Iceland revisited: Beginners tips for hiking Fagradalsfjall
Almost a year to date since my last trip to Iceland she blows again! From my blogs you will see that I have a liking for the non-standard type of travels. So, when Geldingadalir erupted in the Fagradalsfjall mountains of the Reykjanes peninsula in early 2021, it became a 'must see'. It was just a matter of when COVID was to be kind enough to allow that visit. Now, a year on, we have another eruption in the Meradalir valley. And yes, you guessed it, I am booked to go again!
The timing to get this out could not be more perfect, especially as the new eruption is 5-10 times bigger that the one seen in 2021. And when I visited then, I learnt a lot of things that I didn't really have details for beforehand, so I want to give some tips and set some expectations to help you plan your hikes.
Rewinding back to 2021, it was the evening of 19 March after several weeks of seismic activity, this volcano, having been dormant for over 6,000 years woke from is slumber. Looking at its photo's you would think plumes of cloud and lava would have shot up in the air, but locals reported nothing of the sort. Residents of Grindavík and those nearby apparently saw a glow in the sky at night. This in turn lead to the discovery that the volcano had erupted, and a small fissure had opened. Why is this so important to even tell you now? Because only 8 months after it was said to all be over, on 3 August 2022 its erupted again, and with a lot more force. Many experts now even question whether the 8 months of inactivity was even that or just it silent bubbling for this bigger explosion, and if this now marks an active cycle. I guess time will tell!
I actually found out about the eruption both times from Instagram, as photos emerged from the local photographers I follow. It was the only place I could admire natures marvel in 2021 until COVID restrictions eased, and I flew out in the first instance. It is no different now to be honest, as I am not due to return until September.
Once you make it over, here are some tips I wish I had ahead of my first trip, they would have helped me massively to prepare. I thought as I had visited Iceland a few times, and am used to hiking and trekking that I would be ok, I was so mistaken!
Remember if you are looking to go or are already out there, be one of those responsible tourists, make sure you are not putting yourself or the teams there to protect people in danger. Termed by locals as a 'tourist eruption', as it gathers attention from both locals and tourists alike, listen to those who make it safe for us to visit.
What you will see - your expectations
It is key to remember that the volcano may not be actively bubbling lava when you visit. In 2021 the day before my hike there was almost nothing for the whole day - and I travelled just for this so there was slight disappointment creeping ahead of the hike. I mean of course this is nature, and it does what it likes and even the site can be closed at the last minute so be prepared.
I monitored the live cameras that have been placed around the site, and on the plus it was bubbling away on the day - just to show how much things change here! But during the hike I booked a flight over as the steepness meant I couldn't get to the final viewpoint I wanted to - if you have read any previous blogs you will know I have a balance problem and have busted my leg a few times! The tour was not a guided one as such, we were taken and sort of left to venture then meet back at a given time so I was not aware of the different hiking routes which could have potentially helped plan the best one for me.
Stick to the hiking routes
Before you set out, check the weather and which route is still open in case any are no longer available due to lava flow or weather/wind direction changes, or simply due to safety. I find the local safe travel site best to use. You can pre-plan the best suited path for you, there are 3 available - paths A, B and C. Each with varying levels of difficulty and what you will see. Expect to walk at least 4km (each way), elevation reaches 300m (900 feet) and in places the climb with be steep. Also anticipate to be walking for 4-5 hours at least even if you are in great shape.
When you get to the site there will be routes are marked that you will see others following. Stay on these paths, going off track will put you and anyone coming to help you at risk if the wind or lava flow changes direction or if there is a sudden eruption. You might see some locals take the risk of other routes, but it does not mean you should follow. These could be from the local authorities, the ICE-SAR safety members on site, or those keeping a check on the volcano. Stick to the routes and any advice given whilst there in case the area or a route is closed.
Carry only what you need to make it easier, as some parts of the hiking routes are very steep and have loose gravel, rocks and mossy spongy areas. You will need a water bottle, and a snack/lunch as the routes will take several hours. Hiking sticks will be handy to help balance, especially on the steep slopes. Also pack plasters/travel first aid kit in case you do fall, I saw several take a tumble and almost joined them myself, our group guide mentioned she fell the day before. So yes, it happens easily! Plasters may also come in handy for any blisters that decide to appear. It is also worth packing a small torch or headlamp in case it gets late on the way back as you will need to navigate in the dark. Most importantly have your phone, fully charged with 112 saved - that's the emergency services, they do have vehicles on site just in case and you will find people from the ICE-SAR team in case they are needed. And of course don't forget your camera, after all the effort of the hike you'll want the photo's!
It seems logical but winds and weather can change so quickly in Iceland, so wearing the layers makes it easier. A light wind and waterproof jacket is a must as are proper hiking boots to manage the terrain and loose gravel. If seasons are changing or its actually winter, make sure you have crampons for the snow and ice, you will need it. It is also advised to take scarf, hat, gloves etc., check the weather before you set out. Its not unheard of to see all seasons in one day here.
DO NOT WALK ON THE LAVA! I cannot stress this enough. In 2021 I first hiked to the lava fields where the lava has set (see pic below). But you could still see the smoke from rising from it in several places and it was warm to the touch - these had been formed and 'cooled' several moths ago! The lava underneath can still crumble and break free and yes of course that lava will be bloody hot, so if you stab it with walking sticks or jump on it, not only is that being daft to bring danger to yourself but others around you. I saw countless number of people walking over it or prodding it to crack open. Please don't be one of those twits, respect nature and listen to the guides who are trying to keep you and others safe on an active volcano site!
If you do get close enough to the flowing lava and crater where its quite nicely bubbling, listen to the ICE-SAR team that are there, the winds and weather generally can change very quickly. They may also have other information about the activity and are just trying to keep you safe. The local news are already brandishing tourists as being silly and irresponsible after the latest eruption, try not to fall into that category.
Wear a mask
Now I'm not saying this for COVID reasons, but actually as you get closer to the crater or certain viewing points, you will be exposed to the gases from the volcano and these can be extremely poisonous. With the new eruption it is not yet known what these are and how harmful they will be to you. So to avoid falling sick its best to be prepared. Leave the area straight away if you start to feel any discomfort and get help from those on site.
DO IT!! This is a must - a very expensive must, but so worth it for the unparalleled views. If time, money and availability allows I cannot recommend this enough. Usually demand is very high so you will need to book in advance. The good thing is there are a number of local companies offering this tour and prices are similar. To give an indication for an adult you are looking at approx. ISK 55.000 / $350 / £320 per person. Duration is an average of 40min, give or take 5-10mins.
I have listed a few places below where you can try to get a booking, including where I have booked with for September. A slighter cheaper alternative is a small plane, I did this option in 2021 at the 11th hour and it was still fantastic:
https://helo.is/ (I have booked here)
Other general tips:
If you are hiring a car and are planning to drive yourself, take extra care in the weather conditions and check the website daily for updates on road conditions and closures. Also check where is ok to park if driving to the volcano - there is a parking fee to pay here.
Be warned there are no toilet facilities on any of the routes once you have started hiking. These are only at the start near the parking - and unfortunately not the cleanest! You might want to carry hand gel and tissues for this.
Pre-book tours as they sell out very fast. Whether a guided hike, or a helicopter ride I have had to book in advance through local tour companies or my usual place on Get Your Guide and Viator. I have found for 2022 there are several companies doing actual guided tours so they take you on to the hiking route - group sizes vary and you can book best suited to you.