On July 7th of 2014, I embarked on Iceland’s most famous multi-day trek, the Laugavegur Trail – four days of waterfalls, glaciers, and harsh, unearthly landscape. It did not go well. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to my family describing the events of that evening.
I hiked my ass off through mounting wind and rain and finally arrived at the second base. I was wet and exhausted but proud of myself. I had cut a day off my pace and knocked out 14 miles in the process.
The scenery along the way was gorgeous, like a movie scene from another planet. Huge, sulfur breathing steam vents shot up into the air. Odd mountains of foreign colors jutted up into the ever-cloudy sky. Softening snow fields sloshed beneath my feet as I trudged on towards a place to lay my head.
As soon as I set up my tent, chaos ensued. The weather got worse and worse and the wind tore against my tent, bending and nearly snapping the poles. Rain came down relentlessly as my shelter struggled to keep me dry. There were moments where the wind would blow so hard, the top of my tent would bend down and touch me. It kept getting worse. Rarely in my life have I witnessed the wind blow so relentlessly. I don’t know exactly what gale force means, but I bet it applied to the situation last night. It was a fucking nightmare.
Earlier I had asked if there were extra beds in the huts, but the warden told me they were completely full for the night. My only choice was to try and weather the storm like the dozens of other campers were trying to do. About an hour into the storm, I started hearing frantic screams from the German campers next to me. They were scrambling to secure a struggling tent and failing in the process. I was starting to get cold. Out of options, I curled up tighter in my sleeping bag praying that the wind would stop. That didn’t happen.
Next, I heard a woman’s voice outside my tent, “Hello?! Is anyone in there? Your tent is falling apart!”
“I know!” I replied.
She was a hut warden — and had come to save my ass. She helped me disassemble my tent as I frantically jammed my soaking belongings into my backpack. We struggled to carry my things to the hut as the wind tore against us. A few of my belongings were ripped from my bag and disappeared into the disastrous night.
So here I am, waiting for a bus to take me back to Reykjavik. Hiking on is not an option. Although it has improved, the weather is still bad. All my belongings and soaked and my tent poles are extremely bent. I have no idea when the bus will come, but I can tell you now that it won’t be soon enough.
Brutal, right? But, here’s the funny thing: I went into the Laugavegur Trail fearless and confident about the trail ahead. Failure never crossed my mind, but, oh boy, it introduced itself loud and clear.
It took this utterly chaotic experience to realize that I had completely underestimated the power of the far north. I was but an amateur — naïve, foolish, reckless, and under-prepared. Iceland had dealt me its worst and I had to fold. What was I thinking?
Looking back, I’m glad the weather ruined my trip. The piercing wind, ice-cold downpour, and collapsing gear taught me a lot. My disaster tour of Laugavegur has proven to be one of the most exhilarating and formative experiences of my life.
What I Learned on the Laugavegur Trail
1. Trail-Related Research is Your Friend
Before I left on this hike, I did what I thought was extensive research on the Laugavegur Trail. I read several accounts of the route and its challenges, so I figured I was well-prepared. Not so.
Here’s the problem: I ignored too much of my own research. I chose to cut corners and thought I could get away with it. This approach may have worked for me in the past, but definitely not on this occasion.
Ignored Advice #1: Bring waterproof everything. It rains a lot in Iceland.
Result #1: Noel brought water-resistant pants and inadequate boots. He quickly absorbed quarts of cold rain. He mentally reviews the symptoms of hypothermia.
Ignored Advice #2: Pack a burly four-season tent with heavy-duty stakes that will stay anchored in the loose, rocky soil.
Result #2: Noel decides to buy a cheap, off-brand ‘four-season’ tent on Amazon with flimsy stakes. Tent implodes.
Ignored Advice #3: Here is a Perfect Five-Day Itinerary. Follow It.
Result #3: Noel ignores threatening weather, combines Day One and Day Two mileage into a grueling rush, and arrives late to camp, soaked and exhausted. Wicked weather ruins everything.
Research your treks thoroughly, but more importantly, follow advice from those who have been there before. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
2. Iceland Doesn’t Care About Your Cute Little Plans
My debacle on the Laugevegurinn Trail was at the peak of summer – the prime time for trekking in Iceland. I selected my dates with care and planned the trip months in advance. That didn’t matter. Nature didn’t care about any of that.
The weather dictates the course of your pace and course when trekking — not the other way around. Rain, wind, hail, snow… there’s no hiding from it.
