Are you considering booking one of Iceland's glacier hiking tours? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Read on to discover everything you’ll need to know for glacier hiking in Iceland, what to expect, plus important tips.
When I began planning my trip to Iceland a little over a year ago, I knew one tour I had to do was a glacier hike. It was a lifelong dream to stand atop a glacier and see one of the world's most beautiful natural landscapes up close.
However, I had zero experience with hiking in the ice or snow, let alone wearing crampons to hike in. As I researched, I was overwhelmed with information on glacier hiking in Iceland. There were endless tour options and differing opinions on what to expect. Eventually, I decided on a tour, but I was still wholly unprepared for what awaited me. After completing a glacier hike this past summer, I put this guide together with everything someone would need to know about glacier hiking in Iceland.
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Need to Know Information
Book Glacier Hiking Tours in Advance
Glacier hiking is a popular excursion in Iceland, and tours can sell out weeks or more in advance. It's best to book your tour as early as possible to secure the activity, date, and time you want.
Arrive at the Tour Early
Glacier hiking tours will state on the booking website or confirmation email to arrive early. Take this information to heart. This is for tour participants to be fitted into the necessary hiking gear, including crampons. Plus, it also gives you time to use the restroom or change clothes before the hike.
Eat and Use the Restroom Before Hiking
Before embarking on an epic glacier hike in Iceland, remember to use the restroom and have something to eat. Any glacier hiking tour will last several hours, and a restroom isn't available once you leave the departure point. A glacier hike isn't easy. It's an uphill trek and a hearty meal before starting will give your body the fuel it needs.
Tours Are Rain or Shine
Iceland is no stranger to rain storms throughout the year. There's a famous Scandinavian saying I heard in Iceland, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Unless it's a severe weather emergency, a little (or a lot) of rain won't halt any Iceland tours. Be prepared with waterproof attire, and don't let the rain ruin your fun.
You Need a Tour to Walk on a Glacier
The most imperative thing to know is that no one should attempt to walk or hike on a glacier on their own. Glacier hiking without a guide is incredibly dangerous. The roads leading to the foot of a glacier are hazardous for drivers other than tour-operating vehicles. On the glacier itself, proper gear is essential, and a guide is there to assist you. If an injury should occur, a guide can get you to safety. A tour is necessary.
When to Go on a Glacier Hike in Iceland
Unlike Iceland's equally popular ice cave tours that are only accessible in the winter months, glacier hiking is available year-round. No matter when you're traveling to Iceland, you can find a glacier hike to join. Although, there are some glacier hiking tours only available in the summer. Of course, in the summer you have a higher probability of experiencing better weather, but hiking in the winter is also magical. Especially when combined with an ice cave tour.
Which Glacier to Hike (And Tours)
Sólheimajökull is one of the most popular glaciers to hike in Iceland as it’s the closest to Reykjavik, only 2 hours away. It’s located just off the Ring Road on the south coast near Vik. Sólheimajökull is a glacial tongue part of Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. This Sólheimajökull glacier tour is a great family-friend option, or this if you require a pick up from Reykjavik with a south coast tour.
Not only is Vatnajokull the largest glacier in Iceland, but also the largest glacier in Europe.. Vatnajokull National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with famous attractions such as Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Dettifoss Waterfall. Due to its massive size, a glacier hiking tour would visit one of the outlet glaciers. If you're visiting Iceland in the winter, consider this ice cave and glacier-hiking combined tour.
This is another popular glacier hiking spot in Iceland and the glacier I hiked. It’s an outlet glacier of the above-mentioned Vatnajokull. Additionally, it's part of Skaftafell Nature Reserve, located right off the Ring Road, which makes it an accessible option and one of the best glacier hikes in Iceland. This Svínafellsjökull glacier tour is the longer version of my tour, a 5-hour glacier hike, providing plenty of time to experience the glacier.
