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The age of the socially conscious traveler is officially here – a recent movement towards responsible travel has seen travelers become more conscious of their environmental and social footprint when heading abroad. People are now realizing the importance of traveling with awareness and thought.

With the idea of being conscious of our impact on both nature and culture, here are 10 easy steps for being a socially conscious traveler in Iceland.

Travel Responsibly

The basics of responsible travel apply in Iceland too. Simple things like not littering, leaving places the way you found them, and respecting both nature and wildlife. In Iceland this means not walking or jumping on the moss. It might look nice and springy, but it takes forever to grow back.

Wildlife in Iceland is a huge draw, though remember that animals throughout the country are wild, and this includes the horses who roam freely by the side of the road. 

Exotic seabirds like puffins arrive by the million for the breeding season between April and August, and nest on coastal cliffs all around the country in massive colonies. You can literally walk on top of these; wildlife access in Iceland is unparalleled, so be sure to treat nesting birds with respect.

Choose Tour Operators and Hotels That Focus on Eco-Friendly Initiatives

Iceland is one of most popular eco-destinations in the world.  The country lives and breathes eco-tourism, so luckily for the socially conscious traveler, choosing an eco-friendly tour company or hotel incredibly easy. Whether you’re booking accommodation or an ice cave day tour, the whole country is eco-friendly.

If you’re unsure about a hotel or tour, check their website first to see what their stance is on sustainability. Most company websites will have pages dedicated to sustainable travel, and will detail the steps they take to make sure their tours or hotels don’t have a negative effect on the environment.

Always Use Official Campsites

During summer months of June and July, Iceland experiences the midnight sun – a natural phenomenon where the sun never sets. With 24 hours of daylight, and a law that allows you to camp anywhere for free, many travelers choose to pitch a tent.

Though just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean you should do it. There are over 200 official campsites in Iceland, most with fairly decent facilities. Pitching your tent where-ever you feel like it has the potential to damage the fragile environment and vegetation of the volcanic island.

Official campsites in Iceland

Understand Your Impact

Be aware of the impact your presence has on the country, and let this guide how you behave. Even if you’re in Iceland for less than 48 hours. Understand that before travelers started arriving in mass, most Icelandic attractions had no need for infrastructure like car parks or ranger stations.

There is a delicate balance in maintaining the untouched and wild feeling of the country’s unique landscapes while making them accessible to tourists. Lava fields, volcanoes and thundering waterfalls might look super tough, but in fact they are very vulnerable.

Consider Voluntourism

There is a lot of work in Iceland which wouldn’t get done if it wasn’t for volunteers. Volunteers complete more than 400 weeks of work throughout Iceland every year, mainly in the area of conservation and heritage management projects.

Most volunteer projects are focused on the improvement and maintenance of hiking trails; if you’re visiting one of Iceland’s many beautiful national parks, chances are you will walk on trails built and maintained by volunteers.

The main companies that run projects for conservation volunteers are The Environment Agency of Iceland and SEEDS. Most volunteers stay in Iceland longer to travel and see the sights.

Don’t Make Cairns

Cairns are carefully arranged piles of stones, and you will see these all over the place in Iceland. Though while ancient cairns are a natural part of the cultural landscape in many of Iceland’s National Parks, it has become an increasing problem that tourists are deciding to stack rocks to build their own.  

These “tourist cairns” are popping up in the hundreds and thousands, and it is destroying the natural environment. Many of the ancient cairns are Viking relics and historically significant, spread out across the landscape as a way of marking trails. The addition of fake cairns throughout the country may as such misdirect hikers.

Know About Hot Tub Protocol

Iceland is a country famous for its hot tub culture, and swimming pools here are a serious business.  You should be aware of swimming pool protocol before you strip off for a soak.

The main thing you need to know is that it’s mandatory to wash yourself thoroughly before you enter a hot spring or pool – and you have to use soap. There will be showers and locker rooms at every pool, and shower guards to make sure you have washed your bits. You have to shower naked. This is no better way to offend and disgust the locals than to jump in dirty.

Support the Whale Watching Industry

Supporting the whale watching industry in Iceland is the most effective method of protecting them from being hunted. And with over 24 species of whale, there aren’t many places better to see them than in Iceland.

As the whale watching industry becomes more beneficial to Iceland’s economy than whaling does, it will be harder to justify future hunts.  

Don’t Drive Off Road

Never drive off road in Iceland. Even when you have a 4WD, you should always stick to marked roads. Off-roading is illegal as it is severely damaging to the natural environment. Due to Iceland’s short summers, tire tracks can leave marks in the soil for decades.

Driving to the Northern Lights in Iceland

Drive With Awareness of the Conditions

Self drive tours of Iceland are a popular way to see the country, though the weather conditions here are extreme. You should always drive with awareness of the conditions, and make a habit of checking the weather forecast for the day before heading out each morning.

If you are traveling throughout the highlands, be sure you have a 4X4 – the terrain here is rough and you may need to pass through unbridged waters. Highland roads are closed during winter due to weather, and heavy snow often causes other road closures as well. If driving in winter, drive slowly. You will be tackling icy roads, and with short days are likely to find yourself driving in the dark.

