My wife and I spent nine nights in Iceland, chasing beautiful landscapes and waterfalls for adventure and photographic purposes. I've received many questions regarding our schedule, logistics and photographic highlights. While I am blogging separately about details of individual shots captured during the trip, I thought it could be helpful to share some general information about how we approached our first Iceland visit and what we learned in the process. In particular, I am writing about our impressions of living in a camper van in Iceland for 8 nights (we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Reykjiavík, owned by the caper company we rented for, on the 9th night).
This 2-part blog entry will be more travel than photography blog.
We stumbled upon the camper van approach mostly by procrastination; we had booked plane tickets very early but dragged our feet looking for accommodations. We hadn't quite understood how scarce accommodations were in some parts of the island and how spread out many of the places we wanted to visit were. When we finally got around to figuring out the logistics of our trip, we panicked briefly when we realized how challenging it would be to book accommodations in 9 different hotels around the island. Luckily, we discovered the popular camper van option. We gladly booked a van and shifted the paradigm of the trip in our heads - this would be a great trip, but very different from what we originally imagined. The van relieved us from doing too much scheduling in advance and turned out to be the perfect approach for our first visit.
Having rented our camper van, we planned on doing the famous “ring road” in a counter-clockwise direction and came up with a general schedule of how far we might go each day, based on some research and educated guesses. One of the main benefits of the van became apparent immediately after our arrival: ultimate schedule flexibility. Important to note, Iceland weather is extremely unpredictable, so having a rigid schedule in advance may not be the best way to experience the island... Shortly after landing on a misty overcast day, we were at the camper van rental hub and the owner of the company showed us the local weather map (she was very helpful, see information on Snail.is under "Our Van" below). She encouraged us to drive north that day rather than south. “Follow the good weather”, she recommended, pointing out the sunny forecast on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. So only an hour into our trip, we completely turned our schedule around and embarked on a clockwise drive around the island. Her advice to move with the sun was excellent and it seemed to have set things rolling in the right direction. With additional schedule tweaking along the way (driving farther here, skipping a landmark there), and some good luck, the good weather days kept coming for the full duration of the trip.
Another benefit of the camper van for photographic purposes was the ease of hitting the road in the morning and wrapping up the day after sunset. On several occasions, we got up at 4 a.m., used the campsite bathrooms and were on our way to photograph the sunrise over some wonderful Icelandic landscape before many other tourists had shown up. Becca could pretty much stay in bed while I drove, and we arrived before 5 a.m. at places like Kirkjufell, Dettifoss, and Gullfoss. Having such majestic locations nearly to yourselves really enhances the power of the experience, not to mention gives you the opportunity to capture images that would be hard or impossible to capture in a sea of tourists. I can’t imagine this would have been as easy or fun if we had to take down a campsite in the cold before starting to drive. Conversely, we arrived at a few of our campsites late at night after some grueling drives and were off to bed in a matter of minutes.
While I can’t think of many drawbacks to the camper van experience, there are a few things to consider. 1) It is not cheap, 2) you can’t go everywhere, and 3) it is not a hotel. On the first point, it’s important to know that Iceland is generally expensive. With that in mind, one could argue that while not “budget travel” by any extent of the imagination, our camper van at around $300 USD a night was not a terrible deal considering we got a car plus a place to sleep. Still, cost is a factor to consider. As to where you can and cannot go, most camper vans listed for rent are not allowed to be driven on “F roads”.
While you can access the majority of the most famous locations on regular roads, “F roads” are required to get to some destinations. A few places are reached by roads that may not technically be “F roads” but are still very rough and all-wheel drive is a must. The van we rented was all-wheel drive and allowed on F-roads by the rental company, which gave us the peace of mind to push through some rougher roads to get to places like Háifoss and Gjáin. We are not particularly daring drivers, though, so we did not drive up to the highlands or ford any rivers (rental insurance won't cover you if you do). While the van may have been “allowed” on F roads, it was certainly not the kind of rugged off-road vehicle that we would take any chances in. If you want to push farther inland, rent something with humongous tires! Lastly, the camper van experience is most like camping, albeit a little easier than staying in a tent. If you have never camped before, it may feel a little bit like “roughing it”. Even in August it got down into the 40s at night, although our down sleeping bags provided by the rental company kept us warm. We mostly ate dehydrated foods we brought with us (not many food options in the distant areas, especially for us vegetarians), and drank instant coffee (quite the sacrifice for us, as we are coffee enthusiasts, to say the least).
"We slept at campsites every night for the convenience of the facilities, and out of respect for the landscape."
If you are on the ring road, it seems that there is always a campsite within an hour drive. We slept at campsites every night for the convenience of the facilities (toilets, showers – sometimes with hot water), and out of respect for the landscape (don’t be the ugly tourist!). We had impulsively bought an unlimited yearly camping card thinking that this would be a great deal, but it was not a good purchase since not all campsites on the island are covered by the card. Half of the nights we ended up staying on non-covered campsites based on our constantly developing schedule and proximity to our destinations.
We rented our camper van from Snail.is. It Morning at a Campsite is a family owned company who make their own van conversions, offered one free night at their Reykjavík area B&B on either end of our rental, and shuttled us around as needed on arrival and departure days. We had lots of fun with the fact that we were driving in a yellow van with clouds painted on top. We still have fun showing off the pictures of it to friends and family. While we heard that other customers named their vans, we took to referring to ours simply as “The Snail” (because really, what better name than that?). It was a well-used vehicle with a few quirks and a good amount of miles on it, but it performed solidly for us with no significant issues. While some of the rentals from other companies seemed to be shinier or newer (some of the other Snails were newer as well), our VW Syncro van took us to some places that some others wouldn’t have (I met another photographer at Gullfoss who told me he had turned around after attempting to make Háifoss on his two wheel drive camper van). It was also roomier than most of the camper vans we saw around (we rented the Snail 1, and were glad to have the extra volume). The van had a space heater that we ran for about an hour before going to bed, a gas stove, curtains for privacy, full array of dishes and cookware, and an alternator powered outlet for charging our phone, camera batteries and other electronics. Driving back to the Snail center on the last day, we were scheming ways to bring our trusty Snail back to the U.S. with us.
Next Blog Post
Next time I will get into the specifics of our trip on a day-by-day basis, some of our favorite stops, and the things we want to go back for. In the meantime, please check out my Iceland images here as I keep uploading them over the next weeks:
Iceland Photo Gallery
Finally, please leave comments and questions below, and help me share this blog with anyone who may find it helpful!