Iceland Ring Road: Planning, Logistics, and Favorite Sights

Besides our impromptu weekend camping trips, I can’t think of any vacation that Pie and I have done that has been a kick-back-and-relax type of vacation. Our vacations, both big and small, are always action-packed, and our 12-day Ring Road trip in Iceland this past August was one of our most epic, action-packed trips to date. To catch up on the amazing sights we saw on our Iceland trip, including seeing an active volcano with lava, start reading here: Iceland Ring Road Day 1: Fagradalsfjall Volcano.

With our action-packed vacations comes lots of planning! Although there are many articles and blogs already out there that have certainly done an amazing job of putting together tips for planning a Ring Road trip around Iceland, I thought I would share our experience of how we planned our trip. If you’re planning a Ring Road trip, read on! If not, skip ahead through the photos because this will be one heckin’ long and detailed post!

>>Putting together a to-do list

If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m the planner in the relationship, while hubby is a “wing it as you go” type. I don’t like for our vacations to feel too structured with minute-by-minute agendas or anything, but I do like to go into a trip having a list of things that would be nice to see/do; that way, we don’t waste time planning during or trip or leave the destination entirely without seeing something we wished we had known about ahead of time.

With our Iceland trip, I hadn’t done much planning when, five weeks before our trip, we were bamboozled by the discovery that hubby’s passport was expired. We honestly had very little optimism that hubby would get his passport in time, so all of the planning for our trip ceased immediately.

When hubby’s passport did actually arrive, with days to spare for our trip, I feverishly began putting together our trip and quickly learned that planning a trip on Iceland’s Ring Road was going to require figuring out many details that I wished we hadn’t waited until the last, panicked minute to research.

It was impossible for me to wrap my head around how to organize and prioritize the many sights we could see in Iceland. With most trips, we have a “home base” and can just prepare of list of several attractions nearby to pick from each day.

With our 825-mile Ring Road journey, we were going to wake up in a different spot everyday for two weeks, so not only was there a lot of ground to cover for sightseeing, but the old saying “you snooze, you lose” was very applicable; it’s not like we could back track on a sight we might have missed along the way. We would need to identify sights all around the island and somehow figure out time and distance between sights, as well as estimated time that each sight might need for visiting, that way we would know how many sights we could actually fit into our allotted 12 days along the Ring Road.

Never mind the fact that I simply didn’t have the time (or patience) to figure out all these details in the week prior to our trip, clearly, I was overthinking how to go about our trip!

Eventually, I settled on just committing the time to painstakingly input most of the recommended attractions I had found from various blogs, websites, and social media and onto a “Google My Map” I created from my Google Drive. Due to the unfamiliar and weird names of Icelandic sights, all the sight names started to blur together during my fast-paced, binge researching, so I very briefly relooked up each sight to see if it was worth visiting (mostly based on photos) and then gave it a special color on my Google My Map if it was something we should definitely make time for. This ended up helping a great deal to filter down the sights we should try to see and visualize the areas with highest concentrations of sights, that way if we did have time for additional sights, we could easily look at our map and see what was nearby.

>>WiFi

This leads me to the next, very important part of our Ring Road trip – WiFi. We were able to rent a portable WiFi device from our vehicle rental place and they threw it in for free! Even if the device had cost us a daily fee, we would have paid whatever price it cost. During our last trip to Iceland in 2018, hubby had purchased an international cell phone plan that included data and it was such a hassle to only use one phone and to worry about how much data we were using. With the WiFi device, we had unlimited, fast internet for all of our devices (cell phones, tablet, and laptop) and we were also able to do texts and calls back home over WiFi. The only downside is that we were unable to call Icelandic phone numbers, which we found out the hard way on day 9 of our trip when we had car troubles.

