Tourist with a map

5 Common Mistakes Tourists Make in Iceland

As you may know, Iceland is a destination known for its unique nature and rugged landscapes. However, what attracts most travellers to Iceland is also what tends to cause them the most trouble. In this article, I will talk about a few pitfalls to avoid when visiting Iceland. Some of them concern your safety, while others regard practical issues and common etiquette.

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Nína Þorkelsdóttir

15. September 2021

1. Going on a hike when the trail is closed/during weather warnings


Many of Iceland’s most popular hiking trails, such as Fimmvörðuháls, Hornstrandir and Laugavegur, are only passable during a window of two and a half months. These trails are all situated in remote parts of the country, where the weather is extreme during much of the year. Therefore the trails are only open for a period of time from June to August.

Even in early September, the weather conditions can be fatal. Last week, two hikers were rescued while attempting to hike the Fimmvörðuháls mountain pass. They desperately tried to break into a hut situated on the highest peak of the trail, but when that mission failed, they felt compelled to call the rescue squad. The weather conditions can be equally severe early in the summer. Sadly, hikers have died on the Fimmvörðuháls and Laugavegur trails due to bad weather and unsuitable equipment.

This is why you should always check, firstly, whether the trail is open, and secondly, what weather conditions are expected during your hike.

Check out Safe Iceland's Facebook Page for warnings and trail closures, and the Icelandic Met Office for weather warnings. If you are in doubt whether to embark on your hike or not, you can contact Safe Iceland via phone or email (see contact info on their Facebook Page).

2. Driving in the Highlands in an unsuitable car

River crossings are common while driving in the Highlands. Unsplash/Fernando Puente.

A friend told me the other day that while she had been driving the Ring Road of Iceland with her boyfriend, the thought occurred to them whether it would be possible to take a detour towards the centre of the island. You know, just to explore what’s there. I told her that in fact, many travellers have gotten the same idea and some have even tried it.

Driving in the centre area of Iceland, the Highlands, is certainly an option during the summertime. However, the roads there are unpaved and incredibly rough. Therefore, they are unpassable for vehicles without a four-wheel drive (4x4).  

If you are planning on driving towards the “centre” of the island, or basically anywhere in the central Highlands, you will need a proper 4x4 car. You may need to cross rivers and drive through very rough terrain, so please do a bit of research before you make any rash decisions.

Here’s a great guide on driving in the Icelandic Highlands: How to Drive in the Icelandic Highlands 

3. Dining in a restaurant in outdoor gear

Unsplash/Holly Mandarich. 

While it’s certainly not fatal to eat out in your Goretex attire, it is considered somewhat of a cultural faux pass by the locals. It is understandable that you may choose to wear outdoorsy apparel during your trip in Iceland, especially if you are hiking or going on excursions that involve walking or spending a lot of time outdoors.

However, I advise you to bring some regular clothes to wear while you are eating out or going to cafés. It really doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I do not mean to sound preachy, but I honestly think it is more respectful to the restaurant owners and fellow guests (who may be all dressed up for the occasion) not to wear hiking boots and rainproof jackets while enjoying a fancy meal. Anyways, it’s of course totally up to you how you choose to dress! There is usually no formal dress code in restaurants in Iceland and it is completely fine if you want to ignore the informal one.

4. Blindly following your GPS

Unsplash/Eugene Chystiakov.

GPS is great but if you follow it blindly, it can get you into trouble. A few years ago, an American tourist who had intended to drive from Keflavik Airport to a guesthouse in Reykjavik ended up driving for seven hours until he wound up in North Iceland at a place with a similar name. Actually, there were some spelling issues involved so it wasn’t entirely his fault. But it is still a bit weird not to notice that something is off if you have been driving for hours between two places that sit very close to each other on a map.

Similar occurrences regularly hit the news. Many placenames in Iceland are similar or identical, so there’s always a chance you will end up in a different region if you don’t pay attention. So please stay alert and resist the temptation to shut off your brain and let the GPS take over.

5. Buying bottled water

Unsplash/Serenity Mitchell.

Icelanders never buy bottled still water and some of us even roll our eyes a bit when we see tourists buy water bottles. The reason for the lack of locals’ interest in bottled water is simple: the tap water in Iceland is extremely pure and is therefore a much cheaper and eco-friendly option than plastic bottles. In fact, I have not met a single Icelandic person that chooses to buy bottled water instead of drinking it straight from the tap.

It’s a good idea to carry a reusable water bottle with you while you’re road tripping or strolling around town. Most restaurants are happy to fill it up for you. Public water fountains are also quite widespread in the city centre.