I just returned from my second trail running trip to Iceland. This Nordic island nation was discovered by accident over 1100 years ago and is today sparsely populated with fewer than 400,000 inhabitants, most of whom reside in or around the capital city of Reykjavik making for lots of open spaces for sheep and horses to roam free as well as for exceptionally scenic trail running.
It was two years ago that my bestie Anita Ortiz and I first visited this amazing country vowing to return the following year. The pandemic put the brakes on our planned 2020 visit, but our 2021 trip was a go with some modifications. Masks were a must on the flights, a vaccination record was required to avoid quarantine upon arrival (or negative PCR test), and a negative PCR test within 72 hours of the return flight was mandatory (and it cost 50 euro). These minor inconveniences did not dampen our enthusiasm for travel and we arrived on July 7, for a week-long exploration of the island.
Along with our passport to adventure, we carried with us some knowledge from our past trip that helped us navigate some of the essentials like packing the right gear and choosing the best rental car. We would focus our time on the west and northern regions having spent the majority of our time on the southern region in 2019. Below are some helpful tips and learned lessons should you consider on a trip to the land of fire and ice.
One word: Wool
Not only is this fabric comfortable, it performs well wicking sweat away from the body, can be worn several times without washing (you may smell like a sheep after a few days), and keeps you warm even when it is damp. We tested several products from ibex – Indie hoodie, Journey long sleeve crew, Hero hoodie, and balance sports bra – and the fit, function, and performance all received solid reviews.
Rain gear is a must in Iceland. I’m not talking a clumsy, lightweight wind jacket that flaps in the ever-present breezes that seemingly come out of nowhere. Instead, sealed seams on a hooded jacket and long pants – both made of waterproof material – are the go-to for the climates you will most likely encounter. A rain poncho as an additional overlay can also come in handy.
A pair of gloves, hat, neck gaiter, lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hydration pack should all be on your packing list as well as a swimming costume because most lodging offers a hot tub and/or pool and there are also numerous natural hot springs to enjoy. At least two pairs of running shoes – preferably trail running specific – to rotate during daily outings. When you drive to a trail for a run, make sure you have an extra change of clothes packed in your car to access after the run.
You will most likely encounter everything from sunny and wind-free moments to rain, fog, and gale-force winds. What starts as a foggy morning, may turn into a blue-sky day. Conversely, a sunny start to the day can be derailed by a rain squall. Temperatures during both of our trips ranged from the upper 40s to the mid-70s. Bottom line: Be prepared for whatever the conditions are and what they might become.
Four Wheel Drive
Although there a major arteries and highways, there are also numerous “F roads”; unpaved gravel tracks that are not regularly maintained comprised of gravel, loose rock and sometimes dirt and grass. Many maps don’t include the F roads, or they are indicated with dotted lines.
You will be able to explore more of Iceland if you rent a four-wheel drive vehicle. Buy the extra insurance offered by the rental agency. One couple we met on the return flight had rented a four-wheel drive and still had to pay $400 upon the return as there was some damage to the underbelly of the car. Their problem: no insurance.
With the gas prices very high during our trip, you don’t want to have additional expenses for damage to your vehicle. You’ll most likely have to walk to an off-site location to pick up your car, but most are within a few hundred meters of the airport. Be sure to ask if the car takes diesel or regular unleaded fuel. We made a somewhat common mistake that could have been a huge catastrophe, but it was only a minor one because we were near a mechanic’s station. At our first stop for a fill up, I put regular gas in our diesel rental car. Ooops.
Be Alert While Driving
There are no shoulders on the roadways in Iceland. In fact, there are some spots where the drop from the road goes into a creek, a grassy slope, or a farmer’s property. There is an abundance of gravel that often shoots up from a tire and threatens to crack a windshield. There are many one lane bridges, and some one lane tunnels with pullouts. We were stuck in such a pullout with two other cars as a semi-truck came inches from us.
Sheep are commonplace as they graze on the side of the road. There are usually three sheep together— a ewe and two lambs – and some are skittish and dart onto the roadway. As well, in the late evening, horses are driven from pasture to pasture along the roadside in herds.
The wind can be strong so hold onto your door when getting in or out of the car and close the door if you walk away to investigate landmarks of interest, or to take a photo. If going through a gate to access an F road, be sure to close the gate once through.
Enjoy The Long Summer Days
With a six-hour time zone difference from where I live in Colorado, there is a chance for an off-balanced body clock upon arrival and adding to that the long hours of “bright skies” due to Iceland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, it takes some adjustment to settle into a routine. If you have trouble sleeping when it is light outside, be sure to pack an eye mask in your luggage.
In spite of the long hours of daylight during the summer months – coupled with a surge in tourists – shops aren’t open that long with start times of 10 or 11 a.m. and lights out as early as 4 or 5 p.m. Vínbúðin is the only store where you can purchase beer and wine. These stores close at 6 p.m. and are not open on Sundays. There is little need to change US dollars to Icelandic króna ($1 is equal to 123 króna) as credit cards are accepted most everywhere.
Be Ready For A Trail Running Adventure
In Iceland, there are a wide variety of trails with terrain ranging from dirt, grass, sand, and rocks. Trails can be undulating, steep, and at times tricky to navigate. You’re in store for a more “raw” experience on the trails as markings are often few and far between and they often blend in with the landscape. Trailheads are indicated on some maps, but it takes some research to find out the specifics of distance, terrain, and profile.
The width of trails ranges from double track to very narrow single track and the country’s prevalent F roads are most similar to fire roads. You may encounter sheep, horses, or cows on your runs and flies are most pesky near the water. Trail runners with a penchant for ornithology will delight with an abundance of bird life – in fact there are more than 300 confirmed species.
Waterfalls are aplenty as are vast landscapes and incredible scenery, but trees are not as prevalent so you won’t find too many forested trail runs. What you will find is magical, this is after all a nation with a rich history based in the belief system that elves are real. Once you visit, you may become a believer too.