Our intrepid clients, The McGaan Family, recently returned from our Kipling & Clark private trek throughout Iceland with an insightful review. We would like to share Andy McGaan’s detailed Iceland travel tips and final comments below. Please make sure to get to the “Is it worth it?” section! If wishing to embark on an Iceland private trek, do not hesitate to contact us.
The wilderness of Iceland remains largely intact and undisturbed, resulting in a trek where the beauty of nature takes precedence over manmade structures and features. To continue to preserve this truly alluring place, we encourage you to mind your environmental impact, taking nothing from the environment but memories and photos, and leaving nothing but your footprints.
Laugavegur Trail packing list, difficulty assessment, and other comments:
During the hike, the August temperatures ranged from sweltering to freezing in the course of one day. We were in direct sunlight for hours at a time, under overcast skies, in fog, and buffeted by the wind almost constantly. Iceland has no trees, so the wind flies across the lava fields and glaciers, which was our terrain for four days. Regardless of the weather, the hiking is vigorous enough that we sweated through our clothes every day.
Clothing should be as light as possible. Use layers to combat wind and cold, not thickness or density. Trust me!
For sun protection, a baseball cap or other lightweight brimmed cap and a knit ski cap. For the latter, get something thin, warm, and breathable. Sometimes we wore no hat, but when one was needed we appreciated having both types in our bags.
Three layers are the trick. Not two, not four. Three. One: I recommend a lightweight, moisture-wicking t-shirt. Columbia makes a good one. REI sells a variety. Loose and comfortably fitting but not skintight. Two, have a fleece to wear over it. Make sure it has sleeves, not just a vest. It also should be warm but breathable. Three, bring a lightweight but wind-blocking parka. Patagonia makes good ones. It can be light because the material keeps in the heat. This arrangement permits laying up to stay warm or stripping down to a t-shirt to dry out. I would not bring wool or cotton materials that are heavy and even heavier when wet.
My twenty-one-year-old daughter and other women hikers we encountered wore skintight leggings. Even during the warmest hours, I don’t believe my daughter felt the need for shorts. Men and women both can wear lightweight hiking pants. These by Marmot were perfect – easy to walk, very light, and wind-resistant:
I tend to get hot easily and never felt the need for more leg insulation or the desire for shorts, though I did pack Marmot hiking shorts made of the same material. There are times each day when shorts would have been perfect, but they never lasted long enough to warrant the hassle of trying to change pants on the trail.
Good hiking shoes. There is no need for boots or anything that runs up the ankle unless one has ankle problems and needs support (in which case I would reconsider making a trek this challenging in the first place). Good gripping and flexible soles is all one needs and rugged exterior material. One could do this hike in sneakers but the terrain insufficiently rugged in places that hiking shoes are a better option. Again, favor anything lightweight. I never felt the need for heavy socks and would have felt weighed down in them. Mine were thin, light hiking socks (wetness wicking, synthetic). I never felt cold or had any discomfort.
You must pack water shoes. Find something light with rubber soles that slip on easily and quickly. Here’s an example:
Do not bring boots. Water shoes are sufficient to maintain footing on rocks while crossing streams. The trail crosses about nine streams and rivers, but only two have bridges. The currents vary in intensity. Most are fairly shallow. Only two were deeper than knee height. I stand 6’2” and none reached mid-thigh. We were told, however, that weather conditions can lead to more powerful and deeper currents. There is no avoiding the water temperature. The glacier run-off is stunningly cold. It can feel hypothermic, but that makes warming up on the opposite bank all the more invigorating! My fourteen-year-old son and I did not get this message, so we crossed the rivers barefoot. While it was difficult, not impossible, I won’t do it that way again. Also, pack a small towel to dry off on the other side. I used an L.L. Bean cotton pullover that was too heavy and warm to wear but worked well as a towel.
We got lucky and had no rain, but it can and does rain. Bring a very lightweight rain shell. I bought a durable one at REI that was paper-thin, barely weighed an ounce. Try it on in the store over a parka to get the correct size. Be sure it has a hood and, like everything else, that it wears a bit loosely. I wouldn’t worry about bringing more rain gear. One could add a pair of waterproof rain pants, but I was ready to walk in my fast-drying, synthetic hiking pants if it rained and was glad not to have the added weight. Other concessions to the possibility of rain: (i) extra socks to allow for clean, dry ones each day, even to change at midday if one would like; and (ii) a small extra towel or two to dry anything that gets soaked, like feet. Most all hiking boots resist if not repel water, but even if they get soaked (I fell in one of the streams, so I tested this theory) they dry easily overnight.
We did not bring them and did not miss them. Our guide used one, but he had had knee surgery and wanted the extra support. We borrowed his to help cross the streams. Our bare feet on rocks, combined with the strong currents in some rivers, made those crossing difficult. The pole helped in those spots. At best, one might consider bringing one collapsible one for just that reason. I saw a few elderly hikers using two each, but I would have found them distracting and, in time, would have regretted having to carry them. Also, if one has injured or weak legs, poles will certainly help, but, again, why do this hike if that is a problem?
On occasion, the wind got to my hands. I brought lightweight ski gloves and they were a mistake — too heavy and too hard to put on and take off when sweating. I should have brought something as light as possible and easy to slip on and off, just to cut the wind. We never experienced cold anything like one does riding a ski lift in Montana in January.
