As promised in a previous post, here’s a guide to help you prepare for hiking the Laugavegur trail (or Laugavegurinn) in Iceland. National Geographic named this trek one of the Top 20 World’s Best Hiking Trails, and for good reason. WSJ also featured the trail in an article from 2014. We had bought our plane tickets to Reykjavik and had to decide if we were going to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road or walk the Laugavegur. We chose walking, of course.
“Walking… is how the body measures itself against the earth.” — Rebecca Solnit
At about 34 miles (55km) long, Iceland’s Laugavegur trek takes you through everything you could have dreamed that Middle Earth would have looked like. Most travelers start in Landmannalaugar and end in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), although you can also opt to trek the other way. Who wouldn’t want to visit a place called “Thor’s Wood”? The scenery is incredible. I previously wrote: just when you think the last landscape you crossed *had* to be the MOST-BEAUTIFUL-and-best-thing-on-this-earth and there is no way anything can top it — a new one comes into view and takes your breath away.
I would suggest allocating 4-5 days for the Laugavegur trail. There is an optional final leg from Þórsmörk to Skógar, which we skipped because we were limited on time (and we heard that the terrain is much more difficult). There are only 2-3 months out of the year during which it is possible to hike the Laugavegur trail (another reason to reserve accommodation ahead of time, since it will be in demand during the hiking months). Outside of mid-June through mid-September, the roads leading to and from the trail are impassible and buses do not run. Residual snow may make this trek difficult even in June. We played it safe by planning our trip towards the end of July/beginning of August. Definitely research snow/weather conditions before your hike to ensure a safe trip!
(I have included a complete gear list later in this post.)
There are two main options for accommodation along the trail. You can either : (1) camp in a tent at the various designated camping areas or (2) reserve & stay in “hut” space ahead of time. I recommend checking out the Ferðafélag Íslands hut locations and emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org) a few months ahead to reserve hut space. You can also check out the Volcano Huts website for (seemingly) more fancy accommodation in Þórsmörk. Space inside the huts fills up fast! The staff is really kind, and you can ask to be added to the waitlist if huts are fully booked. There are likely to be people who drop out closer to the dates you want to travel. We actually did an interesting mix of camping and hut-living due to hut availability, but in my opinion the huts are definitely worth it after a cold, rainy hike. Later in the post I will describe the huts in more detail.
My 60L pack weighed a hefty 26 pounds without water. I carried my trusty (dusty) blue Gregory Deva 60 pack (circa 2011). This is a great pack for petite women, though a bit heavier due to better hip cushioning. Worth it for me. I spent a few extra days traveling around Reykjavik and the south coast of Iceland, so I packed a few extra luxuries as noted in my complete packing list below. At 5’0″ I am pretty small, and I can’t carry as much as the average person; but my daily caloric intake is also a lot lower so I don’t have to carry as much food. There was plenty of very clean and delicious water along the trail and at every campground, so it was nice not to worry about that.
My best investment in new gear that I didn’t already own: waterproof pants. I’m not talking about water-resistant pants. There is a huge difference. Make sure your gear is waterproof. We were both on the fence about just *how* much rain we should expect, and we were both incredibly glad we brought rain gear. Don’t forget a waterproof cover for your pack. You won’t regret it.
The Bucky 40 Blinks sleep mask looks funny in the photo (it’s not a bra) but a good sleep mask is crucial because there are so many hours of daylight.
As someone who has recovered from severe knee injury in the past, I found trekking poles to be necessary. Please note that if you’re traveling on a plane, you must check your trekking poles and they must fit inside your pack.
Getting to the trail
We ended up getting a round trip ticket with TREX, which we bought at the front desk at our hostel in Reykjavik. The round trip is nice because you can catch the bus back to Reykjavik from either end of the trail.
Hiking the trail
Emerald mountaintops, volcanic flowers, steaming hot springs, sprawling floodplains, and rhyolite-infused mountains awaited us along the trail. The elevation changes were not so bad, and because we were hiking at the tail end of summer there was not too much snow to worry about. The days were relatively warm. However, the rivers were definitely higher and faster-flowing. More on the river crossings later.
