I wasn’t supposed to go to Iceland. It was a lucky coincidence. It’s not that I didn’t want to – quite the opposite! I hoped and dreamed of seeing the Land of Fire and Ice but didn’t even think it would be possible. Iceland is famous for being expensive and when I was looking for a place to hike last summer, I gave up and went to Scotland instead (no regrets, though).
So how come I could go this year? Together with my group of international friends, we decided to make a ten-year reunion in Canada. It just happens that the cheapest flights to Canada from Europe are from… Reykjavik (WOW airline). What an opportunity for an incredible layover!
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The uneasy quest to find the best hike in Iceland
Once I decided to go to Iceland, I needed to find a hiking trail for about a week. One of the biggest hit to one’s budget in Iceland relates to bus ticket prices. What is important to know, when you travel in Iceland by the public transport (Straeto), the bus tickets don’t go cheaper the farther you go. Meaning, they are not proportional but rather you pay exactly the same amount of money for each zone you pass. No matter if it’s in Reykjavik only or if you go to the other side of the island. Sometimes you pass through 10 or 20 zones and the ticket can get crazy expensive. The basic one ticket is 440 króna then you get a multiplication of it. To get slightly cheaper you can buy at once 20 tickets (in 10-11 stores) for 8300 króna, which lower the general price a bit. All of it meant that there was no sense of combing a few day-hikes in various places in Iceland. Additionally, the buses don’t go very often. I also don’t have a driving license so renting a car was out of the question.
The best combination for a hiking week in Iceland: Laugavegur + Fimmvörðuháls trails
In the end, I decided to go with a classic – Laugavegur, the most popular trail which takes about 4 days. It starts in Landmannalaugar and goes to Thórsmörk, where there are multiple day hikes to take or the option of walking to Skógar along the Fimmvörðuháls trail. I decided this was just perfect for me – I would start in Landmannalaugar and walk all the way to Skógar. There are buses on both ends of those trails.
I had to modify my plans as I realized there were very few bus options! I’ve learned that no regular public Straeto bus goes to Landmannalaugar, as only special mountain buses can reach this place. Additionally, the only morning bus that goes there leaves Reykjavik at 7.30 am and I would be arriving from the airport some 15 minutes later (cheaper option for getting from the airport to Reykjavik – take the Straeto bus, it’s 4xticket, so only 1760 kr instead of 2500 by the commercial options)… My other option? Go by Straeto bus to Skógar and simply go the other direction. I am quite happy I did it that way. It is more difficult as there is a bit more uphill walking than the other direction and I was facing some strong winds. Other than that? It is a personal choice. It’s pretty obvious more people choose to start in Landmannalaugar (or Thórsmörk).
Getting started on Fimmvörðuháls trail
I took the 5:30 pm bus #51 from Mjödd (there are many city buses that reach Mjödd bus station) and arrived in Skógar in the evening, around 7:40 pm. The bus stops right by the campsite, no need to walk anywhere. The campsite is pretty basic one. It costs 1500 kr, to take a shower you have to pay another 300 kr. Tourists who arrive to see the famous Skógafoss (waterfall) walk through the campsite, so there is not much privacy. It is worth pitching your tent right next to the hedge – the winds get brutal!
The next day I was happy to see a change in weather. Throughout the day I had some clouds and the wind but also a lot of the sunshine and no rain whatsoever! You begin the trail by climbing up the stairs next to the Skógafoss and it’s a big kick in your butt right from the start! But it also means that right away you are served some stunning views.
In the beginning, there are a lot of people walking with you, as many Skógafoss visitors take also some shorter or longer walks around. Unfortunately, it means that the path is eroded as the tourists don’t keep to the trail.
Fimmvörðuháls trail along the Skógá river
The path is never boring. For a long time, we walk along the river Skógá, watching the many curves, falls and turns of its waters. Under the feet path changes – sometimes it’s covered with stones and rocks, sometimes it’s mud or hard soil. The trail is also rarely flat – smaller and bigger climbs and descents make the walking quite interesting.
