Is the best way to see Iceland through a campervan – a home on wheels? Absolutely.
There are many ways to explore Iceland. You can stay in a hotel and explore the Arctic island through tours, hit up hostels and make plans with the new friends you find there, or depend on the generosity of strangers by hitchhiking and everything in between.
We three Canadians thought we’d live adventurously and rent a campervan for our recent sojourn to Iceland. This way, we get to see the country on our schedule, at our own pace. The best part? In the mornings we wake up surrounded by Iceland’s ferocious nature.
Without a doubt, this decision turned our experience into an incredible adventure that can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip.
We rented from Campervan Iceland, one of many companies that rent campers. There are a few things we considered when renting from Campervan Iceland. First, they had a van that was automatic (very important, as only one of us could drive stick-shift), it slept three people comfortably, and it came with “all the fixings” – sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, camp stove, plates, cutlery, cooler and chairs. It also had lots of room for our stuff and last, but certainly not least, Wifi!
Armed with a GPS, carefully crafted playlists, six bags of the most delicious pre-popped popcorn in existence and adventurous spirit we were off.
Our first day of real travelling we headed to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The drive north let us get to know our campervan, our mobile hotel and home far away from home. After hours of driving and getting our first real taste of the stunning Icelandic landscape, we found ourselves at a campsite on the north shore of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The rain kept us cooped in the van for the night, but we were not deterred. The heater that comes with the van? It was one of our best friends because Iceland in October is much like Canada in October – cold!
One of our favourite things about Iceland was the rumour that belief in elves, trolls and hidden people persists in Iceland. To jump into the legends of old, we bought two books of Icelandic folk tales. We gathered up our blankets and warm clothes, cracked open some cold Icelandic beers and dived into the tales of the Hidden People. Outside, with the wind and rain hitting our campervan and the rugged, volcanic landscape illuminated in the dusk light, we felt like we were part of the stories, with hidden people just outside our door, waiting to lead us on an adventure. (Though hopefully without it ending quite as poorly for some of the people – all of them named Jon – in the tales.)
Waterfalls and high winds
The next day was Waterfall Wednesday! The amount of waterfalls in Iceland is unbelievable, each more beautiful than the last. In the Snaefellsness Peninsula, we crossed the bridge above Kirkjufell and gazed at the mountains in the distance. On Iceland’s southern shore, We walked behind the waterfall Seljalandsfoss and felt like we got caught in the rain even though the sun was shining. That afternoon we stopped at Skogafoss and winded ourselves climbing to the top – almost 400 steps up – where the river cascades over the cliff.
We popped into an information centre to find out where we could set up camp for the night – before arriving in Iceland, we took the Icelandic pledge and planned to camp only where we were allowed. The Icelandic pledge says “I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road, and I will only park where I am supposed to. When I seep out under the stars, I’ll stay within a campsite.” Being Canadian, politeness and following the rules is in our nature. Some fantastic and friendly attendants informed us about the high winds advisory, which warned those with campers and camper vans to stay put for the time being.
As we learned the previous night, the weather in Iceland can be quite harsh – it can quite literally blow you away.
We’ve never experienced anything like it before; gusts nearly knocked us off our feet. With Safe Travel Iceland (safetravel.is) warning us to delay travel and the winds beating up against our camper, we sat huddled in van unsure of what to do.
Luckily, our location was idyllic (like basically everywhere else in Iceland). The base of Skogafoss, with its roaring power and almost constant rainbow, is also a campsite. But outside the wind roared, rocking our camper back and forth. We actually googled to see what strength of wind could tip a camper; luckily we couldn’t find a solid answer.
The sun was just setting on the horizon, and we knew we couldn’t continue our journey for the day. So we turned on the lights and opened our books and read, hoping to jump into another world to escape the anxiousness of reality. The hours went by, and we could feel our campervan continue to sway in the wind. But by 10:30 pm, the night was clear, and we could see stars peeking out. Every night we had been hoping to see the aurora borealis since we arrived, and that night felt like it was the night.
The wind was still bitterly cold, and we wrapped ourselves in coats, hats, mitts and scarves to brave the Icelandic night. Our efforts paid off. There, above our heads, was a flicker of green light, dancing in the sky. It was a breathtaking way to end to a slightly anxious night. We stayed out a while, the wind still biting at us and watched the lights dance.