The rental place told us that we would have WiFi coverage pretty much anywhere we had cell phone coverage. This was confusing because back home in Colorado, U.S.A., we often lose cell phone coverage any time we are driving on remote roads between towns or in the mountains (which seemed to describe all of Iceland), so we fully expected to only have WiFi in the small towns along the Ring Road. It turned out that we had better WiFi coverage in Iceland than we do cell/data coverage back home in Colorado! The longest stretch of time we lost WiFi coverage was during day 6 and day 7 of our trip through the very remote and quiet northeastern region of Iceland. If we had traveled to the remote highlands of Iceland, we would have also likely lost coverage, but most of our trip was on the Ring Road itself. We even had WiFi coverage during every hike we did; we just had to remember to bring our portable battery pack along on hikes and connect it with the USB charging cord that came with the WiFi device.

Having a portable WiFi device on our trip was absolutely essential. It allowed us to pull up our curated Google My Map on our phones and see what was nearby to visit. It made it much more manageable to research just a few sights at a time each day. This still required some guesswork of figuring out what we would have time for and not getting overzealous with the number of sights we visited in an area because we obviously didn’t want to run out of time and have to pass up several sights at the end of the trip.

Our portable WiFi device was very small and reliable.

>>Driving clockwise vs. counter-clockwise

One of the first big decisions we had to make about our Ring Road trip was whether we would drive it clockwise or counter-clockwise.

It didn’t seem like it would make much of a difference which way we drove, besides the obvious fact that if we did run out of days checking off sights on our to-do list, we might end up having to rush through some sights at the end. We were optimistic that we would get through everything we wanted to get through on our sightseeing list, since 12 days seemed more than plenty according to most articles; however, if we ran the Ring Road counter-clockwise and we did have to skip something, the Westfjords was an easy thing to scratch off the end of the list because many articles had said that it was best to dedicate a minimum of three days in the Westfjords and this area could even be made into its own trip. If we didn’t have time for the Westfjords, we would just have an excuse to come back to Iceland!

One blogger whose trip I read about, planned which direction they would drive the Ring Road trip based on weather and how much the rain would impact certain sights that might fall on certain days. Weather was not a concern for our trip and I was glad to see that most of our trip was going to have cloudy days, which I preferred because they are easier to photograph than sunny days.

Another consideration was saving the best sights for last, but this also wasn’t something that was of importance to us. I personally ended up enjoying our south coast sights the most, but I can’t say that it would have mattered to me whether I saw these at the beginning or end of our trip.

Ultimately, we didn’t decide which direction to drive the Ring Road until our trip actually started and it was based simply on the fact that we had visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano first, which is south of the main city of Reykjavik. After a long day at the volcano, the only campsite we found that night was a campground that was on the south coast, so it made sense to just continue driving counter-clockwise.

In hindsight, we still have no preference or additional wisdom for which way the Ring Road should be driven and we have no complaints with the counter-clockwise direction we chose.

>>Camping

One of the most popular ways to do Iceland’s Ring Road is to rent a camper van to drive and camp along the way. Another popular option is to rent a “regular” vehicle and find hostels or hotels to stay at along the way.

We had chosen our trip to Iceland with the sole intention of being able to do a socially distanced camping trip while in a pandemic, so we really liked the idea of being in our own little “home on wheels” for the entire two weeks, but there were a lot of things to consider with this option.

First of all, renting a camper van may seem like a more budget-friendly option than the combined costs of renting a vehicle and getting a hostel or hotel, but it isn’t! We had chosen one of the more expensive 4WD vehicles for our trip, but even the less-expensive 2WD camper vans were quite expensive for the daily rate and cost more than lodging options.

Second of all, while we are used to being able to camp almost anywhere in the backcountry areas of Colorado for free, this is not the case in Iceland. In response to an increase in tourism, Iceland banned “wild” camping several years ago in order to reduce the impact on their beautiful environment and land.

