Always prepare, think... and enjoy
Hiking is a popular recreational sport in Iceland. People by the thousands are on the move in the vicinity of Reykjavík on a good day. While many hike on rather flat ground, mountain hikes have gained popularity over the last two decades.
There is a vast array of easy to moderate hikes to choose from and most towns, like Reykjavík, have a local “town mountain” 200 to 1,000 metres above sea level, which takes a short and leisurely one to four hours to top. For those with the skills, experience and physical endurance, there are also a number of more difficult mountains 500 to 2,100 metres above sea level. Hikers and mountaineers heading for these highest and/or remote peaks must be in excellent physical shape. Such day hikes can take at least 8–15 hours. Not to mention, weather conditions can be extremely difficult and seriously test a hiker’s endurance.
Icelandic mountains should not be underestimated, especially not in wintertime when you can expect Arctic conditions. At 400 to 2,100 metres above sea level, they may not be the tallest in the world, but conditions can change rapidly and many of the higher ones are glaciated. Hikers can run into serious difficulties regardless of the size of the mountain or time of year. Careful preparation and proper equipment thus makes all the difference. Visit safetravel for more information.
Terrain To Look Out For
Icelandic rock is mainly volcanic and can be either loose or compact, but riddled with cracks. This kind of rock is subject to rapid processes of erosion and weathering, and the terrain in many areas is extremely rugged and uneven. Long scree slopes characterise Icelandic mountains. Snow often lingers in the mountains over the summer, and there are many glaciers. Hikers who are not experienced climbers or lack the proper equipment must avoid a variety of hazards in the landscape:
Rock is unsuitable for climbing in most areas. Exercise special caution when scrambling.
Runnels are dangerous even if dry. This is mainly because of the rock detritus found in them and the danger of sliding.
Ravines and canyons
Falling rocks and steep rock steps, low waterfalls and deep water pits characterise V-shaped ravines and canyons with slanting or horizontal walls.
If river water reaches above your knees, you will need to employ special techniques for safe fording (for example, wading in groups of two to three, and at an angle to the current) or find an alternative route. Glacial rivers are easier to cross where they are more braided; many can also be crossed on the glacier itself.
Screes above a precipice
Loose and very steep screes below or above cliffs may start to slide under a hiker’s weight.
Sand, silt or gravel on sloping rock/cliffs
A thin top layer of detritus increases the risk of falling.
Very steep grass- or moss-grown slopes
Vegetation growing on rock or sloping ground can be extremely slippery even when it is not raining.
Hard snow and glacier ice
Old snow on slopes and steep glacier ice are in most cases very dangerous and inaccessible without crampons and at least one ice axe.
Hikers should use the ascent route to descend a mountain unless they are familiar with an alternative descent route or know that that the route is absolutely safe.
Check The Weather: It’s Shifty
Iceland’s weather is a product of its location in the middle of the North Atlantic, its mountainous terrain and frequent low-pressure systems (cyclones) approaching/passing from the southwest.
A prevailing high pressure system (anticyclone) over Greenland, in confluence with travelling lows, often leads to high-speed northerly winds, while the low-pressure systems themselves fling strong southerly winds toward Iceland. These winds from the ocean usually carry clouds and precipitation to a particular side of Iceland, while on the leeward side, the dry air simultaneously leads to much sunnier weather.
Calm, generally stable weather prevails if no prominent lows are close to Iceland, that is, if a high is built up over the island or if lows pass well south of Iceland. Such conditions may last for one to two weeks or even longer.
Iceland’s mean annual temperature ranges from about +4° to +5°C. While this is no tropical island, Iceland is quite warm considering how close it is to the Arctic Circle. In addition to the abovementioned factors, the warm Gulf Stream has a strong impact on the temperature. The average low temperature in July is +10°C to +12°C while highs range from +15° to +25°C, and have recently reached +30°C.
Very high or low summer temperatures are most frequently observed in Northeast Iceland. In general, the Icelandic lowlands have a mild oceanic climate, while the highlands are characterised by somewhat sterner Arctic conditions, summer temperatures rarely passing +15°C. Even in the lowlands, however, the chilling effects of winds are pronounced. Looking on the bright side though, Iceland can also be quite sunny.
Inland regions of North Iceland have the lowest annual precipitation with around 300–400 mm compared to 1,000 mm in the SW lowlands and 3,000–5,000 mm in the highlands and central parts of South Iceland. Days with measurable precipitation number over 200 in Reykjavík and 140 in Akureyri, on average.
The weather forecast is in Icelandic on radio and TV and in newspapers as well as on the Internet. The Icelandic Meteorological Office has an English version of their website (en.vedur.is) and can be contacted through their site or by calling +354-902-0600 (fixed answering service) or by checking at safetravel.is.
What To Bring:
The Bare Essentials
This is a list of essential items for a short mountain hike (1–5 hours) from May to September, provided that there will be no ice or snow on your route:
-Something to drink and a light lunch/snack (for hikes of more than 1–1.5 hours)
-Warm headgear, such as a wool or fleece hat
-Sufficiently warm underwear (choose material that absorbs little moisture)
-Trousers and a shirt/lightweight inner jacket made from fabrics suitable for hiking
-Wind and waterproof trousers and a jacket/raincoat
-20–40 litre backpack
-1 extra pair of socks
-Hiking boots with good grip
-Sunglasses and sunscreen
For longer trips (over 4–5 hours) in May-September, you will need to take more food and possibly camping equipment (depending on your plans) and a larger backpack. Wading shoes (lightweight shoes that can get wet) are useful if you will be fording rivers. For hard snow you need crampons and an ice axe. If you will be crossing paths with a glacier and there is even the slightest risk of crevasses en route, take a harness, rope (20–40 m) and two string loops and/or some kind of locking device for each person on the rope team.
In addition to these basics, you may also want to pack items such as hiking sticks, a map and, depending on the route, a compass/GPS device, first aid kit and emergency flares. As a rule, let someone know about your hiking plans.
Ari Trausti Guðmundsson has been active as a non-fiction writer in the fields of geology, volcanology, astronomy, environmental science and mountaineering, with some 40 published book titles. In addition, Ari Trausti has written novels and published poetry and short stories in magazines and anthologies since the 1970s. In 2002, he received the Laxness literary prize for his collection of short stories.
Educated as a geophysicist in Norway and Iceland, Ari Trausti works as a freelance consultant in the fields of geoscience, tourism and environmental issues as well as writing and hosting numerous radio and television programs and documentaries.
Ari Trausti is also noted as an avid mountaineer in many countries, an Arctic traveller and contributor to scientific exhibitions, visitors centres and museums in Iceland and abroad. He has been an official guide for Icelandic ministries, the Office of the President and several scientific institutions. He is an international member of the Explorers Club. Furthermore, he was a candidate for the office of the President of Iceland in 2012.