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!)