From Iceland — The Laugavegur Trail Diaries: A Tale Of Snow, Steam And Sunburns

The Laugavegur Trail Diaries: A Tale Of Snow, Steam And Sunburns

The Laugavegur Trail Diaries: A Tale Of Snow, Steam And Sunburns

Poppy Askham Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Published July 21, 2020

Stretching 54 km between the geothermal hot pools of Landmannalaugar and the luscious Þórsmörk valley, the Laugavegur trail is something of a rite of passage for Icelanders. Complete it and you enter an elite class of hikers—at least that’s what we told ourselves before setting off.

Not to be confused with Reykjavík’s main shopping thoroughfare, Laugavegur is Iceland’s most popular hiking route. It regularly tops global top-ten lists of trails, attracting thousands of tourists and Icelanders alike each summer. A typical Laugavegur adventure takes 2-4 days to complete (or a mere five hours for an ultra-marathon runner). Intermediate in difficulty, the trail is perfectly manageable if you’re fit and healthy, but ignore the Icelander at the bar who’ll inevitably tell you a toddler could walk it in their sleep. They couldn’t.

We decided it was high time that the Grapevine conquered this legendary trail, so we formed a special Grapevine hiking division to take on the ole’ country road. Let’s meet them:

Valur Grettisson: Editor-in-Chief
  • Experience: Laugavegur second-timer, born-hiker
  • Skill level: Adept hiking pole user, and no, it’s not cheating.
  • Strength: Charm
  • Weakness: Overpacking
Poppy Askham: Intern
  • Experience: Novice
  • Skill level: Questionable
  • Strength: Youth
  • Weakness: Vegetarian
Art Bicnick: Photo Editor & International Man of Mystery
  • Experience: Unknown
  • Skill level: Infinite
  • Strengths: Flawless poker face, unlimited reserves of patience
  • Weakness: Sucker for sunsets

At 7:45 a.m. on an overcast Wednesday morning, our three intrepid explorers boarded the Reykjavik Excursions Bus, armed with a cobbled-together collection of borrowed hiking gear, half a tonne of camera equipment and enough harðfiskur to feed the entire Grapevine readership.

Let the games begin.

Laugavegur Trail

Thanks to Reykjavik Excursions for the ride! Photo by Art Bicnick

Laugavegur Trail Day 1 – Bubble Bubble, Surrealism & Trouble

Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker (12 km)

13:00 – We can’t avoid talking about the weather, after all it massively determines your hiking experience. Storms and snow can regularly take hikers by surprise in the Highlands but, lucky for us, the sun is high and the temperature pleasant. We start our journey amongst beautiful hills, mainly brown, but marked with occasional splashes of red and yellow. Although it has to be said, the lava fields’ frequent billows of steam kind of remind me of hell. VG

13:05 – Five minutes in and I’m acutely aware of just how heavy a two-man tent from the 90s actually is and, perhaps more pertinently, how weak I am. Repressed memories of the last time I hiked at age 15 in a particularly rain-soaked corner of Britain resurface and I’m suddenly wondering if I made the right decision. PA

13:07 – OK, so maybe this isn’t too bad.

The scenery is simply surreal, straight out of a Dalí painting. It’s as though the rusty-toned mountains are melting into one another. In classic Icelandic style, Laugavegur’s terrain is full of extreme contrast: one second you’re trudging through snow, the next you’re narrowly avoiding scalding jets of sulphurous steam and bubbling hot pools. I feel as though I’m hiking through my old geography textbook. PA

18:31 – The last hour was intense, but we’re now officially in the highlands. Every step through the snow feels like two. My thighs are killing me. For some reason I didn’t wear sunglasses and the sunlight reflected in the snow must have burnt my eyes or something. I also forgot suncream, as did Art. Poppy lent us some of hers, but alas I fear it is too late. Burning eyes, burning legs, burning face, burning lungs. Hell.

