When I was planning my trip to Iceland, I knew straight away I would consider it a failure if I didn’t book a glacier hiking and ice caving tour. It seemed like a perfect way to experience Iceland’s magnificent natural beauty and sneak in a vacation workout.
And it was AMAZING. It was one of the standout experiences of my trip to Iceland, and probably my life. Stomping uphill in my crampons was such an exhilarating feeling, and the ice cave was SO beautiful. I seriously couldn’t recommend this highly enough to anyone visiting Iceland – it was well worth the money!
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BOOKING A TOUR + PICKUP OPTIONS
There are a bunch of different companies that organise glacier hikes and tours and all the prices are pretty comparable. My friends and I booked a tour of Vatnajökull Glacier via Glacier Guides, for 19990 ISK (about $199 USD). It was really well organised, safe, and we had so much fun.
You can glacier hike year-round, but ice caves are only safe to visit in winter – between October and March, roughly. If you’re visiting Iceland then, you can book the same tour here!
There are options to meet on location if you’ve got a car, or get picked up in Reykjavík if you don’t! The glaciers are located along Iceland’s southern coast (super far from Reykjavík) so if you’re driving I would recommend booking a night’s accommodation nearby. It’s a loooong drive back and you will be tired!
Our tour started off with a quick handout of safety equipment. Nerdy white helmet, cool af ice axe, and clunky steel crampons (spikes that attach to the bottom of your boots). We then hopped onto a bus for a quick, extremely bumpy bus ride from the Skaftafell Tour Center to the glacier.
When we stopped, our bus split off into two smaller groups with one guide each, and we set off for the glacier. We made a steep ascent up to the base of the glacier and then stopped to lace our crampons.
Here we got a proper Safety Talk from our guide. We learned that when on the glacier it’s very important to follow directly behind your guide at all times, in a single-file line.
This is because the glacier is not entirely solid, like you might expect. Certain areas look like they are ice covered in snow, but they are actually holes. Deep holes. Which can be anywhere from 10 meters deep to the full height of the glacier.
Our guide dropped a pebble into one of them after clearing away the snow, and it took an uncomfortably long time for us to hear it hit the bottom. Not somewhere you accidentally want to step.
WALKING ON THE GLACIER (WITHOUT SLIPPING)
As an extremely clumsy person with poor balance, I was genuinely worried about sliding off the glacier to my death. But it turns out that crampons do an unbelievably good job of anchoring you to the ice. The technique is really easy to learn (all you have to do is kick them into the ice at an angle), and they firmly grip the glacier as you walk.
Hiking wasn’t stressful or scary at all and I was able to relax and take in the scenery.
HOW ICE CAVES ARE FORMED
Our guide explained that ice caves are created completely naturally by meltwater draining to the base of the glacier in the springtime, which gradually erodes the ice. The caves start out as a small hole and gradually expand, and then in wintertime once the weather is cold enough, the ice hardens and re-freezes.
So the ice retains this beautiful carved-out structure, but it’s stable enough that you can hike through it without any fear of collapse. Because they are created 100% naturally, they are different every year, so you’ll never hike the same one twice! At some point once the weather gets warm enough, the caves break down, which is why the caving portion of the glacier hike is only available during the winter months.
HIKING THROUGH THE CAVE
The cave was honestly so much more beautiful than you can see from my photos. There are so many different shades of blue, and the walls have this beautiful texture. I ran my hands along the ice the whole way down – it is so smooth. It was seriously magical and my friends and I spent way too much time inside.
The only manmade item on the glacier was a rope in the cave, which served as a handrail to get down without dying. The hike down was totally fine but we were told to keep a very firm grip just in case.
WHY TF DOES IT LOOK BLUE?
Once we were at the base of the cave, our guide told us a bit about the composition of the ice. Basically, the ice is not actually blue, it just appears blue because of the light hitting it.
Because of the absurd density of glacial ice, and because of the many layers of bubbles/crystals/etc within it, every color of light except blue gets absorbed. So it looks blue even though it’s not actually blue, just like the ocean or sky!
After exiting the cave we hiked upwards a while longer until we came to a huge wide-open space with a great view of the mountains. Everyone hiked out to the same spot to take the same cheesy (but awesome?) shot.
WILDLIFE THAT CAN SURVIVE ON THE GLACIER
Here we also got a look at some of the only wildlife that can survive on Vatnajökull Glacier – crows! They were beautiful and hung around our tour group for a while as everyone snapped photos.
We also learned about a crazy bacteria that lives on the glacier. Apparently scientists have exposed them to every imaginable condition – deprived them of oxygen, tried to kill them 8000 ways etc – and they literally will. not. die. Our guide was saying that researchers have used this particular bacteria to help determine how to identify potential life on Mars!
DESCENDING STEEP ICE (WITHOUT DYING)
We finally began our descent down the glacier. Whenever we hit a patch that was too steep, our guide would literally take out her axe and create stairs with just a few strokes. It was super cool and it completely blew my mind that it was that easy to create walkable conditions. Also, pretty impressive form.
Walking down the ice with crampons was also no issue and just required using a little more force to kick into the ice. By this point we were all pros.
We were treated to this amazing view of the glacial lagoon below as we made our descent. The lagoon is created entirely from meltwater from the glacier and actually exists solely because the glacier is melting so rapidly 🙁 This lagoon did not used to exist and is getting measurably larger each year, which is pretty depressing.
After we got back down to the gravel, we took off our crampons, hiked back down, headed back to the buses, and that was it.
I honestly was OBSESSED with this tour and basically thought it was the coolest experience ever. It was such a unique activity and I am so glad we went. If you are planning a trip to Iceland in the winter you MUST DO THIS.
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