Our Raidō in Iceland and Embracing the Weather

Raidō is the r-rune of the Elder Futhark, an old proto-Germanic language, used by northern European civilizations. Its meaning translates to the ride or the journey and has been the icon of this website for years, at least in spirit. For Cari’s birthday this year, we wanted to do something new and challenging. We both had our picks for a vacation. Mine was a bicycle tour in Madagascar and hers was backpacking in Iceland. Luckily for Cari, it was her birthday, so she had the final say in the matter. All she wanted was to be on a trail during the Summer Solstice and her birthday, so we began planning…

All I knew about Iceland’s backcountry was the Laugavegur trail. This was mostly due to Bike Magazine’s article on riding it years back. Oh, and I knew about the Greenland shark, Aquavit, puffins, and hot springs. You could say, my knowledge was very limited and I needed a firm education on what we were about to take on. After a few days of planning, we quickly discovered we would be venturing to Iceland a bit too early to hike the trail. Especially after their intense winter weather. Most of the trail was still under deep snow and ice, three weeks prior to our departure.

Another barrier was the fact that I haven’t backpacked since I was a teenager. Sure, I’ve done plenty of touring and bikepacking, so I had lightweight gear, but I was lacking on the thing to carry it all with. Luckily, backpacks, when compared to bicycles, are fairly inexpensive and like I said, I already had all the other gear, including some waterproof hiking boots.

We had a plan. We’d fly into Iceland and head straight to the trail to begin our hike immediately, taking advantage of our jet lag and the fact that the sun never really sets this far north. We had rented a Subaru Outback from Lagoon Car Rental. It included a wifi router, and we sprung for gravel road damage since we’d be doing a lot of off-road driving. It’d take us four days to complete the Laugavegur, after which, we’d have 6 days of sightseeing, where we’d seek out the lesser-traveled roads in search of hot springs and geological sights. We had a plan and anxieties soon subsided as our departure date drew near.

The day of our hike, we drove to the end of the Laugavegur trail in the south to begin. This is the way most locals do the trail, as you avoid the shuttle of tourists at the northern trail head and you do more climbing this way. Cari hates descending while backpacking. I just like climbing as much as possible. At the end of the day, I want to be worn out enough to pass the fuck out, even though there’s still daylight at 2am. Prior to beginning our trek, I opened the mountain weather station website to see that we had 30-40 meter/second winds on the mountain and a lot of rain and snow heading our way. With a bit of apprehension, we headed into the black skies with our rain gear ready.

It didn’t take long for the skies to open up and the winds to pick up. We made it into the highlands before deciding we should set up our tent and wait out the storm. The bands of wind and rain passed over us for hours on end, before breaking early morning just long enough for me to take a photo of our campsite. We hadn’t planned on sleeping, and the cushy moss offered plenty of padding for our tent, so we didn’t even roll out our sleeping pads or bags. Six hours later and we were still in the tent, waiting out the storm.

The next morning, we had a break in the weather for a few hours before ascending into a blizzard. Our faces were frozen and we could barely see the trail in spots. Knowing we’d have to cross a glacier, I was a bit worried we’d go off-trail and get lost before arriving at the mountaintop hut for lunch. As we traversed the glaciers, we spotted the weather station antenna, a lone arctic truck and a hut, awaiting our entry. Luckily, we brought money for the $5 access fee.

Inside, we found many weary backpackers. Some had just arrived from the north, warned us about the weather conditions. A group of American hikers had spent hours upon hours waiting out the storm before making a break for the hut. Others in the room were planning on heading back. The warden warned of the weather and advised us all to either wait it out – for two days – or turn back and try again later in the week. Cari and I were gutted. We didn’t know what to do. Erring on safety, we packed up and headed back to the start of the trail. I didn’t have a good feeling about this and Cari was concerned for the trail condition. Reluctantly defeated, we headed back down the mountain, where the weather had cleared, so we were able to enjoy the views this time.

