Landmannalaugar, Iceland: hiking the Laugavegur Trail solo
The Laugavegur Trail is the most famous of Iceland’s hikes and considering I’ve not been to half the touristy must-see places I thought I’d go based on so many recommendations. It’s named after Reykjavik’s busiest shopping street because.. well it’s pretty busy! Every time I had planned on going the forecast wasn’t great and though it was a bit mixed for the last week I thought I’d just go for it despite reservations about it being so busy.
Planning for hiking the Laugavegur Trail solo
You can get some guides on this trail specifically in bookshops and in the campsite in Reykjavik but they’re not worth it. I had a map and the Cicerone Iceland guide and at this time of year the route is busy and clear, early in the season there’s still snow cover, which makes the going easier in parts but you can’t see the trail markers so well. There’s plenty of water along the way in huts and rivers but no food apart from start and finish points so take plenty. You also have to bring all your rubbish back with you. There are some rubbish bins at certain huts but they can’t cope with everyone’s waste and for the love of god pick up anything you drop. That includes tissues and cigarette buts you filthy creatures.
Packing for hiking the Laugavegur Trail
I left nonessentials at the left luggage at Reykjavik Campsite (3500kr). You can also use the left luggage lockers at the bus stations or Reykjavik Airport. You pay for 24hrs upfront and whatever extra when you return. I took first aid kit, survival kit including foil blanket, maps, hiking guide, compass, head torch, kindle, camera (plus cards, spare batteries, filters, tripod – which I only used once and would leave behind next time to be honest), phone and charger (some huts will charge your devices for about 500kr – if they have spare electricity. The ones relying on solar power may not. Take a break from the world! If you’re using your phone for pictures keep it on airplane mode. There’s no reception anyway but it’s good in case you need to use 112 mountain rescue. I had plenty of spare batteries so the camera was fine.), food (yogurts, granola/muesli, lots of chocolate, trail bars, salami, beef jerky), platypus for water (there’s lots of water), neck warmer which I use as a hat, gloves, Leatherman multi-tool, down jacket, waterproof and windproof jacket, one pair of fast-drying and windproof hiking trousers, spare socks and underwear, sleeping bag, tent, ground mat, hairbrush, toothbrush and toothpaste (who’s going to be looking at me and besides four days without a shower is not going to kill you). And that’s it. And after a long day’s hiking that’s heavy enough. They recommend you bring sandals/crocs to cross rivers but I’m Irish and hardcore so I didn’t. You can join this trail with the Hellismannaleið three-day trail from Rjúpnavellir and the two-day Þórsmörk to Skógar and everyone who included Skógar said it was the nicest part. There’s also plenty of day walks in the area. I was just doing the Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk part which you can do in 3-4 days. Or two if you’re fit. Or 5 hours if you’re an ultra marathon runner. Which I’m not. I took four days nice and handy and as I was arriving around lunchtime on the first day which was a bit late for 8 hours hiking plus photo time. Check out my other blog posts for my full packing list for hiking in Iceland.
Transport to Landmannalaugar, Iceland
Reykjavik Excursions, Trek and Sterna go to the start, end and several midpoints – check timetables online for exact details. A passport is a much cheaper ticket option and you don’t need to book the time or date. Self driving is only for high 4x4s as river crossings are deep. Also be careful of where you put your bag on the bus as mine was on the base of the luggage compartment and got wet when we crossed rivers. Landmannalaugar itself is very busy. You can get a day pass to use the toilets for 500kr which is a lot but it gets a lot of traffic and I suppose need something towards the upkeep.
Day one of the Laugavegur Trail
The first day is quite hilly and at first I found it tough (but well able for it). This is about 12km and four hours without stopping (time estimates vary between the hiking guidebook and the tourist boards at campsites). You start off with beautiful moss-covered lava fields and steaming spots with sulphur fields and far off pastel hills at Brennisteinsalda and Stórihver before rising to obsidian slopes at Söðull with enough dragon glass to slay a whole army of White Walkers for Game of Thrones fans. The weather has turned bad enough and I just concentrated on getting myself through the wind and stabbing rain to the first hut at Hrafntinnusker to bed down. The huts themselves book out very early in the year but you don’t need to book camping (1200-1800kr). I was so wet and miserable that the warden waived the rules and allowed me to sit in the boot room to warm up for a while and I wasn’t the only one. But as a rule you can use the huts or kitchens unless you’re paying for hut accommodation. If they’re not fully booked you can of course pay for it then and if the weather turns nasty everyone will be brought indoors for safety. But only if it’s life-threatening. Not just cos you’re a bit damp. Hrafntinnusker is on a rocky slope with almost no soil and so you need to pile rocks over your tent pegs though thankfully it wasn’t windy. It was so wet that the black sand got everywhere and coupled with the rain it was a bit of miserable first night. As I was tired and it was windy I was using too much brute force setting up the tent and snapped the end of one of the poles which ripped the pole sleeve. The tent is fine, it’s a small hole and doesn’t affect the waterproofing at all but the sharp edge on the pole could rip something else so I’ll need to repair it when I get back. I have to say I’m delighted with my trusty little tent, it survived a lot and never let me down and I would happily buy it again.
