The information here is what I’d needed to know when planning this trip. It is organized in a north to south fashion, where applicable. It should be easy to apply to a south to north trip anyway.
Hraunhafnartangi is the impossibly long name of the intended starting point of this trek. It is just 1 km off the northern fork of the 85 road (a gravel road in this section) but there’s no public transport to get there. The closest public transport destination is Raufarhofn, a village 8 km southeast. Straeto bus line 79 gets to Raufarhofn from Akureyri every day except Saturday but the regular trip ends in Husavik. Anywhere beyond (Kopasker, Raufarhofn or Thorshofn) requires explicit request at least 4 hours before departure.
Getting to Akureyri shouldn’t be difficult. Most people will get to Iceland through Keflavik international airport, then Reykjavik town, which is an easy 50 km bus ride (buses connect with all international flights, no matter how late/early they arrive). You’re adviced to take this bus: transport is among the most expensive things in the already most expensive of countries so forget about a taxi ride: you’d need to sell your Cuben mid and eider down bag to pay for that.
There’s bus service direct from Keflavik airport and Akureyri but it’s only once a day. It may be a good option if your arrival time in Keflavik meets this service. It goes through Reykjavik anyway.
Between Reykjavik and Akureyri, it’s either bus or flight. Flights depart from the Reykjavik local airport (not Keflavik!) and are a great deal if you get a cheap ticket (book as much in advance as you can). Reykjavik airport is just off the city centre. On the bus, it’s a 7 hour ride on the ring road on Straeto bus line 57. This bus departs from the Mjodd hub which is somewhat inconveniently located off the Reykjavik city centre. You could probably walk to the local airport but it’s a bit too far to walk to Mjodd. There’s local transit available anyway.
It is also possible to travel between Reykjavik and Akureyri on the Kjolur route over the highlands. I guess it will take longer, it’s a gravel road.
From trail end in Skogar, it’s easy: Straeto bus line 51 goes daily to Hofn (east) or Reykjavik (west).
Direction of travel
I went north to south. There were both practical and emotional factors involved.
On the practical side, hiking south would get me closer to Reykjavik by the end of the trip, which is much safer if you have a flight home and a tight schedule. The terrain on the northern end is also easier, which is always nice when your body is not yet used to the beating. A potential negative of hiking south is the weather, as the prevailing winds are S/SW. If it meets this pattern, you’d hike with the weather on your face.
On the emotional part, north to south is the way I had always imagined this trip, for no real reason. Hiking south also saves some of the most spectacular ground for the last section.
The hiking window in Iceland is very similar to that of the mountain routes in the middle earth. In Iceland, the latitude takes the place of the altitude in closing the window for about 9 months a year. Open roughly July to September.
Early season problems are not bug related though, there are no significant bugs in Iceland. The issue in late June / early July is about the meltdown: lots of water on the basins and saturated ground. By late September, lots of services close down and winter can arrive anytime.
I went for a very standard, safe window, late July to early August. It worked out fine.
the paper ones
I used maps from Mal og menning (publisher) in 1:100.000 / 1:120.000 scale from two different series: Serkort (Special Map), a hiking oriented series, available only for popular hiking areas, and Atlaskort (Topographic Map), a general series for the rest. I thought the Serkort series would be somehow better for recreational use but I found both flavors pretty much the same. The Atlaskort series depict 4WD tracks and hiking trails just as accurately. The only real plus of the Serkort series is that they’re printed on both sides with a 1:50.000 map of a main section of interest and information about local attractions and wildlife. It’s a nice have but not really needed. The Atlaskort series are blank on the non-map side.
Both series are printed in rather thick, good quality paper. It stands some abuse but it’s not water resistant. Some kind of map case is adviced. The maps are wide area and rather heavy so I strongly advice to carry only the sections you’d really need. Some hikers make A4 copies. I cut them.
