Let me tell you. I am not a backpacker by any means. My idea of travel had always consisted of hotel or guesthouse stays with a private hot shower, a full bedroom with a sizable bed and tons of space to lay out my belongings. But giving all that up for ten blissful days touring one of the most beautiful countries on the planet was every bit worth it, when the same vehicle that got us to all the spectacular views in Iceland was also our home where we cooked, worked, caught up on Netflix and slept for the entirety of our trip.
Taking on Iceland in a camper van was life changing to say the least. But on top of that, it was honestly the best decision we could have made for our first ever visit to this stunning island. From saving money to saving time and always being prepared, we found no better way to travel through Iceland than by camper van.
This post is written in partnership with Lava Car Rental and features our 4×4 campervan and all it did for us on this ten-day tour through Iceland. As always, I only share what I love and what I would do over and over again!
You’ll See More Than What You Had Hoped For
Iceland’s south region has certainly been developed for tourism. From the capital city of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, to Reynisfjara’s Black Sand Beach and the Jökulsárlón Glacier, the ring road is well paved and ridden by tourists upon tourists. All the sites are made easy to spot and easy to visit with tons of amazing places to stop at along the way. But Iceland’s magic isn’t simply bound to its south coast.
The Ring Road is as its name implies and comes full circle through the entire island, with incredible and unique sites throughout the East, North, West and in the Highlands. Iceland’s Route 1 (i.e. the Ring Road) was the main reason why we knew we had to have a camper van. The entire road covers over 1,300 km (800 miles), and that doesn’t even include all the roads you need to take to reach each site and attraction – not all of them will be right off the side of the highway.
In a camper van, we never had to rush to get to an accommodation each night. There was never any need to plan and book ahead for our overnight stays – maybe only by a few hours with a quick Google Maps search and that was that. There wasn’t a single campsite we had to book in advance. We just showed up and paid our fee at the gate, or at most campsites, we simply drove in, picked a spot and an attendant would come around to collect payment. Mind you, our trip to Iceland was in mid-September, but even in the peak of summer, it’s almost unheard of for campsites to turn you away because they are completely full.
Showing up at each campsite with just enough light to cook some dinner, maybe shower and then head to bed, gave us plenty of time on the road to explore. When we were near Vik on our first full day in Iceland, we took full advantage of the sun being out and discovered places that weren’t on anyone’s radar.
Same in the East Fjords! We took our time continuing on Route 1 instead of the quicker way north on Route 95, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made, seeing the sky light up against the beautiful cliffs, majestic mountains and the mighty ocean. The reason we could was because we had just decided that afternoon to camp the night in Egilsstaðir, a town within the east region.
Rain or Shine, You’ll Always Be Prepared
Spontaneity is so important when visiting Iceland. The weather on the island is never consistently ideal. It rained at least every other day for us – at least! -, which can certainly be a bummer when you don’t have a place to keep dry, warm up and relax. On our second day in Iceland, it rained the entire day! If this happens on your trip, just take a breath and let go of any expectations of perfect conditions you had. Trust me, I had my frustrations too, but honestly, the rain and poor weather came also as a blessing as they gave me a break that I didn’t even know I needed.
On a rainy day, we were able to snuggle up in our camper van with the heater on and make ourselves a hot cup of coffee or tea with our provided stove, no matter where we were. I couldn’t imagine trying to scramble to find a coffee shop or restaurant to warm up when in a remote part of the island.
When it poured on us that second day, we couldn’t visit any of the glaciers, Diamond Beach, or start to make our way to the East Fjords like we had planned. Had we not had our camper van, and instead booked guesthouses or hotels in advance for the duration of our trip, we would’ve had to back track or skip these sites completely. Thankfully, we could depend on our house on wheels and wait out the rain until the next day.
There most certainly is comfort and ease in planning a trip to a tee, with an itinerary set for each day, but you’ll soon realize that it’s near impossible to stick to one in Iceland at no fault of your own. You might even welcome the spontaneity and be happy to quickly change plans as you always have everything you need with you, whether it’s your swimsuit and sandals to relax at the natural hot springs, or your hiking boots and puffer jacket to hike a volcano. If you’re also hoping to chase the Northern Lights, there’s ample opportunity to do so in a camper van!
You Won’t Break the Bank
I can’t count the number of times I gasped at the painfully high prices we encountered throughout Iceland. It’s no secret that Iceland is expensive, but you don’t fully grasp it until you see it for yourself.
