Trail is very manageable with good preparation. Sources of food are scarce and expensive - water is plentiful. Weather changes rapidly and one has top be prepared for everything from at least 1-2 days of rain to snow even in July or August. Lots of poorly prepared people on the trail - and several memorials to people who have died after being caught in sudden snow storms. Preparation for winter weather are crucial - especially is you plan to also do the Þórsmörk to Skogafoss crossing across the Fimmvörðuháls.
Even for the other portions of the trail and even if you plan spending the nights in huts (and have secured reservations for the huts), I believe bringing a tent is a good safety measure. Should the weather change and one get lost - setting up tent and waiting could be the safest option.
Food is only available and super expensive at Landmanalaugar, Alftavatn and at Þórsmörk.
Food is also expensive in Reykjavik - we brought in essentially all trail food from the States.
Reservations way in advance are crucial if you hope to secure spots in the huts. In our case - we started about 5-6 months out and despite being waitlisted at several huts we eventually got reservations at most (some last minute). The only hut where I would say reservations are crucial if at all possible to obtain are the ones for the huts on the Fimmvörðuháls (two huts there run by two different hiking associations). If you can't secure reservations and don't plan on spending the night in a beautiful but quite frozen environment - plan on taking an early start and going straight from Þórsmörk to Skogafoss in one day.
This was our schedule:
Left Reykjavik in early morning. Arrived in Landmanalaugar before noon and did a 4 hour warm up trek the first day. Slept the first night in Landmanalaugar.
Left early on the second day and arrived at Hrafntinnusker after less than 4 hours. We had no reservations at this hut (the smallest and least inviting of the entire trail). The hut is located in a stony wilderness and patches of snow were still present. It was cold and windy and although there are some treks that can be be done in the area (and reportedly a hidden hot spring), we decided to push on to Alftavatn. The second part of the trek took us close to 5 hours - it is a looong walk across incredibly varied terrain. It is amazing when after hours of walking through a barren volcanic landscape in shaes of yellow red and gray you get a first view of the lush valleys and peaks surrounding Alftavatn. The descent in the valley is quite steep (and I imagine problematic when wet) but seeing the lake in the distance is a great motivator. On the way down, before Alftavatn you also encounter the first torrent that needs to be forded - out come the sandals. Few people in our party tried to jump across from stone to stone - one made it intact, one fell in and one dropped their back pack in. After this experience no one tried jumping across again - takes a while to take off boots and put on sandals but it's well worth it.
We spent our second and third nights in Alftavatn. There is a small restaurant that serves dinner (I think they may also have breakfast and lunch). It is very small but they do have beer an hot food.
During the day we spent in Alftavatn we took a side trip to the Torfahlaup - I highly recommend this - it is an amazing canyon and well worth the detour.
If you arrive at Alftavatn early and you want to move on - the Hvanngil Hut is located a couple of km down the road and is less popular.
Leaving Alftavatn - there are two treks - the most popular that we took leaves the lake right away and crosses a series of streams (some have to wadded, some have bridges. There is another trail which is only recommended for "experienced hikers". This one hugs the lake for a good distance before Bratthals peak and (if I am not mistaken passing south of Stórasúla). We did not take this route but I was told that even though only one river has to be forded - water is up to your chest or higher - as opposed to up to your knees).
After Hvanngil, trail goes through desert like terrain covered in volcanic ash. This was the start of two days of rain for us - kept the dust down but made everyone unhappy. On this note - one thing that I did not bring and later regretted were waterproof gloves.
Once at Emstrur Botnar, we took a side trip to the Markarfljótsgljúfur Canyon. I highly recommend this - it is lots of fun once you drop your backpack. It's an easy and extremely rewarding hike with some incredible sights.