I used the following maps (north to south):
- Serkort 8: Akureyri, Myvatn, Dettifoss (1:120.000 / 1:50.000)
- Atlaskort 21: Myvatnsoraefi (1:100.000)
- Atlaskort 22: Kverkfjoll (1:100.000)
- Atlaskort 16: Hofsjokull (1:100.000)
- Atlaskort 15: Veidivotn (1:100.000)
- Serkort 4: Landmannalaugar, Thorsmork, Fjallabak (1:100.000 / 1:50.000)
These maps are widely available from selected retailers. I got them from The Map Shop.
It’s been stated clearly by previous Iceland hikers and I agree: 1:100.000 is probably the best scale for hiking in Iceland. More detail is of little use in a rather featureless land and will actually make it more difficult to match the map with the terrain because your only visible, prominent feature may be well off your map. 1:100.000 is a good compromise.
One main outstanding question regarding maps is trail/track depiction accuracy: are they correctly placed? Are all trails/tracks depicted? Do all depicted trails/tracks actually exist? I’d trust Iceland to be serious about mapping being an outdoor bound, wealthy country but I was aware of the huge differences in terrain and in the very nature and purpose of the trails between Iceland and pretty much any other region in the world. I wouldn’t take trail depiction accuracy for granted.
It turned out that the maps I used were very good in that regard over the areas I hiked. When the map showed a track, it did exist on the ground. This is important if you mean to rely on trail/track depiction for your own planning, both before the trip and on the go.
One important drawback was the lack of a UTM grid. They got Lat/Lon which is awkward to work with. This is a lesser issue if you don’t mean to translate coordinates between the map and some other media like a GPS device.
The main drawback was the lack of actual grid lines drawn across the sheet. Some of the maps had them but others had only grid marks on the margins. The grid lines are key for compass work. I drew them myself, it turned out quite fine but it was hard work. It seems it’s the older versions of the maps that come with no through-grid so try to shop for the latest editions you can find.
I also carried a country-wide paper map, the International Travel Maps Iceland map in 1:400.000. I like having a wide-area map so I can see the terrain beyond my intended route. This may be key for contingency plans.
Do note that the northernmost section of the route (just beyond Kopasker, about 40 miles) does not appear on any map except for the country-wide one. This would not be a problem if you would hike on the 85 road, as I did. Anyone choosing to go cross-country to get down to Kopasker may need more detail. Atlaskort 19 (Oxarfjordur) and 29 (Langanes) would cover that area in 1:100.000, number 19 would probably cover all the cross-country section. The hike on the road is very nice anyway: it’s a dirt road with very little traffic and great ocean views.
Digital maps and apps
The biggest challenge was to find decent digital maps to download. This is still a bit of a mystery to me… I eventually found good enough maps through the AlpineQuest Android app. I have no idea why I didn’t find such maps through the app I was using before (OruxMaps), neither on the web. The AlpineQuest map browser shows an Iceland series labelled “Iceland Iskort Maps” that were free to download. These had enough detail.
I meant to trace my intended route on a web tool. Once again, the problem was finding decent cartography with enough detail to show tracks and trails. I tried different tools until I settled in gpsies.com, which offered good enough maps. Not too detailed as far as topography goes but at least the tracks were there.
I plotted the route, exported to GPX and loaded on the smartphone for a backup navigation option. The final route as I hiked it can be found here.
I only needed to use the GPS once. I was following a main track in good weather conditions but I was missing a junction and I switched the phone on to verify I hadn’t missed it. The GPX track was spot on over the trail itinerary as shown on the digital map and the junction was shown ahead of me. This one was also correct. Bottom line, both digital maps and the GPX track were accurate.
Apparently, the paper map had some error in the track itinerary in this area.
Resupply is not an issue in the northernmost section, with options in Kopasker (mile 36), Asbyrgi (mile 57) and Myvatn (mile 109). The village shop in Kopasker was closed when I went through (it was early in the day) so I can’t comment but it looked like a small yet fairly complete shop, fine for a full resupply, if only limited in choices. Asbyrgi has a small supermarket, full resupply guaranteed. They sell fuel too (white spirits, butane cylinders and butane/propane canisters of both the pierceable and Lindal valve, screw-on ones). The supermarket in Myvatn is big. Lots of options. Fuel too.
