Guide to Trekking the Laugavegur Trail (2020)

Spring officially transitions to Summer in June.  Frankly it’s an exciting time to be outside in Iceland and exploring the Icelandic Highlands by foot!  The Laugavegur Trail is one of the most thrilling long distance hikes in Iceland.  Truly it is the perfect taste of Iceland’s dramatic volcanic interior.  During your journey you will encounter Europe’s largest Ice cap in the distance with its glacial tongues sweeping crystal white from jagged mountains to the ash black desert.  It is a starkly beautiful contrast!

Did you know, the hiking trail is world famous too?  Even National Geographic has even ranked the Laugavegur Trail in the top 20 trails in the entire world!  Since our Iceland Wedding Planner team loves being a resource to you before, during, and after your wedding adventures we would love to coach you through a guide to trekking it successfully today.  Come along with us!

Guide to Trekking the Laugavegur Trail (2020)

As a hike, Laugavegur Trail is moderately difficult.  Which means it’s important to be prepared and plan ahead before you embark.  To illustrate, the terrain is rough at times with loose ash sand predominate throughout and there will be crisp cold river crossings to navigate through as well.  And there are few sustained inclines.  But know, the trail overall is well paced and marked as long as you are doing it within the right season (end of June to mid September, depending on snow levels).  The biggest challenge will be the famously schizophrenic Icelandic weather.

W H E R E    T O    B E G I N  /  W H A T    T O    E X P E C T

Firstly, the Laugavegur Trail is a linear walk from point A to B with good public transport at both ends.  Secondly, most people walk from North to South, starting in Landmannalaugar and finishing in the dynamic Þórsmörk Valley.  Thirdly, while it is possible to walk the other way round you can only do this by camping, as the Icelandic mountain huts can only be booked from North to South in the summer.

The Pro’s of Hiking the Laugavegur Trail from North to South:

  • Use of the huts if booked ahead.
  • A sense of walking out toward the sea, which is always exciting!
  • The option to extend your adventure 1-2 days.  By experiencing another hiking adventure over Fimmvörðuháls with lighter packs.
  • Slightly less uphill (you start at 300 meters in altitude).

The Pro’s of Hiking the Laugavegur Trail from South to North:

  • Walking with the prevailing wind (although wind can be any direction).
  • Finishing at Landmannalaugar with a celebratory natural hot spring dip!
  • You will see far fewer people during each days hiking adventure along the Laugavegur Trail.

Hiking Conditions of Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk

Overall, the Iceland hiking trail will be mixed conditions underfoot from volcanic scoria (brittle hardened lava), soft desert ash and loose boulders alongside a few moderate river crossings.  The Laugavegur Trail is well marked and well worn and relatively simple to navigate. Good maps are available on Google or All Trails.

Furthermore, biggest variable is the weather which can make or break your trip.  For example, this can be snow, wind, rain, hail or all of them at once, expect this at any time of year.  Therefore, it is also important to make sure you leave yourself extra days surrounding your anticipated hike so that you can sit tight and safe if weather challenges part of your route.  Each day before beginning too you will want to have a look through all of the weather sites such as the following:

Laugavegur Hike Accommodation: Tent or Hut?

Along the 34 mile (55km) route there are six huts along the Laugavegur Trail which allow you to pace your adventure to a level that suits you. Most people complete the trail over 3-4 days.  The Icelandic mountain huts are relatively simple.  For instance, the majority are with shared bunks in communal rooms.  Meanwhile, some offer catering while others do not.  Booking huts is recommended to do well in advance.  For example, ideally several months before your hike, as they will be fully booked through the high season (July-August).

The advantage of staying in a hut is not having to carry your own tent and enduring the harsh overnight weather.  But, you will still need to carry mats and sleeping bags.  Along the Laugavegur Trail ‘wild camping’ is prohibited (not allowed), this is to protect the fragile environment which can take generations to recover from even a single footprint.  There are excellent camping facilities beside each of the huts which are available to use along the route.

