A Stripped–down Road Trip Along Iceland’s Fjords


With just the clothes on his back, our writer rides around Iceland in a camper van. Magic lies ahead.

Pants. T–shirt. Socks. Rain jacket. Insulation. Buff. Shoes. Underwear. These are my clothes, flying on a ripping Icelandic gale across Rauðasandur Beach toward the Arctic Ocean and Greenland beyond, unless I catch them. That’s why I’m running full tilt, my toes digging out fat clumps of cold, clotted sand the colour of pumpkin pie. And I’m naked, my shame fully exposed to the icy patter of summer sleet casting off the moss–knuckled fjords behind me.

Normally, I might grab a wad of seaweed and fig–leaf it back to the car for a fresh set of clothes. After all, I’m lost deep in Iceland’s Westfjords, a rarely visited ventricle of densely knotted sea inlets and mountain ridges branching off the country’s northwest coast. The only witnesses to my embarrassment are the sheep that pepper the canted green hillsides like dirty cotton balls. Here, they outnumber humans 1,000 to one.

But this is not normally. These are my only clothes. And if I can’t catch them, I’ll be nude until Reykjavik – 397 kilometres and at least two very uncomfortable gas stops away.

April 1, 2019
Two sheep at the entrance of Þingvellir National Park
They’re watching ewe: A family of sheep stand guard near the entrance of Þingvellir National Park, northeast of Reykjavik.

After years of heaving bloated packs through airports and into remote wildernesses, this visit to Iceland is an experiment in Nordic minimalism. Travelling with nothing more than what’s in my pockets seems like a great way to open myself up to accidental magic in a place where many locals believe the landscape is literally enchanted. And if I can do it in a country as adventurous as Iceland, I can do it anywhere: Year–round storms pay the rent on all that emerald, eroded beauty. I wonder if I’m courting hypothermia, even though I’m wearing all–wool everything – in June.

On the plane, Johanna Johannsdottir, a strawberry–haired Icelander who now lives in California, raises her eyebrows at my lack of luggage and gonzo plan to drive the Ring Road in a week (most folks recommend 10 days). She seems to want to impart as much mystic wisdom as possible before her home country eats me alive: where to get the best fish (Fylgifiskar, her cousin’s shops in Reykjavik and Kópavogur); how to properly order the capital’s best hot dog, eina með öllu (one with everything), at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur; that the current blustery weather won’t change until I hear the song of a speckled shorebird called a lóa, signalling the true beginning of spring.

A tourist under an umbrella at Reynisfjara Beach
A tourist tries valiantly to shield herself from the strong winds and rain on Reynisfjara Beach. According to local folklore, these towering basalt columns were once mischievous sea trolls who turned to stone in the morning sun.
A red wooden chair faces the Atlantic Ocean
Exhausted giant looking to stare wistfully into the Atlantic Ocean? Eastern Iceland has just the chair for you.

Johanna also teaches me the national motto: þetta reddast, which translates roughly as “everything will work out all right.” It’s an optimistic mantra for a people who carved a society out of such a harsh, spooky and difficult place, who have seen things turn out less than all right: population–devastating famines, subjugation, volcanic disaster, the collapse of the country’s banking system. I commit it to memory.

Adorable farm stays and boutique hotels abound in the Icelandic countryside, but I’m planning to mitigate the brutal island upcharge by living in a camper van: It’ll be my hotel, transport and kitchen all rolled into one. As soon as I pick it up, a storm darkens Reykjavik and the entire southern coast, so I resolve to use the endless light to gulp down the tourist–heavy region in one day.

Iceland is practically an Instagram trope now, but in person, those volcanic wonderlands and iceberg–strewn beaches lose little of their power to the hashtags or drive–up crowds.

Fortunately, the Ring Road provides drive–up access to wonders that take days of hiking to see anywhere else. I speed–hike around choir groups and fields of selfie sticks to take in Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, each a column of white water the thickness of an office building. I slog through sheets of rain to visit Reynisfjara, a black–sand beach bordered by cliffs ordered into eerie hexagonal columns where Jon Snow once brooded and pouted before fighting a bunch of ice zombies. Water creeps up my green wool jeans, and I wonder if they’ll stay wet the rest of the week.

The Hverir geothermal area in northeast Iceland looks like the surface of Mars
Code red: The Hverir geothermal area in northeast Iceland looks eerily like the surface of Mars.

In a few hours, I’ve seen almost all of what most visitors to Iceland ever see. The Land of Ice and Fire is practically an Instagram trope now, but in person, those volcanic wonderlands and iceberg–strewn beaches lose little of their power to the hashtags or drive–up crowds. Travelling fast and light means I can make split–second choices, and I decide to keep the adventure going right through dinnertime.

It pays off. I see the sun bloom like a broken egg yolk through cloud cover above Vatnajökull, a striated glacier that stretches forever into the horizon, swallowing the country’s southeast quadrant. Hiking around Jökulsárlón, a chilly lagoon studded with toothpaste–blue icebergs, I dodge divebombing Arctic terns. A seal pokes around the milky bay. It’s my last tourist trap, but at 10:30 p.m. only a smattering of forlorn weirdos remain – my people.

It’s midnight when I pull into the sleepy fishing port of Höfn. Sunset in summer is a suggestion, so when I wake to sharp sun piercing the window’s tint at 4:30 a.m., I’m sure elves changed the clocks. Sad to miss out on Höfn’s langoustine hoagies but enthralled by the empty Eastfjords, I hit the road, stopping frequently to watch monster waves slap against precipitous seaside cliffs and splashing my face with Arctic water when I get woozy. It’s hours before I see another car. I find a red chair bolted to a boulder in the middle of nowhere. It faces coast and cliff, which probably resembles the view Irish monks had when they landed here, according to some, 1,200 years ago.

