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In recent years, rumors have begun to spread about the existence of a small Nordic island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean; an island defined by dramatic landscapes, with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields, and elves. Yes, elves.

Rumors of this magical place are spreading like wildfire, and travelers have started arriving from all over the land. Even flocking to it’s capital for a short airport layover.

Though there is a delicate balance in maintaining the untouched and wild feeling of Iceland’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.

Before tourists started arriving in mass, most Icelandic attractions had no need for infrastructure like car parks or ranger stations. So it’s extremely important that we are aware of our impact as travelers. As such, we have composed a letter to all those who are Iceland bound.

Dear Travelers to Iceland: Please Don’t Visit Until You’ve Understood These 8 Things

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Many Icelanders Still Believe in Elves

“If you want to lay a road, build a house, or construct a dam in Iceland, there’s one influential group you have to clear it with first – elves.”

Elves are no joke here, and when you’re in Iceland, you respect them, or else. Surveys suggest that more than half of Icelanders believe in, or at least entertain the possibility of the existence of, the Huldufolk – the hidden people. And this perceived existence sparks environmental protests to this day.

Plans to build a new road in Iceland were stopped recently when campaigners warned that it would disturb elves living in its path. Construction work had to be stopped while a solution was found.

Remember that Animals Throughout the Country are Often Wild

Wildlife access in Iceland is unparalleled, so be sure to treat animals with respect. This includes the horses who roam freely by the side of the road (also note that these are usually owned by someone regardless of roaming free), and exotic seabirds, like puffins.

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 if you’re not careful.

A Lot of Work in Iceland 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.

Consider joining a volunteer project during your stay to pay it forward. 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.

The Northern Lights are Never a Guarantee

One of the world’s most dazzling natural phenomenons, few travel experiences can top witnessing the Northern Lights. Also known as Aurora Borealis, this is mother nature’s most impressive light show.

When the Northern Lights hit Iceland (late September to early April) you can see them throughout most of the country. Though it’s important to note that there is no exact science to seeing the Northern Lights, and that there’s never any guarantee.

It’s best to make your way out of the city limits and into the countryside for the least amount of light pollution. Naturally, you’ll want to bring home stunning images, so those with a passion for photography should consider a Northern lights photography workshop in Iceland.

Northern Lights Iceland

Making Cairns Around a Trail is Not a Harmless Joke

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.

There’s a Hot Tub Protocol to be Followed

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.

Supporting the Whale Watching Industry is the Most Effective Method of Protecting them from Being Hunted

With over 24 species of whale, there aren’t many places better to see whales 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.  

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.

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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: Featured photo by michi_s. Both Pinterest photos by Moyan Brenn. Girl at the Blue Lagoon by the Legendary Adventures of Anna. Blue Lagoon by Roderick Eime. Northern lights by Moyan Brenn

    69 Comments

  1. Great one Meg.It’s very important to understand more about a place before visiting it. Many tourists forget their good manners when in holidays and end up disrespecting the culture and harming the nature.
    Iceland is on the top of our bucket list and for sure we will remember of these rules when visiting this stunning place.
    Cheers!

    • Thanks guys! I hope you have the chance to visit Iceland soon. Truly is one of the most spectacular countries!

  2. Nice list Meg! It’s definitely beneficial to travelers who are planning a trip to Iceland! Its astounding to know that volunteers complete more than 400 hours of work to maintain the national parks in Iceland. Iceland has been on my bucket list for quite sometime now and I’m hoping to see the Northern Lights when I get there even though it isn’t guaranteed.

    • Thanks Janna! If you’ve got a bit of time to spend, definitely check out some of the volunteer agencies. They’re always happy to take on more help! Hope you see the Northern lights when you go too :) Happy travels!

  3. This is really interesting, and I didn’t know these things before! I love the amazing array of wildlife in iceland and its great that you’ve highlighted the need to treat it with respect. And I’d love to whale watch and knowing that this actually helps them is awesome!

    • Thanks Claire :) Wildlife was one of the biggest drawcards for us – access was unparalleled, and we got some great photos from being able to get that close!

  4. Such great tips! We don’t always think about how our actions impact the very place we’ve travelled to see, and I had no idea about the elves!

    • Thanks Katie! I think the majority of people travel with the intent to be socially and environmentally aware, though a lot of the time it comes down to just not knowing. So we aim to spread as much awareness as possible :)

  5. Wow as someone planning a trip to Iceland in the near future, I found this incredibly helpful. Especially the hot spring etiquette because I wouldn’t have assumed that showering prior was required! Thank you for sharing these tips!

