|Jökulsárlón glacier lake puts the 'ice' in Iceland.|
We drove the entire ring road around the island and through some of the Westfjords in a camper van over the course of 8 days in mid May. I had a lot of questions when we decided to sleep in the camper instead of cottages. A lot of them were asked in private browsing mode if you get my drift. But I couldn't find answers to some of them. So if you found this blog in your search for your upcoming trip to Iceland I hope this provides you with some answers I wasn't able to find.
Let's get those, ahem, awkward questions out of the way first.
Where do you use the restroom?
This haunted me for months leading up to the trip. I had horrible images of having to pull over and pee on the side of the road. I knew for the most part I would have relatively frequent access to bathrooms—between gas stations along the way and the campgrounds we slept at. But I had stress dreams we were in desolate areas of the country and I had to pee really bad and Alex told me to hold it until we got back to America. Out of an abundance of fear I purchased a She-Wee. Yes, you read that right. A She-Freaking-Wee. It's a device for girls to use to be able to pee standing up. I tried to get the company to ship it in a unmarked box with no business name, pictures, or descriptions of the product but they refused. It's marketed to use while camping, which I basically was doing, so I bought it thinking I'd unfortunately get a lot of use out of it. Happy to say I only had to use it once! More on that later...
Do you really have to shower naked with other people?
Yes and no. Before you get in a hot spring or hot pool at a spa or gym they require you to shower without your bathing suit on. Some places we went had private showers and some didn't. If this is a concern of yours I would suggest finding out for the specific hot pools you're wanting to get in prior to your visit. However, it really isn't as uncomfortable as you think it will be. Because it's the norm there it's not weird for them. If you try to cover yourself and act awkward about it that will bring attention to yourself. No one is watching you because no one cares.
Were there showers at the campgrounds?
It depends on the campground. I didn't shower for the first 3 days because none of the campgrounds we slept at had them, there were only toilets and sinks. The first campground to have showers charged 300 krona (about $2.50 USD) for a 5 minute shower. You put the money in and it turned on and 5 minutes later on the dot it turned off. Like, no warning. Just off. Done. It was an all time emotional low. The best way to get a shower is to find a town that has a hot pool. It's around $5 USD to swim and that gives you access to their entire facility. They have a locker room where you can take a shower after you swim that doesn't cut off! We took camping "towels" which were the size of large washcloths and although they were certainly absorbent they ended up being more frustrating than useful for me. I recommend for anyone with long hair to bring a Turbie Twist for their hair ($12 on Amazon). Can't believe I forgot to bring mine. It would have made a big difference.
Okay, that wasn't TMI, right? Now, let's get to the trip!
When we first started planning this trip last December we thought we'd rent a car to drive around the island and stay in cottages each night but the more we learned about road tripping Iceland we thought it would be more fun to rent a camper van to travel around in and sleep in at night. It would allow for more freedom to do what we want, when we wanted without the constraints of needing to be in a certain town each night where we had booked a cottage.
We rented our camper through Happy Campers. There are many different ones to choose from based on your needs and budget. Here is the van we rented. It was plenty spacious for us and all our stuff. And by 'plenty spacious' I mean we made do for a week with only a few fights. The driver's and passenger's seats were incredibly comfortable. We spent a lot of time sitting in them and never had back pain. The seats are heated! That was my favorite part :)
Behind our seats was an open floor area with a sink, cabinets, mini fridge, and space for, well, our crap that we didn't feel like organizing. I am normally a very tidy person, especially in small spaces, but much to Alex's dismay I tossed everything in that space in between uses. It seemed to always be cluttered with a mountain of my stuff—books, deck of cards, rain jacket, bags of chips, makeup. In my defense I did
The two rows of backseats folded down into a bed that was only slightly more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. Okay, that's a bit of exaggeration. It wasn't terrible. Our rental came with two "pillows" and a few lightweight summer blankets. The pillows absolutely sucked. We were so thankful we had our memory foam neck pillows we brought for the airplane because they saved the day!
When we were at Happy Campers finalizing the rental agreement they politely pointed out we hadn't rented sleeping bags and asked if we would like to add those on. I politely told them we wouldn't be needing sleeping bags. They gave me the 'are you sure....?' look. I gave them the 'I sleep with my bedroom windows open during the winter' look. Alex and I had packed wool and cashmere base layers to go over our already cocky 'we lived in Chicago and know real cold' attitudes so we felt certain we wouldn't be needing any additional covers while we slept.
