🧊 Iceland’s Vatnajökull Glacier Hike: How To Visit, What to Wear and Expect

The blog author surrounded by glacier in all directions.

Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where you can easily access a glacier (for now). I took an Iceland glacier hike tour to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, and it was unlike other hikes I’ve done.

Glacier hikes are a unique experience that require a different kind of preparation from regular hikes. Here, I share practical tips on hiking Vatnajökull and what to wear and expect.

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Is a Glacier Hike in Iceland Worth It?

To help you decide whether hiking a glacier in Iceland is worth it, here are some of the hike’s highlights and lowlights.

Highlights of Hiking an Iceland Glacier

  • The accessibility of glaciers in Iceland are rare. It’s not easy to access a glacier in all parts of the world. Iceland is one of the few countries where a glacier is somewhat accessible. In New Zealand, for example, you have to take a helicopter to get on a glacier. In Iceland, you just need to take a short bus ride.
  • Iceland’s glaciers may not be accessible in the future. Most glaciers are receding due to climate change, so access will become harder in the future. According to glacier experts, Vatnajökull may not be as accessible in 4 to 6 years. It’s already less accessible than it used to be as it has already receded.
  • Hiking a glacier is a unique experience. If you want to do something different than your typical hike, this is your chance. You’ll wear crampons, learn how to walk on snow and stare at an endless landscape of blue and white ice.

This 1-week Iceland itinerary shows how to fit in a Vatnajökull glacier hike into your trip.

Lowlights of Hiking an Iceland Glacier

  • Glacier hiking is very expensive. At $200+ for 5 hours, an Iceland glacier hike is one of the most expensive tours you can take in an already expensive country.
  • Glaciers are not the only natural beauty around Iceland. Iceland is known as a country with breathtaking nature, so there are many other amazing things you can do besides hiking a glacier. You can also just look at the glacier from afar and still be amazed.
  • Glacier weather is very volatile. Like all of Iceland, the weather when you’re on a glacier can change rapidly. If it storms badly enough, you might even have to turn around. You’ll also be miserable if you don’t dress correctly (see what to pack below).

General Information on Iceland Glacier Hiking

Where can you hike a glacier in Iceland?

📍 In Iceland, there are two main glaciers that you can hike: Sòlheimajökull and Vatnajökull (“jökull” means glacier in Icelandic).

  • Sòlheimajökull is a 2-hour drive from Reykjavík and it’s usually a shorter hike (~1 hour on the glacier). Most tour operators offer pickup from Reykjavík and some even pickup at certain stops between Reykjavík and Sòlheimajökull.
  • Vatnajökull, Europe’s larger glacier, is a 4-hour drive from Reykjavík and it’s usually a longer hike (~2 hours on the glacier). Being on the glacier for longer also means you get to go higher into the glacier and see more of it. This is the glacier hike I chose to do.

Visitors tend to stay at the nearby Skaftafell town when hiking Vatnajökull.

Can you glacier hike without a guide in Iceland?

⛑️ In Iceland, it’s not illegal to hike a glacier without a guide, but it’s not recommended because:

  • You need to have the right equipment (e.g., crampons, helmets)
  • More importantly, you need to know how safely hike a glacier (e.g., how to avoid stepping on and falling through a hollow spot, what to do if you fall into a hole), especially if the weather turns stormy.

How hard is the Vatnajökull glacier hike in Iceland?

🥾 For a Vatnajökull hike, you’re typically on the glacier for ~2 hours and it’s not a difficult hike if you’re in a decent physical shape. The pace of walking is relatively slow to regular hiking because:

  • You should make sure you’re using your crampons appropriately with every step (i.e., stomping into the ice and making sure you don’t slip)
  • The guide needs to assess the path forward at all times
  • The group will take several breaks to admire the view or learn more about the glacier

If you prefer a more relaxing activity in Iceland, check out some of the popular hot springs in the South Coast.

What are some Iceland glacier hike tour operators?

🚌 There are several Iceland glacier hike tour operators, including Melrakki, Glacier Adventure and Troll Expeditions, which all have positive reviews and different options.

For my Iceland glacier hike tour, I booked with Arctic Adventures because of how well-rated they were across several platforms I use. Here are some details about my experience:

  • Tour duration: Artic Adventure’s morning Vatnajökull hike started at 9:20am and ended at 3pm, so it was 5.5 hours total, including transportation. See how the tour breaks down below.

Different glacier hike tour operators offer different times, but there’s generally a morning and afternoon hike.

  • Tour group size: Iceland glacier hike tour groups are usually 8 to 12 people, not including the guide. Melrakki says they specialize in small group tours (i.e., max of 8 people) whereas other tour operators may go above that number. My tour group had 12 people, including the guide.
  • Tour cost: Artic Adventure’s glacier hike costs $230 during the high, summer season (which is when I visited), making it one of the most expensive tours I’ve ever taken. This Iceland trip cost breakdown outlines all my tour and travel expenses.

