The Laugavegur Trail
The Laugavegur trail is undoubtedly one of the most scenic hiking trails on Earth. Its’ snow capped mountains, beautifully coloured volcanos, jacuzzi like natural hot springs, barren deserts, and glacial carved valleys make it a geologic landscape like no where else. The trek itself is a relatively short distance. If going north to south (Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk), you will cover 55km. From Thórsmörk, there’s an optional 25km extension to Skógar, which I highly recommend doing.
Every single year the wild Icelandic landscape is changing. Travellers’ impact on the environment is increasing with every visit. Iceland is an extremely fragile place. An inch of moss can take over a lava field can take over a hundred years to grow back. It’s everyone’s responsibility to take of care of this incredible place. Take out everything you bring in. Stay on the main trail and don’t wander off, creating more tails and eventually defacing this spectacular area.
This is a hut to hut trail. You must book in advanced to guarantee your stay, but if you plan to pitch your own tent the entire way, there’s no need for reservations. Huts are a great way to experience the trail comfortably, but to get the true wilderness experience, camping is always preferred. Camping costs around $18 CAD to pitch a tent next to the huts. The charges are for the use of the bathrooms and showers if there are any.
Water is safe to drink wherever you find it. The tap water is some of the best drinking water I’ve ever tasted. There’s no need to filter river water either because the water is from nearby glaciers and there is hardly any wildlife in the area or upstream.
Before you get there
If this is your first overnight backpacking trip, I highly recommend purchasing The Backpacker’s Handbook by Chris Townsend. The book is really informative and covers every scenario you might run into while on the Laugavegur Trail.
Maps and GPS
There are two maps that show the Laugavegur trail and surrounding areas. We used this one with 1:100,000 scale. This map showed enough detail that you can find river crossings and features in the landscape, but also see some surrounding area. This map can be found here online.
Additionally, if you plan on taking the 4×4 bus to Landmannalaugar, you can purchase this map at the BSI bus station in Reykjavik. I preferred to order the other map ahead of the trip, but they’re both equally as detailed.
GPS units work really well in most of Iceland. I only use GPS typically for emergency scenarios. It’s always a good idea to have one on you. The weather can change quickly in Iceland. People who have not been cautious have been disoriented by fog, gotten lost, and unfortunately died on this trail.
When to Go
Access to the highlands is short lived. The roads open when ever the snow melts, changing every year. The huts are generally open by the end of June, and remain open until mid September.
The trail is busiest between early July and mid August. It is preferable to go on either end of the shoulder seasons to avoid too much traffic. The bugs can also be quite bad for parts of the warmer weeks, they’re harmless but they can be really be quite annoying in places.
Ensure that you double check the BSI bus service is still running, and the huts are still open, before finalizing your dates.
The trail itself is very safe. There are no exposed ledges, you’re certainly not scaling any erupting volcanoes, and there aren’t any glacier traverses with crevasses or anything you need to worry about. Proper apparel, common sense, a map, and a compass is all you need to stay safe.
As I mentioned above, this is the wilderness, and deaths have occurred here. That being said, rescues and harm have only found people who were ill prepared or straight up reckless. If you’re taking the time to read this article, chances are you are neither of those two things.
River crossings are the only thing you need to pay special attention to, other than the weather conditions. Avoid crossing barefoot, get a pair of water-shoes, such as crocs. Crocs are practically weightless in your pack and they will be a real treat to wear when you’re fording an ice cold river with a 20 kilogram pack on your back.
Again, use common sense here. Some days the rivers can be higher than others, it’s obviously a fluid situation so pay attention to the water levels.
When crossing, set in at the widest part of the river. and walk on a 45 degree angle downstream to the other side. That way you’re walking with the current instead of fighting it. If you have a hiking partner, link arms and go together. It is critical you remember to cross with your backpack unclipped! If you do fall, your heavy pack can keep you under, and you can drown. It’s better to lose your backpack than lose your life.
What to pack
Your enemy on this trail likely won’t be blizzards or harsh storms. It’s more likely to be a cold rain. Hypothermia is always a chief concern when hiking the Laugavegur. Be sure to pack wool base layers, and invest in a proper rain jacket as well as a synthetic insulation layer. I get all of my gear from Arc’teryx, I trust their equipment and I got tired of trying to cheap out on quality products, it’s just not worth pinching pennies if it means you’re going to be wet and cold when you should be enjoying your adventure, rain or shine.
