You’re all set for your Iceland holiday! Flights are booked, accommodation is confirmed, and tours are all lined up. A glacier hike is on your agenda and you’re really excited about it. So you should be. You’ve seen the pictures of the incredibly blue ice, the bottomless crevasses, and the captivating textures of these moving giants. But the big question is, are you ready for the hike? This Glacier Hike Guide covers all your burning questions.
What are the best glaciers to hike on in Iceland?
There are well over 400 named glaciers in Iceland, all with their own unique characteristics. But for this glacier hike guide we will focus on the ones you will most likely visit when with Hidden Iceland:
1. Sólheimajökull glacier | This glacier is sandwiched between the Katla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes, two of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Sólheimajökull glacier is one of the outlet glacier that flow down from Mýrdalsjökull glacier ice cap and is easily accessible. It is ideally located close to the town of Vík on the south coast. We explore this glacier upon request on a private tour.
2. Falljökull glacier | Located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vatnajökull National Park, Falljökull literally translates to ‘The Falling Glacier’. We explore this glaciers unique glacier features and textures, walk along the bottom of crevasses, and hike all the way up to the spectacular ice fall. This glacier is one of our favourite glaciers. We take on the challenge of this glacier on our 2 Day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Tour.
3. Breiðamerkurjökull glacier | Also situated in the same UNESCO World Heritage Site. This glacier is hidden behind the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and can only be accessed by super jeep. This glacier is a lot flatter than the two previous options but pivotally it is a great glacier to discover the winter ice caves. We visit this glacier on our 2 Day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Tour & Ice Cave Discovery Tour in winter.
4. Skaftafellsjökull glacier | This glacier is a little further west but still in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, to get access to this glacier, and its hidden ice caves, you need to go by helicopter. We only take private trips onto this glacier We visit this glacier on our Blue Dragon Helicopter partner tour. Often this is coupled with a few days of private adventure too.
How long are the glacier hikes?
The glacier hike on Sólheimajökull, on our private tours, is around 2.5 hours in total with around 1 hour spent on the glacier ice. You will hike around 3-4 kilometres (approx. 2 miles). The hike requires a moderate fitness level where you will hike up and over uneven terrain.
The glacier hike on Falljökull, on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 day tour is a longer hike. You will spend around 4 hours in total exploring the area with your glacier guide. Around 2.5 – 3 hours will be physically on the ice. This glacier hike is considered of moderate to hard level of difficulty and you’ll be covering about 6 kilometres (approx. 4 miles) over uneven and ascending terrain.
The glacier hike on Breiðamerkurjökull, on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Discovery 2 Day Tour was a short walk in 2019/20. The hike is determined by the location of the ice cave that we use that year so every year can be quite different.
The walk in the 2019/20 winter was mainly on flat rocky ground, though with some uneven surfaces. It only took around 30-40 mins to walk there. This allowed us to categorise it as easy to moderate. The previous year however, required around 2 hours of physically hiking on the glacier which entitled us to consider it moderate to hard.
The distance is often the determining factor when it comes to glacier travel, assuming you have full mobility.
The glacier hike on Skaftafellsjökull is categorised as easy. The helicopter that flies you onto the glacier places you right next to the ice caves that you will be exploring on your tour. A similar style tour can also be completed back on Breiðamerkurjökull but by superjeep.
For all of the above glacier hikes you are required to have full mobility of your knees and ankles. Further details on mobility are expressed further down in the glacier hike guide.
What fitness level do I need to hike on the glacier?
The glacier hikes are aimed for people who have never been on a glacier before. But, with full mobility and a moderate fitness level.
With that said, the ice can be steep and uneven in sections, so if you struggle with walking for one to two hours or walking on uneven and sloped ground, the glacier hike may not be for you. The glacier guide on the trip will make the final decision at the time of the hike. If your guide refuses to let you on the ice it is purely for your safety, and the safety of others. Read more under our terms and conditions.
YOU MUST HAVE FULL MOBILITY OF YOUR KNEES AND ANKLES TO JOIN!
Although some of our glacier hikes are considered easy they are still on uneven terrain at times. We provide crampons (spikes for your feet) and all other safety equipment. But, it is important to consider that this is a wilderness setting and comes with some risks.
Therefore, being able to lift your knees up to you waist and rotate your ankles fully is essential. You should be able to walk up and down a steep stair case unassisted under normal circumstances too.
The walking pace will most certainly be slow while on the ice, with plenty of picture stops. However, even a relatively short distance like 2km can feel more difficult when on a slope.
Your expert glacier hike guide will prepare you for all types of terrain. They will also manage any ‘difficult’ sections and not do anything outside of your comfort zone. Safety is of the utmost importance and therefore the glacier hike can change in terms of difficulty depending on the ability of the group.
You should also be prepared with food, drink and clothing for 3-4 hours. The ice cave tour lasts for 3-4 hours, with around 1 hour spent in the cave and on the ice. The wind in Iceland on the glaciers can be cold and fierce so please be prepared with appropriate clothing. You will have an opportunity on day one to buy snacks for the ice cave tour.
Will an existing illness or injury stop me from taking part in the glacier hike?
It is your responsibility to notify the guide before departure of any pre-existing illness or injury. This does not necessarily stop you from taking part. It is mainly to give your guide the best chance of making the tour fit for purpose and safe. The glacier guides are well trained and will know if your existing condition is likely to cause concern. If the guide chooses not to take you on the glacier then it is for the safety of you and the other guests. The majority of ailments will not exclude you from taking part.
It is important to disclose all ailments that may affect you during the tour. It is essential that you inform us of anything that affects your ability to walk unassisted, back problems, heart problems, breathing issues or any other chronic illnesses.
