Campervan Rental Iceland Road-Trip: Uncovering the Secrets of Iceland

Campervan Rental Iceland Road-Trip: Uncovering the Secrets of Iceland

Emily Draper
(Updated: )
22 min read

Iceland's exceptional beauty is no secret. The rugged landscape carved by fire and ice has lured adventurous travellers to its shores for decades. Drawn in by the promise of black sand beaches, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, and other rare spectacles of nature, all lined up along its coastlines in astounding density. And I was among them.

I didn't just want to see Iceland; I wanted a front-row seat to her cinematic scenery. I wanted to feel close to her and get to know her personally. I wanted to spend time with her, one to one.

The Joy of Freedom: Road-Tripping in a Campervan

Image of a road in Iceland, sunny day.
Beautiful sunny day in Iceland

I opted to rent a campervan from Northbound so that I could explore the country freely, without restriction, on my own terms. In a campervan, home is where you park it, and I wanted to park beside the cascading waterfalls and calving glaciers I had heard so much about. Without a schedule nagging me to move on to the next appointment, I could be fully present. Northbound secured me the Go Campers Renault Trafic Go Lite Automatic Camper for the end of March and I was soon on my way.

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Booking the Campervan

Booking the campervan was easy, the difficult part was deciding where to take it. Iceland has several scenic driving routes across the country, all of which promise a peek into a unique side of the country. Since I only had a week, I chose a route that would maximise the amount I could see and do in minimal time. First up, I would drive to the Golden Circle near Reykjavik where I would find Iceland's three crowning natural spectacles, then I would head south and join the South Coast Route to marvel at black sand beaches, waterfalls, and glaciers.

Image of an Iceland Campervan Rental in Iceland
Beautiful scenery in Iceland

I arrived in Iceland on a calm sunny afternoon, a backpack stuffed with jumpers and socks in hand. I was pleasantly surprised because the weather forecast had told a different story; one with blistering cold temperatures and raging [winds]]( Yet, the sky was blue and I was quietly relieved. From the airport, I was provided with a private transfer to Reykjavik where I would begin my long-awaited road trip ? and my love affair with Iceland. All the way there I squealed at the distant sight of snow-capped mountains, a glimpse of what was to come.

Campervan Living

My camper was small and perfectly formed with everything I needed to live in it comfortably for a week. A dinette-bed conversion, a counter with a sink, fridge, and camping stove, and most importantly, a diesel heater to keep me warm at night.

According to my Go Campers representative, I was going to need it since temperatures were expected to dip below -8°C. I had seen this forecast online but I chose not to believe it. But now, any hope of warmth and sunshine that Reykjavik had given me had now gone and I was faced with a chilly reality. How could I possibly enjoy vehicle camping in these conditions? Was I ready for it? I wasn't sure.

Luckily, Northbound also ensured I was supplied with a sleeping bag, duvet, and a few extra blankets, just in case. With my fully equipped campervan quickly signed into my possession, it was time to hit the road and see what van life in snowy Iceland had to offer. However, it was Friday night in Reykjavik so I thought I'd sample the local beer first.

Image of the inside of a campervan rental in Iceland, with a seating and sleeping area with a table as well as cushions.
Inside of my cozy campervan rental

After a night spent dancing in Reykjavik's rainbow streets, I was in much need of some TLC. So the first stop in my campervan was (of course) the Sky Lagoon, one of Iceland's top thermal spas. I spent three hours of bliss there, gazing across the ocean from the steaming infinity pool with a Moet Chandon in hand, and luxuriating in the sea-view sauna with silky-smooth skin from my natural salt scrub. It was the most relaxed and pampered I had felt in a long time and I could have stayed until my pinkies shrivelled but I had to remind myself, this wasn't what I came for. The road is calling, and I must go.

Image of travelers bathing in the infinity pool of the Sky Lagoon in Iceland
Sky Lagoon\'s infinity pool

Geysers and Golden Waterfalls: A Taste of the Golden Circle

I stopped by the supermarket to buy ingredients for what I like to call ?single-stove meals' for the road trip and set off along the Golden Circle. This route features three of Iceland's most epic spectacles of nature in just one small 230 km (140 mile) loop from Reykjavik. The fissure of Thingvellir National Park, the geysers of Geysir, and Gullfoss Falls. It didn't take long for civilisation to disappear from my rearview mirror as I climbed the quiet road. ?This is it? I thought, ?I am about to see the Iceland I had heard so much about? as a sense of accomplishment washed over me.

