A growing number of visitors to Iceland are bypassing traditional hotels and highly orchestrated tours for a less structured experience: exploring the country by camper van. Is camper van tourism right for you? In this article, we’ll take a look at the unique benefits this mode of travel has to offer, as well as some of the factors you’ll need to consider when planning your vacation. Read on for a comprehensive breakdown of why, when and how to rent a camper van in Iceland.
Camper Van Benefits
When traveling the country in a camper van, you’ll experience Iceland in a way you simply can’t with more conventional trips, which usually involve hotel stays and self-led or group tours. Consider the following ways in which camper van tourism may be considered superior to a typical hotel-based vacation.
- Scenery: Traveling in a camper van in Iceland means total immersion in Iceland’s spectacular scenery. When you stay in a hotel, the best you can hope for is a room with a view (and more often than not, that view includes the less-than-memorable hallmarks of urban life, like traffic-clogged streets and parking lots). When you stay in a camper van, you’re part of the view.
- Convenience: Renting a camper van takes care of your transportation and lodging during your trip, so you won’t have to worry about renting a car, catching a taxi or navigating public transit. You’ll also never be faced with the challenge of trying to find a vacant hotel room during Iceland’s packed peak season, when hotels and resorts typically fill up fast.
- Flexibility: With camper van travel, you set your course and determine your schedule. You get to choose which attractions you visit, and if you really love a particular area, you can extend your stay as long as you like. This is especially helpful if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights, as you can focus your time in areas with minimal light pollution.
- Cost: Living in—and visiting—Iceland is expensive. Your camper van will not only save you money on accommodations, but many models feature small kitchens that allow you to cook some or all of your meals, which will drastically reduce the amount you’d otherwise spend on restaurant dining.
- Time: With a camper van, not only will you not have to spend time researching and reserving hotels and tours ahead of time, but you’ll also save time during your stay. Everything you need—food, clothing, camera, even a place to catch a quick nap—is right there with you at all times, so you’ll never need to run back to a hotel room to rest, change clothes or pick up something you’ve forgotten.
Are you convinced yet? If you’re ready to start planning your Iceland camper van vacation, there are some things you’ll need to consider before hitting the road.
Choosing a Rental Company
The first and most important decision you’ll make is where to rent your camper van in Iceland. As camper van travel grows in popularity, new rental companies are popping up overnight, but I’d recommend sticking to one of a few time-tested, traveler-approved providers.
Family-operated Happy Campers is the oldest and most experienced camper van rental company in Iceland. Their campers are custom-designed and built to be simple and efficient, providing the essential support you’ll need to have a worry-free Iceland vacation. All Happy Campers models include key safety features (three-point seat belts, fire extinguisher and first aid kit); basic, functional kitchens; GPS and Wi-Fi; reliable Webasto heaters; 24/7 emergency support; and eco-friendly solar panels and fuel-efficient systems.
Happy Campers offers six camper van models that seat and sleep between two and five adults. Pricing runs anywhere from 105 to 310 euros per day, depending on the model and time of year you choose to travel (prices are highest June through August and lowest from mid-January through April, October and November).
Like Happy Campers, CampEasy is a family business that designs and builds its own camper vans. The company’s head designer has a decade of experience in the field, and the company prioritizes rigorous maintenance on all of its vehicles—definitely something you’ll appreciate when you’re rolling across the country’s narrow gravel roads.
The company offers five models—Easy Small, Easy Fun, Easy Big, Easy Auto (automatic transmission) and Easy Clever (4×4) that comfortably fit between two and five adults. All of CampEasy’s vans include powerful Webasto heaters, and for an extra fee, you can rent headlamps, lanterns, Bluetooth speakers, trekking poles and even an acoustic guitar.
Go Campers is another reputable provider. Founded in 2014 by travel expert and ICE-SAR (Iceland’s search-and-rescue team) volunteer Benedikt Helgason, the company is based in the Reykjavik metro area and offers seven camper models, including manual and automatic transmission vehicles and 4×4 options for travelers heading to rugged terrain.
Depending on camper size and features, prices range from 89 to 279 euros per day. The company’s website also lists several current promotional codes for upgrades like four-wheel drive or free sleeping bag rental. Not all Go Campers models include a heater, so be sure to ask if this is a critical feature for you.
Equipment Rental and Packing
While each rental company is different, most standard camper vans will include the following features and equipment in the base rental price:
- Gas stove and canisters
- Dishes and cutlery
- Pots and pans
- Pillows and blankets
- Unlimited mileage
- CDW insurance
Some companies’ vans include additional creature comforts—for example, all Happy Campers models include heater, small cooler/refrigerator, sink with running water, CD player/radio and curtains, while Go Campers’ models are more minimalist in nature.
Of course, you’ll want to review your provider’s list of “extras” for rent at an additional cost; these include items like BBQ grills, sleeping bags, camping tables, power inverters, coffee presses and child seats.