Camping is now only allowed in designated campgrounds, which can be found abundantly around the Ring Road. The campgrounds usually have much better amenities than we are accustomed to in the United States, such as bathrooms, showers, kitchens, and even laundry facilities in some places, but this all comes at a steep cost! It varies at each campground, but we spent approximately $15-$20 USD per person, per night, and often times, amenities such as showers were an additional fee. Needless to say, between our vehicle cost and campground fees, we definitely didn’t choose the cheaper option of traveling the Ring Road, but it was still worth it!

One other, less popular option is choosing a really cheap vehicle (that you cannot camp in) and to set up a tent at the campgrounds (which would still require the camping fee), but the huge disadvantage of this option is dealing with the weather. Iceland can have brutal rain and wind, even during their “best” time of year (July-August), so we were glad to have the protection of our vehicle while we slept at night. We only ran into a handful of people using tents for camping along the Ring Road; sometimes this was people who had only rented a car and other times it was bicyclists traveling the Ring Road via two wheels.

The other reason we chose to camp along the Ring Road instead of finding hostels and/or hotels is we liked the idea of not needing to book a room in advance or planning to be at a certain place/time during the trip. With Iceland having so many campgrounds, we were able to complete whatever sights/attractions we could fit in for the day and then not worry about where we would sleep for the night until we were done with our last sight.

When we went through our first experience of finding a campground after our long day of hiking to the volcano on the first day, we hadn’t realized that finding campgrounds in Iceland was as easy as searching for “camping” in Google Maps. Instead, we had initially relied on a popular camper van rental website that had a list of campgrounds, and one by one, we manually tried to figure out what was closest to our current location, which didn’t seem like much that first night. We settled on a campground that was a brutal, two-hour drive away, only to find out later in our trip, there were more options closer to where we were.

Finding out we could “Google” for campgrounds was a game changer. We found out right away from our campsite on the first night, that most campgrounds in Iceland are just big fields where it’s a free-for-all for parking, and these fields were most often not in scenic areas, but rather just random locations in the towns. Once we found that we could “Google” our campground, we were able to look at reviews, photos, and amenities to at least try to pick something that looked interesting.

In fact, later in our trip, we went from planning our day around sights/attractions to planning our day around the campground we wanted to end up at at the end of the night, which is how we ended up at a campground in the Westfjords with a gorgeous waterfall and stream that was one of our two favorite campgrounds of the entire 11 nights we spent on the Ring Road.

One disadvantage of camping along the Ring Road was that it ended up not being as socially distanced as we had envisioned. Another fun fact about me is that I’ve never been relaxed about germs or people being in my personal space… ever… even pre-pandemic. Being thrown back out in the public after isolating for so long was especially hard on me for my social anxiety and germophia.

Unlike the camping we do in Colorado, where we can “wild” camp purposefully far away from people, with Iceland’s camping, we had no choice but to be in crowded campgrounds. I even think that we had been able to experience Iceland’s Ring Road during a relatively low tourism period and it was still a bit much in regards to the number of people.

During our second night camping, we learned that if there was even a mere five feet of space next to our vehicle, someone else would certainly move in right in next to us, and it didn’t matter whether it was late or early or if there were plenty of other spots to park.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, having to share public facilities, such as bathrooms, sinks, kitchens, and showers everywhere we went was the opposite of what we were trying to achieve in regards being cautious in a pandemic. This should have been something obvious to us before the trip, but somehow, we overlooked this! Thankfully, almost every campground we went to actually seemed relatively clean, but this still didn’t stop me from panicking about germs non-stop. In hindsight, it was probably too soon for me to have done a vacation of this type during the pandemic, but we survived!

>>Camper Van

After deciding we would camp along the Ring Road, our next decision was deciding on a vehicle rental company and vehicle. Hubby had been put in charge of finding a vehicle for our trip and he had chosen to rent from Kuku Campers, specifically because they had a 4WD vehicle (Land Rover Defender) for a competitive price that would not only have the capabilities of doing Iceland’s f-roads (the roads in the highlands that require a 4WD vehicle), but would also have enough ground clearance for crossing rivers.