What to Expect on the Tour
The glacier hiking tour will begin at a central meeting point. Some will opt for a pickup in Reykjavik or Vik or a tour that meets on-site not far from the glacier. My tour began at the Skaftafell base camp, part of Vatnajökull National Park. This location is a popular starting point for tours. It's also a gateway for several famous hikes in the national park, including the Svartifoss trail. There is a large parking lot, so you won't have any issues finding a place to park your car.
Tip: The national park doesn't have an entrance fee, but there is a fee of 750 ISK (approximately $5) to park in the base camp. Before driving to Skaftafell, download the Parka app to pay the fee once you park in the lot.
There are endless tour options to choose from, but I decided on the Blue Ice Experience with Icelandic Mountain Guides. After checking in at the tour company stand near the visitor center, my husband and I were fitted for our gear. First came the crampons, since receiving the correct sizing for them is extremely important. It was like being at a shoe store and having your feet sized for a new pair of shoes, except these happened to have metal spikes on the bottom.
Then I was given a harness to buckle into, a helmet, and an ice axe. I'd purchased a small group tour, so there were only eight of us to check in and get ready. All of the gear was included in the tour price. The staff was patient and kind while making sure we were comfortable before heading to the bus.
Glacier Hike Tour Provided Gear:
- Ice Axe
Now the fun was about to start. The bus ride to the bottom of the glacier was bumpy, to put it mildly. I'd never been more glad for a seatbelt than driving over the twisting gravel roads. Luckily, it was only a ten-minute drive before we were staring up at a massive glacier. What a surreal experience to see the adventure about to unfold hiking to the top. Our guide taught the group how to put on the crampons and helmets before we began our glacier hiking journey.
Helmets and crampons securely on, we walked single file up a giant mound of dirt worn down by other tour groups. It was uphill the entire time. Even as an avid hiker, I was out of breath once we made it onto the icy surface. On the dirt, the crampons weren't so tricky, but on the frosty ice, they were more of a challenge. Still, I was awe-struck by the natural beauty surrounding me. Mountains on each side of me, a lake behind me, and a glittering expanse of blue and white ice before me that culminated in a towering glacier wall.
Tip: When wearing crampons on ice, take large steps walking. These steps should be heavy so that the metal spikes can penetrate the ground. This gives you better footing and less chance of falling.
Our hike across the glacier was on a gradual incline, with plenty of stops to rest and take photos. The tour guide would point out things of interest, like fissures in the ground, and regal us with fascinating stories of Icelandic life.
At a certain point, we reached a spot in the glacier that completely encased us in ice. It was magnificent. The hike then continued up where we could survey the distance we’d made from the bottom and appreciate the closeness of the glacier wall. From there, it was time to hike back down, but not before we stopped for a quick drink of glacier water. Using the axe to prop myself up beneath a crack in the ice, I drank the cool glacial water. It was the best water I ever had. In fact, the Iceland glacier hike was one of the best experiences of my life.
Tip: When hiking down a glacier in crampons, slightly bend your knees as you make each step. It'll help with your footing and can prevent you from slipping.
What to Wear on a Glacier Hike in Iceland and Bring
Waterproof Jacket: Regardless of the season, rain is possible, if not probable in Iceland. This is why you'll want to wear a waterproof outer shell on your glacier hike. Trekking across a glacier soaking wet is less than ideal, so make sure the jacket is waterproof and not water-resistant.
Waterproof Hiking Boots: Waterproof hiking boots are essential for Iceland hikes, especially for a glacier hike. The ice on the glacier or the rain can damage nonwaterproof shoes. Plus, soggy feet and glacier hiking are a terrible combination. To reiterate, these should be boots that go above your ankle, not hiking shoes. The hiking tour won’t allow you to hike without them due to how crampons latch on.
Layers: When it comes to what to wear in Iceland, layers are always a good idea. At a minimum, wear a base layer, a mid-layer of wool or fleece, and a waterproof outer layer. In the summer, consider a lighter shell like this, and for the winter an insulated option. For base layers, I recommend these. I wore a thin base layer in summer and wish it had been slightly heavier.
