All photo taken by lotzacurls unless otherwise credited.
Link to photo collection: Iceland
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 otherworldly landscapes than any other hike I’ve undertaken.
My only regret is that we hiked from South to North, which meant significantly more elevation gain and walking against the wind for much of its 55 kms. The traditional route goes North to South and is the route that I strongly recommend. Let’s dive into each day on Laugavegur, then talk logistics afterwards. Read on to see if this hike appeals to you.
Day 0: Arrival at Þórsmörk
We booked a return trip to/from Þórsmörk (pronounced thors-mork, meaning «Thor’s Land») with www.trex.is. This included parking and pick-up/drop-off at the beautiful Seljalandsfoss (stunning waterfalls 2 hours from Reykjavik). The trip into Þórsmörk was fun and took a few hours; our monster bus had to negotiate many rivers and some pretty rugged land.
Buses make the trip to Þórsmörk from May to October and a return trip costs roughly 10,000 Icelandic krona (85.00$ US). It is worth every penny.
The bus drops hikers off at the Skagfjörðsskáli Hut in the heart of Þórsmörk; spend the day exploring the surrounding hills. Nestled between two enormous glaciers, Þórsmörk is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
Þórsmörk: Click on arrow at right to see all 4 photos in slider.
Day 1: Þórsmörk to Emstrur
- 15 kms
- 6-7 hrs
- 300m elevation gain
The trail begins at Skagfjörðsskáli Hut; we started the hike early, not knowing what to expect on our first day. I had read that Day 1 (of the South to North route) was the least interesting one of the hike, but the scenery was nothing short of magnificent for me: lots of green rolling hills, faraway glaciers and strange mountain formations.
The green density of Þórsmörk gradually gave way to more barren landscapes as we headed North, and the hiking was relatively chill for most of the day. We had to remove our boots and socks for the first few of many river crossings, as there are few bridges along the hike. Yes, you read that correctly.
Before crossing these rivers, tie your boots/socks to your backpack and wade barefoot or with water shoes. Shallow crossings could be aided with hiking poles, as the rocks can be slippery. If the river is higher than your knees, hook arms with a partner and slowly walk together.
Do not make the HUGE mistake of crossing with your boots on, as blisters will form within minutes. Never underestimate the pain of blisters on long hikes like these!
Most rivers along the hike are rather shallow; depending on the season, the water shouldn’t get past your calves or knees (we were there end of July). 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 must 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. Most of the day’s elevation gain came just after the bridge: 30 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
- 15 kms
- 6-7 hrs
- 40m elevation gain
A good part of Day 2 was on flat land, but it was beautiful and adventurous. You’ll cross the Innri Emstruá river early in the day, 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 foreboding, matching the grey clouds overhead. We got drizzled on a few times, but the rainclouds only added to the spectacular atmosphere. The ground crunching under our boots was lunar and rocky, contrasting sharply with the mossy green flanks of the black volcanic peaks.
Once we passed Mælifell volcano, we came upon the Bláfjallakvísl River. This would be the deepest and most adventurous crossing of the entire hike: the water came up to my crotch, the strong current made my knees wobble, and my feet/lower legs were numb when I reached the opposite bank, which made walking tricky. Water shoes would have been useful here; I couldn’t feel the sharp rocks and had minor scratches on the soles of my feet from stepping onto them. In retrospect, I would also have put my pants in my bag and crossed in my undies - not kidding.
We searched for the narrowest passage and forded it two-by-two (and I even saw groups of three) with linked arms. Why? The forceful current could easily sweep you off your feet 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 hook arms, and go (slowly)!
We arrived at Hvanngil Hut just as the weather was worsening. 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 blue Hawaiian grass skirt over my shoulders. We warmed up inside the hut for a bit while snacking, then left again in the rain, eager to arrive at our second night’s campground at Álftavatn.
I remember having to pay to add cold water in our showers at Álftavatn. Hot water comes from thermal vents in the Earth, so cold water is needed to temper the scalding water and keep you from screaming in your shower stall.
Day 3: Álftavatn to Hrafntinnusker
- 12 kms
- 6-7 hrs
- 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 for long. Time to cook our oatmeal, pack up our tent and strap on our boots.
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. For the sake of simplicity, I will continue to describe the hike in 4-day sections, as I wouldn't repeat the decision to condense the last 2 days (it was a loooong day).
