An Iceland Expedition (part 1) : The Dawn of a Long Trek, walking from Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Borgarnes

My plan had been quite simple: walk around Iceland, much like I did around Tasmania, and I based it on this route, cutting out the Westfjords. Meandering around Iceland’s famous ring road, it would offer the opportunity to resupply every week, or two weeks, and it was going to take me about 4.5 months, I figured. I had no idea whether it would be possible, and whether the weather would get too harsh outside of the three Icelandic summer months, but this was my plan. Walk around Iceland.

I created the route in more detail, scouring the Internet for local hiking maps and worked on a schedule, figuring out where the supermarkets and campsites were, and made sure to equip myself with 4 season gear, storm proof and warm and as light as possible. Under 8 kilo pack weight, and space for enough food and water on top of that, I hoped.

I flew to Reykjavik and took the bus to Vatnaleid, just under Stykkisholmur, where I began the trip, circling the Western Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Day 1 : Vatnaleid bus stop – Wild camping near Gjafakollur (17.5 km)
Day 2 : Wild camping near Gjafakollur – Grundarfjordur (19 km)
Day 3 : Grundarfjordur – Olafsvik (30 km)
Day 4 : Olafsvik – Snaefellsjokull National Park (34 km)

Day 5 : Snaefellsjokull National Park – Arnastapi (25 km)
Day 6 : Arnastapi – Wild camping near Budir (24.4 km)
Day 7 : Wild camping near Budir – Langaholt (19 km)
Day 8 : Langaholt – Hotel Eldborg campsite (56 km)

Day 9 : Hotel Eldborg campsite – Wild camping along Snaefellsnesvegur (48 km)
Day 10 : Wild camping along Snaefellsnesvegur – Borgarnes (15.5 km)
Zero day 1 : Borgarnes

Total walking days: 10
Total km: 288.4
Average km per day: 28.8

Route key:
Trail – GREEN
Dirt road – BROWN
Road – BLUE

Here We Go…

It took two buses to get to Vatnaleid. It had been sunny when I woke, that morning in Reykjavik, but the weather turned grey as the morning progressed, and I watched the clouds darken slowly from the bus, the landscape desaturating as I moved along, swiftly. On the bus I ate some of my heaviest food, a banana, an apple, and I thought I should bin the remnants at the bus station before I began my walk, so I didn’t have carry it along. Perhaps I could even get a warm coffee, to soothe myself into the start.

I arrived just after 10, and the moment the bus halted, I knew everything was going to be more difficult than I had originally imagined. We were stopped at a crossing, two roads meeting below a grey sea indistinguishable from the sky above, and that was it. A second bus was waiting to take passengers further West and when both vehicles had left, I felt a cold pierce through my layers and the wind hitting me unrelentingly. I was alone on the side of the road in the absolute middle of nowhere. There wasn’t even a bin.

I set off immediately, emotions running wild. What in the world was I doing? I had wanted to get off the main road and into the mountains immediately, but the trails I had found online weren’t there. Was this what it was going to be like? I thought that perhaps I should stay on the road for the day, to allow myself an easy start, but then I saw a car hit a dirt road South, and I knew I should take it.

It was cold and wet and windy and it started to rain. I kept going until I saw a second trail crossing a river and leading further into the mountains. Once I made my way across the river, I was alone once again. No cars followed.

I walked along the trail, which was thinning until at once it disappeared. I watched several waterfalls in the distance and walked towards them, comparing my maps to figure out on what side I was supposed to pass the mountain to get to where I was supposed to go. I was stuck on grass meadows wading in water. I misstepped, and soaked one foot. I crossed streams carefully, walking back and forth to find a safe spot to cross until I had to give up, and I took off my shoes and waded right through, the icy cold water numbing me immediately.

It’s okay, I thought. I had made myself a little mantra. I can do whatever I want. I can set up my tent right now if I can’t continue any longer. It’s okay if I walk for two hours or walk for ten hours. It doesn’t matter. I am free to do whatever I feel I need to do.

Across the stream and a long slog through wet grass later, I saw something that looked like a trail higher up a hill and I decided to chase it. I climbed in the rain and then climbed down again, the trail in the bulky grass impossible and slow. Hopping from treadable spot to treadable spot, rather than walking along normally. I wasn’t sure whether the trail I followed was formed by people or sheep, but it was the only route to go by, so I stuck with it.

On the way down I saw a valley open up before me, and I could just about spot a dirt road in the distance. I felt light, for a moment. I had gone the right way. A cloud parted and a moment of sunshine revealed as if by magic. I decided that was enough. I found a grassy patch right next to a stream and that is where I would make camp that first night walking around Iceland. It was cold and I was drenched and it was perfect.

The following day was short and endless at the same time. Rain poured down all day and never stopped. I wore all my rain gear, and was warm until my gloves got wet. I took them off and I was cold immediately, through and through.

When I arrived at Grundarfjordur I found a café and a supermarket. I walked into the café, my clothes and shoes soaked. I ordered a coffee and set next to a few sockets, feeling invisible, or perhaps too visible, and plugged in my phone.

That night I stayed at the local campsite, which sported a toilet and a sink with warm water, where I washed my underwear and socks. I was amused watching people join the campsite. Driving in with their rented cars and setting up their tents or opening up the strange collapsable structures on top of their vans. I watched them huddle together in the cold to make dinner at a picnic table, while I zipped up my flies, much happier to retreat inside, in my own small world after a day exposed to the elements. I guess I’m alone and I don’t cook, so I don’t have to be outside. I can add cold water to whatever I have in my ziplock bags and wait until its edible. But I enjoyed watching them traipse about in their heavy hiking boots and bright down jackets and I thought, You have no idea.

