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Quickstart Guide: Iceland’s Laugavegur & Fimmvörðuháls

Editor’s note. In 2008 I completed the classic Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls treks as a warm-up to a longer east-to-west traverse of Iceland. I posted how-to information afterwards, but it’s relevancy is diminished by my fast-and-light style and by subsequent changes in regulations and conditions. So I asked Katherine Kane, who has been on several of my guided trips and who did these routes in 2018 in more typical fashion, to share logistical and planning advice.

About the treks

The Laugavegur trek is 34.5 miles (55.5 km) long, and connects Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk (Thorsmork). It’s very do-able for reasonably fit hikers — the distance and elevation change is modest. Expect snowfields, unbridged river crossings, short steep bits, geothermal activity, and expansive views. 

The Fimmvörðuháls is an 18-mile (29-km) extension from Þórsmörk to Skogar, and requires more fitness and nerve. It’s also the best part, and highly recommended if you have time, sufficient fortitude, and cooperative weather. You will encounter: a 3,000+ ft. ascent, a narrow section called the Kattahryggur (cat’s spine), a cluster of sketchy parts called the Heljarkambur, and lots of mossy waterfalls. The pass between the volcanic snowcaps has large snowfields, high winds, and an amazing view out over the Atlantic Ocean. Remember the Eyjafjallajökull eruption that stopped global air traffic in 2010? That’s where you’ll be.

When to go

Weather is the single most important consideration when attempting the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls. July and August are by far the safest bets, but there’s still a high chance you’ll experience some heavy rain and strong winds.

Prepare yourself emotionally for missing spectacular views. Prepare yourself safety-wise for wet, windy, low-visibility weather. Track the advisories on SafeTravel.is. The hut wardens serve as weather forecasters — check with them if there’s any question of safety.

Due to extreme weather conditions, the trail will occasionally be “closed.”

The mountains around Landmannalaugar

Give me shelter: Huts vs. camping

At-large camping is not permitted. Trekkers must stay in staffed huts or camp outside nearby in designated areas.

Each option has pros and cons. By staying in the huts, you can carry a lighter pack and you’re guaranteed protection from the weather. But the huts lack privacy, and you’re often sleeping side-by-side, sardine-style next to some random Norwegian guy.

Camping is more flexible, and you can adjust your itinerary around the weather or your progress. Most camping areas have a large enclosed group tent with a picnic table for cooking and dining. Several hut areas have hot showers that campers and hut guests can buy tickets to use. 

Ferðafélag Íslands (FI) has huts throughout the length of both treks. Make hut reservations in advance — they start confirming dates in January for the upcoming summer, and you can submit your reservation requests starting late-fall.

In Þórsmörk and on the Fimmvörðuháls, there are two other hut operators, Útivist and Volcano Huts. But reserving a complete itinerary with FI is the simplest plan.

Wait until you receive an itinerary confirmation before you book your flights to Iceland, in case they need to give you a slightly different start date. 

Sometimes the huts have enough availability for change of plans while you’re on the trail. If you’re moving fast, wardens can try to bump your itinerary ahead — they’re networked and can radio each other. Likewise, campers may able to snag open bunks in the huts. But don’t count on these possibilities — I witnessed failed attempts at both. Odds are better for solo hikers.

Daily Mileage

Hut reservations commit you to an itinerary, so you must decide if you will hike hut-to-hut (7.5 to 10 miles between huts) or if you will skip some huts and hike further.

The case for short days:

  • Extra time for the side trips, specifically the sweeping summit views and collapsed snow cave at Hrafntinnusker and the Markarfljotsjljufur canyon at Emstrur.
  • Extra time to deal with high wind or whiteout conditions.
  • First dibs on your preferred bunk spot.
  • Time to relax, have a shower, write in a journal, study your maps, or socialize with hikers from around the world.

Skipping Hrafntinnusker, which will mean a 15-mile day, is a perfectly reasonable choice if you’re fit, have limited vacation time, or want to move quickly. If you’re really fit, you could do both treks in three days, camping in Þórsmörk and Álftavatn/Hvanngil. And if you’re an ultra-runner, there is an organized marathon.

