Iceland Trip Recap Part 1: Van Camping

Anyone who has been to Iceland in the past few years can tell you that nothing there is cheap. Gas, hotels, hot dogs, and even trips to the toilet can cost you way more than you’d pay at home. About the only thing cheap about Iceland is getting there. Thanks to Iceland Air, (and the now-defunct Wow Air), flying to the island country is amazingly affordable, which leaves a lot of people showing up in Iceland on the cheap only to realize they have no where to sleep. Enter the camper vans.

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With the flood of tourists to Iceland building for the past decade, it’s gold rush time for the little country that faced economic collapse in 2008. As people crowd onto the island, locals are building hotels, cabins, and shacks just about everywhere you look. While these new accommodations are nice, they are fetching crazy rates and a lot of people coming to Iceland want to explore with more freedom, so the camper vans are a massively popular option.

When I started researching van rental companies, a handful stood out as reputable and responsible. One in particular caught my eye- Happy Campers. Their bright green, red and yellow vans seemed well appointed with everything one would need to eat and sleep comfortably while driving around the country. They aren’t cheap, as I said nothing there is, but the rates were fair and their insurance policies were sensible. I chose them in large part based on the fact that they seemed to be in it for the long haul, and in the current tourism crush many of the van rental places seemed to be just in it for the quick payday.

I chose the mid-size van of their fleet, what we in the states would call a full-size van. Happy Campers calls these vans the Happy 2. The Happy 3 is a high-roof full-size van (like the Mercedes Sprinter vans I adore for my workshops), and the Happy 1, which is a compact van most of us have seen zipping about our cities delivering coffee beans and serving as mobile workshops for the handy people. I originally thought I’d choose the Happy 1 as I would be traveling solo and the little vans are less expensive to rent and fuel, but after watching a few You Tube videos featuring the vans I opted to spring for the larger vehicle and boy howdy I am happy I did.

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Unlike the seemingly-perfect Instagram couples currently flooding the socials with their pretty faces, wide-brimmed hats and impossibly nice hair, I knew that I would need a little more space to park my weary bones and spread out my load of gear. The Happy 2 proved to be a perfect match for my needs for comfort and organizational OCD. More on that later…

When I arrived at KEF, Iceland’s shiny new International Airport which has already been outgrown, I gathered my bags and ignored the shiny duty free store eager to get to Happy Campers and on the road. After a 40-minute wait that I attributed to the busy Saturday at hand, the Happy Camper shuttle arrived and myself and five other travelers piled in. Our driver, a sweet-looking kid with Instagram-worth locks of flowing brown hair, seemed to be getting the hang of the shuttle van’s manual transmission, and the short ride over Happy Campers was delightful despite the rough ride.

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The Happy Campers rental center is as bright and cheerful as their vans. On our sunny Saturday the building gleamed and inside I found pleasant displays of gear that you could rent along with the vans, (things like camp chairs and tables). One set of shelves was filled with the leftover provisions of previous renters. There I saw, but didn’t grab, loads of coffee, pasta, condiments, and other partially-used packages of various victuals. A self-serve coffee maker was ready to be put to use, but as it was only about 10am local time and my internal clock was still reading 1am, I avoided the temptation hoping to be able to sleep later in the day. It’s worth noting here that Iceland in the summer is great for photography if you keep vampire hours. On my trip in late July the sun set around 11:30pm and rose again at 3:30am, with the time between lingering in a deep blue hour light that I find pretty enchanting. Conversely, by 8am the sun is blazing down from overhead with that nasty blue summer light we photographers call “nap time sun”. My plan in Iceland was to sleep during the mid-day tourist rush and work the overnight hours like some street sweeper. On my first day in Iceland, I hoped to get well east on the southern coast and enjoy a nap before shooting the sunset/sunrise so I was really in no rush to get anywhere as I had plenty of time. As it turns out, that was a good thing. In the walk-around of my van, I noticed that the tires were quite bald. With the tempo that these camper vans work in the summer in Iceland I had no illusions that my van would be a brand-new pristine whip, but bald tires… that’s a full-stop for me. I asked to have them looked at and to my pleasant surprise the manager look one look and ordered the on-duty mechanic to toss my ride upon the lift and give her four fresh shoes. So as my van was being fitted with new tires, I perused the giant map of Iceland on the office wall and chatted with a man who I took to be some sort of manager. I also took some time to walk around and peek into the other vans staged at the office. There were scads of the little red VW vans, (Happy 1’s), and they were much more cramped on the inside than my Renault Trafic, (yes, that’s how it’s spelled). They had a couple of the Happy 3 vans there with their stand-up-straight interiors, but with the notorious Iceland winds and my experiences driving Sprinters in gusty conditions, I was happy to forgo the headroom for relaxed driving. The only vans they had there that I like more than my Happy 2 were the new 4x4 VW vans. With these you get the roominess of the Happy 2 with the highland access a 4x4 provides. In my research it was clear that those without 4x4 vehicles were strictly forbidden to travel the mighty F Roads of Iceland, which plunge like sinewy spikes into the island’s incredible highland interior. After peering into the windows of one of the new VW’s I was convinced that my next Iceland adventure would be in one of those.