They are not joking when they warn you: EXPECT PRECIPITATION. If you’re one of those people who are like, “Psh, I’m usually very lucky when I hike and it won’t rain when I’M only the trail,” I promise you: it will rain. I know this because I am definitely one of those people, and yes, it rained on me. A lot.
Also, you are expected to carry all your garbage with you throughout the trek. Not all of the huts have trash bins, so the trek is mostly carry in/carry out. Bring extra plastic bags, they come in handy!
As always I could wax poetic for paragraphs about the experience of hiking the trail, but this post is dedicated to helping you with logistics and expectations!
“Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors…disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
— Rebecca Solnit
We planned out our schedule ahead of time for the last week of July into the first week of August. There are huts and campgrounds available at the following locations
- Emstrur (Botnar) or Hvanngil (there are very close together, so book a hut at either one, but not both)
Our actual schedule turned out to be the following:
Day 1) Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (bus arrival in Landmannalaugar around 11:30AM from Reykjavik)
— 12km, estimated walking time 4-5 hours, 470m net climb — ~arrival 5-6pm
Day 2) Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn
— 12 km, estimated walking time 4 – 5 hours, 490m net descent
Day 3) Álftavatn – Hvanngil – Emstrur (Botnar)
— 15 km, estimated walking time 6-7 hrs, 40 m net descent — we arrived in Hvanngil very quickly, as it is quite close to Álftavatn. You can see on the awesome hand-drawn map I’ve included below. We decided to continue on to Emstrur.
Day 4) Emstrur (Botnar) to Þórsmörk
— 15 km, estimated walking time 6-7 hrs, 300m net descent
The River Crossings (dun dun duuun)
Not gonna lie: I was extremely nervous about the river crossings. Again, I’m 5’0″ (by the way, so is Janelle Monáe apparently) and I wondered if I’d be tall and strong enough to get across glacial deep water with a 30-lb pack on my back. As you can see from the hand-drawn map, there are four rivers:
The first river crossing occurred on the second day. This one was the most difficult one for me, as it was deep and the current was quite strong. At the point of our crossing, the river was too deep to cross, so we jumped from rock to rock. There was a very nice (and tall) Dutch man who assured me that I could throw him my pack so that I could cross. My pack almost fell into the river, but we made it!
The other crossings were definitely not pleasant either, as the water is ice cold. We would ask the hut wardens about the river depths at the beginning of the day, and plan our outfits accordingly. On the last day I wore my swimsuit bottom as we heard we’d have thigh-deep water. Upon reaching the river, we would put our packs down, change shoes (to our sandals), roll up or take off our pants, and start our precarious fording. We linked arms during the last river-crossing so that we could withstand the strong current together. My trekking poles were very handy.
It was scary and extremely cold, yes, but the distances between huts are short and you’re not far from safety. There are usually enough people hiking the trail so that you are sure to see a friendly face. I even saw families with children bravely fording the rivers together.
It helped a lot that we had sunny weather for every river crossing. After getting to the other side of each river, I would tie my sandals to my pack, dry my legs, change into my boots, and keep moving! (Pro tip: Bring some Icelandic dark chocolate and eat a piece after river crossings or especially rainy stretches of the hike.)
Camping and/or Sleeping in Huts
Some of the campgrounds are windy, and it’s often raining or cold at night. The fog sets in before dawn. We pitched our tent at Hrafntinnusker and were grateful to have hut space for the rest of the hike. I researched a lot about what tent to bring, and I opted for the ultra light one I already owned (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2). My tent is very tiny and not windproof. I am not sure that it would have stood up to the windy rain if we had camped every night. I was more focused on reducing my pack weight so I decided against bringing a sturdier tent, but it’s definitely a trade-off to consider.
There is a small fee for camping in designated areas, but if you’re on a budget then it’s significantly cheaper than reserving hut space. You do not have access to hut kitchens if you decide to camp, so make sure to bring a stove if you plan to cook. The facilities at each stop vary, but for the most part feel quite luxurious if you normally rough it in the outdoors. There is plenty of running water and enclosed, flushing toilets at each stop.
Camping outside of designated areas can be dangerous depending on conditions, and I’m not sure if rangers will ask you to leave if you do so. There are rangers that walk the trail, we were stopped by a few, so be careful.