Glacier hike tour’s cost vary between the low and high seasons. During the low, winter season, tours tend to cost between $100-$150. During the high, summer season, the glacier hike tours shoot up to $200+.

Six people walking on a train towards a mountain with glacier on it.
Approaching the Vatnajökull glacier hike.

What To Expect on an Iceland Glacier Hike

Artic Adventure’s Vatnajökull hiking tour is 5.5 hours long, but you’re only on the glacier for 2 hours. Here’s how the tour breaks down:

Part I: Preparation

  • Gear up (40 minutes). At the meeting point near Skaftafell, you’ll provide emergency contacts and gear up. Gearing up consists of ensuring you have:
    • The right helmet size
    • The right crampon size
    • A harness
    • An ice pick
    • Acceptable hiking boots

Acceptable hiking boots need to have ankle protection, hard soles and the right shape for the crampons. My Salomon boots didn’t meet the requirements, so I rented boots for 1000 ISK (~$7.25).

A hiking shoe next to more intense hiking boots with toe and ankle protection.
My Salomon boots vs. the glacier hiking boots I rented.
  • Educational introduction (15 minutes). Your tour guide will give you an introduction of the glacier mountain you’re about to hike.
  • Bus ride (20 minutes). You’ll get on a bus that takes you closer to the glacier. Approximately 5 minutes of the bus ride will be on mountain roads, where it gets more bumpy, but not enough to lead to motion sickness (which I usually get).

Part II: Glacier Hike

  • Hike to glacier (45 minutes). The group of ~25 people will split into 2 groups and each group will get its own tour guide, so that tour group size is kept to 12 people maximum. You’ll do an easy, flat hike to the glacier. Right before getting on the glacier, the guide will teach you how to put on and walk in crampons.
  • Glacier hike (~2 hours). The glacier is ever changing, so the route you take on the glacier varies (my guide said he tries to cover some of the same highlights, but rarely takes the same route). During the hike, I walked through a crevasse, saw a waterfall, peeked into deep holes and drank glacier water (I didn’t know water could taste this fresh and delicious).

Wearing the right clothes (more on that below) gets very important on the glacier. My hike started with sunny weather and about an hour in, it started hailing and raining on us. I didn’t wear waterproof pants (only water resistant ones) and my legs were freezing. One person didn’t bring gloves and he was miserable.

The tour operator encouraged us to pack snacks and lunch. Since it rained and hailed during lunch time and we could not find cover, my group skipped lunch.

The blog author wearing crampons in between two glaciers taller than her.
Walking through a glacier crevasse in Vatnajökull.
  • Hike back to bus (45 minutes). You hike the same way back.
  • Bus ride back (20 minutes). The bus takes you back to the tour’s meeting point in Skaftafell.

What To Wear and Pack on an Iceland Glacier Hike

The weather on an Iceland glacier is as volatile as the weather in Iceland: it can be warm and sunny for a few minutes and then turn cold and windy. My hike started sunny and turned into a hail storm.

A cloudy sky with a glacier, snowy floor.
The sky turned cloudy an hour into my glacier hike.

Wearing the right clothes on an Iceland glacier hike will ensure you don’t have a miserable experience if the weather doesn’t hold up. Here’s what to wear and pack to an Iceland glacier hike:

  • Acceptable hiking boots. If you don’t want to rent boots, you need to bring boots that meets the glacier hike requirements. I was fine renting boots since I wanted to wear my comfortable and less intense hiking shoes for the other parts of my Iceland trip.
  • Waterproof outer top. You want an outer waterproof layer that you can remove if it gets too warm.I brought my reguular rain jacket and had several layers underneath.
  • Waterproof pants. My biggest regret was bringing water-resistant pants instead of waterproof ones. My legs were freezing during the hail storm and having waterproof pants would have significantly lessened how cold I was.
  • Layers for your upper body. If the weather stays sunny, you won’t want to wear your puff or outer gear the entire hike. In fact, before the hail storm, I was warm in my sun hoodie and some people even wore short sleeves.
  • Waterproof gloves. You’ll likely not want to hold your metal ice pick with your bare hands when it gets cold, so it’s good to pack some waterproof gloves.
  • Hat or headband. It can get very gold and you’ll want head protection.
  • Day pack with rain cover. You’ll need a bag to hold your snacks and extra layers. My backpack had straps in the front that could carry my ice pick, which was great because I didn’t end up using them at all.
  • Sunglasses (optional). You might want these if your eyes are sensitive; glaciers can get very reflective. I didn’t feel like I needed them, but some hikers had them.
  • Reusable water bottle. Glacier water is safe to drink in Iceland, so you’ll want to bring something that can scoop water up. I brought my Hydro Flask and it was great.

Some tour guides will proactively stop to taste Iceland glacier water. I had to ask my guide if I could grab some and it was the freshest water I’ve ever tasted.

  • Snacks/Lunch. The tour operator encouraged us to pack snacks and lunch. Since it rained and hailed during lunch time and there was no cover, my group skipped lunch and we ate later while waiting for the bus.

If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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