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After my newly-shod van was ready to go, I headed out from Happy Campers’ office to the shopping center about 1 mile down the road. From my research it was clear that there were two main options for groceries in Iceland, Bonus and Kronan. My van came equipped with an electric cooler that would hold a few day’s worth of groceries and one of the van’s wooden storage drawers was open for non-perishable items. Plenty of space for my needs.

In Bonus, which is Iceland’s bargain grocery chain, I found a vastly pared-down grocery experience from my overabundant American lifestyle. At my home grocery store, there are dozens of thousands of choices when it comes to food items. At Bonus, there was just enough of a choice. I found it refreshing to peruse aisles not overflowing with crap, but instead stacked neatly with things I wouldn’t think to get at home. After wandering like an explorer in uncharted territory, I finally piled a few things into my basket and headed to the front to pay. In the end I bought four bananas, four containers of skyr, (Iceland’s awesome thick yogurt that comes in incredible flavors), a box of chocolate covered raisins, a bottle of kombucha, a bottle of soda water, tea, and some cookies. Iceland’s legendary prices were somewhat mitigated by the bargains at Bonus and I only dropped about $15 for my run. To fill out my shopping spree I walked across the parking lot to the Kronan grocery store. It did strike me as odd that in many towns there were Bonus stores sharing parking lots with Kronan stores, but I get it. Bonus is great for packaged goods, frozen items and beverages while Kronan was much better for produce, meat, and deli items.

Now, let’s talk about the inside of my van. The Happy 2 comes with two sliding doors, one on each side. These provide easy access to the inside and to the storage in the built-in cabinet on the left side fo the van. The right door is where you get in and out and the open area behind the front seats and in front of the back bench seat/bed is ample for sitting, getting dressed and “moving about the cabin”. The left door opens to reveal the back of the cabinet, which is made of naturally-finished plywood and features four plywood cubes that serve as storage drawers for the dishes, cooking pots and pans, utensils and your dry goods. to the right of the storage cubes is the built-in sink and water tank. This simple and very handy setup features an electric pump that brings up fresh water to the small sink. The sink’s drain empties to the ground beneath the van, eliminating the need for a grey water tank and the joys those entail. The water tank looked to hold about 5 gallons of water and I found easy access to fresh water hoses at every gas station and campground I visited. Beneath the sink is a cubby with a single-burner gas stove that does just fine for cooking in the van or out on a picnic table. I found the Happy Camper set of dishes and utensils to be simple, clean and completely sufficient for my needs. The electric cooler is situated to the left of the plywood cabinet, at the same level as the bed. The top of the cooler had two drink spaces, but I thought the notion of balancing a cup of fluid next to a bed to be pretty silly, so I just kept mine on top of the cabinet.

The bed is comprised of a bench seat that folds flat to mate up with flat cushioned platforms on the left side fo the van and across the back. I put the bed down flat and never looked back. It blocked one of the storage cubes, but I could reach into it without opening it anyway so it was fine. By having the bed flat, I could sit on it and get dressed, cook, and enjoy the cross breeze provided by the open side doors. When it came time to sleep I simply pulled the provided bedding out and set up my nest. My clothing was neatly contained on the platform on the left side, aft of the cooler.

The van came equipped with hooks and little netting storage nooks on the panels on each side of the bed, which I used to keep my clothes and various pouches of gear organized. The curtains you see in this picture did a fine job of blocking some light and any peepers. As I slept mainly during the day they proved useful. When drawn back, each curtain had a handy loop to keep it contained in the wind.

For the most part I found the interior of the van completely cozy and well-suited for me and my stuff. I liked having spaced to hang things and a small counter to spread out small stuff. I brought a ton of electronic devices which required charging, so I used the front passenger seat and the dashboard storage compartments as my charging hubs. The van came with two USB ports in the dash. One fed the stereo and the other was smartly placed near the phone holder atop the dash. In the 12v cigarette lighter port I kept an inverter plugged in which worked to charge my drone batteries and anything else needing topping off. At one point I had two Sony camera batteries, a drone battery, my iPhone and my iPad Pro all charging at once. I never even used the 12v port in the back by the bed.

