I’ve hiked on, climbed on, and gazed at some incredible glaciers in Oregon, Washington, Alaska but Iceland’s glaciers? Come on, the country’s name implies just how epic and the ice is and trust me, it lives up to the hype. But why just look from the road when you can experience one for yourself up close and very personal with a guided hike. Curious? Of course you are so ready on for my review of this truly once in a lifetime adventure…
Why should I pick a 5 hour winter glacier hike?
There are plenty of ways to see and step on an Icelandic glacier. You can snowmobile to one, drive by plenty of views, even fly out and land on some I’m told but to me, the best way to experience a glacier is on your own two feet. The longer your walk, the more of the glacier you get to explore and the cooler it gets (literally and figuratively) so I vote for going further.
On my tour with Troll Expeditions, we passed groups doing a more basic hikes. While they got a cool view for sure, they stopped far short of the longer tour, far lower on the glacier, for almost as much.
As I mentioned, I’ve been on plenty of glaciers in my life generally without guides but flying solo, I wanted a group to be safe on the crevasses and despite the basic day, it was a total blast. Thanks Troll!
You’ve got me intrigued, what’s the day like?
Your day starts out in Skaftafell National Park’s visitor center parking lot. The place is easy enough to reach off of the main Ring Road though you’re not near much of anything so plan your drive in accordingly, especially if the weather is looking less than perfect, it’s Iceland driving afterall.
The Visitor Center is quite impressive but with a 10:30 AM start time, you’ll be arriving just as it opens. There is a cafeteria for when you’re done but little in the way of outdoor gear or snacks so come bringing your own gear and supplies. You will however find very nice restrooms, running water, and helpful park staff when the the visitor center opens at 10:00 AM.
After using the restroom, you’ll find the guiding companies down a few dozen yards from the main building. Some of the guides have little buildings, others like Troll are more basic but they all do a similar thing and after checking you in, they’ll get you setup with your helmet, harness, ice axe and crampons (rent the boots unless, seriously!)
Tours are run 12:1 (12 of you to just 1 guide) by most of the major companies which is something that I find to be quite like playing with fire. After all, that means just one person to watch and support a dozen customers who most likely have never been on a glacier and without any immediate backup if something does happen… but that’s how it generally goes and they go trip after trip so clearly it’s worked ok so far?! In any event, you’ll get to hang out with a small but not exactly tiny group of other travelers likely from across the world in addition to your rad guide.
As an alternative, Melrakki reached out to me to share their 8:1 guided tours which are also led by AIGM guides and offer a more manageable group size. I haven’t used their service myself but it’s worth knowing about. Alternatively, you can also setup a private tour which is a great idea for a family or small group.
Once everyone is equipped, there’s a brief (say 15 minute) safety and gear overview which they’ll continue on once you get to the trail. For now, it’s time to jump on the bus and make the short drive out to Falljökull which is one of the outlets of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. There’s nothing but rocks, dirt and ice for the rest of the tour so it’s time to hike!
Enough of the setup… Tell me more all about the hike and Vatnajökull glacier!
Thanks to the evil reality of climate change, most glaciers are receding and that means it’s a longer and longer walk to get to the glacier. Some of the shorter tours charge more because they drive up the walk but honestly, the approach is part of the fun. As you walk past the glacier lagoon (frozen and snow covered in my photos), the amazing Falljökull outlet gets larger and larger ahead and the ice cave comes into view at the bottom, I did mention an Ice Cave, right?
Approaching the ice, you’ll notice the ground under your feet getting mighty icy and if the guides have not already had you put your crampons on (they’re a lot less fun on dirt), they will do so by the time you cross the bridge over the stream running out from the glacier’s melt.
Here you’ll find yourself looking at basically a glacier cave at the toe of the glacier right beside the moraine (dirt and rock that’s been pushed to the edge of the glacier as it’s moved.) This is no where near stable enough to in or even that close to but it’s a great photo opp after your guide explains crampon use.
From here it’s a quick walk up the moraine and onto the glacier as you get use to your crampons hitting solid ice for the first time. If you followed my advice and picked up mountaineering boots which are incredibly stiff and designed exactly for this terrain, you’ll be able to pretty much prance alone with the crampons digging in.
The rest of the adventure is about exploring the glacier as your guide leads you on up the ice. In the dead of winter and if it hasn’t snowed in a few days, you’ll find yourself surrounded by blue ice, formed by the compression of snow over an era. Later in the season, the top layer fades a bit but you can see more of the crevassed details of the glacier and ice fall above as the snow melts away. Either way, it’s stunning stuff.
The perk of the 5 hour tour is plenty of time to head on up closer and closer to the huge ice cliffs above (so better and better photos.) This not only makes for a great view but leaves many of the giant tour bus groups behind as the guides have the chance to take their group away from the few others venturing this far up.
