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ON TOP OF THE WORLD: GLACIER HIKING IN ICELAND

Mary Kujawski
glacier hiking in iceland

So!

You’re thinking about hiking a glacier in Iceland, are ya now?

If the word on the street is indeed true, you are in luck, for you have come to the right place!

Yes, if you find yourself in magical Iceland, whose unique landscape is abundantly rich and diverse, then one of the things you must put at the top of your To-Do List while visiting is a hike atop a frozen glacial wonderland!

And in Iceland, you will find plenty a frozen glacial wonderland to do just that!

I mean, they don’t call Iceland the Land of Fire and Ice for nothing!

There’s truly nothing like the experience of glacier hiking, and I highly recommend you take this thinking of yours and turn it into a reality, stat!

But first, let’s talk about the glorious ice and what you can expect if you go!

Click here to check out our selection of glacier adventures!

A LITTLE ICELAND GLACIER 411

glacier in iceland
Love the juxtaposition here!
Mossy mountain meets ashy glacier meets brilliant blue sky!

Before we get into what it’s like to hike one, I suppose we ought to cover what a glacier is, exactly?

Well.

A glacier is a “slowly moving mass or river of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains or near the poles.”

(Takk fyrir, Google Dictionary.)

And in Iceland?

In Iceland, glaciers and ice caps account for almost 11% of its land mass! Pretty incredible, giving you all the more reason to make sure you cozy up to one during your travels there!

I mean, it’s not every day you encounter a glacier!

These are opportunities to be seized!

Yes, Iceland is home to over a dozen glaciers of varying size. The largest, Vatnajökull, covers 8% of Iceland!

But for our particular adventure, we found ourselves headed for Sólheimajökull, which is part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap in Southern Iceland.

A quick lesson in Icelandic…

The Icelandic word “jökull“ means glacier in English. So, when you see words like Langjökull, Eyjafjallajökull, and Mýrdalsjökull on your Iceland map, know that you’re looking at the names of various glaciers!

The same is true when you see the Icelandic word “foss”, which means waterfall in English. There are a myriad of waterfalls in Iceland, and you’ll be able to distinguish these on a map as well now that you know the “rule”: Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss, Svartifoss, etc.

The more you know!

PREPARATION TIME!

glacier tour company in iceland
It all begins here!
Go on, get comfy on that plastic folding chair perched atop the gravel!

On our trip to Iceland, we wanted to be sure to enjoy an array of eco-adventures, and glacier hiking was at the top of our wish list!

Just as with our Silfra snorkeling adventure, it all began in a parking lot! This is a good thing to keep in mind when you are in Iceland and show up for your excursions and tours.

Oftentimes, there is no distinct building or “hub” where you go to meet up for your tour.

Nope.

Instead, you will look for a van with the name of the tour company written on it amongst other tour companies and their respective vans.

Yep, this is no-frills adventuring at its finest!

Our tour was run by the terrific Icelandic Mountain Guides. Here, at their coveted spot in the parking lot, several guides helped us all to the appropriate gear we were going to need for hiking an anicent, ever-moving, and shape-shifting glacier.

Harness? Check.

Crampons? Affirmative.

Badass pickaxe? Roger that.

But as with all Icelandic adventures, suiting up is only half the battle!

Just the beginning of all that awaits!

SAFETY 101

glacier guide in iceland
Our tremendous guide Ian giving us the “how not to fall into a glacial crevasse whilst hiking a glacier” speech.

Once we got all our appropriate gear and suited up with our stylish harnesses, it was time for THE TALK.

You know the one.

The one where your guide goes over all the equipment, and explains why it’s best not to wildly wield your pickaxe about, tempting as it may be.

Where you learn how to affix your crampons and use them to your advantage.

And most importantly? How to survive your glacier hiking experience in one piece.

Your basic do’s and don’ts, if you will.

I’ll admit I had some nerves going into this experience, newbie that I was.

Those quickly dissipated, however. Our guide was able to cover all the information we needed in order to stay safe and have fun on the ice, and answer any questions we had before we even began our ascent.

Peace out, nerves.

YES, CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL

receding glacier in iceland
A stark visual. The glaciers are melting. Quickly.

After our safety talk, it was time for a different serious conversation.

On our way to the tongue of the glacier, we encountered a visual reminder of the effects of global warming and climate change. A lone sign stood upright amongst a pile of rocks, marking the point in the land where the glacier once resided back in 2010.

You can see how far it has receeded in eight years.

Just eight years.

Sobering, right?

The planet is changing.

Iceland is changing.

What will this very spot look like in another 8, 16, or 32+ years?

It’s a reminder to be doing everything we can to mitigate the effects humans are having on our one, precious Earth.

One way to help is to be a sterling steward of Iceland during your travels there.

It’s also a reminder to enjoy Earth’s natural treasures, like glaciers, while we can.

Because sadly? Their existience is in jeopardy.

Their ultimate fate, unknown.

AND WE’RE OFF!

group glacier hiking in iceland
Setting off for the tongue of the glacier. Excitement is reaching a fever pitch!

