A Complete Guide to Hiking in Iceland

Get all the insider tips on exploring Iceland’s hiking trails

|November 30, 2020
Sofie is a nomadic journalist who loves to write about people, places, and food. In her free time, she can be found twirling around in her dancing shoes.

There is no better way to experience the beauty of Iceland than with a hike. Famous for its remote and pristine wilderness, the island offers unique nature experiences you won't find anywhere else in the world. Before you hit the road check out this comprehensive hiking guide for insider tips on when to go, where to go, what to wear, and more.


Iceland’s tourism revolves around nature – and once you arrive it's easy to see why. The country is home to some of the most diverse landscapes in the world. Drive around the island and you'll encounter black sand beaches, deep fjords, rugged seaside cliffs, geothermal hot springs, vast lava fields, and lush forests. While road trips are scenic, there is nothing quite like hitting the trail and walking through the untamed Icelandic wilderness.  

For those who are new to adventure tourism, hiking and trekking in Iceland might seem overwhelming. So where should you start? The good news is whatever your fitness level or time constraints are there is a trail to fit your needs. For longer trails, the Icelandic wilderness can be tricky to navigate, so if you are new to hiking then it's best to join a hiking tour.    

Oftentimes you will hear the words ”trekking” and ”hiking” used interchangeably but knowing the difference will help you choose the right excursion. Trekking refers to more vigorous, multi-day hikes in wild natural areas. Hiking refers to long walks along trails that last a day or overnight. To learn more about this you can check our hiking versus trekking blog here.  

If you are interested in hitting  Iceland’s trails, keep reading for all of our insider info on planning an unforgettable hiking adventure!  

When Is the Best Time to Hike in Iceland?

The Ultimate Hiking Season: Summer

Summer is the main hiking season in Iceland. During this time of year, the weather is pleasant and the valleys and forests are in full bloom. Thanks to the summer sun the days are longer, so you can enjoy a full day of hiking opportunities.  

You can expect temperatures ranging between 10-20°C (50-68°F), with the Highlands being the only exception. Even in the summer, the Highland region can reach near-freezing temperatures. The chances of encountering bad weather is lowest between June and August so this season is your best bet if you want to visit.  

Hiking in Winter

Winters in Iceland are extreme. The temperature is not as cold as you might think – with temperatures hovering between -10 and 5°C (14-41°F) but the combination of violent winds and heavy precipitation creates harsh conditions.  

Hiking in many areas is not permitted in the winter because the roads leading to them are inaccessible. The mountain roads and Highland roads (also known as F-roads) are sometimes closed off because of the rough winter road conditions. Additionally, most hiking paths are not maintained during the winter months, and the path signs are often hidden by large amounts of snow.  

Unfortunately, the winter season lasts from October until May or June. So if you want to try an overnight trek or hike you should plan on visiting in the summer. For nature lovers who are visiting in the winter, there are some nice day hikes around Reykjavik that are available all year round. 

Offseason Hiking

Iceland pretty much only has two seasons: summer and winter. But for practical reasons, the country also recognizes spring and fall. Spring is defined as the few weeks before June and fall is considered the few weeks following August. Both are considered off-seasons and hikers should be wary of unpleasant weather.  

The weather from April to May and from September to October is extremely unpredictable. One minute the sun is out and the next there could be freezing rain. Because of the higher risk for bad weather, the off-seasons are not suitable for multi-day hikes. Just like with winter, visitors who want to get out in nature should opt for a day trail around the capital area.  

The best choice for longer winter or offseason hikes is to join a tour. Our Thorsmork Volcano Hike in the Highlands is available from April through October! 

Best Hiking Spots in Iceland by Region

The abundance of hiking trails in Iceland is truly impressive. The country has three vast national parks and over 120 protected wilderness areas that offer ample opportunity to experience the beauty of Iceland’s untamed nature. 

Each region boasts its own exciting hiking options that offer a boots-on-the-ground look at the area's stunning landscapes. Below you'll find a snapshot of each region on the island. For a detailed list of all the most popular trails in Iceland, check out our blog on Iceland’s Best Hiking Routes

The Icelandic Highlands

Iceland’s largest network of hiking and trekking trails can be found in the interior of the country, in the Icelandic Highlands. The 40,000-square-kilometer Highlands is known for its uninhabited wilderness and unparalleled landscapes. 