After about 8 km of hiking, we need to cross a path bridge over Skógá river and make a decision. The main trail (blue) moves on away from a river and after about 4 km reaches the Baldvinsskáli hut which has no water (by the sign… later I found out they had water, just limited) or go left (red trail) which was described as more difficult but providing vistas of dozens falls (and some 7 km to the next hut). I decided to go with the red one as I want all the falls I can get ;-). I also knew I had not enough water for two days so wanted to go close by a river to resupply.
The trail was indeed difficult. Quite soon we reach snow and walking on it is slower (a bit like walking on a beach) and at times a bit dangerous when crossing over an ice bridge where you can see holes and ice-cold streams under! I had visions of myself falling through and getting soaked. Nothing like that happened but the path requires your full attention. In addition to snow, there is a lot of walking on volcanic sand or gravel. I can’t imagine walking very fast through it!
Finding a place for the night rest on Fimmvörðuháls trail
Toward the evening I was getting really tired and started to look for a place to camp. Although wild camping in Iceland is legal in many places it is discouraged to preserve the very delicate nature. Icelandic moss takes decades to regrow!
I thought I would make it to the next hut (Fimmvörðuskáli) but when I reached a certain place and saw the hut far ahead of me on a tall mountain I decided to stop. I just didn’t think I would make it there! It is a pity that a hill in front of me obscured the view of another hut, merely 1km or so from my spot, by the main blue trail (which was running quite close to the red one in that spot).
As I try to hike and camp by the Leave No Trace rules, I tried to find a place that would be the least damaged by my camping and I hope I made the right choice. I pitched my tent on a flat spot of sand and hard soil. I used loose rocks to hold it down (the wind was still strong) and walked on rocks (not moss) to make the least impact.
The place of my camp was stunningly beautiful. One of the few places where you could access the water – most of the times rivers flow in deep canyons where there was no way of reaching the water level safely. Even though the water is probably really clean and safe, I still used my beloved mini Sawyer water filter to purify it. I had the perfect view of snow patches, dark gray hills, rocks and icy cold river. I still couldn’t believe how late the sunset was! I was comfortably reading in my tent with no need for light until after 10 pm! To fall asleep I had to use my buff as an eye mask.
Finding the Land of Fire and Ice along the Fimmvörðuháls trail
The next day was a complete change in weather. I woke up to a monochromatic world. Gone were the blue skies, there was only gray, sleet gray, brown-gray, dirty whites and black. There was some rain during the night but gone by the morning. The volcanic gravel was sticking to my tent and there was no way to get rid of it!
Because of the strong winds, I decided to pack right away and make my breakfast at the hut I could see on the horizon. When I climbed the first snow-covered hill I saw the other hut on the right, just a few hundred meters away! The trail markings were off and there were footsteps everywhere so it was hard to see where the trail was. I simply walked to the hut and was welcomed by wonderfully warm air inside. The Baldvinsskáli hut, which is operated by Ferðafélag Íslands (The Iceland Touring Association, FÍ) was clean, cozy and well maintained. To use the facilities (toilet, gas stove and water from a big container) you need to pay 500 kr to the warden. I was happy to do so – the weather outside was dreadful with really strong, icy winds. You can stay inside for the night (highly recommended) or camp next to it (not much room, though).
After finishing my hot oatmeal and a coffee (with a book) I decided to stay on the blue trail instead of going back to find the red one. The first half of the day proved to be very difficult. The Fimmvörðuháls trail leads between two glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, so it was to be expected to see some harsh environment. Walking on snow and gravel, against really strong winds was tiring. But the views! They provided a constant feast for the eyes.
Fimmvörðuháls is no walk in park
If you want to walk this trail, please remember that the weather conditions can be pretty severe here – even in summer! The visibility can be very low, which combined with low temperatures, brutal winds and possibly rains (or even snowstorm) could be potentially dangerous. Make sure you are prepared! The path here is marked with tall stakes and pipes in sharp yellow/orange color to help find your way in harsh conditions.
Fimmvörðuháls: Walking on volcanos
Then we reach the most fascinating spot: a birthplace of two new volcanos. The Goðahraun lava field was to my untrained eyes something of another world. The striking contrast between snow and dark, sharp rocks was fascinating. The eruption took place in spring of 2010 and two new mountains were born: Magni and Móði. It is something unreal to walk on rocks younger than my nephew! Way to make you feel old 😉
Right at an informative board about the eruption, you can choose to make a small detour and climb the volcanic mount. I highly recommend leaving your backpack here and just go up with your camera (obviously). I was mesmerized by the many shades and colors of volcanic rocks and the feel of them in my hands: sharp, light, rough and truly beautiful.