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Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging since 2007, with the main aim of inspiring others to embark on their own worldwide adventure. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

Follow their journey on Facebook, TwitterYouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

Photo credits: Pinterest image Laugavegur Trail by Alexander Hahn. Pinterest image Blue Lagoon, Ice climbing and Quad bikes by the Legendary Adventures of Anna. Camping in Iceland by Jurriaan Persyn. Girl at the Blue Lagoon by the Legendary Adventures of Anna. Blue Lagoon by Roderick Eime. Northern lights by Moyan Brenn

    26 Comments

  1. Fantastic tips – for any country! I completely agree on sticking to paths to save the terrain. We’ve all seen idiots who make those mistakes and then the locals (and their country) pay for it for a very long time.

    • Thanks Jessie – so glad you enjoyed the post, and yes, much of this can be applied to any country :) A lot of the above is very straightforward and simple, but I’ve found the most simple advice is often the most overlooked.

      Happy travels!

  2. Another one we can add to the list that will apply more and more as technology grows – be mindful of where you fly your drone. Birds and wildlife are really sensitive to drones. We made sure not to fly our drone near any bird nesting sites or where we could see lots of wildlife. Drones really freak birds out!

    • Great tip Lauren – I hadn’t even considered drones and their impact, but yes, they’re starting to become more and more prevalent, and that’s a great point. Thanks!

  3. These are really great tips for travelers that don’t know about the fragility of the country. It would be wonderful if the travel agents, airlines, tourism boards and tour companies would provide foreign travelers with this type of information so that they are aware. It’s all about awareness and easy access to the information.

    • Totally agree Tawanna – I think it would be fabulous if tourists were given a pamphlet or an information sheet with these kind of considerations before arriving in their destination. As you mentioned, it’s awareness and easy access to information which makes the difference :)

  4. Love the spreading of the word to leave things not only the way you found them, but better.

    • Absolutely Becky – all it takes is a little personal responsibility; if we are all socially conscious and environmentally aware when we travel, hopefully we can preserve the places we’re visiting, or at least leave knowing that our presence has not had a detrimental impact.

  5. Ha! I didn’t realise ‘fake cairns’ were such a thing! In fact, the only cairns I knew of was the city in North Queensland! This is a great post, with really good socially conscious tips. I love the idea of camping under the midnight sun (in a proper campsite of course)! Hopefully one day we’ll get to do it, although we’ll need to do two visits – one for camping in summer and another to see the northern lights!

    • Haha yep these are a different sort of Cairns :D Glad you enjoyed the post Kim-Ling!

      Hope you have the chance to take in Iceland soon – totally agree with you though that it’s a country which needs to be taken in two trips. Each of the seasons is spectacular and I don’t think I can say that either is a better time to go. Very different experiences for each :)

  6. These are great tips, especially regarding camping off-site and making cairns. Most travelers would never think of the negative consequences of camping away from campsites, but erosion is a huge problem in Iceland and staying on the designated paths can go a long way in helping the country combat the problem!

    • Absolutely Erika – I feel as though most people are inclined to travel as responsibly as they can, though it can often come down to the fact of just not being aware.

      As you said, most people would never think about the negative consequences, so hopefully through publishing posts like this we can make the information widely available :)

  7. Very goods tips that everyone should consider. Iceland is a country that I would love to visit in the near future so this is very helpful. Every traveler must respect the country he visits and the natural environment!

    • Thanks Chrysoula – hope you have the chance to plan a trip to Iceland soon. It’s one of my favorite countries to date :)

  8. I love countries that promote responsible traveling! Now the only thing left – to educate the travelers to be conscious about their behavior abroad. I really would love to experience Iceland hot springs and watch northern lights! Thank you for sharing advice)

    • Iceland is easily the leading eco-tourism destination in the world right now, so if you’re all about responsible travel experiences, you can’t go wrong here!

      But yes, it’s equally as important to educate the traveler visiting as well as having a solid local foundation within the industry. Hope you have the chance to visit Iceland soon! :)

  9. I’m so glad that people are becoming more aware and socially conscious during their travels. This ensures that future generations will also get to enjoy these wonderful places and sites.

    • Absolutely Vicky – mass tourism can be such a burden to a destination, and we’ve seen many countries and environments completely ruined by it. If we don’t start treating the places we visit with respect there won’t be many place left.

  10. I have not been to Iceland yet but definitely want to. It is so important to be responsible yet I see so many people littering etc. (of course I am not a perfect traveler either). Great to see that whale watching is fun AND helps them.

    • The whale watching industry is definitely a great cause to support – hopefully as it grows the economic benefits of keeping them alive will outweigh their value as meat.

      It makes me mad when I see people littering too!! It’s NOT that hard to take personal responsibility for little things like your own trash. People say that one person can’t make an impact or change, but it has to always start with one. And if everyone were to take personal responsibility I think we really would see positive change.

  11. Camping in designated sites is such an important tip for all countries. I’d also add to pay close attention to the camp rule s about whether or not you can gather fire wood, if you can even have fires, and if you can bring your own wood from home/another region. Eco systems can be so delicate it’s important to treat them with respect.

    • Great tip re firewood Vanessa – Most travelers would never think of the negative consequences of gathering firewood, but it really can have such a long lasting affect on an ecosystem if we’re continually taking away.

  12. This is so important to keep in mind. There are people waiting to exploit animals/nature all over the world unfortunately

    • Unfortunately. I do like to think that the majority of people are willing to do the right thing if they’re aware of how they should act, so I think a big thing is just spreading awareness of what responsible behavior is :)

  13. What fantastic tips for being socially conscious with traveling in Iceland. A lot of these apply no matter where you travel. It’s always important to be respectful and aware. Great photos too!

    • Thanks Sue – I agree, a lot of these can be taken and applied to multiple destinations. The biggest point is being conscious of our footprint and socially aware :) Happy travels!

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