SEVEN FIRST-HAND TIPS AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET AND TRULY EXPERIENCE THIS AMAZING PLACE

■ text and photos by Bartosz Och

There I was, staring at my cheap printer feeding on blank sheets of paper. No going back now, I thought to myself. Less than a minute later, I was holding my flight ticket to Iceland. It wasn’t the first time I travelled, but it was the first time I had no idea what to expect. I had no plan, a place to stay, and very little money (a majority of which paid for the flight). How was I going to pull it off? Iceland?! I’m insane! An unkind voice in my head began to play its toll on my nerves.
Eventually, I came to terms with my decision, and an obvious lack of substantial funds to convince anyone including myself that I could actually survive two weeks in the Land of Ice and Fire. In the end, I agreed that hiking and camping were the way to go. Later, I will explain point-by-point why.
The next couple of weeks was a constant roller coaster of emotions. I was tired of planning, tired of trying to come up with the best travel itinerary, and tired of gearing up. I spent some long days researching about Iceland and everything I needed to know about camping, trekking, accommodation, etc. My findings brought me back some confidence, but, in reality, things don’t always go the way we would want them to.
The days flew by and so fly did I. I landed in Iceland in August 2013. It was midnight, dark, and cold. I needed a bed, but, as planned, I settled for a tent and a warm sleeping bag. And this is precisely how to travel in Iceland on a budget: wild camping, walking, hitchhiking, improvising. That’s how I did it, and I wouldn’t have traded it for a five- star hotel if I could afford it. Why? Because having a million stars above you on the open sky is way better. But let me break it down for you. I know how difficult it can be to plan such a trip, especially when you are on a tight budget. Because let’s be clear: Iceland is definitely not cheap. Hopefully, if you are a little bit more adventurous (and if not, give it a go), you will find the following list of tips helpful.

~ DON’T SETTLE FOR A HOTEL; TRY SOMETHING NEW ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

Before my trip to Iceland, I hardly ever camped. But I have been camping ever since because I absolutely fell in love with the idea! An idea that you can walk for miles and get lost without having to worry what time it is. That’s because when you carry your home (tent) with you, you are practically free to do whatever the hell you want. Besides, it’s a no-brainer: if you want to travel Iceland on a budget, you will be amazed how much you can actually save up if camping doesn’t make you want to shred your travel itinerary to pieces and hide under a mountain of cosy blankets. Iceland is especially accommodative to wild campers. As long as you steer away from the tourist hotspots and clean up when you leave, you can pretty much camp anywhere. There is plenty of water in Iceland: streams, waterfalls, rivers, lakes. The running water is so clean you can drink it straight. Iceland varies in terrain a lot, so you might want to get a lightweight free-standing tent that can withstand unpredictable weather and storms. I got caught up in a hurricane in Iceland and watched the tents fold like a house of cards while sipping on my semi-hot chocolate in my slightly heavier but cheaper Vango Mirage. You should also most definitely opt-in for a warm, lightweight sleeping bag. I personally used a bit cheaper Snugpak sleeping bag which did a great job overall and the bonus is that you can zip two sleeping bags together in case you have a companion you want to snuggle with for a warmer night experience. Basically, when going camping, sleeping system is most important.  My personal recommendation for a sleeping pad would be this ultralight, comfortable, and insulated pad which I have just bought myself and couldn’t be happier with any other choice (I tried many!).
Another thing, there are hardly any trees in Iceland, so having a camp fire will be something you can’t rely on. Sure, there are some places where trees grow, and, just like I did once, you can make a fire. Just be careful not to burn what’s left of Icelandic woodlands. Remember to carry a cooking stove with you. This little guy is something I can’t live without. You will be able to pick up leftover gas from many campsites.

~ CAMPING IS GREAT; WILD CAMPING IS EVEN BETTER ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

Camping is obviously cheaper than staying in a hotel or a hostel, and there are plenty of designated and well-facilitated campsites. These are great as they mostly have showers, toilets, cooking area, etc. But I figured that if you like to walk at your own pace without rushing from one campsite to another before the sun goes down, wild camping will not only save you a few more bucks, but it will allow you to spend some time away from other people. You should know that it’s not allowed to wild camp on many trails across Iceland, but I did. Throughout the whole of my two-week-long hike from Skógar to Landmannalaugar and onward to Rjúpnavellir, I pitched my tent off-trail, and I am so happy that I did! I still managed to meet amazing people and, overall, have a much nicer, intimate time. The bonus is that the only wildlife you will be highly likely to stumble upon in Iceland are sheep. Foxes are rather hard to spot (I haven’t seen any), and they will undoubtedly stay away from you anyway.

