Is a winter camper van trip the best way to experience Iceland on a budget?
Low season road trips have been increasing in popularity in Iceland, and many campsites remain open throughout the year
It’s hard to imagine a vehicle weighing more than two tonnes could be tossed like an autumn leaf in a gust of wind.
But as I lie awake in my camper van, rocking back and forth, I’m considering all eventualities. More of a washing machine spin cycle than a relaxing lullaby cradle, the movement has been keeping me awake for some time.
Extreme weather patterns are to be expected in Iceland as the Nordic country edges towards its winter season, sending most travellers scurrying towards log-fired lounges or spa-quality hot springs.
But hardier types prepared to brave the outdoors can take advantage of crowd-free campsites and prices that are a fraction of hotel-based holidays.
Camper van road trips have been popular with summer visitors for years, focussing mainly on Iceland’s Route 1 Ring Road – a neat, scenic loop covering some of the country’s most impressive waterfalls, volcanoes and hot springs, easily completed without the need for a 4×4.
But recently, low season road trips have been increasing in popularity. Many campsites remain open throughout the year, main roads are largely accessible, and spiked winter tyres make it safe to drive through snow.
My main concern had been the cold, but my Happy 1 Auto van from Happy Campers (happycampers.is; Happy 1 Auto from €115 per day in low season) is as snug as any boutique hotel room, with a heater powered by the car battery and a full duvet and pillow set supplied.
The family-run, eco-friendly company, who plant a tree for every booking, have seen a steady rise in the number of people taking advantage of quieter shoulder season and winter periods.
Although it’s the smallest model they rent – and perhaps, at times, a little on the cramped side – our two-person van is equipped with everything we need: a small kitchen with running water supplied by a tank, refillable at petrol stations; a gas stove; and a bed that folds up into a seat during the day.
By law, every camper must book into an official campsite every night; expect to pay between €9-€14 per person, generally including use of washrooms, showers and cooking facilities. During the low season, there’s no need to book in advance, adding to the sense of spontaneity that’s at the core of a truly enjoyable road trip.
My partner and I have a plan to literally go where the wind takes us, using Iceland’s official meteorological service, vedur.is, to direct our travels. A handy list of winter campsites available on the Happy Campers website helps us map out where we can stay.
But one sight we are determined to visit, whatever the weather, is Mount Fagradalsfjall, the volcano which, after a 6,000-year hiatus, has been erupting for the last six months – the longest the country has seen in the past 50 years.
When we arrive at the Reykjanes Peninsula, not far from Keflavik airport and the Blue Lagoon, the monster is sleeping. But hiking across solidified lava fields, still coiling with smoke, is an opportunity to witness the almighty strength of forces gurgling at our planet’s core.
Taking the steep, challenging route (currently, there are two pathways), I find myself almost at eye level with the main cone, shredded at the edges and stained with an atomic palette of chartreuse and mustard streaks.
The wasteland ahead of me is perversely inviting. Coils of brittle rope lava twist like taut sinews, expressing a violent anger responsible for shaping Iceland’s beautifully savage landscape.
Small fishing village Grindavik has the closest campsite to the site, one of the newest and best equipped in the country. At night, hungry strategists fill the large kitchen with clattering pans, whirring laptops and crumpled paper maps, creating a scene that sits somewhere between the Cabinet War Rooms and MasterChef.
Looking for clear patches of sky and sunshine symbols, we decide to head south to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach the following day. Its basalt column cliffs and solitary sea stacks found fame in Game Of Thrones, but in October – when temperatures are much cooler – fewer set-jetting location fans have turned out. Alone, I sit and watch waves fail to wash the onyx sand clean and take shelter in a cave with a rocky roof shaped like tubular bells.
Another popular black sand stretch lies further east at our next stop, the Jokulsarlon glacier lake. Backed by steep, serrated mountains forging into the sweeping snow scenes of Vatnajökull National Park, this is one of the most scenic sections of the Ring Road.
A holding bay of bergs and floes preparing to make their final journey out to sea, the glacial lake is a spectacle. But even more impressive is Diamond Beach opposite (above), where sculpted blocks of ice shimmer like gems on the shore.
One of the main pleasures of camper van trips is the freedom to change plans at the last minute – staying longer in a destination if the mood takes you, or making a rapid exit if situations turn sour.
When the weather map indicates a whiteout is on the way, we prepare to return west. And it’s during a night spent at Camping Hofn, where cooking is done on our own stoves outdoors and coin operated showers cost €2 for six minutes, that our van starts to rock – but fortunately not roll.
Paying attention to the elements is essential in Iceland. A tablet uploaded with live maps and a chat room service sits on our dashboard, ensuring we’re aware of any warnings, road closures and possible travel delays. Driving back towards capital city Reykjavik, cars abandoned in sidings hint at the dangers of driving carelessly and too fast.
Take it slowly and sensibly, however, and there’s nothing to worry about. In fact, during our six-night trip the only vaguely life-threatening episodes involve arguments about duvet hogging and who can get into their pyjamas first. (Realistically, only one person can perform a manoeuvre at a time.)
But if you’re willing to compromise on sleeping space, the benefits of winter camper-vanning are manifold: fewer crowds and greater freedom signpost the perfect road trip.