Iceland truly is a nature buff’s playground. There is much to do, and locals are thrilled to have you explore their treasured land with their favorite activities: hiking, fishing, and swimming.
If you’re heading out on a hike or a climb, remember to report your whereabouts. Also, be sure to closely monitor weather conditions, bring all the water and gear you need with you, and be careful. Iceland’s rescue team is often called upon to save unprepared tourists in completely avoidable situations. Have fun, but be safe.
Hiking is by far the most popular outdoor activity on the island. There are stretches of land in the north, south, Reykjanes Peninsula, west, east, and interior that are begging to be explored. Hikers have their choice of terrain whether they’re looking for vast lava fields, steep mountains, or enormous glaciers.
The key is to be well prepared, safe, and smart. Monitor weather conditions, have all the proper equipment with you, and alert authorities about your plans. While hiking is a beautiful way to explore the island, most emergency calls to the rescue service are due to ill-prepared tourists finding themselves in a predicament on a hiking expedition gone wrong. It cannot be overstated that you must respect Iceland’s raw and sometimes treacherous nature.
Detailed maps are available at regional tourist information offices as well as online at the Ferðafélag Íslands (Icelandic Touring Association).
Best Day Hikes
Iceland is undeniably a hiker’s paradise. The mountainous landscape begs to be climbed, lava fields invite you to explore, and the highlands offer the adventurous a place to conquer.
- Mount Esja is the picture-perfect backdrop to Reykjavík and a favorite among locals and tourists to hike. The hike is relatively easy, but be aware that it gets steeper as you get to the top. Along the way, you’ll see a placid stream and gorgeous scenery. The view from the top is breathtaking, with views of Reykjavík across the bay.
- In the west, Mount Akrafjall offers moderate hiking, with two paths to choose from. The shorter climb (about two hours) is 555 meters and offers a lovely view of the outskirts of the town Akranes. If you’re up for a longer climb (about five hours), a path leads 643 meters up, and on clear days you can see Snæfellsjökull glacier.
- For those who make it to the highlands, hiking the rim of Mount Askja is a must. The eight-hour trek is rather difficult, but the trail is well maintained and sees a bit of traffic among hikers. The hike offers special views of looming mountains, lava fields, and the spectacular Víti crater.
Fishing is how many Icelanders make their living, so who has fishing rights can be political. Your best bet is to sign up for a tour with a local operator who handles the necessary permit as well as bait and gear. A good place to start is through the tour operator Iceland Fishing Guide, which offers fishing tours in Iceland’s lakes, rivers, and streams. You have a chance at catching salmon, trout, and arctic char, depending on the tour location.
Swimming is a big part of Icelandic culture. That may sound strange given the chilly temps compared to say, Spain or Florida, but an Icelander’s local swimming pool is part of their social scene. If you visit a pool, you will notice groups of Icelanders, friends and family, sitting in hot tubs, sun rooms, or in the children’s pool with their little ones. They love the water and they love to socialize. Pools are heated, and many have extensive facilities that include a gym, sauna, and several hot tubs. There are more than 120 swimming pools in Iceland, and they are well used, no matter the weather. Even outdoor pools can be full when there is a light snowfall.
The part about Iceland’s swimming culture that frazzles some tourists is the communal showering that takes place before and after your swim. In the gender-divided locker rooms, you will see Icelanders showering stark naked—that’s right, sans bathing suit—and you’re expected to do the same. You must thoroughly clean yourself before you join the pool. At larger pools, there are often attendants who make sure that visitors shower. Locals are used to shy visitors and find it amusing, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter. After a couple of visits to the pool, you get used to it.