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Don't Travel Iceland Alone in the Winter

A few tips from someone who learned it the hard way...

By: Matt Van Swol + Save to a List

I’ve always been a fan of traveling alone. I’m an introvert and a photographer which means I don’t talk much and pull the car over constantly to shoot photos and wander. Traveling with me is no fun, so I go it alone most times. I enjoy being alone on trips. I feel like I can do whatever I want without having to cater to the needs and wants of another person and their priorities. I encourage almost everyone to try traveling alone, but not today. I spent the past two weeks in Iceland traveling alone, and I’ll never do it again. 

If you’ve haven’t been, Iceland is arguably the most beautiful country on earth. You can find glaciers, hot springs, mountain waterfalls, ice caves, volcanoes, expansive meadows...the list could go on and on. The amount of natural diversity in one place is almost overwhelming. I spent two weeks there with just a backpack and my camera, drove the circumference of the entire country, and still didn’t even scratch the surface of what the country holds in store. But what folks don’t tell you, and what few folks ever experience, is that Iceland is also one of the loneliest places on earth. I drove for an entire day and never saw a living thing: no people, no animals, not even a blade of grass: just snow, ice, and rock for hours and hours. That’s a terrifying feeling. To realize you are completely and utterly alone is astonishingly frightening. There were moments I thought to myself, “If my car breaks down here, I may not see another person for days.” The roads in the winter are basically just sheets of ice that have been driven on so much, that they start to resemble roads. There were many days I would be driving and not know if I was actually on the road or off it. Because Iceland is largely a flat country, the punishing winds nearly blew my car off the road dozens of times, not to mention the constant blowing of snow over the roads, making it even more difficult to see.

Aside from the nagging worry I would freeze to death out in the wilderness, as a photographer, it was honestly difficult to show depth of field in Iceland. Iceland is such a vast country that taking a photo of a mountain or even a river, doesn’t give a perspective of how large or small it really is. I had a really difficult time showing the immensity of certain landmarks simply because there were no people or objects of any kind with which to compare. It was the first time as a landscape photographer that I really felt the need to pull out a zoom lens to take a photo. I found myself holding my camera closer and closer to the ground to capture rocks or grass…something with which to compare to the open landscapes I was shooting. I wish I had a person with me, if for no other reason than to be a marker of comparison. 

I’ll be really honest for a moment: Iceland is a very lonely place, terrifyingly so, at times. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, you won’t regret going even if you do go alone (I don’t). But if you do go, especially in the winter, take my advice and please bring someone with you. It will make the lonely places not as lonely and the photos you take will have greater depth of field. Not only that, but you’ll be able to share some of those memories together and that’s the real reason to travel in the first place: to create memories and see the extraordinary. I pride myself in being adventuresome, going places no one else would dare to go in order to show off the beauty of the world, regardless of harsh conditions, but even for me it was daunting. So from one adventurer to another, I just say this: bring someone with you, you won’t regret it, and don’t forget your camera!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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