I packed extremely light, so I sacrificed some items which were ultimately worth shedding off some precious grams, this is just a guideline:
1 light merino wool base layer, top and bottom
2 pairs light merino wool ankle socks
1 pair heavy merino wool socks
1 merino wool buff
2 pairs of merino wool underwear
1 pair of light windbreaker gloves
1 trucker hat
2 sweat wicking T-shirts
1 pair of shorts
1 pair of light windbreaker pants
1 light synthetic insulated jacket
1 light down jacket
1 Gore-tex rain shell
collapsible water containers 2x 1.4L
foil or windscreen
cups or titanium mugs
backpacking tent, I used the Nemo Hornet two person,
a down sleeping bag, at least -1 degree Celsius, and
inflatable sleeping pad
trekking poles (I opted not to pack any)
biodegradable toilet paper
repair kit for tent and jacket
I packed very intentionally so I manageed to get everything into a 40 litre backpack, weighing only about 12kg with food, camp, and gear. Generally most hikers had at least 65 litre packs, average packs on the trail were between 70 litres and 80 litres.
If you’re flying from overseas, (chances are, you are, or else you’d live in Iceland) you’ll arrive at Keflavík International Airport. From there you can take a bus to the BSI bus station in Reykjavik, the capital.
I’ve flown with both Iceland Air and Wow Air from North America and from Europe. They’re both fine airlines, if you are flying cross continental and wish to have up to a 7 night stop over in Iceland, Iceland Air might be the most cost effective. If you plan to fly directly to Iceland as a destination, Wow Air is usually cheaper.
The BSI bus station has 4×4 busses that will take you directly to Landmannalaugar, the start of your trek. The busses in Iceland aren’t cheap, but considering where they go, and how much fuel costs on the island, it’s actually fair. Factor this into your over all expenses though.
Taking a bus is the only logical way to get to the trailhead. It’s a point to point trail so it wouldn’t make any sense to rent a vehicle to get there. If you wish to see more of Iceland after your hike, take the BSI bus back to Keflavík airport and rent a car from there.
I’d also discourage hitch-hiking, it’s overdone in Iceland, and seriously limits your ability to see as much of the country as possible, in the allotted time that you may have. Even if you have a full month to explore… do you really want to spend half that time waving down cars? Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean you should do it.
Arriving at Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar is located in the fjallabak nature reserve. There is no wild camping permitted inside the reserve, there are two other campgrounds to camp at inside the reserve but Landmannalaugar is located right at the trailhead of the Laugavegur trail.
This campground is the busiest and most populated place on the entire trail. It’s an amazing area to come for general hiking all around, so there are many day visitors here who aren’t hiking the trail.
There is a one-hundred person tent to stay in at this campground, otherwise you can pitch your tent for around $20 CAD. You can also register with the warden for the trek at the same time, so that you can leave early the next morning.
There are tons of beautiful hikes, summits, lakes, and valleys to explore in the area. If you can afford to spend two or three nights here before your trek, do it.
Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker
Time 4.5 hours
Description: few steep climbs, mostly gradual slopes and rocky terrain.
The first day is a lot of gradual uphill walking. When you leave the camp, walk through a lava field, and cross a hot river before making a short climb to overlook where you came from. Continue on through a rugged valley, to your right you will see some beautiful pastel coloured slopes. After another short climb, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of Brennisteinsalda. Climb a steep section until it levels out, and continue on to cross a few hilly sections. When you climb up a little higher, be sure to look back towards Landmannalaugar to see Vatnajökull and Hofsjökull glaciers in the distance.
Finally there’s a little descending section that leads into a steaming valley with beautiful bright green moss. Climb higher still until you reach Sokull. Continue towards Hrafntinnusker which seats cozily and is surrounded by snow year round. The hut itself is extremely basic, it’s fine enough if you plan to stay in the hut but, it’s not a great place to pitch your tent. This is the highest point of your trek in elevation, and it’s considerably colder here than all the other huts along the way. If you’re tenting the entire trek, this is a good place to have lunch and continue on.
Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn
Time 4.5 hours
There’s a lot more descending during this section of the trek. Upon leaving Hrafntinnusker, depending on how early or late you are in there season, there is either a lot of snow or a lot of black ash with tough gullies to traverse. It’s like this with little ascending for a few kilometres. Pay attention to markers while crossing Reykjafjöll. Climb up to the rocky edge and then turn right from there. After passing a hot-spot you’ll descend into a valley noting all of the steam vents from the hot-spots.
You’ll arrive at a stream just above a waterfall that spills over into Jökulgil. Continue on right down a gravel path. The views from here towards Álftavatn, Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull are breath taking. Personally this is one of my favourite scenes along the entire hike. Descend further and further into this valley. When the valley levels out, follow the Grashagakvisl river which will need to be forded. Keep right at the fork after you ford the river, the stone will eventually turn into grass and the valley will continue to have more and more vegetation. A stony track will lead you to the Álftavatn hut.
This hut is much more comfortable to pitch a tent by. After 24km and 9 or so hours of hiking, you’ll need the rest! The hut sits on the edge of a massive lake, surrounded by mountains in every direction. The wind can be very bad here, so be sure to secure your tent and dress warm for bed. There is an alternative hut, about 2km away if the wind is unbearable, but after a long day, it doesn’t seem worth the extra distance.
Álftavatn to Emstrur
Time 6 hours
Description: Three river crossings, gentle terrain with little ascending and descending.
