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Tourist Mistakes in Iceland and how to avoid them

Tourist Mistakes in Iceland and how to avoid them

Reynisfjara Iceland Warning Sign

Getting lost on an ice sheet, driving a 6-hour detour, or literally finding yourself after an intense search, all this happened in recent years since Iceland became such a popular tourist destination. In this blog post, we discuss past Tourist Mistakes in Iceland and what you can learn from them. Be sure to listen to our podcast episode for more detailed information and some fun as well.

We hope you don’t get lost in Iceland but if you get into trouble, the Search & Rescue Team in Iceland will be there for you. They work on a voluntary basis so please consider supporting them.

Mistake 1 – Ignore Warning Signs

One of the most important warning signs can be found on Reynisfjara, also called Black Sand Beach.

Several fatal accidents happened in the last couple of years when visitors got caught by a so-called sneaker wave. An invisible underground cliff has a very strong pulling effect on the waves, which makes them incredibly powerful and can easily sweep an adult out to sea.

Reynisfjara Iceland Warning Sign
The Warning Sign at Reynisfjara, Black Sand Beach in South Iceland. It often gets ignored.

As the water is very cold so hypothermia sets in quickly. Since you’ll probably wear a few thick layers, drowning is likely as well.

Other important warning signs include the one below which you can find around geothermal active areas like Geysir. They include the word HÆTTA which is Icelandic for Danger or Hazard. The temperature of 100 degrees refers to Celcius, boiling point.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a traveler, even a famous one, in this case, steps too close to a boiling spring in Iceland.

Please be extra careful around Geothermal Hot Springs, especially when it is dark outside. Read the signs around you carefully and ALWAYS stay on the walking path.

Mistake 2 – Trusting your GPS more than your instinct

First: A lot of places and towns in Iceland have the same name. So it is common that street names can be found in different towns over the country.

An example shows the story of a New Yorker in 2016. He drove a 6-hour detour and ended up at Laugavegur in Siglufjörður, North Iceland, instead of Laugavegur in the capital Reykajvík.

Photo by Tabea Damm on Unsplash

Although this story is an extreme example of getting lost, GPS and Icelandic names can cause a lot of confusion when you are trying to find a route. Google doesn’t always show closed streets, so you can drive long detours and end up at a dead end.

Follow the street signs, they are pretty clear most of the time. While planning your trip, check Google Maps and save the distance and time you need to drive to your destinations. When in doubt, ask around whenever you see a small town or farm. Icelanders are usually very friendly and helpful.

Mistake 3 – Going on the wrong adventure

Everything in Iceland looks like an adventure, breathtaking nature invites visitors to explore further and further. But if you go too far, you might drift apart into the unknown.

In 2013 a group of American tourists had to be rescued at the Glacier Lagoon from a drifting iceberg that broke off from land. They had a picnic with chairs and a table, very calm and unaware of the danger.

iceberg iceland mistake tourists
Photo by rolf gelpke on Unsplash

Icebergs can flip over any time. It is not safe, ever, to walk on floating icebergs. It was not the first and the last time that tourists venture out on the Glacier Lagoon.

Even if it looks safe at the moment of your visit, it never is. It is never safe to walk on icebergs and ice sheets. Keep your distance where you can take breathtaking pictures without putting yourself and others in danger.

Mistake 4 – Stacking stones and destroying the landscape

Something that hit Iceland a few years ago is the trend of Cairns. In the old days, Icelanders created these stone cairns as a kind of GPS and guidance. You see, a few 100 years ago, when the weather was really bad (which it btw often is in Iceland) and roads were unpaved, Icelanders used those piles of rock to mark the way, specific places.

However, a few years back, travelers started to build cairns as a symbol of good luck, and it pretty much got out of hand. In some areas in the countryside, you can see hundreds of those stacks, which really destroys the landscape

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iceland tourist mistakes cairns
One of the old and helpful cairns – Kleifabui Statue at Kleifaheidi Pass (Photo by us)

The number 1 Honest Iceland rule, in case you did not know, leave every place as you find it. But if there is trash, please pick it up. Leave Icelandic nature as untouched as possible. That includes cairns. 

You can find a guiding stone cairn in the Westfjords; one huge stone statue in the shape of a man, with an arm pointing in the direction of the road. It is called Kleifabui Statue at Kleifaheidi Pass and shows the way from Barðaströnd to Patreksfjarðarbotn. The statue serves as a guard and protector for travelers.

Mistake 5 – Camping wild and leaving trash

In 2015 a group of visitors made one of the more destructive mistakes in Iceland. Not only camped in Thingvellir National Park, which by now at least is strictly prohibited. They also ripped out the ancient moss that needs hundreds of years to grow, to insulate their tent. In a post on Facebook, it is stated that the park rangers gave these individuals strong words of advice so they left the park.

tourist mistakes iceland
Photo by Þjóðgarðurinn á Þingvöllum / Thingvellir National Park on Facebook

Wild camping in Iceland is illegal, although there are a few exceptions. For instance, if you far from the road (in the highlands), if you have permission from the landowner if you are on a hiking trip and you have permission from the park ranger.

Please don’t camp in someone’s backyard. That actually has had happened in the past. Most farms and the land around it privately owned in Iceland. Don’t camp wild and always use campgrounds. Check availability in campgrounds before you start your trip. Avoid mistakes like this in Iceland and inform your fellow travelers.

Tourist Mistakes in Iceland Conclusion

There are of course more mistakes travelers made in Iceland. Some have only an effect on you and your budget, others are dangerous or even fatal. Use your common sense when you travel the country. If something looks dangerous, it probably is. So don’t go climbing down on waterfalls to get the perfect picture.

Stay on the walking path and do not step over the fence. Those fences are there to protect the fragile vegetation and you from falling down a cliff or other. As we mentioned many times before, bring your own refillable water bottle and don’t forget to pack your swimsuit.

If there is a storm warning, listen to the authorities and don’t venture out on the road. Your trip might be shortened, but you stay alive and healthy and avoid having to get rescued.

Dress accordingly. You can find a packing list free to download HERE.

Steffi & Aðalbjörn
avoid in iceland
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