Travelling in a campervan or sleeping in a tent is one of the most popular ways to travel in Iceland. Especially if we want to be free, unlimited with bookings and explore the island as much as possible.
Sleeping in campsites is also cost-effective. So it’s definitely an option worth considering for those who don’t need luxuries… okay, sometimes just comfort to travel. If you like to be close to nature, are rather free spirit and not afraid of the weather – camping is an option for you.
Camping in Iceland can be a bit tricky though, there are a few rules to keep in mind that set Iceland apart from other countries in this context:
1. Is the wild camping in Iceland legal? Well, it depends.
Unless you have a special permission to camp outside of designated areas, you probably shouldn’t do it. In Iceland, it is difficult to find “wild” camping, as many areas are private areas. Some owners, for example farmers, clearly indicate the fact that you cannot put up a tent or stop a camper in their area – you will see prohibition signs. However, just because they are not there doesn’t mean camping is allowed. It wasn’t always like that. Before 2015, wild camping was allowed, but the tourist boom and the significant increase in people staying in tents or campers meant that the law on this had to change. Today, from the legal point of view, the case is as follows:
It is illegal to spend the night in campers, camper vans, caravans or similar, other motorhomes, outside of specially designated places. It is different with small tents. They can be pitched for one night near a public road if there is no official campsite nearby. For this purpose, gates or fences that mark out the private area cannot be crossed. If there are no gates, regardless of whether the property is public or private, you can stay there once.
If you plan to stay in a tent in the same place for more than one night, or if your group consists of more than three tents (normal size) you must obtain permission from the landowner.
2. Respect for nature is the most important
Regardless of whether we spend the night in the wild overnight or, with a special permit, spend more time in a tent or camper, we must remember about the delicate Icelandic nature. Most places on the island are fragile ecosystems, damage to which must be avoided at all costs. In general, we can accept the principle that we leave the accommodation in exactly the same condition as we found it.
A few years ago, it was loud about the infamous behavior of tourists who dug moss to surround their tents with it. Something like this is absolutely unacceptable and outrageous behavior. Moss deserves special respect here, because it takes many years to grow and it is difficult to recover. Anyway, moss usually grows in or near lava fields, which are a poor pitch for a tent – finding a spot to stick peg in is sometimes impossible. So leave the moss alone, take all rubbish and other waste with you and dispose of it in a suitable place, and do not light fires that could damage the soil.
3. Is the off-road driving legal? Hard no.
The same applies to driving the car outside the four-wheeled routes. Off-roading is one of the most damaging behavior to the delicate Icelandic soil and is severely punished by law. If there is no road leading there, you can go to the desired place to spend the night, carrying your belongings on your back. Which shouldn’t be a big challenge or a problem for seasoned trekkers.
4. How many camping sites are in Iceland?
Knowing how we can behave when there is no campsite near our route, it is worth getting acquainted with the official places for camping in Iceland. There are plenty of these all over the island – including the Westfjords. In addition, we can use several mountain huts – shelters – located in the wild highlands. According to the information on the NAT.is website, where you can find the locations of all campsites, there are over 120 of them. Before going on a trip, it is worth checking if there are any places you want to visit nearby and if possible, book them in advance. In summer, when Iceland is visited by the most tourists, and Icelanders themselves like to travel around the island, the most popular tourist regions – especially those in the south of the island – may lack places. It is worth knowing that there are campsites also in Reykjavik itself. If you want to spend more time in the capital of Iceland, you do not need to book a hotel, but you can set up a tent in the very center of the city.
Most campsites provide hot water (this is sometimes counted on time and to use it you need to buy tokens, which we put in a special box in the shower) and electricity, in some cases there is a simple kitchen or machines with hot drinks. If you are tired of sleeping in a tent, you can consider booking cabins that are located on the campsite. This is not a fancy option, but at least you will have the chance to sleep in a normal bed and under the sheets. Such luxury, especially after using hot water in the shower, will be appreciated by anyone who spent many days sleeping under the cloud! I would like to add that the campsites in Iceland are among the cleanest I have had the opportunity to use.
Some of the campsites are closed for the winter, but there will be a few open all year round.
5. How to prepare for a camping in Iceland? And can I camp during the winter?
If we are talking about year-round camping, it is hard not to mention what equipment and clothes are worth getting. For example, let me give you a real-life story. One day – one of the few sunny days that summer, and it was 2018 – I went camping with my friends. It was August and the temperature was double-digit, which is quite good for Iceland. For this reason, I wasn’t really worried about the fact that my sleeping bag is rather summer-ish and the sleeping mat is not the best either. Friends, in turn, had down sleeping bags with them, and mattresses for mats. At first I thought they were exaggerating a bit, but they were more experienced in sleeping in a tent in Iceland, so it puzzled me a bit. Their preparation – and my lack of preparation – I understood at night. The temperature dropped significantly, the ground immediately became icy and damp, and I slept in all the clothes I had with me and in my hat, shivering from the cold. I swear, I had never been so cold, and I imagined, firstly, that this is how mountaineers must feel in winter in Karakoram, and secondly, that I would never get out of it. In the morning, I welcomed the first rays of the warming sun with joy and decided that I would never again act so stupidly disregarding the Icelandic weather.
So, when spending the night in a tent in Iceland, you have to be prepared for almost winter conditions, regardless of the season. Firstly, because it can be cold in summer here, and secondly – because the weather changes very quickly and often in extreme ways.
You should also remember to keep clothes and sleeping bags dry. In winter, make sure that the snow does not get into the camper or tent – it will make it harder to keep it dry. When choosing a place to stay, if you are staying in a tent in the wild, remember that the wind can blow snow quickly in a short time and may simply cover you up. If possible, keep your car facing the direction of the wind. Taking a shovel with you can also be a good idea.
The wind is often a nuisance in Iceland, so when getting ready to stay in a tent, choose one that stops the wind well. There are many models of tents on the market suitable for such weather conditions. It’s not worth saving money on a good tent – choosing it can turn your trip into a very pleasant adventure … or not a very pleasant experience. Make it the first.
In fact, sleeping in a tent or in a camper in Iceland is not complicated and requires only basic route planning and the necessary equipment. If you play it right, you will be able to experience something great: seeing Skogafoss in the morning, drinking a coffee with a mountain view, and in some cases even meeting arctic foxes. It is enough to obey the law, respect nature and Icelandic weather to enjoy experiencing nature in its almost purest form.