We just got back from a 10 day trip to Iceland and it's safe to say I've fallen in love with a new country. Here's how to camp around Iceland's ring road on a budget!
It's always such a bittersweet feeling when a trip you've been thinking about and planning for months comes to an end. When we booked out flights I honestly didn't know too much about Iceland other than it's expensive and it's beautiful. With the trip being planned for March, I knew it was going to be winter which is also Iceland's off season for tourists.
So because of this I wanted to be as prepared as possible to help minimize our costs and ensure we had an amazing trip and saw everything we could see in the winter. I searched what campsites were open, tried to research where to get the least expensive groceries, looked up tips for getting gas and what attractions were worth it. All of which I'm sharing below!
So if you are thinking about renting a van and driving around the ring road, or if you are just interested in my trip read on to find all my tips for how to drive Iceland's ring road on a budget and leave a comment below if this helped you at all!
Day 1- Arrival, pick up van and the golden circle
Today is a LONG day and if you are arriving from Canada or the United States like we were your flight will most likely land somewhere around 6 am local time meaning you will probably be exhausted. BUT to make the most of your trip (and beat jet lag) you really just need to power through this first day.
We arrived at 6am after a great flight having the entire row to ourselves with Icelandair. The first thing to figure out was how to get into the city. The van company we chose to rent with had an option for free transfer to their location. I would highly recommend taking advantage of this if you have the option because the Keflavik airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik and transportation is EXPENSIVE.
Once we arrived at Cozy Campers to pick up our van, the process was super simple and very quick- we were in and out within 30 minutes! We then stopped at the grocery store and stocked up on some essentials for the van (see the meal plan below for what we bought).
Then we were on the road, heading north towards Thingvellir National Park. I had no idea what driving a big van would be like, especially in another country but honestly it really wasn't difficult and the roads there are great (also if you are planning on driving the ring road there's really only one road so you can't get lost). Once we got to the park we walked around for a little, took a look at the world's oldest existing parliament and admired the rock formations from the tectonic plates.
After we continued driving around the golden circle stopping at Geysir and Gulfoss. Although everything we saw was beautiful my personal favourite part was stopping at Laugarvatn Fontana (thank you Zac Efron's show Down to Earth for the recommendation lol) where we did a bakery tour and got to try freshly baked rye bread with smoked trout and homemade butter (cooked in the geothermal beach!).
We finished off our night pretty early and set up our camp at Gesthus Selfoss campsite.
Day 2- Selfoss->Kirkjubaejarklaustur
After a glorious 12 hour sleep we woke up feeling like new people and were ready to conquer the ring road.
Today is the day you will do most of the typical "need to see" waterfalls in Southern Iceland so it's a pretty unforgettable day.
From Selfoss we got gas (I recommend getting gas whenever your tank goes below ¾ full just because you never know when you'll see the next gas station and it's winter driving so you never know what will happen!) and headed south to Urridafoss. This was a beautiful waterfall that I wasn't as busy as some of the other ones and was a great first stop. Note that once you turn off the main road the sign telling you where to turn is pretty small so you may miss it, but it's the first road on your left! We then continued on to Seljalandsfoss and then Skogafoss (both are insanely beautiful waterfalls). If you are driving to Skogafoss there's a tiny little turf house along the road you can turn off on and go into and then cross the road and see the beautiful Icelandic horses.
After pulling ourselves away from the incredible waterfalls we continued driving to Dyrholaey where we walked around, had an amazing view from above of the beautiful black sand beaches and the crazy ocean waves. We then stopped in Vik to get more gas and get a closer look at the black beaches.
We stayed in Kirkjubaejarklaustur at one of my favourite campsites. It had great private showers, a beautiful view of the mountains and a waterfall and it was super clean!
NOTE: In the winter there aren't TOO many campsites open so make sure you always plan ahead and know where you are trying to stay that night so you don't get stuck at the side of the road (which is illegal in Iceland anyways). We found the map in this post super helpful while planning our route!
