Winter camping in Iceland
Ice crystals on the sleeping bag, frozen eyelashes, the tent above you rattles in the wind. Under such conditions, crawling out of the cuddly sleeping bag in the morning costs a lot of willpower. So just carefully stick out one hand, unzip the tent, open it up a bit, lean forward and enjoy the gigantic view. Winter camping in Iceland. A story about northern lights, glacier lagoons, rectangular milk, vegetable splinters and baby wipes.
- Conditionsstormy, snowy, icy, sunny, packed
- TeamTeam Iceland5 Outdoor and Photography lovers headed out on a dream adventure
- Equipmentheavy dutyBackpacks, Sleeping Bags, Sleeping Mats, Tents, warm Clothing, Ice Gear, Climbing gear, Cooking Gear, Camera gear
We left for Iceland in March last year. For 18 years I secretly cherished this dream, dreamt of it, raved about it. I even booked flights 3 years ago, but it never happened, it just wasn’t right.
In February I went to the ISPO, talked to some manufacturers and told them about our project. I have already done some winter tours and tent experiences, but Iceland in winter is something else. It is the tiny considerations and details that keep you busy. From ‘Yes we got enough water, but how do keep it from freezing on the pulka’ to ‘do we actually need ice screws to set up the tent? Some of the things were clear to us in advance, for others we found spontaneous solutions. Or just not.
The feezing cold temperatures were both our best friend and our worst enemy. With temperatures dropping below -20°C and mostly violent winds, waterfalls, lakes and the coastal strips are transformed into an incomparable, surreal wonder world, but at the same time you notice that your body and your camera eat up all remaining energy reserves within minutes. Everything you do happens infinitely time consuming and strips you off all energy. Things like taking down your tent, stuffing your sleeping bag, packing your rucksack and loading your car take forever when you’re wearing thick gloves. You’ll also have an infinite amount of equipment to be prepared for every situation, and there’s just one Tetris version that fits all your bags and passengers in the car.
So here’s a little field report, a few Do’s and Don’t’s about camping at ≤ -10°C:
Our plan: Going all the way around, a few small hikes, sleeping outside, and above all taking in and photographing the great landscape.
On the move: We had a Dacia Duster with a big roof box as homebase, stuffed to the top with equipment and food. A so-called 4-wheel-drive vehicle is absolutely recommendable at least for the northern part of Iceland in winter. Apart from a few exceptions, only the ring road no. 1 is passable, the small ‘F-roads’ are all closed in winter.
Spending the night: The landscape in Iceland is flat. Sure, there are mountains and rocks, but Iceland was and is a country formed by glaciers. Even today, although the climate change has left blatant traces, about 11% of the country is still covered with thick glacier ice all year round, so everything is quite flat. There are hardly any rocks or even trees in whose slipstream one could pitch one’s tent. Thus, it is elementary to have a tent that is able to cope with the partly strong winds and weather changes. We were on the way with a North Face expedition tent VE25 for 3 persons and the Hilleberg Nammatj 2GT. In addition, the temperatures in the higher, northern regions can sink sensitively far below freezing, warm sleeping bags and insulating mats with sufficient insulation are therefore indispensable. With the Mountain Equipment Aerostat Downmats and Mountain Equipment sleeping bags of the series Iceline, Snowline and Glacier Expedition we slept very snug and warm. You can find more information in this detailed Review.
How to prepare food: Some very normal things suddenly become terribly elaborate. Cooking and eating, for example. If you’re on the road for 3 weeks, you need more thans just cereals and sandwiches. Your body needs significantly more energy, fats and calories at such temperatures, and a warm meal is a wonderful experience when you sit in a cold tent in the evening. So you can’t avoid cooking at least once a day.
