With landscapes straight out of a science fiction movie, hiking Iceland’s hidden trails is as close as you’ll ever come to travelling out of this world.
Pros and cons
In forgotten places, far from the crowded hot spots, hiking the hidden trails of Iceland is an adventure that combines a portion of the famous Laugavegur Trail — one of the best hikes in the world — with the most beautiful, remote, untapped locations the country has to offer. At 80 miles (130km) long, this thru-hike journeys past geothermal pools, secret valleys, vast lava fields, colorful mountains, and landscapes that will challenge the imagination. Sleeping in mountain huts over ten days, you’ll end in the green valley of Thórsmörk — the place that owes its name to the God of Thunder. It is truly the epic adventure of a lifetime.
My experience in Iceland
Born and raised in Spain, I’ve been living in Iceland for the past six years, guiding adventures with my partner Monica, through our company, Amarok Adventures. I’m a mountain and glacier guide, certified through the AIMG (Association of Icelandic Mountain Guides), which was built on the New Zealand Mountain Guide Association system. I’ve guided in Greenland, South America, Nepal, and now in Iceland. I’m also an internationally published photographer and videographer, and Iceland delivers the most beautiful images my camera has ever captured.
Get started in Reykjavik
Known as the Island of Ice and Fire, Iceland is 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi) in size, with 11% of the island covered by ice and 130 volcanoes to be found, with 30 active volcanic systems. It’s one of the most unreal places in the world.
Reykjavik, the capital city, is the base for starting and ending your hiking adventure. With so much to see and do, it’s got art, music, culture, and charming colorful houses. My local recommendations include exploring the old town, visiting the food courts in the old harbour, and checking out the main monuments like the Hallgrímskirkja church, a beautiful architectural tower reminiscent of Iceland’s mountainous landscapes. The one thing that every visitor to Iceland must do is experience an Icelandic swimming pool — and Reykjavik has many! Heated with geothermal water, they’re unlike any other hot spring you’ve ever experienced. Other than the hiking, they’ll be a definite trip highlight.
Hiking the Laugavegur Trail
Once named the most beautiful trail in the world by National Geographic, the Laugavegur Trail is the classic hike that everyone wants to do when they come to Iceland. It’s brightly-colored orange mountains, deep canyons, birch forests, and rivers provide some of the best visual landscapes we have on the entire planet. It starts in Landmannalaugar and ends in Thórsmörk — named after the Norse God of Thunder. This 35-mile (56 km) trek through Iceland’s Southern Highlands usually takes about 4 days to complete. Although, it can be done in one day.
Monica and I have been guiding this trip for years. We watched as this trail became more and more popular, which caused us to look for something bigger, more epic. Thus, we created the hidden trails tour. The landscapes outshine even the Laugavegur Trail. I can’t disclose all of the trail names. There’s an unwritten rule here in Iceland, that some things should be kept secret. Not just to protect these beautiful places, which I believe it is our duty as guides to protect nature and teach about its preservation, but also to protect hikers. Trails aren’t marked well, they’re difficult to reach, and people know don’t have the right equipment or knowledge can be badly injured or worse if they attempt this thru-hike without proper guidance.
That said, I’ll still give an overview of what this tour is all about, and what ten days of trekking through the most beautiful place on earth looks like:
10 Days of Hiking the Hidden Trails of Iceland
The general itinerary for hiking the hidden trails of Iceland requires 4-8 hours a day of hiking between 6-10 miles (~10-25 km), from one hut to the next, for 10 days in a row. These hikes don’t require any specialized mountaineering skills, but they do require some hiking experience and stamina. Terrain can be tricky and unforgiving. The lava fields will shred your boots if you don’t know where to hike. On the hidden trails tour, we go from hiking 35 miles (56 km) to 80 miles (130 km), with a max ascent of 2200’ (700 m).
Remote, untouched nature
Away from crowds and common hiking trails, the Icelandic Highlands are one of the best places on the island to discover, with more dramatic landscapes, smaller huts, less populated trails, and isolated wild locations. Beginning in Landmannalaugar, instead of heading southwest to the first mountain hut on the Laugavegur Trail, we detour northeast to Langisjór, and begin making our way from there, connecting to the last three stages of the Laugavegur Trail as we make our way to finish in Thórsmörk.
Days 1 & 2: Landmannalaugar
We transfer from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar — one of the most beautiful places in the Highlands of Iceland — in a 4×4 vehicle, and begin the hike from here. A geothermal valley surrounded by bright, moss-covered mountains, lava fields fall over valleys surrounded by rivers, lakes and beautiful craters. For two days and two nights, we explore all the hidden secrets in these mountains, hiking spectacular trails that allow us to feel the energy of these valleys. In total, we hike about 7-15 km (4-9 miles).
