How to avoid crowds in Iceland?
My rather unorthodox solution to this increasingly problematic circumstance was to research, plan and carry out a night-time road trip.
I enjoyed the best of Iceland over the course of 16 days while encountering very few of my fellow tourists.
Apologies, fellow tourists, but I’d rather not share the beauty that is Iceland with you!
Eventually this will become a multi-part series on my night-time road trip strategy, details and logistics included. My entire itinerary gives you a taste of what we’re in for.
But for now let’s start with the basics.
The problem? Everyone goes to Iceland.
When your aunt Tillie is planning a visit and Rick Steves has finally published a guidebook, well, look out.
Iceland is definitely one of the ‘it’ destinations of the past few years. The country has become extremely popular, especially with Americans, thanks to cheap flights on Icelandair and discount carrier Wow.
Visitor numbers have exploded.
Check out these stats.
Iceland Tourism Numbers
|Year||Visitor Numbers||Proportional Increase|
Over the past seven years the average yearly growth rate is an astounding 24.3%.
Now consider a 24% growth rate in pretty much any other category — economic expansion, the stock market. That shows how insane these numbers are.
The growth explosion is understandable.
Iceland’s natural beauty will take your breath away. The country IS NOT overrated by any means. And considering its location in the North Atlantic, the country is relatively accessible to large population bases in both Europe and North America.
It’s basically the perfect storm for a tourism boom. And, for better or worse, that is precisely what Icelanders have on their hands.
That being said, who wants to experience a beautiful waterfall shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred of your closest tourist friends? Or glimpse a spectacular geyser while two-deep tour bus throngs elbow their way into your field of vision?
Certainly not me.
The question is how to avoid all these other visitors while enjoying what made Iceland famous in the first place — the natural beauty.
I came up with a rather peculiar solution, one that will allow you to explore the best of Iceland pretty much all alone. Even at the peak of summer.
Before we delve into my idea, let’s explore the simple options, the ones most websites and bloggers offer up.
Option 1 — Off-Season Travel
“Go in October”, they say. “Avoid the summer months.” A reasonable idea, but color me less than impressed.
Digging into Iceland’s most recent tourism statistics reveals some interesting facts. Consider this; October of 2017 saw nearly as many visitors as August of 2015.
Not only are the tourist crowds expanding, the tourist season itself is expanding. It is becoming much more difficult to avoid crowds in Iceland.
The Northern Lights have always been a wintertime draw, but Iceland is becoming a true year-round destination.
Bottom line; the ‘off-season’ is still busy.
Option 2 — Get Out There Early!
Another “meh” idea.
Plenty of blog posts out there are dedicated to ‘Visiting the Golden Circle Without Crowds’. Intrigued, you click for a read. Turns out their ideas are less than groundbreaking.
“Wake up early and visit Gulfoss at 7am!”
“Do the Golden Circle in reverse.”
Genius! As if every tour company and day tripper never considered such revolutionary ideas.
Sure, Gulfoss will be relatively quiet at 7am. Why? Because it is almost two hours by road from Reykjavik, where the vast majority of tourists sleep, and most aren’t keen on being on the road by 5am.
But guess what? Just an hour later, at 8am, it will be busy. As will every other popular destination.
Problem still not solved.
My Plan to Avoid Crowds in Iceland
“You’re going to do what?”
Before I left for Iceland this was the reaction of most people. A few of my traveling friends were intrigued, but everyday folks thought I was crazy.
“I’m thinking about sleeping during the day and going out touristing at night, like after midnight.”
My flights conveniently wrapped the longest days of the year, June 14th through July 1st, so a lack of daylight would be a non-factor.
At sixty-five degrees north latitude Iceland is on par with central Alaska, so complete darkness doesn’t really exist at the height of summer. Sunrise in the tourist-heavy south occurs around 2:55am, sunset 12:03am.
How dark could it actually get with less than three hours of actual night?
The main northern city, Akureyri, only sixty-one miles below the Arctic Circle, technically experiences just thirty-one minutes of actual night on the longest day of the year. And that darkness, if you can even call it that, is more like twilight.
So far, so good.
Keeping Odd Hours
Prior to this trip I worked a job with mostly nighttime hours. 6pm to 6am was my standard work ‘day’ and I absolutely loved it. I would return from work, hop in the shower and sleep straight into the afternoon, wake up refreshed and ready to do it all over again. No alarm necessary.
