Iceland camper van road trip tips

So what are Icelandic campgrounds like?

When we picked up our camper, we had the option of purchasing an Iceland Camping Card. The card cost $172 at the time of our trip, and permitted entry at approximately 40 campgrounds across Iceland (with plenty of options in each region) for two adults and up to four kids. If you don’t use a Camping Card, the cost at most campgrounds is approximately $12 per car or van, plus around $10 for each adult and $8 or so for teens (young children usually free). In a nutshell, for a family of four with older kids, the cost to us per night would have been around $50-60. Still a steal of a deal, but after doing the math, the Camping Card came way out ahead.

iceland campground

Typical Icelandic campsite

With the Camping Card, you get a booklet showing each campground with a description. There’s also a map, but in our experience, the map only got us to the town or village the campground was located in; often, we needed to ask a local for directions after that. Why the campground descriptions couldn’t include driving directions from the nearest town, I’ll never know.

Note: Even with the Camping Card, there’s a fee of about $1 for nightly tax. Just have 100 ISK on-hand. 

Because Iceland is a country devoid almost entirely of trees, campgrounds are open grassy fields, usually surrounded by hedges to block the wind. At first, this felt odd to my American interpretation of camping, as there are no designated campsites (simply drive up and pull in where you want to be). We got used to it quickly, however. Each campground was different in terms of amenities and natural surroundings, and we have our favorites (listed below), but all included the following:

  • running water to refill your water tank
  • a sink and counter area to do dishes
  • heated bathrooms with flush toilets
  • trash receptacles
  • soccer field with goals

And most included these amenities as well:

  • free WiFi
  • playgrounds
  • warm ‘kitchens’ with sinks and tables where tent campers can make meals and stay dry (this is usually where the WiFi is, and a fun place to meet new people)
  • hot showers and/or a public geothermal pool adjacent (see note below)
  • electric outlets to charge devices like phones or batteries
  • stunning natural scenery, like a waterfall or hot pot (natural hot tub)

iceland hot pot

Hot pot at our campsite in west Iceland.

When you enter the campground, you look around to figure out the payment system: in some, an attendant walks around, eventually getting to you and swiping your Camping Card. At others, you check in at the public pool (almost always adjacent). It’s not necessary to get to the campground by a certain time. We usually rolled up around 8 pm, but sometimes arrived as late as 11 pm (remember the sun never goes down, really!).

Note: taking advantage of Icelandic public pools: If your campground does not have hot showers, it’s probably because it has a public pool nearby. Definitely go to these! They are cheap (about $10-$25 entry for a family of four) and include nice locker rooms with hot showers, mirrors, sinks, and hair dryers, plus a heated outdoor pool (with various features like water slides, diving platforms, or lap lanes), and at least two hot pots (hot tubs) and a steam bath. All are naturally fed through hot springs, and all are wonderful. We visited one nearly every day, using them to take showers and freshen up after long, warm soaks. Bring your own towels, and follow Icelandic pool etiquette, which includes showering nude beforehand and never bringing cameras or phones into the pool area.

Even though Icelandic campgrounds pack many camper vans and tents into a relatively small area, every single campground we visited was peaceful and quiet. Truly, no noise, no rowdy people, no radios or car noise at night. None. I was astounded, actually. Campgrounds have quiet hours from about 11 pm to 8 am, but even at other times, it was very quiet in each campground.

iceland campsite

A campground all to ourselves! Note: see the front door standing open? That’s a no-no…wind can pull it right off. Always close doors after getting out.

Groceries, meal prep, and dining on the road:

I love shopping in foreign grocery stores. I think you learn a lot about the local culture this way. In Iceland, food is very expensive, but we found that we could eat inexpensively if we made all our meals. And we did: we never ate out once, unless you could gas station hot dogs (more on that in a minute). We spent a grand total of $250 on groceries for our group of four people (two of which are teen boys) for eight days. We shopped at Bonus, which is a grocery chain you can find all over Iceland. Buy bags on your first trip, or do as we did, and pay for paper bags which you can use as trash bags throughout your vacation.

iceland camping tips

A typical Iceland camper van meal.