Laugavegur Hike Packing Checklist:

Deciding what to pack before you travel to Iceland and hike the incredible Laugavegur Trail is crucial to the success of your trip!  We would like to break it down by topics for you to consider…

If You Are Camping:

When it comes to camping, it is important to choose your equipment to match the weather.  Campsites are positioned next to the mountain huts, but you should always assume self reliability.

  • You will need a sturdy 4 season tent.
  • Extra tent stakes and sand pegs are highly recommended.
  • Sleeping mat with good insulation.
  • Sleeping bag with a comfort rating of 0-5ºC (32-41ºF).
  • Lightweight food such as pre-dried trekking meals, oatmeal, and chocolate bars.

Iceland Hiking Clothes:  

Pack for the cold mountain weather and expect for it to be, windy and wet everyday.  That way you will be prepared for everything and hopefully be pleasantly surprised!  In the height of summer, Iceland’s temperature can fluctuate massively.  To illustrate, some days you will be huddled in waterproof gear, other in down jackets, if you are lucky you might even be in shorts and a t-shirt!

Our team always teases and says, “There is no such thing as bad weather in Iceland, just bad gear!”  So the bottom line is prepare rather than suffer through while trekking the Laugavegur Trail!  And if you intend on having a hiking elopement during your journey, make sure you pack your Iceland wedding dress!

Essential clothes for the hike should include:

  • Waterproof Gear – Jacket and Trousers. Gaiters are optional but they help reduce sand in your shoes.
  • Warm Outer Wear – A primaloft of down jacket or thick fleece / wool jumper or sweater.
  • Thermals – 1 set of thermal leggings and thermal top to wear while walking.  We recommend a spare pair to wear around camp also.
  • Socks & Underwear – 1 to wear, one to wash, one to dry – you’ll never need more.
  • Gloves / Hat + Spare gloves & hat (Loss of a glove or hat can ruin a trip in the wind – spares strongly recommended!) 

5 Top Tips for Hiking in Iceland:

#1: A spare/old toothbrush and HB pencil to clean and lubricate your zippers!

For use on tents, jackets, bags etc.  The Icelandic volcanic ash will get everywhere!  It is highly abrasive and hugely taxing on zippers.  As part of our evening ritual we clean the zippers with a brush and rub a graphite pencil along them, this will save their lifespan enormously and ensure it doesn’t break during your hike on the Laugavegur Trail.

#2: Spare ‘River Crossing Shoes’ 

Whilst most rivers are relatively easy to cross.  Having wet feet means cold feet and blisters, which let’s be honest- sucks.  When crossing rivers we strongly suggest taking a spare set of ‘wet shoes’ to wear across them, as some streams may be knee deep.  Volcanic rock is sharp, we don’t recommend going barefoot in the Icelandic Highland rivers.

#3: A pole splint (campers only)

If you are planning to camp, expect wind.  We always expect our tents to last, but poles do snap.  Taking a small tube sheath to splint a broken pole is a lightweight insurance policy and save a ruined night.

#4: Walking Poles

The wind and varied terrain can be challenging.  Pack walking poles for this trek, they are especially useful during river crossings (but remember to keep your hands out of loops).

#5: Eye Shades for Sleeping

During the summer months in Iceland the sun will be up all day.  Something to cover your eyes will certainly help you enjoy a better night sleep.  Pro tip- a buff doubles as an eye shade!

Day 1: Adventure Begins at Landmannalaugar

Your thrilling experience of hiking the Laugavegur Trail begins!  Arriving at Landmannalaugar by bus you will feel like you have stepped into a tent city at the end of the world.  Nestled at the foot of a large lava flow, the camp is a perfect base for some stunning return adventures such as climbing Bláhnjúkur (940m appx.) mountain or Brennisteinsalda mountain (800m appx.).  Also, we strongly recommend spending an extra day here to explore the area and enjoy a good pre-hike soak in the natural Hot Springs, which is a short walk near to your camp/hut.

 Day 2: Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker: 12 km, 4-5 hrs

Your first day will be a steady climb, but some of the most ‘out of this world’ and spectacular scenery you’ll ever experience!  For instance, crossing solidified lava fields, brittle volcanic scoria crunching beneath your boots, and you’ll smell the primal eggy scent of sulphur.  Which fills the air from fumaroles (steaming vents of volcanic gases) which smoke from bubbling geysers.

