Link to photo collection: Iceland
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Why you should do it - and you really should !
Iceland’s most famous hike is well-known for a reason. Actually, it’s famous for many reasons: Massive glaciers, volcanic hot springs, stunning mountain vistas, bubbling pools of mud, fields of twisted black lava, pastel-colored mountains, plenty of names you can’t pronounce… It showcases more otherwordly landscapes than any hike I’ve ever undertaken.
Let’s dive into each day on Laugavegur, then talk logistics afterwards. Read on to see if this hike speaks to you.
Day 0: Arrival at Þorsmork
We booked a return trip to/from Þorsmörk (pronounced thors-mork, meaning «Thor’s Land») with www.trex.is. This included parking, pick-up and drop-off at the beautiful Seljalandsfoss (stunning waterfalls just a short distance from Reykjavik). The trip into Þorsmörk was fun and took a few hours; our huge monster bus had to fjord many rivers and negotiate some pretty rugged land.
Buses make the trip to Þorsmörk every May to October and a return trip costs roughly 10,000 Icelandic krona (85 $ US). It is worth every penny.
Our bus dropped us off at the huts in the heart of Þorsmörk; we spent the day exploring the surrounding hills. Nestled between two enormous glaciers, Þorsmörk is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.
Day 1: Þorsmörk to Emstrur
300m elevation gain
The trail began right at Skagfjörðsskáli Hut; we started the hike early, not knowing what to expect on our first day. I had read that Day 1 was the least interesting one of the hike, but the scenery was nothing short of magnificent for me. We walked through beautiful landscapes; lots of green rolling hills, faraway glaciers and strange mountain formations.
The land became more barren as we continued North, and the hiking was relatively chill for most of the day. However, we did have to walk through the first of many rivers. Yes, you read that correctly.
Before walking into these rivers, remove your boots and socks and either wade barefoot or with water shoes (recommended). Don’t make the HUGE mistake of crossing with your boots on, as blisters will form within minutes afterwards. Never underestimate the pain of blisters on long hikes like these!
Most rivers along the hike will be rather shallow; most likely, the water won’t get past your calves or knees, but this will depend on the time of year (we were there at the end of July). Note that the water is glacier-fed and freezing - it’s very likely you won’t feel your toes by the time you’ve crossed the narrow river.
The biggest challenges of Day 1 were saved for the end. Hikers needed to cross a short but high bridge spanning a precipitous gorge and the Syðri-Emstruá river; I was nervous and struck with dizziness, as heights really aren’t my thing. Then, most of the day’s elevation gain came just after: 30 solid minutes of climbing straight up the mountainside, before clambering over a pass overlooking the hauntingly beautiful Emstrur campground and huts.
Day 2: Emstrur to Alftavatn
40m elevation gain
A good part of day 2 was on flat land, but it’s super adventurous. The landscape became more and more lunar and rocky. You’ll cross the Innri Emstruá river early into your hike, but thankfully there’s a bridge spanning it - this is one river you wouldn’t want to cross on foot.
I absolutely loved Day 2 of this hike. The landscape became dark and dreary (yet still spectacular), matching the looming grey clouds overhead. Black volcanic mountains were covered in bright green moss.
Next up was the Bláfjallakvísl River. This was a stronger and deeper one, so we crossed it two-by-two or even in groups of three. The forceful current could easily tip you over and a wet, heavy backpack is a sure way to get weighed down underwater. So tie your boots to your bag, pick a partner with whom to link arms, and GO !
We arrived at Hvanngil Hut just as the weather was getting worse. It had been raining for a few hours and my waterproof poncho had long been reduced to shreds by the strong winds; it looked like I had thrown a Hawaiian grass skirt over my shoulders. We stayed at the hut to eat and warm up, then left again in the rain, eager to arrive at that night’s campground, Alftavatn.
Day 3: Alftavatn to Hrafntinnusker
490m elevation gain
Imagine waking up to this view as you unzip your tent:
It was such a beautiful scene, but we couldn’t linger. We had decided (for reasons I no longer remember) to combine days 3 and 4, so we had a big push ahead of us to our final destination of Landmannalaugar. Time to pack up and strap on our boots.