Huts are heated(!!!) and you reserve space per person. Be aware that if you’re traveling alone, you will likely have to share a bed with a stranger. Yes, they put two people per bunkspace, so you will be right up against someone else. Bring your own sleeping bag, and there is no linen or pillow. This is what one bunkspace looks like:
We had decided not to bring cookware, and we were glad to have access to the hut kitchen. The friends we met from all over the world had the most interesting meals to share. One girl from France even made her own bread. Her hiking cooking kit was pretty much the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, and I wondered how she afforded the luxury of all that weight. So much respect and admiration!
Here’s one of my delightful book-reading hut meals (plus a coveted dessert gifted to me by a stranger) after a long day’s hike:
Here’s a selection of other people’s food that I hungrily photographed:
Everyone else from other countries made fun of our very American cook-in-a-bag meals, but honestly I was so tired and hungry that I was grateful for the convenience.
The tents are going to be crowded, so consider bringing earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. Also- everyone is wet and their clothes are probably smelly. Yay, roughing it! But you’ll probably be thinking the whole time how grateful you are to have warm shelter.
I experienced some of my best sleep in years. I kept my phone on airplane mode the entire time, and felt so much more at peace.
Food/What did we eat?
You didn’t think you would get to the end of my blog post without a full serving of food, right? 🙂
My gear list provides details for what I carried for food. We ended up eating very non-glamorous meals, because we were going for easy and light-weight. We took some fresh smoked salmon, cucumber, and hard-boiled eggs for the first day. Breakfast was usually some sort of protein bar. For lunches we ate tortillas with tuna or almond butter and then ate bagged meal kits for dinner every night. I brought a good sized bag of homemade trail mix and ate handfuls as snacks along the trail. MEALS OF CHAMPIONS, as you can see. Water was not a problem. We filled up our water every night at the campgrounds/huts.
One dark chocolate bar got us through the rough climbs and river crossings.
I know this all seems lighthearted, but as with any trek make sure you do bring enough food. We ran into some travelers who said they were leaving the trail early because they ran out of food, so this is definitely a risk.
Not to be trite, but… have fun. Meditate. Meet people. Be social but also take time to get to know yourself and reflect. This was one of the safest, most welcoming treks I’ve ever completed. Through-hikes are interesting because it becomes easy to make it about reaching each destination, rather than enjoying the meandering itself. Make sure to inquire about the side trails and day/evening hikes that you can take from each stop. The evening hikes are a breath of fresh air because you can leave your stuff and walk without your pack.
Take your time. Rarely do you have the luxury of so many hours of daylight. Take advantage.
The weather can be hazardous and dampen your spirit (ha punny), but I tried to channel a Marcus Aurelius-or-Seneca-like point of view during the rainy stretches, to transform any negative emotions into a sense of calm and meditative perspective. More than anything, walking in the cold rain or through the icy rivers made me so grateful for the hot meal and warm sleeping bag at the end of the day.
Finally: I happened to be going through some personal tragedies at the time. I am so grateful for my travel companion’s infinite patience and love, and to have had this time to reflect. Also I might have listened to the Hamilton soundtrack 5,000 times on repeat. So, thanks, Lin-Manuel.
Though this is quite a long post, I’m sure I may have missed details that you are curious about. If you have questions, or want more photos of the various river crossings, let me know.
My “related” blog posts with tangential Iceland photos/references but that have nothing to do with preparing you for the hike:
- The importance of being Iceland
- Thoughts on hiking
- Grief is a thing with feathers
- The August earthquakes
Helpful resources and links:
Many amazing travelers have written helpful posts to help you prepare for this hike and your trip to Iceland! It’s also easy to find lots of photos to understand what to expect. I’ll try to add to this list of links as I come across more. Some are included below:
- Laugavegur Wikipedia entry
- Andrew Skurka’s very informative Laugavegur post
- Eileen Myles’ compilation of travel essays, The Important of Being Iceland
- Pico Iyer’s chapter about Reykjavik from Falling Off The Map
- Frugal Frolicker’s (Lindsay’s) post about hiking Laugavegur
- Travel Blog’s Laugavegur posts (I liked this one)