Things get tricky south of Myvatn. Next en-route resupply point is Landmannalaugar (mile 307) which is not only 200 miles away but also very limited supplies, good only for emergency stuff for a final push. Hiking all the way from Myvatn to Landmannalaugar puts the hiker in the typical weight conundrum: you need to go fast if you don’t want to carry a monster food load but food alone is heavy even if you go fast. This equation is resolved in lightweight, fastpacking style, which is what I did: pack light, carry plenty of food and hike long days.
A heavyweight hiker would probably find difficult to put on the necessary daily miles starting from Myvatn so it would probably need to carry more food, which would slow him/her down further. If not going lightweight, it’s probably better to get off-route for resupply. There’s a couple options for this: Askja or Nyidalur.
Both are summer outposts with (I guess, as didn’t visit) rather limited options. Hikers commonly send parcels for a better selection. Both can be visited out-and-back or by different in/out routes which would be some but not dramatically longer. Askja is a potentially good option for the place itself but it requires going over a high mountain pass that had plenty of snow in late July, as reported by a fellow hiker. Nyidalur also requires crossing a pass but I believe it’s an easier one.
Once in Landmannalaugar, it should be easy. There’s a shop (I think it’s a good one) in Thorsmork, 30 miles south, with only 16 further miles to Skogar and trip’s end.
Oddly enough, I didn’t check Skogar for shops! There’s definitely a tourist shop, I guess they’ll have food supplies too. There are a couple of restaurants in Skogar.
I used butane/propane gas. A small size canister was more than enough for my needs, cooking only dinner for about half of the trip and dinner/breakfast for the other half, using low fire and a wind shield.
I got the canister in Akureyri. I found such canisters also in Asbyrgi (mile 57) and Myvatn (mile 109) but neither had the small size.
White spirits were available in the shops. I don’t know about alcohol but I think it’s also easy to find.
There are a few public huts in the highland section along this route, namely Botni (mile 140), Dingjufell (mile 153) and Kistufell (mile 184). I spent the night in Botni and took a lunch break in Dingjufell.
They’re all the same: self-catered, fully equipped with cooking utensils, cooking stove and petrol stove for heating. Two rows of bunks accommodating 16 people and provided with blankets. The huts are corrugated metal on the outside and fully wrapped in wood inside so they’re very comfy even if you don’t set the heat on. They also have a vestibule good for wet/dirty stuff. There’s a latrine hut outside.
Switching the heat on is not straightforward, it involves switching on a number of faucets. I wouldn’t have found out by myself and I didn’t see any instructions (I didn’t search for them either). A fellow hiker instructed me after he got a visit from a ranger that explained it all.
These huts are expensive: I spent the night in Botni and it cost 5000 Kr., about 40 Euro. I guess the rest are the same.
Botni and Dingjufell had water just out the door. I didn’t see any water source near Kistufell.
There are also private huts in the highlands. They’re only open if there’s someone in there and hikers are not entitled to use them anyway. I went through one such hut in Gaesavotn (mile 197)
Search and Rescue
ICE-SAR stands for Iceland Search and Rescue. No need to say it’s a service nobody wants to use but it’s great to know it’s there. Emergencies happen and most of Iceland is a huge wilderness where nothing but SAR will be able to help.
They’re aware of this. They won’t discourage wilderness travel and they’ll try to make things as easy as possible in case of emergency. That’s why ICE-SAR does encourage registration of your trip with them and they make it easy: just visit their website and register your trip the best you can. You can also set up monitoring of your trip for some due date.
I didn’t need their help but I can attest to their taking care of the outdoor people: as I was hiking on the Sprengisandur route (a highland main track), a 4WD came up and a ranger asked whether I had registered my trip… “Yes, sir! Trip registered, monitoring on, PLB carrying!” and a smile to round it all. It’s indeed great to know they’re there and they care.
Quoting their Support web page, “ICE-SAR is a a nonprofit, noncommercial, volunteer-based organization that specializes in search and rescue services on land and at sea around the coast of Iceland.”