Day 3- Kirkjubaejarklaustur -> Hofn
Today the highlight is the crystal blue ice cave tour so we woke up early and started our drive driving backwards on a route a little so we could see Fjaðrárgljúfur. This beautiful canyon was actually closed to tourists for a few years after a huge influx of tourism when Justin Biebers music video came out. So if you do go follow the clearly marked paths and enjoy the view without disturbing the surroundings!
The ice cave tour we booked started at 1pm, so we continued our drive to Jokulsarlon. Otherwise known as the glacier lagoon, this is a lagoon FILLED with huge pieces of the glacier and it's truly amazing to see. Before we took a look at the lagoon, we walked across the street to see the diamond beach- a black sand beach covered with washed up pieces of glaciers making it look like sparkling diamonds.
Conveniently our tour also started from the parking lot of Jokulsarlon so we had a quick lunch in the van and jumped on our tour. If you are debating doing an ice cave tour while in Iceland- DO IT! It was a bit of a splurge for us BUT it's truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Ice caves are something you can only see from October- March and because of global warming they are quickly melting so I would recommend seeing them while you can!
Our tour took about 3 hours, so by this point we wanted to continue on our drive to Hofn. Hofn was the destination of our campsite for the night (camping Hofn) AND Pakkhus an amazing restaurant I would highly recommend. Once again it was a splurge but when are you ever going to get the chance to have fresh langoustine right next to the ocean? If you are on a tight budget I would still recommend trying at least the soup it was about $18 CAD and super yummy.
Day 4- Hofn -> Egilsstadir
This is a huge driving day. But unlike driving days in Ontario this one also provides you with amazingly beautiful views the ENTIRE drive. I seriously think I took about 1000 pictures this day. I think in total if we drove straight through the drive would have taken us about 4 hours. But we stopped to see a few things so this took an entire day.
The first thing I would recommend is Stokksnes a BEAUTIFUL black sand beach next to huge mountains. You do need to pay a $9 USD entry fee per person but this includes entry to the beach, an old farm and a viking village. Since we we had a long drive ahead of us we just walked around the beach and the lighthouse but I think it was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
We continues on our journey to Hvalnes, where we had lunch next to another beautiful view and the first orange lighthouse we saw in Iceland! We then wanted to stop at Djupavogskoiirn, a natural bath next to the road but it was super small and there were already two groups of people so we kept driving! Our next stop was Breiddalsvik a tiny fjord town of only 132 people! There was a cute little cafe where we had a cappuccino and used the washroom before continuing on. Finally we arrived in Egilsttadir which conveniently had a Bonus. Since Bonus became our new favorite place in Iceland we stopped to pick up a few more groceries to last us the rest of the trip.
If you aren't too tired of driving yet and the road conditions aren't bad I would highly recommend driving to Seydisfjordur, another cute, colourful fjord town. If you are going in the winter make sure you check the roads ahead of time. The road drives over mountains so it can get really dangerous if it's too windy or visibility is low! There is a campsite in Seydisfjordur, which would have been a great place to sleep but it's only open in the summer, so we drove back to Egilsstadir to our campsite for the night.
Day 5- Egillsstadir -> Akureyri
Another day of driving, but once again another beautiful drive! The drive from Egilsstadir to Akureyri is about 280 km so it was about 3.5 hours. If you are only driving the ring road most people will break this drive up a bit more to stay a night in Myvatn. Since we wanted to include the Snaefellsnees peninsula we decided to just power through a few days of long drives. This drive takes you through the mountains so you really don't need to stop TOO much because the drive is just so beautiful.
Our stops along the way included Studlagil canyon. I had read online that there are two different ways to see this canyon. There is a recently constructed view point OR there is a 5 km hike (one way) that brings you right to the canyon for a better view (you can google the directions super easily!). Since we hadn't walked a ton we decided to do the hike. After doing the hike would I recommend it to others? In the winter... probably not lol. I think in the summer it would 100% be worth it. The canyon in the winter is still beautiful but it's not the same as what it would look like in the summer. Since the trail isn't fully winter maintained, we were SOAKED and freezing by the end. SO if you are going in winter I would recommend just going to the viewpoint.