There are blue markers the lead away from camp to a small river crossing where you will turn right into a vast, green valley. You will have to ford the first of three rivers near the beginning of your hike, this crossing is very tame. Continue on a short distance until you meet the second river that has to be forded. This river is a little bit more exciting; the water can get up to about knee height if it’s really high. Remember, unbuckle your backpack and wear your water shoes. There’s a sign posted for Thórsmörk, follow the ash path through the lava field and continue straight through the junction ahead. You’ll meet up with a dirt road, follow it but stay to the left where there is a foot bridge to cross the Kaldaklofskvisl river. Not long after the footbridge there will be another river, Blafjallakvisl, which will need to be forded. Walk along a dirt road across ash and stones and watch for markers. You’ll eventually find another foot bridge that needs to be cross over Innri-Emstrua.
There is an obvious path that follows parallel to a dirt road for a while. Head down a path towards the Botnar/Emstrur huts. The Emstrur hut is a great place to pitch a tent. The camp sites follow a stream that opens up to a mountainous view of the valley. This hut has showers which are well worth the few extra dollars.
Emstrur to Thórsmörk
Time 6 hours
Description: Very dynamic landscapes. Gentle slopes as well as some more challenging slopes.
Leave the peaceful campground of Emstrur and head down the adjacent valley that lead to a steep rocky gully that you’ll have to descend. There’s a rope that lead down the steep section towards a foot bridge that crosses a sheer sided canyon with a raging river beneath it. Once you cross the canyon there is another footbridge that’s bolted to the side of the rock canyon. There are chains out of the canyon to assist your climb.
After the footbridge you walk along the canyon back to the right before the trail bends left. Most of the day you spend descending lower into the valley adjacent to the Markarfljót river to the right, which isn’t always in sight. You will come across another foot bridge before crossing your last river. The last river crossing is quite wide. I’ve heard stories of it being past hikers waists before, but when I crossed it, it was quite tame.
After the river crossing you find yourself hiking through the woods. The trees and landscape here is very rare for Iceland. This section of the trail feels more like Canada than it does Iceland. Eventually you will have the option to stay at one of two camps, Langidalur or Husadalur.
Your two options are simple, turn left for Husadalur which has shops and a restaurant with cold beer. Or turn right if you plan to continue on through Thórsmörk to Skógar for an additional 25km. You’ll have to stay at Langidalur if you plant to venture further.
Congratulations you’ve completed the Laugavegur trail! I can honestly say that you’d be missing an epic portion of landscape if you forgo the additional 29km to Skógar. The hike between the two glaciers and through Thórsmörk is one of my favourite sections of trail on Eearth.
Thórsmörk to Skógar (The Skógar Trail)
Time 10.5 hours
Description: A long day with a ton of ascending and even more descending. Extremely scenic views the entire way, through epic valleys, ridge walks, volcanos, and raging rivers.
The Skógar trail from Thórsmörk is world class. It makes for a long day but it’s worth every step. In terms of resting, there is a hut around the halfway mark, between the two glaciers at Fimmvörðuháls. I would advise you not to pitch a tent up there, it can be extremely cold and windy so I recommend descending down to Skógar all in one day.
Leave camp by heading upstream. There are two seasonal footbridges where you’ll cross near the Básar huts. Cross a footbridge over the Strakagil and then turn left towards a toilet area. Turn right up a pathway that leads up a few steps which eventually opens up to massive canyon views that look as though they are right out of a science fiction movie.
Traverse along a rocky path with views of the canyons. There will be chains to assist you with a crossing that has fallout to your left and leads over the top of the ridge. When you make it to the top of the ridge, continue the gradual climb upwards towards an epic plateau. This plateau is deceivingly large and takes longer to cross than you would first suspect. After you get off the plateau, there will be a ridge walk with epic glacial views on your left, to your right will be a massive valley that leads down to the ocean. Continue ascending higher along ashy slopes. Warning: The climb turns into a slog.
After you eventually reach Fimmvörðuháls, you can relax, take in the scenery, and enjoy some lunch. Don’t forget at this point you’re only about halfway through the day. You’ll carry on from there through black ash and stoney slopes. After a snowy crossing surrounded by glaciers, you’ll find a very primitive stone/dirt road that has you walking along Skóga river, otherwise known as “the hike of 22 waterfalls”. The dirt road slowly and gently descends until you find a foot path that follows the Skógar river just above Skógafoss waterfall. It’s at the bottom of this waterfall where you will end your trek in Skógar. You will know you’re getting close to the falls when you start to run into tourists who have parked at the parking lot just off of the Highway 1.
Whether it’s your first visit to Iceland, or you have travelled to the country several times before, I absolutely recommend completing the Laugavegur Trail to experience Iceland’s wildly diverse landscape. The country has so much to offer that you will not be able to experience on four wheels so the best way to enjoy Iceland is on your own two feet!