she sweetly sent me some highlights. She did mention that even though they were there at the height of summer, it never got warmer than the low 50s—I should have paid more attention to that—a lot more attention.
I still spent what time I could on the internet and most importantly ran across a you tube by Allan Su on his ring road trip in May of 2019. Thank heaven I did. It is a great video and we were intrigued by the camper van he rented from Lava. No you couldn't stand up in it, but the bed in the back folded in half so there was an aisle, a small electric cooler, Webasto heater, a coach battery, and a table so you could cook and eat inside the van. Plus it came with sleeping bags, dishes, outside table and chairs, etc. all included. Reviews that I could find seemed mostly positive, so we canceled Star and just 2 days before our arrival, rented from Lava. Cost was $111 per day. Su had actually rented through Northern—a broker, which seemed to have a better price for the Lava camper, but I just didn't have time to deal with it. By the way, we never used the outdoor table and chairs—too cold, but above all too windy.
So now I am going to deal with a lot of information about the rental, because none of this is straight forward. You can't use your credit car rental insurance because these are called campers, no matter how small. There are all kinds of extra insurance you can purchase—gravel, theft, ash, sand, glass, tire, low and zero deductibles. At first we were just going to add the ash insurance; after all there is an active volcanic eruption right now. Ash destroys an engine internally pretty quickly. Full insurance cost an extra $39 a day, but Mark really wanted it, so we got it. Having now seen the shape of the various campers and vans on the trip, I would highly recommend it, even though we didn't end up needing it. There are not many gravel roads, but lots of gravel parking lots with inconsiderate drivers spraying gravel. There are areas where Rick Steves suggested you not drive if wind was picking up as the sand would sandblast your car—how the heck do you plan for that, especially is you're not camping and have booked rooms all around the ring? The one thing you probably don't need is theft, but the package was still cheaper. However, there were still things to worry about—no insurance covers the underside—so be very careful of potholes, nor wind damage to the doors. Note that due to mechanical issues we ended up having 3 different vans—5 of the 6 doors had wind damage. The winds there are constant and very, very often ferocious, and I imagine wind damaged doors run into the thousands. One way to play this is to see your rental first and then decide on extra insurance. You want one that is well beaten up if possible! I often just got in and out by slipping into the back to use the sliding door. Our camper was a Nissan 200—perhaps somewhat smaller than a Ford Transit Connect.
The turn around on these campers in the summer season is hectic. Lava is near the airport, which is good as rental places near Reykjavik often charge a large shuttle fee as the airport was a former US Naval Base and it about an hour from the capital. You need to take your time and check everything. On our second day in the midst of rain we realized the windshield wipers wouldn't work—luckily we weren't far away yet but it still involved changing vans after we had unpacked and arranged everything in the first van. Two days later we had to drive back 3 hours as the heater was filling the van with a smoky haze after about 30 minutes of use. Again a change of vans. Eventually, they refunded us two full days of charges, but that took a lot of phone calls, emails, and promises, as our problems happened on Sunday's when management wasn't available. During the trip we had to buy a can opener as ours was stripped and the stove would only work if you jammed something underneath to hold the butane cartridge up. Also the skillet in the first van was 6 inches across and we had to trade it out. We used one of the outside chairs on our last day to help with packing and discovered it was not functional. So do take the time to check everything. I will say that the van, bedding, dishes, etc. were all clean. You should definitely bring with you clips to keep the curtains closed (and eye shades for sleeping). You will also need Command hooks. I only brought two but wish I had 6-9. You will want to string up a clothes line inside for damp towels and we had hooks over the door for our wet rain coats. One for the garbage bag would have been nice too, and for our eye shades, etc. etc. Plus ones for your damp bathing suits, as going to the hot pools is a must do.