Perhaps the best feature of my Happy Camper was the thing I didn’t think I’d even use, the heater. Installed under the bed was a small electric heater which was powered (along with the cooler) by a roof-top solar panel and extra battery. This heater, which was pretty quiet, blew warm air into the cabin. It was very nice to be able to turn on the little heater, head out for three hours of photography late at night, and return to a toasty warm van that would start. I rented a camper van in California earlier this summer and it had no such luxury and all of its interior lights drew power from the engine battery leaving me antsy as hell about killing it leaving us stuck somewhere. Having a solar panel and a little heater? They are the beating heart of the Happy in Happy Campers.

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So with my van stocked with groceries and outfitted with all of my crap, I drove east along the south coast. The Happy 2’s diesel engine pulling adeptly at highway speeds with no noticeable lugging or chugging. The vans manual transmission was smooth and easy and I have to admit it made me miss manuals. In the states they are a rare beast anymore as Americans prefer to have their hands free to text and make Instagram Live posts.

Another feature of the van which proved most useful was the wifi. It worked all. of. the. time. I used Google maps to navigate as I drove and never had a problem. I uploaded images to my backup server and it worked well. I watched streaming movies for crying out loud! It wasn’t gigabit speeds, but it was coffee shop speed and I loved it. It worked as soon as I turned on the van and it stayed on for a few hours after I parked. Awesome.

So with Google Maps guiding me I made my way east, marveling at how many other camper vans were sharing the roads with me. When I passed another Happy Camper, more often than not we greeted each other with a wave, as if we knew we had chosen well. When I arrived at Skagafoss later in the day, I was dismayed to see the place completely overrun with people. Buses, RVs, camper vans and lots of little rental cars crowded the riverbank below the falls. People were everywhere! I could see a long string of them ascending the trail alongside the iconic falls like Everest summiteers. Throngs gathered in the spray at the base of the falls mimicking the social media images that drew them there. I used the van’s wifi to FaceTime with my kids and I drove on, never setting foot on the ground at Skogafoss. “If this is Iceland”, I thought, “I’m about eight years too late.”

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Truth be told, the crowds at Skogafoss are Iceland in the summer. The allure of nature is a powerful draw for many and based on the bus loads of tourists congregating in places like the glacial lagoons on the south coast and the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik I’d say Iceland is doing a masterful job of turning its wild places into piles of money. As I pulled into the quaint little town of Vik the sunshine had been replaced by rain clouds and the busses of tourists had disappeared over the horizon. It was time to put some camp in my camper van. I found the local campground, and let me tell you every town in Iceland has one, and pulled up to the main building. I paid my 1600 ISK and found a spot to park amongst the other camper vans and small RV’s. As I rummaged around in the back getting my things organized and my bed made up, I could hear the wind and rain tip tapping on the van and I was immensely glad to not be the small group of people near me trying to turn a wind-whipped cloud of nylon into a habitable tent. In all of the campgrounds I visited, they all charged by the person, so my bright green camper van cost the same to camp as the tiny tents nearby. I smiled contently as I sipped some hot tea and snuggled into my bed to watch a movie on my iPad. It was about 4pm and I was ready to sleep.

Six hours later I woke to more rain and wind and the reality that whatever sunset I was hoping to photograph was smothered in pewter skies, so I rolled over and fell back asleep. When I came around it was 3am and the campground was silent. The wind and rain had stopped, but the sky was a deep blue cap of clouds. As quietly as possible I drove over to the shower building and took a nice warm shower before departing for my morning of photography. As I eased my van out onto the Ring Road I paused to snap a quick photo of the campground, which had filled to overflowing as I slept.

After a morning filled with puffins and incredible scenery I made my way further east. When my hunger for breakfast got the best of me I stopped at a small picnic area somewhere in a broad alluvial plain of volcanic tephra. With both sliding doors open to the cool breeze I cooked up some breakfast and a nice cup of tea while listening to an audio book. It was a moment os simple pleasures provided by my Happy 2 and it’s just-right appointments. Back on the road I explored the glaciers and mountains of the coast all the way to Hofn. In town I found another little grocery store and picked up some more supplies before settling in for a lobster sandwich at the amazing Kaffi Hornið. The sandwich was a messy treat of garlic, butter, bread and the most delicious little lobster tails you’ve ever seen. I plowed through that sandwich like it was my job. It was easily the best food I had in Iceland. After lunch I retired to the campground, paid my 1600 ISK and found a nice spot alongside some bushes. The rain and wind were back and I found myself once again watching tent-bound travelers suffering with their flapping shelter. The value of the camper van was often confirmed on the south coast, and as I nodded off I reached over and clicked on the little heater just to rub it in.

