Tips on Hiking a Glacier in Iceland

The first country I visited overseas was Iceland, and it was quite the adventure! One of the main activities on our itinerary was hiking a glacier. Though being relatively prepared for this journey, mistakes were still made! Here are 7 tips on hiking a glacier in Iceland (during wintertime).

 

1. Get PLENTY of sleep

I’m going to start off by saying: don’t repeat my mistakes. Get a full nights rest or you’ll regret it. A full nights rest (approximately 8 hours) is important for any physical activity so your mental and physical stamina can keep up to complete the activity (and make it to the top!). Lack of sleep can lead to lack of alertness (you’ll read what [almost] happened to me later), as well as overall moodiness. For your own sake (and your travel buddy, if you have one), get some rest so you’re not a pain in the butt!

 

2. Be prepared for the weather.

We visited Iceland in January, so I’ll be basing this advice on that time of the year. IT WAS COLD. The city of Reykjavik was more along the lines of “sweater weather,” speaking if you come from a colder climate already. Anywhere outside of the city was especially cold (yet still beautiful). Make sure all of these items listed below are waterproof. Even if hiking a glacier is not on your itinerary, you don’t want to get soaked through your pants!

  • Winter jacket (longer is preferred to cover your bum).
  • Winter boots that are as high (or higher) than your ankle. Having support is important for any hike, but especially when you’re walking on ice.
  • Winter accessories: hat, gloves, etc. (hat, gloves, etc.)
  • Waterproof rain pants
  • Thermal pants, shirt, socks

The day we scheduled our glacier hike was, of course, raining, snowing AND windy. Unfortunately, I did not bring rain pants on my trip to Iceland, (I’m going to place the blame on being 19, young and stupid) though I was able to borrow a pair as our tour guide had extra (which were admittedly a little big and baggy). I’m not entirely sure how “waterproof” they REALLY were since I still got soaked through my jeans and thermal pants underneath. Bring your own as to avoid this issue. (Wet and cold is a terrible combination, especially for a sleep deprived person. Also, you can’t depend on others to have extras!)

 

3. PAY ATTENTION.

When hiking a glacier, it’s necessary to pay attention to many things. Pay attention to your guide and how you’re walking. It’s crucial to walk properly when wearing crampons. To make sure the spikes dig into the glacier, you need to stomp. It’s a little awkward at first, but necessary to not slip and fall. Pay attention to WHERE you’re walking. Don’t simply look down at your crampons the whole time, you might fall into a crevasse. Speaking from experience from my lack of sleep… I didn’t fall in, but I was 2 short steps away!

They have straps hooked onto you in case that happens (for them to easily haul you out), but please… let’s have none of that. It’s unknown how deep the crevasse may be.

 

4. Get in [decent] shape.

Hiking, or doing any physical activity, in a cold climate is more difficult than if you were on a beautiful spring afternoon. Depending on your hiking (or physical fitness) level, you may already be prepared in this aspect for hiking a glacier. Hiking through the woods in your hometown or a hike through the mountains is quite a bit different from hiking a glacier nonetheless. At 19 years old, I worked out and lifted weights pretty frequently, so I was in overall decent shape. Nonetheless, it was still difficult to hike this glacier!

 

5. Go at your own speed.

Whether you go solo, in a group, or with a guide, please remember it’s okay to go at your own pace!  I went at a snail’s place–walking on ice, even with crampons, was mildly terrifying for someone as clumsy as myself. The guide stayed close to me and kept an eye on me; he really saved me from not paying attention!

 

6. Learn about glacial terrain.

Our hike was [relatively] easy since we followed a couple of tour guides on our glacier hike. They knew the best paths and directions which meant less worry on our part. If you’re choosing to hike it yourself (whether in Iceland or elsewhere in the world), it’s important to learn about the terrain. Glaciers consist of ice and rocky material, even compacted snow, and they are constantly moving. This means over time the flow of the glacier and strength of the ice changes, causing the overall glacier paths to change. Coming from Wisconsin (and my aunt from California), we were especially grateful to have the help of a couple guides!

 

7. Know the hazards of glaciers

Understand that it’s an extremely slim chance of all of these occurring, but I believe it’s crucial to research information regarding the activity you’re involved in to be fully informed.

  • Crevasses: These are likely to be the most common glacial hazards, though they are [relatively] easy to avoid. Crevasses are cracks (of various size) in the ice. Sometimes they are covered by snow caused by strong winds and storms. (Source: Alaska Satellite Facility)
  • Avalanches: Most people are familiar with avalances (large mass of snow/ice/rock falling) They can be caused by natural ocurrances such as new snow/rain and earthquakes. Overloading, temperature, slope angle, snow pack conditions and vibrations also come into play. (Source: Richardson, Reynolds Quarternary International)
  • Glacier Outburts & Jökulhlaup: “Both refer to the rapid discharge of water under pressure from a glacier.” (Source: Richardson, Reynolds Quarternary International)

This PDF written by Shaun D. Richardson and John M. Reynolds has more in depth information and an excellent table comparing the hazards and the time scale for each of them.

 

 

Have you ever hiked a glacier (or considered it) before? What was your experience like? (Hopefully better than mine!)