    • I’m so glad we could set you up with some tips before your trip Katie :) You’ll LOVE Iceland it’s such a fabulous country. Happy travels!

  6. Now these are things I definitely did not know about Iceland, So interesting that they believe in elves! I love learning about little superstitious beliefs like that because I think it says plenty about a culture. Can’t wait to get to know Iceland even more when I finally come visit!

    • Iceland is one of those magical places where legends are a little more than myth :D Really is such a fascinating culture.! Hope you have the chance to visit soon :)

  7. Very interesting post! I LOVE that Icelandic people believe in elves..that’s so amazing to me! Good point about supporting whale watching as well! It’s pretty funny that here in the blogosphere Iceland is pretty ‘well trodden,’ but recently my mom scoffed when I told her that tons of people are going to Iceland for vacation! She was like..what? Why? haha..so I had to explain about the gorgeous scenery, etc. Maybe I’ll send her this post ;)

    • Thanks Eva! Haha you make a good point – maybe I think that tourism is picking up in Iceland just because those within my circles have started talking a lot about it recently.

      We were very surprised that after getting out of the city that the rest country was fairly quiet in comparison – we hardly saw other tourists on the ring road at all, and it was peak season. Though that’s what contributed to making our experience so special. Hope it doesn’t change!

  8. Great post! I hope to visit Iceland in the near future and wasn’t aware of many of these things. That point about cairns is particularly interesting. They seem to have become ‘trendy’ in recent times but never considered they could mislead hikers!

    • Thanks Cliodhna! Fake Cairns is definitely becoming a problem – I don’t think people set out with the intent to cause harm, I think the biggest issue is that they just aren’t aware. So hopefully we can spread the word and make sure people know :)

  9. Great post Meg! I didn’t know about the importance of elves in Icelandic culture. Also amazing to know there is so much wildlife there. Love your puffin picture! This is such a necessary read for anyone traveling to Iceland. Travelers do need to be aware of how our actions affect a place and to show respect when we visit. Thanks so much for putting this together!

    • Thanks Jen! So glad you found the post helpful – I think one of the biggest obstacles to traveling responsibly is simply making sure people are aware. There are the basic things which apply across the board, but when you get to a place like Iceland, it’s important to take extra care :)

  10. Ah, I had no idea about the hot spring protocol. Makes sense though. Sounds a bit like Korean jimjilbang protocol.

    • Haven’t heard of Korean jimjilbang protocol – will have to look it up! :)

  11. I love how much information you’ve included here. Sometimes people really don’t understand essential things about a country before they go and it often leads to either disappointment or them offending someone. This is so useful as I’m planning a short trip to Iceland at the moment!

    • Thanks Kelly :) And absolutely – there are basics for behavior and general travel advice which can apply across every country, but each place has a unique culture and customs, and little things are going to vary from one country to the next. So it really is important to always research before you go :)

      Have an amazing time in Iceland! It’s such a fabulous place, you’ll have a wonderful time :)

  12. Great post! I visited Iceland in 2014, and even then my guide expressed concern that Iceland was taking in too many tourists than it can handle. This is a must-read for anyone planning to visit this beautiful country!

    • Thanks Sheena! I hope the country doesn’t come under too much permanent strain from the increase. It’s sad when the reason we’re traveling is being damaged by the fact that we’re there. Hard one to balance.

    • But it is this influx of tourist that pulled Iceland out of their economic crash. As it is, tourism is the 2nd largest portion of Iceland’s economy – thus, it is vital to Iceland and its further recovery.

  13. Your love of Iceland and it’s people comes through in this post. Makes me want to go even more!

    • Thanks Cathy :) I’m literally so in love with Iceland lol I think there are probably more posts here on Iceland than any other country including Aus :D

      Hope you have the chance to visit and experience the same soon :)

  14. Iceland is on my list and this list was very useful. I would also say that…except for the elves…which I’m pretty sure exist…most of this advice would apply to anywhere- the American West, the Outback, Mongolia etc.

    Stick to the trails, don’t drive off road, keep your hands off, don’t be an ass

    • Absolutely Carol – most of the time is comes down to common sense … which sadly doesn’t seem to be so common anymore lol!

      Hope you have the chance to make it to Iceland at some stage soon :) Happy travels!

