This time last year my friend Kelsey and I decided to go on a spontaneous van adventure in Iceland. We booked a ticket on WOW airlines, rented a van for a week, packed our bags and headed to freezing cold Iceland. There are pros to visiting during the off season, but I have to say...a seven-night camping trip, in freezing temps wasn’t exactly what we expected.
WHAT TO PACK
I’ve gotten pretty good at packing with camera gear taking up over half of my luggage. This trip was unique though because I knew I would need to fit a few camping items as well. Which meant even less room for clothes. Make sure to ask your van rental what is included. We used their jetboil and kitchen utensils.
Hand warmers (game changer)
- Nalgene Bottle
- Lowepro Bag
- Nikon D810
- Nikon 35mm
- Nikon 70-200mm
Base layer pants
Stocking cap (I bought one at a truck stop there!)
More clothes to layer: long sleeve cotton tee, hoodie, athletic layers
Base Layer top
Mammut down jacket
Swimsuit (hot springs)
LIFE IN A VAN
Van life, is a simple life but mixed with bad weather you start feeling cooped up! We spent plenty of time exploring, but you spend the rest of your time: driving in the van, cooking in the van, parking the van, changing in the van, and sleeping in the van.
The cons: The daily temps would reach about 40 degrees f. and at night we were nearing zero. We often woke up with ice on the rooftop of our van from the condensation...it was COLD! I have experienced some cold weather camping and although it was easier to keep things dry and organized, there were nights I felt like we were in an icebox! We didn’t have the ground to hold in heat and the wind would rock our van all night. And there aren't too many tree covered areas to block the wind. There are no showers in your van...and it's freezing out...
The pros: We felt so flexible! We didn’t have hotel check-ins to worry about or any other logistics. Camping isn't as freely allowed the way it used to be, but because it was off season we parked right next to different attractions. One of my favorite nights we stayed right next to JÖKULSÁRLÓN (below). We woke up with a blanket of snow on us, but that was the view from our van door!
We were one night asked politely to pay for staying in a National Park. I’m not kidding when I say, it was the most polite police encounter I could ever imagine! We also paid for a few campsites, (listed below) but other than that, we parked wherever.
When we arrived to Reykevik's airport, we had literally nothing planned besides picking up our van. We crossed paths with a friend of mine when we arrived and he passed along their itinerary, which saved us so much time. I suggest doing what they did, which was create pins on a google map of the destinations you'd like to go.
We arrived to Keflavik Airport early in the morning and quickly took advantage of espresso and Icelandic breakfast sandwiches. We then exchanged money at the atm there and headed on our way via taxi to downtown Reykjavik to pick up our camper van from GO Rentals.
Loaded up on groceries at the Bonus grocery store - yes that’s the name.
Took a nap in the parking lot of Bonus, which in my mind justifies as a bonus!
Bought flowers at a flower shop and Kelsey whipped out flower crowns in 10 mins and we met up with two Icelandic models for a photoshoot.
After the photoshoot we drove to Selfoss Campground for our first night in the van.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall - it was crowded even earlier in the morning and it was the beginning of me getting annoyed with Instagrammers.
Seljavallalaug Hot Springs - it has been a dream of mine to explore this place and you take the good with the bad. Is it still epic - yes! Has it sadly become over visited and disgusting - yes!
Social media has created this illusion of escape and romance.
The waters were cold and creepy. Not to mention the human poop in the iconic pool house and around the area. It’s sad, but reason number 10,000 why I have mixed feelings about sharing these places with the world.
One of our favorite things about the area wasn't so much the pool though, but exploring around it! We followed the river into the hills above the pool.
We ate lunch and waited a while for the pool to be less crowded, but it always had waves of crowds.
Skogar Waterfall/campsite - one of the most epic waterfalls!
We did not end up staying at the Skogar campsite; instead, we drove around at sunset and parked in an empty lot down the road.
Fjaðrárgljúfur - I was so excited to stop here and it wasn’t the same with how sunny it was. For some reason our weather was freezing cold with no clouds most days! Also watched several people climb past the “stay on the path” sign to capture those epic “from where I stand” photos.
The Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon - I’ve never wanted to stay in a hotel so bad in my life. We stopped here multiple times for coffee, dinner one night and to just dream of staying there. Keep in mind we looked homeless and smelled since we never showered.
Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon - This was one of my favorite stops! I just love watching the sun and clouds move across the glaciers. I sat there and did a time lapse and while watching a group of guys jump on the glaciers to apparently take more “epic” instagram photos with their phone. I still cannot understand this idea. I have to give it to the one guy, though, he did a backflip on an ice glacier...but why? Just why?
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon - This is easily in my top ten travel sunsets. When we pulled up the sunset was shining pink on all the blue glaciers and leopard seals were swimming everywhere in the water. It was something magical! At one point I got down really close to the water and this seal kept popping his head up and staring at me.
We ended up parking our van in the glacier boat tour parking lot, not sure if it was allowed...but we did. It was one of my favorite nights hearing the water make noise and we woke up to a blanket of snow.
We woke up next to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and continued to explore around that morning. It was nothing like the night before, plus the crowds of people were already starting.
We then walked to the other side of the water where the icebergs were washing up on the black sand beach.
Hvannadalshnúkur - We started our drive back west on the faithful highway 1 and stopped here to explore more glaciers. I have to admit the driving was one of my favorite parts as we watched the landscape change so dramatically.
That night we continued West and found a random road to park the van for the night. It was freezing cold and that night we attempted cooking inside the van, which was terrifying with a jetboil.
I remember this morning being sooo cold! We woke up again trying to cook inside our van.
Reynisfjara Beach - The famous black sand beach right by the town of Vik. We recharged and fueled up at the gas station in Vik. Freshened up as much as possible considering we STILL had not showered and headed back out to freeze.
Geysir - We were now on the famous Golden Circle. It's more crowded since it's close to Reykivik and even people on long layovers will go explore the Golden Circle. The Geysir was actually one of my least favorite things, but hey.
We thought we would end our night finding some "secret lagoon" and we ended up stumbling across four Dutch guys in a shack making dinner. I can't even sum up how epic that night was, but you can read the full story here: Why I Travel
We also saw the NORTHERN LIGHTS!
And then came the second best day in Iceland: Laugarvatn Fontana - Blue Lagoon is probably the coolest, but this was a small piece of heaven. Keep in mind Kelsey and I STILL had not showered! I can't even give this story justice...but let's just say we were asked if, "something was burning" when we walked in. The man then continued to tell us we must shower before entering the hot springs...
There are different temperature pools and you basically run between them and the hot saunas.
We felt like NEW travelers after a day of relaxing and traveling at the hot springs. We kept saying we felt like the trip was over after getting to see the Northern Lights and showering!
Thingvellir National Park - This is where we encountered the nicest police officer because we were camping in the National Park without a pass. I think the rules become more strict the closer you get to the city. We went on a hike in the National Park and saw some waterfalls, but I took nearly zero photos from that day.
Our last night in Iceland was spent eating a fish dinner in Reykjavik before sleeping in the parking lot of Go Campers.
Returned the van and took a shuttle vs. a taxi to the airport. Ate one more Icelandic sandwich before boarding our trusty WOW airlines.
THE INSTAGRAM MECCA
Our trip was coming to a close and I couldn’t believe all the beautiful things we saw. The experience of the Northern Lights and freezing in a van with a good friend was something I’ll never forget.
So, why did it take me so long to want to share?
I couldn’t fully look past the surface level Instagram nonsense. I have been to some of the most touristy destinations, but this was next level. I saw more human poop than necessary and even saw a man while he was pooping. I realize when you gotta go, you gotta go - but c'mon!
We are so obsessed with sharing “perfection” to the world, but along the way we are leaving shit for the rest of us. I just hope that when you see a place you are so very inspired to visit, you travel with respect, you take your Instagrams from inside the, "do not cross" line, and I hope you respect the environment, the culture and others.
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xo - Tara