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I don’t know when I first heard about Iceland’s most popular hiking trail, but it had been on my travel wish list for some time. It’s just under 51 miles long, and the FI (Ferðafélag Íslands, or the Iceland Touring Foundation) maintains five huts conveniently located within 7-9 miles of each other along the way. There are also campsites at every hut, but Iceland has notoriously fickle (read: crappy) weather so Greg and I never considered tenting. Of course being Iceland’s most popular hike, bed space in the huts is limited and highly sought after. It’s recommended groups book 18 months in advance, and individuals at least a year.
We flew standby to Iceland and while flying cheap/free is a whole lot of fun for us, it makes it nigh impossible to plan any part of a trip beforehand because we never know when we’ll be able to get where. Once we decided we should go to Iceland (it only took me four years to convince Greg he’d love it), we started inquiring about beds in the huts. We couldn’t make anything work out in advance, but we still took all our backpacking gear just in case things changed once we got there. Reserving the huts is a little bit of a nuisance as you can only email bed requests, wait for a response telling you whether or not those nights are available, then email back requesting those specific dates. It takes too long to search the system so the folks working at the FI call center won’t look them up for you over the phone; you can only email and they’re always a day behind on reservation requests.
After arriving in Reykjavik we kept up the email requests but after three days in town we hadn’t received any word, so we made alternate plans to road trip around the country for two weeks instead. See my Iceland on a Budget! post to read up on that good time. Three days into our trip we stopped at a visitor center for free wifi and I had an email from FI letting me know they had two beds in the very huts we wanted, all five nights in a row. Score! I emailed them back promptly and let them know we definitely wanted the beds, then called the office immediately to book them over the phone with a credit card. In fact there were only two beds left in the very first hut and we got ‘em. Double score! After making the reservation I received an email telling me about the amenities we could expect: “The huts are dormitory style-sleeping bag area only. You have to bring your own sleeping bag and food to cook. There is running water, mattresses, no electricity but gas stoves and kitchen facilities like pots and pans, dishes and utensils.”
Well… we’ve stayed in public use cabins in Alaska and Montana, and a 10th Mountain Division hut in Colorado, and Greg has stayed in huts all over New Zealand, and… we’re pretty much experts, so… we put together our knowledge from those huts rather than pay any attention to the FI email. BIG MISTAKE. We were basically stocked with everything but a tent, which was completely and totally unnecessary. Learn from the Warckens and work smarter, not harder.
Every hut we stayed in was warm and cozy, and had every amenity we could’ve hoped for. Four of the five huts even offered showers, though they cost extra and depending on the solar charge and usage didn’t always provide hot water. I’ll tell you one thing Lady Campfire will not tolerate, and that’s a cold shower; she’d rather die of poor hygiene. The beds ranged from single mats all in a row, to single beds all in a row, to double bunks. There was no bedding on any of the beds and we packed our double sleeping bag but would’ve been just fine in our double silk sleep sack. I stole a pillow from the flight over but Greg just used all our down jackets in a stuff sack for his. Generally every hut had a massive pot of boiling water which made meals and hot drinks super convenient. Take a dip, replace a dip. We brought over all our dehydrated camp food from home, as well as Ramen, tuna packets, and lots of instant oats, and stocked up on other essentials in Reykjavik the night before our hike. I copied the following directly from my hiking journal:
Day 1 Landmannalauger to Hrafntinnusker 12k
The night before we started hiking we stayed in a six-bed dorm room at the Reykjavik City Hostel, where beds are relatively cheap, there are multiple kitchens (with multiple free bins), washers and dryers with a drying room, and pick-ups for both our hiking bus and the airport shuttle. We did all our laundry before the hike and had to take out cash for the first time since being in Iceland to use the coin-operated machines. I found heavy whipping cream in a free bin, as well as instant coffee for the hike, and we took all our leftovers- Sykr, granola, and half a rotisserie chicken- to eat on the bus ride to the trailhead. We paid $103 each for an open jaw bus ticket to and from the hostel with an open end date/destination in case we wanted to end the hike sooner than expected. It was a long, cold 4+ hour ride from Reykjavik to Landmannalauger on some really rough roads and I was glad we hadn’t hitched or driven ourselves. The bus picked up outside the hostel at 06:40 and after a quick lunch at the trailhead we were hiking by 11:45.
The hike started out cloudy and cool up to the first pass, then an intermittent sprinkle turned into a cold whipping wind and thick fog over snowfield after snowfield. It was July 19th, but thanks to its northern latitudes Iceland likes to hang on to a bit of snow all year. Really beautiful, colorful mountains all around when we could actually see, and random thermal areas with hot steam rising. We’d done plenty of day hikes over the summer, but this was our first backpacking trip and I was worn out and tired of all that snow and Iceland’s apparent lack of switchbacks. When the trail goes up, you go up.
