Story and Photos by Mercedes Lilienthal

Overland Diary: Unforgettable Iceland

An Iceland Adventure Where the Unexpected Should be Expected

Discovering who you are can happen on the road or when you least expect it. Planning an adventure trip can be rewarding and stressful at the same time, and things can quickly go awry when the unexpected happens. Case in point—our recent trip to Iceland.

My husband, Andy, and I decided to do a nine-day Icelandic adventure trip. We planned to circumnavigate the country via a new 2019 Suzuki Jimny 4×4 as our transportation and our MSR Hubba Tour 3 ground tent as our shelter. We also brought along a condensed camp/mess kit. We planned this trip quickly, but packed supplies carefully. Although we didn’t know many areas to visit yet in this wild island nation, we knew the country was extremely scenic and beautiful. So, we packed up our gear and headed over for a trip to Iceland we soon wouldn’t forget.

Zodiac tour of Jökulsárlón a glacial lake

A highlight of the trip was a Zodiac tour of Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake filled with icebergs.

Iceland in July is normally cooler than what we experience in the States during summer, but it is considered one of the warmest months in the land of fire and ice. Temps don’t get much above 60 degrees F (15.5 degrees C) or so. In fact, the record for the hottest day in the country’s history topped out at a whopping 86.9 degrees F in 1939. Overnight temperatures graze the upper 40s to low 50s. Not too bad. We’re Oregonians; we have layers. We’re used to camping in many types of weather, so we packed layers and brought our puffy down jackets and Gore-Tex rain slickers—just in case.

Upon landing in Reykjavik, we picked up our rental Jimny at the airport, threw our things on top of the rear seats that we folded down, and took off … but only around the block and back. “The car won’t stop beeping,” I exclaimed to the rental car kid—he couldn’t have been more than 16 years old. We so desperately wanted to drive the 2019 Jimny as we are avid Suzuki fans. Thankfully, the clerk thought to pull all our gear out, put the seats back in the upright position, pull the seatbelts down, and click them into their receptacles. Back down the seats went and back in our gear went. The kid thought the Zuki may have been sensing “people” in the rear, even though the seats were folded down and backpacks were stowed. That did it. Crisis averted. We were finally on our way with smiles from ear to ear. We had our Suzuki Jimny.

Challenging hike in the rain, clouds, and fog
Iceland’s rain, clouds and fog proved challenging, but the waterfalls and Yellowstone-type geothermal areas made up for it.

We realized quickly that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate with us. We were met with dreary skies and a steady sprinkle. Who cares, we thought. We’re used to the rain—we’re Pacific Northwesterners. After a night at an Airbnb, we packed up our gear and started our trek on the famed Ring Road around Iceland, but in a counterclockwise fashion.

Andy was the primary driver as I navigated. Right before we left on our trip, I pulled together several scenic places along the Ring Road we could visit. Waterfalls, caves, black sand beaches, and glaciers. We were excited! I created a Word document with several hyperlinks and coordinates to various iOverlander campsites, and photos of cool areas I thought we could check out. My nitty-gritty document lived in my email drafts folder (for easy access) and was printed. I felt prepared. Well, prepared enough to make decisions on the fly if we were running early or late.

I tried to make the best of our trip by staying surgical, helpful, and accommodating. We’ve discovered that when one of is having a hard time on the road, the other steps up to assist.

I had a tentative schedule set up but heard Iceland’s narrow Ring Road can be slow-going. The Ring Road, aka the “tourist’s carousel” as we jokingly called it, had no place to pull over. There were hardly any restrooms and not many places to pass. There were lots of one-lane bridges to watch out for. There were loads of sheep that were mean and wouldn’t move. One started charging at us as we patiently waited for it to saunter off the gravel. Many of the Ring Road’s offshoots were hard-packed dirt or gravel and went on for miles; they were fun to drive but we were on constant watch for oncoming traffic—and sheep.

Map Ring Road
Navigating Iceland’s roads was fun—but they had to watch out for one-lane bridges and grumpy sheep.

As we visited several waterfalls and Yellowstone-type geothermal areas, the precipitation kept on falling. From sprinkles to pouring rain, Iceland’s gloomy clouds sunk closer to the ground. Fog set in. Oh great. We’re here during the best time weather-wise and all we could see was fog, clouds, rain—and lots of colorful rain jackets. We tried to keep smiling.