Spent our 4th night since leaving Reykjavik in Emstrur and started the next day to Þórsmörk. The final day of the standard trek seemed longer than the rest but was not only beautiful but also very varied. The micro forrest just before Þórsmörk was a welcome sight - the first trees (albeit very small trees still trees) since the start of the trail. On a side note, roughly half way through the trek, after crossing a small torrent on a bridge, we found an extremely picturesque and violent micro canyon - few dozen yards to the side of the main trail. Most of the other hikers seemed to stop here for lunch and we did the same - the canyon is hidden by the bushes that are by now again a part of the scenery.
Þórsmörk is a fully equipped base camp with bus access from Reykjavik, a store and BEEER.
We spent the night here and my wife an 12 year old abandoned us on the bus. Myself and the restb of our group (14,16,17 years old) continued on to the Fimmvörðuháls. On the one hand I was happy we were able to send a lot of equipment off to Reykjavik (and therefore not have to schlep it 1000m up an down), on the other hand I was sorry my youngest and wife missed some amazing experiences. After crossing the river (very wide and broken into numerous channels that can be skipped across or crossed on bridges) we started an amazing but brutal ascent. I was the only one to have any amount of weight in my backpack and this was the one part of the trail where I had to stop and rest repeatedly. It is not an unbroken climb to the plateau but it's not far from it either. Water is not available anywhere on the ascent and unless you are willing to melt snow it is not available until after you start the descent on the other side. The view and opportunities for amazing photos are countless - we were blessed with a crystal clear day until we reached the top. There are a few areas where chains have been placed and one very narrow passage between two precipices Kattarhryggir (The cat's spine - no chains here) but overall the hardest part of the day was the unrelenting climb. Just when we were congratulating ourselves on our stamina and on my wife's foresight in skipping the last day with our youngest, we came across an Icelandic couple happily doing the trail in the opposite direction with their two young kids (could not have been older than 7). :-)
Once we reached the plateau whether changed, visibility dropped and sleet started coming down. The trail markings were a bit confusing - there are two different trails that can be taken (both leading to the same place we later found out). Additionally, since the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjöll, the markings have been displaced to avoid the newly formed lava field (the old ones lead straight to field). Most of the plateau is covered in ice but just before arriving to the hut we ran into some ice (no fun on an incline and without ice shoes). That being said, ice was minimal and could be avoided.
We spent our final night on the trail split between the two huts - we were lucky to find spots in the Utivist hut there in addition to the two spots we already had in the FI hut.
Around lunch time, the FI hut which is right on the trail gets super busy but by afternoon it is super quiet. The views from the top are amazing and sunset causes the craziest colors to appear. The Atlantic is visible in the distance by this point.
There were a number of people who slept in tents - this was the one night when I really did not want to sleep outside because of the cold and snow all around. As I already mentioned, I later discovered that had I not wanted to spend the night, we could have completed the descent to Skogafoss the same day - It is long but easy and picturesque.
The final day was a very pleasant slow descent, walking past innumerable water falls and ending in the restaurant in Skogafoss.
Overall, I would say the Landmannalaugar was one of the most memorable hiking experiences in my life. I would return to Iceland in a heart beat.
The trail is quite popular and therefore reservations are crucial if you hope to stay in huts. When the weather is nasty, the huts are nice but on the other hand they do limit your freedom to skip stages or spend an extra day in a place. On this note, the guide books recommend that you register your itinerary online with the mountain rescue team before you start. Our book said you can also do this at Landmannalaugar - but when we enquired we were told this was not possible. If you do register online - you should make an effort to notify the hut wardens of changes in the schedule - when we were at Alftavatn we were woken up by the Icelandic Mountain Rescue complete with helicopter overhead. They were looking for a hiker which had not made one of her scheduled stops - turned out later she had skipped a stage and was in fact in one of the other camping sites.
Side note on crossing rivers - don't go where it is narrowest because it is also fastest and deepest. Generally try to cross where the river is broke into channels and where it is wider and therefore more shallow. Head slightly upstream and if possible lock arms with someone else for added stability.
Finally, read as much as possible about the trail in advance and be prepared for winter and rain. The best map I could find was purchased at the Reykjavik bus station but is also available online at unique-iceland.com (Iceland-the southern highlands).
Enjoy - a truly unique experience
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