Is it safe to hike on a glacier?
In a word, yes! But with a glacier guide.
Many travellers are surprised to find out that glaciers in Iceland are easily accessible. Despite the rugged Icelandic terrain there are a number of options around the country. However, although the glaciers are easily accessible you can only safely step on them with a guide. Under the guidance of a trained professional glacier guide, it is a perfectly safe and enjoyable experience.
You don’t need to worry about the ice being slippy as you will be wearing crampons (spikes for your feet). Exploring will be dictated by your guide to keep you safe. You don’t need to worry about the integrity of the ice as all our guides are experts in glacier travel.
Are the guides experienced glacier guides?
All of our guides are experienced and well trained glacier guides. Each guide has hiked on the glacier you will be walking on hundreds of times.
Our guides have years of experience working across a number of glaciers in Iceland. They have all completed continuous in-house training. Each glacier hike guide is also a certified Wilderness First Responder. They are also trained in advanced rescue techniques including crevasse rescue.
What is the minimum age to go on a glacier hike tour?
10 years old for scheduled tours.
The glacier hikes for private tours on Sólheimajökull and small group tours on our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day tours have a minimum age of 10. This is classified as a moderate level of difficulty and takes a maximum of 12 people per guide.
The glacier walk for our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Discovery 2 Day Tour has a minimum age of 10 years old too. The difference for this trip is that you will have 2 guides for a maximum of 12 guests. The additional guide is in regard to the ice cave aspect of the tour that requires extra maintenance and assistance.
For private tours the minimum age can be lowered down to 8 years old, as long as the child’s shoe size is EU35 or above. This is so that the feet fit equipment (crampons).
What equipment do I need on a hike?
You don’t need to bring anything other than appropriate clothing. The technical safety equipment needed for walking on ice is; crampons, harness, helmet and an ice axe. This equipment will be provided to you at no additional cost. If you require any protective rain gear or hiking boots we can provide these at a small additional cost. You can add these in when booking, or pay on the day.
What do I wear on a hike?
Biting cold, powdery snow and slick ice always spring to mind whenever people think of glaciers. However, this is often not the case. Iceland is far warmer than many people think. The glacier itself is only around 2 celcius colder than the surrounding areas. So a warm summer day can be expected on and off the ice if the weather holds up. Iceland’s infamous ever-changing weather means it can be quite harder to know what to wear. Our view on the weather is, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If you are struggling to decide, here are some golden essentials to bring with you.
Waterproof ankle-high boots | You should pack some comfortable yet relatively sturdy, waterproof or GORE-TEX boots, preferably ones that go above the ankle. These are necessary to wear with the crampons as sneakers won’t work.
Thermal socks | Thin cotton socks won’t keep your toes nice and warm in the biting cold winter. Opt for some good, thermal socks instead.
Warm layers | A light merino t-shirt or another type of thin base layers can be good. Add in a good fleece mid layer to really fight off the cold. A warmer outer layer such as a primaloft or down jacket is also good to keep you warm in the evenings and on colder summer days. In winter this should be considered an essential.
Gloves and a Hat | Gloves are a must both for comfort when (holding an ice axe) and for protection from the cold and wind. In the summer thin gloves are suitable, however, for winter waterproof and windproof thermally lined gloves are recommended. Thermal woolen hats are great for keeping you warm in winter – to ensure they fit under the helmets it is best they do not have a bobble and are not too bulky.
Your best waterproof jacket and hiking pants | The key to staying warm is staying dry and if there is one item you should never wear on a glacier hike, it’s jeans! If denim gets wet, they stay wet. It can be really unpleasant for the rest of the day having cold legs. Instead, pack a good waterproof jacket and some flexible, breathable pants that will work with you as you move.
Waterproof jackets, pants and hiking boots can be hired from Hidden Iceland. You can select them when booking your tour or contact us to add this to your booking after. We have waterproof jackets and pants from 66 North in unisex sizes – XS-XXL. And these AKU Superalp hiking boots in sizes EU 36-48.
When is the best time of year to go?
Glacier hiking is an activity that can be done all year round.
The glaciers look completely different in summer and winter. Both are magnificent times to come, but the experience changes a little. In summer, the ice takes on a white and crusty appearance. This allows the crampons to stick into the ice really easily. Therefore, your guide will be able to explore spots that are often too steep in winter.
In winter, the glaciers give of a shimmering blue glow on the surface. They are slick and smooth. This means every step is a photographer’s dream. It also means there are certain places that are a little harder to get to. Luckily, the solid icy landscape swaps the adventurous glacier hike for an ice cave. Make sure to bring your camera on this trip.
What if the glacier or ice cave becomes inaccessible that day?
Sadly, sometimes the glaciers become inaccessible for a number of reasons. This is the wilderness after all. The most common reason is weather. Too wet and warm and the small streams that flow from the front of the glacier become a torrential river that are difficult to pass. This increased water flow can also flood the ice caves too. Concurrently, if it is too windy we avoid going into areas where balance is quite important to us. Sometimes we can predict these weather changes with enough to time to change or cancel the tour. Other times it can be discovered at the location itself.
If we are not able to do the glacier hike, for whatever reason, then we often still walk along the glacier valley to the front of the glacier to see it up close. We then try our hardest to find an alternative, adding in a couple of our favourite hidden sights as we go, to make up for not doing the glacier hike. These are stops that we otherwise would not have time to visit on the tour, especially with the shorter daylight hours in winter. If we conclude that the new stops don’t match the quality of the glacier hike then we will provide you with a partial refund for that part of the tour.
As always, your safety is our top priority on any of our trips. We will only explore the glacier or enter an ice cave when we can be certain of everyone’s safety in the group.