The campgrounds in Iceland are very different from those in the States. I think the only one with actual sites where you might need reservations is in Reykjavik. It has enclosed kitchens for cooking with picnic tables inside and outside the kitchens. There are two washers and dryers. It is expensive at $39 a night but we could have saved a little had we paid in advance on line. The rest of the campgrounds are open grass fields and have bathroom houses that have flush toilets, heat, and hot and cold running water. In the south and east most have showers, often for an extra charge. No reservations are needed, but on the other hand there is no campground guidebook so though they are fairly plentiful you never know in advance what facilities they will have. In the north and west they did not have washers and dryers and Iceland has NO laundromats. Also in those areas the campgrounds tended to be located next the community indoor or outdoor heated pools, so the campground itself had no showers. (This sounds nice but the pools cost $7 to $15 and you must use a gang shower, completely nude, beforehand. Trying to put on a bathing suit when you are wet—yuk.) Money for the campground was collected usually in the evening or early morning by someone walking around with a credit card machine. Fees for older folks were somewhat less, and we paid from $20 to $32 a night. There is a scheme where you can buy a camping card for unlimited nights over a month's time; but we didn't do that as I never had time to figure it all out. It is illegal to boondock or wild camp unless you have the landowner's written permission. We saw no one doing this. Signs forbidding wild camping are everywhere. I imagine if you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle and go inland on the F roads it would still be possible in those areas, but don't know that for a fact. By the way, credit cards are used for nearly everything, even for pay toilets most places. We could have easily gotten by with $25 in Icelandic krona—but try to get small denominations and coins as soon as you can.
Our camper did not have any sort of a toilet. Most scenic areas had either pay parking of about $6 and free toilets or free parking and pay toilets. Gas stations, etc. expected you to buy something to use the facilities. Worst problem was at night of course. I never have to get up to use the bathroom unless it is really cold or there is not one conveniently located. Bingo! We didn't use the heater when we were sleeping, so we would park as close to the bathrooms as possible, and we brought a plastic urinal with the female adapter that we have used backpacking. One thing you won't need is more than one flashlight—it only gets dark for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. The lowest nighttime temp we had was about 36. Lava provided two polartec throws as well as the sleeping bags so I used diaper pins to attach the throw to the inside of mine as I sleep cold. Oh, bring only collapsible luggage like rolling duffels. We saw so many folks struggling with their suitcases because they wouldn't fit under the beds but had to be passed back and forth to the front seats.
We brought 1 small suitcase pretty much full of food, as we had heard about the super high prices. Actually, the grocery stores weren't too pricey if you were flexible. We passed on the $28 rack of pork ribs (already cooked) and bought half a roast chicken for $4 marked down. I had brought instant rice and two cans of chicken breast which were easy to mix with tikka masala sauce, etc. for quick suppers. We also had instant soup, ramen, instant oatmeal, coffee, tea, sugar and peanut butter we brought with us. Though we had an electric cooler we could only run it a few hours a day as it ate up the battery which was also needed for the fan in the heater. Frankly, ice would have worked better, but since we only had things like milk, eggs, cheese, lunch meat in small quantities, it was okay. You certainly didn't need to run it at night since it always got down to the low 40s.
Now we come to the biggie—the weather. The highest temp we had was about 53, with partial sun. It pretty much rained every day—sometimes just a mist, but other times hard, and even one sleet storm where we pulled over for 2 hours at a gas station. Note this was the last part of June. Our little heater though, did quite well. It was also always windy—a steady 15 mph or more, except when it was really bad. On our next to last day, the wind was so bad—with sideways rain--that we stopped for about 3 hours and then finally inched to the next campground. Mark and I are from Miami; we know hurricanes; these were gale force winds. Another issue around Reykjavik was the vog—it is a smog caused by the fumes from the erupting volcano. At times it was really thick and advisories said sensitive folks should stay inside and children should not sleep out of doors. Since the volcano is expected to go on erupting for years, you might need to consider this.
In terms of cost, I have already discussed the camper rental. We spent about $233 on gasoline. It would have been somewhat more if we hadn't had to change vans as we did not refill those two times. Camping was $250 but we spent two nights in the Lava parking lot. They are open from 5 am to 2 am, so we could use their toilet. We had to be at the airport by 5:40 am for our departure, so staying in their parking lot made a lot of sense. We ate out seldom, mostly just trying things like the lobster rolls, the tomato restaurant, ice cream, hot dogs (a specialty), and lunch in Reykjavik on our last day—total about $140. Groceries bought in Iceland--$130. Food we took to Iceland about $60. We went to one municipal pool at $16, the farm museum $24, and about $20 on waterfall and downtown parking and $11 doing laundry. So really not expensive at all. There is talk of charging more at the various waterfall sites in order to support more infrastructure for tourists.
