Backpackers Nathan McGregor and Rachel Laing go on a 12-day campervanning adventure around Iceland. Here they detail their experiences backpacking Iceland in one of the country’s most challenging winters to date.
ICELAND is a country that is fast becoming a place for backpackers, travellers and holiday-makers alike to visit and explore.
With a population of around 350,000 and an area of 103,000km², Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
The capital and largest city is Reykjavik, home to over two-thirds of the island’s population alone.
But for all its compact exclusivity, there’s plenty of Iceland to explore.
The volcanically and geologically active island boasts lava fields, rigorous mountain landscapes and jaw-dropping sceneries, enough to make even your enemies jealous.
And maybe that’s why Iceland is quietly becoming a more popular place for people to come and explore… in peace and, mostly, free from noisy distractions.
The island is a quiet haven, free from massive corporations and industrial machinery. Fuelled by tourism in the capital and motor mechanics and farming in the countryside, Iceland, at an established glance, is a pretty self-sufficient island.
Only two cities actually had traffic lights in operation after all, Reykjavik and Akureyri – passing your driving test here must be a breeze, surely?
It might be worth noting, however, we did travel the country in winter, out of season, and competition in campsites didn’t really exist…
Backpacking Iceland in Winter
Shockingly, there’s quite a lot of snow in Iceland in winter. But don’t let that deter you if you are thinking about travelling through the viking country out of season.
In all it’s white-laden glory, Iceland is something out of a frozen princess’s dream.
There are landscapes you can only ever imagine without actually seeing them for yourself.
The roads are a little more slippery, daylight hours are in short demand, and, like a double-edged sword, the snow can also be a tricky adversary to comply with.
We decided to campervan our way around the Ring Road, take in as many sights as possible and document our memories.
This journey is, advisably, not for the beginner level traveller – new to unknown countries, roads and seasonality complications.
Before starting our journey, we decided to check out Reykjavik – more so, we were invited on to a whale watching tour.
Whale Watching in Reykjavik
Surrounded by the deep blue, where the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean meet, Icelandic waters make for the perfect playground for thousands of whales to enjoy.
We chose to go on a whale watching tour with Elding.
Departing from the harbour near Keflavik, our 3-hour boat tour took to the shores around Western Iceland.
The sea was calm and the weather was amazing. Sadly, however, we didn’t manage to see any aquatic wildlife, apart from the odd seagull or two.
An excellent trip made somewhat disappointing with the lack of sightings.
Our tour guide did manage to keep the passengers entertained with interesting facts and engaging commentary.
If the tour doesn’t sight any whales you are invited back, free of charge, to try again another time. Sadly, time was not on our side.
Campervan route around Iceland
Our campervan route worked anti-clockwise around the Iceland. We purely chose this way because we wanted to see the Golden Circle first (also the Lonely Planet book suggested this way).
The Icelandic Ring Road is a beautiful route to travel on. One minute you are heading down smooth roads; the next, shoreline routes that hug mountain edges. Even in winter there were so many different styles of roads and countrysides to enjoy.
Guides suggest around 8 – 10 days to complete the Ring Road and they’re not far wrong. We took our time, stopped for plenty of Instagrammable shots and slept in… most days. Yet we were still back in Reykjavik 2 days early.
If you chose to not stop (or sleep) you could theoretically complete the Ring Road in 2 days… Not advised mind.
For all the islands beauty, the unpredictability of the weather and the mini-adventures off the beaten track explored, sourcing the standout highlight(s) is difficult, if not impossible.
Many tourists will flock to the Blue Lagoon, and quite rightly so! Set in the pure heart of the Icelandic landscape, the Blue Lagoon claims to offer the complete spa experience. We opted for the comfort package and took advantage of the free drink and silica mud mask included. The lagoon was amazing, albeit rather surreal being in your swimming shorts, outside, at night, in a blizzard, enjoying a pint. There’s something quite blissful about that.
Another highlight would be sleeping under the eyes of a waterfall. We arrived late one afternoon to a CampEasy designated camping spot, only to find out we would be sleeping under Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. You’d struggle to wake up to a much better sight.
It wouldn’t be a campervan adventure in a foreign country if you didn’t have to be rescued… several times! The van couldn’t quite get to grips (quite literally!) with the road at times. So, whether we were trying to ascend a hill or perhaps having to be towed from catching a snowdrift off the road, the Icelandic helpers and farmers were always quick to lend a hand. Even the language barrier was fun to juggle, particularly in a snow storm.
But perhaps the biggest highlight of all was simply just Iceland as a whole. Some of the stretches of roads were just unthinkably beautiful. Especially the Egilsstadir to Reykjahlid route, as you are literally driving at what feels like with the clouds, above mountain edges, bereft of civilisation.
I guess the only non-highlight would be returning the van back to the depot and setting our sights on the trip back home…
Tips for backpacking your way around Iceland
If you’re reading this and now feel inspired to go on your own Icelandic campervan adventure, then I’ll leave you with a few tips…
It’s handy to have safetravel.is and vedur.is on your phone for checking the road conditions (many of our roads were closed) and what the weather is looking like. It’s imperative to regularly check these websites as situations can change so fast. You don’t want to end up having to sleep in a petrol station car park because the weather has closed off all the roads and brought traffic to a standstill…
Similarly, you can get an aurora forecast on vedur.is – so make sure to check that out and see if you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Emergency number is 112 – don’t worry, these guys also speak English!
It goes without saying that you should pack jumpers and waterproofs, but also pack sunglasses and sun cream as the suns rays can get insanely hot!
Bear that in mind and you’ll have a grand time.