Over the last few years Iceland has been enjoying a growing popularity on social media and among the international traveller’s community. Instagram in particular has become quite fond of the charming, windswept country with its icy, volcanic highlands and unpredictable, grassy coastline.
Widely regarded as one of the most expensive locations in the world to travel, the prospect of crossing Iceland off a bucket list can be somewhat daunting. Despite all this, I spent a few weeks in august of 2016 hitchhiking across the country on a shoestring budget. How did I make this trip possible? By following these six helpful tips.
1. Get Outside Reykjavik and The Golden Circle
Located in a relatively small corner of the island, the Golden Circle is the name given to a circuitous system of highways directly east of Reykjavik. The sights along the circle are typically what one pictures when imagining their dream trip to Iceland and are indeed why most tourists visit the country. Unfortunately, the disproportionate amount of foreign visitors to this area have made it much more crowded and much less conducive to budget travel.
While the sights along the golden circle can be awe-inspiring and beautiful in all types of weather, they are by no means the best examples of Iceland’s rugged and varied landscape. My advice is to save Reykjavik and the Golden Cirlce for the end of your trip and instead head upon your arrival east to the craggy black sands of Vik or north to the conical mountains of Snaefellsness.
Iceland is a remarkably safe country to visit. It has very little violent crime and boasts the third-lowest murder rate in the world. The maritime nation is so safe in fact, that unless you come from Singapore or Lichtenstein, you are actually in less danger hitchhiking here than you are going about your normal life back home.
To further the benefits of hitchhiking, Iceland has a singular main highway, known as the ring road. With the exception of central Iceland’s inhospitable highlands and the rugged Westfjords of the northwest, the ring road will allow you to see nearly every corner of the nation before ending back up in Reykjavik. This means that for the most part, your direction of travel is limited to either clockwise or counter-clockwise (something that is most useful when you can’t pronounce any of the places you want to see).
Iceland is much like other Scandinavian countries in the sense that it is populated by a very affable and socially-conscious people. Locals are all too aware of the inclement weather that affects their countryside and so drivers will often stop solely to check that you are doing alright. This is a great aid to hitchhikers, especially on secondary roads where traffic is often slow and irregular. There were many instances during my visit where I managed to secure a ride because the driver was more concerned with getting me out of the rain than to my destination.
Of course, the kindness and generosity of Icelanders should never be exploited or taken for granted and you should always be prepared in the event of bad weather. The locals are happy to interact with smart, respectful and well-prepared travellers but nobody wants to come across a hypothermic or injured hitchhiker. I made more than a few friends while hitchhiking in Iceland and I fully believe that it is the best way to see the country.
Much like hitchhiking, camping in Iceland is amazingly rewarding and cost effective, but only if you’re respectful about it. Essentially, you can camp for free anywhere in the country, so long as you are outside city limits or a minimum distance from a homestead. Campsites do exist within townships and they are typically reasonably priced, but for those with a desire to spend their nights out in the wild, free camping is likely the best idea.
Unfortunately, as the number of tourists visiting Iceland has sky rocketed in recent years, so too has the number of free campers. Naturally, this is causing all sorts of nuisances for Icelanders and is one of the country’s biggest problems. During my visit, I was often approached by locals who wanted to make sure that I was respecting my surroundings. In one case, I watched a police officer kick out a group of German and American tourists from their camp, only to come congratulate me on mine. Like I mentioned before, a little respect makes the difference between being a welcomed guest and an annoyance.
If you do opt for sleeping out in the wild, don’t litter, do your business in actual toilets, practice leave-no-trace camping and above all be respectful of your surroundings. If you’re seeking further clarification, here is a helpful guide for what not to do while visiting.
edit: Since writing this article I have been informed that free camping has been disallowed since 2015 if you are with a motor vehicle. This isn’t surprising since offroading is highly discouraged (if not illegal) and mirrors my previous sentiment: If you aren’t going to be respectful of the land, you have no right be on it. Fortunately, for the environmental traveller, this rule is all the more reason to embrace hitchhiking as your primary mode of transport.
Bottled water is not necessary but a water bottle is a must. Iceland has some of the cleanest water around (not that it has any neighbours to compete with) and you should really take advantage of it. Over ten percent of the island is capped by glaciers, whose runoff disappears into the porous ground only to reemerge at clean, natural springs. Nearly all of Iceland’s tap water comes from these sources, so you don’t have to worry about ill-effects when reaching for a glass and turning on the kitchen sink. Depending on where you are, you can even drink straight from the streams with little risk of getting sick.
I was told several times while in Iceland of an archaic law that deems a homeowner cannot turn you away if you’re asking for water. I can’t confirm this statement, since water was typically readily available, but I don’t doubt it.
5. Visit The Hot Springs
Most of Iceland is dotted with geothermal features, including some amazing hot springs. They may not all hold the glamour or romanticism of the Blue Lagoon, but at least the majority have on-site showers. These showers are the perfect convenience when you’ve been roughing it for a few days, and the accompanying hot springs are one of the best ways to end a day of hiking. I typically tried to camp near a hot spring every couple of days so I could stay clean and relaxed as I wandered through the surreal countryside.
6. Get Out And Go Hiking
This is so important. Off road driving is not encouraged in Iceland, as it damages fragile and slow-growing top-soil ecosystems. This makes hiking your best (and in most cases, only) option for getting to that remote waterfall you read about.
There are some amazing parks and hiking trails all across the nation, which will give you an intimate view of Iceland’s many environments. Seaside cliffs, freezing deserts, stunted forests and craggy gorges can (and should) all be explored by foot. Just remember to pack your bags appropriately and always be prepared to spend the night in poor conditions.
A huge thank you goes out to Lea, who helped me compile roughly half of these pictures.