After our safety talk and equipment check, it was time to make our way onto the glacier with our trusty guide leading the way. Our hike lasted about three hours, in which time there was plenty of picture taking to be had:

couple on a glacier in iceland
Happy as larks to be glacier hiking for the first time! Pretty sure we were made for this!
woman drinking water on a glacier in iceland
Nothing beats the taste of freshly flowing water from a glacier!
I should know. I tried it!
glacier crevasse in iceland
Can you spot the tiny people in this picture?! They’re there, I promise!
Gives you a sense of the absolute enormity of the glacier!

Before we knew it, our time on the glacier was coming to an end, and we were making our way back to the parking lot.

Another bucket list adventure ticked off and another incredible Iceland memory to bring home with us to Minnesota.

I DID IT! I HIKED A GLACIER!
WHAT WERE MY BIGGEST SURPRISES?

ash on a glacier in iceland
Look at all that ash!

SO. MUCH. ASH

Seriously. I was not visually prepared for all the black! It wasn’t how I imagined it would be.

At all.

Before I came to Iceland, I always assumed glaciers were purely white. But this is the Land of Fire and Ice we’re talking about! Not only are there glaciers, but there are also volcanic eruptions, and these two things often coincide. It was an unexpected but extremely cool discovery!

Iceland is just full of the yin and yang. One of the reasons I adore it so!

I FELT SAFE

I want to be clear that I felt safe because I was in the care of a knowledgeable guide. He made it obvious from the get-go that our well-being was his number one job.

Still, I had worried about this activity beforehand and imagined all kinds of scary scenarios that basically involved me falling into deep, icy holes from which I could not escape and in which I would ultimately perish.

Alone. And afraid.

Dramatic, I know.

Luckily, once I was on the glacier and got my bearings, it felt very serene.

Peaceful, even!

I credit our guide for this. I knew I was in good hands, and as such, I could just enjoy the experience.

Let those doomsday thoughts dissolve away!

CRAMPONS ARE THE BOMB

I’d never had to really use crampons before my glacier hike, but boy, oh, boy are those things a marvel of invention!

Here I was, traversing pure ice, often times at the steepest of angles, and I was doing it like it was no thang at all.

No slippin’ and no slidin’.

No sir.

Crampons. Get yourself some. They’ll be offered to you during your hiking tour but you need your own pair at home just because.

They are sincerely the best!

SLEEPY, SLEEPY, SLEEPY

Glacier hiking is a bit exhausting! Add in all that fresh air and mighty Icelandic wind, and after several hours on the glacier I felt like I had been administered a horse tranquilizer. If there had been a cot out on the ice, I would have happily laid down upon it for a long winter’s nap.

Zzzzzzzz.

But this is Iceland!

After our hike we had plenty of other exploring to do.

My winter nap would have to wait.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!

Are you ready to experience this for yourself?

Not quite?

Maybe you still have a few questions, like…

Is glacier hiking safe?

blue ice in iceland
Look at that brilliant shade of blue!
Just don’t fall in getting closer to take a peek!

Most things in life carry some risk. It’s all about weighing that risk with the reward.

Right?

Mother Nature is stunning but can pose potential hazards for the unprepared or foolish. Glaciers are changing by the hour and can be unstable at best in some places. As such, glacier hiking is an activity that you must be smart about.

Like all things, really.

But did it feel inherently dangerous and full of peril?

No.

Stick with your knowledgeable expert guide and you’ll be just fine. Still, you’re going to have to sign that small print on your waiver before you go.

It’s just a formality!

Mostly.

What about ice climbing?

ice climbing on a glacier in iceland
Groups of ice climbers. Wish we would have done this! Next time!

Ice climbing is an option when you book a tour for a glacier hike. Whether or not you add it just depends on how much time and money you have for your tour and what you’re hoping to get out of your experience!

Hiking a glacier was a new experience for us in and of itself and as such felt sufficient for our maiden voyage onto the ice.

That said, watching the ice-climbers that we came across did give me a little twinge of envy. It looks so fun and like the perfect challenge for those seeking a little more “oomph” to their excursion.

Love a little “oomph”?

Then I think you have your answer.

And next time I find myself on a glacier?

We’re totally doing it.

How difficult is it to hike a glacier?

glacier hiking in iceland
That’s a bit of an uphill climb! Oy vey.

This is a rather subjective question, but I will answer with some candor:

Glacier hiking can indeed be a tiring activity!

You won’t find a flat, paved path here!

And if you add in some ice climbing?

Well, all bets are off!

But, if you are a relatively active person and accustomed to trail running or hiking, you should be more than fine.

Just know going in that you will be climbing some fairly steep ascents, hopping over trickling streams and small crevasses, and making your way down some slippery sloping hills.

All while atop ice.

But that’s what your crampons and pickaxe are for!

You aren’t in this alone!

You have some friends to help you!

Can’t I just walk onto a glacier on my own?

glacier hike in iceland
We came across lots of people on the ice. Even a film crew!

Yes, you could.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

In fact, I really, really, really don’t recommend that you do.

Really.

