The number of visitors to small, ravishingly beautiful Iceland is soaring – but this tiny country wasn’t always so packed with tourists, and there are many important things to be aware of ahead of your visit.
Sensible travelers will want to minimize their impact on the pristine environment and be considerate of local etiquette. In these wild landscapes, small errors can lead to life-threatening situations for both the visitor and the search and rescue operations mounted to save them. This handy guide can help first-time visitors avoid social embarrassment, travel responsibly and have a safe and informed trip.
Keep your impact on Iceland’s natural wonders low with these top tips © Ondrej Senk / Shutterstock
1. Understand the impact of tourism on Iceland
Iceland has a population of around 366,000. Before travelers started arriving in droves (with numbers that topped 2 million per year pre-pandemic), most Icelandic sights, from thundering waterfall Skógafoss and basalt beach Reynisfjara to the wild interiors at Landmannalaugar & Þórsmörk, had no need for big car parks, safety placards or hordes of park rangers. Developing an infrastructure that can cope with its appreciative new visitors while maintaining the untouched feeling of one of the world’s most unique landscapes has been a major challenge for Iceland.
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2. Use common sense
Some tourists have been a little foolish in Iceland’s incredible landscapes. We’ve seen visitors stroll onto the Sólheimajökull glacier in sneakers and light jackets and a family attempting to drive across Langjökull glacier in a small SUV. We’ve watched a teenager jump into 2°C (35°F) waters at Þingvellir National Park for a dare and witnessed tourists being sucked into the waves at black-sand Djúpalónssandur beach, one of Iceland’s best.
Though Iceland’s dramatic terrain is perilous, you may find no safety rails beside cliff edges and no ropes alongside plummeting waterfalls. Icelanders prefer not to mar their beauty with obvious signs or railings and count on people to be smart. And if there are signs or barriers, heed them.
Don’t go hiking without good quality gear © Song_about_summer / Shutterstock
3. Dress appropriately for hikes and pack proper outdoor gear
Bring good maps and appropriate gear, plus (you’ve heard it before): common sense. Consult a proper hiking or cold-weather packing list. Consider: if you have no access to a car or building, would you be warm and dry enough in what you are wearing? No hiking in jeans, no climbing on glaciers without proper guidance, no fording rivers in subcompact cars and no camping without hardcore waterproof tents. Then just relax and enjoy all that beauty, no fear required.
Being prepared can open up great wilderness areas such as the Westfjords’ beautiful Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, known for its Arctic foxes, spectacular birding cliffs and unspoiled hiking and camping.
If you need additional equipment once in Iceland, Reykjavík has a bevy of suppliers for gear purchase or rental, including Fjallakofinn.
Weather conditions can change rapidly with little warning © Andrew Mayovskyy / Shutterstock
4. Plan ahead when hitting the road or the hiking trails
Having your own wheels in Iceland is a wonderful treat: it allows you to roam the grand countryside at your leisure. Always prepare before setting out: investigate driving times and road conditions (via the Icelandic Road Administration), weather forecasts, safety issues and, if you’re hiking, trail conditions and requirements. Ask locals, who will know the tricks and troubles of each place. Then listen. Plan an itinerary that’s realistic for you. You don’t want to be caught on a hillside in fog or sleet (whether on foot or in your car) with no food and water and no idea how to get back to humankind.
Safe Travel is a site run by ICE-SAR (Icelandic Search & Rescue), with travel and weather alerts and information, a smartphone app (useful in emergencies) and procedures for filing a travel plan. Another good information source is Ferðafélag Íslands (the Icelandic Touring Association) which runs many huts, campgrounds and hiking trails.
5. Do not drive off-road
Never drive off-road. It’s illegal and incredibly damaging to the fragile environment. Cavalier tourists leave tracks where they’ve flouted the rule, and those tracks entice others to do the same. Even with a 4WD, stick to marked roads.
6. Always shower with soap before taking a dip in hot springs
Part of the unique gift of Iceland’s volcanic landscape is the excellent natural hot springs you’ll find from the town center to the fjord side. It’s practically a national pastime to hit the local hotpot, soak and gossip. It is, however, an absolute mandatory hygiene and etiquette rule to wash thoroughly with soap before donning your swimsuit to enter the hot springs and pools. Most pools are untreated with chemicals, so cleanliness is a real factor. Whether you’re at the famous Blue Lagoon or the remote Krossneslaug, there’s no quicker way to disgust an Icelander than to jump in dirty. You should also take your shoes off and put them on the rack provided as you enter the changing room.
Travel to more adventurous, potentially dangerous places with an official tour company © Jeremie Richard/AFP via Getty Images
7. Take a tour of the more remote or dangerous landscapes
Iceland’s tour operators are a professional and knowledgeable bunch and can get you out into rugged country via super-Jeep, amphibious bus, snowmobile, helicopter and more. Going on a tour can offer insights and guidance through dangerous landscapes you shouldn’t tackle alone.
8. When driving, stick to appropriate roads
Know which roads are accessible in the type of vehicle you’re driving. Beyond Iceland’s main Ring Road (Route 1), fingers of sealed road or gravel stretch out to most communities until you reach the F Roads, bumpy tracks only passable by 4WD. F roads are truly unsafe for small cars. If you travel on them in a hired 2WD, you invalidate your insurance. Steer clear, hire a 4WD or take a 4WD bus or super-Jeep tour. Similarly, trying to ford a river in a 2WD vehicle or low-slung 4WD is asking for trouble.
Avoid caves without the proper gear and a guide © Jane Rix / Shutterstock
9. Travel responsibly and sustainably
Remember the basics of responsible travel: don’t litter, reduce your footprint, leave places better than you found them and protect wild animals and natural flora. This applies to popular sights like the Golden Circle as well as the wild interior where it’s just you, the glaciers and volcanoes. Check out Nature.is for tips on sustainable travel in Iceland.
10. Appreciate the open-minded creativity of Icelanders
Icelanders are a generally hardy and open-minded group with a dry but vibrant sense of humor. They tend to speak impeccable English and are game for a chat, or to tell you about their favorite places to go. Respecting local etiquette and laws (along with not whingeing about the weather, or how hard it is to get to the natural wonders) will go a long way in endearing you to them and open opportunities for local connections.
They are also broad in their curiosities – it seems like half of Icelanders are in a band or making some sort of art or craft. They’re used to thinking big and having fun. Get out there and join them.
Check the weather ahead of time as conditions in the Icelandic backcountry can change quickly © Maridav / Shutterstock
11. Take the weather seriously
You may encounter bus tours and droves of visitors in popular places, but Icelandic weather is highly volatile, no matter where you are. A sunny day can quickly turn to snow flurries, and the stakes get even higher as you head into the true wilds. Never underestimate the weather – plan ahead with forecasts from the Icelandic Met Office.
12. Remove your shoes indoors
Icelanders often remove their shoes when they head inside. Pack flip-flops or slippers for indoors.
13. Drink the tap water
It’s pure and wonderful; Icelanders will look at you askance if you ask for bottled water.