One lightweight water bottle is enough. The water in the rivers is pure enough to drink and a great pleasure, too. Also, the nightly camping areas have potable water. None of us needed more than what we each carried in a single bottle.
Yes. There is a lot of sun, glare, snow, and ice. Wear a croakie, too, so they don’t fall off.
Because we were “glamping” and not carrying tents, sleeping bags, and food, we needed only light packs with space sufficient for layers, gloves, chapstick (bring chapstick!), sunglasses, a water bottle, and a camera. I carried a book and an iPad to read at night. Make sure it’s a hiker’s, not a student’s backpack. Hiker packs have straps that clip at the waist and chest to keep the pack firmly in place. It makes walking and climbing easier and frees up hands and arms.
Only one of the overnight “hut” locations had a hot spring where campers were swimming. Because it looked from afar like a hot tub at a roadside motel, brimming with strangers, I gladly passed and never regretted not packing a suit. Others may enjoy what my daughter called “stranger soup”.
There are bathrooms and showers available at the overnight camping locations and, yes, they are gross. They’re not as bad as a subway station public restroom, but not a whole lot better. One can get by for four nights without showering. It is wilderness camping after all and one is in a full sweat every day regardless. But if one must, a hot shower, even while standing in what feels like a port-a-potty, is a welcome relief. What to bring? Shower shoes! Stream-crossing water shoes can serve double duty. The less one carries the better. Small-sized toothbrush and paste; a comb. Skip everything else (floss, razors, shaving cream, deodorant, Q-tips, creams…). Just let it go. No one cares.
Here are my particulars so the reader can filter my views: Fifty-five years old; 225 pounds. Reasonably good shape (I lift weights, do core exercises, lots and lots of squats) at least three times a week and have been doing so for over two years. I can prettily easily bang out fifty push-ups and do fifty squats holding over fifty pounds of weight. But I’m not a runner and don’t have a good cardio capacity.
I found the hike strenuous and difficult at times. If one does the tradition trail route, northeast to southwest, the altitude declines, but the hike is full of climbs and descents, some quite steep. None required climbing (as opposed to hiking), but a few necessitated putting one’s hands on the ground to maintain balance or for help while ascending. In a few places, we had to run and jump to get purchase on a steep uphill or to clear a crevice or stream. In other places, we walked horizontally along steep inclines on loose material where, if one were to fall, the result would have been breathtaking. But I never felt in danger.
There is a lot of walking over varied and sometimes rough terrain, from ice and snow in limited spots to miles of trails littered with cobblestone-sized obsidian and other volcanic detritus. I was physically tested and felt the effects on my hips, knees, and legs for a week. And I loved it. It requires endurance and grit, but no special hiking skills. Also, it’s not a race, so one can take all the time he needs. Each day was a long, challenging workout after which we felt pleasurable exhaustion. My children, ages fourteen and twenty-one, finished the hike with no ill effects. They shared my sense of accomplishment and throughout had more energy than I did!
Food and Tents
Here’s the easy part. At the end of each day, we arrived exhausted at a campsite where the guide’s tour team (a cook and driver) had set up a mess tent in which they made dinner, a dining tent where we and our hiking guide ate together and the support team served dinner, a tent for my son and me, and a tent for my daughter. After breakfast, we would set off with our guide while two others broke down the camp and moved it ahead. The food was excellent and plentiful – ocean catfish, lamb stew, and cod. Breakfast was very good, too. The staff (guide, cook, and driver) were interesting, fun to talk with, and very welcoming. We could not have asked for a better team.
Is it worth it?
Yes! This cannot be overstated: the terrain and scenery are stunning, often completely alien-looking. We began on the windswept rim of an ancient caldera overlooking a blue-green lake hundreds of feet below us. We walked up the sides of dormant volcanos, zig-zagged through thermal vents, some furiously blowing scalding steam like jet engines. One day involved marching across a desert littered with shiny, black obsidian rocks where we passed a first to two memorials to hikers who died on the trial, this one during a freak June blizzard. Another day we stood on a riverbank underneath a giant snow and ice tunnels still melting from last winter. During most of the hike, one can see three and sometimes four of Iceland’s glaciers. During the last two days, the trail skirts the base of Eyjafjallajökull which erupted in 2010, shutting down trans-Atlantic air travel for days. We also learned that Eyjafjallajökull means “island” (eyja), “mountain” (fjalla), “ice cap” (jokull), so apparently Icelandic is less complicated than it looks. There are lots of jokulls in Iceland and many cover volcanos that can erupt with twenty minutes notice or less. Apparently, the government has mass cell phone warnings it can send to residents, so many Icelanders live knowing they might need to drop everything and run away in an instant.
Most of the trail can be reached only on foot, so there is a sense that few people have seen some of the vistas. I say “few,” but this hike is internationally known and the most popular in Iceland, so “few” is relative. But despite its popularity, it requires a serious physical commitment for four days, so it’s far from busy. We often saw other people on the trail going both directions. Yet there were times when we saw no one for miles in either direction. The hikers were friendly and exuded a sense of shared mission, that we were all doing something challenging but rare and wonderful. On clear nights, the sky blazes with stars. Our guide expected we’d see the Northern Lights by midnight or one a.m., but we couldn’t stay awake! There is also nothing like pressing one’s face down into a rushing glacier stream to drink. When we finished we all felt as if we’d accomplished something tremendous together. It’s a rare and emotional journey.