This is a rather long post describing my experience hitchhiking in Iceland. I haven’t done much hitchhiking elsewhere in the world but I heard it’s quite safe in Iceland and it turned out to be great fun. If you’re not interested in my day-to-day experience, stop reading now!
After spending 5 days in Reykjavik I knew I wanted to get out and explore more distant parts of Iceland. As a solo traveler I could always rent a car, but that’s pretty darn expensive, paying for the rental car and gas alone (these aren’t American subsidized gas prices). And it’s rather inefficient considering all the travelers driving around this very small country.
I already wrote about the various ways you can find ridesharing in Iceland. I did find a few people looking for passengers on the Iceland ridesharing website who matched my dates for travel, but for a variety of reasons those didn’t work out for my trip. I also tried posting on this same website to find other passengers for my own rental car, and while I did get 4 or 5 responses, I found it difficult to coordinate schedules. To make it most efficient I really wanted at least three people in the car. The fact that I didn’t start organizing this until about a week before my trip probably contributed to my failure on this front.
After a few day trips out of Reykjavik I decided I would rather just hitchhike and avoid driving alltogether (I don’t like to drive). So I set out on Route 1 heading southeast with the goal of getting to the far east side of the country (the town of Hofn) before turning around and heading back. And so on Saturday morning I walked out of my home exchange and onto the major road just a block away.
I’d read that it was best to take the local bus out to the main highway that circles Iceland when hitchhiking out of Reykjavik, but on the weekends these busses run infrequently, and I was feeling lazy, so I decided to just try my luck starting from within the city. I quickly got picked up by a guy who offered to take me to a better spot further out of the city on his way to work (as an ATV tour guide). He left me at a very nice gas station, which is the last stop before people set out on the ring road both north and south. I pulled out my handy sign (Skogar, the town I was targeting) to clarify that I wanted a ride south, and stuck out my thumb. Two hours later, feeling rather dispirited at my lack of success, I went inside the station to warm up, have a coffee and eat the lunch I had packed. Another hour later I finally got a ride from a guy who was not going my way at all but had some time to kill and offered to get me to the start of the ring road (really just 10 minutes away). It turns out that was the trick. From there it got much easier.
I walked to the exit of the gas station at the start of the ring road going south and noticed another hitchhiker standing nearby. Not sure of the etiquette in this situation I said hello and asked where he was headed. He responded, and then asked if I was the same person he’d been chatting with on SMS about maybe sharing a car. Coincidence! He was one of the people who had answered my ridesharing ad. So we teamed up, heading the same way for the day.
Our first ride came just a few minutes later. A friendly local who offered lots of information about the landscape we passed and life in general in Iceland. After he dropped us off it was only a few minutes before we were picked up by a fisherman and his 10th grade boy and 4 year old girl. They gamely squeezed us and our bags into their small car, offered us some licorice (seriously) and told us about their lives. This family left us on the side of the road where they had to turn off (after first offering to stop for groceries if we needed to shop!).
It was drizzling out but within 10 minutes we were picked up by two brothers who were headed up the road to a house they’re renovating. That ride left us again in a cold drizzle, but at a gas station that promised warmth if we got tired or chilled. Within 15 minutes another man stopped, driving a truck pulling an empty horse trailer. He’d recently finished law school but was now working on a horse farm that catered to tourists. According to our driver, there are too many lawyers in Iceland, and he likes the farm work so he’s not in a hurry to go back to using his law degree. This was his day off and he went out of his way to drive us past his turn off to one of the local waterfalls he thought we should see. By the time we got there it was raining pretty hard. But we walked up to see the falls (impressive!).
We thought that surely with all the tourist cars in the lot we should be able to get a ride to our final destination from here. After all, there are only two directions people can go on the one road out of there. Rather than be intrusive and approach people directly, we opted to stand on the road and let cars stop if they wanted. This was the longest wait we had. Most cars passing were tourists; not many locals out that far.
We were pretty cold and damp when three Malaysian women finally stopped and picked us up (about 25 minutes later). They were driving slowly, not comfortable with the side of the road (or side of the car). They planned to pass right by my destination (Skogar) and carry on to another town further along. My hitchhiking buddy for the day opted to stay with them and push further down the road. I was pretty happy to get to a warm dry hostel and another beautiful waterfall.
I started out around 9am and got to my hostel at 5pm. But I could have taken a bus the first bit and saved myself 3 hours. In this time I covered just under 100 miles.
Since the standard Iceland weather continued, I anticipated on and off rain on day 2. My goal for this day was 189 miles, all the way to Hofn. Quite a long way to hitchhike if I only got rides with locals since most “towns” this far out have only 3 or 4 houses.
I knew that all the tourists in my hostel were either going my way or going back to Reykjavik since the ring road is the only option in that area this time of year. So I took the more direct approach. After determining that no one in my dorm was driving east I started approaching people in the parking lot in the morning as they were packing up.
I quickly met a Polish family heading to my destination hostel. After a brief conference in Polish between the father and mother, and a question about my bag size (fortunately very small), I was invited to join them. This was the best ride yet: they hit all the interesting tourist stops along the road, hiked the fun trails, and basically took me along for the perfect sightseeing day. They even fed me some Polish cookies at lunch. By the time we got to our hostel we were old friends, and enjoyed a dinner together (we each had brought our own food – theirs came all the way from Poland while mine was from the grocery store at the gas station).
One of the attractions my Polish friends really wanted to see was closed by the time we got there: a boat ride out in a glacier melt-water lagoon. It was about 80km before the hostel and they decided to go back first thing in the morning before driving on around the ring road. And so I got to join them for another half day of sight seeing in the area before they dropped me back at the hostel and continued their drive.
After a leisurely day in Hofn I once again started soliciting for rides, this time back towards Reykjavik. A Spanish/French couple at my hostel offered to take me as far as the lagoon, which was only a small part of my goal for the day, but it was sunny out and I figured it would be a nice day to stand by the side of the road near some beautiful icebergs and the ocean. (This was really not a good assumption: sunny now may mean rain in 10 minutes in Iceland. Fortunately I was lucky with the weather that morning.)
I was passed by exactly one car before the second one picked me up, a German woman driving the ring road alone and happy for some company. She was going all the way to Vik, one of the towns I had picked as a possible destination for the day. And she was staying in the hostel there so I joined her and managed to get a bed in the dorm for the night (note: this is not possible during peak tourist season, hostels are fully booked in advance in the summer so you can’t be so spontaneous about your destination if you’re not camping).
We had a nice ride, shared a beer before dinner, and my new German friend invited me to come along for the next day’s drive back to Reykjavik. This was really fortunate since it ended up raining hard the whole day, and that would have been really sad hitchhiking weather, especially with the discovery that my raincoat is no longer waterproof.
Overall I think I had far more fun seeing the south of Iceland hitchhiking than I would have had driving around by myself. But the trade off was less time for hiking and less ability to get to interesting side roads and sights. I met some really great people on the road, and I don’t think that was just luck. After talking with other hitchhiking travelers I met in the hostels, I suspect that anyone hitchhiking in Iceland will have similar experiences.
Have you tried hitchiking in Iceland, or anywhere else while traveling? Tell me about your experience.