Outdoor Safety

Icelanders visiting the U.S. are amused by all the warning signs and guardrails. If Iceland tried to match these precautions, it would be quickly bankrupted. Always use care in Iceland's untamed outdoors. Thoroughly research the potential hazards of any journey, and talk to someone with local knowledge before setting out. Bring a first-aid kit to any remote destination.

Be prepared for Iceland's notoriously abrupt shifts in weather. For forecasts, check with the Icelandic Meteorological Office (tel. 902-0600; www.vedur.is). Keep in mind that the temperature usually drops about 1° for every 100m (328 ft.) of elevation. Even near the coastline in summer, night temperatures can drop below freezing. Always carry warm and waterproof clothing and footwear, even in summer.

Bring a map and compass for longer walks, or ideally, a GPS unit. A cell phone is also useful for emergencies, though coverage is unlikely in remote areas.

Rocks & Footing -- Rocks and rock faces in Iceland are often loose and crumbly. Hiking shoes with good ankle support are advised. Be careful not to loosen rocks that could tumble onto someone below you, and be aware of potential rockfalls or avalanches. Take special care to have solid footing on mountaintops and clifftops, where winds are strongest.

Geothermal Areas & Volcanoes -- In geothermal hotspots, most tourists know better than to stick their fingers in boiling mud pots, but other dangers are not so obvious. Sometimes unwary visitors step right through a thin crust of earth into boiling mud below. Lighter colored soil is usually the most dangerous. Stick to paths and boardwalks when provided, and always seek advice before approaching active volcanoes.

Glaciers -- Even road-trippers who seldom stray from their cars are likely to encounter a glacier face-to-face. Do not set off on a glacier without some experience or advice from a local expert. Organized trips with professional guides are the safest route. Glaciers can collapse without warning, and even a smooth surface can disguise hidden, deadly crevasses. If you walk onto a glacier despite the danger, follow other footprints or snowmobile tracks. Generally, the best time for glacier traverses is from mid-February to mid-July, with optimal conditions between March and May.

Do not venture into ice caves; even experienced guides seldom lead groups there. Also beware of quicksand that can form from meltoff at the glacier's edge.

Emergency Shelters -- The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (tel. 570-5900) maintains several bright orange emergency shelters in remote interior and coastline locations, and along some roads, often in high mountain passes. The shelters are identified on most maps and are stocked with food, fuel, and blankets. These are to be used in emergencies only. If you are forced to use something, make sure to sign for it so it can be replaced.

Search & Rescue -- Locals constantly encourage visitors to inform someone before venturing into risky areas alone. For most trips you can simply leave your name and itinerary with a local tourist information office or park warden. For more risky ventures, you should register at the Reykjavík office of the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, Skógarhlíð 14, Reykjavík (tel. 570-5900); local and online registration is in the works.

Doctors & Hospitals: Iceland has very high-quality medical care and more doctors per capita than any other country on earth. Virtually all doctors speak English reasonably well. Reykjavík and larger towns have hospitals. Most smaller towns have at least one doctor and one pharmacy (apótek); if you need a doctor, ask at any local pharmacy or business. Most pharmacies are open 9am to 6pm, and over-the-counter medicines are accessible, if expensive. Iceland’s barren interior is another story entirely, however: You could be hours from even the most rudimentary form of care.

Emergencies: For emergencies in Iceland, dial 112. If you get sick, you can usually just call or show up at the nearest hospital or health center.

Health: Icelanders are blessed with a very healthy environment. The use of geothermal and hydroelectric power has made pollution almost negligible. Some say Iceland has the purest tap water in the world, and even surface water is generally potable. The incidence of insect-, water-, or food-borne infection is extremely low. 

Sun/Elements: The sun can be strong even at this northern latitude. Bring sunblock and lip balm and use sunglasses to protect from the glare. Iceland’s extreme variations in daylight hours may also wreak havoc with your body clock, so bring an eye mask to help you sleep in summer. In the short days of winter, Icelanders combat depression by downing a shot of vitamin D–rich cod liver oil each morning. 

Insects: Iceland has a few bees and wasps, so bring a remedy if you have an allergy.

Motion Sickness: Bring motion sickness pills if you plan on boating, long ferry rides, or bumpy road trips.

Insurance: Even insured U.S. citizens may have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later. Before leaving home, find out what your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.

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.