Sports and Outdoor activities in Iceland
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Iceland has its own wrestling style, called glíma – a former Olympic sport where opponents try to throw each other by grabbing one another’s belts – and there’s a serious football (soccer) following; the Reykjavík Football Club was founded in 1899, and an Icelandic consortium owned the English-league club Stoke City between 1999 and 2006. Otherwise, there’s not a great obsession with sport, and most people here go outside not to play games but to work or enjoy the Great Outdoors.
The lava plains, black-sand deserts, glacier-capped plateaux, alpine meadows, convoluted fjords and capricious volcanoes that make Iceland such an extraordinary place scenery-wise also offer tremendous potential for outdoor activities, whether you’ve come for wildlife or to hike, ride, ski, snowmobile or four-wheel-drive your way across the horizon. Further information on these activities is always at hand in local tourist offices, while you can find out more about the few national parks and reserves from the Department of Forestry or various Icelandic hiking organizations. Many activities can be undertaken as part of an organized tour, sometimes with the necessary gear supplied or available for rent. Before you set out to do anything too adventurous, however, check your insurance cover.
You probably won’t be coming to Iceland to swim, but in fact this is a major year-round social activity with Icelanders. Just about every settlement has a swimming pool, usually an outdoor affair and heated by the nearest hot spring to around 28˚C. There are also almost always one or two spa baths or hot pots, providing much hotter soaks at 35–40˚C – another great Icelandic institution, and particularly fun in winter, when you can sit up to your neck in near-scalding water while the snow falls thickly around you. Out in the wilds, hot pots are replaced by natural hot springs – a welcome way to relax trail-weary muscles.
Icelandic swimming pools have their own etiquette that you need to follow. Remove your shoes before entering the changing rooms (there will be a rack in the pool lobby); leave your towel in the shower area between the changing rooms and the pool, not in your locker (this is so you can towel off before returning to the changing rooms, keeping them dry); and shower fully, with soap and without swimwear, before getting in the pool. Note that though there are always separate male and female changing rooms, very few pools have private cubicles.
As Iceland is surrounded by the richest fishing grounds in the North Atlantic, sea fishing has always been seen as more of a career than a sport. The country’s rivers and lakes, however, are also well stocked with salmon and trout, pulling in hordes of fly fishers during the fishing season (April 1 to September 20 for trout; June 20 to mid-September for salmon). Both fish are plentiful in all the country’s bigger waterways, though the finest salmon are said to come from the Laxá in northeast Iceland, and the Rangá in the south. During the winter, people cut holes in the ice and fish for arctic char; the best spots for this are at Þingvallavatn and Mývatn.
You always need a permit to fish. Those for char or trout are fairly cheap and easy to obtain on the spot from local tourist offices and some accommodation, but permits for salmon are extremely expensive and often need to be reserved a year in advance, as there is a limit per river. For further information, contact the Federation of Icelandic River Owners, whose website has a huge amount of English-language information.
Hiking gets you closer to the scenery than anything else in Iceland. In reserves and the couple of national parks you’ll find a few marked trails, though even here guideposts tend to be erratic and you’ll always need to be competent at using navigational aids, especially in poor weather.
However long you’re hiking for, always carry warm, weatherproof clothing, food and water (there are plenty of places where porous soil makes finding surface water unlikely), as well as a torch, lighter, penknife, first aid kit, a foil insulation blanket and a whistle or mirror for attracting attention. The country is carpeted in sharp rocks and rough ground, so good-quality, tough hiking boots are essential – though a pair of neoprene surf boots with thick soles are useful to ford rivers.
On lava, watch out for volcanic fissures, cracks in the ground ranging from a few centimetres to several metres across. These are easy enough to avoid when you can see them, but blanketed by snow they’ll be invisible, so use a hiking pole to test the path ahead. Another hazard is river crossings, which you’ll have to make on various trails all over the country. Glacier-fed rivers are at their lowest first thing in the morning, and rise through the day as the sun melts the ice and snow that feed into them. When looking for a crossing point, remember the river will be shallowest at its widest point; before crossing, make sure that your backpack straps are loose so that you can ditch it in a hurry if necessary. Face into the current as you cross and be prepared to give up if the water gets above your thighs. Never attempt a crossing alone, and remember that some rivers have no safe fords at all if you’re on foot – you’ll have to hitch across in a vehicle.
