Ring Road in 5 Days – Solo
Sometime in April 2012, a co-worker told me he was going to Iceland for a bachelor getaway. “Iceland? What’s there to do in Iceland?” I had never even considered it a travel destination. He showed me some amazing pictures and instantly it was on my radar. It would be another three years before it reached the number one spot on my list.
I researched everything I could: the weather, the best times to go, what to expect during different times of the year, what to wear, the language, the geography, what sites I wanted to see, what activities I wanted to do, how I would get there, where I would stay, whether the people were nice, how much it would cost, etc. I usually start my travel plans with 20 or more open tabs on my computer screen, and slowly they dwindle to a few. I compare EVERYTHING. I research reviews for everything. I cross-reference those reviews. This is all part of ensuring my safety as a solo woman traveler – making sure I know what I can expect. Not to mention it makes for a smoother, more enjoyable travel experience. Once I learned Iceland had the reputation for being the safest country in the world, going there solo seemed like an easy feat.
I came to the conclusion that doing a road trip around Ring Road would be the best way to experience the country in the time allotted. Initially, I read a bunch of reviews that said you need at least 7-8 days to drive Ring Road. Ideally you would want at least two weeks in Iceland. There is just so much to see and do! While more time would’ve been nice in my case, I only had five full days and I was determined to cover the ground.
Preparing for Iceland
(Time of travel: November 2015)
My RT flight to Iceland from Washington, D.C. was less than $300 on WOW Air, which fooled me into thinking it was going to be an inexpensive getaway. I knew Iceland was pricey, but hands down it has been one of my most expensive trips. Most of the costs came before I even left the U.S.
Especially if you are visiting in the winter, if you do not have adequate cold weather clothing you’ll basically have to buy a new wardrobe for your trip. The fashion coat that kept me relatively warm during New York winters was not going to cut it in Iceland. A good quality weather-proof coat is a must. You will need to dress in layers if you’re camping and hiking. Merino wool is a good choice. A solid pair of hiking and weatherproof boots are also ideal as you’ll be trekking in different conditions. If you really want to explore Iceland, leave the fashion shoes and apparel at home. Even for those one or two nights in Reykjavik. There is a 99% chance that it will be raining at some point or during most of your trip. And there are many different terrains: dirt, cobble, gravel, beach, icy roads, mountain highways, mud, etc. Plan to dress accordingly for the maximum amount of function and comfort. But prepare to rack up a bit at your neighborhood outdoor supply store. I did. While that stuff may seem unnecessarily expensive, it’s an investment that should last you a long time. Because of my preparation for Iceland, I am now prepared to go to any cold weather country.
Once I got my flight and clothing taken care of, I had to decide where I would stay. I began mapping out the route and reading reviews for different hotels and guest houses along the road. That all felt tiring. Then I remembered about another coworker’s son who rented a camper van in New Zealand and road tripped along the coast, and that sounded like heaven. I thought it would be the most flexible option to maximize my time in Iceland. I could drive and sleep when I wanted, where I wanted!
After a decade of not having driven a stick shift, I rented a camper van with manual transmission (most European vehicles are manual) from Happy Campers and set out to tour around the country. My plan was to drive all the way around Ring Road, making stops at sites along the way.
Day 0: Arrival
Arrive in Reykjavik and head straight to the Blue Lagoon. The best time to visit this sulfuric paradise is as soon as you land in the city, right before you leave, or both! Yes, it’s touristy, but the location is not far from the airport and it’s a great way to wind down before and/or after your trip. There are many heated pools throughout Iceland so this won’t be your only opportunity to soak in some warmth. But the Blue Lagoon is beautiful, with opaque cloudy blue water reaching temperatures of 104°F (40°C) degrees. It’s kind of like a rite of passage.
⇒ 9 Blue Lagoon Tips:
- Indulge in the complimentary face mask. Feel the cold air hit your face and the hot water soothe your body.
- Grab a beer or cocktail from the lagoon bar, but stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water.
- Skip the water massage. It wasn’t as pleasurable as I thought it would be. It’s cold out there, and half of the time half of your body is out of the water. They dip you every few minutes or so to maintain warmth, but it’s not enough. I found myself cold and wanting it to be over long before it was.
- Bring your own hair conditioner. The water will make your hair very stiff so douse your hair with moisturizing conditioner before you get in the water – they provide complimentary conditioner in the showers, but your own will probably be better.
- You’ll receive a bracelet which will act as your locker key and credit card while you are there. You can use it to buy drinks from the lagoon bar or spa area.
- You can book your experience with a tour operator, which usually includes bus transportation from the airport and an entrance ticket. I chose to buy my ticket directly from Blue Lagoon Iceland. I bought the Experience Premium package, which boasts shorter lines at the entrance (mine had none). When you get off the airport bus at the Lagoon, you will get in one of 3 lines depending on the package you paid for. Most people end up in the general admission line. Honestly, it felt good to be able to just walk in, get my towel and bracelet and head to the locker room instead of standing in line for 15-20 minutes. But it’s not necessary.
