Iceland: Footwear and River Crossings

There were four or five rivers to cross (I lost count I must admit) but they were all very, very straightforward.

If the river crossings are making you nervous – there’s really no need to worry on this trail. Even people with completely inadequate kit were managing them (think jeans and cotton t-shirts). However you should still judge them carefully and do the right things as you cross.

A couple of us carried spare footwear (sandals or Kungfu training shoes) but the rest used just our trail-running shoes (Inov8 Terrocs for three of us) after stripping off the waterproof Sealskinz socks. The Sealskinz went back on to grateful feet after the grit was wiped off them on the opposite bank. That worked very well and the weight saving was appreciated.

On most we decided to strip to underwear and that was justified as we were occasionally in above our knees.

But a Canadian couple we met were just using neoprene booties under their shoes and that seemed to work nicely. It’s something I plan to experiment with.

The Terrocs did really well. They were very comfy to walk in as I’ve already mentioned but we found further evidence that they are making our feet work in a really “natural” way. For instance I have a weakness along the top of my right foot from tripping off a kerb a couple of years ago (flipping town shoes!) and that became sore in a “tired from being used” sort of way.

Also LB has a weakness in one foot from where a horse stood on it fifteen years ago.

It started to hurt as well and nothing else has ever exercised that part of her foot – apart from when it cramps in ski boots!

It was interesting comparing the footprints left by the party. One of us had monster “proper” walking boots that chewed up the ground like a rotovator. Another had light, leather summer walking boots that also left a fair mark but not as deep.

But for those of us in trail-running shoes all we left was the imprint of the sole. A really visible difference to mention nothing of the harder-to-compare difference in energy expended to lift the larger footwear.

The French father and son we met had taken the traditional approach with good solid kit. But the son showed me his large leather walking boot and how he’d cut one side off to make it more like a shoe since he couldn’t stand it biting into his foot.

They’d met another French guy who had just done the North to South and was now crossing their route on his East to West crossing (maybe something like Andrew Skurka’s trip that he did just fractionally before us). The French guy was also doing it in fine ultralight style, even using a tarp – which is rather extreme for Iceland.

You can’t really argue when people can cross the whole country in trail-running shoes.

They certainly beat the old Icelandic footwear of dried cod skin. According to the guide in the museum in Skógar, longer distances between settlements were measured in terms of how many cod skins you could expect to wear out before getting there!

Iceland: Route Notes: Landmannalaugar To Thorsmork

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If you’re already used to hiking then this route is no problem at all. The only thing you may find that’s a bit more challenging than your usual walking is the river crossings but we found that even with the heavy rain, and after the hot summer melting the glaciers, the rivers were not hard to cross.

It’s not quite as “remote” as we’d expected it to be. When we planned it we thought there was only a single hut at each end, rather than there being a hut for each easy day of the walk. But that’s only in relative terms – there is nothing on the route but the huts for a very long way in any direction. The closest thing you get to civilisation is a 4X4 track that the path follows for a short section on the third day out of Landmannalaugar.

The huts are fairly “standard” mountain huts with comfortable beds and a couple even have geothermal heating. Although they each have a kitchen, you must bring your own food. Each hut has a guardian and a radio that can at least contact the next hut. You are required to stay in or at least camp outside the first two huts at Landmannalaugar and Höskuldsskáli since they’re inside a wildlife reserve.

We were there at the end of the season so even if we hadn’t pre-booked we wouldn’t have had any trouble finding room in the huts. But in high summer without pre-booking you wouldn’t stand a chance of getting in. The guardian at Botnar told us she’d had 200 people on some nights. For a hut that sleeps 40 and that only has two outside toilets, that’s cosy (although she said they are putting in better toilet facilities within the next year).

We managed side trips or some other activity on every day. We rode the amazing Icelandic horses on the first official morning of the walk from the Landmannalaugar hut (and completed the rest of the “day” in an afternoon).
On the second day we took a slow wander over to the Ice Caves from the Höskuldsskáli hut (they’re very dangerous to enter, so we didn’t).
The next day we left the route for our own extension to the trip and a wild camp.
Then, passing the Botnar Hut the guardian tipped us off about the incredible canyon nearby.
Finally we double-day’d our planned route from Þórsmörk to Skógar to avoid being pinned down on the top by a very severe storm (most people do it in a day so it’s not a huge achievement!).

Although we didn’t spend as much time walking as we usually do on a Big Walk, the scenery was so spectacular and there was so much else to see, we didn’t feel like we’d missed out.

In fact I’m sure that if we’d not camped at Geysir and finished with a trip to the Blue Lagoon we’d have felt cheated (though one of us swapped the Blue Lagoon for a trip to see the icebergs at Jökulsárlón – which the rest of us now very much want to visit).

The route was easy to follow with a well trodden trail that was hard to miss and marker sticks and cairns in some of the more barren places. Despite that, carrying a map and a compass is essential in my opinion. Trails and sticks can disappear in a snow storm.

If you extend the route to go over the mountain and between the glaciers on the way to Skógar you might want to stay in the hut at the top. To book in there, you’ll need to talk to the guardian in the large hut(s) at head of the valley, opposite the Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) hut. But we didn’t stay up there as a big storm was forecast – and certainly arrived!

One thing I’d consider if I was doing the route again is reversing it to end at the luxurious hot-pool at Landmannalaugar. Though the Blue Lagoon (once back in Reykjavik) is arguably the more luxurious finish.

Even if you don’t walk the Landmannalaugar To Þórsmörk trek then a coach trip to Landmannalaugar is well worth the fare.