Standing on the plateau up top, your views change completely once again. There is little vegetation here and sulphuric vapours leak out of random volcanic vents.
As the ever-changing landscapes promise, the red sands slowly give way to barren, dark ravines; we were going up and down most of the time at this point. Get ready to walk on some snow, even in July.
The icy fog moved in to help with the moody atmosphere, but it wasn’t as thick as it reportedly can be. Hikers are strongly urged to keep to the trail here - this area is where hikers get disorientated the most.
Day 4: Hrafntinnusker to Landmannalaugar
Roughly 5 hrs
470m elevation loss
The dark hills start giving way to pastel-colored mountains and views over 3 glaciers: Tindfjallajökull, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
Descending into Landmannalaugar from the colorful plateau, we definitely had the feeling we were creeping into Mordor. The volcanic rocks in the lava field became twisted and gnarled.
We pushed on through, as we had been hiking nearly 9 hours by this point. It started raining just as we were pitching our tents in the campground, so I have no photos of Landmannalaugar or of its lava fields. Google it -- it’s a pretty cool place. There are hot springs near the end of the trail, and for an epic view, set up your tent in the fields facing the mountains.
Day 5: Leaving Landmannalaugar
You’re done. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh. Spend your time exploring Landmannalaugar; it’s an astonishing place to see even if you’re not coming here for the Laugavegur. So nurse your stiff joints in the hot springs today; they’re in the field between the campground and the river, facing the black lava mountain. Hang around, relax and take in the amazing experience you just had. If your legs will allow, do a day hike in the area. Double-check your reservation back to your original starting point, where your car is parked. Drink lots of water. Take lots of pictures. Hunt for mythical fairies among the lava formations.
* You can hike Laugavegur from South to North (Þorsmörk to Landmannalaugar) as we did, though I’ve read that they no longer allow South to North hikes in July and August. Please look into it before planning your trip!
* Most guides hike it from North to South; Landmannalaugar is 300m higher in elevation than Þorsmörk) so it’s apparently easier this way. Oops. Ah, irony.
* You can tack on an extra day by starting or ending at Skogar, which is one day’s walk south of Þorsmörk (25 kms, roughly 10 hrs). Friends told me it was stunning - a challenging walk peppered with waterfalls and craters.
Distance and timing:
* 55 kms of walking over 4 days and 3 nights, roughly divided in 15-kilometre intervals per day.
* A six-day allowance is ideal: 4 days for the hike, then one day tacked on before and after (let’s call them Day 0 and Day 5). One extra day for Skogar, if desired.
* Strong, experienced hikers could finish the entire thing in 2 or 3 days.
* Hiking season starts and ends depending on whether or not the buses can make it through. Make sure they are running on the day you want to start and end the hike. Bookings must be reserved ahead of time and there are a few companies to choose from, Trex and Reykjavik Excursions being two that come highly-recommended. A word of warning to those who get motion sickness: bring a barf bag.
* Beefy 4x4 buses or jeeps drive you to either starting point (Landmannalaugar or Þorsmörk), then back again after your hike. (We got picked up and dropped back off at Seljalandsfoss, but you can also leave from Reykjavik and a few other spots).
* If you want to start at Skogar, it’s just off the Ringroad so you can park your rental car there, but don’t forget to book a ride back to Skogar after your hike.
* 6 huts (advance reservations absolutely necessary, bring a sleeping bag) or campgrounds (no reservations needed). Huts and campgrounds are owned by Ferðafélag Íslands (Iceland Touring Association); check the websites for fees. You can’t pitch a tent outside designated campgrounds.
* As much as I loooooove camping, I will consider paying for a bed on my next hike in Laugavegur. The sheer joy of sinking into a warm, dry mattress (and the lightness of NOT carrying a tent & sleeping mat on my back for 3 days) after a good day outside (most likely in the rain) may very well be worth the high price.
* Hot and cold showers are available at certain campgrounds (for a fee).
* All huts and campgrounds have toilets, but some don’t have garbage bins; be prepared to take your trash with you.