As the mighty Jimny kept us entertained (and dry), we finally got into cell service, so we looked at the forecast. Fabulous: An enormous storm had formed directly above us and was set to track through the island at exactly the same pace we were camping. Lovely. Life on the ground will get interesting.

Camping in the rain can be a challenging feat. Setting up a ground tent when it’s deluging can really suck. Thankfully our rain slickers and quick-drying pants (or in my case my new Marmot taped-seam pants) kept us mostly dry. However, after the first few days camping and touring around in constant rain, Andy had become a “not-so-great travel companion” (his words, not mine). We were two tired and wet human beings living out of a two-door steel box for nine days. We were slightly optimistic things would get better.

Stepping next to glacial chasms, as well as seeing water run-off and parts of the earth move right next to you, is unnerving. They are a living thing and, like the icebergs, are constantly moving.

I tried to make the best of our trip by staying surgical, helpful, and accommodating. We’ve discovered that when one of is having a hard time on the road, the other steps up to assist. It’s not easy to do and may need to be “discussed” in various fashions, but eventually, it works. It was a true challenge, however, to be in a spectacularly awesome country and hardly see any of it the first few days.

Since Iceland is so far north, it hardly got dark at night. The sun “set” around 11:30 p.m. and was full bright again around 3:00 a.m. It was close to the time of the Midnight Sun (which happens in June). It never really got dark, rather, just dusk-like. Trying to sleep when it’s light outside is interesting. Neither of us has been in that situation before. We could still see each other and could put things away without using headlamps. It was odd but neat.

Hiking the Vatnajökull glacier
Hiking the Vatnajökull glacier gave them opportunity to wear crampons for the fi rst time. Not stabbing yourself in the back of your calves is easier said than done.

Always plan for contingencies. Don’t always expect what’s on iOverlander or other websites to be true. We learned this the hard way. What was a very remote RV camping area by Diamond Beach that said was not “tent friendly” turned out to be “absolutely no tents allowed.” We couldn’t pitch our tent and pack in and out. There weren’t any restrooms or places to dig. We had to backtrack 45 minutes to find the nearest campsite after a long, exhausting day of travel just to turn around and double back again early the next morning. To top it all off, the restrooms where our glacier hiking and lagoon iceberg tours took place were closed when we got there. You’d think that Iceland hates restrooms or WCs (aka water closets). Tour participants were expected at 9:45 a.m., but the bathrooms didn’t open until 10 a.m. Iceland, if you’re listening, please cater to your tourists by having more accessible restrooms. It made us thankful that in the U.S. we have a regular frequency of rest areas.

Hiking with Crampons

Although tired and wet, we eagerly anticipated this day. We were set to do a Zodiac boat tour at Jökulsárlón, filled with icebergs, and then hike part of the Vatnajökull glacier—all in the same day. I remember my first international flight as a kid flying solo to see my relatives in Germany. We flew directly over Greenland, and I saw massive icebergs floating in the ocean. Stark white dots adorned the crisp, blue sea. I’ll never forget it. To finally have the chance to see icebergs up close was a bucket list item for me. Additionally, having the chance to hike a glacier was another important to-do for us both. We had planned a last-second heli-hike to conquer the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand a few years ago, and at the last second, weather moved in and they canceled our flight. I’m still bummed about it. So, come hell or high water, we’re going to hike an Icelandic glacier!

The glacier and icebergs oftentimes had distinct layers. Black is ash; white is snow; and blue occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier.

Steady sprinkles and fog increased as we suited up for our boat tour. My camera gear was strapped tightly to my body, its plastic bag sleeve shielding it from Mother Nature’s elements. We hopped into our boat and several of us zoomed out to the glacier. Even though we were a wet mess, seeing the glacier and touring around the many icebergs floating in the lake took my breath away. The tour guide explained that even though we were all cold, wet, and miserable, it was the best time to see the icebergs. The mist and fog bring out the blues in them. I was astounded at how each one was shaped differently. Each iceberg had different textures and colors, too. It was as if Mother Nature gave us her best show as we sat in the boat, floating around each iceberg silently. The glacier and icebergs oftentimes had distinct layers. Black is ash; white is snow; and blue occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, making the ice appear blue. The lack of oxygen in an iceberg also promotes transparency. Never had I witnessed so many unique and unbelievable blocks of ice.