But we’ve made it now. VG

18:35 – Descending the snowy slope into the Hrafntinnusker valley is like walking into the opening scene from Macbeth. We pitch our tents amidst mounds of obsidian rubble under the watchful gaze of a raven. A thick white fog lurks on the horizon, making it impossible to tell where snow stops and sky begins. I refuse to believe that there are no witches here—there’s even plumes of steam, for Christ’s sake. PA 

20:34 – This is what I imagined camping in another dimension would be like. When we arrived, we met a group of parents and kids who were staying in the cabin. They gave us some Mexican chicken soup and Doritos. May Þór bless them. Despite their generosity there’s a definite cabin/campsite divide. Our tents are some hundred metres below the cosy cabin, which means a chilly trek to and from the bathroom. It feels like there’s a metaphor for the class struggle hidden somewhere in this scenario. I feel a new idea for a play brewing. VG

The dead of night… –  Three sets of socks, trousers and t-shirts, a fleece, a hat, gloves and a raincoat for good measure, but I’m still cold. A niggling pain in my toes and intermittent shivering episodes keep me from sleeping, so I just gaze at the tent ceiling, watching my breath form clouds and praying for morning. Should I venture up to the cabin in search of warmth? Is this my Captain Oates moment? The worst thing is not knowing the time; the resolutely bright sun offers no indication. Drifting in and out of sleep, I have no idea how many more hours of this desperate fight for survival remain. PA

Laugavegur Trail Day 2 – The Two Towers (Ok, Glaciers)

Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn (12 km)

08:56 – I love this place! I slept like a baby the whole night! The sun is shining. The view is breath-taking and I’m not even hungover after last night’s bottle of whisky. It truly is another dimension.

Apparently, someone was snoring like a chainsaw last night. I deny all allegations. It was definitely Art. VG

09:04 – “How did you sleep?” one of the Trúss hikers asks. “We were almost too warm last night.” Trúss is a new concept for me—trekkers pay companies to transport their food and supplies between campsites, leaving them free to hike with just a day pack. At night they stay in cabins overlooking the campsite, complete with running water, kitchens and central heating. Sure, there’s a certain righteous satisfaction in doing Laugavegur the ‘right’ way by roughing it in a tent, but after a sleepless night, it’s of little comfort.

After a cup of tepid instant coffee, I stop complaining and we set out into the snow. PA

13:42 – I decide to show off a little bit when we stop for lunch in a geothermal area, cooking hot dogs, bacon, baked beans and coffee, all using a natural hot pool. Only in Iceland, right? VG

12:30 – The roar of steam is constant, and I’m half-convinced that I’ll round the corner to a busy high-way. Looking back, the cabin we left this morning seems depressingly close despite the fact we’ve been hiking for several hours now. PA

14:55 – We reach the top of a steep ridge and are rewarded with quite possibly the most beautiful view I have ever seen. We can see the remaining 36 kilometres of our trek unfold, framed by the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. I almost feel as though I’m in the presence of a celebrity, as I gaze up at the volcano which caused so much international havoc back in 2010 (and so much personal trauma as a case study for my geography exams). PA

The view is nothing short of sublime. There is no way to describe it adequately, so I’ll just tell you how I feel: at first, transcendent, like I’d been granted incredible knowledge about everything and nothing. But now, under the gaze of the two glaciers, I feel scared. I feel small. I feel lucky. And I feel incredibly alive. Oh, but my body feels like shit. VG

18:35 – When we arrive at Álftavatn, we catch up with a group of runners who had passed us hours earlier. I feel like I should loathe these people somehow—nothing makes you feel worse than being overtaken mid-hike by 30 super-fit middle-aged Icelanders, but I only feel awe. I have to admit, it’s badass to run Laugavegur. We briefly hijack a table in their cabin, helping ourselves to hot water and enjoying an unexpected accordion performance. The group’s bus driver starts playing all these old Icelandic songs, but unfortunately no one quite remembers the lyrics. VG

Laugavegur Trail Day 3 Suddenly We’re Walt Whitman

Álftavatn to Emstrur (15 km)

I Am No Longer Human

If they ask me,
I’ll tell them that the glaciers
are not white
and majestic,
and overwhelming,

but a hand grenade

that the cliffs
are an illusion
that you can fly off
and be swept away
like a small leaf