Six hours later, we arrived at Subie Sue, our Subaru and cooked dinner before finding a quiet spot to sleep for the night. Then the wind came. 70 mph gusts rocked our car, so we opted to sleep inside the trunk, which proved comfortable for Cari, but painful for my long and leggy body. Plans needed to be amended. Our defeat had changed the group dynamic. Hungry for more backpacking, we drove to the Northern trailhead, in hopes of starting over again. It looked like the weather had cleared a bit up there.

A day’s drive took us to Landmannalaugar, the beginning of the Laugavegur trail and an outpost in the middle of nowhere. This hot spring haven attracted thru and day hikers alike, with all the fluoro hiking gear you could ask for, littering the mountains. It was like an Icelandic Disneyland and we weren’t feeling it. Pushing through the crowds, we sought out a warden, who told us she wouldn’t allow hikers to leave that day. The weather was too dangerous. After a hot spring soak, we were told the same by anxious hikers who were held back. It seems our trek wouldn’t happen. At this point, they were advising people that it would take 5+ days to do the trail since the recent snowfall made for slow moving.

Embracing change, we camped out down the road and returned to Landmannalaugar the next day to take on a few day hikes. While it was no backpacking excursion, it proved to be quite the remarkable experience, lending many photographic moments and plenty of head-scratching queries about the geologic formations’ peculiarities.

Sated, for now, we cut a path through various F-Roads, or dirt roads, including some challenging – for a Subaru – technical features. Rock gardens and river crossings pushed our vehicles limits while kept us engaged with our journey. We’d link up with the Ring Road eventually, to see a few of the sights we’d read about – mostly geologic formations – and to partake in the local cuisine of fish stew and lobster tail.

The days passed slowly. We’d sleep in late and stay up later, finding ourselves reaching empty hot springs at 2am and plenty of gorgeous sunsets, met closely by sunrises. For food, we relied on grocery shopping and a bounty of Trader Joes snacks we smuggled in with us. This way we were autonomous, not having to rely on restaurants or gas stations for our meals. In time, we had spent eight days sleeping both in a tent or the car and my back was wrecked. We’d seen everything on our list and driven a total of 2,500 km thus far. I was over driving and wanted to spend some time in Reykjavik.

Plus, we still had some money in our budget left over, even though I was worried it wouldn’t last. Reykjavik is notoriously expensive. Finding a cheap hotel was easy, even though we were on a busy party street. We relied on happy hours for food and drinks, making our own breakfast when possible and spent two days exploring the city’s streets. Admittingly, I wasn’t impressed with Reykjavik as a city. It was too accommodating to tourists, leaving very little authentic “locals” moments. Every other store was a gift shop and the locals, that weren’t working in the tourist industry or hospitality, seemed very much “over” the presence of tourists. It was a sobering way to end our journey but a meaningful insight into how many people experience Iceland.

In the end, we fought the weather and lose, but our Raidō in Iceland was a success. We got off the beaten path, planned wisely and made a point to only visit sights we truly were intrigued by, rather than following a guide book or a website’s to-do list. Coincidentally, that seems to be the modus operandi for Cari and my road trips: seek out the interesting roads and geologic formations, while budgeting enough time to truly absorb the environment.

Next time, I’d love to bikepack the Laugavegur trail and take on some of the highland’s dirt roads. Iceland has left a mark on my soul and I have to say, this was one of the most photogenic trips I’ve ever taken. Have you been to Iceland? Share your stories in the comments!

  • boomforeal

    john watson photo set from iceland ftw!

  • Don Gouda

    There’s just something special about an overland rig. Also, Cari’s outfit looks so friggin good in this landscape.

