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.