Another potential issue gone by the wayside.
A Feasibility Study
I set up a couple of documents and began researching opening hours and driving times. I tried to stitch together a basic plan, to see if a night-time road trip was even feasible.
After a few days I came to the pleasant realization that a night-time road trip was definitely doable.
If you get that Seinfeld reference we will be forever friends.
In fact, my plan seemed like pretty much the greatest idea ever.
THE NIGHT TIME ROAD TRIP
Night Time Road Trip Basics – Timing
Most of the best sights in Iceland are natural and lack specific opening and closing hours. Visit at 10am, 10pm or 4am. It doesn’t matter. The only difference will be the amount of daylight and the number of other visitors.
Depending on the sight you may miss a visitor’s center or overpriced cafe. Big deal. I will make that trade off any day.
The general idea is to be out and about exploring from evening right through to early morning. When almost everyone else is busy dining and sleeping you will be out enjoying the sights.
After a full night of hiking behind waterfalls, mingling with sheep in remote canyons and scrambling across boulder strewn beaches it will be time for bed. Sleep from 7am until mid-afternoon, say, 3pm, then do it all over again.
Hours will change a bit depending on the specific sights and routing, but the overall idea is to pretty much flip a normal schedule on its head.
Simple enough, right?
Occasions where an early wake up call or extra thoughtful advance planning are required will arise.
A few examples —
The latest puffin tour at Ingolfshofdi Nature Reserve goes off at 2:30pm (14:30). Set the alarm!
During puffin season, Dyrholaey Peninsula closes to visitors at 7pm (19:00).
The last boat trips at Jokulsarlon, the Glacier lagoon, depart at 6pm (18:00) in mid-summer.
This is not the type of trip where you hop in the car and zoom around the country by the seat of your pants. It requires a good bit of research and planning.
But if you are up for the effort and put the work in, the potential rewards are huge.
I will get more into specific plans and timing in my daily recap posts. Click here to jump down for a peek at my overall itinerary. Or just keep reading. We’ll get there.
Night Time Road Trip Basics – Accommodation
Think of it. Exploring the sights from evening to early morning rules out most forms of traditional accommodation. Checking in to a hotel at 6am, sleeping all day, then leaving at 7pm isn’t happening. Even if the hotel allowed for such oddities, the daytime noise would bugger up our daytime sleep routine.
Nighttime road trippers require maximum flexibility.
The solution? A camper vehicle.
Night Time Road Trip Basics – Transportation
Unless you’re sticking to Reykjavik and the nearby area, relying on tours or simply cannot drive, your own wheels are almost mandatory.
Much like New Zealand, Iceland is a popular camper van destination. Visitors can rent SUVs, 4×4’s or vans kitted out with all manner of goodies that make for a self-contained Do-It-Yourself driving holiday. Fold out tents, cooking stations, water systems, cooler boxes, mobile wi-fi devices. The options are plentiful.
I did plenty of research and wound up renting this VW Caddy Camper. The daily price seems rather high, but using your wheels as your bed winds up saving money. Do this with two people and you are looking at exceptional value.
My camper must-have list looked like this.
- Automatic transmission
- Internal sleeping space
- Portable cooking facilities
- Some type of refrigeration
- Water storage
Rent.is, Happy Campers, Go Campers and KuKu Campers are all reputable agencies with a variety of vehicles. Advance bookings — up to a year in advance in some cases (don’t laugh!) — are absolutely necessary. I lucked out and booked my vehicle about four months out. If you can’t operate a manual transmission, your options will be even fewer. Don’t leave it late!
Make sure your camper has window coverings. My vehicle came with magnetic shades that clipped in to every single window opening. Without them or something similar you will have difficulty sleeping during the day — maybe at night too.
Unless you have the owner’s specific approval, never park on private property! No, no, no. Don’t do it.
Scout out the parking area. Imagine what it will look like at mid-day before choosing a spot and bedding down. Park as far from what you imagine will be the busiest place when things get going. Parking adjacent to the toilet, the main pedestrian entrance or the highway is asking for interrupted sleep.
Gravel is noisy, blacktop is not.
Night Time Road Trip Basics – Food
If you plan on road tripping at night, food independence is a necessity.
Most camper tourists do their shopping at grocery stores and put together meals on portable camp stoves or dual-burner stoves built into many of the campers.