We had a bit of time between our boat tour and the glacier hike 45 minutes away, so we went across the Ring Road from the lake to see Diamond Beach. This beach gets its name due to the hundreds of various-sized icebergs that wash ashore on their way out to sea. Ice chucks with perfectly round holes and pass-through tunnels, rugged icebergs the size of your car, and tiny tidbits of ice you can hold in your hand—I could have stayed here for hours if it wasn’t for the increasing winds and the heavens opening up.

Next we drove to the glacier for our hike. We rented crampons and ice axes for our glacial trek. Vatnajökull allowed us the opportunity to wear crampons for the first time. Walking in them is an adventure in itself—telling yourself to pick up your legs more and not stabbing yourself in the back of your calves is easier said than done. But we got the hang of it pretty quickly and hiked up the glacier with a dozen others. Traversing Vatnajökull was incredible. Even though the rain subsided a bit, we trudged up the glacier with full slickers on. We lived in our Gore-Tex almost the entire trip.

Hiking up Vatnajökull glacier

Stepping next to glacial chasms, as well as seeing water run-off and parts of the earth move right next to you, is unnerving. As Andy trudged up a steep, loose gravel and rocky hillside, the ground gave out from underneath him. He jumped forward and yelled at those below him to look out. Another tour guide quickly rebuilt the pathway for the rest of our group. It was a sobering reminder that glaciers are melting at a very rapid rate. They are a living thing and, like the icebergs, are constantly moving.

Day three was the biggest challenge of the trip. We were pelted with torrential rain the entire time we were at camp. We set up late in the night and at 3:30 a.m., the rain intensified so much we thought we were getting hailed on. Not fun. Our tent did a great job keeping us dry, but the interior was now covered in condensation and all mesh pockets were wet. Thankfully we weren’t rained in, but the grassy patch between our tent and enclosed awning with partial floor was a lake—a muddy and dirty grass lake. It was smart of us to keep our gear in the Jimny that night.

The next morning, we packed up our sopping mobile home and continued our trek around the country. The southern black sand beaches and eastern fjords were socked in and dreary—all of Iceland’s world-class scenery was obscured by dense fog. We were beginning to think Iceland’s weather would never clear up. Once we started northward and finally back to the east, Mother Nature did decide to let up a bit.

Sólheimajökull glacier

The last two days in Iceland we saw slivers of pale blue sky, but were quickly greeted with whipping winds. Andy brought along his Kestrel weather station, which measures a variety of items like temperature, humidity, wind speed, and so on. We clocked a constant 20- to 30-mph wind with gusts of up to 50 mph. That was enough to set off the antisway feature on the Jimny that scared us half to death. It shook and lurched the little 4×4 hard as Andy compensated for side wind gusts. Needless to say, the Jimny turned into a box that got pushed around a lot in severe wind. As we camped our last few nights, we dried out our tent and tested its wind resistance capability. We awoke the last morning before we flew out, in the town of Akranes, which was a few hours north of Reykjavik, and the sun shone brightly as its rays warmly kissed our cheeks. It was perfect weather. Finally.

Sometimes adventures don’t go as planned. Whether it’s a vehicle breakdown or Mother Nature unleashing her nasty power on you, rolling with the punches and being flexible can make your adventure bearable and possibly, just maybe, even fun. We learned a lot in Iceland, and already look forward to our next trip back.

Icelandic 4x4s

Icelandic Activities red 4x4

We always thought crazy Icelandic 4x4s with an insane lift and massive balloon tires were a novelty—that they did exist but were rare. We were wrong. Almost immediately, we found ourselves staring at lifted Fords, tricked-out Land Cruisers, outfitted Rovers, and even decked-out Mitsubishis with super huge tires and internal quick inflation systems, some even with bull bars and snorkels. We met a pair of gents near an F road in Iceland’s interior (F roads are considered high clearance 4×4 roads) that had a great-looking black Jeep CJ-7. This early ’80s rig has seen plenty of snow wheelin’ action. Although we could hardly speak to each other (they didn’t know much English and their accents were difficult to understand), they happily showed us photos of their rig tackling feet of snow as they ventured up to their remote cabin atop one of Iceland’s many volcanoes. Most tour busses and vans also showcase lift systems and bigger tires, too. You needed a ladder to get into some of these rigs. Hopefully next time we’ll be able to get into an Icelandic 4×4 and take it up the mountains. They are certainly an adventurous sight to see.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January/February 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine

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