If you feel unprepared for the weather before you leave on a trek, you have three options: 1. Upgrade your gear to match the worst case scenarios. 2. Don’t go on the trek. 3. Blindly start the trek in spite of poor preparation. Guess which option I chose.
3. Bring a Map on Every Trek
Believe it or not, I decided not to bring a map on my short-lived jaunt into the Icelandic wilderness. No, I didn’t get lost, but I was taking a very avoidable risk.
I stunned a hut warden by confessing I hadn’t brought a map with me. He called me stupid to my face and wished me luck (Icelanders don’t mince words). And he was right. I was being incredibly stupid. Later that day, I walked past a monument for a trekker who lost his life when bad weather and thick fog sent him off the trail and far away from help.
Bring a map even if you’re on a well-traveled trail. I recommend carrying both a physical map and an offline GPS map on your cellphone. Yes, this sounds dramatic, but doing so may be the difference between life and death.
4. Trek with the Right Gear
A squeaky, overstuffed backpack. A leaky and vulnerable tent. Permeable pants and boots. The gear I brought failed me at every turn. With the right gear, the trek would have played out so much better.
My hands shook when I attempted to pack up my windsock of a tent, I gazed longingly at the tents that stood up to the harsh weather. Why didn’t I buy a better tent? Why does everything hurt? Will I ever be warm again?
Since Iceland, I have become obsessed with finding the right gear. Every single purchase is preceded by hours of careful research. My current trekking setup is calibrated to withstand another Laugaveguresque assault.
5. Trek with the Light Gear
Full of naïve optimism, I lugged over 50 pounds (22 kg) of gear and supplies on my back as I labored through the unpredictable Icelandic tundra. I was uncomfortable from the first step.
My back ached as my bag squeaked and moaned with every step. My knees became weak and my focus shifted back and forth between my incredible surroundings and my inescapable discomfort.
I had packed a bag full of heavy and inefficient gear and that choice had tainted my whole experience. Never again.
Every ounce counts, so remember this — Don’t buy heavy gear that will slow you down and stress your body. Invest in light, comfortable, well-designed products and your treks won’t revolve around pain management, but rather soaking up the beauty around you.
6. Prepare Your Body for Long-Distance Hikes
Every inch of my body was fatigued when the torrent of wind and rain ran through me. My clothes, food, everything became heavy with water, but I was far too exhausted to do anything about it. I lay depleted in my increasingly unsafe tent until somebody came to help.
I hadn’t properly trained for the Laugavegur Trail. My body wasn’t up to the chaos swirling around me. Had I been alone, my story might not have had a happy ending.
I never want to feel helpless like that again.
So, I started training before every trek. My regimen is simple: go on as many strenuous hikes as possible in the months and weeks leading up to the start date, usually increasing in difficulty. I also have a body weight exercise routine that I can utilize when I’m not on the trail. Nowadays, I’m light on my feet after a 25 kilometer (16 mile) day, with plenty of energy left in my reserve tank.
7. Embrace the Pain and Struggle
Yes, the Laugavegur Trail was both a disaster and one of my most vivid, exciting, and treasured travel memories. If the weather had been calm and the nights uneventful, would I have honed my trekking skills?
That bitter night shredded my complacent concept of trekking. From that day on, I knew that I would always be at the mercy of the elements. I would have to completely rework my strategy to get serious about this whole braving-the-wilderness thing.
Life isn’t meant to be a steady stream of victories. Pain and struggle are opportunities to improve. Grasp your failures, big or small, and hold them close. Relive your shortcomings in your mind and ask yourself, “What can I do differently next time?”
Picking Up the Pieces of an Icelandic Trek Gone Wrong
When the bus dropped me off in Reykjavik I was embarrassed and disheartened. My belongings were soaked and jumbled. I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night. Mother Earth chewed me up and spit me out back onto the streets. I was in rough shape.
But I was left with one hell of a story. And some dawning wisdom for my next trek.
My trials and tribulations on the Laugavegur Trail’s treeless expanse gave me a deeper understanding and respect for Nature. I didn’t have to be naïve and unprepared anymore. The choice was now mine to either improve or keep making the same mistakes.
Which would you choose?
Looking to explore Iceland, but don’t feel like trekking towards a similar fate? Check out my friend Christine’s thorough and awe-inspiring seven-day Iceland itinerary.