The mountains within the Laugavegur Trail, are predominantly Rhyolite clay have a pastel painting like appearance with teal blues, terracotta reds and yolk yellow hues, veins of brilliant green moss and rust red iron interlace the valleys between them.  Frankly, it is like a walk through the land before time delighting your five senses!

Looking back to Landmannalaugar from the Brennisteinsalda Pass

Leaving camp the trail winds between an extinct lava field, which flowed from an eruption in 1477.  The scoria (sharp volcanic rock) crunches underfoot as you weave through the huge monoliths of lava upward toward Brennisteinsalda (Sulphur hill).  Next, the path steepens uphill here to a pass beside the hill.  Note, if you have energy it is a worthwhile detour to the approximately 800m high summit and back before continuing.  Either way the views behind into the central highlands are spectacular!

As you continue into the mountains beyond, the terrain eases into open gravel fields.  Views becomes wider and softer with the rugged lava now replaced with Rhyolite clay.  Sometimes in the early season within the Laugavegur Trail, snow will fill the many valleys in between.  To sum up, you might even get to make a snow angel as you pass short remnant drifts!

Passing into the Upper Highlands en route to Hrafntinnusker Hut

As you near Hrafntinnusker Hut you will cross into huge fields of volcanic obsidian (natural glass).  The rocks are jet black and in the sun glitter beautifully, in the midnight sun if you are lucky for the weather to be clear the entire slope around the huts can blaze golden like shining jewels.  NOTE: You CANNOT take any obsidian with you it is ILLEGAL.

Hrafntinnusker Hut is the highest on the Laugavegur Trail route and rewards spectacular views into the highlands all around you!  In fact, can you imagine yourself spending a night in a mountain hut after eloping in Iceland?!  Inside the hut is a fairly basic arrangement with shared bunks and a small cooking area.

The warden will help to guide you to your spot.  If you are camping there are small rock shelters to nestle between, we suggest that you pitch the tent ready for extreme wind even if it is calm as they can spring up in the night.  Anyhow, your first day hiking truly feels more like a journey through mars more than Iceland!  Lastly to day 2, if you still have energy, there are a few short hikes to nearby summits that make an excellent midnight wander in the unsetting summer sun.  Don’t worry, tomorrow is mostly downhill!

Day 3: Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn: 12km, 4-5 hrs (optional 2km to Hvanngil)

If you thought you had good views yesterday, wait until today!  Our minds are still blown away (and not because of the wind!)!  To ease in your legs the day begins relatively flat, before a short uphill to the last good viewpoint of the sweeping rhyolite landscape.  Soon, the views will change dramatically.  For example, a the summit is a great opportunity for a pause for a morning coffee from a thermos to soak in a last look at the colorful panoramic of barren rolling hills!

From here you start to descend gently.  After about an hour, a truly spectacular panorama opens up before a steep downhill on the Laugavegur Trail hike.  Below you is a scene that would be comfortable in Tolkien’s middle earth!  In contrast, a fun fact to share, Tolkien based Mordor on his visits to Iceland.

Landscapes like open volcanic ash contrasts with the vibrant green moss carpet that follows water along narrow valleys.  Honestly, if you are lucky with weather, in the distance the Vatnajökull and Fimmvörðuháls ice caps fringe the horizon in a cap of brilliant frozen white.  Welcome to a new world, and new terrain experience!

Underfoot the land will change too, from rough rocky path to loose sand and ash.  Expect ash to become a regular friend during this part of the Laugavegur Trail and foe in your life for the next few days, it will get everywhere and in everything!  Beyond the steep downhill you will see lake Álftavatn and your hut for the evening.  But first, it is time to change your shoes for your first river crossing!

Crossing rivers is best done facing upstream and walking sideways, use your walking poles (but take your hands out of the loops).  Also, make sure you unbuckle your backpack in case you need to get it off quickly, as this is the safest way.  Good news, your first river is usually a small and easy crossing (It will be higher in early June from snow melt).

