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Of all the outdoor activities outlined here, hiking is the most fundamental to an Iceland vacation. With its stunning landscapes, fresh air, and wide open spaces, Iceland is a hiking utopia. Over 70 mountain huts across the country provide the infrastructure for an extensive network of backcountry routes; though hiking in Iceland hardly has to mean donning a heavy backpack and eating freeze-dried food. The country is equally blessed with short, easy hikes, not to mention tour operators who will transport luggage from hut to hut.

Independent-minded hikers who shy away from organized tours should at least reconsider the issue. Icelandic hiking tours are often just a practical means to have luggage transported and logistical hassles eased. Organized hiking groups tend to be small, laid-back, and fun, and you can keep to yourself when you want to. Moreover, Icelanders often travel with the groups.

Prime hiking season lasts from early June through mid-September, though some routes at higher altitudes are inaccessible until July. (Occasionally visitors plan their entire vacation around a specific trek, and arrive in mid-June only to find snow obstructing the trail and the mountain huts still closed.)

Tour Operators

The "Big Two" Hiking Organizations -- When Icelanders sign up for hiking tours, they usually go with Ferðafélag Íslands, Mörkin 6, Reykjavík (tel. 568-2533; www.fi.is) or Útivist, Laugavegur 178, Reykjavík (tel. 562-1000; www.utivist.is). Neither organization hankers too much for your business -- Útivist's website doesn't even post its trip schedule in English -- but foreigners are always welcome. (To skim Útivist's trips in Icelandic, find the "Ferðaáætlun" link at the website.) Trips range from a few hours to several days, with set departure dates. No frills are added, so prices remain relatively low. Generally all that's provided is transportation from Reykjavík and a guide, plus sleeping-bag accommodation in mountain huts for overnight trips, and, occasionally, luggage transport. Participants are expected to bring and cook their own food.

As far as visitors are concerned, not much distinguishes the two organizations. Útivist has slightly lower prices and schedules more trips per year: about 150, as opposed to 70 for Ferðafélag Íslands. However, Ferðafélag Íslands has a few local affiliates, some of which lead trips of their own. The key affiliates are Ferðafélag Akureyrar (tel. 462-2720; www.ffa.is; ffa@ffa.is) in Akureyri and Ferðafélag Fljótsdalshéraðs (tel. 863-5813; www.fljotsdalsherad.is/ferdafelag; ferdafelag@egilsstadir.is) in Egilsstaðir. Their trips focus on north and east Iceland respectively, but range all over the country. Neither affiliate has a website or brochure in English, but tour schedules can be gleaned from the websites; for Ferðafélag Akureyrar, find the "Ferðaáætlun" link, and for Ferðafélag Fljótsdalshéraðs, find the "Ferðir" link. (Or just call or e-mail.) This is your best chance to hike with an all-Icelandic group.

Other Icelandic Companies -- Arinbjörn Jóhannsson, Brekkulækur Farm, Hvammstangi (tel. 451-2938; www.geysir.com/brekkulaekur), leads fabulous 8- to 13-day hiking excursions across the country from June through early September, with set departure dates and a maximum group size of 14. Accommodation is in simple guesthouses, hostels, and mountain huts, keeping the price down to a reasonable 116,375kr to 192,500 ($1,862-$3080/£931-£1,540). Priorities include bird-watching at seacliffs, finding rare ferns, and socializing with the neighbors.

Fjallabak (tel. 511-3070; www.fjallabak.is) offers an impressive variety of well-designed hiking tours for day-trippers and serious backpackers alike, with set departure dates as early as April. Trips last 6 to 11 days and cost 105,000kr to 201,250kr ($1,680-$3,220/£840-£1,610) -- a decent price, considering the maximum group size is only 9 to 12.

Icelandic Mountain Guides, Vagnhöfði 7b, Reykjavík (tel. 587-9996; www.mountainguide.is), has staked out some extremely interesting and remote backpacking routes well off the tourist radar. Tours last 4 to 30 days, with set departure dates, small group sizes (6-12), and good prices -- a 9-day trek from Laki Craters to Skaftafell National Park, for instance, is 99,900kr ($1,598/£799).

International Companies -- Dick Phillips Icelandic Travel Service (from the U.K. 0143/438-1440; outside the U.K. tel. 44143/438-1440; www.icelandic-travel.com) leads a series of 1- to 2-week backpacking adventures well off the beaten path from mid-May to early September, with group sizes of 4 to 16, and prices ranging from 369£ to 659£ ($738-$1,318). Dick Phillips has traveled extensively in Iceland since 1960, and can also serve as a consultant for self-guided wilderness treks.

REI Adventures (from North America tel. 800/622-2236; outside North America tel. 1253-437-1100; www.rei.com/adventures) offers an exciting 8-day "Fire & Ice Adventure" tour of south Iceland, with six departure dates in summer. Most days are spent hiking 3 to 6 hours, and most nights are spent in small hotels. The $4,000 (£2,000) price is higher than average, though part of your fee goes toward keeping the tour carbon neutral.

Southern Treks (tel. 706/291-2471; www.southerntreks.com), based in the U.S. state of Georgia, has a wonderful 11-day trip for $5025/£2513, led by a PhD of Old Icelandic Law, with easy to moderate day hikes all across the country. The trip may not run every year, unfortunately.

Wilderness Travel (from North America tel. 800/368-2794; outside North America tel. 1510-558-2488; www.wildernesstravel.com) is a respected high-end tour company, whose 9-day hiking circuit of south Iceland -- with three summer departures -- costs around $5,500 (£2,750). Hikes are moderate, consuming 4 to 6 hours per day, and accommodation is in Iceland's nicer hotels.

World Expeditions (from the U.S. tel. 415/989-2212; from Canada tel. 613/241-2700; from the U.K. tel. 0208/545-9030; from Australia 6128/270-8400; from New Zealand 6409/368-4161; www.worldexpeditions.com), based in Australia, leads an exciting and well-conceived 15-day trip through south Iceland, with moderate hikes each day and most nights spent camping or in mountain huts. The cost is 243,125kr ($3,890/£1,945), with five departure dates each summer.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.