We came across a huge cairn with a plaque memorializing a 25 yo man who froze to death on his way to the very hut we were heading toward. I trudged on. Two spry, young American women went flying past us after stopping to ask if we knew how much further the second hut was past the first hut. “I don’t know, another 12km?” Complete white-out, cold drizzle, freezing wind. “I think we’re going to head to that one.” Good riddance. I love when I’m feeling real sorry for myself and some badass comes along to remind me I am weak and they are strong. We call them “Heaphy Tracks” because one came along when Greg was hiking the Heaphy Track in New Zealand and Greg kicked into the man’s superhuman pace and matched him step for step all the way to the trailhead. I followed my Heaphy Tracks right into the hut (sure enough, they hiked on) and we got our first introduction to Iceland’s hut system.
Words cannot express how comforting a warm hut is after a cold, dark hike. Like, one of the greatest feelings ever. We were ushered upstairs to find two adjacent mats tucked under a gable. How romantic! All the mats were on the floor, side by side in two long rows along the walls, and plenty of people slept in their underwear and no one cared because it’s Europe. The sinks had running water but the outside toilets did not and they were shockingly stinky and full of cold, wet, miserable campers trying to get out of the elements. No thanks. Every hut warden takes note of your nationality and the Americans were winning this year in hut stays, but the Germans were beating us in camping, the hardy souls.
Day 2 Hrafntinnusker to Alftavatan 12k
We woke up to everyone upstairs quietly packing their bags at 06:30. Didn’t even have to set an alarm. Kitchen opened at 07:00 and was immediately packed and all the hot water gone. But, plenty available to keep boiling, and we had coffee with cream, and oats & peanut butter for breakfast. Made bagels with cream cheese and ham for lunch, surely the envy of the hut. The sun was lifting as we hiked out and it was just a dandy of a morning. Sunshine through misty clouds over colorful hills and snow fields and thermal areas. Lots of steam vents and bubbles coming out of rocks.
The weather was fine until we reached the southern edge of the Torfajökull caldera, then the rain started on that all-downhill hike to the river crossing. No switchbacks again and I learned a good move from a Lithuanian doing lunges on the way down, then I didn’t constantly feel like I was going to fall. River crossing with a whole passel of people watching, which made it a bit scarier, but it ended up being no big deal. Two girls showed up without any water shoes or trekking poles to help them across so an F.I. hut warden, Siggy (adorable and absurdly confident), threw her own shoes and poles over for them to use. One girl made it across and threw one shoe back to her friend and the other one right into the river. The hut wardens chased it downstream until finally the dude (Siggy’s boyfriend?) went in for it with his pants and boots on. I told him that was a very noble thing he did and he said “She would’ve been sad to have lost that shoe.” What a guy. Siggy made me want to be a professional hiker .
From the crossing it was an easy walk to our next hut where we settled right into our bagels and a bowl of Ramen. Soon Siggy came over and asked if we wouldn’t mind switching huts so a big group of Italians could stay in ours. Sure! We switched over to the big hut with all the young’uns and got assigned two single beds next to each other. A cold, miserable mist all day and Greg counted over 70 tents outside the hut by the time we went to bed. Plenty of them gathered under the eaves to cook and there was always a long line for the showers (we didn’t run the risk). We just hunkered in and read and journaled and played farkel and drank hot tea and chatted with other guests. Looking out at the campers I’d never felt so privileged in my entire life. Potatoes with cheese and broccoli + chunk chicken for supper and an apple with peanut butter for dessert. Another hutter came by and asked where she should throw out her leftover food. “How about right onto my plate here?” Mountain House mac & cheese- score!
Slept in a room with a bunch of New Yorkers- a family on their son’s high school graduation trip. How awesome is that? Their guide told everyone up front he was a terrible snorer and offered ear plugs to anyone who might need them. No thanks, I brought my own.
Day 3 Alftvatn to Emstrur 15k
Oats and peanut butter again, plus some terrible instant coffee. Greg is on a worldwide mission to find the best instant coffee. He loves the Starbucks packets but we’re not millionaires and I refuse to be financially assaulted every time I drink a cup. I’m happy with Folgers instant, and we’ve settled on Nescafe Gold or Mount Hagen. But in bulk, not individual packets because they’re more expensive and that’s just wasteful. Now for two people who travel as much as we do, we still fight like cats and dogs when it comes to packing. I don’t even know what we fight about- our different packing styles? The fact that as I’m packing up, Greg is actively unpacking what I’m packing and putting it somewhere else? Yep, that’s it, I just felt my skin start to crawl. What is that, ADHD? In order to fix it I know we’re just going to have to keep packing together and that gives me anxiety just thinking about it. I made it a point in my journal today to point out we “didn’t even argue!” as we were packing. Life is so hard.
