Bandit Camping in Iceland

We’ve begun the last leg of our biking journey since we are now working on completing our circle. There are no major stops until we return to where we started. We’ve moved from northern Iceland into the west, where signs of the capital’s relative closeness are more apparent.

There are fewer convenient camping card campgrounds in the areas we’ve been traveling, and we’re too cheap to pay $17 at a non-camping card site (that seems to be the going rate; we did it a few times earlier in our trip), so we’ve resorted to bandit camping.

Bandit camping is just camping wherever you find a good spot. Even though it’s actually legal in Iceland to camp anywhere that is not in a national park and is not clearly private property, bandit camping principles generally apply. You want to find as inconspicuous a spot as possible. Sometimes this is difficult. It wasn’t too tricky in the less populated areas of the country, but now that we’re closer to “big cities,” we have to hunt a bit more. There are lots more farms and fences outside of the towns.

Since there are no facilities when bandit camping, you also need to ensure you have enough water, fuel for cooking, and toilet paper ahead of time. This means taking extra TP at your pit stops and often pumping and filtering water from a stream along the way. Finding water in Iceland is not difficult, though.

Total, we’ve bandit camped at least eight nights. Some of these spots we’re the best camping of our trip; others, not so much. We’ve bandit camped the last three nights in a row. That’s fine, but no facilities means no showers either. We’re due soon, so hopefully we can make it to an established camping card site with showers tonight.

Last night we found a great spot despite the dense farm coverage in the area. We traveled over 100 km yesterday with the help of tailwinds, but we didn’t have much luck at first when we finally started to look for camping. Mike’s good at looking at the map and identifying potential sites, so he ID’d a dirt “track” that might lead us to a good spot. It was right next to a house, though, so I didn’t like it. Too conspicuous.

We studied the map again and saw little. There was a (gasp) pay campground indicated on the map ahead, though. We decided it might be our best option with so much farm land around. When we got to the spot, all we saw was a hotel. Many of the hotels here have camping out back, so we decided to inquire within.

After meeting the first person here who doesn’t speak English but maybe speaks Spanish (“I don’t know English. Uh, wait para two minutes”), Ricardo appeared to help us. I like how that clause has two meanings. Ricardo both “showed up to offer us assistance” and “seemed as though he was helping.”

First he told us the campground on the map no longer existed. When Mike asked about room rates we learned that it would cost $154 for the night. I wondered whether that included linens (you have to pay extra for sheets many places) and a private bathroom (probably not — that’s usually an extra $50 too), but I didn’t ask. $154 was already too steep to consider despite the icky weather. Ricardo then told us about a pay campground 12 km away and offered to call ahead for us. We explained that 12 km into 20 mph headwinds was not a picnic, so that wouldn’t do. He said we could bike 2 km to the gas station and try to hitch (with our bikes?) somewhere. We rejected that idea as well. He offered us coffee while we devised a plan, too. Ricardo was the most kind and helpful person, yet he supplied a slew of bad ideas. We thanked him and returned to the harsh elements.

We studied the map and found another dirt track just a few kilometers in the right direction (the one with 20 mph tailwinds). This second track was perfect, except a farmer in a tractor appeared right when we were getting ready to turn down the track. Getting caught by a farmer violates the first law of bandit camping, but there were really no good options further down the road.

Somehow the farmer perceived our hesitancy and intuited our predicament.

“Looking for a place to camp and avoid the storm for the night?” he asked. (In addition to current blustery conditions, it was supposed to start raining in a few hours.)

“Exactly,” we replied.

“Follow me; I know the perfect spot.”

We did, and he was right. The spot was great. It was sheltered by a little hill from the wind, it was flat and grassy, and there was a small stream running by ten feet away. We chatted for a few minutes, telling him we were from Arizona where it’s “45 degrees now.”

“I would drop dead,” he exclaimed in accented English.

We said our goodbyes, and Mike commented that there was a man who knew how to help.

We started to set up camp, but when we saw his tractor returning, we ran up to him and gave him some Ghirardelli chocolates we had to give to couchsurfing hosts (we can’t find any hosts, so why not?). The farmer became quite chatty. We talked about how he rescued an Italian biker from hypothermia 15 years ago by taking the biker home with him. We talked about how good the streams are for drinking water. We talked about the climbs on the road ahead. We even talked about the elves (his accent was strong, so I thought he said “olives” at first) who were hiding in the area. He told us that the hidden people would protect the land and us.

I’ve read much about how many Icelanders believe or semi-believe in elves and trolls and the like, but this was my first conversation regarding them. I’m glad I can check that off of my Iceland experiences list.

We slept well in our perfect camping spot. It must have been the elves’ work.

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