I recently did a camper van road trip in Iceland, and had a great time – but very quickly realised there are lots of things I didn’t know about campervanning! I had been to Iceland before, but this was the first time I had travelled in a camper van anywhere – and I struggled. So I wanted to share all the things I wish I knew before my camper van Iceland road trip.
Now, I am pretty sure that seasoned camper-vanners will read this and think I’m stupid or naive for not knowing all this stuff, or for having the wrong expectations – and that’s OK! I don’t mind if you laugh at me. Some of the things I wish I knew seem obvious to me now – but they didn’t at the time.
And for that reason, I figured there are also some other camper van newbies out there who may benefit from my naivete, so they don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Context for my camper van Iceland trip
Before I get into the lessons I learned during my Iceland camper van trip, it’s worth quickly covering some context on my experience before this trip, and the details of the trip itself, so you understand where I was coming from.
My experience with camper vans before this trip
Before this camper van trip in Iceland:
- I had never travelled in a camper van before.
- I had camped in tents quite a lot, though not recently, as I don’t like camping – which is a sign that I wouldn’t like camper vanning, also. However…
- I had done a road trip in a medium-sized RV in the USA, which was more comfortable than I thought it would be – and it was this which made me think maybe a road trip in a camper van would be OK.
Why I chose to do a camper van for my Iceland road trip
- I thought it would be cheaper than the way I travelled in Iceland in my previous trip, when we hired a small car and stayed in hotels and Airbnbs – and I was right about that; it was cheaper.
- I thought it would be safer as we were travelling during Covid, because we would have to interact with fewer people (no hotel staff, Airbnb hosts etc) – and again, I was right about that.
- I thought it would be fun! I love road trips and have travelled all kinds of ways, so why not try camper vanning? People rave about #vanlife, so I thought maybe I will love it too! I was not right about that.
What my Iceland camper van adventure entailed
- My husband and I rented the van for 11 days in August 2021 – for just the two of us
- We rented a converted Nissan NV200. We specifically chose a van that had heating as we figured it might get cold at night, especially as we would be travelling through North Iceland.
- Price and availability were big drivers of the van choice, as we were booking only a couple of weeks out and prices were going up, as availability was going down.
- We drove around the Ring Road, then hung out in Reykjavik and the Reykjanes peninsular for a few days to try to see the volcano erupting (spoiler: we did – it was spectacular!)
Things I wish I knew about the camper van itself
The driver seat was not adjustable back
This is probably the one thing I wish I knew most before we set off on our camper van Iceland road trip.
Our Nissan NV200 camper van was so small, with the bed in the back, there was absolutely no spare room in the van. The front seats were limited in how much they could be adjusted: they were fairly far forward, and they could not be adjusted to go back very far. This is probably fine for someone of average or shorter-than-average height, but my husband is 6 foot 5 and he struggled with the seat in this position. His legs were constantly uncomfortable from being squashed in the cabin.
And considering he drove approximately 1500 km in that discomfort – and you’ll know why I wish we’d hired a different kind of van, one with more space and adjustable seats!
[Side bar: my husband is a hero, as I don’t actually know how to drive, so he did all the driving himself!]
There is no storage space in the bed compartment of the camper van
I had hoped there’d be some kind of storage in the bed part of the camper van: maybe a hanging fabric pouch or a shelf where you can put a few things you want access to at night and the clothes you’ll need the next day.
But there was nothing. The back of the van was simply a mattress and that’s it. Anything we wanted to have to hand in the night had to go on the mattress next to us or hang on the back of the front seats.
Some other models of camper van have smart hanging storage options, so if I did another camper van trip, I would consider one of those.
We had to go outside the van to move between any part of it
The van was so small and its conversion so simple that there was no way to access any part of the van other than from the outside. Specifically:
- The space between the cabin and the bed was too small for an average-sized adult to get through, so we had to get out of the front and open the side doors to switch between compartments.
- You have to open the doors to access anything stored below the bed, which is the only storage space. This means that if you go to the toilet in the night and want to get back into bed, you have to perch on the edge of the bed with the side door open, take your boots off and drop them under the bed before closing the van door.
The upshot of this is that living in the van was a bit miserable when it rained, as it can often do in Iceland! Again, a bigger van may have alleviated these issues.
The camper van wheels struggled on gravel roads
Our camper van had pretty small wheels – no bigger than a compact car’s wheels, and much smaller than other vans we saw on the road.
Small wheels and small tires meant this camper van was not very well-suited to the uneven gravelly roads that are common in Iceland when you turn off the Ring Road or other main roads. We felt every bump and pothole!
If I was to consider another road trip in Iceland, I would seriously consider a van or car with bigger wheels, just to make the ride more comfortable. I saw that it is possible to rent a Dacia Duster, with a tent on top. We had a car similar to this when we road-tripped in Namibia, so these could be a good option if you want a more comfortable ride on the gravel roads.
We didn’t need to pay extra for a van with heating
Hiring a camper van with heating costs more than other similar vans without heating – but I don’t think it was necessary to have heating for August.
There was one foggy night that was quite cold, while we were in East Iceland, so we put the heating on. But the heat didn’t last very long and it wasn’t possible to have it on all night, as you have to put the engine on to generate heat. In the end, I found that draping my down jacket over my sleeping bag was effective enough to keep me warm through that cold night.
So if I was to do this again during summer, I would not bother paying extra for a heated van – it is hard enough to explore Iceland on a budget without wasting money on unnecessary things!
