Hi again Woks of Life Travel readers. We’re back with more about Iceland! Specifically…a guide on how to travel Iceland’s Ring Road in a camper van. Everything from choosing the right van rental company to practicalities like packing, meal planning, and navigation.
While I really enjoyed writing that 10-Day Iceland Itinerary post we published recently, this is the post I’ve been most looking forward to writing. After a week and a half of showering in public bathrooms, regulating our daily water intake to minimize middle-of-the-night outdoor bathroom excursions, searching for roadside sleep spots with the perfect view, and cooking three meals a day on a little butane stove, I’ve learned:
- I enjoyed cooking in the van more than cooking in my own kitchen. In fact, pretty sure we ate healthier, tastier meals in that van than I do at home.
- Sleeping in a van can actually be incredibly comfortable, as long as you choose the RIGHT van. One with a spring mattress, fluffy down comforters, and an electric heater (more on this later).
- I miss the van.
- …I think I might want to live in a van all the time.
I can sense your skepticism through my computer screen. Showering in public?! Peeing on the side of the road…potentially in full view of passers-by? (Yes, this happened. Several times.) Attempting to cook an entire meal in a space that makes your average Manhattan studio look practically palatial? Is that supposed to be FUN?
Yes. A THOUSAND times yes.
Not only are road trips just good for the soul, a road trip on Iceland’s Ring Road is the absolute best way to see much of what the country has to offer.
But I get it––before I launch into how to travel in a camper van, maybe I should start with why.
1. Why is a camper van the best way to see Iceland?
It gives you a lot more flexibility.
A trip around Iceland’s Ring Road is an incredible way to see the country. As you could probably glean from the Iceland Itinerary post, there are tons of cool things to see along the way.
But road trips can also be unpredictable––especially in Iceland. From unexpected rain or snow (as the saying in Iceland goes…don’t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes.), to road closures, to unplanned stops for a nap or a long, lingering lunch in a particularly spectacular spot, a journey along Iceland’s Ring Road isn’t necessarily conducive to having a regimented schedule.
While you can do a bunch of pre-planning to set up your itinerary, you’ll probably end up deviating from that initial plan quite a bit.
A camper van makes those deviations from the plan that much easier.
Hungry? Stop and make a meal without having to worry about getting to that ONE restaurant in the next town before closing time.
See a random cool waterfall from the road that you want to check out? Go!
Tired? Pull over, pop open the bed, and take a power nap (Justin and I are basically 80-year-olds in 29/27-year-old bodies, so we did a fair amount of unscheduled napping).
It costs less money.
Iceland can be expensive. Food at restaurants and stays in even the most modest of guesthouses (there aren’t many of them either) can cost a lot of money.
While the van wasn’t exactly cheap (it cost us about 1882 Euros for 10 days, or about $230/day), when you factor in the money saved in food and lodging, plus all the added convenience, it makes a lot more sense than renting a regular car.
It’s a very comfortable way to travel.
When you have everything you need in one place, you not only have the ultimate freedom, you also have a very comfortable life on the road. Just one of many examples of this on this trip: we were headed for Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and on the way, we were passing some pretty incredible glaciers, not all that far from the road.
We parked the van, threw open the back doors, and I had this view, from the cozy, comfy couch in the back of the van.
We made some tea, broke out some cookies (my favorite buttery Walkers Shortbread cookies that I’m not ashamed to say I packed in my suitcase to take with me for just such occasions), and admired the scenery for a while.
2. Choosing a Camper Van
Okay, so you’re sold on the whole camper van idea. Now it’s time to choose your trusty steed.
What you’ll find when you start doing camper van research is that there are a ton of camper van rental companies in Iceland. The popularity of the camper van approach to the Ring Road has increased in recent years, and as a result, there are many choices out there.
Some of the camper van companies that we commonly saw on the road were: Happy Campers, CampEasy, Go Campers, Kuku Campers, and Campervan Iceland.
I was initially very overwhelmed during the research phase, because there are several factors to consider:
- Price. It’s a bit more complicated than just price/day though. Pay attention to what’s included in the rental price, and what you have to pay for as an add-on expense. Are basics like linens/sleeping bags, a cooking stove/utensils included? Or do they cost an additional fee?
- Van amenities. Beyond things like the linens and cooking supplies, does the van have things like an electric heater (you will want this at night, especially if you’re going to Iceland in the wintertime), an electric cooler (another essential, since you’ll need to store meat and dairy when cooking all your own meals), and a comfortable bed? Compare the interiors of various vans. Which looks the most comfortable?
- Airport pick-up/drop-off service. Does your van rental company provide this service? It can save you money and trouble and possibly justify a slightly higher price point.
- Customer service. Find all the customer reviews you can get your hands on. What was the company like to work with? What kind of support can you expect if you get stranded?