I stayed inside and with the ever-lasting daylight, continued reading the book I had started before I left, crying at Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ until late, every emotion linking to my own. I woke up to the same, pale skies. A damp, rainy morning and everything I owned was still wet.

I reminded myself of my new mantra. It’s okay, I am free to do whatever I want. I bought food for the coming week and after arranging everything in ziplock bags, returned to the café. I stayed all morning and early afternoon, hiding in a corner with my back to everyone else. I positioned myself in front of one of the few radiators which I turned on full blast while I looked out of the window to a dim and rainy world. I dried my gloves and socks and charged my devices, lingering on the cheapest filter coffee they offered, with free refills.

While everything dried, I was happy. I was figuring this out. I was free and I had food and I felt smug with a solution I had come up with so I could keep dry: bin bags.

I had bought a large stash of bin bags and put them around my socks in my wet shoes, fastening them with elastic hair bands I’d also found in the shop. When I walked on later that afternoon, I kept my newly dry gloves safe, and instead placed the plastic bags around my hands. It didn’t keep them dry, as they soaked with condensation instantly, but it kept them warm, and I quite merrily continued on my way, despite the rain, talking to myself and following a bridle path whenever possible, walking next to the road.

Entering Snaefellsjokull National Park

Whenever I used to think of national parks, I thought of trees. Your typical forest, with mountains and summits to climb. I had this vision when I imagined Snaefellsjokull National Park, but I was wrong. Things in Iceland are different. There was a mountain, an icecap, and it was mostly surrounded by open land, covered in rocks of all sizes and moss heath and grass impossible to walk on, all bunched up in heaps, like little islands of tall grass in endless fields.

In my optimism, I followed my map for a hiking route into the park, slogging through soggy grassland and rocks in something that must be an Icelandic joke: the unmarked hiking trail. It was, in fact, a vast piece of land with no trail whatsoever, as if to say: ‘Hi foreigner, here’s nature. Good luck getting to the other side.’ 

It took hours to get through, and I wasn’t met by the forest I was secretly still hoping for. The icecap was there, with some bare sister-peaks close by, and everything else was rock and grass. By the time I reached the heart of the national park, I was exhausted. I followed a new trail, this time marked, until I couldn’t any longer. It was late, after nine. I was in the middle of a national park with at least another 20 km to a campsite and I had to rest. When I found a grassy spot, sunken into the ground as though it had once been a stream, I decided to set up camp. I was just about hidden from the main road that ran parallel to the trail, but I was terrified of being found out. Camping isn’t allowed in national parks, and I didn’t want to break the rules, but I had no other choice. While I had seen no one else hike in the area, I set my alarm early so I could move on before anyone could spot me.

It took two days to get through the national park, and I ended up on the road to Arnastapi, walking along obscure trails that were never clearly defined for hiking, and I tried them, never sure if I would suddenly meet a river I couldn’t cross or private land I couldn’t pass, and I would have to backtrack.

Arnastapi was a bit of a tourist haven. Suddenly it was crowded with day hikers roaming about the single 2.5 km trail and sipping lattes and eating food at cafés. They were all clean, wearing their bright hiking gear as though it was the latest fashion trend. They all arrived in cars or tourist buses, and shortly after left the same way. I found the overpriced campsite and treated myself to my first take-out dinner. A stand sold fish and chips for 1,890 ISK and I bought a portion and ate it, sitting on the grass in front of my tent. It was delicious.

The Way Out of the Peninsula, to Borgarnes

The road lining the South of the peninsula was the only option out. There were no hiking trails, just the long road, all the way down to Borgarnes, the first town where I would be able to find a supermarket. The road was long and boring and I was hit with a side-swept wind, incessant and cold, every single day. Impenetrabele mountains lined the North, with the sea to the South. It took five long days to get through it and reach Borgarnes.

When I did my research, I found there were several gas stations where it should be possible to buy food, but the information I read was incorrect, and they weren’t there. I had enough food left for breakfast and dinner and nothing to eat in between. One day I passed the café in Vegamot, the only café on the entire stretch, and I treated myself to a coffee, and then a giant chocolate cookie so I had the energy to keep going in the growing cold.

But my main concern was finding a place up sleep. It was difficult to find camp sites, there weren’t enough along this stretch. Wild camping was even trickier, with all the land fenced off on either side, the flat land all cultivated and no way to reach the mountains beyond. One day I walked 56 km, and I found myself esthetic when I finally saw a sign for a campsite, which hadn’t been on my map. The following day I had to walk 48 km before finally finding a spot next to the road where I could wild camp. Just 15 km shy of Borgarnes, I was desperate and tired and the temperature had dropped so much that I knew I wouldn’t be able to hike all the way to town that night.

It was at that point that I realised I wouldn’t be able to hike the entire 4.5 month route. If it got this cold, even my 4 season gear wasn’t going to be able to keep me warm, hiking all day and sleeping in a tent at night. I would have to start cutting sections out of my route.

I reached Borgarnes unsure about everything, but thoroughly happy to be there. I took the day off to soak in the swimming pool, taking my first shower in a week and buying enough food for the next stetch. The campsite was simple but perfect. I hand washed most of my clothes and dried it in the sun. I had survived my first stretch walking around Iceland.

Next: An Iceland Expedition (part 2) : A First Glimpse of the Highlands, walking from Borgarnes to Þingvellir
Overview: An Iceland Expedition

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