The collapsed snow cave, a side trip from Hrafntinnusker

Direction: Southbound vs. Northbound

Most hikers travel southbound. Going with convention will make it easier to follow the Cicerone guidebook, a useful resource for more specific route details.

On the other hand, if your priority is going over the Fimmvörðuháls on a clear day, then camping and going northbound could be a good strategy for catching a clear weather window if you have time to be flexible and are willing to wait it out in Skogar.

Transportation

Use the bus system for this end-to-end trip. The “hiker package” type bus tickets are only sort of flexible — most of them still have you reserve dates online — you can’t really just “hop on” whenever, despite what the ads might imply on first glance.

It’s also possible to reserve each bus trip a la carte, which costs more but buys you more options for the return bus departure times. The buses out of Reykjavik fill up, so be sure to nail down your reservation to get to the trailhead.

Changing return bus reservations seemed easy enough for hikers who were deciding whether or not to extend their trip over the Fimmvörðuháls. Most FI huts get a cell signal, so you can do that online from Þórsmörk.

The relevant bus operators are: Trex, Sterna, and Reykjavik Excursions.

If for some reason you wanted to drive, be aware that all the trailheads (except for Skogar) are on “F-roads” that require an F-road rated high-clearance, 4WD vehicle that can ford rivers. Overland driving is taken very seriously in Iceland.

Food: Theory vs. Practice

The Icelandic customs regulations say:

Travelers may import duty-free up to 3 kg of food …. Meat products may be imported if they have been boiled or canned. Smoking, salting or drying without boiling is unsatisfactory.

What about the meat in freeze-dried meals? In theory it’s ambiguous, but in practice officials at Keflavik Airport seemed unconcerned about food. You don’t need to fill out a declaration form (i.e. no ethical or legal dilemma about being scrupulously accurate on a written document). While everyone else waltzed through the wide “nothing to declare” hallway, I veered off the side to the “declare” area, where the agent gave me a funny look and waved me through. 

Here are some suggestions for food to purchase there: 

  • Wasa at the Bonus chain grocery store — no need to fly over the Atlantic with this Scandinavian staple;
  • Roast goose breast (for the first night), local sheep’s milk cheese, moss crispbread, and other fancy foodstuffs at Ostabudin in Reykjavik; and,
  • A hot buffet dinner at Volcano Hut’s LavaGrill Restaurant & Bar — a one-mile walk from FI’s Langidalur hut in Þórsmörk.

Each hut has a give/take free food shelf. I supplemented my first-night meal with noodles, left behind my extra candy on the last, and noticed lots of abandoned bottles of vinegar. The hut wardens sold: freeze dried meals, candy bars, tampons, soda, and battery packs.

Moss, yum

Hut-By-Hut Facility and Trail Information

Landmannalaugar

Most visitors were not Laugavegur hikers. It’s busy and crowded. You have to get a wristband to access the restroom to prove you paid the hut or campground fee. 

Despite the initial shock that the unsightly parking area and cramped campground had been cropped out of all the photos I’d seen, if I were planning this again I might add a second night in Landmannalaugar to fully explore the colorful mountains in this area. 

Regarding the hot spring: there’s a vague, worrisome sign about “swimmer’s itch” on the way to the hot spring. I risked a soak without any health consequences. It was pleasant, but not a must-do experience. 

This hut had narrow (about 20”) sardine-style bunks. 

Hraftinnusker

Camping is discouraged, but allowed, around this dramatic, up-there hut because of the strong winds. There was running water, but no showers. The toilets are not flush toilets, and over the course of the afternoon, evening, and night they smelled worse and worse. (There were also some geothermal sulfur fumes in the air, and it was hard to tell what smell was what.) 

Downstairs they gave the tour group and older hikers the normal bunks. Upstairs we slept on mattresses about 30” wide, side-by-side on the floor. 

For the side trip from Hraftinnusker, go at least as far as the big cairn at the top of the mountain for the phenomenal view. Finding the collapsed snow cave was more difficult. GPS and microspikes might be useful for this part.