Sunset that evening was obliterated in rain and wind, but I drove out to Stoksness to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mountains anyway. The sky hung low and dark and I used the van’s trusty wifi to check the weather forecast for the rest of the country. I didn’t fly all this way to sit in the van. The weather map for the entirety of the country showed rain, except for the Snæfellsnes Peninsula up in the north western corner of the island. With nothing but time and a long audio book on my hands I turned west and pushed on. When I reached the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón, I parked on the west side of the lagoon’s outlet river and napped for an hour or maybe two. I woke at 3am to find the rain had slacked so I ventured out onto the beach to photograph the icebergs that had washed ashore. Diamond Beach is a wonderful spectacle and I recommend it early in the morning when the rest of the world is asleep. One other photographer joined me on the long beach and we spent hours in the moody boring light shooting big chunks of ice jostling about in the waves. When I returned to the van it was dry and warm and yet again I appreciated the forethought on the part of the Happy Campers designers.

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Many hours later I found the sun on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and located the campground at Grundarfjörður. By this point I was getting good at spotting the best places to park the van and I found a perfect spot directly behind the local pool. The spot was on a slight slope, but the view from the back of the van was amazing. A massive Carnival Cruise ship was anchored in the harbor and excursion boats were running people to and from the ship, but none of that was my concern as I pulled the curtains and slept hard deep into the night. My sunset shoot blown by slumber, I eased out of the campground at 2am to explore the most-photographed location in Iceland, Kirkjufell mountain. It was just a few minutes’ drive from town and in the pre-dawn blue glow I could see that I had the place all to myself. For hours I worked the scene at Kirkjufell as the sky lit up and shallow layers of fog teased the mountain. Once again I saw only one other photographer there and enjoyed tranquility and perfect conditions.

I explored the rest of the peninsula for the rest of the morning, alighting at the adorable coastal town of Arnarstapi, which was enjoying gorgeous weather and a heavy load of travelers both winged and wheeled. The campground at Arnarstapi was quite full but I found a secluded spot way out in the back of the property. I soon found out why I had the sunny little meadow to myself as Arctic Terns swooped down on me every time I left the van. The small but noisy birds are the Earth’s most ambitious migrators spending summers in the Arctic and winters in the Antarctic. A few hundred were nesting in the grass behind my van and I fell asleep with the back doors open to the breeze and cacophony of tern cries. It was surprisingly soothing.

After an evening of photography along the rugged bluffs of Arnarstapi, I slipped out of town and drove to Búðir to catch the moonrise over the historic church there.

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It was at the church that I found the ugly downside to the proliferation of camper vans in Iceland. Parked directly in front of the tiny church, which sits alone on a scenic bluff overlooking the sea, was a goddamned camper van. Someone, who knows who, was all tucked in enjoying their sleep as their obnoxious van ruined my composition. No matter how far I wandered on the mossy lava fields around the church, I could not get a really epic shot fo the church and the rising moon without the silly van in the shot. It was infuriating and it was all I could do not to walk over and play patty cakes with the side of the little van.

In Iceland, there are laws against camping outside of designated campgrounds. With few exceptions, you must park your little van in a campground when you sleep. But I saw this a lot in my few days on the Island… there are many people who just pull up and park for the night wherever they damn well please. I saw camper vans in picnic areas, in pullouts, and in parking lots with their curtains drawn and the drivers snoozing away inside. Like the selfish prick in the little van at the Búðir church, these folks are taking advantage of the kindness of the locals as they bet on getting away with saving 1600 ISK on a camping spot.

The campgrounds I stayed in were all lovely. They featured clean bathrooms, warm showers, places out of the weather to cook and eat and they were everywhere! I was told at Happy Campers that you were likely to be within 30 minutes of a campground wherever you were on the Ring Road. Hell, Happy Campers even maintains a very exhaustive and informative Google Map of all of the campgrounds in the country!

And that brings me to my conclusion. I really enjoyed my Happy Camper van. It was comfortable, easy to drive, well-equipped and thoughtfully-designed. It wasn’t cheap but considering how much a rental car and hotel rooms would have run me it was a good value. The freedom the van afforded me was immense. I was able to ditch my original plan to explore the south and east of the country when the weather wasn’t cooperating and chase the sun in the west. I could cook good food just about anywhere and save my money for one nice meal each day in a restaurant. The van’s wifi and ample electrical outlets allowed me to keep all of my gadgets charged up and connected. When I returned the van I felt a little sad, like I was leaving a friend too soon.

I get the wisdom of seeing Iceland in a camper van, I really do, but I wish there wasn’t so many of them. Especially in places where they don’t belong like in front of one of the country’s most photogenic churches as the moon rises beyond. I wish you had to pass some sort of test to get a camper van in Iceland. Maybe they could devise a way to screen out the selfish cheapskates who are more than happy to spend hours driving to a remote location to muck up some guy’s photo.

But none the less, it was a great trip.

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