Your guide will of course stop to explain facts about the glacier, the lagoon, the snowfields above you. The group’s energy and interest determines the day and where exactly you go. We made good time and were having fun so our guide elected to throw up a quick anchor and let people do a couple moves of ice climbing for those who wanted, the other group I could spot went closer to the ice cliffs above. There’s no bad day out.
Eventually, it’s time to head on down though I assure you, it won’t seem like its been hours out unless the weather is really bad (they call tours if it’s terrible but on glaciers, even a nice day can shift back and forth regularly.) Back to the cave, off with the crampons, past the glacier lagoon, onto the bus and back in time for lunch at the cafeteria before the afternoon drive to your next destination.
What’s your review of Troll Expeditions?
Iceland glacier guiding is nothing like what I’m use to and nothing like what you’d find on most of the glaciers I’ve been on. To be frank, there are things that downright shocked me in how it operates but that’s how it’s done there. After all, their glaciers are nothing like most the glaciers I’ve been on either.
As for Troll, I liked them enough to book two tours (ok, that was the result of a promo price before I met them), but seriously. The guides were fun and professional. They’re not the biggest tour operator at Skaftafell National Park from what I could tell but they are one of the main ones there and present at several other glaciers as well. This is something they do a lot and they have it down to a smooth process from gearing everyone up to the ride out and the hike on up.
Beyond the hike, their customer service was helpful when it looked like the weather was going to wreck my tour beforehand and flexible when I wanted to move things around after for my Ice Cave tour. Did I mention the rad guides?
So ya, I liked them and I’d book with them again.
How hard was the Glacier Hike?
Troll Expeditions calls this adventure moderate to demanding and I suppose for the duration, that’s fair. 5 hours out in what could very well be cold, stormy conditions is work.
That said, the actual activity was a couple hour walk at a moderate pace, that was also just moderately uphill. If you’re physically active on a regular basis, no worries. Now if lagging, it’s going to hold the entire group back which sucks so don’t be that person. There are shorter hikes and other ways to play on the glacier.
What equipment will I need for the hike?
Crampons, a harness, ice axe and helmet are all provided with your guiding fee. The only things you’re required to bring for yourself (and that’s from just about every guiding company I checked) is hiking boots, warm layers, gloves, and a hat for the elements.
That’s pretty foolish to me and I would strongly suggest a small day pack with some basic essentials including water, snacks, extra layers, extra gloves, and any other hiking gear you have with you on the trip like a first aid kit or a headlamp. This will keep you more comfortable for sure and safer if something does come up.
I also strongly suggest renting boots from the guiding company which will work much better with the crampons they’ll provide.
And oh, charge the phone, grab the camera, etc.
What else is around Skaftafell?
The National Park is amazing, huge, and not particularly developed (thankfully.) Beyond the basic restrooms, gift shop and cafeteria at the Visitor Center, there’s some camping facilities nearby, hotel Skaftafell and little else in the immediate vicinity.
Further down the road towards Hofn, you will find a gas station and then one with a mini mart but it’s a good hour in either direction to much more than that. The glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón has a more robust gift shop and cafe, other guiding companies and of course its own amazing views.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, Vagnsstaðir Hostel is about an hour drive east and while it’s quite remote, it’s a great mid point to end the day at before venturing further. Heading back west, Klausturhof Guesthouse was charming and the town of Klausturvegur has the perks of a gas station, grocery story, alcohol store, restaurant, tourist building and several other hotels as well.
Do you really need a guide to hike Iceland’s glaciers?
If you’re reading this post than the simple answer is yes. Like seriously.
Scrolling through photos at home or even watching the guided tours wander off, it may not seem like there’s a lot to it but even with the insanely well traveled paths, it just takes one wrong step, one unseen snowbridge or shift to have a really bad day on a glacier. If you think it’s just a hiking path, you need a guide.
Now if you’re experienced in glacial travel and geared up, it’s solid freaking ice so stop browsing around, book your ticket and go climb already!
- The Adventure: Skaftafell Glacier 5 Hour Hike (Winter) with Troll Expeditions
- Where It’s Located: Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
- Cost: 14,700 isk or about $125 usd, 110 euros as of this post
- Difficult level: Moderate (long walk, slightly hill)
- Crowds: Moderate to High
- Safety: Eh, it’s the standard but 12:1 groups is sketchy
- The Adventure: 4 stars – You want to do this, mostly
- The Guiding Company: 5 stars – I’d book with them again
- More Info @ Troll Expeditions
- Alternative Options: Melrakki | Icelandic Mountain Guides | Arctic Mountain Guides
Disclosure: None. I paid for this trip and no one paid me to post this so it’s just my $0.02, straight up.