I eventually chose a company called Cozy Campers.
They are definitely one of the smaller van rental companies in Iceland, with 30-40 vans in their fleet.
We didn’t see as many of these out on the road as some of the others like CampEasy or Kuku Campers, but we DID creep on a bunch of other people’s vans in parking lots and campgrounds to make some “Keeping Up with the Jones’s” style comparisons, and I can confidently say that our van was just. the. best.
I really liked the look of the interior of their vans––they looked higher quality and more comfortable than any others I saw in my research. We rented the Cozy 5, one of their larger models, but the smaller ones were also nice.
They also checked all the boxes in terms of amenities: an electric cooler to hold all our perishables, a heater that could run in the van at night, a sink with running water, and a comfy bed with down comforters and pillows (other van companies offer just sleeping bags).
The customer service was also awesome. We contacted Harpa at the main office when our apparently new butane stove broke on our first night. She was super responsive and located a Byko location nearby (Iceland’s version of Home Depot) where they had the stove in stock (she called ahead to make sure).
They also offered free Flybus tickets from Keflavik airport to BSI Bus terminal as well as free taxi service from the bus terminal to their office (all told, this saved us about $100) and drove us to our Airbnb after we dropped the van off at the end of the trip.
Cozy Campers is not necessarily the cheapest option out there, though. So when choosing your own camper van, just keep in mind what’s important to you!
3. Buying Groceries In Iceland & Eating Well in the Van
Before I delve deeper into buying groceries in Iceland, I should mention the fact that at the camper van office, there was a shelf full of free food and other supplies (toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, etc.) left behind by other campers for us to take. Don’t be shy about using free shelves like this! There’s a constant flow of campers coming back from trips and filling it back up. We definitely had a bunch of stuff to leave behind for others when we left. We snagged bags of pasta, rice, hand soap, an unopened bag of fresh spinach, and even a fresh mango.
But ok, let’s move on to Bónus.
Bónus is the most popular grocery store in Iceland, and it’s the only place we shopped at for the entire trip.
Their prices for produce, snacks, and canned goods are all pretty reasonable––comparable to what you’d probably see in an American grocery store.
Where the prices got a bit higher, though, was in the meat department.
Red meat like beef or lamb was all about $15-$20/pound, so we avoided that stuff all together, instead opting for ground pork, boneless skinless chicken thighs, bacon, and deli meat like ham and salami.
Some of my favorite regular purchases were:
- Bagged baby spinach (Already washed and ready-to-use in sandwiches, salads, pastas, omelettes, stir-fries, or stews. We probably went through 4 bags of the stuff).
- Bagged salad greens (for an easy lunch with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches)
- Radishes (these don’t require refrigeration and were always ready to be thrown into a salad)
- Cherry tomatoes (also a super versatile ingredient for salads, pastas, or breakfasts)
- PB & J (for a very fast snack or even dessert)
- Skyr (Iceland’s version of yogurt, very similar to greek yogurt and great at breakfast with some granola and sliced banana, mango, or blueberries)
- Bacon (I mean, everyone loves bacon. But it’s also incredibly versatile!)
- Smjör (Butter. They sell it in these little foil-wrapped cubes for ~35 cents each. They’re perfect for throwing into a pasta dish or spreading on morning toast)
Definitely keep in mind that Bónus locations can be few and far between as well. You can use this store locator to help plan out your stops. Also be wary of the fact that opening hours are very strange. The earliest Bónus will ever open is 10 AM, and most days, it closes by 6:30 PM. The hours differ slightly from day to day as well.
BÓNUS NATIONWIDE OPENING HOURS:
- Monday – Thursday: 11:00-18:30
- Friday: 10:00 – 19:30
- Saturday: 10:00 – 18:00
- Sunday: 12:00-18:00
When it came to the actual cooking, I did all of it on this portable gas stove that runs on butane canisters:
It was very fun to cook in here.
The whole trip, I used about 5 full cans of gas. You may not end up needing quite as much. I did a ton of cooking, as well as things like boiling water for tea or heating milk for hot cocoa.
Breakfasts were usually very hearty. Cheese and veggie omelettes with bacon and toast, skyr and granola with fruit, and of course, coffee.
Lunches were usually something quicker to make, like a quick one-pan pasta or a salad/grilled sandwich combo.
We also snacked during the day. Remember those Walkers Shortbread cookies I mentioned packing in my suitcase earlier? It was one of those “special” items that I brought from home, in addition to things like bags of my favorite hot cocoa or my mess kit with all my seasonings in it. Walkers now makes these snack packs of individually wrapped cookies that are perfect for taking on this kind of trip. They’re made in Scotland (if you couldn’t already tell from the red tartan packaging), with four real ingredients––butter, sugar, flour, and salt, and they. are. the. bomb. Rare these days to find a packaged cookie you can throw in your suitcase that doesn’t have any artificial flavorings or additives in it.