It started out a gorgeous, sunny morning with a river crossing right away. It was maybe knee deep but the group of elderly Italians in front of us decided that was enough to warrant an “undies-only” crossing. LOLZ. The clouds were high and we got some great views of a massive glacier in front of us as we approached our scariest river crossing. I still didn’t take my pants off for it, just hiked my shorts up to my crotch. It was coooooold and long, but our legs started to warm as soon as we got out of the water and then it was just refreshing. It was like hiking on the moon all the way to our next hut and just as I stopped to put sunscreen on the clouds rolled in again so we just kept on trucking. You don’t see the next hut until you’re right above it, and we turned a corner for our first dramatic view of it and the enormous glacier hovering above it. AMAZING. We stayed in hut #2 with six Germans, two Israelis, two Swiss, two Frenchies, three Americans, and one Dane. I loved hearing all the languages we couldn’t understand and the jokes we didn’t get. But smiles and laughter are universal- isn’t that just great? Wouldn’t it be weird if in other parts of the world busting into tears meant you thought a joke was funny? Bagels and Ramen for lunch again, then a short nap. The weather stayed clear so afterward we took a walk up to the Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyon- also amazing! It started to drizzle while we were out but the clouds stayed high so we could see the three glaciers surrounding us, and with the verdant mountains in the foreground it looked unreal, like an oil painting. SO glad we were able to line these huts up.
Day 4 Emstrur to Þórsmörk 15k
I’ll tell you what, mister- you couldn’t pay me to do this hike in a tent. Raining when we first woke up but it stopped by the time we started hiking. Emstrur would be worth another day in good weather, though we heard Þórsmörk (prounced “Thors-merk”) is nicer. There’s no way this trail and/or Iceland can maintain this much tourist pressure for much longer. With 70+ tents at any given site plus everyone staying in huts, the trails will erode, the vegetation will be destroyed, and the septic tanks will overflow. I wouldn’t be surprised if they closed the Laugavegur trail to all tenters and made it huts by reservation only. It’s far too popular and too accessible. Iceland is pretty well all backcountry; spread the love, people. Started raining again maybe an hour into our hike and it did not stop all day. We were hot and clammy in our rain gear, but couldn’t have been happier to have a hut waiting for us at the end. We went up up up a mountain and down down down to a big river crossing. No fun getting undressed in the pouring rain but that’s what I love about hiking- you just have to keep going, and every step you take you’re stronger than your last. The Wind River’s Hailey Pass really changed my mental state hiking. I don’t balk at any incline, and now thanks to the Lithuanian who taught me to lunge I don’t balk at any decline either.
Supposedly only 3k from the ford to our hut, but I think it must’ve been 3k to the Þórsmörk area, and another 2k to our hut. I was just about to throw in the soaking wet towel when I saw the hut. Hot tea! Lunch! Soft pants! All the coats and pants hanging in the hut’s entryway were just pouring water all over the floor. We want to design our future cabin in the woods based on these Iceland huts, with a mudroom big enough for all our shoes and coats and packs and gear, and a woodstove with a pot always boiling, and a sauna, and a big ol’ soaking tub. This trail would make a great girls’ trip, or a couples’ trip, or a niece and nephew trip. We sat down for supper next to a big group of Germans and they offered us a huge bowl of salmon pesto pasta. Yes please! When we had our fill we passed it on to the Frenchie and Swiss next to us. What a place! We hit up the free baskets and scored protein bars, dehydrated spaghetti, granola, and pepperoni sticks. Who would throw this stuff out?! Two older Frenchmen have been on the trail with us the entire time and we finally got around to asking them their ages after dinner. Both of them were 73 and have been friends for 55 years. Every year they ditch their wives and take a trip together, and then sometimes they take another trip as couples. How awesome is that?! Greg said “We’ve got another forty years of hiking ahead of us!” Only if we’re extremely lucky, but I love thinking about all the possibilities.
Day 5 Þórsmörk to Baldvinsskáli 13k
Raining when we got up but stopped by the time we started hiking. Passing views of the glaciers above us. Þórsmörk a really nice area, would be worth sticking around and dayhiking. Started hiking in rain gear but overheated real quick. A big American group started just behind us and I was determined they would not pass us.
Side note: Iceland has 350,000 people. Supposedly even if you counted all the dead Icelanders they still wouldn’t total a million people, and now Iceland gets over a million visitors a year.
We hiked up up up and sweated and sweated and sweated. Stopped before a big push onto a plateau to have a protein bar and admire the view of the glaciers. 15 minute push straight up, then a cold wind across the plateau eyeing the next big push straight up a mountain. Have I mentioned there’s no way Iceland can maintain these trails? This no-switchback business isn’t good for anyone- they’re extremely unsafe and hard as hell to hike up. I got a little feisty on the straight up the mountain stretch. An actual Warcken conversation:
G: You said you wanted nice calves. You gotta burn it to earn it.