In the morning, the sun was shining, and the winds were calm. We were on our way again.
A different way to see Iceland
These two experiences stand out to us. They would have never happened if we had done the traditional way of exploring a new county. Renting a campervan gave us the flexibility and affordability that staying in a hotel couldn’t provide.
To end our saga, we just have to say that the campervan let us explore and immerse ourselves in Iceland. Every curve of the road, every other side of a mountain granted us another striking view of this incredible island. We manoeuvred so many roundabouts, passed pastures of ponies, and fields and fields and fields of sheep. It was a drive like no other, and only the campervan allowed us this intimate view of Iceland, one that tour buses and hotels won’t get you. The campervan allowed us to craft moments of our trip that were equally heartstopping and breathtaking, each becoming an unforgettable memory.
We also discovered a fantastic campervan culture. We met other campers (tenting and campervan-ing alike) and learned that this unique way of travelling can be quite an experience in Iceland. Here are some tips we followed that helped us enjoy the van life.
Figure out where you want to go
The whole idea of having a camper van as the mode of transportation and accommodation allows one to be flexible. This flexibility should be on your itinerary too. We had booked only a couple of tours, two at the beginning of our trip and one at the end. Between them, we had an idea of where to go, but we kept it flexible.
Many of the information centres along the way were helpful, allowing us to find a campsite for the night that was still open in October. Many of the summer sites have closed, but some remain open when winter comes.
Stock up on supplies
During our 10-day trip, we lived on sandwiches, they were easy to make and delicious. We may or may not have dived into five or six bags of pre-popped popcorn – that stuff was heaven.
We didn’t plan our food very well, but we didn’t starve and were happy to eat in a restaurant every once in awhile. There are plenty of places to stop around Iceland, with the most variety in Reykjavik.
Don’t forget to pick up Skyr! The Icelandic yoghurt is delicious and packed with protein that will keep you full and satisfied.
Gas is a bit tricky
We had trouble with getting gas almost every time we went to fill up. Our woes stemmed from “pre-authorizing” purchases on our credit cards. Iceland gas stations ask you to pay before you pump. While this itself isn’t unusual for us Canadians, for some reason our credit cards would not allow us to pre-authorize a gas purchase.
The trick to get around this is to buy fuel cards. They were the only way for us to purchase gas. N1 gas stations are frequent along the ring road. If you are having trouble, please ask the gas attendant, most of the people we came across were warm, friendly and more than willing to help us silly tourists.
We took the Iceland pledge – and stuck to it. No matter how amazing it would have been to wake up on the black beach, we stuck to campsites. And the campsites themselves had brilliant vistas.
Few campsites stay open during the winter months, but they do exist. Information centres are truly helpful in finding where you can stay the night, but I wholeheartedly suggest checking out Inspired by Iceland to see if the site is open in the winter.
Some campsites do not have a “registration office” like you would see in Canada or the US. Two of the sites we stayed in only had a guard that would come and knock on your window to collect your nightly fee. Prices ranged from 1200ISK to 1600ISK ($15 to 20 CAD) per person, with the most expensive being right in Reykjavik.
All of the campsites we stayed at has washrooms, showers and a kitchen! So it was really easy to make these sites our home. On another note, Icelandic water is considered to be one of the cleanest in the world. I highly suggest bringing an empty reusable water bottle with you on your journey so you can fill up at any tap.
Key items for campervan success
Living out of a camper van, even for only a short time, is a change from the day to day. To make it successful, you’re going to want to have some of the following items to make your camper home.
Inverter – I’m not sure what we would do without our power inverter. We could plug it into the 12V and have two power outlets and two USB ports. Just don’t charge everything all at once!
Tunes – When you’re barrelling down the open roads of Iceland in a landscape that is out of this world, you’re going to want some music to compliment your travels. Don’t forget your auxiliary cord.
Blankets – Iceland is chilly in the fall. Blankets are necessary for staying warm when your campervan is turned off. Ours had a heater, but we didn’t want to run it all the time. To stay warm we layered up and wrapped ourselves in blankets that came with the camper.
Thanks to my super duper awesome friend Kimber for helping me write this post.
Q: Would you live – or have you lived – the van life in Iceland?
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