I was almost sad to reach Thingvellir just 1.5 hours later because I was relishing the excitement of the drive itself. With nothing but bare hills, a big sky, and the open road ahead, I felt light, content, and free. Sometimes I think these feelings are hard to find, but when I'm driving in an unfamiliar place with adventure ahead of me, I realise how simple it really is. If you crave a sense of freedom, all you have to do is drive. Of course, it helps if you're on one of the world's most scenic islands.

Image of a person walking towards Thingvallar kirkja in Iceland
Thingvallakirkja, Iceland.

I could have gone snorkelling in Thingvellir's fissure or horseriding across the plains, but I opted to walk around the national park at my own pace. However, ?my own pace' was a little too slow. The sun began to set as I stood in awe of the staggering fissure, rivers, waterfalls, and rock formations so I hurried back to my campervan to see the geysers before it grew dark.

I could see the spurts of boiling water dancing from a mile away as I drove towards them, and I got there just in time to watch them soar 100 feet above me with a rose-hued sky setting the stage. The crowds of tourists had left with the sun and so I was lucky enough to get a private viewing. But by now, it was -5°C and all I could think about was cosying up in the campervan.

Thankfully, my campsite was just a two-minute walk from the geysers so I made the brisk walk to my home on wheels, turned on my heater, unrolled the sleeping bag, and watched the geysers spurt towards the stars from my bedroom window instead.

Image of the side of a campervan rental in Iceland, with great views.
Views from the Campervan

While my campervan successfully kept me surprisingly warm throughout the night, temperatures outside dropped to -8°C, just like I had been warned. I had rarely experienced lows like this before and honestly, the thought of going outside horrified me, but knowing the mighty Gullfoss Falls was just around the corner was enough to persuade me to layer up and head out for another day's adventure.

I arrived at midday (ok so it took me a while to get going) to an almost-full car park and headed the short 200 metres downhill to the waterfall viewing point which was just as busy. Since I had my own vehicle, I could have arrived earlier to avoid the crowds, but for the first time in a while, I got to enjoy having no sense of urgency and do life at my own pace.

After waiting behind rows of people like I was at a crowded bar queuing for a drink, I squeezed my way to the front of the platform and got my first sighting of the waterfall. While the hills were a frosty pale yellow, the waterfall had come dressed in white as its river had formed layers of thick ice and the spray clung to the sides of the canyon.

Despite how busy it was, the waterfall's presence was so powerful that the noise of the world fell away and I felt like we were alone. However, the cold was soon nibbling at my fingers and I ran back to the warmth of my van. I had gotten a glimpse of the falls, and that was enough.

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The Ring Road

Instead of circumnavigating back to Reykjavik, I headed directly south to join the Ring Road that encircles Iceland and continue east on the South Coast route. While the Golden Circle had sincerely impressed me, I was looking forward to driving to further-reaching parts of Iceland.

Of course, no scenic drive is complete without listening to something atmospheric, so I accompanied my journey with a good murder podcast. When I reached the Ring Road, the scenery became evermore dramatic (as did the podcast). I thought the views of the Golden Circle's undulating lowlands were astonishing, but clearly, I hadn't seen nothin' yet.

Image of a road in Iceland on a snowy day
Snowy road in Iceland

As the coast drew closer to my right, hills and cliffs began towering 200 metres above me to my left, offering a gallantry ?welcome' to the South Coast route. While some were a smooth and rounded pale yellow, others protruded sharply from the ground with a sense of grandiosity.

Many of them chiselled by tumbling streams and some by powerfully pummelling waterfalls. The occasional farmstead at its feet. It was so raw and rugged and bare that I almost felt like I was intruding on its privacy. How could something so utterly beautiful be so easily seen?

As I drove along the road in complete awe, I realised what an incredible feeling it was. To know that no matter how long you spend on this Earth, it will always have the ability to surprise you in such a way that you feel immensely humbled and grateful to be part of it. Then and there, I decided I was going to make seeking awe more of a priority in life.

The Drama of Reynisfjara Beach and Basalt Caves

I was heading towards Reynisfjara Beach, a moody volcanic beach with sea stacks and staggering basalt rock columns rising from the black sand into the towering vertical cliff behind, while others hung from the ceilings of the cliff's caves in a twisted formation.

Image of the black sand beach in Iceland, showing the black beach and the basalt rock columns
The black sand beach

The first basalt cave sits on the side of the cliff perpendicular to the angsty sea, as if it's watching you as you walk on the beach. It was so bold and bulky and brutalist-looking that I was slightly intimidated by it. Yet it sat there so nonchalantly as if it was no big deal. I stayed for hours on the beach, scouring the rock formations with my eyes as if I was a detective looking for clues to disprove it was natural, even though I knew man could never make something this brilliant.

