Quick Q&A: Is it true that I can camp anywhere for free in Iceland?

I get a lot of questions from people that are renting campers in Iceland or traveling with a tent asking for recommendations about where to camp. Probably much to their disappointment, I always send them links to websites like tjalda.is that lists many of the marvelous campsites we have scattered around the country. My guess is that they were more looking for answers like: “there’s this really amazing rest stop that overlooks the sea and best of all, you don’t have to pay a dime“.

Many of these people have read travel guides and blogs that say that legal to camp anywhere in Iceland and they wonder whether it’s true. So I decided to include this question in my Q&A series but I also want to take advantage of my position here, knowing that usually I have a lot of people reading my posts, and ask you to think about a few things before I answer this question. .

Don’t worry, it’s nothing dangerous and there’s not a test at the end.

Question: Is it true that I can camp anywhere for free in Iceland?

Before we talk about what’s legal lets talk about respect and consideration. I want you to imagine that you live in a house with a beautiful garden. You love that garden and the fact you can go out to it every morning, to breathe in the fresh air and the sweet aroma of the wild flowers, is your favorite part of the day. Maybe you have a little vegetable garden, a few hens running around or a sundeck and a hot tub. It’s a lovely thought. don’t you agree?

Now imagine coming out to your garden one morning to find a tent or a camper van camped in the middle of it. You feel slightly annoyed but you don’t do anything about it, because you are friendly and hospitable,  and you just try to go about your day. You walk your usual route, touching the lupines with your fingertips as you walk past them and feeling the wind in your hair. Until you step into human feces and a bunch of dirty toilet paper gets tangled in your shoes. You notice that the smell of the flowers and wet birch has been replaced with the stink of pee and in the distance you see a potato chips bag blowing over a nearby lava field like some kind of postmodern tumbleweed. Slightly less appealing, isn’t it?

I know my metaphor is not subtle. It’s not supposed to be. I’m trying to make a point here.

I don’t want to make this post about pooping in the wild because frankly I think we are better than that and I’m sick of that discussion. But I can’t not touch on it. I’m also not suggesting that everyone who’s been caught with their pants down all over Iceland this summer are necessarily campers but it’s still time for some real talk. If you camp in the middle of nowhere you are going to need a bathroom at some point when you don’t have access to one. That’s just how it is. And I know what you are thinking, it’s not a big deal if you pee next to the picnic area where you’ve camped for the night this one time. You are not hurting the nature that way, people have been peeing in the wild for ages. And you are right, it doesn’t hurt if you do it but when the 1000 people that came before you, and the 1000 that will come after you, do exactly the same- then we have a problem.

And this is what it all boils down to. Iceland got almost a million tourists last year and we’re expecting even more this year so there’s always going to be people that get the exact same ideas as you do.

But it’s not just the toilet business that is an issue. Some people don’t understand the fragile nature of the vegetation on our volcanic island. These people drive off roads and trails for the perfect spot for the night. Or they pitch their tents in areas where damage can be done. Maybe what looks like a pretty normal field to you is someone’s land that they’ve been working hard at farming. Or if enough people pitch their tents at the same lovely grassy spot, before we know it there’s no grass left.

Just because something is technically legal it doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it.

It’s like that law that was abolished this year, making it illegal to kill Basques in the Westfjords. Did we kill people from the Basque country before that just because it was technically not illegal according to this one law?

There are plenty of campsites in Iceland and most of them are fairly good when it comes to facilities and amenities. They are not expensive, not by any standards, and by using them you are showing respect to the people that own the garden and the garden itself. Think about how you would want visitors to treat your garden.

Back to the legality of things

But is it legal? Can you camp anywhere in Iceland? From the website of the Environment Agency of Iceland:

“Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on uncultivated ground for a single night, unless the landowner has posted a notice to the contrary. However, campers should always use designated campsites where they do exist. Do not camp close to farms without permission. If a group of more than three tents is involved, these campers must seek permission from the landowner before setting up camp outside marked campsite areas.”

I’m pretty sure these laws were passed before anyone could imagine Iceland ever having a million tourists.