7 Tips for Hiking a Glacier in Iceland during Winter. What to wear, research, and what NOT to do before you walk on the ice!

59 Comments

  1. Iceland in January, wow! I cannot even imagine, I’m so not a winter person 🙂 Having said that, it must’ve been gorgeous I’m sure and the experience of glacier hiking is always amazing . I’ve done it a couple of times and it wasn’t a walk in the park! You’ve given some nice tips here!

  2. Awesome tips! I’ve never hiked a glacier, but I have hiked over 10,000 feet in the winter, and I have to say, going at your own speed is critical. I was with a group of people who were super supportive with me, as I am a slower hiker than most. Hydration is also key, as is getting into some sort of shape. We never really know how our bodies will react, even if we’ve hiked before. Good to know!

  3. jin

    This was something I wanted to do when I was in Iceland 3 years ago, but we went in July and turns out most of the climbing companies weren’t even open during this time due to the ‘warm’ conditions! I would love to go back during the wintertime and do this activity!

  4. This is really useful information! We were going to hike a glacier in Alaska without any prep but then didn’t have time and couldn’t do it. Knowing us we would try to hike in Iceland without prepping either so now I know the prep that needs to go into it beforehand the equipment we need!

  5. Abigail Sinsona

    I bet glacier hiking is truly an adventure! Your tip on number 2 is what scares me most, if I should ever go on one. Falling into a crevasse would be disastrous. Thanks for sharing out your practical tips, not just tips that we already know in general, but ones from your own experience.

  6. Brooke

    I’m cold just reading about this!! These are helpful tips and I learned a lot since I haven’t been to Iceland yet. I laughed out loud at “sweater weather” in January hahaha I’m from California I think I’d probably freeze! Sounds like a fun adventure for your first trip abroad 🙂

  7. love this! All this is such great info. i’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, but my husband is like “you dont like hiking long distances… what makes you think you’ll be able to do this?” and he’s right. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to hiking more than 6 miles, and thats in good weather… I have to say though, it looks like its totally worth it to see such beauty.

  8. I like your points here, but I think this post itself is just generally important because people really need to step a back sometimes (especially tourists) and respect the power of Mother Nature. Exploring a country like Iceland, in the deep sense of the word, takes a lot of knowledge and respect. Nicely done!

  9. I would love to hike glaciers in Iceland! I just hope I can brave the cold one of these days to go there during winter time. These tips are great and they helped me get a better perspective of what it’s like to hike the glaciers. I have a question though that perhaps you can answers. Is there an option to rent the clothing gear to hike the glaciers? This would be so convenient.

  10. The glaciers of Iceland are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and I just loved that they were so accessible. Having been there, your tips are excellent and should be paid attention to for anyone wanting to do this activity. The weather is so interchangeable in Iceland and usually for the worse too. Sleep is something that I think a lot of people underestimate. It’s just for mental and physical revival especially when undertaking such onerous events. Well done on doing it !

  11. Thanks for sharing the tips! That’s great that you can let us know from experience what to watch out for! I definitely would love to try this. What was the cost for your hike excursion and equipment? How long was the hike for? I’m so clumsy so I probably would have fallen. Did anyone in your group fall or get injured in any way?

    -Hanna

  12. Hiking and especially in challenging terrains calls for lots of preparation and forethought. These tips are really helpful for those thinking in terms of hiking the glaciers in Iceland. When I hiked in diametrically opposite conditions in the jungles of Africa, it had its own set of demands. Always pays to be prepared to have a memorable experience.

  13. Very helpful tips on navigating glaciers, not just in Iceland, but anywhere in the world. I bet no one thinks about aspects like crevasses, avalanches and glacier outbursts while on a glacier surface, but better safe than sorry. And I guess fitness is the biggest consideration .

  14. Anna Schlaht

    Great guide to glacier hiking! We’re headed to Iceland (our second trip there) next month and are looking forward to doing a LOT of hiking, especially to a glacier this time. The reminder about sleep and getting waterproof pants is HUGE! That’s one thing on our list that we’re missing, so thanks for the heads up. We just wore jeans last time and it worked out OK-ish, but definitely could be smarter this time. Also, you’re so brave to go in January. We went in November and it was cold enough. Can’t imagine the wind, snow, and ice … or the dark. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  15. I have to admit, I totally wussed out from hiking on the glaciers in Iceland. I was too scared that I’d be too cold to enjoy it. I am gutted though, because it does sound amazing! There are some wonderful tips here. and if I ever make it back to Iceland (or anywhere else that has them), I will be bearing them in mind.

  16. I’ve done a lot of hiking but never hiked any glaciers before, but these are great tips and very useful. Iceland is definitely a place I’d love to visit some day and I’m sure I’d definitely be hiking some glaciers so thanks for these tips!

  17. Amazing! I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland. It has obviously become incredibly popular in the last few years though, which has allowed for more info to be available. These are great tips that I’d use when I finally make this dream a reality!

  18. Hiking in itself is an amazing thing to go for. But hiking a glacier, just hearing this makes a wave of excitement to run through. Your tips are golden. Especially point 7 knowing the hazards, which are really helping one in getting self-aware. I must say this is a great article and thank you for sharing with us.

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