If you’re on a tight budget, camping in Iceland is a great way to save money on lodging without compromising on your sightseeing. Though few of us would turn down the chance to stay in one of Reykjavik’s top hotels, there’s a lot to be said for the freedom you get when you opt for more simple accommodation and the flexibility to come and go as you please. But if you’re thinking about camping in Iceland, there are a few rules you’ll have to bear in mind to ensure you don’t unwittingly impact negatively on the environment. Here’s some background about Iceland’s camping law and why you should pack a tent for your next trip.
Wild camping rules in Iceland
The wild camping movement has received a lot of attention in the UK and the rest of Europe over the last few years, with a desire among many to extend the range of places for legal wild camping, as you find in many parts of North America. There’s something magical about the feeling you get when you strip back the trappings of your 21st century, stressful, complicated life and swap it for the chance to truly get back to nature. You find yourself a patch of ground somewhere with a great view, pitch your tent and roll out your sleeping bag.
One glimpse of the Northern Lights as night falls and you’re in camping heaven…
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple if you wish to enjoy wild camping in Iceland. As in other Nordic countries, in Iceland “freedom to roam” is a concept that’s enshrined in law, but with several caveats. Traditionally, if you wished to camp and could find a patch of uncultivated land, the landowner would usually permit you to pitch up to three tents for a single night. Of course, those landowners had the right to refuse wild campers if they erected a sign to that effect. In residential areas, you could only wild camp if there was no registered campsite nearby. But other places were happy to accommodate a weary traveller or two, so long as they paid attention to the guidelines set out by the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act which regulated codes of conduct. Consideration was key.
Pressure from growing visitor numbers
And that‘s where it started to unravel. Think about it: you have a beautiful country and rapidly growing visitor numbers. While many tourists were respectful of local people and understood the fragility of the landscape, the thoughtless behaviour of a small but significant number of visitors quickly led to environmental damage and trespass incidents. Not surprisingly, those affected were unhappy; if it was your back yard getting ruined you’d be mad too. The law was tightened up and each region got the right to decide what it was prepared to tolerate and accept.
The amount of land suitable for campers is a lot less than you might think. A significant part of the country is uninhabited; much of the highland region is uninhabitable. If there’s a patch of decent land, particularly near the coast, there’s a good chance that it’s privately owned, perhaps forming part of a farm. So pitching a tent on such a piece of land is illegal. If you really want to camp, at the very least you’ll need permission from the landowner. In the highlands, the rough terrain and wild weather make this no place for novice wild campers. If you do intend to set up your tent somewhere remote, make sure that others know your location and ensure you prepare thoroughly. Take plenty of supplies including water and at least a basic medical kit, and think carefully about the implications of the weather you’ll encounter, especially strong winds and snow or heavy rain.
One of the most important things to remember when you are travelling in Iceland, whether that’s a camping trip or not, is that you should leave no trace. Make sure you take your rubbish with you, even biodegradable waste. Litter has no place in any environment, and especially one as beautiful as Iceland. You know the saying: “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”. That means no off-roading too. Iceland’s fragile ground is easily damaged by car and van tyres, so stick to marked roads.
It’s easy to find a great campsite
While wild camping might prove problematic, the good news is that there are plenty of regular campsites dotted around the country. Finding somewhere to camp is quite straightforward, particularly if you decide to rent a car or a camper van. That said, in summer especially, some campsites can get pretty full, so it’s a good idea to plan in advance to make sure you will find space in the places you’d like to stay in.
There are somewhere in the region of 170+ registered campsites in Iceland. Across the country, in general, they open from June to late August or mid-September, though there are about 26 of them which open year-round for the hardiest of winter campers. If you’re travelling in Iceland, chances are that you’ll find some right where you need them.
Something else to think about is that around forty of them have signed up to the Camping Card scheme. Established in 2007, this card cost 19900 ISK for the summer 2019 season. Valid throughout the summer months, the 2020 card will go on sale next year and is valid for 28 days. It covers tent camping, campervan or motorhome pitches. If you’re keen to stick to a budget, this is an effective way of helping you keep track of costs.
As in any country, the facilities offered by each campsite will vary. Most have shower facilities; some have a swimming pool. Before you choose your camping site, think about what you’re likely to use and plan accordingly so that you benefit from what you pay for.
Getting from campsite to campsite is simple. Roads in Iceland, with the exception of the F roads, are well maintained and present no problem for drivers. Whether you’ve chosen a car or prefer renting a campervan, getting supplies along the way needs to be convenient and affordable. Gas stations are dotted at reasonable intervals along the ring road and in many of the towns and villages that grew up around it. They often sell food and other supplies, though you’ll find visiting grocery stores can be a mini travel adventure in itself – they give you an insight into the cuisine of the country you’re visiting.
Some of the best campsites for your trip around Iceland
Suburban or rural, Iceland’s many campsites are as varied as they are useful. Wherever you plan to visit in Iceland, you can be sure there’ll be a campsite near your planned destination.
Laugardular campsite is just a few kilometres from downtown Reykjavik, near a swimming pool heated by geothermal energy. With a full range of facilities including motorhome waste disposal, it’s one of the best bases for campers and camper-vanners near the capital. You can save big on your accommodation costs without losing the convenience of staying close by.
South Iceland campsites
The campsite and RV park at Gesthús open year-round. The tree-filled site is well equipped, with showers, WiFi and even a couple of hot tubs. Many of South Iceland’s top visitor destinations can be found an hour’s drive or less from the campsite, including the Golden Circle, Seljalandsfoss and the Kerið crater. It’ll also only take you an hour from Reykjavik, making it the perfect base to combine city and countryside sightseeing.
East Iceland campsites
The campsite Fossárdalur lies midway between Höfn and Husavik, a short distance east of Vatnajökull. In this valley, the Fossá waterfall tumbles over a high cliff near Fossárvík. Sheep still graze in the valley and if you fancy a night away from the camper van, you can park up and book a stay in the guesthouse which was once the farmhouse. Jökulsárlón and its icebergs are less than 200km east, making it doable as a day trip in your rental vehicle.
North Iceland campsites
Hlid near Lake Myvatn has a good range of facilities including motorhome waste disposal, electricity, cooking facilities, showers and a small shop. In summer, Lake Myvatn can be plagued by midges, but this site is just far enough away from its north shore for this not to be an issue. The views across the lava field to the lake are one of this site’s selling points.
West Iceland campsites
With hot showers, laundry facilities and motorhome hook-ups, the site on the edge of Akranes offers great views across the water to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. It’s convenient for visiting Snaefellsjokull National Park and Iceland’s most recognisable mountain, Kirkjufell.
The Highlands campsites
The campsite at Kerlingafjoll is more basic than some of those accessed from the ring road, but the stark beauty of Iceland’s mountainous interior is worth sacrificing a few home comforts for. There are showers, toilets and cooking facilities, plus a steam bath about a kilometre away from this site on the banks of the river Asgardsa in Asgardur valley.
If you’ve been inspired, perhaps you’ll camp the next time you visit Iceland?