  • Angelo Medina

    Ridley Scott post2010

  • tylernol

    we went 4 years ago for about 10 days, the weather was a wee bit rainy most of the time but we did get a couple of really nice sunny days. For about 4 nights we stayed in Reykjavik in a rental house and did day trips/hikes, the remainder we set out along the ring road and stayed along the way. Similar to you, I was not impressed with Reykjavik, it was too touristy and I did not find any bargain food options or tasty food options. We stuck with buying food from the supermarket and cooking meals in the rentals we stayed in. I had too much lentil soup.. Blue Lagoon was also in my opinion overrated/pricy. The more remote hikes and views were amazing, so if we did it again, we would rent one of those small euro camper vans and do the whole ring road.

    • They’re cracking down on camper vans and are making pushes to make them illegal. Tent camping is ok, but sleeping in a vehicle has been frowned upon in recent months.

      • tylernol

        bummer!

  • IE

    Oh John, perfect timing for this photoset. My GF and I plan to hike the Laugavegur from August 5th to 9th and are super exited. But now from reading this I hope the weather won’t be too extreme.

    • You’ll be good to go!

    • 70% chance of precipitation daily. Plan to be wet and cold, and you will have a wonderful time! Wear lots of wool!

  • Froste

    Looks amazing!

    Iceland seems to be the spot these days. I think I know 5 people who are going there this month!

    Dont miss this spectacular Icelandic surf movie. It is beautiful and very entertaining. https://www.theaccordfilm.com/

  • barry mcwilliams

    Love the whole photoset & write up.

    Last pic of Cari is aces.

  • Man, your Cruiser’s gonna look so good when you get that Arctic kit hooked up!

    • ha! I asked one of the owners how much the entire kit costs. Lift, control arm, drop brackets, rims, tires, etc. You’re looking at a $10k kit. Damn!

      • Off-road vehicles in Iceland are like America’s hot rod culture. People pour their hearts, souls, and life-savings into those things. We met one guy who ferried over a 6-wheeled expedition truck from Germany, must have weighed 40 tons…

        • Might have been a Unimog or an Austrian Steyr. I saw a few of those.

  • Well done John! Beautiful gallery.

  • Darren McElroy

    Fekkin’ spectacular, John! You’ve got a great eye, man.

  • Man oh man you guys had fun. Great shots, John.
    I was in Iceland for work this last December… It looks like we covered similar ground (I didn’t backpack though), and it’s really cool to see it all in a near polar-opposite season. Most of these spots were completely covered in ice or snow! Makes me want to return even more.

    For a while I was thinking about either bike touring the ring or bikepacking the interior, though after going there and experiencing the absolutely soul-crushing wind that can show up…. backpacking from a Subaru sounds great. ha

  • marco primo

    #77 – that is an insane-looking trail. I can only imagine the views from the top. Great pictures as always.

  • Been waiting for this photoset, definitely not disappointed. Great stuff. Wife and I have told each other repeatedly with all the influx of folks going to Iceland, it’s not for us, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel a ‘tug’ every time I see a gallery this good.

  • Dirk-Jan Scheffers

    Fantastic pictures – brings back memories of a slightly less adventurous trip in October 4 yrs ago – no endless daylight but Northern Lights as a trade-off. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

  • steve

    So many good photo’s! thanks. Looking at importing a 110 soon

  • Jouko Aroheinä

    It’s a truly amazing place isn’t it. I spent four weeks riding around the country on a bike last fall and I’ve been dying to get back ever since.

  • James Jay

    This photoset is amazing John. As a desert dweller living here in Arizona all my life I have always craved areas with rain, snow, and green! Since I was a kid I have always been amazed by Iceland and have always wanted to go. Thanx for bringing this gallery it really brightened my day, maybe one day I’ll make it there along with all the crazy tourists.

  • Jamie McKeon

    #145 & #185 are really Prometheus

  • Iceland! Looks like you had a wicked trip. one of my favorite destinations, hands-down.

    Kelley and I biked across the southern half of the country last summer, living in a tent for 30 days. We skipped the cabins and saved a small fortune, and we had a good tent so it was pretty comfortable. I rigged up clotheslines in the vestibules since you get wet….pretty much every day. The weather changes every kilometer!