The peaceful walk in the green moss quickly turned into a slog, as we seemingly marched straight up one of the mountains in the photo above. The sand was soft and you sunk back with every step you took. There are few switchbacks on this trail, so some ascents can be arduous.
Standing on the plateau, your views start to change once again. There is little vegetation here and sulphuric vapours leak out of random volcanic vents.
Click on photos to enlarge them:
As the ever-changing landscape promises, red sand gives 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 and sulfuric steam moved in to help with the moody atmosphere. Hikers are strongly urged to keep to the trail here - this area is where hikers get disorientated the most.
If I were to do this hike again (and I sincerely hope to), not only would I hike from North to South, but I would stay at Hrafntinnusker overnight. Take your time with at least 4 days of hiking - you can even add a 5th day and do the Fimmvörðuháls hike past Þorsmörk to Skógafoss falls - and relish the amazing views!
Day 4: Hrafntinnusker to Landmannalaugar
- 12 kms
- 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.
This fourth day will be characterised by the brightly-coloured rhyolite mountains of the Brennisteinsalda plateau: pinks, reds, greens, yellows, and purples.
Don't put your camera away here - the area surrounding Landmannalaugar was easily the most photogenic of all.
Descending into Landmannalaugar campground from the colorful plateau, we felt like 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. 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: Enjoy Landmannalaugar
You’re done. Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh. Spend your time exploring Landmannalaugar; it’s an astonishing place to see even if you’re not there to hike Laugavegur. Nurse your stiff joints in the hot springs; 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 allow it, do a day hike in the area. Double-check your reservation for transportation back to your 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 (Þórsmörk to Landmannalaugar) as we did, though I’ve read that they no longer allow South to North hikes in July and August. Most guides hike it from North to South. Please look into it before planning your trip!
* Tack on an extra day by starting or ending at Skógafoss, which is one day’s walk south of Þórsmörk (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 approx. 4 days and 3 nights, roughly divided in 15-km intervals per day.
* A six-day allowance is ideal: 4 days for the hike, then one day to explore Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar (let’s call them Day 0 and Day 5). One extra day (so 7 days) for Skógafoss, if desired.
* Strong, experienced hikers could finish the entire thing in 2 or 3 days.
* Our starting point was Þórsmörk (A, in purple) and our destination was Landmannalaugar (B, in yellow).
* The 3 campsites in between are marked in blue (Emstrur), green (Alftavatn) and red (Hrafntinnusker).
* Hiking season starts and ends whenever the buses can make it through the rivers and rough roads. 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 Þórsmörk), 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 Skógafoss, it’s just off the Ring Road so you can park your rental car there, but don’t forget to book a ride back to Skógafoss 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. Sinking into a warm, dry mattress (and NOT carrying a tent & sleeping mat for 3-4 days) after a full day of hiking (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 steep and long ascents. Apparently, these Vikings knew nothing of switchbacks. 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 have lots of hiking experience. A map is always a good idea, though the trail is obvious; our map stayed in our bag.
* There are heaps of people on this hike (you won't 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; 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 keep them in your bag until you reach your destination.
* Bring a backcountry set of cutlery and dishes (plate, bowl, mug, utensils), as well as a backcountry pot, backcountry stove, lighter and gas canister.
* I packed my 6 days' worth of food into 6 large Ziploc bags to keep me from dipping into the next day’s rations.
* Typical food for one day, in small Ziplocs or silicone containers:
Breakfast: Large-flake oats (to boil) with lots of dried fruit bits; instant coffee (with a small packet of honey).
Snacks: Trail mix (cashews, almonds, dried fruit and chocolate bits), protein bar, crackers, beef jerky or tuna (from a can, transferred into silicone container).
Lunch and supper: 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.
- Backcountry sleeping mat (packs up small, weighs roughly 12 oz)
- Backcountry sleeping bag (maximum weight should be 4lbs, at least -10 degree temperature rating)
- Lightweight, retractable hiking poles
- Headlamp + extra batteries
- First-Aid kit with lots of plasters, gel pads/Moleskin for blisters, and ibuprofen/acetaminophen- 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 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
- 2 wool t-shirts for base layer
- Thermal long-sleeve shirt and leggings (for sleeping)
- 6 or 7 pairs of undies, 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
- Extra change of clothing (left in car if you’re far from your next accommodations)
Happy hiking, my friend.
Link to photo collection: Iceland
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