- If you can, arrange for your rental car company to pick you up from the Lagoon (Happy Campers does it for free).
- Bring a waterproof camera or have waterproof protection for your phone. You’ll want to take pictures while wading around!
- Some areas in the water are warmer than others. So if you find yourself getting a little cold, move to a new spot and you may find hotter water.
Pick Up Camper Van. I was off, albeit a little jerkily at first. I drove into the city center and lucked up on a parking spot right off the main shopping street. I didn’t really know where I was going to stay that night. I wasn’t sure where it was ok to park and camp. I looked at the parking signs – no restrictions for a Sunday. I figured I would sleep right there. The curtains would shield me from any passersby.
Stock Up On Necessities. I made a stop at the grocery store in town. I couldn’t understand any of the labels so I only got things I could visually recognize. I bought some lunch meat that I think was ham, eggs, bread, pb&j, and a few snacks. The camper was equipped with a small cooler and a stove top. I knew dining out in Iceland would be expensive so I planned to cook to save money. But I barely cooked. I mostly ate these things:
★ Try the gas station hot dog. I know what you’re thinking. It doesn’t look that appetizing. I heard about about Iceland’s gas station hot dogs before I got there. In all honesty, there isn’t anything too special about them except for the fact that they are part of the culture. Locals eat them too. I can’t really remember all of the sauces but I had the clerks fix them up how they would eat them. Bun, fried onions at the bottom, raw onions, hot dog, and like six different sauces. Not going to lie, it made for an easy tasty meal at the end of a long day when the last thing I wanted to do was cook.
★ Pick up a mobile hotspot device before you leave for your trip and buy an Icelandic sim card (e.g., Vodafone) at the airport upon your arrival. This is useful if you don’t have an international data plan with your cell phone carrier. Access to information on the Internet for navigation purposes and the ability to send messages or make wi-fi calls is key when traveling solo.
Walk around Reykjavik and Have Dinner. I came upon a random bar choir in the streets singing with beer in German. It was raining. It was cold. But it felt warm. The energy was good. I noticed that I was the only black person around, but I never felt out of place. Take a look – they sounded great!
Afterwards, I walked to the famous church Hallgrimskirkja, went in and out of stores and art galleries, and then went searching for a nice meal. I earlier passed by a promising French-inspired restaurant that I couldn’t remember the name or location of so I walked in circles until I found it again. Snaps. It was lively and crowded. I walked in and was greeted by the host. “For 1,” I said, and I asked to be seated at the bar. There was one open space of the 20 or so seats, in between people. I sat down and felt what seemed to be a few looks of wonderment. But in another five minutes or so I was talking to these people. In fact most of my meal was met with conversation from a young Icelandic banker or other.
I ate so much and had half of a bottle of red wine. Hey, I was getting ready to camp and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I wanted a nice meal to start off with! I got back to my van at around 8 p.m. after three separate roundtrips to use a fast food restaurant’s toilet around the block (all thanks to the wine!). I snuggled in my sleeping bag, turned on the heater, turned off the car, wished for the best, and got myself to sleep. I woke up in a matter of hours to street sounds and people talking…and cold. I was so cold! Irritably cold. I suddenly wondered, what was I thinking – renting a camper van and doing a road trip around Iceland? By myself?!
I had been driving an automatic car for the last 10 years and only got a 1 hour stick shift refresher course before I left from the one friend I knew that drove a stick in the city. “I think I got it,” I told him. “I’ll be good.” But that morning I got nervous about the drive. I was so close to talking myself out of my plan and just staying around Reykjavik. But I’m glad I’m not easily shattered! I put on my big girl pants, continued on and figured out how to effectively handle the heating situation going forward.
Golden Circle. Leave Reykjavik and head to the Golden Circle, a scenic route containing three sites you don’t want to miss. You’ll visit Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the natural geysers in the geothermal area, Geysir and Strokkur.
You will occasionally pass beautiful Icelandic ponies as you drive around Iceland. The ones in the South are more friendly because they are used to people giving them food. Most people don’t make it too far past South Iceland so northern ponies are a bit shy. But you can still make friends! I did.
Camp in Arborg and hop back on Ring Road in the morning. I was nervous to be out there by myself at first, but then the Northern Lights started rolling in and I forgot all about my worries. Seeing them for the first time was like a dream. Even though my photography game was not as strong then, I happily snapped pictures in the dark all night.
Head South to Vik. Get up early around 5am and drive a couple hours down to Vik, a town in South Iceland. Stop at Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the way, then explore the Vik Coast, the town church, Skogafoss waterfall, and Reynisfjara Beach.
At the end of the day, soak in the geothermal pools and shower up at the Vik Swimming Pool. Park your camper van at the campsite around the corner and head to dinner at Restaurant Berg in the Icelandair Hotel.