I had also agreed it would be cool if we could get off the Ring Road to do some of the f-roads and cross rivers, but when I found out the particular vehicle he had chosen (and conveniently already booked), I begged him to call the company back up and get something more roomy and sensible, like an actual camper van. There were few photos of the Land Rover Defender that hubby had chose (because, understandably, not many people rented this vehicle), and from what few photos I could find, it didn’t seem like this vehicle would have much room in the back for lounging/cooking/sleeping. Hubby was so excited about his choice though and was looking forward to the adventures we could do in it.

When we arrived to pick up our vehicle, I had hoped the vehicle would be more roomy in person than it appeared in the few photos of it I could find online, but it was exactly as cramped as I had expected! We debated again whether to switch to a more sensible vehicle and one with an automatic transmission (so I could help drive), but we were eager to hit the road and had no idea if the company would even have other options that last minute anyway, so we decided to just go with it.

The Land Rover Defender ended up not being as bad as we had expected it to be, although it did take a few days to get used to. While we never got used to how cramped the front seats were, which had less legroom than airline seats, we did get used to sleeping in the vehicle. We had even brought our own tent on the trip as a back up in case we got sick of folding and unfolding ourselves into the three feet of space above our heads in the back of the vehicle for sleeping, but by we ended up only using the tent once.

It also helped that the vehicle had a heater that came in handy to turn on as we were settling in for the night or waking up. It wasn’t too terribly cold in Iceland during our mid-August trip, but turning the heat on was a nice comfort that we enjoyed treating ourselves to to feel cozy.

On the ninth day of our Ring Road trip, we experienced car troubles and had to trade in our Land Rover for camper van. As much as I should have been excited that we were switching out our cramped vehicle for a comfy van (the type of vehicle I had begged hubby to get from the very start), I was actually really sad. The Land Rover had gotten us all the way around the Ring Road and we had created so many amazing memories with it. Furthermore, we never got the chance to actually do anything in the Land Rover that really required 4WD, although we did try a couple of roads that claimed to require a 4WD vehicle.

However, the camper van ended up being the luxury I had dreamt of having for our Ring Road trip. It was so convenient to not have to haul our luggage from the backseat to the front seat (or set on the ground outside) every morning and night in order to make room for sitting/sleeping/cooking. The camper van also came with a small sink and faucet, which certainly helped for cooking and having a back-up drinking water source. With the Land Rover, we depended on a few large bottles of water that we originally purchased from the grocery store and we had to constantly refill at the campgrounds.

>>Laundry

There are few (if any) laundromats along the Ring Road, and while a few campgrounds have washing machines, we knew it would be challenging to find time to do laundry if other campers were using the one or two machines at a campground.

Furthermore, dryers are not common at the campgrounds, so even if we were able to snag a washing machine, it was going to be a chore to dry several day’s worth of clothing for two people in a wet environment.

Before the trip, we had briefly considered the idea of renting an Airbnb with a washer and dryer midway through the Ring Road for one night, just so we could do laundry, but we really didn’t want our trip to be tied down by having to get to a certain place by a certain date/time. And we were glad we hadn’t gone that route since so many unpredictable things had already happened in just the first few days of our trip.

If worst came to worst, we would just re-wear our dirty clothes and wait until we arrived at Iceland’s second biggest city, Akureyi, on the north coast to try to find a laundromat.

I had packed a lot of clothes for our trip, but on the morning of our fifth day, we both already had to start thinking about how and where we could do laundry. We got really lucky and found out there was a place in the town we were currently in at the time, Höfn, that just happened to have a commercial laundry service (that seemed to do towels and other items in large quantities for hotels) and two recent reviews claimed that that the place was willing to do a few loads of personal laundry. We didn’t even care what the price was for this service! We were so thrilled that we not only found a laundry place, but we could also go off and have fun while someone else washed and dried our laundry. Priceless!