As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman: Big mistake. Huge. Our first night wasn't terrible but we were a little chilly. There was a heating system in the van that ran off its own battery. It had 3 hours of use before you needed to recharge it and you're not supposed to fall asleep with it on. So it was only good for incremental uses. We would take turns being on heating duty by turning it on and setting our alarm for 30 minutes to wake us up to turn it off and doing this throughout the night. Nothing says romantic like making sure you are your spouse don't freeze to death. The upside to the chilly nights was once the sun came up around 3am it would slowly start warming up. After a couple cold nights we switched up our routine by staying up late and sleeping late once it was sunny and warm enough to comfortably sleep. It's light out pretty much all day so we were never hurting for time to do things during daylight. By the way, all day sunlight screws with your internal clock. It would be 10pm and just as sunny as it is at 6pm back home so we wouldn't realize it and forget to eat dinner, drive later than intended, etc.
The terrain is other-worldly. I have traveled to many countries and seen breathtaking landscapes but they were all very describable, even if all you could say was "it was like something out of National Geographic", at least that gives people an idea of what it looks like. But the terrain in Iceland looks like nothing I have ever seen before. I felt as if I were on another planet. We pulled over probably a dozen times our first day wanting to capture this indescribable land. The entire time we were there we never got used to it. It never got old. Driving several hours every day wasn't boring.
One of my favorite things about Iceland was their way of life. Their biggest city and also the capital, Reykjavík, only has about 121,000 people. For a point of reference Greensboro, NC has 280,000 people. Most towns we passed through only have a couple hundred people! Grocery stores opened much later than what I am used to—around 10 in the morning and closed around 7 and most of them were closed on Sundays. It was a nice change of pace.
Day 1: Once we got our camper we picked up our WiFi hotspot (highly recommend), went by the grocery store, and hit the road. We had the first few days mapped out with spots we wanted to see. We drove counter-clockwise around the island. Our first stop was Geysir. It was a very touristy area but worth it. There were dozens of geysers, some so hot they bubbled continuously and others erupted every few minutes.
|Geysir erupting- the original geyser where they get their name.|
|Right after it erupted the water would drain back in that hole.|
|Hot spots steaming from the earth. I so badly wanted to walk on the hot grass!|
After that we headed toward the beautiful waterfall Gullfoss. Check out that rainbow! The weather can be so temperamental—raining one moment and sunny the next.
We started making our way to a campsite for the night with no specific location in mind, just driving in the general loop around the island. We happened upon an abandoned beach. That's not a fair description because all the beaches there are abandoned. But this one felt especially deserted.
It was 9:30 and the sun was still shining. It has always been on my bucket list to be in a place in the world where it stays light out late into the evening. I got my wish and then some. Little did I know the sun never goes completely away this time of year in Iceland. So here we are on this gorgeous beach all to ourselves, the sun is in that perfect place in it's descent where you feel like you've stepped into a travel magazine. There were these enormous jagged rock mountain islands off the shore with a hazy fog surrounding their already mysterious appearance. It made you feel uneasy in a good way.
As I stood there taking in the view I had this feeling of 'this might be the coolest thing I see here.' I am glad I had a sense of that in the moment because we stayed longer enjoying it. Of all Iceland has to offer it probably wouldn't make a top 10 list of spots to see but it was special to us.
|Rejoicing in experiencing a bucket list item.|
We made our way to Skógafoss for the night and parked at the base of the waterfall.
Day 2: Waking up next to a waterfall is one of the best views I've had. We wasted no time getting our day started.
After walking around the waterfall for a little while we headed for Sólheimasandur beach where the wreckage of a plane that crashed back in the 70's still remains. This is what I was looking forward to seeing most during our trip. I know Iceland has an endless array of beauty to behold but this crashed plane intrigued me.
|US Navy DC 3 plane that crashed November 24, 1973|
The gravel road leading to the plane recently closed to cars because of Justin Bieber skate boarding on top of the plane (maybe they closed the road for other reasons but I am blaming the Biebs). So if you wanted to see it you had to park at the main road and make the 4 kilometer trek on foot.
|The road we walked to get to the plane. Flat and endless.|
4 kilometers didn't deter us but the wind almost did. It was indescribable. It wasn't especially cold but we had to wear hats covering our ears because the wind was so forceful it felt like someone was stabbing my eardrum. The wind blew the sand directly in our faces forcing us to practically inhale it. A short walk turned into over an hour long hike of pressing against the wind and trying to stay on the path. The wind was so strong it simultaneously blew sand in my mouth and snot out of my nose onto my sunglasses blurring my vision. We finally made it to the plane and were pleased to have it all to ourselves for a little while. Snow capped mountains to your left, a deceptively tropical beach to your right, and in between the two a flat expanse of black sand with the wreckage of a military aircraft sitting there as if you had stepped onto the set of a movie.
