Hiking coast-to-coast-something is a very powerful idea, it just makes sense from a travelling standpoint. It gives the traveler perspective over the territory. It makes for a trip with a beginning and an end.
Iceland is an excellent playground for anything outdoors and a great place to go coast to coast if your hiking window is limited: you need only weeks, not months for such a traverse and it’s mostly pristine wilderness from beginning to end.
Iceland is a very special place in many accounts. It’s all volcanic, it’s an island in the middle of the ocean and it’s got a rather high latitude. There’s probably nothing like that anywhere on the planet. While every place is unique, this one’s got high in the uniqueness scale.
- It’s not a difficult route if you stick to the tracks and the weather is not too harsh.
- You can bathe in a natural thermal pool. At least in one.
- I walked roughly mouth to source of the Jokulsa a Fjollum, a major river system.
- Some of the place names feel like you’re in Lord of the Rings. Some of the landscapes too.
- I went past lava flows as recent as 2010.
- Self-catering highland huts cost around 40 Euro ppp. You may be glad to pay such amount.
- I had rain every single day of the trip.
- There were days I met more cars than people (i.e. not counting the people in those cars)
- There was one day when I met no other human being.
Terrain and relief
Iceland is new terrain in geological terms. It’s like the land is just so new there’s been no time for feature shaping the way we’re used to: mountains, valleys, basins, watersheds… it all feels different.
Consolidated ground is only found in the lowlands, which is basically the coastal areas. Milder conditions allow the vegetation to grow so there’s some life cycle that creates soil. The highlands are either sand, gravel or solidified lava flows. The mountains are just weird rock.
The relief is mostly smooth. Mountains grew out of volcanic activity and the reliefs are not as dramatic as those shaped out of folding. Rivers are powerful but it’s like they haven’t had time to carve deep valleys yet. Headwater areas are huge basin flatlands where rivers braid endlessly.
Even in mountain areas there usually is a sort of flat-bottomed valley to go through. I had no real feel of climbing anything until the very few last days -the Laugavegur trail in the south does go across real mountains.
In the central highlands, my route climbed to around 1000 meters in two different areas but the climb was so gradual that it was barely noticeable.
There aren’t many recreational hiking trails in Iceland and I guess most of them are in the lowlands. The huge expanses of barren highlands are too huge and too barren to support hiking infrastructure. Ironically, the one infrastructure found is 4WD tracks. To put this into perspective, beware this is wilderness not by designation but by its own wildness. The tracks are actually part of the country’s road system, at least the main ones. Many of them are not even purposely built but merely marked with vertical posts, the trackbed being just compacted sand/gravel out of the vehicles’ own tyres.
I hiked on 4WD tracks, on trails, on dirt and tarmac roads as well as cross-country. Tracks, trails and cross-country deserve some comment.
Most of the hiking in the highland section of my traverse could be done on the 4WD tracks.
Track marking is varied. Main tracks are profusely marked. They’d be easy to follow even in low visibility conditions. Lesser tracks far less so, some of them have very few, scattered post markers. You can find anything in between. Tracks are usually easy to follow if only for the trackbed but this also depends on the underlying ground.
Sections over hard lava rely heavily on post markers.
I only hiked on a proper highland hiking trail in a short section in the Vonarskard region just northwest of the Vatnajokull icecap. There was barely any trail bed, just scattered footprints that were all over the place. Such trails rely heavily on vertical wooden post markers. The markers were often far enough from each other to require close attention even in good visibility conditions. They’d be difficult to follow in low vis. Hiking such trails requires a good sense of the place and direction of travel. Good pap reading skills would be essential.
Lowland trails are quite like regular hiking trails of the middle earth, with a trail bed and some kind of marking. Usual trail hiking conditions apply here. I hiked on such trails along the Laugavegur (southernmost, final 50 miles) and in the stretch between Asbyrgi and Dettifoss (22 mi) on day 3 of my trip.
Hiking off-trail is perfectly possible in the highlands. It’s often not too different from hiking on trails/tracks as far as the footing goes, it’s just not marked. You could expect off-trail hiking to be over less compacted ground when on sand/gravel. I can imagine hiking off-trail over solid lava must be a nightmare but I haven’t tried it.