One of our daily pleasures was stopping in a beautiful spot, whether it was in front of a glacier, on a cliff by the ocean, or surrounded by snowy mountains, boiling a pot of water, and dipping these buttery cookies into hot tea.
If you have favorite things like this to bring from home, whether it’s your favorite kind of tea, a particular seasoning that you love to cook with, or that special bag of cookies, bring it! It’ll be light to pack, and it’ll make your trip that much more enjoyable.
Dinners, of course, were the times I really got to have fun and make more elaborate meals. Pan-seared cajun chicken with mustard/herb buttered potatoes and snow peas one night. Pork bolognese with basil over pasta the next.
Some of the other things on the menu for dinner? Chicken curry over rice, chicken and vegetable stew, and this weird attempt at making something Asian with ground pork and string beans that Justin accurately described as “a bowl of cornstarch and salt.” We ate it all anyway.
I have a bunch of other suggestions on how to plan meals on long camping trips, which can be found in this “Camping Meals” post I shared a while back.
One of our favorite (and, coincidentally, most well-documented) meals, however, was what I’ve come to call “camper van carbonara,” an incredibly ghetto version of something very vaguely resembling carbonara that involved eggs, a bizarre mix of sliced cheeses instead of parmesan, Bónus bacon instead of guanciale, and of course, some smjör (Icelandic butter…butter in Europe is SO much tastier than it is here in the US, by the way).
I’ve included the recipe below, because we’re a food blog, and I couldn’t resist.
4. A Recipe for Camper Van Carbonara
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a quick recipe.
- 12 oz. short cut pasta
- salt and pepper
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 4-5 slices of cheese, shredded by hand (or a couple generous handfuls of actual shredded cheese if you’re classier than we are)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 6 slices bacon, chopped
- Pinch of cinnamon (optional, but I had it in my mess kit so things got kinda fancy)
Step 1: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and add the pasta. Cook according to package instructions.
Step 2: While the pasta is cooking, beat together the eggs and milk in a bowl. Add the butter and the cheese shreds.
Step 3: Keeping the pasta in the same pot you cooked it in, carefully pour out the cooking water. Immediately pour in the cheese/egg/milk mixture, and cover tightly.
Step 4. Cook the bacon and onions in a pan until caramelized.
Step 5: Add the bacon and onions to the pot of pasta, along with salt and pepper, and the pinch of cinnamon, if using.
Step 6: Mix and pray.
If all went according to plan, your camper van carbonara should look something like this:
In case you were wondering, yes. We ate all of it in one sitting.
5. What to Pack
My advice? Pack light. Expect to do laundry while you’re there and to basically wear the same few items each day. The two of us packed everything we needed––clothes, towels, other supplies, in one large checked bag that weighed in at under 20 kg, or 44 pounds.
Here’s what we packed:
- A collapsible soft cooler (to hold produce and other items that didn’t fit in the electric cooler. I take this thing on all my camping trips)
- Hydroflask (optional thermos to keep hot water around for tea)
- Water bottles (we had 2 large Nalgenes)
- A few zip-lock bags and plastic takeout containers (they’re light to pack and are essential for keeping food sealed and for holding leftovers)
- Cooking supplies/seasonings (see my camping meals post for more details here)
- First aid supplies, medications, toiletries
- A light fleece blanket (for extra warmth on cold nights! Could have left this behind, though.)
- Portable charger and plug adapter
- Headlamps with fresh batteries
- Warm coat, preferably waterproof
- Waterproof rain shell
- Hoodie or fleece
- Flannel/wool layer
- 1 sweater
- 3-4 base layer tops
- 2 base layer bottoms
- 1-2 pairs waterproof/lined pants
- 1 pair of sweatpants/sleep pants
- Socks & underwear
- Bathing Suit
- Warm hat
- Slippers (not totally necessary, but came in handy in the van)
- Flip-flops (for showering at campgrounds)
- Hiking Boots
Another thing to pack would be a short length of cord, to make an in-van clothesline. We got ours at Byko, but it makes sense to bring it from home to save a few bucks. You’ll definitely need a way to dry out your swim suits.
I got very excited about this clothesline. It’s the little things.
6. Staying Clean (Showers, Dishes, Laundry)
It’s surprisingly easy to find a shower in Iceland. They can be found in the usual places––campgrounds and hostels. But also, almost every town in Iceland has a public bath or swimming pool.
In Iceland, you are required to take a full shower before entering any of these pools, making it pretty easy to find a shower if you need one.
The proof? We only skipped showers 2 or 3 nights during the whole trip.
Having the sink in the van made it pretty convenient to do small things like brushing our teeth as well. Yay hygiene!