 

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43 thoughts on “Quick Q&A: Is it true that I can camp anywhere for free in Iceland?”

  1. Sheldon of Idaho says:

    My first trip to Iceland was in September 1999. No problem camping then! My next trips were in September and in August. No problems.
    My fourth trip, in 2014, I actually made it in late July. Longer days and warmer weather were nice, but the campgrounds were atrocious. Bathrooms filthy, cooking areas filthy, overall every place was toxic.
    You can blame Iceland’s newfound(?) popularity for the problem, or maybe just blame July, but it was disgusting.
    I wouldn’t criticize ANYONE for camping off the grid. And a good poop in the woods (wait, there are no woods!) is probably better for the planet than using one of those campground bathrooms. (Icelanders must know to stay away. Seemed like many campground workers were foreigners.)
    And to get off the bus (I had a Highlands bus pass which restricted my choices of campgrounds) and get charged to use a dirty outhouse was outrageous.
    Oh wait, as I think back, the municipal campground at the Westmann Islands, and the campgrounds in Kirkjubaejarklaustur and Hveragerdi and Kerlingarfjoll were clean. That’s it.
    I love Iceland, but you either need to put a quota on campers, require reservation-only camping, or vastly improve your camping infrastructure–or cease all complaints about camping in the wrong place.
    Thanks for letting me rant!!!!!!!

    1. mm Auður says:

      Thank you for weighing in.

      First of all, on all our camping trips in the last few years I’ve never encountered toxic campsites – maybe you were just unlucky. Just three weeks ago we spent some nights at spotless campsites in the Westfjords (in July) and they were very reasonably priced as well.

      Second, like I said in the post it’s not bad if one person does it or even if a 100 people do it but when 1000 or 10000 people do this, then it becomes a problem. There have been endless news of people doing their business all over the place this summer and it is unacceptable. This is our home, we should be able to enjoy it without shit all over the place. I’m sorry, I just cannot understand this behavior.

      Then we have news like this: http://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/nature_and_travel/2015/07/29/campers_rip_up_moss_to_insulate_tent/

      I think it’s not an unfair plea to ask people to show some respect. We as travelers have to be respectful to the places we visit and we cannot treat them as something that is disposable.

      1. Sean Farrow says:

        Mate, I hear you…

        I’m a landscape shooter based in Australia, planning a trip to Iceland this coming december/january (hence my visit here)… We have some stunning locations overrun and damaged by tourists. The 12 Apostles here in Victoria is awful for tourism damage. I visited Karijini in Western Australia a few years back and was appalled by the damage and attitudes of overseas tourists to this unique landscape.

  2. Brooke says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! Everything I’ve read says the thing to do is just set up camp anywhere, so it is good to know that is not the preferred method (of course, I’d never be so disrespectful… such a shame that people don’t respect nature more). Do you have any favorite camp sites that are particularly scenic – we will be driving the ring road in early September and into the Westfjords too. Thank you for any suggestions!

  3. Mary says:

    Oh for Pete’s sakes. Here in the US there is the land use ethics known as Leave No Trace. Here is their website int.org It is based on 7 principles. Here in the states one can sometimes disperse camp wherever you want but one ought to always use the leave no trace ethics. Yes, what a mess some areas would turn into if people just camped and pooped wherever they wanted.

  4. Gina says:

    I feel like IcelandAir should start including some nature conservancy language in the stopover videos.

  5. Alex says:

    First of all, thank you so much for your wonderful blog. My girlfriend and I are travelling to Iceland next Saturday and we will make a 10 day trip by (small) motorhome. We were wondering if we could just ‘stop’ some place where we don’t bother anybody for the night (no tents), or we would have to stop the motorhome only in designated areas (campings, obviously).

    And for the ‘shitty’ stuff, we have chemical toilets inside the motorhome, so count on us for not spoiling the wonderful nature of Iceland ! I know comments are not meant to be used as Q/A, but we were a little worried about a) outside temperature during the night (should we bring sleeping bags), b) fresh water and cooking gas supply (can we refill those items in gas stations or only in campings) ?