Álftavatn Hut and campsite is a little more civilized than rustic Hrafntinnusker and has warm showers and catering options in a small restaurant if you wish to take a break from cooking for yourself.  Further, 2km along the trail toward Þórsmörk is a second hut (Hvanngil) which takes a little less than an hour to reach along the Laugavegur Trail.  This is a second option to stay or camp at, but we recommend Álftavatn which has better views and facilities as well as a stunning lake to walk to!

Day 3: Álftavatn to Emstrur (Botnar)15km (9.3 miles)

Overall day 3 is a longer day than the previous two, but don’t be put off as it is much flatter with only gentle undulating hills.  The terrain is mostly soft ash and sand which makes looking up to enjoy the views a little easier too.  In addition, a short hop over a low hill brings you to Hvanngil hut an alternative option to Álftavatn if you prefer.

Here you will cross a bridge and head toward the open ash plains.  The mountains here are dramatically conical and rise lonesome amidst the barren terrain, this is every part the volcanic landscape you have dreamt of in your Iceland Laugavegur Trail planning!

The next river doesn’t have a bridge, so it’s shoes off and a gentle wade across.  Flowing directly from the Vatnajökull glacier, don’t be surprised it’ll be cold on the toes but an easy task.  From here you follow a vehicle track into the ashen desert.  To your right are volcanic mountains, tall and jagged and to your left the mighty ice wall of the Vatnajökull!

Out of this World….

As the long open and flat sections give way to a final downhill leg, the trail turns toward the glaciers.  Just before you arrive the Emstrur Hut appears nestled in the hills.  The tremendous views make up for the rustiness of the hut.  Expect to share a dorm with fellow hikers, or camp nearby in the shelter of small rock windbreaks.  An evening view of the Vatnajökull is a tremendous reward though at the end of day 3 of the Laugavegur Trail hike!

Day 4: Emstrur to Þórsmörk: 15km, 6-7 hrs

Welcome to your final day!  A similar length to day 3 the walk from Emstrur will complete the Laugavegur Trail route, with style!  Straight from camp a steep downhill slope leads you toward a deep canyon, you’ll hear the rumble before you see it.  In the distance the ice cap is growing closer and dominated the horizon.  You’ll be pleased to see a bridge on this one as below roaring whitewater tumbles toward the sea!

Moreover, a steady incline leads you up out of the canyon and follows along its edge for a while with tremendous views down to the river far below.  This river will be your friend along the way and for most of the day be following to your right hand side. Expect the track to be mostly ash and small stones, which is energy consuming but easy to manage.

Subsequently, you head toward the distant Fimmvörðuháls pass you’ll pass a spectacular mountain which the wind has carved into the shape of a bats wings, almost like a giant dormant monster on the horizon.  A farmhouse at its base gives a wonderful sense of scale.

Crossing another bridge you leave the desert behind, with a short uphill then down into a new valley and you experience your final river crossing.  Although it is not very deep, it can be wide and tricky, please take your time here.  On the far shore you meet an unfamiliar sight in Iceland, a thick and luscious birch forest!  So for those of you dreaming of being married in a forest in Iceland, this could be a an ideal location!

In the bushland and trees you’ll wander over a gentle incline then down to Þórsmörk.  Here you’ll fine there are several hut options and exceptionally well sheltered campsites to choose from her.  Plus the chance to celebrate with a restaurant meal if you choose.

Congratulations you’ve made it!!  From here, there are bus options to take you home.  Or you could extend your hike two days to Skogar over the Fimmvörðuháls pass, a challenging but beautiful addition!

Laugavegur Hiking Elopement:

Likely, you’re leaving inspired to embark on the Laugavegur Trail hike!  Our friends at Vik Expeditions can craft a custom hiking adventure for you if you wish to hike it during summer or cross it via cross country skies during winter.  Maybe even be married along it!  And our Iceland Wedding Planner team would love to craft an adventure in the more remote offbeat areas of the hike that are accessible via super jeep!  Feel free to contact us for more information on getting that adventure started!

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