It was hard to charge our phones
I assumed there’d be a USB port in the van and to supplement that, I brought a power bank, so that we could charge our phones while we were on the go. I had used this power bank when doing a multi-day hike along the Inca Trail in Peru and it gave me several days worth of charge, so I thought it would be enough for this Iceland road trip. In addition, I expected there to be charging points at campsites.
However, we struggled on this road trip for a number of reasons:
- The USB port in the van seemed to charge our phone really slowly, and if we were using the GPS, the battery level seemed to stay still, like we were using as much as were were recharging
- Not all campsites had charging points that we could use because they’re in high demand from other campers
- One power bank was not enough – and possibly the one I brought was getting a bit old and glitchy, as it seemed to stop charging at intervals, which was frustrating.
We ended up looking for plug sockets at every restaurant we went to! So if I was to do this again, I’d bring two or three power banks, fully charged and tested.
Things I wish I knew about campsites in Iceland
Showers an afterthought
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This was a nasty surprise to me! Most other campsites I’ve been to have shower blocks. I didn’t expect beautiful, spotlessly clean showers, but I did expect to be able to have a shower at campsites in Iceland – and this was not always the case!
One campsite we stayed in didn’t have any showers as far as we could tell. Some had hot showers available, but only for an extra charge – and this was based on how many minutes of hot water you wanted. One had hot showers available, but they were not private – they were communal. In fact, only two campsites we stayed at offered hot showers included in the standard camping charge. These were:
So if I did a camper van Iceland road trip again, I’d just mentally prepare to be a bit dirty, and/or I’d plan my stops around places that have good showers.
You can’t select your pitch and then leave
Well, I mean, technically, you can leave the campsite after you get a pitch, but you can’t hold your pitch while you’re gone, so you may have to find another when you get back.
If you are camping in a tent, you could put your tent up, then leave the campsite to go do something else, but if you’re staying in a camper van, there’s nothing for you to leave behind to hold your spot. And campsites do get busy in Iceland in the summer – we were turned away from one because it was full.
So I learned the best thing is either to have an early dinner and then settle into the campsite, cook for yourself when you get to the campsite, or arrive late and take the risk that there will be a spot for you.
Things I wish I knew about driving in Iceland
Petrol stations may require prepayment
A few times when on the road in our camper van in Iceland, we tried to get petrol and we couldn’t work out how to use the pumps. They had card machines that seemed to want you to pay in advance, but they didn’t work – we couldn’t get them to issue any petrol (and our cards weren’t charged). After trying several cards, we gave up, carried on driving and found another petrol station that worked.
We found out halfway along the Ring Road that many petrol stations require you to pay in advance inside the shop. You have to go in, tell them which pump and/or which car is yours, pay in advance, and then they’ll enable the pump.
I don’t know how long this has been a thing – I didn’t remember having to do this when we did our first road trip in Iceland in 2018. It is OK once you know the deal, but it was a bit confusing when we didn’t. The good news is, most people in Iceland speak some English, so if you’re ever unsure how things work, you can ask someone.
No one drives within the speed limit
I had a vague memory of this from our first Iceland road trip, but it was especially apparent driving the Ring Road. The speed limit is 90km/hr on the main roads outside of towns and villages – but we were often tailgated or overtaken by other drivers wanting to go much faster.
This can make you feel like you too should speed up, but I wouldn’t advise it, especially if you don’t know the roads well. Roads in Iceland can be narrow with steep ditches to the sides. And the weather can come down with little warning: at least twice on our Ring Road trip, we found ourselves in fog so thick we could only see a few metres ahead of us. And that was the height of summer!
Remember: You’re not in a hurry to go anywhere. The journey is where it’s at. We felt that 85km/hr was a comfortable speed for the roads in Iceland.
Free parking in Reykjavik cathedral car park!
Here’s a positive thing I learned about driving a camper van in Iceland to round out this list!
Parking can be tricky in Reykjavik. Pricing is according to complex zones that you can find online, but the car park around Hallgrímskirkja church is free.
Now, Icelanders obviously know this and this means that it is hard to find a free spot there – but it is definitely worth checking, as it’s a great central place to park in Reykjavik, and you might just get lucky and find a spot. We managed to park there for free twice in two days.
Overall reflections on my first camper van experience
I didn’t love travelling in that tiny camper van in Iceland – so much so that I ended up booking a hotel for three of the nights just to give us a break from the confines of the van. I am not sure whether I would do a camper van road trip again. But if I did, I would do things a little differently: I would try to get a bigger van with more space, comfort and sturdier tires.
Overall, I may not be converted to #vanlife yet, but there were some positive things about our camper van Iceland adventure:
- We had a great time exploring Iceland and doing it in a camper van did feel like an adventure.
- It was also cheaper than if we’d stayed in Airbnbs & hotels
- And it was far more flexible because we didn’t have to book campsites in advance, so we could flex our plans and pick the places we’d sleep in as we went. And we could just drive off as soon as we wanted to leave a place – no packing up and checking out needed.
And even though I didn’t love the camper van itself, it definitely didn’t spoil my trip and I had an amazing time exploring Iceland for a second time. If you want to know more about what you’ll see around Iceland, check out my itinerary for driving the Ring Road, and my guides to the Snaefellsnes peninsula, which is in the west of Iceland, North Iceland, East Iceland, and spectacular South Iceland.
Are there any other things you wish you’d known before you rented a camper van in Iceland?