Day 3: Langisjór & the Fögrufjöll Mountains
Next, we head to Langisjór Lake, taking the 4×4 vehicle from Landmannalaugar to get there. Langisjór is an enormous 20-kms-long lake in western part of Vatnajökull National Park that wasn’t discovered until the 19th century. The day is spent hiking through the Fögrufjöll Mountains, the “beautiful mountains,” with the Vatnajökull glacier — the biggest glacier in Europe — on the horizon. The black volcanic mountains with their lime green moss against the blue of the lake is breathtaking. Small, thin trails wind along the landscape and you’re likely to not see another hiking party for the whole day. On this part of the hike, there’s nothing but the wind and the faint sound of water to be heard for 12 km (7 miles). We spend the night in another mountain hut.
Day 4: Hiking to Skælingar
Today we will hike about 10 miles (16 km) to the mysterious area of Skælingar, a lava field near the Skaftá river. One of the fun glacier river crossings that we get to do, we follow the river to the outstanding Hvanngil canyon. Some people cross the river barefoot, but I prefer sandals because it’s freezing cold water. Where the moss & the lava converge, the range of colors is enough to leave anyone speechless. On this day, we also get to experience lava trees, or volcanic trees, which are these amazing 2-meter-tall formations that look like a tree made of lava is growing out of the ground. It’s another completely unique day, and one that will again have you seeing hardly any other hikers along the way. And, it’s another night in a remote mountain hut.
Day 5: Hiking to Hólaskjól through the Fire Canyon
After breakfast in Skælingar, we begin trekking to Eldgjá, AKA the “Fire Canyon,” the biggest volcanic canyon in the world. From here, we descend inside the canyon to explore the ancient rocks and get up-close-and-personal with one of my favorite waterfalls in all of Iceland — Ófaerufoss — “the impassible waterfall.” There used to be a natural rock bridge that stretched across the top of the waterfall, but after a hard winter and a very rainy spring, that bridge no longer stands. We conclude the day with a trek to the hut of Hólaskjól, one of the best mountain huts on this journey, and spend the night.
Day 6: Hiking to the hidden lake of Álftavötn
With the hike half over, day six is a 10km (7 mile) relaxing hike to one of the places I love the most for recharging your batteries — Álftavötn Lake. Through green hills and next to the tranquil waters of the Syðri Ófæra river, we end at a traditional refuge where we spend the night. This is a peaceful and unique place in the journey, and the perfect spot to feel the isolation of the Highlands before entering the deserts the following days. Most of this route is based on old shepherd trails, and the mountain huts are difficult to find if you don’t know the area. We don’t use the main mountain huts; most tourists and even some Icelanders don’t know about the huts we stay in.
Day 7: The Ragnarök fires & hiking to Strútur
This is one of the most impressive landscape areas of the entire thru-hike and the longest hiking day of the whole trip. Norse mythology tells of Ragnarök — the battle of the end of the world — a fight between the Æsir, the gods led by Odin, and the fire giants, led by Surt, with the ice giants as allies. It is believed that the eruption of the volcanic systems that created this large canyon inspired these stories and it’s an incredible feeling to hike through a place with such history. Trekking over obsidian, we reach the natural hot spring Strútslaug, and if its temperature and time allow it we will relax in its geothermal sulphurous waters. Just north of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, we spend the night in the Strútur Hut.
Day 8: Hiking to Álftavatn through deserts and volcanoes
Now, we join up with the three last stages of the Laugavegur Trail. We cross some black deserts with fantastic volcanic mountains, completely covered in moss. The lime-green hue of this aquatic moss illuminates the mountains and surrounding area. Today’s goal: the magical lake of Álftavatn. A 17km (10 mile) trek through breathtaking landscapes that allows you to take in the pure beauty and vastness of this untouched landscape.
Day 9: Hiking to Emstrur through the famous black desert
Under the watchful eye of the Katla volcano, we take a visit to the surroundings of the Emstrur Canyon and pass through the last (and famous) black desert before heading to Thórsmörk. Surrounded by pink and white wildflowers, we cross several rivers by foot, while the great Myrdalsjökull glacier looms over the horizon just a few kilometers away, we hike until reaching the huge Canyon of Emstrur, descending to the canyon’s edge where the night’s accommodations await.
Day 10: Hiking to Thórsmörk — the valley of the God of Thunder
We will cross ancient glacial moraines and volcanic terrain, passing through birch and willow forests as we make our way to our last stop: Thórsmörk, the valley of the God of Thunder.One of the best views of the entire trip is at the top of Valahnúkur mountain, one of the closest mountains to the Langidalur Hut. You get complete 360° views of the valley below. We take a short trail in the evening to take in the best view of Eyjafjallajökull — the famous Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010.
When we arrive here, we always try to do a celebratory BBQ with locally sourced food — local vegetables, local fish like salmon and cod, and local lamb ( that’s been roaming free since 1873). Surrounded by incredible landscapes, we spend our last night in a mountain hut before heading back to Reykjavik in the morning.