Next we continued our beautiful drive, stopping at Dettifoss- Europe's second most powerful waterfall. Another winter note: make sure you get directions to the WEST side of the falls because it brings you to a recently paves, more winter accessible road.
Myvatn is the next area you drive through so you have the option to stop here for the night (apparently it's a good place to see the northern lights too!). We decided to just quickly stop to see the geothermal craters at Hverir and continue our drive.
Our last stop of the day was Godafoss, which was probably one of my favourite waterfalls we saw. In the winter the middle of it was frozen which made it 100x more beautiful.
Finally we arrived at our camp for the night- Camping Hamrar just outside of Akureyri and another great place to try to see the northern lights.
Day 6- Akureyri -> Budardalur
Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland and our drive wasn't going to be too long so we decided to spend the morning exploring it a little! The "downtown" area isn't too big but they had one of the famous hot dog stands so we walked around, stopped at a little cafe to try Icelandic donuts, and then took a look in a bookstore (which I loved) before stopping for hot dogs. I honestly don't know the last time I had a hot dog but if you're in Iceland you NEED to try the hot dogs. They grill the buns and add cool toppings and honestly my opinion of hot dogs has completely changed.
After we filled up on hot dogs, we continued our journey to Budardalur. This part of the trip was the hardest part to plan because there are very few campsites opened in the Snaefellsne peninsula area in the winter. So today was centered around getting as close to the peninsula as we could without having to drive 8 hours. This landed us in Budardalur a cute little ocean side town.
Along the way we tried to stop at Glumbaer to see the turf houses but I didn't check ahead of time to read that in the winter it's only open if you email them first so we just used the washroom and continued on. The next part of our journey brought us to the Erpsstadir creamery, another place you need to call ahead of time in the winter. Thankfully I actually checked this one and sent them a message. This is a family run dairy farm in the Icelandic countryside and it's NOT to be missed. The farmer was so nice he opened up just for us, allowed us to walk around, hang with the cows, see how the farm ran and answered any questions we had. At the end we picked up some of the famous ice cream- we got pistachio, vanilla and bilberry (apparently it's the best in Iceland) and some halloumi cheese all of which were amazing.
We arrived back at our camp (Budardalur campsite) for the night and had a delicious grilled halloumi salad in the van.
Day 7 - Budardalur -> Snorrstadir
Today is dedicated to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, sometimes referred to as "as taste of Iceland." If you are short on time and are only going to see one thing in Iceland I would recommend heading to this peninsula because it really does have a taste of everything- beaches, mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and lots of rainbows!
I fell in love with the peninsula when I first started researching because the names so fun to say but also because it looked beautiful. Let me tell you the in person views did not disappoint! Because we only had one day we sadly had to skip Stykkisholmur. If you have time there's supposed to be a super cute cafe on the water! We drove right to Kirkjufell (the most photographed mountain in Iceland!) honestly it was beautiful but after seeing SO many beautiful things all week I kind of felt this was over-hyped. I would still recommend it but just my honest opinion!
Next we drove to Hellissandur "the street art capital of Iceland" lol. I read online if you have a few extra minutes you should stop here and it was actually really cool. There's a whole little area of this tiny town where the buildings are covered in street art.
The next stop was the Snafellsjokull National Park and I'd recommend to just stop everywhere. There's basically one main road with small roads leading to different sights and all of them are beautiful. We went to Skarosvik (the first golden sand beach we saw!), and wanted to drive to Ondverdarnes and Svortivok but the road was closed sadly.Instead, we drove to the Saxholl crater and walked up to the top in a huge wind storm which was crazy lol. Because the weather was so crazy we also had to skip Dritvik beach but after seeing so many black beaches we weren't too upset. There is a walk between Hellnar and Arnastapi but because it was winter we weren't too sure what the trail conditions would be like and the weather was so unpredictable, we decided to just drive to Arnastapi which I would recommend. There's a whole area you can walk around next to the ocean with BEAUTIFUL views. Our last stops of the day were Bjarnafoss and Budir another waterfall and a super cute little black church where we also saw seals!