We don’t know what we would have done if we had not found this place to do laundry because our internet searches prior to the trip yielded no convenient laundry services like this or laundromats. Although we could have intentionally sought out campgrounds that had laundry machines (something that I didn’t think was easily to search for initially until I learned you could “Google” campgrounds), we ended up unintentionally only staying at one campground in the northeast region (Borgarfjörður Eystri) that had a washing machine. No one else happened to be using the washing machine at the time we were there, but we had zero energy or motivation to do laundry either the night or morning while we were there. Plus, we were glad we didn’t have to sacrifice activities for the day in order to spend time doing laundry.

>>Grocery Shopping and Cooking

While we cannot comment on restaurants along the Ring Road, we can comment on grocery stores and cooking in campgrounds. The most common advice we heard for our Ring Road trip was to do grocery shopping at the Bónus stores any time we passed by one because these stores would have the best prices. This advice made me panic and think that there would be no other grocery stores along the Ring Road or that Bónus would be the only grocery store with a decent select of groceries, but this was not the case at all. We found that just about every town had a grocery store of some sort (Nettó and Krónan were two other common grocery stores) and it was never too difficult to find groceries. As far as cost, everything in Iceland seemed to be expensive, so it was all the same to us no matter what grocery store we went to.

There seemed to be about the same selection of groceries at every grocery store, but Iceland certainly didn’t have the huge selection of groceries we are used to having in the United States. To further complicate things, it was very challenging to identify some food items in the Icelandic language. Iceland has many meats which we are not accustomed to eating in the United States and we were worried we were going to pick something exotic that we were not okay with eating, so for the most part, we tried to stick to simple meals like pastas, hamburgers, and sandwiches. We used the Google Translate app on hubby’s phone, which enabled us to use the phone camera to “scan” items and translate text immediately to English while we were shopping. This saved us from accidentally buying horse or puffin meat (not joking) for our lunch sandwich meats and to also pick familiar cheeses.

While it would have been ideal to stock up on our favorite items every time we came to one of the bigger cities that had a slighter better selection of groceries, we could only buy so many groceries at once due to space constraints in the vehicle and refrigeration limitations. Both vehicles we rented during our trip, (the Land Rover and the camper van) had small electric coolers to store refrigerated items, but the coolers only produced cool air while the vehicle was running, which wasn’t for a very large part of the day, so nothing really stayed cool in the cooler. We had found ice at the very first grocery store we visited in Selfoss to try to keep our perishable groceries cooler for longer, but we were unable to find ice at any other grocery store in Iceland (besides Reykjavik).

One additional small thing to note about groceries is that our vehicle rental place, as well as one of the campgrounds we visited, had shelves where campers could leave leftover food and other items (toilet paper, sponges, a butane canister or two if you were lucky, etc.) behind at the end of their trip for other campers to use. When we first arrived at our vehicle rental place, there were slim pickings on the shelf and nothing good enough to take, but later when we traded vehicles out after having vehicle problems, there must have just been an influx of campers dropping off their vehicles because the shelves were overflowing with food! Most of the food items we would have personally not trusted to take opened leftovers of during a pandemic (to each his own), but there were other items that would have been helpful to not have to purchase a large quantity of at the store (like cooking oil, condiments, and spices).

The vehicle we rented came with a small one-burner butane stove, a few pots and pans, plates, cups, and a few other essential kitchen utensils, which was basically everything we needed for cooking. We had to buy our own butane canisters at the convenience/gas stores and we probably went through about three of these canisters.

Our Land Rover Defender had space in the back of the vehicle that folded up for sitting/cooking during the day time, and folded down for sleeping at night, but we found this back area too crammed for cooking, so it wasn’t uncommon for hubby to cook our meals on the ground beside our vehicle. When we obtained the camper van at the end of the trip, we found it very easy to cook in the back of the van (making sure to keep the doors cracked for ventilation and safety reasons with the gas cooking stove). Most (if not all) of the campgrounds we stayed at also had small shared kitchens with sinks and ovens/stoves, but we rarely used the kitchens except for filling up our water because they were much too crowded for our liking.

