Updated: Jan 23
If, as I do, you come from somewhere where the right to roam was hard-won, you’ll understand just how important it is to be able to do so. Coming from a small, densely populated country, I get why land use and land ownership have to be carefully managed. Regardless of where you grew up, you might have an admiration for those who have fought for an ideal they believed in, in some cases manifesting itself in participating in mass trespass or the use of public footpaths primarily to ensure others don’t forget they’re public.
Nordic countries have long been associated with the “right to roam”. Fortunate to enjoy more sparsely populated spaces, the pressure on the land has never been as acute and there has always been room to accommodate an ideal that contributes to such an intrinsic part of a person’s wellbeing. Liberal and tolerant, the ideal of communing with nature is an engrained part of the culture across Scandinavia. Iceland is no exception. The idea of natural landscapes belonging to everyone and for use by everyone is one that has been around for centuries.
Freedom to roam in Iceland
In Iceland, the concept of “freedom to roam” has traditionally been enshrined by law. The 1999 Nature Conservation Act enshrined the right to camp: “along public routes in unsettled areas, normal tents may be set up either on privately owned land or national land”. The natural landscape was protected with the caveat: “Under special circumstances, a landowner or rightsholder may limit or prohibit camping if there is substantial danger of damage to the country's natural environment”. Respect and understanding, it reminds us, must go hand in hand with the freedom to explore and to pause wherever the fancy takes us.
So, traditionally, wild camping has often been perfectly acceptable, particularly on state-owned land. Landowners had the right to refuse a traveller who wished to wild camp and could erect a sign saying so. But often, so long as the land was uncultivated, out in the Icelandic countryside it was reasonable to set up camp. The law stated there should be no more than three tents and those intending to stay would do so just for one night. If that was the case, it would usually be OK to do so and you wouldn’t have found many Icelanders who disagreed with that as a concept.
In populated areas, things have to be a little different
For visitors on a tight budget, that’s welcome news. Hotel accommodation can prove expensive and saving money by packing a tent or renting a campervan to effectively take your hotel with you has long been a popular choice for those wishing to keep costs down. The bonus, of course, was the opportunity to feel more connected to the natural landscape than you might do if cocooned within your hotel room.
However, in towns and cities, the situation – not to mention the law – is a little different. There’s a lot less space, for a start, so the idea of having tents on every green patch isn’t workable. Imagine how the character of downtown Reykjavik would be altered if the place turned into an unofficial campsite!
Can you camp anywhere in Iceland?
So in practice, the rules are that if there is a regular campsite in the vicinity, then would-be campers have to use it and pay for a pitch. Private property should be just that – private. So the law says that if there is an official campsite nearby, wild camping is not an option. You can have your “come and go as you please” holiday, but within tolerable limits. You’ll find over 170 campsites in Iceland, with 26 of them open year-round. So long as you plan ahead, you should have no problem finding a pitch for your tent or campervan.
Perhaps that’s for the best. We visit places and expect a certain kind of order, even if we don’t yet understand a place. We might have heard rumours that you can camp anywhere, but even so it’s highly unlikely we would chuck a tent up by the side of Tjörnin and prepare a meal on our portable gas stove. I mean, it just wouldn’t feel right, would it? So, is it true you can camp absolutely anywhere in Iceland? No, of course not, but attitudes to wild campers might be unlike those you’re used to at home, more accepting and more welcoming, so long as you don’t spoil a place by acting in a disrespectful way.
A code of conduct that everyone should heed
If it’s been a long-held dream of yours to experience camping out in Iceland’s majestic landscapes, or under the Northern Lights, exercising your right to roam is going to feature high on your wish list. But even where wild camping is permitted and hiking to remote spots is encouraged, it’s important that those participating pay attention to the guidelines set out by the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act. In Iceland, wild camping laws regulate those all-important codes of conduct. Consideration, not only for nature but for the wider landscape as well – including the people who live there – plays a vital role.
The 21stcentury brings its own challenges
Iceland’s rapidly growing tourist industry has given a welcome injection of cash into the country’s economy but has brought with it social and environmental challenges. That’s often the case with tourism. It’s only to be expected that we are drawn to those parts of the planet where the landscapes have such beauty that we visit in awe and wonder. Yet, the very act of us being there requires an infrastructure that affects the very beauty that brought us there in the first place. Unless managed very carefully, it doesn’t take long for a place whose popularity has grown exponentially to find itself in a very tricky situation indeed.
Iceland fits that description. Visitor numbers have grown significantly over the last decade but though most international tourists have shown respect, a small minority have not, either through ignorance or willful disregard of the rules. The trouble is, Iceland’s landscapes are fragile and easily damaged by such thoughtless behaviour. Lakes and rivers, too, are vulnerable to pollution. It’s all too easy for visitors to think that one pair of feet or a set of tyre tracks won’t hurt, but when that grows to thousands, the impact can be catastrophic. Motor vehicles, especially, can have potentially disastrous consequences for nature, and we must all ensure we drive responsibly.
Incidents involving environmental damage and trespass, unfortunately, have become more common. Ideals that were passed from one generation to the next and simply understood as part of the culture now need to be formalised and explained. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock to find out that those on the receiving end, particularly those whose home is out in the countryside, were none too pleased that their Iceland was being defiled. If it was your home, you’d be pretty fed up too. We must all strive to leave a place as we find it.
Protection in the form of national parks and nature reserves
The Icelandic authorities have managed the situation. The country has three national parks: Vatnajökull, Thingvellir, and Snæfellsnes. Within their boundaries, some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery is protected and conserved. A clutch of nature reserves afford similar protection. Nature also plays its part. Much of the country is mountainous and uninhabitable. The highland interior is off-limits throughout much of the year. The F-roads, that permit access only open for a few months in summer when the warmer weather makes it safe to do so.
But while that ensures some of the most unspoilt parts of the country are left in a pristine state, in turn it puts additional pressure on the areas that fall outside. You’ll find that much of the decent land near the ring road or coastal strip is privately owned and farmed. If you’re keen to exercise your right to roam, you’ll need to persuade the landowner to let you do so. The same goes for the way you use the land. If it’s publically owned, there’s nothing to stop you if you want to pick wild berries and eat them, so long as it’s for your own personal consumption. But be careful, wild berries have to be just that – wild. Pick berries from a farm, even if you aren’t aware you’re trespassing, and you’ll fall foul of the landowner, not to mention the law.
The right to roam brings with it immense joy, but with such privilege comes responsibilities. We are all custodians of the planet for future generations and as such, must ensure that our actions don’t adversely affect the places we travel in. Enjoy your freedom, but do so with consideration for others and for the environment you share.