Winter Hat and Gloves: Bring a comfortable winter hat that fits under your helmet and form-fitting gloves with you. You’ll want these accessories year-round for a glacier hike, as the temperatures can drop even in the summer. I’d leave the scarf at home for summer due to the wind, but for the winter, a neck warmer is an addition you’ll want too.
Sunglasses: Iceland isn’t often associated with being sunny, but on a glacier hike, you’ll still want to bring a pair of sunglasses. The glacier surface is mostly white ice with patches of volcanic ash and blue-tinted glacial sections. Therefore, the reflection from the sun is more powerful on the ice. Even in partly cloudy conditions, the sun can affect your eyes. A good pair of sunglasses will protect your eyes from the sun on a glacier hike.
Backpack: Glacier hiking in Iceland is not an activity where you want to have your pockets filled to the brim. Bring a waterproof backpack large enough to carry the essentials, including lots of water. My husband and I both brought backpacks with us so that we had everything covered.
Lip Balm: The wind in Iceland is sometimes powerful enough to rip car doors off. Imagine what that wind will do to your face. I carried Blistex Medicated Lip Balm in my pocket for the hike because I needed it more than once to soothe my chapped lips. It was a lifesaver, and I recommend it to anyone going on an Iceland glacier tour.
Camera or GoPro: If you own a camera or GoPro, then you’ll want to bring it with you on the glacier hike to capture this incredible experience. I often prefer to use my phone over a camera, but for this experience, I wish I’d invested in a GoPro. This isn’t a necessity, but it's nice to have to remember this fantastic adventure.
Refillable Water Bottle: There is a fair amount of uphill climbing on a glacier hike, and you’ll need plenty of water to stay hydrated. The higher elevation of the glacier combined with no shade will also leave you parched. Make sure to carry water with you at all times with a refillable water bottle.
Tissues: Pocket tissues were one of the most important items I packed on my Iceland trip. They came in handy more times than I can count, particularly on the glacier hike. Between the drastic change in the weather while on the glacier and the strenuous hiking, I was reaching for tissues constantly. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
How Hard Is a Glacier Hike in Iceland?
Many of the glacier hikes in Iceland are considered family-friendly, and anyone in good health can complete them. These hikes specifically exclude ice climbing, which is drastically more challenging. Of course, any glacier hike is still strenuous, but they aren’t too difficult.
How Long Is the Glacier Hike in Iceland?
There are different glacier hiking tours ranging in length and difficulty. These span from 2 and a half hours in an express tour to full-day adventures that are approximately 7 hours long. The most common glacier hikes are anywhere from 3 - 5 hours. I found a 3-hour tour perfect for my first hike, but would choose a longer tour for my next glacier hike.
Is Glacier Hiking Safe in Iceland?
As long as you're with a tour group, keep your gear on at all times, and stay aware of your surroundings while hiking, then glacier hiking in Iceland is safe. Nevertheless, like any outside recreational activity, falls or accidents can occur, which is why having a guide is necessary. If you are injured during a glacier hike your tour guide is there to assist you or call for rescue help.
What Is the Easiest Glacier to Hike in Iceland?
No glacier in Iceland is necessarily easier than the other, there are only varying difficulty levels in tours. However, most of the more beginner-friendly glacier hiking tours happen on either the Svínafellsjökull or Sólheimajökull glaciers, as they’re the most popular.
Is Glacier Hiking in Iceland Worth It?
This is a resounding yes from me! A glacier hike in Iceland is without question worth it. The tours are comparable in price to most other experiences in Iceland, like Blue Lagoon. More importantly, the incredible memories will surely last a lifetime. There’s an immense achievement in completing a glacier hike. No matter the difficulty, it’s a strenuous physical activity. Mostly, Iceland’s glaciers are a beautiful sight to behold, and there’s no better way to experience this breathtaking landscape than hiking it.
More Iceland Content:
- 15 Helpful Iceland Travel Tips to Know Before Your First Trip
- Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland: The Top 10 You Can't Miss
- 5 Top Activities for a One-Day Snaefellsnes Peninsula Adventure
Are you planning a glacier hike in Iceland? Let me know in the comments!