Unexpected Snowy Blessings: A Taste of Local Life in Vik

Before long the sun had begun to set, so I sat against a grounded rock and watched the sky change from a greyish blue to lilac and pink as a seal let the tide lull it to and from the shore. I left before I became surrounded by darkness to find my campsite in a small settlement called Vik, which was just around the corner.

It was the first sign of civilisation I had seen in a few hundred kilometres so I quickly tucked into one of my single-stove meals and freshened up to check out a local brew pub.

I was surprised to find that despite being one of the only public establishments in an isolated Icelandic town of fewer than 400 people, it was just as hip and happening as a London hop house. Perhaps a little too hip and happening for me.

I just couldn't wait to escape back to nature and cosy up in it for a good night's sleep in my own campervan ? I think we had become quite attached. What I didn't know then, was that Vik would look very different when I woke up.

Image of a cold ring road in Iceland.
Ring Road in Iceland

I opened my curtains in the morning to find that inches of snow caked the ground around me. Although it transformed Iceland into the truest definition of a winter wonderland, I was not excited to welcome it. In fact, all I could think about was ?how on earth am I meant to drive in these conditions??. I initially resigned myself to being stuck there for the foreseeable future. I reasoned that had enough food to last me a few days and I would have been quite happy hibernating in my campervan like a black bear in its burrow.

But the initial shock soon wore off and I reassessed the situation, concluding I had been a little melodramatic. This was Iceland. Winter in Iceland. ?This is what you signed up for so embrace the snow like an Icelander?, I thought. Besides, my campervan had snow tires, so really I had no excuse not to. So I put my hiking boots and adventure hat back on and I drove to my next destination, Skaftafell. It turned out the snow had already been cleared off the Ring Road so I hadn't anything to worry about. Instead, I could concentrate on the route's evermore magical scenery ? and on the road, of course.

Image of a campervan rental in Iceland in the snow
My Campervan from Northbound

Venturing to Skaftafell: Encountering Glaciers and Waterfalls

As I drove the final 10 km to Skaftafell, I spotted a glacier squeezing its way between two mountain legs in the distance. I couldn't believe it. To me, glaciers were something only all-too-keen hikers crossing high-altitude mountains could find, and here I was casually driving by one. As I arrived at Skaftafell campsite, my home for the night, I was so close to the glacier I could see its stacks, hills, and crevices in fine detail.

But I wasn't here for the glacier today, I had come to see Svartifoss, one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls. It was an hour's hike away so off I went climbing up the mountain towards it. Although I accidentally took the hardest hiking route which took me on a steep uphill climb that my thighs did not thank me for, I thoroughly enjoyed being out in the great Icelandic outdoors pretending to be a professional mountaineer.

Image of a person standing in the snow in front of Svartifoss Iceland
Svartifoss Iceland

And by that, I mean holding my breath whenever someone passed by so that they didn't see me panting with my hands on my knees. Besides, Svartifoss was well worth the effort. The elegantly tall waterfall cascaded over a basalt cliff into the canyon below which had by now been smothered by four months of snow and 7-foot-long icicles.

Although the downhill return was much easier, I was looking forward to a nice hot shower at the campsite and a relaxed Netflix night in my campervan. But Iceland had other plans. I got back at sunset but before I could take my boots off, the campsite manager informed me ?there is a severe snowstorm incoming that will shut the road down in both directions. If you don't want to be stuck here for another day, you better drive on?. At first, I was confused. What the manager said sounded pretty serious, but she said it with such nonchalance that she could have just as easily been telling me about what she had for lunch that day.

Image of Gullfoss in Iceland with snow and ice on a sunny day
Gullfoss in it\'s icy glory

This turn of events was completely unexpected, but this was a road trip across Iceland ? the land of fire and ice ? and I had to expect twists and turns. It's part of the adventure, right? So, I buckled up and drove on for an hour and a half into the night towards Hofn, the nearest town ahead which happened to be Iceland's largest settlement. Of course, my mind wandered to all the worst-case scenarios as I drove. Would I get caught in the storm? What if the road didn't open in time for me to catch my flight home? What if I don't get to see everything I had planned to? Although the wind picked up a little, I made it to Hofn campsite safe and sound around 10 pm and resigned to the fact that only time would tell. For now, it was time to wriggle into my sleeping bag and get some well-earned rest.

Facing the Uncertainty: Road Closure

When I woke up I nervously peered out of my campervan window to see if I had been snowed in by the storm, but to my relief, there was just a light dusting on the ground. However, word was buzzing around the campsite that the snowstorm had raged through the night in other parts of southern Iceland and the road between Diamond Beach and Skaftafell was closed. Everyone to the east of the road, including myself, was unable to drive back west to Reykjavik until further notice. With a flight home booked in two days' time, I should have been worried. Honestly, though, I wasn't.