We camped for the night at Snorrstadir farm holidays, by far one of my favourite campsites, the facilities were great, the view was great and the families dog was so cute (also we saw the northern lights here so that was also pretty memorable!!)
Day 8 -10: Reykjavik
Day 8 was our last day with our little van 🙁 We woke up pretty early to try to make it to the secret hot springs before anyone else got there. There's instructions on how to get here if you just google 'Snaefellsnes peninsula secret hot springs.' The water temperature in the winter was more warm not hot but it was still such a cool experience and definitely a highlight.
We then drove back to Reykjavik to check into our hotel and drop of the van.
In Reykjavik we stayed at The Grandi Hotel and I would highly recommend it! The hotel just opened in July 2021, it's beautifully decorated, the free breakfast is great and it was a decent price for Reykjavik! It was a tiny bit of a walk to the center of downtown (10-15 minutes) but we didn't mind at all.
Reykjavik was a cute city! It's super walk-able and has AMAZING food and so many restaurant's so this is where all the money we saved in the camper van went out the window a little. See below for my recommendations!
Things to see in Reykjavik:
- Harpa- the beautiful concert hall on the water (also where we got our free COVID tests before coming home).
- Hallgrimskirkja Church- it was closed when we tried to go inside but it's beautiful from the outside
- The rainbow road in front of the church, such a cute street with shopping, cafes and the street represents Iceland's friendliness and acceptance towards the LGBTQ+ community which I loved.
- Grotta lighthouse- about a 45 minute walk from where we were staying it's a great place to see the northern lights if you are downtown and don't have access to a car!
Places to eat:
- Cafe Loki- traditional Icelandic food and a cute little cafe
- OmNom Chocolate- Another Zac Efron's Down to Earth recommendations and it did not disappoint... probably the best chocolate I've ever had and their ice cream is INCREDIBLE (we go the one with almond butter and toffee and it was so good). If you want to stock up on the chocolate before you go home they also had it at duty free!
- LAMB street food- a great place for lunch! We got a falafel wrap and a lamb wrap and both were SO good. The portions were huge and I felt the prices were pretty decent for what we got.
- GLO- a cute place for average priced bowls and healthy options, we actually didn't get to go to the location downtown but we picked up some pre-made salads from them at the airport
- Rok- We LOVED it here so much we came back for both of our dinners while downtown. They serve medium sized plates and recommend getting 2-3 plates per person which we loved because we could try a bunch of things. All of the food was AMAZING and the portions were very good sized. We both highly recommend the basil lemonade and cured reindeer if you're feeling adventurous. Also the decor and overall ambiance of this restaurant is STUNNING.
- Hot Dogs- Like I said before, you can't go to Iceland without having a classic hotdog with all the toppings. Reykjavik has one of the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stands. If I'm being hones this was probably my least favourite of all the hot dogs we had in Iceland but if you're at the end of your trip and still haven't gotten one don't forget to pick up one here!
- Kaldi- A great place if you are looking to get a drink. We actually met up with one of my moms friends who lives in Reykjavik here thanks to his recommendation. It's such a cute little place, with a great vibe, and good drinks (I recommend the pink gin and tonic). The prices were average for alcohol in Iceland. I think the total for a gin and tonic and a beer was $34 which I would compare to downtown Toronto.
Our very last day we had booked the Blue Lagoon before heading to the airport for our 5 pm flight but due to a crazy wind storm the city basically shut down and no buses were running. So sadly we had to cancel it (but this just gives us another reason to go back!). So i can't comment on if it is worth it or not though people at the airport did say it reminded them of a Vegas pool party.. which I'm not sure is my vibe when I want to relax.
Other Iceland Tips
When preparing for the trip we were anticipating food prices in Iceland to be high so we tried to bring as many snacks and non perishables (oatmeal, protein power, instant coffee, Plant Boss (this was gifted to me!) as we could!