Standing there you realize with all clarity why Iceland is called the Land of Fire and Ice.
Fabulous views on the way down to Thórsmörk
From this spot on it’s basically downhill walk all the way to Thórsmörk. Be careful, as some parts are very steep and slippery on the loose gravel. My knees and feet were dead tired after the descent, I think I would prefer to walk up!
The first time I saw a tiny plant making it in between rocks I was shocked to realize how much I missed seeing plants! With every step, there were more signs of life: more Moss, shy grasses and flowers… then you start noticing birds and insects. It is hard to describe the passage through such strikingly different surroundings, you just have to see it all yourself.
The path down to Thórsmörk is fascinating in itself. Deep canyons and dramatic mountains provide beautiful views all the way down to the camping site. At some points, there are difficult passages – one with ropes/chains to help you and another which is very exposed and might be hard for people with vertigo or fear of heights. Be extra careful!
Basar campsite in Thórsmörk
I stopped at the Basar campsite. If you wanted, you could walk on, cross the river (prepare for wading through shallow streams) and stay at the other campsite (or a hut).
When I pitched my tent on the grass between trees I could hardly believe how different this spot was from the night before!
This camping site is much bigger than the one in Skógar. It seems to be popular with staycationing tourists – you can see big tents, RVs and campers. And indeed it’s a great idea – a lot of day-hikes have its start around this area so no risk of boring vacations! There are a lot of trees and bushes providing natural walls and providing privacy for campers.
The cost of pitching a tent is 1500 kr (6000 kr for a hut), 4min of showering will cost you 400kr. Forget about washing your hair – there is not enough time. Be prepared to scrub your skin well – I came back from the trail covered with the volcanic dust creating a lovely “makeup” on my face (hands, legs up to knees with long pants on… and so on). I hardly finished soaping myself down from the dust when the water stopped!
Don’t even bother looking for a plug to recharge your electric appliances – there are none. If you need to do it you can leave them in the office for a charge: 500kr for a phone/small camera and 1000kr for a power bank. I wished I had a bigger power bank with me! Don’t repeat my mistake – grab a really powerful one as there are hardly any places to recharge on the way.
The Fimmvörðuháls trail – a summary
I think there is no need to state that I loved this trail. It is beautiful, challenging and rewards you with unbelievable beauty. If you are like, a solo hiker – I can highly recommend hiking Fimmvörðuháls trail. Firstly, it’s quite popular so you are never far from other people in case of danger. Secondly – it’s safe for female solo hikers. I was lucky with the weather – even with the brutal winds and cold weather for part of it, the visibility was good and there was more sun than clouds. I probably scored the sunniest week in the history of Iceland (or something) – but you might not be as lucky. Prepare well and dress for winter. High-quality waterproofs are a must! Wear good hiking boots (not shoes) and have a pair of trekking poles to help you navigate tough spots. Make sure you have gloves, a hat, buff and a change of clothes. If you plan on sleeping in a tent, make sure your sleeping bag is a good 3-season and not a summer one! Read more on choosing the right sleeping bag in this article. You might want to check this useful packing list for women hiking and camping solo in Iceland to make sure you have all you need. Add to it non-optional waterproof pants and gloves.
Are you new to the whole female solo hiking? Are you a bit nervous to try? Don’t worry – I got your back! Hiking solo is wonderful and gives a great kick to your self-confidence. The Fimmvörðuháls trail is the perfect one to try your adventure with solo hiking!
Fimmvörðuháls trail: 23km, about 9-11h estimated time of walking and elevation of about 1000m. You can do it in one day if you are a very fit and experienced hiker. It is advised to do it from Skógar for a more gradual climb and better views – you see all the waterfalls in front of you and have a better view of Thórsmörk when descending at the end. Runners often choose the other direction as it’s easier to do the steep climb first and then gradually go down.
Have you done this trail? How was your weather?
Any tips or advice for hikers wishing to hike the Fimmvörðuháls trail?