    Thank you very much for your much valuable ultimate shopping guide by the way, it will probably save our lives !

  6. Alexandra says:

    I do agree with and understand your frustration with such campers. However, here’s my only issue:
    I’m coming to Iceland on 14th September and most campsites close on the 15th for winter. I intend to camp for ten days, would you have any alternative suggestions other than wild camping? Or do you know of all year round campsites around the ring road (and would they need to be booked in advance?)?
    Sorry for the questions, but any info would be great! I would much prefer campsites and I would never want to disrespect the garden.

    1. mm Auður says:

      I think you could probably contact most of these campsites and see whether they can offer something out of the official opening hours – the campsites might not be staffed 24/7 but the facilities might still be available.

    2. Nadine says:

      Hi Alexandra. Im also coming to Iceland with a tent the 5 of October, and was told that nearly all campingsites are closed. But after investigating a little i found that you could camp at Reykjavik campisite, and shower and cook at the next door Reykjavik City Hostel, almost in the centre of town. Let them know your coming by mail to info@reykjavikcampsite.is. I hope this was helpful. Have a wonderful stay. Best from Nadine from Norway

  7. AK says:

    Hi – fantastic blog! I am so glad I found you. Traveling to Iceland for the first time from sunny CA. Have been trying to locate budget accommodations, and while we wanted to mix and match, seems like camping may be the best option. I’ve been looking at major travel blogs etc for advice. The issue nowadays I’m discovering mostcampsites close by end of August. We are traveling from sept 2-10. How can we get a list of all sites open during that time? I do not plan to wild camp, and require basic facilities. Thanks for your time!

    1. Chrissy S. says:

      I will be visiting from Baltimore, MD. I will be in Iceland from September 9-14. Maybe I will see you around. We are still trying to figure out if we are camping or staying in hostels/guesthouses. Anyone suggestions?? I think we are going to book a Subaru Legacy from SadCars. Hopefully this will safety get us around Southern Iceland.

  8. Sassenach (Belgium) says:

    Hi! You write:”My guess is that they were more looking for answers like: “there’s this really amazing rest stop that overlooks the sea and best of all, you don’t have to pay a dime“.”
    Well, I surely want to pay for campsites, it’s not expensive at all in Iceland! BUT I hate mass tourism so much, and in the summer, there were al lot of people on most campsites. Noisy people, dirty people, not my “style of happiness”! (3 days on a ferry was already 200% horror)
    So, I give some advice to people who really want to camp in the wild, like I do. But! I travel in a VW-bus.
    -Always respect nature and people’s property and privacy. I always stayed 1 night on a spot, far from houses,I ‘ve never installed table and chairs, I always slept on a minor road, a bit aside on a larger part on the road, where no cars passed at night. I slept nearby empty sheep corrals too, but I stayed on the trail of the farmers’ carts and so on.
    -I never ever leave garbage in nature.
    -There is enough space in Iceland even by staying on gravel roads or small parkings, without annoying anyone. (I ‘ve seen people driving off road, mostly with rental jeeps, I hate that)
    -Buy a portable chemical toilet and use it. Leave the waste water on marked places on official camping sites.
    Or (as I did) don’t even use chemical products for your portable toilet. I used special vinegar and a natural cleaning product so you can empty the toilet in every public toilet. No problem.
    Never leave toilet paper in nature! Even while hiking in the mountains, I have a plastic bag for dirty toilet paper.
    The writer is right: if 1000 people pee and…in the wild + toilet paper. Disgusting!
    Iceland is one of the last wild rough and beautifull areas in Europe. Don’t spoil it.
    – I arrive at a resting place about 20 pm, and leave at 8 or 9 a.m. the next day.
    – I always carry 15 liters of water in my car, I wash myself in my car, I don’t use soap so this water may be thrown in the grass. (advice: I often go to a public swimming pool, there are pools in nearly every village! GREAT) and I only pay some 2 euro for a shower and a refreshing dive in the swimming pool. GREAT too!
    -Never disturb the animals around you. Watch them, but leave them alone. If you camp in the wild, you see many of them. It’s great, respect these wonders of nature.

