Backpacking Iceland with a Rental Car

19 – 21 August 2010

I’d met an American lad in the place I had slept the previous night so I offered him a lift to the Blue Lagoon, naturally I wanted to show off my recently picked up blue station wagon rental car and share this new exciting freedom with someone else. I was sure the best way to backpack through Iceland in a short period of time was going to be with a rental car. As we took off I explained to the poor guy that I hadn’t driven a car in a number of months and that it was my first time driving on the right hand side of the road. He took it in his stride and after some brief stops to get rid of his bag and buy some groceries we were on our way. Driving on the right hand side of the road was interesting, I was nervous but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it might be. The biggest thing was getting use to holding the wheel with my left hand while I change gears with my right. It was like learning to drive again and I made more than a few little wiggles as I shifted while I was getting into the swing of things.

At first we were cruising along a motorway but then on smaller roads built up slightly from the volcanic terrain. It looked like the whole place was covered in large rocky cauliflower, covered so densely you could only see the round rocky cauliflower heads but none of the less tasty stalks. The terrain that made up this part of Iceland stretched out as far as the eye could see in all directions, above us the blue sky spread uninterrupted by any clouds from horizon to horizon. I pressed down a little harder on the gas pedal, settled back into my seat and relaxed in the golden rays streaming through the windshield; as we shot along I knew that this was a supreme start to my Icelandic adventure.

We reached Blue Lagoon safely with nothing so interesting as even a close call. To actually swim in this blue pool thing was horrendously expensive, twenty-eight Euro for a swim and towel rental was an additional five Euro. I couldn’t believe the prices and as I had read some pretty disturbing stuff in some of the reviews I was happy to not bother with this touristy part of Iceland; I had a car and I was going to find the real Iceland. I highly recommend you rent a car like I did, or find a decent Iceland tours provider who can get you out of the city, so that you too can be inspired by the Icelandic landscapes!

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I felt bad leaving my American friend behind to pay extortionate prices just to bathe in a filthy blue puddle but he had a flight the following day and I had no intention of going back to Reykjavik that night. On I drove, the road changed to gravel, cliffs and low mountains emerged, shrubbery developed over the rocky cauliflower and the sea in its deep blue infancy curled along beside me invitingly.

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Soon the terrain had changed again, the rough volcanic landscape had disappeared and I was rallying my way through gravel roads in the midst of brilliant green farming fields; horses were everywhere, houses were few. I made a stop in front of a farm with green pastures and white plastic wrapped hay bales; I spoke here in front of my camera for five minutes on the beauty of Iceland. I pushed on taking a simple pleasure in seeing how fast I could drive along these gravel roads while still avoiding the pot holes that shot out at me from the limits of my vision. Two hours passed before I arrived back at the very same farm again! Damn, damn, God damn it; it would seem navigating on my A4 map of Iceland was difficult.

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The landscape changed again, the farmland disappeared and was replaced by rocks, rocky mountains grew out of the flat in magnificent craggy formations. Beautiful waterfalls poured over the edges and thundered into plunge pools below. I stopped at a waterfall campsite and charged my camera in the bathroom power socket. I pushed on, snaking my way along the edge of rising cliffs, the beautiful horizon to horizon blue sky abruptly was engulfed in clouds and mist.

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Eventually I spotted my first Icelandic glacier, it was getting later in the day and I had done a lot of driving, knowing that it was time to find a campsite I took a small gravel road to a car park at the base of the glacier. On one side I had a stony river snaking away to somewhere I didn’t have time to go, ahead of me rose the magnificent glacier, dirty yet powerful with shades of white, grey and blue. I could have been on the moon, I could have been in New Zealand; the landscapes vary a lot in Iceland. I wanted to climb up the glacier, I wanted an ice axe and crampons and a climbing buddy, I wanted to explore its face and all its countless crevices. I stood at the base and brushed away some of the dirt from a chunk of ice, I was amazed by how clear and flaw free it was. It was a beautiful place and I really enjoyed it, I just wish I had proper camping equipment with me. A hot meal would have been wonderful and not to spend the night freezing cold on the hard, uneven back of my station wagon would have been nice too.

