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Wild Camping (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

“Are you Icelandic?” an eager tourist asked my husband at the Skógar campsite in mid-July. He nodded. Wide-eyed, the tourist grabbed him by the shoulder and announced: “I’m just so excited to be here!”

At first, we thought this outburst of excitement was rather funny. But then we realized that the poor guy had probably been traveling the entire scenic south coast surrounded only by other tourists, and hadn’t been able to communicate his experience to a native until now.

And the Skógar campsite is pretty spectacular. At the foot of the tall and mighty Skógafoss waterfall and the starting point of the popular Fimmvörðuháls-Þórsmörk hike, the site is truly unique. And in spite of the part-rainy weather, it was crowded.

However, apart from my family, there were hardly any Icelanders there.

The extended family had reserved the weekend for a camping trip and hike many months earlier and we were not about to let the bad weather outlook interfere with our plans.

That is not typical for Icelanders, though. When Icelanders go camping, they “follow the sun”—take their trailer to whatever part of the country where the weather forecast looks the most promising. Being spontaneous is part of the fun.

Otherwise true to the Icelandic camping style, we did not travel light. We had gas heaters, BBQs, pop-up campers, chairs, tables and lots of food and beer. While a group of French students had cup-a-soups, we devoured bloody hamburgers.

While going to bed in our spacious, heated tents, we felt sorry for the German couple who were only just able to squeeze into their tent which at first sight had looked like a frisbee. After tossing it on the ground a tiny tent popped out. Now that’s traveling light.

Luckily, the weather turned out to be much better than expected and we thoroughly enjoyed our camping trip. Part of the family went on a hike too, not across Fimmvörðuháls as planned—the path was too snowy—but only the first stretch along the Skógaá river with its two dozen waterfalls. Simply breathtaking, they told me.

On the way home I noticed a number of tents by the roadside, outside of designated camping areas. Strange, I thought, as they were right between two full-service campsites with running water, hot showers and bathrooms. Camping there is quite cheap.

This was before all the news stories of tourists camping in random places and doing their business everywhere broke.

What’s up with that, seriously? It’s not as if there aren’t bathrooms in the areas where most of the poo reports have come from. They may not be free but would people really rather defecate outside than pay ISK 200 (USD 1.5, EUR 1.4) for it?

Not that I support bathroom fees and I’m sure bathroom facilities can be improved in many tourist destinations across Iceland, but this is plainly disgusting. At least have the decency to bag the poo afterwards and throw it in the trash. Like dog owners do.

Then there’s the wild camping. There are plenty of campsites all around Iceland and there are designated areas in the highlands too. Camping in sensitive soil leaves marks which may take a long time to heal. Same as with off-road driving and hiking outside marked paths.

But the highlands are not where the bulk of the wild camping stories are coming from. People are camping on school grounds and car parks in the middle of urban areas. Sleeping on concrete even.

If you’re not willing to pay the moderate sum of ISK 1,500-2,000 (USD 11-15, EUR 10-14) per night for putting up your tent in a campsite, including bathroom and shower facilities, at least try to find a more comfortable (and more legal) location to camp.

The influx of tourism is great for business and Icelanders are generally happy to watch this industry grow. However, true to the Icelandic carefree attitude, we haven’t really prepared for accepting all these people, these good people, who take an interest in our country and culture.

Much needs to be done in terms of improving services and infrastructure, and in directing people to places that are worth seeing but aren’t overcrowded.

At the same time, we must inform our visitors about the do's and dont's in Iceland and how the country can be traveled safely and sensibly.

To start with, here is some information about campsites, and on safetravel.is, the search and rescue services are happy to help you organize your hike or highland journey.

Also check out our Q&A section.

Happy travels.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.