    I’ve never had troubles with people , unhappy to see me camp there on an “abandoned” road. In tourist offices, they helped me sometimes by telling me where I could camp best.
    If I do something wrong in your opinion, please, tell me, I can only try to improve.

    I understand, of course, that you can’t put up a tent on a “road”, or a farmers track. but with my VWbus, it’s easy.
    And big “real “campers can’t either do this, they should stay on camping sites. But normal cars with camping accomodation (as rental cars often were), why not? WITH respect for nature and property.

  9. Hamba Tuhan says:

    Wait… did many campers actually poop on the grass? Wow. I used to think that dig a ground, poop there, then bury ’em back with all the tissues is an universal norm…

  10. Tony says:

    Thanks for the info Auður. I appreciate how you structured the delivery of your post, focusing on respect before legalities. The link to the Environmental Agency is also very helpful. Cheers!

  11. Dave says:

    I read almost all the comments here about camping and I have been reading about all the private houses you can stay at when visiting Cuba. It got me to thinking the best way to camp, when possible, would be to ask a homeowner personally if you could camp on a spot on their land. Perhaps offer some amount for the privilege. Then you would get a direct yes or no, know what spot was best, and provide a small financial benefit directly to the property owner. Good idea or bad Audur?

    1. mm Auður says:

      I vote bad 🙂 If these people were offering places to camp they would open a campsite I think 🙂

  12. Nicole says:

    What are the laws for sleeping in your car in Iceland? I’ve read different things online – hopefully you can set the record straight for me.

    1. mm Auður says:

      I don’t think there are any laws that forbid you to sleep in the car but you might not be allowed to park the car to sleep in it in certain places (which depends on who owns the parking space I guess).

  13. Peter says:

    Hi,

    I am planning to camp in the wild without leaving anything behind. ( really want to be on my own, crowded campsites are just not what I need after my busy days) Thought a shovel could do the job. Opinion? By the way, it is not allowed to camp in national parks. Any idea where I can find a map regarding the borders of these places, so I could plan my route accordingly?

    Thanks very much!

    ( I study Nature Conservation Engineering, trust me I am not willing to spoil your beautiful country)

    1. mm Auður says:

      I’m not sure you want to hear my opinion on this one 🙂

    2. Belgje says:

      Peter, I think once you leave the path or road, you hit nature.
      So,as I dislike crowds too, I camp ‘in the wild’ with my car, but I chose a remote road (like farmers use, where you can see tractor tracks), late in the evening and I stay on the road. Or a remote parking place (late in the evening), I never create my own tire tracks in wild nature. I have a chemical toilet in the car, but I never use chemicals. Ik drop waste water in the toilets of campings in national parks (where as you know, we may not camp in the wild).
      I don’t know if Icelanders agree with this way of camping? I never had problems.
      In Kirkjubaerklaustur (or something) and other (remote) places, farmers offered their “meadows” to camp for free. They even offered fresh eggs to the campers. So nice. These were campings “on my way to…” there was not much to see.
      In general, campings are not expensive in Iceland. And for some euros you often find a quiet and nice camping.
      (I took 7 campings and 42 wild spots. Only Myvatn Nat. Park was crowded. )
      National Parks are well indicated on the maps of “Ferdakort” (I bought them in my local bookstore, but on internet. They were expensive but okay). And the rangers DO controll! (rightly).
      I think… if you camp in the wild with a tent, you always spoil nature. You can’t camp on a road or an asphalt parking lot with a tent.

      And I was so angry seeing a lot of people in a rented car, crossing lava plains, beautiful nature everywhere. Aaargh!!! Aren’t there enough roads to enjoy this marvellous nature? 8-/

      1. Peter says:

        Thanks for All!

        I did not want to respond first, but felt addressed. I was really waiting for constructive critisism from all experienced, but all I got was how “wierd” I was even considering freedom camping, which obviously comes with leaving human waste behind.

        All creatures leave waste behind on this planet for millions of years. The best thing can happen to human waste is if it is left behind, in my opinion, so it does no harm to nature. It is another thing that it looks disgusting, this is why it is a good idea to dig a 20cm deep hole and bury it back as it was.