I was fully off-trail only for two short sections and only one of them required real navigation. My impression is that highland off-trail in Iceland is mostly easy in good weather. Vegetation is certainly no obstacle (there’s none) and relief is hardly any. Solidified lava flows must be a pain to walk through though as the rock is very irregular and sharp edged. Lava flows may cover wide areas that are clearly marked on the maps.
The major obstacles to off-trail or any kind of travel are rivers. There’s also icecaps and lakes but those have well known limits and you’ll typically plan your hike to go around them. Rivers are much trickier.
I learnt the hard way how any river depicted in the maps can be a major barrier, no matter how inoffensive it appears on the map depiction. A single, thin blue line in my maps could mean both a minor, mid-calf, quiet stream or a major glacial river.
Rivers are best crossed near the headwaters. Many of them will be impassable (without swimming) downstream of the headwater basin, where there are endless braids and the water spreads out over a wide area. Put all that water together and you get a 200 meter wide milky monster of unknown depth.
If you’re going cross country in Iceland, check the rivers you’d need to cross.
Camping in the highlands presents some challenges: lack of sheltered ground, loose soil and the potential for very harsh weather. All together would be a tricky mix.
As I found it, it wasn’t too bad.
I had my fair share of wind/rain during the daytime but the wind always seemed to come down at night. I don’t know if this is regular pattern. Jon Ley reports exactly the same experience.
I still made a habit of looking for the most sheltered location I could find. Despite the general lack of relief, it was usually possible to find some minor shelter at the least. None of my camps would have been quiet if there was a gale going on but I trust it’d have been better than nothing.
The other criteria when looking for a pitch was soil quality. It’s all either loose or rock-solid. The hard lava is hardly a good place as it usually has sharp edges that would damage any fabric easily. As for the sand/gravel, there are different looseness flavors so it’s worth to check for the best possible.
I took my regular set of stakes: 3 Groundhogs, i.e. Y-section aluminum for the main anchor points and 2 Ti thick nails for the rear wind stabilizers. I planned to supplement them with rocks or use deadmen instead in very loose soil, for which I had some plastic bags as a fiddly but safe and lightweight option.
I always used stakes+rocks. I made yet another habit of pitching near good quality rocks: dense, heavy and soft-sided. Some volcanic rock is so sharp edged and irregular that it’d cut through lines and webbing too easily but I never had problems finding smooth ones. I even learned to identify them by color/aspect so I could spot them in the distance: the light grey ones were the best.
Mid-summer Iceland weather as I found it was cool and changeable. I believe this is a regular pattern. It was breezy and cloudy most of the time. I had a fair amount of rain but not any episode of violent weather in any form.
A sunny, calm spell would bring temps in the lower-mid twenties C. This was hardly ever the case. Typical temps on a typical day would be around 15 C and it felt lower if there was a breeze. It was fine hiking weather as long as it didn’t rain and I kept moving. Stopping for lunch/rest was hardly ever nice, I’d get cold easily if it was breezy, which was most of the time.
Rain would typically come and go. It was easy to see it coming in the form of a thick, grey wall in the upwind area. Scanning the skies for a rain check became a favorite game.
After the rain stopped, the breeze would get me dry in minutes. I used to think of Iceland setting the dryer on after a good soak.
I went through some day-long, wind-driven drizzle. This was awful, it left me cold, wet and begging for mercy.
In the grand scheme of icelandic weather, the most usual pattern is southwesterlies that bring rain to the south/west coasts while the northeast may remain dry behind the rain shadow of the Vatnajokull.
Just birds but a fantastic display of them on the coast. My route was bordering the Arctic ocean during day 1 and this was great for bird watching on the go. I had never seen so many different bird species together.
Once inland, birds were still present in lowland areas, particularly near water. As long as there was vegetation, there were still some birds. The last one to disappear would be this guy:
I have no idea about birds but I soon learnt to recognise the high pitch call of the golden plover. Spotting the actual bird would become second nature and a sort of funny game that helped me connect with the place.
I didn’t meet any wild animal other than said birds and some insects –non-biting flies.
Iceland is otherworldly. It’s not just postcard beautiful, it’s something else. The whole land feels different: it’s the color and it’s the shape.
There’s the truly spectacular stuff like the famous geysers, waterfalls et al. While I can certainly appreciate these, I find the most striking feature of Iceland is the special feel of the land. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before, even if you’ve been to volcanic areas. It’s strange and mesmerizing. The highlands can feel dull and monotonous but never boring. It’s a humbling experience out there.