Hey, Stranger: A Hitchhiking How-To on Iceland's Ring Road
Welcome to Iceland. All photos by Victoria DeLeone.
Mama told you not to talk to strangers, and she definitely told you not to get in their cars. But you're in Iceland now, and it's too cold for caution. Stick your thumb out and start hitchhiking. Two college girls live to tell the tale.
ICELAND – We pulled over so that our driver, Herman, could point out his family's ancient homestead on the horizon. The bright landscape hurt my unprotected eyes, but my friend Claire and Herman grinned happily as he poured something from his thermos. I thought it might be Icelandic moss (or booze), but when we asked, he shrugged and laughed. "It's just tea." I allowed the sweet herbal steam to warm my bones and just listened. Two hours later, as we heaved our packs out of his trunk, he offered us a place to stay when doubled back across the north.
Hitchhiking through Iceland is this: Asking for a ride and being offered hospitality and generosity and education in return.
Still an acceptable form of travel in Iceland, hitching has its perks: It's cheap and it makes meeting locals easy (and necessary). It also has its drawbacks — the dramatic Westfjords and Highlands are all but off-limits to hitchhikers. Sticking to the paved and populated Ring Road is the safest bet. Patience is the key when it comes to hitching rides from strangers, but looking friendly and clean certainly makes the wait shorter. For me and Claire, gaps between rides ranged from fifteen minutes to three hours depending on weather and location. Those who picked us up tended to be the young-and-free type or the surrogate-parent type. Either way, we were well taken care of for much of the trip.
Wild camping (camping for free away from organized campsites) is allowed just about anywhere, national parks excluded. Camping etiquette mainly includes not getting in people's way. Stay out of view of a residence, and keep your distance from a designated campsite. You'll know you're too close when the camp host shows up looking for your paperwork. Many larger towns, Akureyri and Egilsstadir in particular, have a sort of wooded park you can hide in, but it's really best to go deep into the wilderness to pitch your tent in a field or on the side of a hill.
Weather in Iceland changes swiftly, so if you're caught in a rainstorm in a tent that leaks or your sleeping bag is damp because of condensation from the midnight sun, there's no shame in checking into a campsite. For 1000kr (about $9) per person and 400kr (about $3.50) per tent, campsites will give you access to a clubhouse-type building that may include such luxurious goods as a kitchen, free Wi-Fi, and washers and dryers.
EXPAND YOUR PALATE
Follow the yellow signs with the pink pigs to Bonus, a big discount shop/pharmacy where you can stock up on basics, like ramen for 200kr. Smaller towns have specialty items you can and should splurge on. Skinka (smoked lamb) and hardfiskur (dried fish) travel well if you're into cured meats, but don't expect too much quality produce outside of farmer's markets. Even still, most veggies are imported from the UK.
Most cafes on the Ring set up a soup pot on the counter next to baskets of bread. For 1500kr ($13) you can help yourself to seconds of a warming and filling bowl. The same goes for coffee in many cafes. Try not to be greedy, though. You don't want to give hikers a bad name.
Eat the weird meats! Be adventurous with your palate and it will pay off (most of the time). Icelanders eat everything from horse to reindeer, puffin to whale, and they use different types of fermentation to keep food through the winter — fermented shark or wind-dried fish are popular in fishing villages. Figure out ahead of time what you're comfortable with morally, so that when food is offered you don't have to waste time debating its merits and can graciously accept or decline.
EXPLORE THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Find a natural hot spring. Iceland is one of the most dynamic landmasses in the world, and it has the geothermal pools to prove it. There's no reason to pay. Most locals have a favorite pool, and if your ride is friendly, he or she may let you in on the location of a hidden spring. Before diving in, test the water with your hand to make sure it's not too hot. Weird algae and the smell of sulfur are to be expected.
Make time to stop in the smaller towns. We didn't do this until we got all the way to Borgarfjordur in the East Fjords (about halfway through our vacation). Small towns offer a glimpse of real life beyond the gas stations and big grocery stores that make up the main towns in each region.
Pet the horses. Even if you can't afford a horse ride, walk up to a fence and a horse will trot over for some attention. They're friendlier than the sheep, and they smell better. Just be aware: Horses are large, curious, and can be unpredictable when excited. Don't enter a field with horses unless the owner is present, and don't feed them anything but a handful of grass.
Go hiking. If you can do this with your heavy pack and not snap at your companions, great — there are stunning multi-day hikes and Iceland's east coast has a smattering of hiker's cabins set in remote locations. If you're not quite ready to carry food and packs into the wild, leave your packs at camp and do a day hike. Every tourist office has hiking maps for sale. Camp hosts and drivers can often give directions.
Take educated risks. The evening is sunny and there's no rain in the forecast? Sleep without a tent and watch the sun set for six hours and then rise again. Encounter a chatty local who tells you where he hangs out on his day off? Pack up and start walking that way. Spent four hours in a car talking to a college student about everything from sheep farming to immigration policy to Pitch Perfect and now he's asking you and a friend to come to a get-together on campus? Check your companion's vibes and, if everyone's comfortable, go eat some hot dogs. Hitchhiking is about going outside of your comfort zone and opening yourself up to all the possibilities you miss when you have a plan. Just don't put yourself in danger in the process.
And if nothing I've said so far has convinced you, here's some added inspiration: The sagas contain the myths of the Viking era and are Iceland's most abiding written legacy. This is the video that planted the seed for me. And this book made me buy my ticket.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Flying into Keflavik International Airport is the easiest way to get to Iceland, although the ferry from Denmark to Seydisfjordur is also an adventure. A bus takes visitors into the Reykjavik city center or straight to their hotels, but booking ahead of time can save you money. Instead of trying to hitchhike out of Reykjavik, take a bus to Akranes and hitch from there. We completed the circuit in about seven days, but I wish we had taken our time and stretched it to ten or fourteen. Most people we met were doing the Ring Road counter clockwise, but doing it clockwise (heading north and west from Reykjavik) offers the chance to waste a few days trying to get out to Snaefellsnes National Park without worrying about missing your flight. It's easy to make up time in the northern or southern regions by skipping a few of the tourist destinations.
KEEP EXPLORING ICELAND
You Will Want to Propose in Iceland, Too
Icelandic Sagas with a Side of Skyr
Nordic by Nature: Aquavit Chef Eats His Way Through Iceland