Not every stove and every fuel can withstand such temperature, topographical altitude and strong winds. Accordingly, we brought two Optimus Polaris, multifuel stoves with good performance, which we tested in advance with clean petrol in a cold chamber at -20°. No problem at all, they went well despite the cold and had a good performance. Since we couldn’t transport gas cartridges or gasoline on the plane, we planned on getting the fuel on location. However, our naive assumption that it is certainly no problem to buy suitable liquid fuel at any filling station proved to be very spoiled by civilization. Gas cartridges with a gas mixture suitable for the winter are not only abnormally expensive in Iceland, but almost not available at all. Outside of Reykjavik we searched in vain for an outdoor shop with camping supplies or other equipment. At the fifth gas station we ended up buying two gas cartridges with incomprehensible inscriptions and a canister of liquid fuel, that smelled of a petroleum mixture. Since we were not sure about the cleanliness of the liquid fuel and were worried that the stoves would clog, we thought it would be better to try the gas first. We figured if we keep the cartridges warm it will work somehow… Well, it did not. When we arrived at the chosen campground the thermometer already showed -22° C. The sight of the northern lights, which were dancing on the sky this very first night, kept us busy for a long time and when we start cooking it was already way after midnight. We didn’t bother too much. Noodles are done quite quickly, so we thought… We filled the big 5 liter pot with water, took the gas cartridge out of our jacket pocket and started off. The stove burns stuttering and actually gives off some heat, but we can watch how the water superficially starts to freeze on the surface while the pot is standing on the stove. So we quickly start the second cooker, carefully place the cartridges near the cooker, after 1 hour of waiting we resigned and held the cartridge directly into the flames of the second stove. After 3 hours finally the long-awaited slight bubbling at the bottom of the pot. Food was served shortly after 04:00 in the morning. We didn’t touch the cartridges again during the holiday. The petroleum mixture produced a lot of soot and almost completely destroyed the cotton wool in the cooker, but once the cooker was preheated there was warm food in an acceptable amount of time.
The transportation of food is also somewhat different than normal. It is divided into ‘may freeze’ and ‘can we eat it before the car is parked somewhere longer than 2 hours?’ Some vegetables like peppers can be shredded better at a certain degree of freezing than cut and the milk frozen into an elegant cuboid, which you have to cut out of the tetrapack if you take it out of the sleeping bag too early in the morning.
Cooking itself is only half of the deal. After dinner, you have normally wash up or how we called it in iceland: scrape off. Unfortunately, rinsing with water is neither fun nor does it make much sense. Usually we put the dishes aside and waited until they were frozen. Then we scraped off the food with a spoon and wiped everything with baby wipes. Before the next meal we rinsed everything off with warm water we had to prepare anyways.
Layering up: For you always carry a shitload of gear when you’re out camping anyway, I try to reduce my clothing as much as possible. Personally, I prefer to be dressed like an onion, layering up according to my current level of activity.
I prefer to wear merino wool as a base layer. For the 3 weeks in Iceland I only had three tops, three longsleeves, one long john and one sweater with me. With the temperatures way below zero, I quit changing clothes twice a day rather quick. As a base layer – depending on the temperature – I wore the thin merino pants or a Powerstretch fleece pant combined with a fleece-lined soft shell pant. Later in the evening as the temperatures dropped we curled up in the sleepingbags already while preparing dinner or put on a warm skiing pant.
The only thing we really brought a ridiculous amount of is jackets. And we most definitely did not regret it. I have been wearing all my jackets at once quite oftem. Especially when you’re resting or photographing after an exhausting day, the body needs all the isolation it can get. The base layer of jackets is the ARCTERYX Atom LT, a thin Primaloft jacket. Above that a Patagonia Down Sweater, a thin, flexible down jacket and a MOUNTAIN Equipment K7 as the outer layer. I used to called the K7 my ‘mobile home’ during that trip. With it’s many and generous pockets, not only did all the batteries and Powerbanks have a warm shelter, but the other essentials such as lamps, gloves, chocolate and the most beautiful lava stones were also well tidied up. The lightweight down jacket with the extended filling quickly weighed 10-12 kg. But that didn’t bother me at all, it was almost unnoticeable regarding the total amount of luggage.