When it comes to packing, the more you can bring from home, the better. (Did I mention Iceland is expensive?) Be sure to include the following items on your list:
- Non-perishable food (pasta, rice, tuna, granola/meal replacement bars, coffee and tea, cereal)
- Paper towels
- Toilet paper
- Baby wipes (to keep fresh between showers)
- Sleeping bag (if you don’t have one, you’ll want to rent one, both for warmth and comfort)
What About Bathrooms?
In the interest of space efficiency, camper vans don’t include toilets or showers. Fortunately, you should be able to easily locate restrooms in shops, restaurants and other tourist attractions when nature calls.
As far as personal hygiene is concerned, most towns in Iceland have a public swimming pool, where you can access showers, pools, hot tubs and steam baths for a nominal price. You could also pay to shower at your campground, but most pools provide better facilities and hot water for just a few dollars more than the campgrounds’ bare-bones bathing areas.
Campgrounds in Iceland
On that note, let’s discuss campgrounds for a minute. As of 2015, new laws in Iceland prohibit “wild camping” (parking on most public and private land without written permission), so you’ll need to stay in one of the many campsites scattered across the country. The Happy Campers website is an excellent resource for information about campsites, including a map showing their locations.
Campsites in Iceland are typically nice, with access to toilets, showers and sometimes Wi-Fi. Average daily fees are $10 to $20, with showers adding an additional $3 to $5. However, most campsites close during the colder months, so these amenities won’t be available, although you’ll be able to camp there for free.
Driving in Iceland
Driving in Iceland is a bit different from driving in the United States or even elsewhere in Europe, so be sure to keep the following considerations in mind:
- Transmission: When you rent your camper van, be prepared to drive a manual transmission, as most vehicles in Iceland are not automatic. If you prefer an automatic transmission, be sure to reserve it well ahead of time, as they will be in limited supply, and expect to pay extra for it.
- F-Roads: Iceland’s mountain roads, known as F-Roads, are not well-maintained and may be inaccessible at times. Generally speaking, you should not attempt to navigate these steep, rocky roads unless your camper van is equipped with four-wheel drive. Even then, always err on the side of caution.
- Bridges: Most bridges in Iceland are single lane, so be prepared and be patient.
- Sheep: These wooly mammals roam freely in many areas, so keep an eye out. Some are afraid of cars, while others may dart into the road or refuse to move out of the way of traffic.
- Road signs: Road signs are entirely in Icelandic, so you’ll have to rely on the pictures for their meaning. Warning signs are triangular, while restriction signs are circular; both are red and yellow in color. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website is a good resource for road information, and the CampEasy site also provides helpful tips.
- Fueling: Be sure to budget for fuel, as gas in Iceland may cost two to three times as much as it does in the U.S. As a general rule, plan to fill up whenever you see a gas station; some areas of the country include long stretches of road with few or no refueling options, and running out could really put a damper on your day.
Planning Your Route
The Ring Road is definitely the most popular route for camper van travelers as well as tour companies and day trippers. This 1,332-kilometer (828-mile) national highway circles the country’s coast and includes most of the populated areas of Iceland along with the best-known attractions. Ideally, you’ll want to reserve at least seven days—10 if possible—to traverse the entire ring and leave time for any side trips along the peninsulas. Along the Ring Road, you’ll find Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier: the Golden Circle; Þingvellir National Park; Gullfoss, Europe’s largest waterfall; the black sand beaches of Vik; the East Fjords; and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
Weather in Iceland
Depending on the time of year you choose to travel, weather (and how well you prepare for it) can make or break your camper van trip.
Fall can be an ideal season for traveling in Iceland, thanks to the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows of the changing leaves and ground cover. You’ll also have a better chance at glimpsing the Northern Lights, since the sun sets by 7 p.m. By contrast, summer days include nearly 24 hours of brightness, while the winter months have almost no daylight at all. You’ll also pay less for your camper van rental than you would during the peak summer months.
Regardless of when you take your trip, you can be certain of this: Icelandic weather is nearly impossible to predict, and weather tends toward the extreme, whether it’s in the form of wind, rain, hail, snow or even a sandstorm. The best plan of action is to prepare for the worst by packing plenty of layers, a warm, waterproof jacket and boots. Be flexible with your schedule and anticipate weather-related delays or challenges. Most importantly, play it safe and don’t take unnecessary risks when weather is bad. The Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website is your best resource for accurate daily forecasts and information.
Final Thoughts on Renting a Camper Van in Iceland
If you’re looking to add an element of adventure to your next trip to Iceland, renting a camper van is the best possible way to do it. It’s more comfortable (and warmer) than outdoor camping, and it’s far richer and more immersive than any experience you could hope to have at a conventional hotel. Most importantly, it gives you the freedom and flexibility to plot your own course, set your own schedule and pack as much of the country’s breathtaking landscape as possible into your vacation time. Just remember to do your research ahead of time, be flexible with your plans while traveling and of course, have fun!