That the muddy river
is not ice cold
and dark
and painful

but a soft warm silk

that flows through the
canyons,
flapping around
in the strong wind

If they ask me,
I’ll tell them
that I am no longer
a human,

but a glacier,

dark river,
steep cliff,
that will embrace
their fall

VG

08:27 – Last night was horrible. I woke up 40 times; 35 of which were down to Art’s snoring (see, it was him after all). But yesterday evening was great fun. We met a solo hiker from the Netherlands and taught him Ólsen Ólsen [an Icelandic card game, check below for instructions] over a bottle of whisky and some excellent Dutch chocolate. He attempted to teach us a game called toepen, but only Art understood—the man’s suspiciously good at card games. That’s one of the best things about Laugavegur, it’s incredibly sociable. VG

11:36 – Nothing can prepare you for the agony of your first glacier river crossing. The only way to understand is to experience it for yourself. But once you’ve recovered, you feel invincible. PA 

12:44 – Another f*$%^&? river. You’ve got to be kidding me. Oh, the pain! I was almost crying on the other side. But after I got my socks and shoes back on, I felt almost high. It’s like what I imagine a coffee enema feels like. VG

16:30 – When Valur said that trekking through kilometres of black sand would be a mental test, I thought he was joking, but three hours in and with no end in sight, none of us are laughing. The post-glacier-river euphoria kept us going at first, but after the tenth time I climbed a hill in the absolute certainty that I’d be greeted with the sight of Emstrur, only to see yet more black sand, I began to change my mind. This is nothing short of an apocalyptic. PA 

I hate the fucking sands! I just fucking hate the sands! I can’t stress this enough. It’s an odd combination of soul-crushing monotony and eerie beauty. The wind whips the sand about our feet, giving it a life of its own, almost like a wild animal. In a sudden frenzy it engulfs us, filling our eyes and noses with dust, before dissipating into the wind once more. God, it’s even driven me to poetry.

18:07 – When we finally spot Emstrur, we practically sprint down the hillside in relief. After yet another meal of pasta, we return to the tent exhausted. “Let’s play cards.” No one moves. “Let’s talk instead.” No one speaks. “Let’s just lie here.” PA

20:31 – I’ve got sand in my teeth, which feels like an important thing to note here. VG

Laugavegur Trail Day 4Screw You Nature

Emstrur to Þórsmörk (15 km)

09:15 – I’m trying to give everyone at the campsite food from my backpack in a desperate attempt to lighten my load. Only Poppy accepted the kind offer of porridge with a sprinkling of crushed Maryland cookies—an innovation I’m immensely proud of. What was I thinking when I was packing? That I was going to the moon? Also, I’m out of coffee. Why did I take a kilo of oats, but almost no coffee? VG

14:30 – Today’s route offers the most varied scenery of our journey. We cross rickety bridges over huge canyon rivers, scrabble down dusty mountainsides and walk through lava fields speckled with minute red flowers. As the landscape becomes less severe, wildlife and vegetation slowly return. It’s the first time we’ve seen trees the entire hike. We even spot a lóa camouflaged amongst the moss. Thinking back to the snowy highlands or yesterday’s black wasteland, I can barely believe Laugavegur’s contrasts. PA

15:03 – Everything seems… I don’t know. I’m watching the glaciers in the burning sunlight. I can feel my skin burning. My body somehow feels slower, but it’s like my mind has entered some state of hyperfocus. Actually, it feels like a nice time to write a poem like the romantic poets of the past did. They got a hard-on every time they saw a mountain. Well, I don’t have a hard-on, but it’s worth trying. VG

15:23 – The final glacier river looms before us; a great grey serpent barring our way. A low dread simmers in my stomach as I remove my socks and boots and roll up my trousers, before slipping on still soggy trainers. Earlier on in the trip we were told by a hiker heading in the opposite direction that the river reaches hip height but looking at the churning waters it’s impossible to gauge its depth. I grip Valur’s hand and take my first step, ready for the onslaught.

