The Essentials of Sustainable Travel in Iceland

Updated: Feb 7

We all want to do our bit to help the environment. But while many of us are quite used to making eco-conscious choices in our everyday lives, during vacation the sustainable towel is, more often than not, thrown out the window. To help you make those small tweaks towards the greener good, even while on holiday, we’ve put together an article on the essentials of sustainable travel in Iceland.

Suitcase made of green grass as in a sustainable travel in Iceland concept

Anyone considering a trip to Iceland will undoubtedly come to a new appreciation of the natural beauty of our world. The ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ is all about the ‘Great Outdoors’ after all. Its pristine landscapes filled with glaciers, volcanoes, and waterfalls are what draw visitors to its shores.

So, it only makes sense that the Icelandic people want to do everything in their power to protect its natural beauty. To help you join the cause as well, here are our top sustainable travel tips, hacks and advice. From where and when to travel, to what you do when you get here, we got you fully covered.

When to travel to Iceland

Iceland is at its busiest during the high summer season from June through August. As such, this is also the time when the most pressure is put upon the country’s roads and infrastructure, and the big sights experience the highest footfall.

To help alleviate some of this environmental pressure, consider traveling to Iceland outside of the high season. The shoulder seasons on either side and the winter months are all much quieter. This will take a bit of pressure off the most popular places and on the roads in general.

And don’t you worry - there are added benefits to traveling during the low season, too. Outside of summer, the prices for tourism services are much more affordable. Additionally, if you are someone that values a bit of solitude, you’ll enjoy more open spaces and less-crowded sights. Not to mention this means the roads will be quieter and traffic will be reduced.

Reindeer crossing a snowed road in the winter of Iceland

Where to travel within Iceland

Iceland has so many natural wonders to discover. But oftentimes people will end up seeing the same sights over and over, usually the three main ones on the Golden Circle, Reykjavík and a few other highlights in Southern Iceland.

Why not switch things up and choose a different area of the country to explore instead? Visiting these less-traveled regions of Iceland will relieve environmental stress on the busier areas. It will also help to share the tourist dollar in areas that are less well known. Fortunately, there are a wealth of spots that are just as beautiful as the big hitters.

How to travel

Greener travel means slower travel. When it comes to air travel, taking one long trip rather than lots of short hops is better for the environment. If you can, save up your vacation days and air miles and use them to fund an epic trip to remember. Make the most of your air travel by staying as long as possible.

You can also decide to offset your flight’s carbon footprint by donating to green charities and nonprofit organizations. Some pledge to plant trees or support other carbon-sequestering habitats, while others have made it their mission to regenerate wetland areas. Take a look at The Icelandic Wetland Fund for more information.

Wetlands of Iceland are a key area for sustainable travel in Iceland

For those that plan to hire a camper van or motorhome in Iceland, you are not left out of the opportunity to embrace slow travel either. Instead of rushing around ticking sights off a list, take it easy; drive less and explore more.

Choose a place to set up camp and stay there for a good few days, taking in the beauty slowly and unhurried. Plus, there’s usually more to discover the longer you stay in one spot.

Choose your tours carefully

While you are in Iceland, you’ll likely choose to take a tour or two. No matter the type of venture you decide on, try to make greener choices. For example, rather than joining a driving tour of Reykjavík, you could take a two-wheeled bike tour to lower gas emissions.

Opt for peddle power or join a hiking tour or a horse riding adventure. When it comes to whale watching, there are greener choices to make too, like choosing an electric powered boat tour. Before setting off into the ocean’s deep blues, just make sure that your tour guides are local and have good marine conservation credentials.

Hiking in Iceland

Hiking ticks all the boxes for eco-conscious slow travel. You’re off to a good start if you choose this plan, but there is still plenty to keep in mind when it comes to hiking responsibly in Iceland.

You might have heard that the flora in Iceland is quite fragile and slow growing. Especially that beautiful moss that delicately envelops Iceland’s volcanic rocks. Stomping walking boots can do some serious damage to these tender fronds, so always stick to the designated walking paths. This will ensure that they are just as intact for the next person to receive.

Woman hiking in the beautiful mountains of Iceland

It might feel a little constraining to do this, but it makes such a difference to a landscape that is welcoming so many visitors each year. Therefore, if you see a sign telling you to ‘stay off’ or ‘stick to the path’, please take notice of it.

The other rule to live by when hiking in Iceland is to ‘Leave no Trace’. If you stop for a picnic, make sure that you take all your trash away with you when you leave. This includes all food waste and even apple cores and banana skins. Yes, these are technically biodegradable, but they can take a very long time to break down in the colder climates of Iceland.

Greener camping in Iceland

When it comes to camping in Iceland, the majority of environmental issues will revolve around your camping kitchen. But to help minimize this, there is lots that you can do!

First off, proper meal planning means that your food waste will be minimal. Rather than wandering the supermarket aisles, have a plan in place and only buy what you need. Check use-by dates to avoid wastage, and try to buy loose fruit and veg where you can.

Conscious shoppers should also consider their food air miles. Always try to buy local, supporting locally-owned businesses and reducing pollution in the process. This won’t be hard as Iceland grows a lot of fresh produce in geothermally heated glasshouses, so you can enjoy the Mediterranean and eat even tropical produce guilt-free.

Made in Iceland quality seal for local products

It’s worth noting here that wild camping is now illegal in Iceland. This law was brought into place in 2011 in order to further protect the wild places of Iceland. With so many people visiting the island, it just wasn’t sustainable to allow it anymore. Don’t worry though, there are dozens of excellent campsites that you won’t miss out on.

Packing for an eco-conscious trip

When it comes to packing, it’s important to find the right balance between packing light and taking what is truly needed. After all, you don’t want to have to buy again just because you didn’t want to overload the plane.

Ideally, invest in well-made camping and cold weather gear that will last for years. But consider first whether you will get use out of it. If not, you could go for the option of hiring it from a local gear shop in Reykjavík instead. Alternatively, ask around with friends and family first to see if you could borrow or buy an item or two from their winter collection.

Checklist for a more sustainable travel in Iceland

  • Embrace slow travel in every way you can

  • Offset your carbon footprint with a worthwhile organization

  • Travel at quieter times and to quieter places

  • Pack light but pack wise—take what you will need

  • Consider hiring rather than buying

  • Don’t drive off-road in Iceland and no wild camping

  • Stick to hiking trails and leave no trace

  • Use peddle power to tour cities and towns

  • Pack reusable water bottles to savor Iceland’s pure tap water

  • Buy local and go packaging free where you can

  • Plan your meals to avoid waste

  • Choose any extra tours with the environment in mind

  • Use your buying power to support eco-conscious products and companies

  • Reuse and recycle wherever you can

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