Solo backpacking in Iceland: 50 miles and three days on the Laugavegur Trail
For the first leg of his June Iceland trip, adventure-seeker and ZOZI writer Kevin tackled more than 5,000 vertical feet on Hrútfjallstindar mountain. And that was just the start. Next up: The country’s longest hiking trail.
Coming off of my adrenaline-filled mountaineering trip, I was eager to begin the three-day solo trek to Landmannalauga, a highland area in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Famous for geothermal hot springs, lava fields, glacial-fed rivers and colorful volcanic mountains, the 50-mile Laugavegur Trail is normally done over six or seven days. My legs were slightly fatigued, but my spirit was high and I felt like nothing could stop me. What I didn't anticipate was the daunting terrain and extreme weather, which turned a strenuous hike into one of the most challenging treks.
Having just summited one of Iceland’s tallest peaks, I departed Vatnajökull National Park and drove back to Reykjavik early the next morning to catch the bus to Skógar. Unfortunately, the rain had short-circuited my camera, so I decided to delay my departure to have it repaired.
I arrived at Skógar at 7 p.m., way later than originally planned, but given the non-stop daylight and clear weather, I kicked off my journey with a 16-mile trek to the Básar Hut and Campground. The Laugavegur Trail started right next to Skógafoss, one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland.
I felt pretty good at the start. The views were mesmerizing and filled with grassy highlands, numerous waterfalls, and moss-lined canyons carved out by Skógá River. I couldn’t stop taking copious photos of the gorgeous scenery, even though it was slowing down my progress.
It took me nearly four-and-a-half hours to reach Fimmvörðuháls (Five Cairns Pass), nested between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, at around 3,400 feet. It took me another two hours to clear the pass, due to a series of crests, troughs and slushy snowfields accumulated within the volcanic craters. At this point, the sky had darkened and twilight was burning red behind the clouds.
The descent through Goðaland (Land of the Gods) towards þórsmörk (Thor’s Woods) was probably the most memorable part of my entire trip. I had panoramic views of the dramatic landscape below, with a smoky backdrop and a glimpse of morning light illuminating the peaks and valleys. As I made my way down, I instantly sobered up from the euphoria. The steep descent, with and without fixed ropes, and narrow passages along sheer cliffs made the remaining journey quite treacherous, especially with a heavy pack.
At 3:45 a.m., I finally made it to Básar, situated at about 787 feet high. Mentally fatigued and feet pounding, I immediately set up camp and rested up for the night.
I woke up refreshed the next morning. Knowing another long day was ahead of me, I packed up quickly and got moving by 11 a.m.. My goal was to hike to Álftavatn, a deep lake along the trail about 20 miles away.
The scenery shifted drastically as I hiked out of Básar and þórsmörk. Instead of the luscious greenery that lined the trail, I encountered a barren, rocky path with colorful, snowcapped mounds in the distance.
The route was mild—gaining about 1,100 feet in elevation—but featured several river crossings without bridges. One required careful deliberation: At roughly 30 feet across, the water was cold, fast-moving and reached above my knees.
I arrived at the Hvanngil Hut shortly after crossing the rapids at 9 p.m., three miles shy of Álftavatn. Drenched from precipitation and river crossings, I decided to call it a day.
Sleeping that night was a bit uneasy. High winds pounded on my tent and woke me up several times.
By morning, the wind had subsided. I woke up at a decent time to begin the final day of my hike.
I made great progress initially, reaching Álftavatn by 8 a.m.. However, as I departed from the lake, the wind picked up. Thinking nothing of it, I continued on with the hike. An hour later, the gradual slope turned into an abrupt incline and the drizzle turned into a constant downpour.
As I reached the top of the ridge, I was rewarded with near-hurricane force wind. The unrelenting gusts battered all the hikers in its path, forcing some to drop down to the ground and knocking me off balance on several occasions. The smoldering volcanic vents were now clearly visible, spewing columns of steam and gas, dominating the air with the smell of rotten eggs.
I battled the headwind and rain for several hours until I reached the Hrafntinnusker Hut (around 3,370 feet) at noon. Cold, drenched and sapped of energy, I opted to pay the 500 ISK (about $4 USD) to the warden to remain indoors for the next hour and use the kitchen.
With the hut booked up and the unrelenting abysmal weather, camping there for the night would have been a poor option. I mustered all of my strength, pulled on every layer I had and got back outside to brave the weather once more.
The last seven miles were mostly a solitary and steady 2,000-foot descent into Landmannalaugar. The gloomy weather eventually dissipated, exposing the vibrant, chromatic hills in the distance. The trail was once again teeming with people. When I finally arrived at my destination, I bypassed the coveted hot springs and bee-lined straight to the next bus to Reykjavik. Finding comfort in the shelter, I was finally able to reflect on all the events that transpired during my trek.
In nature, beauty and danger often come in pairs. To fully appreciate the former, you have to accept and respect the latter.