In terms of what to see and do, the Rick Steve's book really outlines it all, though it is somewhat confusing at first. Our first day, having landed at about 6 am, getting the camper, unpacking, etc., fighting jet lag—we didn't do any sightseeing. Second day we went out to the volcano. This was a highlight of the trip even though we opted to only do the 30 minute hike to the lava flow, rather than the much longer and way steeper hike where you could sometimes see the crater. Where you can go constantly changes with the lava flows, so you will need to research this when you get there. Third day we drove the Golden Circle part way and stayed in the National Park campground and finished it the second day, stopping at the tomato restaurant, Fridheimar. Even in June you needed reservations well in advance for this. Frankly, the tomato soup buffet was only so-so, but you could just park and look around the greenhouses and see the Icelandic ponies in their corral. At this point we joined the ring road headed counter clockwise. This is the opposite direction from how Steve's lays out his tour, but at the time we were unsure if we wanted to the Westfjords and how much time we would have. We ended up not going there, and also not really finding the Snaefellsnes peninsula very interesting. In fact, except for the Glaumbaer Farm Museum we could have turned around at Godafoss and now feel like we would have seen the best of Iceland. Steves even says that one reason he prefers the clockwise route is that it saves most of the best for the last few days. We did not go to the Westman Islands because we just weren't organized enough—though they sounded very interesting. One thing you must not miss-Steve's just barely mentions it—is the Fjorarglijufur Gorge in the southwest. It is a short drive down an unpaved road (some very scary signs saying don't go, F road, etc. but that is for a turnoff) with 1 steep part and potholes, but we saw even some larger motor homes in the parking lot. The hike goes about a mile or so and is not that steep really. Do not stop at the first few overlooks but keep going as it gets better and better, and we have seen a lot of river gorges.
So how much time do you need? Well, one consideration is Icelandic Airline's stopover rules. Currently, you can only stop for 7 days for free on the way to a destination in Europe. Otherwise you have to purchase separate, more expensive tickets. Since we had to stay 10 full days or more, we bought a round trip to Reykjavik from the States, and then a one way to London. The round trip was not that much more than a one way. So if covid doesn't scuttle our plans, we will fly from Paris to Reykjavik (only 12.5k United mileage plus miles, each) and then onward in mid October. We think we might stay 3 nights in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights and going to the Blue Lagoon spa, but haven't really decided. Anyway I do think you could see the best bits in 7 days if you go the ring as far as Godafoss, turn around and do Golden Circle and Reykjavik at the end. Or just speed right around from Godafoss only stopping at Glaumbaer and pray the weather gods are kind.
Should you camp? I think yes, especially if you are going to be there longer than 7 days—14 days would be good as it would allow for more leisurely days, bad weather and camper troubles. Trying to figure out how far you can go each day is extremely iffy. Our camper was on the edge of unlivable, but then we are 73 and 74, so lots of creaky, old bones. But I wouldn't go too big. Route 1 is only 2 lanes, not narrow, but not wide either, plus with the wind the way it is, big means difficult driving. Any kind of toilet would be a real plus. Especially in the north and west, facilities were really far apart. We had just enough room we could have had a 5 gallon bucket with toilet lid and just used plastic bags. Just didn't think of it or realize how very convenient it would have been. Driving in the US and Europe in our own RV means we are utterly spoilt for toilet access!
So I will end on that high note. We are enjoying London even though Boris has lifted all covid restrictions and the Delta virus is rampant. We have our N-95 masks and we wear them religiously. London museums are requiring masks as is the Tube and bus system. A few jerks ignore it, but we feel about as safe as we would be in the US. Happy travels wherever you manage to go, or if you can't go happy planning. Vicki