Is a winter motorhome trip the best way to discover Iceland on a budget?
It’s hard to imagine that a vehicle weighing more than two tons could be tossed about like an autumn leaf in a gust of wind.
But as I lay awake in my motorhome, rocking back and forth, I contemplate all eventualities. More of a washing machine spin cycle than a relaxing lullaby, the movement has kept me awake for quite some time.
Extreme weather conditions are to be expected in Iceland as the Nordic country nears its winter season, sending most travelers rushing to wood-fired lounges or spa-grade hot springs.
But the hardier types ready to brave the outdoors can enjoy crowd-free campsites and prices that are only a fraction of a hotel vacation.
Motorhome trips have been popular with summer vacationers for years, focusing primarily on the Icelandic Ring Road of Route 1 – a scenic and neat loop covering some of the country’s most impressive waterfalls, volcanoes and hot springs, with ease. completed without the need for a 4 Ã 4.
But recently, off-season road trips have grown in popularity. Many campsites remain open all year round, the main roads are widely accessible and the studded winter tires make it possible to drive safely in the snow.
My main concern had been the cold, but my Happy Campers Happy 1 Auto van (happycampers.is; Happy 1 Auto from â¬ 115 per day in low season) is as cozy as any boutique hotel room, with heating powered by the car’s battery and a full set of duvets and pillows provided.
The eco-friendly family business, which plants a tree for every booking, has seen a steady increase in the number of people enjoying quieter offseason and winter periods.
Even though this is the smallest model they hire – and can be a bit cramped at times – our two-person van is equipped with everything we need: a small kitchen with plenty of water. running water supplied by a reservoir, refillable at service stations; a gas stove; and a bed that folds into a seat during the day.
By law, each camper must book at an official campsite every night; expect to pay between â¬ 9 and â¬ 14 per person, usually including the use of toilets, showers and cooking facilities. In the low season, there is no need to book in advance, which adds to the feeling of spontaneity that is at the heart of a truly enjoyable road trip.
My partner and I have a plan to literally go where the wind takes us, using Iceland’s official weather service, vedur.is, to direct our movements. A handy list of winter campsites available on the Happy Campers website helps us determine where we can stay.
But one site we’re determined to visit, no matter the weather, is Mount Fagradalsfjall, the volcano which, after a 6,000-year hiatus, has been erupting for six months – the longest the country has seen in the past. of the past 50 years.
When we get to the Reykjanes Peninsula, not far from Keflavik Airport and the Blue Lagoon, the monster is sleeping. But walking through solidified lava fields, still wrapped in smoke, is an opportunity to witness the omnipotence of forces gurgling at the heart of our planet.
Taking the steep, difficult road (currently there are two paths) I find myself almost at eye level with the main cone, jagged around the edges and smeared with an atomic palette of chartreuse and mustard streaks.
The wasteland in front of me is perversely inviting. Lava coils of fragile rope twist like taut sinews, expressing a fierce anger responsible for shaping Iceland’s beautifully wild landscape.
The small fishing village of Grindavik has the closest campsite, one of the newest and best equipped in the country. At night, hungry strategists fill the grand kitchen with slamming pans, roaring laptops, and crumpled paper cards, creating a scene that sits somewhere between the Cabinet War Rooms and MasterChef.
In search of clear sky and sun symbols, we decide to head south to Reynisfjara black sand beach the next day. Its basalt column cliffs and lonely sea stacks rose to fame in Game Of Thrones, but in October – when the temperatures were much cooler – fewer fans of filming locations turned out. Alone, I sit and watch the waves fail to clean the onyx sand and take refuge in a cave with a rocky roof shaped like tubular bells.
Another popular black sand stretch can be found further east at our next stop, Jokulsarlon Glacial Lake. Set against the rugged, jagged mountains that form in the vast snow scenes of VatnajÃ¶kull National Park, this is one of the most scenic sections of the ring road.
A bay of banks and ice floes preparing to make their last trip to the sea, the glacial lake is a spectacle. But even more impressive is Diamond Beach opposite (above), where sculpted blocks of ice glisten like gems on the shore.
One of the main pleasures of motorhome travel is the freedom to change plans at the last minute – staying in a destination longer if you feel like it, or making a quick exit if the going gets tough.
When the weather chart indicates that a whiteout is on the way, we prepare to head back west. And it is during a night spent at Camping Hofn, where the cooking is done on our own stoves outside and where the coin-operated showers cost 2 â¬ for six minutes, that our van starts to tip over – but fortunately not to roll.
Paying attention to the elements is essential in Iceland. A downloaded tablet with live maps and chat room service sits on our dashboard, ensuring we are aware of any warnings, road closures, and possible travel delays. Driving back to the capital Reykjavik, cars left in the sidings hint at the dangers of driving recklessly and too fast.
Take it slowly and wisely, however, and there is nothing to worry about. In fact, during our six-night trip, the only vaguely life-threatening episodes involve arguments about duvet grabbing and who can get into pajamas first. (In reality, only one person can perform a maneuver at a time.)
But if you’re willing to compromise on sleeping space, the benefits of the winter motorhome are manifold: fewer people and more freedom signal the perfect road trip.