Bonus is Iceland’s most popular ‘cheap’ supermarket and a good place to start. Cheap is a relative term as everything in Iceland is pricy, so get used to shelling out some cash.
I mixed this local shopping strategy with freeze-dried options from home. These products are not as bland and boring as you imagine. Don’t knock it until you try it! Plus they are E-A-S-Y to whip up. Easy as in boil a pot of water, pour it into the zip bag and wait.
If you decide to go the packaged food from home route, be sure to consult Iceland’s customs rules and read your labels.
I packed about ten of these freeze-dried meals in big ziplock bags and squeezed them into my backpack. I added a few tiny ziplocks with spices to flavor up a pasta dinner. A few small Tupperware containers provided leftover flexibility.
Over fifteen days of road tripping I ate in just three actual restaurants. If it weren’t for my birthday and a driving rainstorm in Husavik it would have been one.
VW Caddy Camper Dining Amenities
The VW Caddy came with a simple camp stove which screwed into a butane fuel canister base. Functional, not fancy. It got the job done. I suggest purchasing a backup fuel can before heading out into the wilds as I nearly had to go without a proper meal one evening on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Also in the camper, a water tank. Technically it was a jerry can, a simple item. Something like this, only larger.
One of the unexpected pleasantries of driving around Iceland is the inherent friendliness and helpfulness of petrol station employees. Pop in any station, whether you are purchasing fifty liters of fuel or a single ice cream cone, and staff will happily fill up your water can. They top it off in the sink, they haul it in the back. Whatever needs to be done, they do it. Happily.
Rounding out the food-centric amenities, a battery-operated cooler. Talk about an awesome device!
Confession time — before opening the camper I had never seen one of these. With the ignition on, the vehicle’s engine supplied power and the cooler remained cool. When I stopped I opened the back and flipped a small switch on the wall. The auxiliary battery ran often enough to maintain temperature inside the box. I followed the same flip-switching routine prior to bedtime.
Night Time Road Trip Basics – Hygiene
Ah, the toilet and shower question.
Some of the larger motorhomes or RV’s have their own facilities along for the ride, but these machines are real beasts. They are expensive, not to mention unwieldy.
For those of us with more basic needs — and budgets — toilets and showers are services you will have to track down beyond your vehicle. That isn’t necessarily a problem, it just requires a bit of planning.
A large part of the solution lies in the sundlaug.
Sundlaug means swimming pool in Icelandic.
Iceland is home to a fascinating pool and hot tub culture. That link is mandatory reading, especially for first-timer visitors.
Virtually every town in Iceland is home to a sundlaug. Whether you road trip at night or not, the pools are a wonderful way to make acquaintance with the locals, trade tips with your fellow travelers or simply relax.
The added bonus in our case — clean facilities and hot showers.
This is where advance planning comes into play. Iceland is rather sparsely populated. A long drive is no guarantee of locating a sundlaug.
Luckily Icelanders have put together an amazing website detailing the location, opening hours, admission fees and water temperature of every notable sundlaug in the country. If that wasn’t enough, they even link to nearby campsites.
A number of Iceland’s sundlaug complexes open at 630 or 645am and remain so until 10pm (22:00) in summer.
It isn’t particularly difficult to plan a full night of touristing Iceland’s natural wonders before topping it off with a nice shower, swim and hot tub soak. A quick drive takes you to the next big waterfall where a secluded spot at the edge of the parking lot and a snooze await.
Or do it in reverse. Pop by the sundlaug in the evening and then go out hiking and waterfall chasing.
Or skip the sundlaug entirely.
No one says you need to shower on a daily basis. This is Iceland, not India. Temperatures are consistently cool.
Don’t use the great outdoors as a toilet.
Seriously, please don’t.
Virtually every natural sight in the country offers toilets. Thingvellir National Park is dotted with wooden outhouses and running water. Gullfoss is home to a line of similar wooden shacks with sinks. Even the secluded Djupalonssandur black-sand beach on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is home to a group of public facilities with running water. At Seljalandsfoss the scene is more basic — plastic port-a-johns.
Even if you visit the sundlaug on a daily basis, the public facilities will complement your hygiene routine. Oftentimes I visited pool complexes in the evening prior to my full night of exploration. Before bed I would use the facilities at my final outdoor spot, brush my teeth and find a spot to sleep.