Day two of the Laugavegur Trail
The following morning proved to be a much nicer day which turned hot with lots of up and down over the next 12km but the landscape was so beautiful it took about 7 hours between taking photos and just sitting there admiring the beauty of rolling hills, multicoloured mountains, ice caps and steam spots and every colour you could imagine as I headed by Reykjafjöll, Jökulgil and Grashagakvisl. The going can be hard in places climbing soft ground and I finally had use for my poles after I ended up on my arse a couple of times on the downward parts as it was so dry and loose. The track can be quite worn as it’s so busy and this is the end of the season almost. That makes it more bizarre when you see a dozen mountain bikers go past at high speed. Though one tried to get up a hill after a river and took a tumble. Thankfully for her onto soft sand.
A lot of the hikers seemed much more friendly than I’ve previously encounter. There was the guy who spent ages getting my lens cap out of a crevasse after I dropped it (and kept telling him it was ok) and didn’t even wait for thanks. A Spanish man and his daughter. Two Danish guys I kept bumping into and kept me amused when they were trying to toss nuts at each other or almost fall into the river. And yes there were a lot who didn’t either. But there’s always one isn’t there. An older American guy from Utah was talking to a woman at the campsite and FÍ huts at the lake and giving out stink about the groups (walkers and the bikers) who get their luggage driven on for them. Ok I admit I do think it’s cheating a bit. But maybe they wouldn’t be able for it otherwise. And there was a bit the next day when I was so tired I would have thrown my bag the last bit down the mountain rather than carry it. But then he said he never paid for camping he just camped. That the Icelanders were so rich that they didn’t need the money and were surprised that he paid. They’re not surprised. Just here there’s a system of trust. And then you have to go and spoil it. Why?
At Álftavatn lake I got chatting to Leo, a Dutch guy who was here with his brother and friends as every year they go for a weeks camping and hiking. They had gone on a side hike but as his knees give him trouble he was saving himself for the next day which is a longer 16km 6-7 hours through its flatter than the previous ones. We were chatting about camping and hiking and talked about the wind expected that night. A sign at the campsite suggests going on another 5km to Hvanngil for a less windy spot but I was wrecked and stayed put. Though I have complete faith in the tent I did wonder later if I should have the way the wind shook the tent and everything around it. The rain lashed down and the next morning I asked the warden (who shared his breakfast Pringles with me) about the other bus pickup points as I didn’t want to over commit in fog and besides there’s no point in being wet and miserable in a beautiful place you can’t see.
Day three of the Laugavegur Trail
So a wet start with a few river crossings to look forward to. Super. Álftavatn to Botnar/Emstrur starts with gentle hills and a knee-deep river which is fine and after the third hut Hvanngil (which I was thinking wasn’t that far to have gone the previous night) there’s the biggest river crossing: Bláfjallakvísl of the hike by Stórasúla, at which point the weather was starting to clear up. It’s wide enough, mostly rocky (but there is a nice bit of sand in the middle) and the deepest one, with quite strong current in the middle, coming up to mid-thigh on me. For all of these bear in mind that it’s the end of the summer. Water levels could be different earlier in the summer. Always cross at the widest point where it’ll be shallowest. Angle yourself so the water breaks over you and you’re not giving it such a big obstacle to try to push out of the way. Use your walking poles (finally I had a good reason for bringing them!) or go in a group and link arms with the weaker members in the middle. Go slowly and be sure of your footing. Don’t look at the water, it’ll make you dizzy. Finally when you’re on the other side enjoy the comical strip show as all the short arses (including myself) take off their trousers to cross.