A decent guesthouse can cost upwards of 20,000 ISK ($155 USD) a night and hotels are usually double that, if not more. Staying overnight at a campsite won’t be as glamorous, but you’ll be paying somewhere between 1,000 and 1,800 ISK ($8-14 USD) per person on average versus the high rate of a guesthouse. Campsites in Iceland are often much more well-equipped than what we’re used to in North America. Every single one we stayed at had fully-plumbed washrooms and at least one outdoor sink for washing dishes. There was only one campsite we stayed at that didn’t have a shower, but the rest of them were equipped with multiple shower and toilet stalls, a laundry room, dwelling areas to dine and use the wifi, and even a full working indoor kitchen you could use at no extra cost.
With our Iceland camper van from Lava Car Rental, we had everything we needed to cook, eat and have a good night’s sleep. Being able to make home cooked meals whenever and wherever you please is one of the biggest reasons to rent a camper van – especially when it occurs to you that it’d cost an arm and a leg to have the same meal at a restaurant. You can stock your well sized fridge with enough food for 3-4 days from your grocery run at Bónus, and chef it up using your portable stove. Washing dishes is fairly effortless at the campsites, but you could even do so remotely with your water jug.
Speaking of water: don’t waste your money buying water bottles in Iceland (unless you really need one). The tap water in this country is among the cleanest and purest available on the planet. You can even fill up under most bathroom sinks and it tastes so good. At campsites, you’ll find water stations lined outside with a tube to fill up your water jug provided with your camper van to keep you hydrated for days.
Yes, a camper van rental will cost more than your average car rental, but between saving money on food and overnight stays, the cost savings with a camper van will far outweigh those with a sedan.
Things to Know When Renting a Camper Van in Iceland
Though the Ring Road is mostly perfectly paved and a road that rides smooth, many routes leading you to must-see landmarks and beautiful destinations are much rougher, whether it’s countless potholes, icy and snow covered roads (even in September) or off-roading terrain. We never took any F-roads – Iceland’s mountain roads known to be unpaved gravel tracks that aren’t maintained much – yet found that even non F-roads had rough conditions that would certainly have been difficult or even dangerous to drive on without a 4×4. Thankfully, we had a 4×4 Iceland camper van from Lava when we drove to Stuðlagil Canyon, Háifoss and through the snowy West Fjords. These road conditions were also the main reason why a motorhome was out of the question for us, though this might be a very suitable option for others. Consider renting a 4×4 camper van if you are planning to visit more than just the well paved South side of Iceland!
Searching for gas stations is never a problem. There are tons of N1’s and a number of Orkan’s and Olís’ along the Ring Road and even in the West Fjords (though they are often just a pump with no convenience store in the remote areas of the country). Most of the camper van rental companies will have discount tags for the major gas station brands you can use when you fill up. Be sure to check whether your vehicle takes diesel! Most camper vans will but double check before you start filling up with the wrong nozzle. Diesel vehicles in Europe also require AdBlue which is a diesel exhaust fluid to reduce the air pollution emitted from diesel engines. You may need to refill on AdBlue if it ever gets depleted (a rare occurence). If you ever get a warning to fill up, you can find an N1 near you that carries it using this location finder and they should have a pump much like a gas pump to fill up, or an AdBlue jug in store to manually refill your vehicle.
Gas stations are also a convenient spot to enjoy some hot or fresh food at a much more affordable price. Take a look at what they have on the menu on a day you’re hoping to take a break from cooking. Lava Car Rental also provides a coupon booklet for N1 locations to grab free cups of coffee whenever you come across an N1 location that had a Nesti – the N1’s coffee shop/convenient store.
Lastly, if you’re not too keen on using the campsites’ showers, take advantage of Iceland’s numerous town pools to relax, take a fresh dip in their naturally heated waters, and freshen up in their clean facilities. All of the country’s major towns have their own outdoor swimming pool and a number of geothermal baths and hot tubs. They do, however, require you to fully shower prior to hopping in their pools and tubs minus the swimsuit… in a communal fashion. Don’t fret! It’s not as daunting as it seems for it’s the norm for locals and that initial awkwardness will soon slip away when you realize no one is paying attention to you. If you’re hoping to keep to more private facilities, you can always depend of Blue Lagoon and Sky Lagoon, and even the Mývatn Nature Baths!
If this is your first road trip through Iceland in a camper van, there might be some adjusting needed for #vanlife. But from cost to convenience to flexibility to spontaneity, there’s really no better way to travel within this beautiful country. And you’ll soon discover an experience to treasure forever.