Plane Wreck. Wake up early and get ready to explore the famous abandoned U.S. Navy DC-3 plane wreck on Sólheimasandur black sand beach, which can be found by going to these coordinates:
Turnoff GPS Coordinates: 63.4912391,-19.3632810
Airplane GPS Coordinates: 63.459523,-19.364618
After you’ve had your fill, get back on the road and head in the direction of Hofn, where you will shower and camp for the night. On the way you will pass the moss covered lava rocks, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon (one of my favorite spots), and Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Don’t forget to make friends on the road!
Arrive in Hofn. When you get to Hofn, there is a campground you can park on not far from the main recreation center. As for dinner, this was a hot dog night.
★ Each town in Iceland has a swimming pool center with geothermal pools and showers. For a small fee, you can use these facilities to clean-up and relax in the geothermal hot tub after a long hike.
Drive Along the Coast in Southeast Iceland. The next morning get up around 4:30 a.m. and continue your drive. You’ll pass sites like Vestrahorn aka Batman Mountain and the Laekjavik Coast, one of the most beautiful coasts I’ve ever seen. Driving along Ring Road is as scenic and wild as you’re going to get. There were almost no other cars on the road which allowed me to completely zone out and enjoy my surroundings.
Keep driving into Northeast Iceland. Day 4 consists of a lot of driving. The plan is to camp right outside of Vatnajökull National Park to see Deittfoss and Selfoss first thing in the morning. Make sure to stay on track of your time. Some of the roads were icy and I wanted to be off of them by sunset which is early in November, around 4:30/5p.m. There were periods of no service heading north and not many places to stop. I got so thirsty at one point, I used my survival skills to bottle some water from a river that I knew was most likely the cleanest water I ever drank.
Find a campsite. The general rules of wild camping in Iceland are (1) don’t park on someone’s private property and (2) no camping inside of national parks. Otherwise, you’re pretty much free to pull over where ever and wild camp! By the time I got to the vicinity of Vatnajökull National Park, I had been driving for 4+ hours and it was getting dark. There was no one around. I just wanted to pull over, park somewhere, and get to the morning. I did so right outside of the park (I might’ve actually still been inside – my bad!). The silence of the wilderness was a little creepy at first. There were no animals to be afraid of. There was no one around for miles. But I thought what if there was a freeze or some storm? That was the thing to worry about. By 5pm, Aurora started to show off again. I sat freezing cold on the roof of my van happily taking pictures all night again.
Wake up early to a beautiful sunrise and head to Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls. Be careful! It can get extremely slippery around these falls and there is black ice everywhere. In trying to handle all of my camera equipment, I admittedly fell a couple of times. The trail runs along side a river that feeds into the falls. It was iced over when I was there so it was hard to tell where the trail was. At one point, I was hiking ON the river and had no idea. Out of nowhere I took a step and I heard the sound of ice cracking underneath me (which I’m now convinced is the most terrifying sound you can hear). Before I could do anything my leg went through, about a foot and a half down. Thank God it was shallow. My heart was pumping! My mom would’ve been pissed at me for drowning in Iceland’s wilderness. The crazy thing about a destination like Iceland is that you can be as close to or as far away from nature as you want. No one is there to regulate you. All of the adrenaline made me think about missing my Dad and my defenses plummeted. I wished he could see what I was doing. I had a mini break down but it was healthy…and there was no one around to watch me cry! Being connected to the outdoors can often bring about some deep moments. Witnessing the power of mother nature is a very humbling experience.
Hverir and Godafoss. Continue on Ring Road, stopping at Hverir, another geothermal area with sulfur vents called fumaroles and steaming mud pools. Then head to Godafoss for another amazing waterfall. Iceland is all about waterfalls and rainbows and ten million other eyegasmic elements. Oh, it was freezing that day!
Get back on the road. Now it’s time for another long scenic drive west to complete the Ring. If you’re timely, you can make it to Snæfellsnes peninsula before you need to set up camp for the last night. I lucked out and made it just in time for one last light show before it was time to go back to Keflavik in the morning. My northern lights photography had improved!
Day 6: Departure
Return Camper Van. Get up early and drive to Keflavik to return the camper van and head to the airport. Sad, I know. But it’s time to say goodbye to Iceland…for now. Congratulations! You just successfully drove all the way around Ring Road in 5 days. Solo! Oh, and you can also now whip a stick shift in any road or weather conditions.
♥ What I Loved One thing I love about traveling solo, is that it forces you to interact with people outside of your normal circle. If I had a friend with me, I wouldn’t have been able to sit at a restaurant bar in Reykjavik and start up conversation with a young Icelandic investment banker, hear his take on the world and discuss “why are women so difficult?”, I wouldn’t have been able to meet a girl from Malaysia naked in the showers of the women’s locker room at the geothermal pools of Vik and then weirdly at the same time again the next day in the showers in Hofn and discuss our travels and plans for attacking the Ring, I wouldn’t have been able to meet the girl from Australia on the rocks of Reynisfjara beach who was traveling with “other Americans” and was so kind to share the GPS location of the plane wreck…it goes on.