Hraftinnusker hut warden living the life

Álftavatn

The snowfields I crossed departing Hraftinnusker were flat and the route was well marked, but it could have been tricky in whiteout conditions. There were monuments to dead hikers on this stretch. The takeaway: Don’t try this in February. 

At Álftavatn I was in a side hut (not the big main one) and it had conventional bunks with mattresses that seemed standard twin-width. 

There’s a tiny restaurant that sells beer and starch-heavy servings of stew that left me hungry for more protein. (Thanks for sharing your leftovers that night, guided-tour-group cook!)

Alternative: the Hvanngil hut is about 2.5 miles further along. It’s supposed to be less windy for campers there. There’s a river to cross in between.

Botnar/Emstrur

The landscape was dramatic: black, stark, and windswept. There’s a note in the guidebook about making sure not to miss a turn off—but there were makers in both directions!  Luckily I happened to stop for a snack and noticed other hikers went the other way. 

Emstrur has three small, similar huts. They were very, um, “cozy.” In each, the kitchen isn’t separate from the bunk room. By this point in the trip there was a familiar cohort of hikers on the same itinerary, and we had a fun night of camaraderie. 

There were ten 40” mattresss for 20 of us. Do the math: You might be snuggled up close with that random Norweigan guy! 

There’s a trail to Markarfljotsjljufur canyon just before you get to Botnar/Emstrur

Langidalur, Þórsmörk

This day is all about the Þröngá (Thronga) river crossing. My experience was more towards the you’re-going-to-have-to-get-your-feet-wet end of the spectrum than the you-might-drown end, but that will vary. There are likely to be plenty of other hikers at the crossing, so buddy up if need be. The hut was pleasant and comparatively spacious, the only noteworthy difference was an option of 4-person alcoves. 

Baldvinsskáli, Fimmvörðuháls 

At one point up over the pass there was a choice between two different sets of markers to follow—and they were the same color. I checked GPS tracks and saw they eventually reconnected. I heard later that I had made the better, more scenic choice by staying east. (The main commercially available map wasn’t very helpful.) 

Many hikers stopped in the Baldvinsskáli A-frame to warm up and then continued on. There was no running water, just a big pot of melted snow. 

Upstairs the mattresses were packed tight. Camping is not permitted, but the warden seemed to have a policy of letting any hiker stay, reservation or not. There was a stack of mattress downstairs in the kitchen/dining room for latecomers to spread on the floor.

When you get down to Skogar there’s a big waterfall, a campground, a restaurant, several places to stay, buses, and throngs of tourists.

Upstairs in Baldvinsskáli

Gear Notes

The main thing that matters is rain gear. Definitely bring the rain pants. And nothing too flappy (e.g. no rainskirt or poncho).

Campers

  • Bring a shelter that handles wet and wind really well. 
  • If you use an alcohol stove, you can buy “Rauðspritt” at outdoor gear stores and hardware stores in Reykjavik.

Hut Guests

  • You must bring dedicated indoor shoes. I like these. (Note: you have to go outside to get to the toilets, so you’re supposed to change your shoes every time you have to go, which is a drag.)
  • You need to bring your own sleeping bag. Quilt sleepers with DIY chops might rig up a flat piece of fabric secured with adjustable elastic so that you have a bottom-sheet layer. 
  • The huts are well stocked with pots, plates, and everything you need for cooking and eating. Save weight here.

Nice-to-Haves

  • TravelSafe.is recommended renting a handheld GPS unit. Had there been whiteout conditions, I would have been grateful for this rugged, glove-friendly device.
  • Thin neoprene socks allowed me to take my time in the cold water while crossing the Þröngá. 
  • I was very happy I brought these gloves.
Showa 282 waterproof gloves

About the author

Katherine Kane, a long-time Skurka client, started backpacking in 2002 on the East Coast with heavy equipment. She relocated to the Pacific Northwest, had children, and restarted backpacking in 2013 on a Fundamentals trip. She’s planned and completed several more backpacking trips since, with her children and solo. In her professional life she writes about financial technology.


Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

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Posted in on October 17, 2019
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