    We kept a tour log if anyone is dreaming of doing a similar trip by bicycle: https://maxthecyclist.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/bikepacking-iceland-death-to-tour-buses/

    All in all, it’s an excellent place if you can avoid the tourists. You talk about going a bit early for the best backpacking, but I suspect that was the best possible choice you made! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8c4ef0c172fa4129ec60672f9f303b058b293ae0d1e84f2e34f27581e0010b14.jpg

  • Ian Reiman

    Very cool that you got to go during the summer! My girlfriend and I went during february a couple years ago. Going in the winter is good because there is a little less tourist traffic, but the weather was brutal. We only ever made it as far as Vik in our rental because of some crazy blizzards.

  • I’ve been wanting to visit Iceland for years, this makes me want to go even more.

  • Scott Gater

    I always found the swimming pools were the best place to meet and chat with locals. Not the blue lagoon ( all tourists) but the swimming pools in residential areas in Reykjavik. Outside of the capital most towns have a pool where people go after work to swim and relax. Icelandic people have told me that they think of the pools in the same way that the British think of pubs- a place to go and socialize.

  • josiahwiebe

    This photoset and story is tops! Looks like a superb and unique Iceland trip. I travelled solo in May 2011 and again in September last year with another couple. Two very different experiences.

    The first time I was there, it felt like I was the only person in the whole country a lot of the time. It was the tail end of the low season and I just threw up a tent wherever I could find a comfy spot. Due to the time of year, the highlands were largely inaccessible (especially with my rented Lada Niva) so I stick to whatever day hikes I could do around the Hringvegur. Most recently (last fall) we decided to explore the Westfjords and found that to be a great escape from the crowds of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.

  • Billy Arlew

    Wow! This photoset is incredible
    #110 is my fave. The berg is a face on its side and those mountains have some serious ‘tude.

    • It’s an ice troll, taking a nap. :-)

    • kohwawa

      This might be dumb question, but how did you know what is the number of the photo that is your fave? did you count it one by one?

      • Billy Arlew

        If you look in the URL, each photo has a unique ID which in this case are the last few characters of the address

  • Great shots and write up John, Iceland is top of my list for a bikepacking trip some day, diggin that red Lada Niva!

  • Mark Reimer

    I was in Iceland maybe 7-8 years ago with my girlfriend, now wife. We went to hike up Hecla, but had to start the hike on one of the F-series roads as we only had a small little rental car. I had already dented the rims riding on Iceland’s notorious roads! I had a ‘good idea at the time’ moment, where I lead us through an old lava flow thinking it’d cut a few hours off the trip. In other words, we walked through a field of razor sharp rocks that sliced up our pants and hands any time we touched them! I think it actually added a few hours to the trip…

    By the time we were half a mile from the summit, it was clear we would be walking for many hours in the dark, and we decided it was best to turn back. We didn’t want to be walking through lava fields in the pitch black. As we’re walking back, an old 1970’s era Land Cruiser comes driving down the side of the volcano. No trail or road to be seen of course, just straight down the side of the volcano. We stuck our thumbs out and they headed straight for us. Inside was a couple in their late 60s or so, who had driven there from Normandy, France, right to the peak of the volcano! They gladly let us jump in and it turned out they recognized us from the campground – we were their neighbours! They drove us down the volcano and right to our camp spot. We spent the evening soaking in a hot spring and sharing stories. Iceland is a magical place.

    • Harry Major

      You’re my hero Mark. More so since we met.

    • So good!

  • Jo Guy

    I walked the Laugavegur twenty years ago from the North, but like you bad weather prevented (for me) the last day over the glacier to the South. When the skies clear the views of obsidian fields are breathtaking. I hope you get to go again, it’s such a great walk. Your photos capture the feel of Iceland so well, and the absolute quietness is something I’ll never forget. Good job another birthday is only another year away!

  • CHRIS

    what brand is Cari’s puffy jacket and rain jacket ?