Iceland may be one of the safest countries in the world, but it is definitely not a safe island.
Since the settlement era, the history of Iceland is nothing if not a history of humans trying to learn from stupid, fatal mistakes in one of the most inhospitable lands on the planet. No matter how hard we try to conquer it—whether through dam projects, rope fences, or new roads—this island will always win. It does not care about you, your plans, or your dreams. It is unfuckwithable.
The people who live here are able to do so only thanks to a rich tradition of messing up and dying horribly. Tourists, on the other hand, have largely not grown up in a place where people once used to have bury food under shit in the hope that they wouldn’t starve when the winter came to storm or avalanche its way through their hovels. For this reason, a lot of dumb, tragic shit has happened to visitors during this tourist boom.
With more and more clueless tourists flooding the countryside unaccompanied, Icelandic emergency services are finding it harder and harder to keep up. While there are ongoing improvements to safety measures being implemented, these have only come about as a result of a lot of pain, whoopsies and death.
Let me be clear—fatal accidents in Iceland are certainly tragedies, but the vast majority of them also tend to be the result of some monumentally stupid decisions. Just two weeks ago, thirty people thought it would be a good idea to climb on some moving ice floes (!!!) to get a better look at some seals. Luckily nobody was hurt—but there’s ignorance, and then there’s stupidity, and then there’s climbing on an iceberg.
This is a dangerous, unforgiving, and brutal landscape, and it demands the utmost respect. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some important rules that need to be attended to if you wish to ensure your corporal existence on this planet continues beyond your visit to Iceland.
1. Check conditions before leaving town
Check before you travel:
If, like me, you’re from a country where the weather does not want to murder you, you probably don’t put much faith into weather warnings. A “severe” storm warning back home rarely turns out to be more than light drizzle and a bit of tabloid hysteria. Nobody really pays attention to the public safety warnings, because there’s usually nothing to actually be afraid of.
This is not the case in Iceland.
Just as you shouldn’t touch a hot plate to find out if it’s switched on or not, you should never neglect to check weather and road conditions before embarking. Doing so could mean setting yourself up for what will possibly be an extremely pointless death.
There have been many cases of tourists driving out into the countryside throughout the year and meeting grisly fates—even on the Ring Road. The Ring Road often suffers from a lack of traffic barriers, lampposts, and even tarmac and lanes. The F-roads are even more rudimentary. You’re at risk of head-on collision, crashing off-road, or getting trapped in your car. (As a side note, driving off-road in Iceland is illegal and you’re going to ruin the landscape for everybody else with your big, dumb 4×4 tracks.)
You might only have three days in Iceland during your stopover, but it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of stuff to do in Reykjavík that doesn’t involve freezing, starving, suffocating, or colliding yourself to death. (Well, up to a point.) There are no souvenir shirts bearing the words “I Went To Iceland And All I Got Was This Lousy Casket.” Ensure the conditions are right for your trip and inform the rescue services of your whereabouts if you’re planning to take an F-road. Basically, check that the big scary monster is sleeping before you drive straight into its gaping maw.
2. Read the fucking signs
ÓFÆRÐ / Ófærð
DO NOT PASS
So you’ve ignored rule #1 and you’re out on the road. The weather seems fine to you, and you don’t know what any fuss could possibly be about. You carry on until you reach a giant sign that says ÓFÆRÐ (impassable), and drive round it, the sun still shining. Little do you know, your good fortune is diminishing dramatically with each kilometre travelled.
Ok, you probably don’t speak Icelandic. The vast majority of the world doesn’t. However, most signs have English translations, and even if they don’t, it doesn’t take an Icelander to know that road signs tend to imply something at least a bit scary and important. If you see any sign that doesn’t tell you how far away the next town is, that sign is probably there for a very good reason: to keep you safe.
The same goes for natural attractions. If you ignore the cordons or KEEP BACK signs at Strokkur, you are going to receive some fun, boiling hot souvenirs from the heavens in the form of deep tissue scars, as tourists (and even children) before you have. You can expect similarly gruesome results if you choose to ignore the signage at Gullfoss or in front of giant floating ice cubes.
Out of the thousands who have come before you, you are not going to be the exception to the rule—no matter how experienced or smart you think you might be. Listen to the experts. Read the fucking signs.
Similarly, you should maintain a healthy suspicion of any awe-inspiring natural wonder that doesn’t have any signage. The majority of Iceland is not designed as a tourist attraction, nor is it designed for your safety or convenience—which brings us to our next (and most important) point.
3. Exercise common sense when confronted with the forces of nature
“Common sense” includes skills such as:
Avoiding fights with millennia-old geographical formations
Not climbing on floating things or walking towards the edge of large precipices
Sticking to the path well-trodden by people who died of things like cancer and gout, rather than stupidity
The most important rule when it comes to not ending up knee-deep in the shitheap of your own mortality is, basically, to exercise common sense.
If you’re trapped in your car during a storm, if you’ve been swept offshore by a brutal wave, or fallen off a rocky and/or icy ledge, you’ve already sort of crossed the Rubicon in terms of survival. You need to avoid that happening in the first place. You need to exercise some common sense. It is rarely apparent that something is dangerous, so it’s up to you to not put yourself in danger.
You need to remember that you are a baby here, in the scheme of things. A big, useless baby. The difference is that nobody is going to be there to bail you out when your stupid baby head thinks it’s a good idea to jump off the top of the toy box. Have you ever seen a baby try to climb over the bars on its cradle? Have you ever heard of it ending well? Those bars are on the cradle for a reason, baby. Exercise caution and stay in your crib.
It’s important to have fun, but as Grapevine’s HR department likes to tell us on a regular basis, fun isn’t fun unless it’s safe fun.
Top Ten Most Popular Accident Spots In Iceland: How To Avoid Death’s Warm Embrace
1. The roads
Check conditions. Give way. Keep your headlights on at all times. Pay attention to the signs. Watch out for other cars, people, sheep, and reindeer.
2. Reynisfjara beach
There are lots of great places to swim in Iceland. This is not one of them.
3. The ocean in general
This applies not just to Iceland, but to the ocean in general. Leave the ocean alone. Not only is it way better at swimming than you, it is filled with monsters and condoms.
Icebergs are not your friend. Don’t try and walk on them. They will flip you over.
See that giant waterfall? It’s been eroding the rocks beneath your feet with water for centuries. They are icy and slippery. Stay behind the cordon.
Exploding hot water is not your friend. Stay behind the cordon.
7. The Highlands
Don’t go here, full stop. That is, unless you’re accompanied by an experienced local or travel guide who knows their shit. A McCandless-style fate awaits you.
Like icebergs, glaciers are constantly moving—and melting—pieces of geography. Do not attempt to beat them with your feet, your hands, or your 3-door rental car. They will always win.
9. Active volcanoes
Have you seen the end of ‘Lord of the Rings’? That wasn’t a magical elf volcano. That was just a giant volcano. There are lots of those here. They spew hot jizz out of the ground and fart toxic gas. Need I say more?
10. The mean streets of Reykjavík
Do you like having an intact skeleton? Keep the sidewalk tomfoolery to a minimum during winter. Watch your head for icicles and those damn kids with their snowballs and beers and punk music, too.