        All other solutions are more harmful as I see. If you carry it in a papaer bag, trees had to be cut down, if you carry it back in a plastic bag, than you add plastic to your waste. If you use chemical toilets, you will somewhere dispose that staff back to mother nature. Even if you simply flush your toilet anywhere on this planet, use 10 liters of water, which had to be cleaned and transported to your toilet tank, that usually requires power( electricity, power station, coal, etc).

        All in all, it would have been nice to receive suggestions instead of comments that made me feel I was one of the biggest idiots, even considering freedom camping. No worries though, choose Norway instead, freedom camping is supported and I did not leave anything behind…

        All the best

      2. Peter says:

        Thanks Belgje!

        I prefer trekking from one place to another, so car is not an option for me…

        Regards,

        Peter

  14. Evy says:

    Love this blog post (and your blog in general!) and I don’t think some travelers can understand respect for environment unless hit over the head with a 2 x 4. Even those who might claim to be environmentalists have a hard time recognizing affects of their actions on other folks’ back yard/country. Dig a hole with a shovel? Eek.

    There cannot be enough literature, and blog posts by kind articulate locals as yourself, to inform and urge tourists to do the right thing and “Leave No Trace”.

    Please keep up your posts and keep foreigners educated.

  15. Natacha says:

    I’m going to Iceland soon and find this blog very informative! I’ve wild camped around all of Australia and had initially thought to do the same in Iceland. But reading this blog post I realised one thing, I think most people forget; Iceland is a tiny island, especially compared to USA and Australia. Where noone might ever find your poo or smell your pee at a random campspot(in bloody no where) in Australia it’s very very likely someone will happen upon in in Iceland. With a country so small and such a high amount of tourists it’s jus not possible to retain the pristine nature if everyone wants to camp everywhere.
    We will be finding designated campgrounds, it’s usually not that expensive anyway. I am after all going to Iceland to help maintaining the Kjölur road and will have plenty time to sleep in “no where” those 2 weeks of volunteering.

  16. Belgje says:

    I’ve seen MUCH more pee-smelling parkings (more than disgusting) and children’s poo and toilet paper in the south (Italy, Spain, France…) than in this big Icelandic nature (just like Norway, Lapland, Sweden,…In fact I’ve never seen any).
    A lot of men are peeing everywhere, no matter if it’s a parking or wild nature. Grmbl! Let’s call a cat a cat.
    What frightens me: people leaving the trails with their 4×4 and hiking everywhere or putting a tent on that precious moss or other small and slowly growing plants.

  17. Dave says:

    Is putting a tent on moss such a bad thing. i camped one night on moss at the side of Blafell pass, best nights sleep in 51 years. i cycled up there so my footprint was relatively small. I am also planning to cycle-camp in Iceland during October so conventional wisdom dictates that next spring someone will find my frozen corpse and a half eaten tub of Skyr.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Yes, it is bad – comfortable or not 🙂 It grows extremely slowly and an area that is affected can take decades to heal.

  18. Adelaide says:

    Hi Auður, thanks for your post! I am planning a trip to Iceland in October and they’ve been most helpul. Like most people I would like to do a road trip through the Ring Road but I’ve read somewhere (can’t find it anymore) that you can no longer camp outside campsites since July 2016. Are these campsites like parks you have to pay or just open spaces designated for camping in order to protect nature? Thanks!

    1. mm Auður says:

      I don’t think anything happened in July to change the rules. The rules have always been that you can pitch a tent (not park a camper) for one night IF there are no campsites available close by. However, most of the campsites are closed in the wintertime but the Icelandic Tourist Board is currently gathering information about campsites that are open year round which will hopefully be released soon.

      The campsites are designated areas where you pay to pitch your tent for the night. You would use them because that’s what you are supposed to do and also to protect the nature yes.