Another option to keep in mind are the large petrol service stations. With a combined 161 locations, Olis and N1 have you covered. If you’re used to basic grimy fuel stations back home, Olis and N1 will rank as a rather pleasant surprise.
Service station toilets are always clean, the service friendly. Keep in mind not all locations maintain extended hours of operation.
Oh, they sell fuel too.
And many locations are also home to small sit down cafes with quality (if expensive) food options. On the cheaper grab and go side of things, the best known snack in Iceland is… the hot dog?! Yup.
While I demurred on the dogs, I became hooked on Olis soft serve vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate hard shell and sprinkled with black licorice. Pretty much perfection in a cone, that concoction.
Following the Rules
November of 2015 saw a change in Iceland’s camping law. It is now against the law to pull a camper over wherever you please and bed down for the night. Locals are rightly sensitive when it comes to foreigners following the rules.
From this date on, it is illegal to stay overnight in tent trailers, RV, motorhomes, vans, campers or any motor vehicle outside camping areas designated for such purpose.
Admittedly, this entire post tap dances in an area colored the deepest shades of grey.
The language in Iceland’s camping law specifically mentions “overnight” stays. I suppose the lawyer in me could argue nighttime road trippers are not actually staying “overnight”.
But the rules also clearly define camping outside any area designated for the purpose of camping to be illegal.
So there’s also that.
Surely Icelandic authorities didn’t have nighttime road trips and daytime sleeps in mind when they committed these rules to paper, although I see where the country is coming from.
While circumnavigating the island I came across plenty of vehicles parked in scenic pullouts along the side of road. I undertook the vast majority of my driving between 8pm and 6am and can tell you those vehicles were there to sleep and avoid campgrounds.
They wanted to save money.
Just to be clear, saving money is not what this post is about.
It’s about respecting and appreciating Iceland’s immense natural beauty while bypassing the crowds which detract from the overall experience.
Ironically, my main concern with nighttime road tripping was being pegged as an illegal overnight sleeper while actually visiting the attractions. My vehicle was frequently parked at very odd hours, often all alone, at major tourist locations.
But it never happened. No complaints, no questions, no trouble.
The camping rules and my ideas for avoiding crowds in Iceland are compatible.
But you need to be a conscientious traveler. If you are not going to make the effort, don’t even bother.
Respect the people of Iceland and their property, both public and private.
Basically, don’t act like an ignorant fool and ruin it for everyone else.
Eventually the remaining days of my itinerary will be written up and hyperlinked here, but what follows is the general overview of my trip.
My Night Time Road Trip Itinerary
- The Golden Circle – Reykjadalur Hot River, Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gulfoss Waterfall
- The South Coast – Gamla Laugin (The Secret Lagoon), Seljalandsfoss and Gljufurarbui, Skogafoss, Solheimasandur plane wreck
- The South Coast – Dyrrholaey, Reynisfjara beach, Fjarorargljufur canyon
- Skaftafell National Park
- Ingolfshofdi Peninsula puffin tour, Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, Hofn
- Dettifoss, Myvatn Nature Baths
- The Highlands – Askja Volcanic Caldera
- Husavik and whale watching trip, Godafoss
- The Trollaskagi Peninsula – Siglufjordur and Hofsos
- Snaefellsnes Peninsula Day 1 – Stykkisholmur
- Snaefellsnes Peninsula Day 2 – Snaefellsjokull National Park snowmobiling trip
- Snaefellsjokull National Park sights
- Raudfeldsgja Gorge, Glymur waterfall hike
I was quite keen to avoid crowds in Iceland, took nighttime touring to the extreme and utilized it almost exclusively on days 1-6 and 12-15. The middle segment between the Eastfjords and Hofsos did not require the same schedule adjustment because once you leave the South Coast, there simply aren’t that many visitors.
Sure, Myvatn and Husavik can be busy, but tourist numbers up north are nothing like the deluge peak season can bring along the South Coast.
When people return from Iceland dismayed by crowds it is due to the sheer number of people at the sights on Days 1-5 of my itinerary.
This is the prime segment for potential crowd-avoidance strategies.
The full day Highlands Super Jeep tour to Askja on Day 8 meant an extra early wake up call, so I kept a similar schedule before and after that excursion. That dovetailed nicely with a visit to the Whale Museum in Husavik (10a-4p) and a whale watching trip that afternoon.