Check any travel guide, or campervan rental site, and you’ll very likely see some sort of notice that you can “camp anywhere” in Iceland, that there is a law that says you can camp wherever you want for one night. It’s free! It’s beautiful!
True? Well, not quite.
It’s not as simple as “Do what you want! Stop anywhere! Free! Woo-hoo!”
Here’s the relevant rule, from 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.”
The rule has been around for a long time, and was intended for the pre-campervan sort of camping. It assumed you were walking across the country, probably in farmland or the highlands, basically. Even so — you don’t camp on anyone’s property, even a remote field (without asking permission). What people are being told, however, is that you can park anywhere for one night and no one will bat an eye. That is not even technically right, but people cling to the idea that Iceland is a wild place with no rules, I guess.
In practice, camping has become problematic and some Icelanders are (understandably) frustrated and annoyed. Just google “camping in iceland” for some pretty strongly-worded opinions.
Wild camping? Yes or no?
In general, what we were told was that yes, you technically can camp in marked pull-offs or sidings, as long as you avoid private property. But this has limited utility — you are strictly forbidden from driving off road, which includes any forays off an improved road, so unless you find an official or unofficial parking area without a sign prohibiting camping, it’s not as easy in practice. If there is a nearby campground, you will likely be directed to camp there, and you should.
(Which does present some issues in the off season. Camping grounds aren’t open. Usually you can still camp there, even if the site is officially closed, but that’s not always possible (as we discovered in Borganes). But in summer? They might be crowded, but they are your best bet.)
So where does that leave you? Be respectful. Be respectful of nature and of people’s property. Don’t park your camper or car on someone’s farmland, or where you can see houses or buildings that belong to someone. Be respectful of national parks and protected areas, and don’t park your vehicle at a natural site or in any of the National protected areas. Be respectful of nature, don’t drive your camper or car off the road, anywhere, ever. Don’t tear up moss or move stones or do anything to disrupt natural sites. Be respectful of others, and don’t leave anything behind, not a shred of paper or an empty wrapper. If you camp somewhere, when you leave, there should be no trace of your passage.
We saw a number of little campervans parked in rest stops or along the road in more remote areas, off the beaten path, but definitely camping “wild”. We never did. We found an official campsite each night or stayed in B&Bs when we wanted a comfortable bed. We were lucky, we were early enough in May that there were plenty of beds available. This is not always the case in summer, I have read, so plan ahead. While I would have loved to find the perfect overlook, the perfect beach with a sunrise to match and wake up alone and in nature…I’m pretty much a rule-follower, I guess.
But…where do you pee?
Which brings up the toilet issue (which has been making a lot of news lately, none of it good). Find one, if you can, and use it. If you are “wild camping” and need to relieve yourself, pee somewhere off the beaten track and bring your toilet paper back out with you. Don’t pick the gravel next to your car, or the parking area, or where other people are going to be walking and sleeping later on. Walk away, don’t pollute an area where other people will be. That’s just rude. And as for anything but peeing? Sorry, nope. Not for me. Find a toilet, please. And no matter what you do, leave nothing — and I mean nothing — visible behind. Don’t make everyone hate tourists by being a rude, disgusting slob.
Still, there are hundreds of camp grounds in Iceland. Nearly every town of any size has one tucked away somewhere (and, frankly, the next town down the road isn’t ever that far). Most of them have bathroom facilities and hot-water showers. You can find listings and details at the following sites:
As I noted before, though, the dates tend to be a bit vague on the websites, or at best, contradictory. I compiled a map of campsites open on May 1, the info that I collected from the sites above was often not quite accurate. Smaller, privately owned campsites open when the season starts — ie, when people start coming in the summer, and when it’s warm enough to turn on the water for toilets and showers. There are some campsites open all year round (also noted on my map), but in some cases that simply means you can camp there, sans facilities, in the winter.
Camping is not always free — most sites have a minimal charge per person or camper to cover maintenance. Its usually payable either at a kiosk/desk at the entrance or staff will sometimes roll through the campground collecting the fee after you’ve set up.
So what does this all mean? Well, if you are polite and respectful, no one is likely to complain if you camp outside of an official campground. Ask first, whenever possible. Away from the western coast and around Reykjavik, things get very sparse and there are certainly places you could get away from the main road and sleep without impacting anyone, but you also have to be cognizant of impacting nature and ensuring that you leave no trace.
That is, of course, my opinion, and as tourism in Iceland increases, I’m sure the rules will change in future.