      Here is a link with campsites that are open all year: http://tjalda.is/en/camping-sites/open-all-year/

  19. Harald says:

    Thanks for this info. I would like to point out an update for this information (unless you already noticed and saw that). Umhverfisstofnun had an update on the matter “Can I camp everywhere”. Here is their news update: http://www.ust.is/einstaklingar/frettir/frett/2016/06/30/May-I-camp-anywhere-/
    It writes (please continue reading on the webpage):
    “May I camp anywhere?
    There are various things to keep in mind if you are planning to camp or spend the night outside organised campsites. In November 2015, new conservation legislation came into effect making changes to where it is permissible to camp. For instance, it is now illegal to spend the night in tent trailers, tent campers, caravans, camper vans or similar outside organised campsites or urban areas unless the land owner or rightholder has given their permission. Otherwise, the law lays down the following rules for camping: “

    1. mm Auður says:

      I had noticed this but the info was only available in Icelandic to begin with – I’m glad to see they’ve updated the info in English as well.

  20. Steffen Meier says:

    Hello.
    Of the 1.000.000 visitors, you will find, probably, likely(definitely), only a percentage in the single digits that chose to set up tents in the wild. If you are in a camper, caravan, you have a toilet en-suite anyway.
    So, with all this, very veiled, xenophobia in consideration, do not expect to have your island countryside drown in human feces anytime soon. Even if you would like to. Because, for reasons that escape me, when everything is fine, SOME PEOPLE, will go out looking for trouble. And they will find it. Always.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Most campers that are rented out in Iceland do not have facilities. This is a problem, it has nothing to do with xenophobia.

  21. patricia says:

    hello,
    i’m planing to rent a camper, o I have 2 questions
    – I have to buy a camping card or can I just pay for the night?(how much +- does it cost?)
    -what about toilets? are there , like I read there are hot water pools, toilets around Iceland?
    thanks

    1. mm Hrannar - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Hi Patricia

      You don’t have to buy a camping card. There are campsites in most all towns in Iceland. All should have some facilites like a toilet. We did a tour around Iceland a few weeks back and some campsites were quite busy but all had toilets and showers. Usually the sites are close to the public swimming pools as well.
      The price for the campsite was usually 1.300 to 1.700 per person, per night.

  22. silver darling says:

    Interesting article and comments on the on the joys of tourist camping. Here in Scotland we have similar camping rules and respects. One unwritten rule is not to spoil the view. No pitching tents where local houses/farms can easily see them – no-one likes to see a red/green/blue blob ruining their favourite bit of natural art – out of sight out of mind.

    And pedantry: All you folks in campervans, motor homes etc , no matter how big or small , no matter what they’re called, if your habitation has an engine attached you are staying in a mobile home. A house on wheels. 99% of the time you are not ‘wild camping’ as you will be on or next to a road or vehicle track, and roads aren’t ‘wild’. Please plan your sewage arrangements accordingly.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      People always say Iceland and Scotland have a lot in common 🙂

  23. Tommy says:

    I do understand where you’re coming from brother. Myself i’m from Norway and i’m pretty much used to pitching my tent wherever i want to. For me going to a campsite just takes the joy out of camping. Then i’d rather stay at a hotel.
    And i am coming to Iceland to drive around and take pictures for a week next spring.
    I will be bringing my tent and i won’t go to designated campsites.
    But here’s some other things i won’t be doing.
    I won’t leave garbage behind.
    I won’t rip up moss to insulate my tent.
    I live by leave no trace rules when i go camping. So nobody will know i was there.
    And i won’t be camping next to the road.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      There’s a big difference in being an experienced hiker/outdoors enthusiast that is going to pitch a single tent somewhere (and be respectful) and parking your camper out in nature leaving your business everywhere. The first one is legal, the other not.

      Keep in mind though that the laws in Iceland may be different from Norway, here you need a permission from the landowner to pitch your tent if it’s on private land.

  24. Logic says:

    Let me just correct you, pooping in the wild is 10x more natural than using the toilet. How do you think we have been pooping for millions of years? OUTSIDE. Don’t make it to be were too dignified to do it.

    1. mm Ásta - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Hi there,

      Of course, since we always lived outside. By now, when we have toilets, we prefer not to hike in other’s people’s leftovers though, so being considerate is nice 🙂

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