How to Plan an Iceland Hiking Trip
Whether you’re set to take on the Laugavegur Trail on your own or do a guided hidden trails adventure through the Highlands, here’s a few things to know to help with your trip planning:
Stay in a mountain hut
On a journey like this, mountain huts are the way to go. They are basic accommodations, set in the remote wilds of Iceland. Most huts have a common kitchen, common bedrooms, running water, and a shared toilet. Some offer showers.
The huts that belong to the classic Laugavegur Trail are larger, and accommodate more guests. You’re likely to stay in these huts with other groups. On the hidden trails tour, the huts are smaller, and often we find ourselves staying alone. They are restored mountain huts from shepherds that used to occupy these areas. Heated with geothermal heat, the huts are warm. Some of the smaller huts require that we draw water from the nearby streams. Other mountain huts, like those in the Alps or Pyrenees Mountains, meal services are included. Not here; we bring our own food. We send food boxes with all our non-perishables ahead.
Do you need a permit to hike in Iceland?
No permits are necessary but bookings are required for huts. Most of the huts are completely booked well in advance, so you need to plan ahead and make sure you reserve and pay for your hut stay before adventuring out. The Iceland Touring Association (FÍ) runs the huts on the Laugavegur Trail. We also use private huts on the hidden trails part of our trek.
What about camping?
It wasn’t that long ago that you could set up camp and stay the night anywhere in Iceland’s wilderness. Now, wild camping in Iceland is not allowed. The laws are strict. Whether tenting or staying in a camper van, it’s not allowed and the rules are heavily enforced.
In some instances, if it’s a safety issue for instance, you will be allowed to camp if that is the safest option. But, when the weather is cooperating, you cannot set up camp in the wilderness. This is to protect nature — both the flora and the animals that live in these areas. We try to keep nature as raw and pure as we can in Iceland.
There are places designated for camping, and these are the only places where you are permitted to camp. Around the huts, there are designated spaces for camping. While the toilet area is shared among all the guests, amenities like the kitchen are not for campers’ use.
The weather in the Icelandic Highlands
In Iceland, the cliche is true: If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes. You can expect to experience four seasons in a single day. The Highlands are surrounded by glaciers, and in the middle of these glaciers we have our own micro weather in this area, completely different to the rest of the island. You can go from mild summer weather at the start of your hike, and then be completely enshrouded in snow as you reach the mountain’s peak. It’s one of the reasons it’s good to get guided here — the weather can pose serious challenges to uninitiated hikers.
Gear for hiking in Iceland
You don’t need any special equipment or technical gear — just your standard backpacking and hiking gear. The weather can change at a moment’s notice, so you need to dress in layers. You’ll need a base layer that wicks sweat off your skin; a middle layer that insulates and retains body heat to protect you from the cold; and an outer layer, or shell layer, that shields you from rain and wind; as well as a warm hat, sunglasses, and hiking boots.
You’ll also need a large 30-45L backpack to carry your:
- Sleeping bag (good for 5-10℃)
- Spare clothes
- 3 pairs of proper hiking socks
- Compass and map or GPS
- Personal first aid kit
- Sandals or booties for river crossings
- Trekking poles
- Water bottle (you can fill from the glacier water)
Hiking safely in Iceland
As an ex-warden at the Landmannalaugar mountain hut, I will advise what I advised everyone that came to that hut — hiking in Iceland is not like hiking in other places in the world. Even the most experienced hikers can be challenged by Iceland’s conditions. I’ve seen people that thought they could out hike a storm; they couldn’t. It is much better to wait it out in Iceland and return safely than risk injury in this kind of remote environment.
There are a few essential safety tips I tell everyone. Carry a GPS or map and compass, and know how to use it! If you are hiking unguided, load your GPS prior to traveling and have your hike planned out. Wikiloc.com shows great trail maps for Laugavegur and surrounding Highland areas. Submit your travel plan to SafeTravel.is. Check weather conditions at vedur.is. Notify the wardens or rangers before going to the next hut and bring telecommunication. Make sure you have the appropriate equipment, always bring food supplies, and never hike alone.
When is the best time to visit Iceland for hiking?
Hiking in the Icelandic Highlands is best in summer, from June to September. Although some years, there are trails that cannot be accessed until the middle of July. In the summer months, it is almost 24 hours of daylight. Towards the end of August and into September, night hours begin to resume and chances of seeing the northern lights drastically increase. Mountain huts start to close around the middle of September.
Most people arrive by flying into the Keflavík International Airport, and transferring to Reykjavík about 50km away. From there, if they’re doing a guided hiking tour of either the Laugavegur or the hidden trails, it’s a 4×4 ride with the guiding company to reach the start of the trail. If you’re hiking the Laugavegur Trail unguided, most people opt for a shuttle bus that drops you off at the beginning of the hike and another that picks you up at the end. Most people end their hiking journey back in Reykjavik.