  15. Thanks! This is what I call a short and sweet into for tourists and travelers to Iceland like myself – going in December :)

    • You’re welcome Dariel! Psyched to hear you’ll be visiting in December! You’ll love it in Iceland – rug up, because it’ll be cold at that time of year, but it’s such a magical place! Hope the Northern Lights come out for you! XX

  16. Good to know learned some things. That is crazy that some poor hiker could get lost out there because of some tourist. Love that they volunteer too.

    • Glad you found the post helpful Holly! And I know, tourist Cairns are a real issue – it’s sad, because I don’t think people intentionally set out to do the wrong thing, but they just don’t know that it’s harmful. So hopefully we can spread the word and make it known!

  17. What a unique and important post that all travelers should read before heading to Iceland! I didnt know about most of these things! Thanks for sharing and happy travels :)

  18. I plan on going to Iceland myself sometime soon and this information is very helpful.

    • Awesome Kevin! Glad we could help :) Have a great trip!

  19. Great post Megan! This is really helpful for travellers onward to Iceland. Some very important things to remember!

    • Thanks Anita! Glad we could help :)

  20. Great article! Iceland is near the top of my travel list and this makes me want to leave right now!

    • Thanks Miranda! You’ll love Iceland! Hope you have the chance to travel soon :)

  21. Great tips, Megan! Many people (especially non-hikers) don’t realize how dangerous it can be to stack cairns in random places. When I was in Norway, I turned a 16 mile hike into a 22 mile hike because the cairns I was following turned out to not be the correct trail cairns, so I had to retrace my steps and wasted a lot of time and energy going the wrong way. So thank you for the reminder to all your readers.

    • Thanks Diana! So sorry to hear you’ve been impacted by tourist Cairns. I don’t believe people set out with a malicious intent, but the ignorance in not knowing what they’re doing can be really harmful. That’s a pretty big detour you had to take :(

      XX

  22. such a great post! we are planning a family trip to Iceland in the coming months and this was a great read! coming from Canada, we are pretty used to the “wilderness” aspect of Iceland, but knowing the local customs (like the elves) makes Iceland even more intriguing!

    • Thanks Lindsay! Hope you have a wonderful time – it’s such a fab destination for a family, very friendly, easy to travel through, and a lot to keep all ages entertained!

      Have a great trip!

  23. Very true about the Northern lights, I lived in the subarctic for 4 years and it was always a surprise when we saw them.I would love to see them when I go to Iceland next month but I would never pay to see them since it’s so much pure luck involved.

    • Wow Jasmine, living in the subarctic sounds like it would have been an amazing adventure! But yes, absolutely agreed. I went to the arctic circle while in Finland for a couple of days solely with the intent to see the Northern Lights, and was quite disappointed when they didn’t come out. Really is a lot of luck!

      Have a wonderful trip to Iceland next month – I think it might be a bit early for the lights, but I hope they do come out for you!

  24. The only wild mamals in Iceland are reindeer, fox, mink, rat and mouse and birds (some ducks and all chicken are farm animals) Even thou some horses, cows and sheeps are free they are not wild and always owned by someone !

    • True!

    • Thanks for clarifying Asta! I have edited the post to make the note that horses are usually owned by someone :)

  25. Thank you for your insightful comments, Meg!
    You are now a “friend of Iceland”

    • Thanks Sindri! Glad to be a friend of Iceland!

  26. Dear Megan, I totally agree with you! I have been 3 times on my “Paradiceland” and I’ve fallen in total love with this island. But (as an amateur geologist with special interest in volcanology and glaciology) I also am 200% aware of the vulnerability of its nature. I hope a lot of (potential) tourists will read your message and act to it in a proper way.

    • Hi Ron – LOVE the term “Paradiceland” – totally going to start using that!! We’ve also fallen in love with Iceland, and one of the things we love the most is how authentic and real it is.

      I truly hope that the inevitable mass tourism doesn’t negatively impact the environment there.