J: I wanted them to come naturally.
G: That’s not how it works, Fat Calves. Let’s go.
Amazing views from the top of that mountain- glaciers all around us and fresh lava fields and two new craters from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. I could feel warm breezes and the ground still steamed in places- very surreal and a little unnerving. Blue skies in places and the sun actually shone for a bit up top. Lots of snowfield traverses and I wouldn’t recommend this section of the hike to anyone but those who are in it to win it. We came up over a hill and everything on the other side was completely socked in. One minute we could see the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, the next minute it was all cold, miserable fog. Three men materialized out of nowhere and Greg said he could hear voices but we never saw anyone else. Our hut was over the next rise and a welcome site. The hut warden, Runólfur (Runni) was the most laidback and the best yet. He couldn’t find our reservation but I had the confirmation number on my phone so he called the main office to make sure we had paid in advance and could actually stay the night. We had, and we could. 10 minutes later I ran into him outside and he asked if I was staying overnight and if I had paid yet. And he was serious. I just laughed and laughed. We still laugh about him. “You staying? You pay yet?” It stayed cold and rainy all night and Runni made us real coffee and gave us whole milk and it was just a real nice surprise, Clark. It was just us, a Dutch guy, a French Canadian couple, and a family of four tall, gorgeous Norwegians who hiked in real bras (as evidenced by their taking their shirts off in front of everyone any chance they got). The Flying Dutchman made us a bunch of ‘chips’ out of scrap paper and we played Hold `Em with a couple of German campers. It was about the most fun I’ve ever had. At one point I thought Runni’s nose was bleeding, but when I mentioned it he told me it was all the snuff he snorted- Icelandic tobacco. Well when in Rome! We both gave it a go. It was like a shot of Vick’s up my nose. No thanks. This hut was an A-frame and our favorite one of the hike. Mostly because of Runni. You staying? You pay yet?
Day 6 Baldvinsskáli to Skógar 15k
The clouds had lifted somewhat before bed and at times we could see the surrounding glaciers and all the way to the coast, but not so this morning. We were totally socked in again. Best night of sleep yet. We’ve been waking up naturally at 0700 every morning. We get water going and make breakfast, and afterward we both have our morning poop, then we’re on our way. What a life! This has been such a great hike. Pretty well to our hut by lunch every day, then lovely hours spent in comfort. Light packs, decent food. Had Mountain House milk and granola for breakfast, along with the free granola I found in Þórsmörk. Delicious! I couldn’t stop thinking about it! Have hiked every day with a protein bar or two in my pocket and that’s really helped my spirit and stamina. It was a long walk down that mountain and we passed waterfall after waterfall. A little rain made the trail super slick and too many boots made it even worse. The talk around the hut last night was how Iceland can’t keep up with all these tourists (see?!). It’s literally crumbling away in front of us. It was shocking to get back to the roadside crowds at Skógar and they annoyed the hell out of me right away. “No Walking” signs everywhere and people just tramping right past them. As we were walking past a roped-off area two Americans were talking about going over. I told them there was a reason that rope was there. As we walked away I heard one of them say “Well I don’t think I like that.” Suck it in hell, DBs. I’m going to write the F.I. and tell them our concerns (and maybe ask for a couple of jobs).
We walked straight to the Info Center for free wifi and to recharge batteries and ourselves. G opted for bottomless soup and bread, and I got fish and chips. That bread was worth its weight in gold. We caught the 16:25 Reykjavik Excursions bus to the City Hostel and immediately spread everything out to repack. Over the course of our trip we ate practically an entire backpack full of food and still managed to leave Iceland with full packs. How is that possible? We wrapped up our trip with a bag of popcorn for supper, our hearts full of love for that little green island full of glaciers.
I would recommend the Landmannalauger-Þórsmörk portion of the trail to anyone fit enough to hike with a daypack, and the Þórsmörk-Skógar to anyone who’s backpacked before and is in reasonable shape. Prepare for terrible weather, and take entertainment for the huts. No one without a hut reservation is allowed inside them, so if you camp don’t depend on a dry place to prepare food. Take extra shoes or sandals to cross rivers in, a pair of cheap slippers for the huts (absolutely no boots allowed inside), and earplugs for the snorers. Have the time of your life.
The financial breakdown:
- Hrafntinnusker 7,500 kr/person
- Alftavatn 7,500 kr/person
- Emstrur 7,500 kr/person
- Porsmork/Langidalur 7,500 kr/person
- Baldvinsskali 6,000 kr/person = $589.63, or around $118/night for the both of us
Hostel before $78.67/night for two beds in a 6-bed dorm
Hostel after $78.67/night for two beds in a 6-bed dorm
Bus Passport $205.58 for two open-jaw tickets
Grand Total: $962.55 for seven nights lodging and transportation, we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Any takers?