A bit further down the road a 4×4 was approaching the river until a group of Belgian soldiers persuaded them to turn back. A normal or even city (as this one was) 4×4 is not suitable for river crossing. And the roads aren’t just gravel paved roads. They’re under snow for most of the year. There’s potholes you could swim in. “road in shite” doesn’t cover it. Speaking of what’s not suitable, there were a fair few people in jeans, massive backpacks which their faces said they were in pain carrying, or with no clue where there were going. The trail is quite clear in the busy season where there’s no snow covering the markers but bad visibility can come at any time. One woman was stopping people asking for directions. Be prepared. Do your homework. Try some shorter routes at home to practice navigation. Don’t be someone the rescue services have to risk their lives for because you were ill-prepared or stupid. There are enough situations where unpreventable accidents do happen. Though some of these are hilarious.
This section of the trail heading along by the Innri-Emstruá, Útigönguhöfðar mountain to Botnar is relatively flat with some beautiful mountains dotted around and only for the rough or sandy ground it’d be really easy going. At the edge of a steep descent by Markarfljótsglijúfur canyon I took a short break in the sun and watched the group whose luggage was being transported for them complain about how tired they were. With their tiny day packs. And my large but even so lightly packed albatross. That I really did want to send down the fast way. One guy was telling another how he was a warrior for doing this with his bag. I really hated them until Pedro, one of the Dutch guys, told me a woman in the group broke her ankle on the last 200m to the hut, which is a really shit way to end your holiday poor woman. The trail is often dusty and loose. Care is needed especially going downhill.
Here the campsite overlooks a little creek and the lovely woman gave me plenty of advice on where to pitch (down and out if the wind), the weather the next day (a bit of everything to be expected) and the trail. My breakfast companion from that morning was there doing what he called a rain dance to get into his boots. I begged him to do it somewhere else. Dog tired, after a chat with my Dutch friends about hiking, camping, skydiving and the army; I curled up in my sleeping bag for my last night in my faithful sturdy tent, without a puff of wind.
Day four of the Laugavegur Trail
As much as I had intended to start very early the next day it was after 8am before I got going, passing and being overtaken by my Dutch friends. As my phone was dead most mornings I can’t be sure of walking hours but generally you could add another 1-2 hours onto the suggested times as I was taking a lot of pictures and I left around 8.15 or so in the mornings. Usually everyone else getting up is a good alarm unless you’ve picked a remote spot to pitch. Again a not fantastic morning but it wasn’t the previous day either and that improved as this one did. This section has plenty of ups and downs with some footbridges and one river crossing, ending up in Þórsmörk, literally Thór’s Forest. The last river crossing at Þröngá is wide but much less powerful than I had expected with a nice sandy bottom that made me want to soak my tired feet for ages. An old skydiving injury gave me a bone bruise from the pressure with the extra weight and I had one blister (which I ripped the skin off changing the dressing) but over two months that’s not bad.
Generally, the whole trail has friendlier hikers than others I’ve walked but there still are a fair few who for some bizarre reason just don’t say hello. Or who play music from speakers along the way. Or the group of American guys who shouted their conversations along the whole trail including the one where it wasn’t statutory rape if she didn’t look underage. At least one had the grace to look embarrassed when I raised my eyes. But there are lots of lovely people including the German couple who politely asked if I minded them sitting by me at a waterfall. I’m not the Puffin Woman of Mykines, the river is there for everyone so of course not. The warden at the Botnar had recommended going to Langidalur as it’s nicer but my German friends had a bus timetable and there was one at 3.20 and then 8pm from there but there was a later departure from Húsadalur. I could have gotten a return from a different company but that would have added the expense so considering I wanted to make the most of my treat of indoor accommodation in Reykjavik with a bed (!), pillows (!), and clean clothes (what a princess) I turned right down the path for the part two kilometers to meet the bus in a half-hour at Húsadalur. Leo, Pedro and the other Dutch guys were setting up their tents where they planned to spend a few nights, and when I asked if the had the tea ready they invited me for a beer. Unfortunately the bus was filling up too fast to do anything other than grab some victory junk food.
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
Awesome! Amazing landscape.
Thanks Stella! Thousands of photos to go through!
Fantastic blog….felt we were on the trail with you …without the pain! Fair play dhuit! Ag súil go mór tú a fheiscint sar i bhfad,
Go raibh míle maith agat AnnabelJ!
[…] in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is beautiful, challenging and well worth it. It makes the Laugavegur trail in Landmannalaugur look easy. Routes are often not marked clearly. Only on the second day did I meet any other hikers […]