The Highlands consists of barren volcanic deserts dotted with lush geothermal oases and giant ice caps. As one of Europe’s last unspoiled wilderness areas, the region attracts adventurers from all over the world. 

The Highlands are inaccessible to hikers during most of the year. Driving into Iceland’s interior is only possible between June and August when the snow and ice have melted and the roads are officially open. 

Maneuvering the region’s rough terrain requires very good driving skills and experience. The roads are not paved, the rivers don’t have bridges, and the winds can be especially violent here. In the winter, getting to the Highlands is only possible via guided Highland tours. 

The wild topography and hostile weather conditions often pose a challenge to hikers. This is the reason why hiking here can only be done in the summer months. The Highlands offer the most stunning landscapes and natural wonders to those who are willing to get out of their comfort zone to seek out this pristine tundra. The county’s most famous multi-day treks and hiking areas are located here, such as the Laugavegur Trail – ranked one of the top 20 hikes in the world.

The Westfjords

Westfjords is one of the most remarkable regions in Iceland. Only about 10% of visitors travel to this remote region and the population density here is the lowest in the country. This secluded area offers visitors authentic off-the-beaten-path adventures with an abundance of hiking opportunities. 

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is the crown jewel of the Westfjords. The spectacular nature reserve is known for being the most isolated area in Iceland. The northernmost peninsula of the Westfjords is inaccessible by car and entering with any type of motorized vehicle is prohibited. To reach Hornstrandir, you will need to take a boat from Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords. After you arrive in the bay, you must continue your journey on foot. 

The landscape is absolutely breathtaking here. Part of what made Hornstrandir so famous are the flocks of birds that gather in the towering cliffs, the endless green pastures adorned with colorful flowers, and the friendly Arctic foxes that often approach hikers. When the weather is good this is the best hiking experience imaginable! 

In bad weather, however, travelers are extremely exposed to the elements. Being the northernmost point in Iceland, Hornstrandir is cold, windy, and the weather conditions are notoriously unpredictable. This is why hiking here is only allowed from late June to mid-August. 

Hiking here requires excellent outdoor skills, premium equipment, and careful preparation. Those who are uncertain about hiking alone can join a guided hike. Hikes depart from the town of Ísadjörður and visitors can choose from Hornstrandir day hikes, as well as 2-day and 6-day adventures. 

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Iceland’s second-largest peninsula, Snaefellsnes, is located a mere 2-3-hour drive from Reykjavík. It’s often nicknamed “Iceland in miniature” for showcasing all of the natural wonders that the country is famous for. Here, you’ll find black sand beaches, dramatic seaside cliffs, vast lava fields, impressive waterfalls, and even a glacier! 

One of Iceland’s three national parks is located on the peninsula, meaning the region offers great hiking options. Both shorter and longer trails are found here. One of them even leads all the way up to the glacier-topped Snaefellsjokull Volcano. 

The climb to the 4,744-foot (1,446-meter) high summit is one of the best day hikes you can do in Iceland. Climbing up to the glacier requires professional guidance and equipment, so make sure you join a safe guided tour instead of going solo. 

The most scenic easy hike on the peninsula is the 1.8 mi. (3 km) coastal walk between Arnarstapi and Hellnar. The shoreline between the two seaside villages is dotted with eye-catching rock formations, black rock arches, noisy bird-filled cliffs, and natural harbors. 

Join one of our scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula Tours here.  

East Iceland

The Eastfjords, just like the Westfjords, is untouched by mass tourism and offer magnificent fjord scenery and ultimate serenity to their visitors. The sight of the surreal landscapes along with the remote rustic farms and fishing villages will make you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time.

The sparsely populated area has mystical folklore, interesting history, and fantastical legends. Hidden people, lake monsters, trolls, and elves are believed to have lived here for centuries. You can even visit the City of the Elves, a giant rock that has its very own Elf Queen. Apparently, there have been plenty of elf encounters in the area. The unique landscapes, steep jagged mountains, and oddly shaped rock formations may be the inspiration behind these stories. 

The best hiking areas in East Iceland are the trails around Borgarfjörður Eystri, Hallormsstaðaskógur, and East Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Hengifoss. 

South Iceland

The south soast is by far the most visited region in Iceland. As the home to Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Reynisfjara black sand beach, and the scenic outlet glaciers in Vatnajökull, the density of tourists in this area is quite high. As the most-visited spots are very easy to access, the majority of tourists will travel along the south coast by car and only leave their vehicle when they arrive at their next thrilling destination. 