In addition to making our meals, we grew to love N1 gas stations, which almost always (but not always) had small grille counters inside, where you could buy Icelandic hot dogs (which come with dried and fresh diced onion unless you request they’re omitted) and top them with a variety of sauces. Hot dogs are about $4. Most N1 stations also have creamy vanilla soft serve ice cream cone stations for about the same price. We got in the habit of stopping for a late afternoon snack most days.

We stuck with easy meals such as BBQ’ed fish or meat with instant potatoes or veggies, pasta and canned pasta sauce, quesadillas and soup, or instant backpacking meals for dinner. For lunches, we made sandwiches, which we paired with crackers and cheese, fruit, and peanut butter. For breakfast, we stuck with cereal and milk and skyr and granola (skyr is Icelandic yogurt that tastes similar to Greek yogurt). At night, it’s customary to bag up all your perishable items and store them outside, under your van to keep them cold (as the fridge stops running when the engine is turned off). This was another oddity to me, as a camper in the US, as we never store food outside where predators can access them. But Iceland has no such animals (unless you count the dog at one campground).

iceland camper van

Camper van kitchen: fridge on the left, counter and stove-top. We have towels hung to dry on the side.

How easy was it to sleep in the land of the midnight sun?

In Iceland in summer, it is light nearly 24 hours a day, which is awesome until you want to go to sleep. We loved being able to drive unfamiliar roads late in the evening without fear of driving in the dark. Consequently, our days became very long: we usually were active until after 11 pm each night. The camper van comes equipped with shades, but they are NOT black out shades, and the van only got a bit shadowy…not dark. To give an idea: you could read a book at 1 am without a light. Here’s what we did to get sleep: 1. hung our towels and rain jackets over the drapes to give them a second layer of fabric, 2. used sleep masks (actually, after the first night, only I needed one), 3. took melatonin tablets (natural sleep aid) about 30 minutes before we wanted to sleep. Because of the constant light, our brains simply didn’t compute it was time to sleep in their own. In fact, it was very easy to lose track of time and suddenly realize it was 2 am. Whoops!

iceland camping

View out our back door as the sun went ‘down’ around midnight. It never got darker than dusk.

Driving Icelandic roads:

A few things to know, without scaring you: Icelandic roads are narrow. Sometimes, especially in the rural Westfjords, they feel like one-way roads, with two-way traffic. The Ring Road is pretty standard and spacious, but once you leave that behind for the smaller highways and dirt roads, all bets are off. Pay attention to your map: when the road is colored brown instead of yellow or red, that means dirt. And it can mean over 100 km of dirt, even on ‘busy’ highways in well-traveled areas. 2×2 vans CAN drive these roads; it’s only if the road number has an F in front of it that it’s for 4×4 only. These dirt roads are narrow, sometimes rutted and sometimes smooth, and always, always gorgeous. Do try them (with a full tank of gas). Pay attention to the road safety signs: the most frequent are the signs indicating a blind hill (where oncoming traffic can’t be seen) and one-way bridge signs (yield at these, and take turns…we saw some close calls). When signs indicate a suggested speed around a curve, heed it…it’s more of a requirement than a suggestion when you’re driving a top-heavy, bulky van. When you see the signs that have the outline of a town X’ed out, that means you won’t see civilization (including a gas station) for some time, and they mean it.

iceland camper van

Dirty van at the end of the day!

Utilize the picnic areas (somewhat like rest stops, but smaller and beautiful), because they provide easy pull out access for vans. Don’t use narrow gravel driveways as pull outs…not only are the private property, but we saw more than one van get stuck in the loose gravel. Also beware of sheep and birds when driving: both tend to be everywhere and cross your path often.

Note: Until 2016, campers could pull off the road and camp on any public and even most private land in Iceland. Now, there are simply too many of them, so use the campgrounds.


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