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I woke up cold and numb, yet invigorated and ready. I made myself a meal of bread, salami and tomato, turned on the car and cranked up the heater. I pressed onwards early, hoping to see the other glacier with time to do something else if anything presented itself. I was loving the flexibility of having my own car on my own schedule; not needing to find a campground added to my freedom. Again my drive took me through more amazing and varying landscapes from lush green bushes packing the flat floor as far as the eye can see, to little rocky mounds like you normally see marking walking trails however these were naturally formed.

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I picked up three French hitch hikers who were heading to see Jukulsarlon, I’d heard it was ‘really beautiful’ however had no idea what ‘it’ was. On we journeyed and eventually came across a stunning lagoon packed with ice bergs located at the bottom of a glacier, it was well worth the visit. I enjoyed a coffee with my French hitch hikers before I headed back the way I’d come. Unfortunately Iceland is just too big to circumnavigate in the time I had available. I had however learned of a couple of sights which I should try see before heading back to the capital so that was where I set my sights for the afternoon.

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I arrived at Gullfoss as the sun was setting, wow. Wow is the best way of describing this spectacular waterfall, the sheer volume of water that plummets over the edge every second, wow. I enjoyed Iceland’s lack of tourist crap and red tape around such spectacular natural features; I climbed down and found myself standing in places within only a few metres of the plummeting water; no doubt a few further steps would lead to my certain death. How invigorating.

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Geysir was the next place I’d been recommended and as the name suggests it is an area of volcanic activity. Initially I looked at the place and thought it looked pretty lame compared to what you can find in New Zealand, it certainly didn’t drop my jaw like Gullfoss did. When I was walking around I saw the geyser spout up so I wondered over and stood with my camera at the ready in the freezing cold for about ten minutes, finally it let loose into the evening sky and I got a couple of pictures. The awesome thing about Geysir is that most of the bubbling and spurting water holes contained crystal clear water, not mud. I later found out some interesting facts I didn’t know about Geysir such as it was the first ever geyser described in a printed source and that the English word geyser is derived from the Icelandic verb ‘geysa’ meaning ‘to gush’. I also found out that the spouting of the geyser can be very sporadic, sometimes ceasing to spout for years at a time; so I was lucky to catch it spouting twice.

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Initially my plan had been to spend the night at either Gullfoss or Geysir and then head to the capital early the following morning, but I wasn’t that tired so I set off to find somewhere else to stay. Now there is something thrilling about speeding along twisting open roads in the dark, your vision is tunneled to the light of your headlights as you speed your way along. It’s thrilling because you can’t see far ahead or to your sides so you’re constantly searching for signs of in which direction and how sharp the next bend is going to be. I’m just hoping I didn’t get any speeding tickets in Iceland, the speed limit is 90km/h, which is just too slow.

I found myself enjoying the drive so much that I decided to continue all the way back to Reykjavik and go out that night and have a look at this ‘famous’ Icelandic nightlife. I arrived in the capital around midnight and found a nice parking lot where I thought I could sleep later. Into town I went, I only visited the one bar where I found a live band playing cover songs I enjoyed. They had other bars and clubs open but as I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol (couldn’t afford it) and I was feeling pretty tired by this stage I simply headed back to my car/bed.

I mentioned that my night sleeping at the foot of the glacier was cold, unpleasantly so in fact, so I decided to wear everything I had in Reykjavik. Merino wool long sleeve top, cotton long sleeve top, zip up jumper, new O’Neil waterproof jacket and finally my University Games jacket. Socks, jeans and my Dickies pants over my jeans. All to no avail as I woke up freezing at about 4am, God dammit. So it would seem you can layer up all you like but it’s not going to beat one decent item of proper warm clothing, which I didn’t have.

The following morning, cold and numb, I awoke and drove to a nearby hostel where I had a ‘phantom’ shower. I then returned the rental car which had served me so well and moped around Iceland for the few hours I had before needing to get to the airport. I was sad to be leaving Iceland, I had only just touched the edges in my exploration and I knew there was so much more to see and do.


  1. great post as usual!

  2. Ralph Thompson says:

    great post thanks

  3. I’m feeling inspired…

  4. I don’t blog or really read blogs although thought I’d look some travel blogs up as its something I’m interested in! I’ve read a lot of the write ups for a lot of different places, sounds like you’ve had some incredible adventures! I’ve actually been to Iceland, your photos make me want to go back! The waterfalls were pretty amazing huh! Hugely inspiring, best of luck with the rest of your travels!

    • I want to go back too. Got a lot more into photography since I travelled to Iceland, want to go and do it all over again, but with more time!