Finding a place to wash dishes was a daily task that turned into a weird game of ours. Which bizarre location would we find ourselves scrubbing plates in next?!
One example…we stopped at a small gas station.
Justin gave the van a good scrub, because that’s a thing he does.
He also does dishes. ;)
Another dishwashing spot? The Freezer Hostel on Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We paid them $5 just to use their kitchen, and also used their bathroom to quickly brush our teeth. Met some other travelers along the way too.
And of course, there was the coolest spot ever…the perpetual shower, a constantly running, geothermal heated shower that doubled as a pretty good dishwashing spot.
Washing machines can be found in many campgrounds (we found them at every single one we stayed at including Skjol, Hamragardar, and Skaftafell––more info in the 10-day Iceland Itinerary post), as well as hostels, for a fee.
We did laundry three times on the trip––once on day 1 (our clothes were soaked through from the rain that day, and the campground we went to that night happened to have a washer/dryer), once on day 3 at Skaftafell, and a last time on the last day of the trip at our Airbnb.
It’s definitely a great way to minimize the amount of stuff that you need to pack!
7. Where to Stay the Night
When it comes to choosing where to park your van every night, you basically have 2 choices:
- Stay in a campground.
- Stay on the side of the road somewhere.
Many of Iceland’s towns and small villages have “campgrounds,” i.e. small designated fields or parking areas to put a van for the evening. But because they are in towns populated by other residents, you’ll be surrounded by buildings, houses, and streetlights. Not exactly ideal.
Campgrounds are great for when you need amenities like dishwashing facilities, showers, laundry, or bathrooms, but after day 3, we opted to stay off the beaten path every night for the remainder of the trip.
This was our approach:
- Make sure that we had a full water tank and clean dishes to make dinner. If we could get a bathroom stop in at a gas station (all of Iceland’s public bathrooms are very clean), all the better.
- An hour or so before sunset, we’d start looking for a spot. Nothing too close to the main road or on any private property. What you’re looking for is a level spot that’s somewhat secluded.
- Check for any “no overnight parking signs.”
And that’s it! It’s as simple as that.
That said, we were in Iceland in March. Icelandic authorities might crack down on this sort of thing more during the summer, when more tourists are out and about in camper vans. Campgrounds are always an option if you want to play it safe.
If you’re planning to go to Iceland in the winter and want to know what campgrounds are still operational in the off season, I found this link to be super helpful: https://www.campeasy.com/info/winter-camping/.
While many campgrounds are closed in winter, some remain open but un-staffed, with “honesty boxes” to leave money in. It’s a good idea to have cash on hand for these situations, so make sure to stop at an ATM in the airport at the beginning of your trip, or at a bank in Reykjavik. For everything else, credit cards are widely accepted.
Here are a few of our favorite sleep spots from the trip:
We found it very easy to navigate Iceland’s roads. Primarily because there aren’t many of them. But here are a few tips we found useful:
- Download an offline map of the entire country using Google Maps on your phone, so that you can navigate with the app even when your phone is not connected to the Internet.
- Make a custom map with all your stops on it. You can also use the one I created here.
- Always regularly check weather and road conditions, especially in winter. Roads close all the time due to snow and ice. For weather, see vedur.is. And for Icelandic road conditions/closures, see vegagerdin.is or http://www.road.is/.
- https://safetravel.is/ is also a great resource for any road tripper in Iceland.
- Navigate to parking lots whenever possible. When searching for a location in Iceland, try adding “parking” at the end. When we tried navigating to Dettifoss (a waterfall in Northern Iceland), for example, Google Maps tried taking us down this very sketchy dirt road that turned out to be closed. I think it was trying to take us directly TO the waterfall. But then we navigated to Dettifoss Parking West, and ended up getting there on main roads with no trouble at all.
- Get gas whenever you can. We never had less than half a tank in the van, so we probably got gas more often than we had to. But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and aren’t sure when you’ll see another gas station, it’s a good idea to just fill up. Also, we came across a few gas stations where the pumps were broken and not able to be fixed anytime soon––another good reason to fill up wherever possible.
9. Staying Connected
Either get a mobile WiFi hotspot or an Icelandic SIM card. We rented our Wi-Fi hotspot from Cozy Campers, and while it was spotty in less populated areas, I would say we were able to access pretty fast 4G Internet about 70% of the time we were on the road. It cost about 10 Euros a day to do this.
This came in handy when our stove broke and we had to contact Cozy Campers, as well as looking up information like road conditions, weather, aurora forecasts, random facts about Icelandic history (because we are both major nerds), and checking in with loved ones at home.
Iceland is a pretty incredible place. Whether you see it from a camper van or a car, you’re going to have an amazing time.
So load up that road trip playlist, and go have an adventure. <3