We descend on the picnic table full of cold cuts and giant chunks of chocolate as if we have already been hiking for the past three days. We haven’t. We haven’t even made it ten paces past the bus that drove three hours outside Reykjavik to drop us off at the trailhead. This is our first day of 6 days hiking through Iceland’s volcanic mountain ranges. We’re told this is our lunch time and that we also need to pack a brown bag for any snacks we may want on the trail. It feels like Survivor and this is our last meal before we start eating rat. We attack the cold cuts, the strange unnamed pink meat the color of cat’s tongue, because this is all we know.
My friend is a vegan and she stares down at the table. Where is her pre-paid special meal? What can she eat? At this point we don’t even know who are tour guide really is. There were three that met us at the buses at a gas station but each one proceeded to tell us that they were not our tour guide and that we would meet them later. We still wonder if we even got on the right bus. Should we be on the opposite side of Iceland by now? We stop someone in a blue jacket with the company logo on it and ask about her food. The woman looks concerned. She passes us off to someone else. The man seems concerned. He is very proud of the fact that there is a gluten-free option. They have gluten-free, right here, see. Kim nods but states that what she needs is her vegan option.
We hoard her a jar of peanut butter that we find, or what we hope is peanut butter. A young man that had not been on the bus finally gets introduced to us as our tour guide, Francois, and he hands Kim a bag of dates. Over the course of the next six days, when cookies are the best friend of everyone else on the trek, dates will be Kim’s saving grace.
We are here to hike the Laugavegur Trail after all, 34 miles across geysers, rivers, through volcanic rock and over snow-covered hills. Snow-covered hills? This is our second surprise of the day. “There’s snow up there,” they tell us. “Last week’s group had to hike two days in one and bypass the first mountain hut because the pass was snowed in.” Kim and I look at each other and our faces drop. The trekking site advertised this hike as easy. I didn’t even break in my hiking boots. Kim didn’t even bring hers. The group of 8 middle-aged women from Alaska reach into their packs and pull out their gators. “Gators?” We ask. There is no amount of searching through my plaid Coach backpack to find gators. How was I to know that there would be snow in July? No one told me about snow.
This is the first lesson we learn about Icelandic tourism. While it’s booming, they might not necessarily be prepared for the influx (don’t tell Iceland I said so, I want to stay friends). Tourism in Iceland has tripled in the last 15 years, with over 998,000 foreign visitors in 2014 compared to 302,000 since the year 2000 (ÓLADÓTTIR, 2015). The bulk of this travel has been in the summer months of June and July (ÓLADÓTTIR, 2015), snow or no snow. While this has helped bring Iceland back from an economic crisis in 2008 (Becker, 2011), the infrastructure to meet the demands of the ever increasing tourists hasn’t quite kept up.
There is still a raw newness to the tourism, as if someone set up a guided tour from their garage, borrowed a friend’s van and said, “Hey, this is a way we could make a few bucks.” And while I honor that chutzpah and the supply meeting the demand, you have to wonder what this will do the Icelandic culture and environment. The number of guides graduating from the Tourist Guide School (This is a real thing. Tour guides in Iceland must be certified…so maybe my garage analogy loses some steam here) has tripled from 2008 – 2010 (Becker, 2011). With the government sponsoring advertising campaigns to lure tourists to Iceland in the off-season, the infrastructure of winter road conditions and subsequent traffic issues will need to be repaired (Becker, 2011). For our internet booked tour, there was no follow-up email. No warning about weather changes. No check-in list at the bus pick up. No organized method of putting bags on the buses. There were wool sweaters though, there would always be handsome wool sweaters in Iceland.
We are now beginning to wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.
Kim and I had decided to travel together for the first time in ten years. Our first choice was Thailand, but when I made a decision to do a course at Cambridge over the summer, I suggested we stopover in Iceland instead. The flight was cheaper after all and they both ended with the word ‘land.” It only made sense. Yes, one was warm and humid and full of beaches and tanning options while the other was cold and dark and apparently covered with snow year round, but who was paying attention to any of that. We could go snorkeling at both, right? Kim agreed to the switch, “As long as we do a trekking vacation.” I agreed. I don’t know why.
Which brings us back to this moment, pink sandwiches in hand, a full jar of peanut butter and 8 women strapping gators around their ankles while I try to squeeze a plastic bag around my camera to protect it from the impending rain. We were about to hike the Laugavegur Trail.
We are handed black plastic garbage bags and told to bring only what is essential from our luggage for the first night’s stop. We should be able to make it through the snow but the truck won’t be able to get to us if it’s bogged down with too much weight. I think of the clothes I brought, half of them city clothing for my time in England and realize that I will essentially be wearing the same thing I have on now for the next 6 days. That’s okay. I have my favorite, trustworthy, gray scarf. My scarf! It’s not on my neck. It’s not in my backpack. Drat! My cleverness gets me again. I left it on the bus as my impromptu sun shade. I turn to see the big blue bus barreling down the mud road a good mile away from me. Goodbye favorite scarf! You will be missed. I hand Kim my deodorant and toothbrush, a change of socks and underwear and say that’s it for me. I’m not planning on a cleaning myself in a campsite shower in the snow after all. I have standards.
We tie off our shared garbage bag and hand it to our second official tour guide, Gewurztraminer (not his real name).
We have our luggage. We have our lunches. We have our raincoats on minus one scarf. We have our tour guides. It’s time to do this thing! We hit the trail.
To be continued…Check in next week for Part 2 and to learn more about the Laugavegur Trail
Becker, Emily, “Growth and Vitality: The Promise and Risk of Iceland’s Tourism Industry” (2011). Post-crash Iceland: opportunity, risk and reform. Paper 10. http://preserve.lehigh.edu/perspectives-v29/10
Iceland minister of industry and commerce. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2016,
ÓLADÓTTIR, O. &. (2015, April). Tourism in Iceland in figures [Press release].
Retrieved from http://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/