Image of a road in Iceland covered in snow.
Conditions were demanding

I realised the campsite manager who warned me of the storm seemed so nonchalant because these kinds of weather events were part of life in Iceland and I was excited to be experiencing it for myself. Somehow, I wasn't a regular tourist any more, I was an honourary Icelander, consumed and dictated by the forces of mother nature. She had come to remind me that sometimes life doesn't go as expected, and you have to let go and trust that everything will be ok. After all, it always is.

Fortunately, the closed road didn't affect my plans for today and I was so excited about what was in store. I was heading into the belly of Jokulsarlon Glacier for an ice cave tour. It began with an off-roading expedition in an obnoxious (but admittedly cool) monster-truck-sized 4x4 followed by a short hike to the glacier entrance. I felt so at peace in the Icelandic mountains, the sky as white as the snow-covered ground, as snowflakes fell idly through the silent air onto my face.

Experiencing the Thrill: Inside the Jokulsarlon Glacier

Image of a bright blue light inside the Glacier Lagoon Cave
The Flashlight inside the cave

Reaching the glacier, I climbed down a tubular stairwell carved into the ice to find myself in complete darkness. Everyone on the tour was eager to put on their phones' flashlights so that they could see, but our guide insisted ?just wait!?. At first, we weren't sure what we were waiting for but after a few minutes, the light seeping into the ice cave's ceiling was causing it to glow a luminous turquoise, leaving us all mesmerised like moths drawn to a flame.

Yet again, Iceland had shown me something that not only had I never heard of before, but still couldn't believe existed when I saw it with my own eyes. It seems this country has a knack of doing that.

Image of inside the Glacier Lagoon glacier tour
Glacier Lagoon Cave

After the tour, I headed back to the campsite. Without Iceland's nature to distract me anymore, my mind returned to the closed road. What will be my fate? Everyone stuck to the east of the closed road was waiting to hear when it would be safe enough to reopen. In the evening there were whispers that it would open the following day, but at what time, nobody knew. If I was to make my flight, it had to.

By now, I was quietly apprehensive about the uncertainty of the rest of my trip. However, I knew that I would be fine no matter what because I had my campervan to call home and it would ensure I was never left high and dry, or cold and wet should I say! So instead of ruminating, I did what any English person would do: go to the pub.

The Unforgettable Night at Hofn

I had a fun carefree night in Hofn amongst locals and fellow travellers alike bonding over Icelandic adventure stories and laughing about our collective ?exile' from the West. The camaraderie helped me to remember that life is only as serious as you make it and most of the time, there's no need to be serious at all! So when morning came, I was ready for the day ahead, no matter what it would look like.

Fortunately, I soon got news that the road would reopen around midday so I drove to the closed road and waited for the big moment. After a short wait, highway patrol reopened the road in a disappointingly unceremonious way and I was on the Icelandic Ring Road once again, but this time, heading back west.

Image of a road in Iceland on a cold day
Driving back

After all the anticipation, the road closure didn't leave me stranded in Iceland without a return flight. In fact, it only delayed my return journey by a few hours, and I didn't even miss them. However, I still felt a rush of excitement when I got my campervan back on the road. As much as I loved finding new friends in one of Iceland's remote communities, I was happy to be alone again with the Icelandic landscapes.

I finally got to see what I had driven past in darkness during my escape from Skaftafell some nights ago and when I did, I was astounded. Glacier after glacier flew past my window in grand succession as I drove around the edge of the Vatnajokull ice sheet, which covers a staggering 14% of the country.

The End of an Epic Journey: Reflecting on a Life-Changing Adventure

As I watched them, so close and yet teasingly far from reach, I realised something. Before coming here, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Iceland. I thought its secrets had been shared with the world and my journey there was just about seeing them first-hand. The waterfalls, the beaches, the glaciers. However, when I studied the basalt caves, hiked through the mountains, and camped in hidden crevices of land, I felt like I knew Iceland less and less. As if for every detail of her nature I got to see, I realised there were countless more that I never would.

After all, if Iceland had shown me so many spectacles of nature that I could never have imagined existed on this planet in just one week, how many more were waiting to be seen? And how many will remain a secret forever?

Image of a person standing in the middle of the snowy road in Iceland
An epic journey

I drove towards Reykjavik with the quiet satisfaction that although I had a feeling I hadn't scratched Iceland's surface, I had seen so much. Still, I was desperate to soak up every ounce of her that I could before I left and kept my eyes keenly locked on the landscapes surrounding me.

The view ahead was often shrouded by clouds of snow blowing across the road from the last throes of the stormy wind. But every now and again, Iceland unveiled herself like a blushing bride and took my breath away with her beauty once again.