~ WALK AND HITCHHIKE ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

In total, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I walked 150 miles from Skógar to Landmannalaugar and to Rjúpnavellir. No, it wasn’t easy, and no, I don’t regret having walked too far inland before I felt like going back and catching a bus back to safety instead. When you walk, it’s only you, your feet, and a pair of some good lightweight, waterproof walking shoes (typical hiking boots are totally overrated and will only weigh you down). Slower doesn’t mean worse. I have seen places I wouldn’t have seen if I opted for some other means of transport. Walking won’t take you everywhere—unless you have plenty of time and energy—but Iceland is basically a land made for hitchhikers. And yes, it’s safe! People are super nice and they will stop for you unless you look like a maniac! People travel all over Iceland for free using the simple method of thumbs up and smile. So if you want to know how to travel Iceland on a budget, the short answer is camp and hitchhike. Transport in Iceland is generally expensive, so if you want to spend as little money as possible and see as much as possible, you better start perfecting that friendly grin on your face. This way you will not only save some cash and environment, but you will, possibly, meet great people. Just make sure you pass on watching “The Hitch-Hiker” before you decide to hit the road.

~ DON’T WORRY ABOUT FOOD … YET ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

If you end up at the Reykjavík campsite, there will be plenty of shops around. But I found that people leave a lot of their food and gear behind at most campsites. There is a designated place for people to “dump” their things and food. I basically gathered everything I needed at campsites (food and gas) and didn’t have to pay a penny. It’s a wonderful idea! I know I am not that fussy when it comes to food, but if you are going camping (or have little money to spend), you should only opt-in for lightest foods anyway (dehydrated potatoes, quinoa, rice, lentils, noodles, that kind of stuff). If you are hiking any popular trail (Laugavegurin is my favourite), most campsites along the way will not only have little shops (much overpriced) but also such “dumpsters”. I found it quite funny (and intriguing) that even the most remote places in Iceland accept card payments. I would still advise you to carry some cash with you, though! You can never be too careful!

~ QUALITY OVER QUANTITY ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

One thing I wish I had known earlier. I simply thought that the more I bring with me, the more confident I will feel. That may be true, but my comfort was hugely sacrificed by this. I suffered throughout the whole of my trip. My bag was full and heavy, and I could barely carry it. This definitely took away from the experience. So if you want to travel Iceland on a budget and actually enjoy yourself, I would suggest you invest in things that will last you for a long time—things that are light and compact and serve their sole purpose. Don’t start investing in things based on ifs and maybes list. If you think you might need something, you won’t need it. Only buy what is necessary. A lot of things you can get from charity shops too! I personally like to invest in some better gear that I will have a great confidence in. If something doesn’t work, or I want to upgrade, I can trade or sell it! I have always had a great experience buying and reselling stuff. In fact, after my little trip, I sold my sleeping bag for more than I paid for it! eBay and Amazon buyers often search for used items because they often think used equals cheaper. That’s simply not true as I have learned on many occasions. So if you have the money, pay for what it’s worth. And if you no longer need or like it, sell it!

~ TAKE SHELTER ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

So maybe you haven’t been quite sold on the idea of camping. That’s ok! There is plenty of shelters all across Iceland. These shelters are simple and basic emergency hideaways open to hikers in a case of a blizzard, storm, etc. Many of them are empty and located in the more remote, off-trail areas. They usually have some kind of stove and firewood inside, often a bed, cups, plates, and no electricity. You won’t come across free shelters on the main hiking trails, but these are not that expensive either. However, if you decide to steer away from the beaten track, don’t forget a map and a compass! Because to travel Iceland on a budget is not to leave everything home and walk into the wild barehanded. It’s about making conscious, educated choices!

~ STEER AWAY FROM TOURIST ‘DELICACIES’ ~

HOW TO TRAVEL ICELAND ON A BUDGET

Lastly, if you want to travel Iceland on a budget, don’t eat this! Really, there is nothing good I can say about Icelandic delicacy that is Hákarl, a fermented shark. It’s disgusting and expensive. I can’t believe people still pay for this stuff. It not only contributes to overfishing of this amazing animals, but it’s rotten, too! I tried it, I hated it, and I am telling you now—skip it! Same goes for puffin and whale meat. It’s not nasty, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if its chicken or a puffin until you see the bill. Honestly, it’s a tourist trap. The best way to try some local cuisine is to go to places where locals go! Or why not take it a step further and stay with the locals? There are so many ways you can experience Icelandic lifestyle without spending a penny. You can help at a farm, in a hostel, at a campsite … I have lived and travelled rent-free for more than a year now. How? I wrote a separate post about that here!

Do you have any more tips to add to this list? Let us all know your experiences when travelling in Iceland in the comment section below! If you prefer warmer climates, you might want to check out these important tips to remember when backpacking in India!