The best months for hiking are June through to August, when the weather is relatively warm, flowers are in bloom, and the wildlife is out and about – though even then the Interior and higher ground elsewhere can get snowbound at short notice. Outside the prime time, weather is very problematic and you might not be able to reach the area you want to explore, let alone hike around it.
One of the beauties of Iceland is that you can walk just about anywhere, assuming you can cope with local conditions, though there are, of course, highlights. Close to Reykjavík, the Reykjanes Peninsula offers extended treks across imposingly desolate lava rubble; there are some short, easy hikes along steaming valleys near Hveragerði, while trails at Þingvellir include historic sites and an introduction to rift valley geology. Further east, Laugavegur is an exceptional four-day trail; and Þórsmörk is one of the most popular hiking spots in the country, a wooded, elevated valley surrounded by glaciers and mountain peaks with a well-trodden network of paths.
Along the west coast, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is notoriously damp but peaks with the ice-bound summit of Snæfellsjökull, the dormant volcano used as a fictional gateway into the centre of the earth by writer Jules Verne. Further north there’s Hornstrandir, the wildest and most isolated extremity of the West Fjords, a region of twisted coastlines, sheer cliffs and rugged hill walks. Those after an easier time should head to Mývatn, the shallow northeastern lake where you can make simple day-hikes to extinct craters, billowing mud-pits, and still steaming lava flows; longer but also relatively easy are the well-marked riverside trails around nearby Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, which features some awesome canyon scenery. Over in the east, the best of the hikes take in the highland moors and glaciated fringes of the massive Vatnajökull ice cap: at Snæfell, a peak inland from Egilsstaðir; Lónsöræfi reserve near Höfn; and Skaftafell National Park, another popular camping spot on Vatnajökull’s southern edge.
Horses came to Iceland with the first settlers, and, due to a tenth-century ban on their further import, have remained true to their original stocky Scandinavian breed. Always used for riding, horses also had a religious place in Viking times and were often dedicated or sacrificed to the pagan gods; with the advent of Christianity, eating horse meat was banned, being seen as a sign of paganism. Nowadays, horses are used for the autumn livestock round-up, and for recreational purposes.
Icelandic horses are sturdy, even-tempered creatures which, in addition to the usual walk, trot, gallop and canter, can move smoothly across rough ground using the gliding tölt gait. The biggest breeding centres are in the country’s south, but horses are available for hire from farms all over Iceland, for anything from an hour in the saddle to two-week-long treks across the Interior. To organize something in advance, contact Íshestar or Eldhestar, which run treks of all lengths and experience levels right across the country.
Snow sports – which in Iceland are not just practised in winter – have, surprisingly, only recently begun to catch on. Partly this is because the bulk of Iceland’s population lives in the mild southwestern corner of the country, but also because snow was seen as just something you had to put up with; cross-country skiing, for instance, is such a fact of life in the northeastern winters that locals refer to it simply as “walking”, and were baffled when foreign tour operators first brought in groups to do it for fun.
The possibilities for cross-country skiing are pretty limitless in winter, though you’ll have to bring in your own gear. Downhill skiing and snowboarding are the most popular snow sports, with winter slopes at Bláfjöll only 20km from Reykjavík.
Plenty of tour operators offer glacier trips on snowmobiles or skidoos, which are like jet-skis for snow – the only way for the inexperienced to get a taste of Iceland’s massive ice fields, and huge fun. Several of southwestern Iceland’s larger rivers have caught the attention of whitewater rafting enthusiasts, while Iceland also has surprisingly good scuba diving potential, the prime sites being in Þingvallavatn’s cool but amazingly clear waters, at various shipwrecks, and at seal colonies around the coast: Dive Iceland can sort out the details, though you’ll need dry-suit skills.
Hiking trails in Iceland are not formally graded, though local organizations sometimes use a boot icon to indicate difficulty (one boot easy, five boots tough). It’s always prudent to seek local advice about routes, but note that Icelanders, hardened since birth to the country’s conditions, tend to make light of difficulties: a “straightforward” trail often means anything that doesn’t actually involve technical skills and climbing gear, but might well include traversing knife-edge ridges or dangerously loose scree slopes.
Awareness of Iceland’s natural hazards – including the weather and geology – is taken very much for granted; don’t expect to find warning signs, safety barriers or guide ropes at even patently dangerous locations on the edge of waterfalls, volcanoes or boiling mud pits. Always exercise caution, especially at heavily touristed locations – where you’ll often see locals (and uninformed tourists) taking insane risks.