If this is your first time in Iceland or near/on a glacier then forgive me, but you don’t know what you’re doing.

And whenever you don’t know what you’re doing, I always think it’s best to rely on the expertise and guidance of pros who know the lay of the land and how to “read” the glacier, which changes by the day, even the hour!

Their job? To help you have an enjoyable and safe hike.

Money well spent, and you get to go home unscathed.

Win-win.

Is this a family activity? Could my kids do it?

glacier walk in iceland
Once you reach the top of the glacier, portions of the hike are relatively flat.

You will have to check with the tour company you are going with, but as far as I know, kids are welcome to glacier hike with a parents’ supervision and accompaniment.

The important thing that this activity will require is some stamina and endurance. Some kids might struggle with the exertion required, or burn out quickly as glacier hikes are oftentimes 3 hours or more in length.

I love my children dearly, but they would last about two seconds on a glacier:

How much longer?

I’m hungry!

I have to go to the bathroom!

You know your children best, and what they (and you) can handle.

It can certainly be done, and the potential for a great family bonding experience and vacation memory cannot be denied!

YOU’VE MADE UP YOUR MIND AND YOU’RE GOING GLACIER HIKING?
SUPER! WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

Hvar er klósettið? / Where is the bathroom?

glacier walking in iceland
Are we on whole other planet, per chance?! And, errr, where’s the loo?

If you’re going on a guided glacier hike, chances are you’ll be out on the ice for a few hours. At least. And I’m sorry to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bathroom, porta potty, or gas station once you are.

This is the Icelandic wild, after all.

Be sure to make a pitstop right before your tour and you can save yourself some avoidable discomfort.

Like I always tell my children, even if you don’t think you have to go…

…just try.

FUEL UP AND BRING WATER

glacier in iceland
Some of the dips, valleys, and inclines you will encounter on a glacier! This is nature’s workout!

Glacier hiking is hard work! You will be focusing on your footing at all times and traversing a varied and changing landscape of ascents, valleys, and fissures in the ice.

Make sure you’ve had a good meal or at least a hearty snack before you make your way onto the ice. You’ll be burning through your caloric supply like nobody’s business.

Trust.

Halfway through our tour my stomach was growling and I didn’t have a morsel to my name.

But you don’t have to make the same mistakes!

This is the time to think like an Olympian! Be like Michael Phelps and eat all the food!

You’ll be grateful to have the resulting energy!

And don’t forget your reusable water bottle filled to the brim with fresh Icelandic water, for glacier hiking does a thirsty person make!

LOAD UP ON LAYERS

woman smiling on a glacier in iceland
High on life! I’m hiking a glacier for the first time! And wearing ALL the jackets!

This is just good practice for Iceland in general, but is especially true when you are out on a glacier. With the skies ever-changing, you just never know what kind of weather will strike minute to minute.

During our hike we had moments of sunny blue skies and warmth where I was downright sweltering and others with angry clouds, feisty wind, and imminent rain where the chill returned to the air and I couldn’t get my hat and gloves back on fast enough.

I always say that enjoying Iceland to the max means being able to stay comfortable through its changing weather patterns. Dress in layers and you will be able to adjust as you go.

No matter the weather Iceland decides to throw your way that day, it will be no match for your preparedness!

DON’T FORGET YOUR SUNGLASSES AND SUNSCREEN

glacier guide in iceland
Our guide’s future is so bright, he’s gotta wear shades. You were the best, Ian!

Breaking news: glaciers can be really white.

Also, most glaciers are massive.

Which means hiking a glacier is akin to hiking a sea of never-ending blinding light.

You will definitely want to wear a pair of sunglasses on your hike to save yourself from endless squinting.

And wear your sunscreen! The harsh Icelandic wind and cool air can make it easy to forget you’re essentially out there on the ice just baking in the sun.

For hours.

But that’s exactly what you’re doing, and your sunburn will be your souvenir to show for it if you don’t protect your skin.

Lather up!

FINAL THOUGHTS

glacier hike in iceland
Iceland, you are magnificent.

Glacier hiking, like so many other activities one can do in Iceland, is just an absolutely stunning, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Plus?

It’s just super cool.

(Yes, pun totally intended.)

Glacier hiking and/or ice climbing is simply one of the best ways to enjoy one of the most spectacular aspects of Iceland’s landscape and as such, cannot be missed!

Even our Icelandic travel agent recommended that if there’s one thing we ought to do when we visit, it should be a glacier hike.

And when a native Icelander gives you advice, you listen!

Yes, I highly recommend you make glacier hiking a part of your itinerary as well, whether you are doing an entire Ring Road adventure or simply covering South Iceland.

It’s the kind of experience that will leave you in awe and wonder at just how truly stunning Iceland is and have you feeling pure gratitude and joy.

From your head down to your little crampon-covered toes.

Want to go glacier hiking or ice-climbing? Nordic Green Travel has you covered! Let them know when they are creating a custom itinerary for you that you’d like to add this activity to your trip and they will take care of the rest. Interested in a self-drive tour? You can peruse Nordic Green Travel’s various options here.

About the author

Mary Kujawski