As soon as I get physically active and am on my way with a heavy backpack in the mountains or on the glacier, the onion layers melt quitee quickly, and I often only wear my Merino Base Layer with my Arcteryx Beta AR Hardshell jacket over it.
Besides that, a hat, scarf or buff, gloves and spare gloves are essential.
What keeps you running: My favourite shoe on Iceland was actually a rubber boot. Of course not a ‘normal’ rubber boot but one with a thick, insulated sole with neoprene lining, the Aigle Parcour Iso. The neoprene keeps you warm even when your feet get wet from sweating. In the south of the island the permafrost soil already superficially starts thawing at the end of march. What looks like a gravel field in the foothills of the Alps, turns out to be a knee-deep mud puddle after stepping on it twice. It is therefore advisable not to leave the beaten paths, even if it looks like a shortcut.
While driving and in the cities we were wearing a low-cut GoreTex approach boot. The rubber compound and the firm sole provide sufficient grip even on slightly grooved stones. But off the tourist paths, one does not want to go to Iceland with this footwear.
For all off-the-track-adventures, whether rock, glacier or ice climbing, we were equipped with a fully crampon resistant alpine boot from La Sportiva, the Nepal Cube. Which model you choose depends mainly on the shape of the foot. It is important that the boot offers optimum support, especially in the heel and midfoot area, and for the boot to feel overall comfy. With clever and firm lacing and a removable tongue pad you can further optimize the fit.
Climbing and mountaineering equipment: we hadn’t planned any great escapades, but of course we couldn’t miss the glaciers and ice caves in the south of the island. If you are not really familiar with glaciers in the area, it is absolutely recommendable to do a guided tour. The changes in the ice caves are massive, most caves are only accessible for a few months, the cave we originally wanted to see is now completely flooded. In the south there are several providers of guided tours by professional mountain guides. We were headed out there with ICE EXPLORER (https://www.explorers.is). The caves are well secured and besides a lot of information you get all the necessary equipment.
If you still want to adventure on your own, you should be equipped accordingly. For our tours we brought our own climbing and ice gear with us. To be safe on the glacier, in addition to crampon-proof shoes, suitable clothing and backpack you need some solid iceclimbing gear to be able to do a rescue from a crevasse or just off the glacier. Crampons, ice axe, climbing harnesses, a helmet, belay device, headlamp, 30-50 m rope, quickdraws, carabiners, slings, ice screws and sunglasses with sufficient UV protection are only a part of the equipment needed for this. A first aid kit and an emergency bivouac bag are a must for tours like that, just like a GPS device, or altimeter, compass and maps to navigate on the glacier. But one thing no gadget in the world can replace is the knowledge of the weather and the terrain you are traveling in and the inner strength to turn around when it comes to the safety and well-being of your whole team.
What we learned for our next winter adventure?
Baby wipes are your best buddy and company on a trip like this. You need them to wipe your hands, do the dishes, take a shower, clean your gear and yes, at the very end we even tried to wipe the nasty smell off our clothes on our way home to the airport. The latter, however, did not really work out considering the glances we got at the airport.
Not only does your body need much more sleep and food when exposed to low temperatures for such a long time, but everything you do takes much longer than you would normally assume.
But these temperatures also have a huge advantage: most of the island is covered with ice and snow and everything looks beautiful and wild.
All in all, Iceland is a wonderful place to stay in winter if you are equipped accordingly. By the way, the Icelander himself doesn’t see this so dramatically, the slide in the outdoor pool in Akureyri is filleds with people having a blast at -10°. As soon as the temperatures rise slightly above 0° the Icelander is already wearing shorts. We had a fantastic time in a beautiful country that fortunately is not as crowded with tourists in March as it probably is in summer.
If I would consider doing this again? Absolutely. Right away, without even thinking about it for a second.