Step after step and the water reaches no higher than my knees. Bewilderment quickly fades into relief. There’s no swearing and screaming this time; no sprinting for towels and fresh socks. Maybe the water’s warmer or maybe we’re simply tougher now. PA

Crossing Markaljót Glacier river? Easy. Screw you nature. VG

And on the other side of the river? Paradise.The smell of Icelandic summer fills the air and a broad track leads us ever closer to civilization and the end of our adventure. PA

17:36 – We’re officially FINISHED!  I’m so high on success that I’m half-considering hiking all the way back to Landmannalaugar just to prove I can. But for now, I’m heading straight to the bar at the Volcano Huts campsite in Húsadalur. SKÁL! VG

Day 5 – Monotony Returns

09:25 – I’m entertaining the possibility that I might be indestructible. Five days and 55 kilometres and not a single blister, not even any aches or pains. No one is more surprised than me—maybe this is my calling? Watch out Everest, I’m unstoppable. PA

11:30 – I feel numb. It’s kind of hard to focus. My thighs are killing me, but my feet are in pretty good shape. I feel somewhat out of touch with everyday life. It’s like I’m permanently hungover after the highlands or I’m existing on a different frequency. I feel a little sad it’s over, but I’m incredibly glad at the same time. I feel like I can do anything, although I might have to rest for a few days first. VG 

iceland hiking

At Volcano Huts in Þórsmörk. Photo by Art Bicnick

Highlights Of The Laugavegur Trail

  • The unexpected adrenaline rush that comes after crossing a bitingly cold glacier river for the first time and the pure relief of pulling on a pair of dry socks afterwards. PA
  • When Poppy told me that the view was the most beautiful thing that she had seen. It made me feel glad that I could help someone experience that, and immensely proud of my home country. VG

Favourite day:

  • Day 2 – The views over Álftavatn and the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull make every one of the trail’s 55 kilometres worth it. PA
  • Day 1 – Whiskey, chicken soup and countless rounds of Ólsen Ólsen in the Highlands. Can’t really beat that. VG

Worst day:

  • Day 3 – Black sands. PA
  • Day 3 – Did we mention the two rivers? VG

Favourite campsite: 

  • Álftavatn – Real grass to pitch your tent on plus a massive lake—what’s not to love? Head straight there on the first night. Sure it means a 24km day, but it’s worth it to avoid Hrafntinnusker. PA
  • Hrafntinnusker – It’s like camping on the border of life and death. Dramatic and odd. Who needs comfort anyway? VG

Best hiking food:

  • Chocolate-covered nuts and raisin mix—a hiker’s crack cocaine. PA
  • Tortilla wraps – the most space-efficient lunch. Sorry, but flatkaka doesn’t quite cut it. VG

Worst hiking food:

  • Granola – mix with water for a depressing start to any morning or use as a highly inadequate pillow at night. Just wait until the bag splits in your backpack, then the fun really starts. (Honourable mention also goes out to Harðfiskur. I still haven’t quite forgiven Art for its unholy stench). PA
  • Baked beans. It’s just weird to have that in your backpack. I know that now. VG

Biggest mistake:

  • Getting sunstroke. Yes, it can actually happen in Iceland. I was surprised, too. PA
  • Forgetting to eat. It happens to the best of us. VG

Top tip:

  • Bring a pack of cards. PA
  • Don’t forget sunscreen, shades and an extra pair of shoes for river crossings (and whiskey, of course). VG
Laugavegur trail

Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the background. Photo by Art Bicnick

How To Play Ólsen Ólsen
Want to assert your dominance in the Icelandic hiking world? You’re going to need to know how to play this classic card game (if you’re familiar with Crazy Eights, you’re a shoe-in).

  • Each player is dealt 5 cards. One card from the stack is placed face up in the centre.
  • Players take it in turn to put down a card that is either the same number or suit as the card before. You can put down multiple cards of the same number at once.
  • If you can’t play, you have to pick up a card (max 3) until you can either play a card or are forced to pass.
  • Eights are magic cards that mean you can select the suit the next player has to follow. Pro tip: save them until last.
  • The aim is to be the first to get rid of all your cards, but remember to shout Ólsen when you’ve got one card left otherwise you’ll have to pick up three more. When you run out of cards, shout Ólsen Ólsen.

Huge thanks to Reykjavik Excursions for providing our transport to the Laugavegur Trail and 66° North for our jackets and trousers

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