It was so neat walking into the fuselage and exploring the cockpit. The plane has stayed very well intact despite the harsh weather it's been through the last 40 years but the floor of it was broken in many spots with gaping holes waiting on you to make one wrong move and fall through.
|How cool is this?!|
|View from the cockpit.|
|A peak out the windows. Hard to see but that's the ocean.|
|I guess the cockpit hasn't fared well over the years.|
|Mountains to the left, beach to the right.|
|Okay, last one. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be on this plane when it crashed? Glad to know they all survived!|
|Okay, I lied. One more. Because this was awesome.|
Day 3: This was a good day. I got to take my first shower since we landed. The sandblast from our first day was still thick on my skin making me look like I had a tan. Joke's on you, sand! I don't tan! We stopped in the town of Höfn because they had a gym with hot pools. It was about $5 a person. They could have charged me $100 and I probably would have paid it. I was dangerously close to selling my birthright for a hot shower. This was my first experience at a public hot pool but I knew the rules: You must shower naked before entering. Alex and I went into our respective locker rooms. I stood there in front of my locker deliberating what I should do. It's not a big deal. Why do I even care? I'm not going to see these people again. And even if I did it doesn't matter! America sure has ingrained a stigma for any kind of non-sexual nudity that the rest of the world hasn't. So, when in Rome, err, Iceland...
Walking outside soaking wet in a bathing suit in Iceland is top 10 most miserable experiences of my life but jumping into a hot pool a few seconds later was top 10 best. This gym had 2 small hot pools, a large hot pool with lanes for exercising, 3 water slides, and an ice bath. Alex got fully submerged in the ice bath
After the hot pool we hit the road again. We were heading toward a glacier lake when we saw a car pull off the main road so we followed them. They looked like they knew where they were going. A mile down the road was this:
|It was eerie. Planet Earth is full of so many hidden surprises.|
Next glacier lake we stopped at was Jökulsárlón. There were seals bobbing in and out of the ice caps.
Day 4: There is a hot spring near the airport that everyone goes to called Blue Lagoon. It's one of the most visited spots in Iceland. So we avoided it! Lots of good reviews but a total tourist trap and super expensive. We heard about the hot spring in Mývatn in northern Iceland and decided to go there instead. They have a cafe that we got lunch at before getting in the spring. Let's talk about food prices in Iceland for a second. EXPENSIVE. Crazy expensive. Grocery store prices are normal but restaurants will put you in debt. We only ate out twice the week we were there. They serve a side dish of steamed bread topped with smoked salmon. The bread is baked underground using the geothermal steam. We were glad we only got one side of it. It wasn't awful but we didn't finish it. Chalk it up to a unique taste of Iceland. The hot spring here was glorious! The water was slippery between your fingers and had the faint smell of sulfur. It surprisingly wasn't off putting at all. We basked in its glory until our fingers were prunes.
Day four is the day I stopped caring. Stopped caring what people thought, stopped caring about being naked. I took a real shower in the locker room when we got out and remembered my conditioner this time. I didn't know I'd get to take a shower two days in a row so this was a real treat. I had rented a towel because I knew the little washcloth I brought with me wasn't going to cut it. So here I am, sopping wet, wet hair, and only one towel. I can't dry off my body with wet hair dripping on me. So again, when it Iceland...wrap your hair in a towel, stand there naked in front of everyone, and use a hair dryer to dry off.
Day 5: Peak season doesn't officially start until June so many of the campgrounds we stayed at weren't open yet. You could sleep there but you didn't have to pay if there wasn't someone working. The hot spring we went to the day before was incredibly cool and if we weren't able to find another one the rest of the trip I would have been satisfied with that experience. However, it was "man made". The water did come from a natural hot spot in the earth but it was commercialized and turned into a spa and had been made bigger to accommodate lots of people. I wanted to get in a completely natural one that hadn't been made into anything. Alex did some research and heard of one a few hours away that was off the beaten path. Just what I wanted. The campground was actually closed but they allowed us to park there for the evening. This campground didn't have the usual campground feel like we were used to. It was basically a horse pasture that had outbuilding style bathrooms on the far end of the property. Unfortunately those were closed until June. The horses were grazing about 20 yards from us so we parked outside of their fenced in area to have a good view.
|As Alex said, "that horse has better hair than I do."|
We were told the hot spring was "a short walk across the stream." Biggest. Lie. Ever. That "stream" was a RIVER. A cold, fast moving, deep river!!! We got dressed in the camper in preparation for having to cross the river. We had sweatpants over our swimsuits so we could pull them up to avoid getting them wet. They still got wet. Very, very wet. I had them rolled above my knee, halfway up my thigh but the "stream" went even higher. I can't articulate the fear that engulfs you when you're trying to cross a cold river and you almost fall. 7 different times. It's not that I would have immediately been swept away but the water was so cold and I knew that if I fell I would lose all sense of time and space and it wouldn't end well. Ok, that's a little dramatic. But y'all. I almost turned around and left Alex on the other side. Which, by the way, I made him go first because I didn't want to get all the way over and him chicken out. My feet were completely numb when I finally made it across. I sank to me knees in relief and tried not to think about having to make the journey back across.