For buying groceries once you are there Bonus is the cheapest grocery store and I would highly recommend stocking up there if you can. They are really only in the main cities (Reykjavik, Egilstaddir and Akuyeri) so stop here while you can! Thanks to all the planning for food we actually only spent $70 on food the entire time we were in the van which was a HUGE win!
This is what we ate for our 7.5 days in the van:
- Instant oatmeal with hemp hearts, bananas, skyr (a must try in Iceland!), granola and my favourite protein powder from home
- Instant coffee with milk
- Wraps with cold cuts, cheese and veggies
- Hot dogs- honestly the gas station hot dogs were REALLY good
- Pasta with tomato sauce and Plant Boss meatless crumbles
- Salad with pre-cooked chicken and halloumi
- Chickpea and black bean burritos
- Instant ramen with added veggies
- Hot dogs and canned beans with added veggies
- Bars!- I brought RX bars, Misfits bars (use code NIC20 for 20% off!) and FIX snacks bars
- Trail mix and goldfish crackers
- Chocolate covered oreos (pick these up for sure because they are SO good)
- Fruit- apples, oranges, bananas
- Hot chocolate and tea
- Icelandic water is some of the best water in the world so bring a refillable water bottle and you can fill it up anywhere!
- Alcohol is heavily taxed in Iceland so If you want alcohol make sure you buy it at duty free when you land in Keflavik!
After doing a TON of research looking at all the van rental companies in Iceland, we decided to go with Cozy Campers. I would say they are the "higher end" van rental but we booked when they were having a huge sale so it was 40% off. We also rented towels, and got an inverter so that I could charge my laptop and camera battery!
In the winter you need to make sure you get a 4x4 so that was huge priority for us. We chose the 'Budget- Highlander 4x4' and I loved it. It had absolutely everything we could need including- LED lighting, a heater that kept us warm all night, a sunroof, a sink with running water, and a portable stove. It was super easy to drive and I never felt too cramped!
Looking back I do think we could have gone with a cheaper company (Go campers, Happy Campers and Camp Easy all had the same model van and looked good!) but overall I'm very happy with our first van experience.
We booked our flights in March for two main reasons. It's off season so everything cheaper but the daylight hours are getting longer and we had the chance to see the northern lights. I was a bit hesitant as the trip got closer because there was a huge snowstorm the week before but we got SUPER lucky with the weather. We never really had any days of bad weather the entire day. The weather changes VERY fast. Some days we saw rain, snow, hail, sun and crazy wind all within the span of a few hours but I would say overall we were lucky! If you are going to Iceland in the winter I would recommend checking vedur.is and road.is every single morning before driving to your next destination to check the road and weather conditions!
Overall Cost (in $CAD)- for two people not including flights
- Gas: $650
- Van rental: $2,400
- Campsites: $280 (you pay ~ $15-$20 per person at most campsites, side note: in the winter we didn't need to prebook any!)
- Eating out/ cafes etc. : $600 (this was because we splurged a few nights but you can 100% avoid this if you are really trying to budget). side note: you don't need to tip in Iceland (it;s typically included in the price!)
- Hotel: $400
- Activities: $350
total for 10 days per person: $2,300 (approximately)
Final Thoughts on Driving Iceland's Ring Road on a Budget
Overall it was such an amazing first trip to Iceland and I already want to go back in the summer/ fall to experience all of the things we didn't have time to get to/ couldn't due to the season. Despite my initial hesitation I would highly recommend going to Iceland in March. The weather mostly cooperated, there were less people at the sights, the snow topped mountains and frozen waterfalls were beautiful and we got to see the northern lights (TWICE!). Although it was an expensive trip, I honestly don't regret a single thing. I felt well prepared, didn't ever feel too rushed and felt very safe the whole time.
So if you are debating renting a van and driving around Iceland DO IT! You will not regret it!!
PS. if you want to know a little bit more about me check out this post!