  27. Wow…as a native icelander I am impressed with your points. The one about the cairns is very good. In the old times cairns would easily deside between life or death in our fickle weather conditions. Therefore we respect them along the old roads and paths. I would also like to stress the dangers of nature. We Icelanders have more or less learnt to appreciate them…often through hard lessons. Yet we are fully aware that our “alchaholic mom” whom we cherish and embraces us with her beauty and abundance still has alot of surprices up her sleeve. For us it is saddening when visitors come to enjoy the country and it turns out to be their last place of visit. I do not want to sound discouraging…only to give a friendly warning. All the signs and warnings are here for a reason and trust me we do not have as many as we should. Please use common sense along the highway and do not drive too slow or even worse stop the car in the middle of the road to enjoy the scenery. People have been standing on the highway in the middle of night and nowhere to gaze upon the northern lights…duh! My more evil spirited fellow countrymen have nicknamed Reynisfjara “Chinese Takeaway” due to the deadly and unpredictable tidal waves. So I hope you enjoy what our country has to offer but stay on the alert at the same time. If you respect the nature you will get the same in return from the “Mountain lady” and her hidden people ;).

    • Hi Ragnar, thanks for your comment – so glad you enjoyed the post!

      And thankyou for emphasizing the importance of the dangers of nature. You have a lot of extremes in weather which many people are not used to elsewhere in the world, so it really is important to emphasize that fact.

      I agree with you that a lot of it really does come down to using common sense … if only it was still common!!! The “people standing in the middle of the highway to view the northern lights” makes me shake my head!!!! Though sadly I’m not surprised people would act in such a way. Sigh!!!

  28. Great list. A good one to add would be that wild camping is illegal. Those that want to camp in Iceland must stay at a designated campsite. We have a big problem with wild campers leaving human waste all over the island. Nobody likes that.

    • Strictly speaking wild camping is not illegal under certain circumstances but I am not getting into the details and please do not tell anyone ;).

    • I wish people were more responsible when they camped – sorry to hear that human waste has become an issue. Really though, whether it’s legal or not, there are so many official campsites around the country that there’s no real reason people should have to camp outside the bounds.

  29. I’m 58 years old and have lived in Iceland all my life and I have never met a person who believes in elves, really. Elves are only one of the tourist attractions. They make some rather unremarkable features of the landscape more interesting. If you are interested in stories like that http://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/
    makes one up every now and then where they blame the elves for some minor natural disaster like mud avalanche: http://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/search/?qs=elves
    mbl.is has a far less sensational account of what happened, in Icelandic.

    • Hi Flosi, thanks for reading our post :) The point on the elves was mainly in response to the environmental protests which have occurred both recently and in the past. But who knows, maybe it’s just a convenient cultural excuse for environmentalists to use!

  30. Long dreamed of seeing an Aurora,they tips here were vital,I’ll keep them in mind for when i make the trip. Cheers. P.S the possibility of seeing the hidden people will make the trip awesomely exciting.lol.

    • I hope you do see the Aurora on your trip to Iceland Luwiga … and say hi to the hidden people for me :D

  31. Great post, Meg! I just got back from Iceland a few weeks ago and was amazed by some of the tourists neglect for their own safety. Stepping over the ropes onto the slippery rocks at the top of Dettifoss or stepping off the trail onto fragile geothermal crust… just to get the perfect selfie. It reminded me a lot of when we went to Yellowstone and people got within inches of wild bison to get a picture! There was an article I read while in Iceland that they are trying to figure out ways to protect the tourists from themselves without disturbing the landscape any more than it is today. In the article it said a tourist was swept out to sea on the black beaches of Vik earlier this year while taking a picture. It will be interesting to see how tourism evolves in Iceland, knowing it had a major role in their economic recovery and will remain the most important source of income and controversy for the years to come.

    I was lucky enough to see the auroras four nights of my trip! I used the following website to know best times to look for them and found it to be very accurate! http://www.softservenews.com/

    • Thanks Alley! And it’s a really sad state of affairs when a country has to put in preventative measures to protect tourists from themselves. I just published a post about how common sense is the biggest key to travel safety – sadly though it seems we’re living in a world where common sense is not so common. Honestly, I think if people are stupid enough to put themselves in that much danger just for a selfie, we should let natural selection play its part!!!!

      So psyched to hear you saw the aurora on four nights of your trip!! Thanks for sharing the site link :) Happy travels! X

  32. I hope that the people of Iceland keep strict rules for the conservation of their beautiful flora and fauna and don’t make it too easy for tourists. That’s a downfall for islands or countries that make it too comfortable for tourist. And I hope they protect their whales and puffins. They are too beautiful to eat. And I love nature ans animals. And Iceland is breathtakingly beautiful and I hope it will always protect its beauty.

    • Absolutely agree with you Mirla – the good thing is that Iceland is one of the best and most proactive countries in the world when it comes to ecotourism and sustainability, so hopefully we won’t see the impact of tourism take a negative toll on the environment as it has done in other destinations.

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