However, the region has more to offer than epic waterfalls and black sand beaches. There are hiking trails everywhere and it’s very easy to escape the crowds if you’re willing to walk a few kilometers. 

One of the most popular hiking destinations in the region and the country is Skaftafell Nature Reserve, known as the hikers’ oasis. This stunningly diverse valley is filled with dense forests, colorful flora and fauna, and wildlife. No matter what your fitness level is there are countless hiking trails inside the reserve ranging from 1.8 to 18 mi. (3 to 30 km). 

Part of Vatnajökull National Park, the largest national park in Europe, visitors can join guided Vatnajökull Glacier tours that take you from the reserve to the glacier.   

The Capital Area

Reykjavík is a tiny city, so getting out into the wilderness is a cinch. There are several nature parks within the city, with Elliálaðalur and Öskjuhlíð being the largest. Both offer short but stunning walking paths. A small mountain called Úlfarsfell and \Geldinganes and Viðey islands offer plenty of hiking and walking opportunities for those who don’t want to leave the city but still want to hike. 

A 3,000-hectare nature reserve, called Heiðmörk, is located on the outskirts of Reykjavík. This nature park has a large forested area filled with hiking paths and other features. Some outstanding volcanic formations can be spotted from the road leading south. The red hills are truly stunning to explore. 

Practical Hiking Tips

Orientation

Anyone that is planning to hike without an experienced local guide is advised to use a GPS device or a compass. This especially applies to the Highland trails. It’s possible to rent a GPS device in many places in Reykjavik. Using a compass is also an option but only if you’re experienced. 

In Iceland all compasses must be calibrated due to magnetic declination. Magnetic declination ranges from 12 to 18° from east to west. Before heading out, you should first find out the magnetic declination of the area where you plan to hike. Paper hiking maps are sold in bookstores and at many gas stations all over the country. 

Camping

More than 200 campsites are open to hikers during the summer. Campsites are cheap and easy to access with no need to pre-book. Even though many travelers believe that they can camp anywhere in Iceland, this is not the case. 

There are a few remote wilderness areas where hikers who travel on foot are allowed to pitch their tents and camp for the night. Wild camping is restricted in the entire south coast as well as in all national parks, nature reserves, and on private land. This basically means it is restricted in most of the country. Learn more about the rules on wild camping in Iceland. 

Campers are advised to have sturdy four-season tents. Being wind-resistant and waterproof are the most important features when it comes to tents in Iceland. Make sure to bring extra pegs and poles as well. For your sleeping bag, we recommend the comfort temperature rating be at 0ºC (32ºF) in summer. To properly isolate yourself from the cold ground, you’ll need a good inflatable sleeping mat.

Packing List

If you’re hiking in colder areas, the four crucial bases to cover are waterproof, windproof, good insulation, and breathable attire. Your base layer should be breathable so that sweat doesn’t cool your body. Insulation is important to stay warm. Waterproof and windproof shells are important to protect your clothing and your body from the elements. 

Use waterproof bags inside your backpack to put clothes and your sleeping bag in. This will keep them dry even if you lose your balance while crossing a river and fall in.  

Clothing

  • Long-sleeve layers (wool or breathable synthetic – no cotton) 
  • Fleece, down or wool layers 
  • Waterproof outer layers 
  • Wool socks
  • Waterproof hiking boots 
  • Gloves or mittens 
  • Hat 
  • River crossing shoes 
  • Thermal pajamas
  • Swimsuit

Equipment

  • Backpack (30-75 L)

  • Hiking poles 

  • Sunglasses 

  • Reusable water bottle 

  • Gaiters 

  • Towel 

  • Camping kitchen set 

  • First aid kit 

  • Personal location beacon 

  • Compass, map, and GPS with extra batteries 

  • Multi-season tent with extra pegs and guylines 

  • Mattress  

  • Down sleeping bag

For more packing tips check out our blog on what to wear in Iceland and our guide to the best hiking boots. 

Join Our Hikes

Iceland is a hiker’s paradise. Anywhere you go in the country, you’ll find spectacular landscapes and truly beautiful hiking spots. With some planning, you are sure to find a hike that is perfect for you. 

If you are uncertain of your abilities or if you don’t have much time to put into planning, we strongly advise you to join one of our guided hikes. Our highly experienced local guides will keep you safe and assure that you have the best possible experience on your hike. Join a group of like-minded hikers and explore Iceland’s breathtaking nature with us! 

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