* No food available on trail (you must carry and ration your own), although there’s lots of flowing water for drinking.
* Mostly easy-to-moderate walking, with rolling hills in most spots. Don’t forget that you’ll have a heavy pack, which makes hiking more challenging.
* There are a few very steep and long ascents. Apparently, these Vikings beasts knew nothing of switchbacks, so however many meters you’ll be ascending, you’ll be walking them all (pretty much) straight up. This makes for much huffing, puffing and colorful language, but it’s worth it.
* Minimum age allowance is 15 years old.
* Our group of 5 finished this trek easily and without a guide, but all of us had hiking experience. A map is always a good idea, but the trail is well-marked; our map stayed in our bag.
* There are heaps of people on this hike (don’t expect to be alone here) and the trail is clearly-marked, so it’s difficult to get lost. Bad weather has caused disorientation and fatalities in the past. By all means, hire a guide if you feel the slightest bit unprepared.
Food and water:
Food is the currency you’ll want to care about on this hike; you’ll make new friends if you share, you won’t be hangry and it’ll keep you alive. Yay, food! Now, I tend to pack like I’ll never see food again, but keep these tips in mind:
* You’ll need 6 days’ worth of food in your backpack. Most of it should be dry. Empty tin cans and glass jars are heavy, spacious and inconvenient, and you’ll have to carry them to your destination.
* Bring a backcountry set of cutlery and dishes (plate, bowl, mug, utensils), as well as 2 backcountry pots, stove, lighter and gas canister.
* I organize my 6 days with 6 large Ziploc bags to keep me from dipping into the next day’s rations.
* Typical food for one day, in small Ziplocs or backcountry containers:
Breakfast: Large-flake oats (to boil) with lots of dried fruit bits; Instant coffee (with small packets of honey).
Snacks: 1 small Ziploc of trail mix (cashews, almonds, dried fruit and chocolate bits), 1 protein bar, 1 small Ziploc of crackers, a few pieces of beef jerky or tuna (from a can, transferred into a plastic container).
Lunch and supper: Pre-packaged rice or pasta pouch (the just-add-water type) or backcountry dry pouches.
* Bring a bladder (with drinking hose) to carry your water; it’s much less troublesome than a water bottle.
What to pack:
Your large backpack (min. 50 L with rain cover) needs to contain all items below, plus all your food:
- Backcountry tent (a 2-person MSR Hubba Hubba tent weighs 3 lbs 8oz). Bring extra tent pegs; a light, waterproof tent pad isn’t a bad idea either.
- Backcountry sleeping mat (like the tent, it packs up small and weighs roughly 12 oz)
- Backcountry sleeping bag (maximum weight should be 4lbs, at least -10 degree temperature rating)
- Lightweight retractable trekking poles
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- First-Aid kit with lots of Band-Aids (for blisters) and ibuprofen
- Toiletries (ladies, calculate whether or not you’ll need your Dive Cup, tampons…)
- Travel towel
- Camera - phone - music devices (+ batteries or charging sticks)
- Deck of cards - travel games - book
CLOTHING (The trick is to have a few layers, none of which should be cotton)
- One Gore-Tex, windproof jacket with hoodie
- One down (or synthetic) jacket with hoodie
- One good-quality poncho with hoodie (I swear, it saved me on many occasions)
- Light tuque (beanie) and gloves-mitts
- 2 pairs of hiking pants (light and quick-dry)
- 1 or 2 long-sleeved wool or breathable shirts for top layer (hiking)
- 2 wool t-shirts for base layer (hiking)
- Thermal long-sleeve shirt and leggings (for sleeping)
- 6 or 7 pair of underwear, unless you enjoy turning yours inside-out!
- 2 bras for the ladies (+ extra if you sleep in one)
- 6 pairs of hiking socks (+ extra for sleeping, or + if you like to double up during hikes)
- 1 pair of hiking boots (strong soles, waterproof)
- Water shoes or sandals
- Extra change of clothing (left in car if you’re far from your next accommodations)
Happy travels, my friend. xx
Link to photo collection: Iceland