Worth it? Oh. Heck.Yes. I was putting my hands into the sand at the bottom of the spring and jerked my hand out with a shriek. There was a hot spot just an inch below the sand and it was HOT. The earth is so neat.
|Our view. The hot spring fed into the river.|
When we reluctantly got out we agreed we had to find a new spot to cross back over. We walked along the edge of the river until we found a more shallow area. It was twice as long as the first one but at least it only went to our knees. I didn't cuss nearly as much that time. We turned the heat on full blast and got in our pj's, which at this point meant putting on literally everything we brought on the trip. I had on so many layers my arms were in a permanent T position. I looked like Joey when he gets in the argument with Chandler over the chair and puts on all of his clothes.
This ended up being the night we've spoken about since and I am sure will be mentioned many times in the years to come. The night Alex refers to as my "scary meltdown". It was the night I had to use my She-Wee and the night we got attacked by horses. Let's start with the She-Wee. I hadn't needed to use it up until this night but we had restrooms at every campsite so far. I woke up at 2am and stayed up almost an hour trying to hold it. I gave in. It actually works really well and that's all I have to say about the She-Wee! Now to the horses. I had miraculously fallen asleep sometime between 3 and 4 when I hear a strange sound outside the camper. We were the only ones there that night so it got my attention quickly. A few seconds later I hear it again. It sounded like someone was trying to open the back door. I listen carefully for a few seconds assuming I am just hearing stuff when it gets louder and louder. I wake up Alex in a panic because he is brave enough to look out and see who it is.
Horses. A bunch of horses were whipping their tails against the camper. And they wouldn't leave! We were afraid they might dent the van or scratch the paint so Alex had to start the van and pretend to drive away to get them to mosey on. That's when I had my meltdown.
I fall back on the bed, heart still racing. "I am cold!!! And I am tired!! And that was scary!! And I just want to pee sitting on a toilet and not like a boy in the middle of a horse pasture!!!!"
We slept in a cottage the next night.
Day 6: Cottage day!!! With cottage day came scary road day. Google maps does an excellent job of letting you know if the roads you will be traveling are closed or if there's bad traffic coming up but what Google fails at is letting you know that 3 miles up ahead is a scary road that will make you grip the armrest and utter nonsensical prayers. We were in a giant van, on a two lane road only big enough for one car, driving up the side of a mountain, with nothing separating us and a 300 foot drop off, not even a measly guardrail. I leaned as far as I could in my seat the opposite way of the cliff, because, ya know, that would help.
Day 7: This day was a blur. We uh...drove around? And...did some stuff? Whatever. Here are some more pretty pictures.
|Stop, drop, and yoga.|
|You don't go to Iceland and not go on top of a mountain and jump barefoot in the snow.|
|Fjaðrárgljúfur. Say that 5 times fast. Heck, say it once!|
A few things to note if you're planning your trip:
- Shampoo is provided when showering but not conditioner so bring your own.
- You're also not allowed to bring razors into the communal showers. I recommend waxing anything you don't feel like shaving. Yep.
- You will use your credit/debit card 99% of the time but have cash and change on hand for paying for campgrounds, coins for the shower, etc.
- Appelsin is Iceland's orange soda. Drink it. Drink it every day. It's so good. So is Kristall. It's just carbonated water but it's the best carbonated water you'll ever drink.
- The hotdogs at the gas stations are awesome. Trust me, locals love them too. Get both types of onions. Nom!!
- Bring cheap flipflops for the showers.
- A good pair of waterproof hiking boots and a rain jacket/wind breaker are essentials.
- Everything is expensive over there so if it's easy to pack, pack it! Don't have the mindset of purchasing items once you get there unless it's necessary.
- We went in May which is right before peak season. Depending on when you go will have an impact on your experience. Keep that in mind and plan accordingly.
- Take screen shots of places you're going in case you lose WiFi.
- Get gas when you can. You may go hours without seeing a place.
- It can get incredibly windy. Like, break your door off windy. Not exaggerating. Be extra careful and always hold on to your car door.
We had a great time despite the frigid nights, wind burn, and She-Wee debacle. Those experiences now pale in comparison to the beauty we saw firsthand. We plan to go back one day during the winter so we can see the Northern Lights. But our next trip: Mexico and margaritas on the beach.