Take one look at Iceland’s breathtaking landscape and you get the distinct vibe that this place is pure magic. The sweeping views of fjords, glaciers, waterfalls, and rock cairns are just a few of the reasons why many Icelanders are undecided on if elves and trolls are actually real. You might also wonder whether or not Mother Nature has some kind of ethereal influence over the country of Ice and Fire. (Spoiler alert: She does).
Find out for yourself if Iceland’s landscape is indeed as magical as everyone says by sleeping under the stars on your next camping adventure. You also get the added benefit of inexpensive campsites in Iceland to offset the cost of a vacation destination that’s not exactly known for its frugality. But before you pull up your Happy Camper to the side of the road or pitch a tent, you need the low-down on the wonderful world of Icelandic camping laws.
Let’s start with the basics. Your best bet for safe, legal, and comfortable camping in Iceland is at one of the country’s wonderful campsites. You can get as off the beaten path as possible in the middle of nowhere, or enjoy amenities like hot showers and makeshift pubs to cheers the day with like-minded campers. We have a fabulous round-up of inexpensive camping options here.
But you can technically pitch up to three tents on Iceland’s array of uncultivated public land and spend your evening in bliss. It all sounds pretty dreamy, right? You and your friends fall asleep enveloped in Iceland’s unique natural beauty before waking to some of the country’s hidden gems along the Golden Circle and beyond. But in reality, there are some complications with this approach. Just ask an Icelander where this elusive uncultivated land for free camping exists, and they’re likely to tell you “Gangi þér vel!” or “Good luck” Then watch as they knowingly smile at what’s to come and continue sipping on their Brennivín schnapps.
The truth is there is a fascinating array of rules and caveats to wade through if you’re planning to go camping in Iceland. Iceland’s municipalities have different camping laws and standards for enforcing them, leaving you wandering around the countryside on the hunt for uncultivated land. Just make sure you wander by foot, as 4×4 offroading is generally prohibited in Iceland. And while we’re talking about transportation, camper vans, and cars, in general, are also prohibited on uncultivated land or indefinitely parked on the side of public routes.
What if you think you finally found the perfect spot to camp in or around Iceland’s national parks? Þingvellir National Park, Vatnajökull National Park, and Snæfellsjökull National Park all prohibit camping beyond the park’s designated campsite areas. Camping in Iceland is also flat-out forbidden in Álafoss, Fjallabak, Hverfjall, Mývatn, and Jökulsárgljúfur among many other areas.
Keep in mind that even if you pull off the feat of a freebie stay on Iceland’s beautiful uncultivated land, you’re only legally allowed to stay for a night. Icelandic law also states that if you want to go wild camping, there can’t be a regulated campsite nearby that you can stay at. Depending on who you ask and what you read, the distance legally required is a grey area.
Savvy travelers with a focus on, “I shall not rest until I sleep for free!” may already know the secret. You can simply ask an Iceland landowner for permission to camp out on their land. This technique may offer varying degrees of success, but don’t expect an Icelander to jump at the chance to host your tent or camper van. Iceland’s exploding tourism industry has brought a few too many campers to the area who leave behind a variety of calling cards. As you can imagine, the situation makes landowners less than enthusiastic about showing off their unique brand of Icelandic hospitality.
I can’t really speak to what Iceland’s lawmakers were thinking when they drafted their camping rules and regulations years ago. However, I think it’s safe to say they didn’t imagine over two million tourists washing ashore every year who were ready to pitch their tents across the countryside. Overall, it seems that Icelandic camping laws were designed for wayward travelers who found themselves without lodging on a cold winter’s night. Check out the Happy Campers ultimate Guide to Camping in Iceland for more info on wild camping and other camping related topics.
Aside from the complex Icelandic laws, there are a lot of endearing quirks about the landscape that makes it impractical to camp in the wild. The majority of the country has no tree cover, making it tricky to find a sheltered spot from the wind or afternoon heat during summer months. The softer areas where you can pitch a tent and is free from hardened lava is generally situated near the coast where farmers live. Pro tip: The farmers aren’t interested in hosting your Instagram-worthy camping adventure.
So the bad news is that wild camping in Iceland is near impossible for a variety of reasons. The good news is that legal camping in Iceland lives up to all the hype. As a long-standing tradition in the country, camping in Iceland is an idyllic way to experience its natural wonders at an unbeatable price. The trick is doing it right and making it easy to navigate.
Before you show up in Iceland and rent a car to head out to the nearest legal campsite, consider the logistics. Will you also bring camping gear? Will inclement weather force you indoors to a hotel or hostel? Instead of piecing together a camping trip, consider renting a Happy Camper that can hold your gear, or offer a cozy place to sleep right inside.
However, keep in mind that not all campsites will accommodate camper vans. Check with the campsite in advance, and decide if your camper will serve as a mode of transportation and occasional shelter or as your primary sleeping quarters. Depending on the season, some campsites in Iceland will also run out of spots or feel too crowded for your preferences. Either opt for a less popular option away from Iceland’s national parks and major attractions or go during the shoulder season or winter months when tourists are less likely to venture outdoors for the night.
Whenever you decide to come to Iceland, arrive ready to unplug. The country is simply too breathtaking and unique to spend your time behind a screen. Of course, we need to see at least one money shot, so tag Happy Camper in all of your camping adventures.