Ice chunks wash onto the black sand of Diamond Beach
Chunks of ice from the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon wash onto the black sand of Diamond Beach in southeast Iceland.

Maybe fairies are telling me to slow down and sniff for magic. Or it could be trolls luring me in for lunch. Either way, I climb up and sit in the oversize throne to admire the seaside peaks biting into the blue horizon like a pair of black canines as the sharp Arctic wind whines. I feel weightless, but rooted to the rock. The rush of the last day fades. If I am to be eaten, I want it to be here.

I start to balance the breakneck and breezy in Seyðisfjörður, an ancient fishing village tucked in a bowl of mountains striped with countless cascades. I trail–run to a nearby waterfall and dash back to splurge on $12 microbrews and lamb meatballs. Basking in the sun, I contemplate moving to a town whose name I can’t pronounce.

Hours later in the barren, steaming Highland interior, my ultralight plan starts to feel a little threadbare. My contacts rub like sandpaper and I worry I’ve failed some sort of test of adulthood by not changing my underwear for a few days. Pros: I’m mostly seeing Icelanders instead of tourists. Cons: I wonder if I look like the sort of foreigner who never changes his underoos. Winding around clear, midge–infested Lake Mývatn, I tour the sulphurous fumaroles, where Iceland’s geothermally angry insides blister their rocky skin. I camp in Akureyri, Iceland’s second city and jewel of the north. I’m not in season for the northern lights, but I take a walk through a pasture of shaggy horses and see similar iridescence when the sun catches the evening mist fanning over the mountains. Supposedly Icelanders hate talking about fairies with foreigners, so I keep it to myself that I found their city hall.

I climb up to admire the seaside peaks biting into the blue horizon like a pair of black canines as the sharp Arctic wind whines. I feel weightless, but rooted to the rock. If I am to be eaten, I want it to be here.

While much of Iceland feels like an efficient Scandinavian futureworld to a North American, the Westfjords retain the haunted emptiness that used to be everywhere. In the age of sagas, it was home to the country’s sorcerers. There are arguably fewer people here now than there were even then. Sea–drowned mountains are draped in tidewater glaciers, and beached ships rust in rocky coves; most of the seabirds in the North Atlantic nest in the 500–metre cliffs of Hornstrandir, Iceland’s northernmost peninsula.

The main outpost is Ísafjörður, a charming town that serves as a departure point for sailings to Greenland and Hornstrandir. Here I finally run into the limitations of my outfit: I score a last–second seat to the rugged peninsula, but I know my equipment isn’t up to the treacherous hiking and weather I might encounter on the remote sea cliffs. If I had brought even a small pack, I might’ve made it.

Washing away my bummer vibes at a coffee shop (this country is addicted to coffee, much of it very good) lined with backcountry skis, I meet Ragnar Sigurdsson. He and his dad take people skiing and surfing by sailboat. He vets my Westfjords itinerary and recommends immersing myself in the Arctic Ocean at my earliest convenience. “Man, you have to do it,” he says. “It’s so refreshing.”

Submerging oneself in water hot and cold is an Icelandic tradition right up there with fishing and Viking–ing. I’m already obsessed with it, but he doesn’t know I don’t even have a towel. Still, the next morning, I end up – naked – in Rauðasandur, after taking Ragnar’s challenge.

A rocky corridor leads to the Öxarárfoss waterfall in Þingvellir National Park
A rocky corridor leads to the Öxarárfoss waterfall in Þingvellir National Park. Game of Thrones fans know it as the location of the Bloody Gate, but this was also the site of the world’s first parliament, the Alþingi, established by the Vikings back in 930.

Spoiler alert: I caught my clothes. Or rather, they slowed down when they sopped up enough sand and cold seawater. They’re dry by the time I stroll into the Retreat Hotel, a sleek, hypermodern new resort near Reykjavik abutting a private section of the Blue Lagoon, a sulphurous hot spring famous for its healing powers. It looks like the lair of a Bond villain who traded all his enriched uranium for high–grade exfoliants, and I feel like a mountain goat who wandered into the lobby.

After an impeccably groomed Nordic concierge takes me to my room and helpfully points out the showers, I indulge in a seven–course tasting menu of Arctic char sashimi and roe, local mushroom broth and horseradish snow. Wobbly from wine pairings, I brave thick mist to float alone in the lagoon, getting lost in the natural–rock corridors. When I start imagining Grendel’s mom around every corner, I head inside for the hardest sleep of my life, midnight sun and all.

I wake to learn my plane has been delayed – first by five hours, then 10, and eventually 30. I’m gripped by anxiety until I remember I have little to worry about, just my person and the clothes I’m wearing that sufficed for the entirety of Iceland’s Ring Road.

I leave for Reykjavik, unsure of what’s ahead. Maybe I’d hike to a hidden hot spring outside town, or learn how to shout já já like an Icelander alongside natives, a Latvian and French Canadians in an underground brewery. Maybe I’d end up at a Reykjavik rap battle, scrambling in the dawn rain to make a flight I almost forgot about. Maybe I’d buy another pair of underwear. But maybe I wouldn’t, since making do with less in Iceland helped me experience so much more.

Besides: þetta reddast. Everything will work out fine.