We had avoided restaurants on the Ring Road because we were trying to be cautious with the pandemic still going on, but we also never passed by any restaurants that seemed tempting enough to stop at. Another reason we avoided restaurants is because it would have taken up precious time we could have spent seeing sights or getting to a campground early enough to get a good spot. Ironically, even when there was a campground during the middle of our trip that had a restaurant on site that we were super excited to eat at after a long day of hiking and traveling, we still didn’t eat at it! It turned out that the menu at this remote place had some very unique and expensive “local flavor” that we took a hard pass on.

An example of two leftover food pantries, one at our vehicle rental place and another at a campground.
An example of a kitchen at a campground.
A restaurant at a remote campground with very local cuisine.

>>Showering & Bathrooms

Full disclosure, there is absolute nothing glamorous about doing Iceland’s Ring Road trip if you’re camping! Hubby and I are avid campers and when we camp, it’s never in campgrounds, so we are used to some of the modern conveniences that you give up when camping in the wild, such as toilets, showers, and sinks. In Iceland, we were actually spoiled with the fact that not only do the campgrounds have flushable toilets, but they have nice bathrooms with sinks and mirrors, as well as showers.

The most we have ever camped in Colorado is a couple of nights, so we have never had to go very long without a shower. We weren’t sure how we were going to handle possibly not showering for several days on the Ring Road if the showers were expensive, busy, had no privacy, or just didn’t exist altogether, but it ended up not being as dramatic of a issue as we thought it might be.

We thought that we might have to find showers at the community hot springs/pool facilities, but every campground we stayed at along the Ring Road had showers available. Whether they were free or not was a different story. For the most part, showers were not free and would cost an additional fee of $3- $5 USD. To use the paid showers, we also had to have Icelandic kronur coins. We usually had coins on us, but if we didn’t, most times we could also ask the camp host to add showers to our campground fee so we could get coins in return.

From our experience, the showers were never really busy enough to deter us from taking a shower when we wanted one, but that might have been because we vacationed during a pandemic when tourism seemed to be relatively low.

Most of the showers in the campgrounds had full privacy and only the showers at hot springs/pool/spa facilities did not have privacy, but since this is commonplace in Iceland, there isn’t much to stress about when taking a shower with others.

I’ll admit that hubby definitely took more showers than me, as I found that it was inconvenient to have wet hair or I was just plain lazy at the end of the day. I also mostly only took showers when they were free because the cost didn’t seem worth it to me.

Bathrooms on the Ring Road also ended up not being as big of an issue as we had expected. In fact, we had brought along our small portable toilet seat that we use for camping back home in Colorado, thinking it might come in handy if we were on a long stretch of road with no bathroom for miles. Thankfully, we ended up never needing this and obviously every campground had very nice bathroom facilities that we made sure to use before hitting the road.

Inevitably though, there was a lot of roadside peeing, which hubby and I are no strangers to from our camping experience back home. While we were on the road, I also made sure to store all of my used toilet paper in a plastic bag that could be emptied every time we reached a campground.

A non-private, outdoor shower at some hot tubs we visited. I hadn’t taken a shower in two days, so this was a welcome sight!

>>Our Favorite Sights/Activities

Last, but certainly not least, I wanted to share our favorite sights/activities of our Ring Road trip. Obviously, the Fagradalsfjall volcano was the absolute best sight that we have seen and ever will see in our entire lives, but I’m not going to count that since the volcano is sadly over and done and not an option for Ring Road sightseeing.

>>Favorite Hike: (tie!) Múlagljúfur Canyon and Stuðlagil Canyon

>>Favorite Beach: Diamond Beach

>>Favorite Waterfall: Dyjandi

>>Favorite Campground: Þakgil

>>Favorite Don’t-Even-Have-To-Leave-The-Vehicle Sight: Green Lava Fields

>>Favorite Non-Nature Attraction: Skool Beans

>>Favorite Relaxing Activity/Sight: Hoffel Hot Tubs

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