Should Winter Photographers Explore Iceland by Campervan?

What’s the best way to explore Iceland as a landscape photographer? Many photographers swear by camper vans: you can drive up to the best location, scout it during midday, then stay overnight to shoot until sunrise.

A campervan is a tempting way to see the best of a country for many reasons:

  1. Flexibility: rather than commit to a fixed itinerary, you can stay longer in a particularly stunning area or move on altogether without being tied to reserved accommodations.
  2. Cost: by combining your accommodations with transportation, you can save on expensive B&Bs and gas for extra trips from your accommodations to the landscape.
  3. Location: imagine pulling up to exactly the area you want to hike and photograph, shooting until dark, then continuing to shoot at dawn. Especially in US national parks, where affordable accommodations are often an hour’s drive outside the park, that makes for a much easier wakeup call to catch the best light!

I’m traveling the world for a year to photograph its unique landscapes, starting with Iceland. I thought these were all great reasons, so I rented a campervan for the 19-day trip. Unfortunately, the experience hasn’t been what I expected. Specifically for winter photography in Iceland, I wish I could revisit some decisions. In this vlog, I cover some of the pros, cons, and nitty gritty details to keep in mind when renting a campervan.

Have you rented a campervan for photography before or are you considering one for an upcoming trip? What has your experience been like?

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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The grass is still green outside, it isn't winter. He's here in early November, winter doesn't really arrive until January...

Looking at some of the photos, it can be difficult to tell but having been to a lot of iconic places around the world, photos don't always represent the reality. I hope to go someday and I'll report back to you! :-)

Of course that's possible but my point was, I've seen photos of places that looked better than the reality but others that were less than a shadow of the reality. Either could be the case with Iceland. And really, and more related to the article, the scenery is only a part of why I love to travel. Meeting people and learning about their lives and cultural differences are often more memorable than anything else.

I'm not a fan of killing anything but love a good sense of humor!

When I was a teenager, I used to go hunting with my brother-in-law but we never got anything. At 15, we were going through a field, about 20 yards apart, when I saw a rabbit. It was just sitting there...looking at me. :-( I didn't want to shoot it that way but it wouldn't move so I stomped my feet to try to get it to run. Nope! As my brother-in-law approached, I was afraid he wouldn't want to take me anymore if I didn't shoot it so I did. Afterward, I never wanted to go hunting again and didn't.

Since then I've only shot animals with cameras. I will, however, eat what HE shoots.

After spending 10 days in Iceland this past December/January using a camper seems like a very scary undertaking. Looking forward to seeing this progress.

I've spent around a month in a car (not a camper van, mind that) in Iceland in may-june (early spring). It can be super hard to stay warm and clean at the same time, if you know what I mean. ;) In winter it must be even worse...

Ouch! I considered car camping for a few nanoseconds — so glad I didn't! Campervanning in summer in Iceland sounds like it could be a nice experience. It's definitely a completely different experience in winter, with the shorter days, no one around, and only campsites to legally park at =(

Now that you mentioned it, I understand where much of your troubles came from. It is, indeed, illegal in Iceland to park a camper (van) outside of campsites. It's much easier with just a regular car. I also used tent, when the weather was good enough (or slept without it, if it was superb), but having a possibility to park almost anywhere (with exception of some obvious places like "no overnight parking" signs or off-road) is very convenient.

The fact that you can’t wild camp - that ruins the campervan experience for me. Thanks for the tip!

A question about the darkness - is it not a good time to photograph the northern lights?

There are places where you can wild camp (to some degree) and there are places where you can't. It's all in the internet. :)

I had the same thought about the Northern Lights but, from the little I've heard, it's cloudy, often enough, that may be a limited possibility.

No wild camping yet they allow snowmobiles up the tops of their mountains?

Just responding to what the video says...

Everyone just thinks about winter for Northern Lights photography in Iceland but September is one the best actually. The highest peaks of Aurora activity are statistically during the Equinoxes. Going by campervan gives you the flexibility to move where there are cloudless forecasts :)

Yeah I think I underestimated just how much the "can't park anywhere except campsites" would impact the tradeoffs. I think "wild camping" (as in, pitching a tent in the wild) is still fine for one night at a time according to Icelandic law, it's the overnight parking part that's illegal unless you get the landowner's permission — a tough feat in winter when everyone seems to have disappeared!

Oh right, I meant wild camping in the camper van. Would not want to camp in a tent in winter!

As someone who lives in an area od Scotland that has seen a sharp rise in the number of camper vans (maybe 500% in 3 years), this method of travel might not endear you to the people you are visiting unless you are careful.

Camper vans are a very isolating form of travel. Because they are self-contained, there is no need for a camper-van traveller to interact with the surroundings. Often, a camper van will turn up, stay for a few days in a lay-by, and leave wihtout having spoken to a single local person or spent any money locally. They do, however, drive slowly and hold people up - we often have to travel long distances on roads with few passing opportunities - and park inconsiderately. At least caravanners leave their vans behind when they go off touring for the day!

Therefore, what I would say to anyone travelling by camper van is to arrive with only a few provisions and half a tank of fuel so that you have to buy locally. This will get you out into your environment talking to people and contributing to the communities that you are imposing yourself upon. You will be able to talk to people and get invaluable local tips for places to visit. Also, please remember that you may want to move slowly and take in the scenery, but we who like here have work to do, (and sometimes that work even involves taking photographs).

I completely agree. People spend lots of money on camera gear , clothing , boots etc but are not prepared to spend money in the local economy. They either bring their own food or buy it in the big supermarkets. They complain about the cost of eating locally which is only a fraction of the cost of the whole trip. It can be a very selfish and self centered way to travel. I’m fine with it as long as it brings money to the local economy but it’s often the worst sort of tourist which is all take and no give.

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Alistair! I'd heard something to that effect in Iceland, and it totally makes sense. It's easy to go 100% on photography and forget how much of the experience is interacting with locals and other travelers. 2 weeks ago, I would have been the one to be "self-contained," but after trying it for a couple weeks, I've changed my mind and love the interaction. It's a side of travel I haven't appreciated till now — now that I need to sustain it.

Maybe that's part of the difference: as a tourist or a photographer, you can sustain a short stint of isolation to focus 100% on photography. But to sustain it for the long term, e.g. months to a year, you need to find a pace that interacts with the local atmosphere!

Looking forward to winter in Scotland in about a month! Might bump into you, but probably *not* in a campervan =)

Yeah this is why my ideal pacing on a landscape photography trip is to split when i travel either 5 and 2 or 4 and 3 where it will be four or five days self contained and fully focused on landscape photography and then 2 or 3 days with the camera away or atleast pushed tonthe background and the focus is more on interacting with people and making connections.

I just traveled around Iceland for 10 days last May and I can assure you, as a photographer is the best way to travel Iceland (unless you are spending weeks or months there, maybe not).

- Flexibility, you stay right where you are going to shoot sunrise or sunset.
- You can stop any time if you need some rest.
- If the weather isn´t good where you were planning to shoot, you are not attached to a guest house, you just move on.
- Check in and check out at the guest houses are usually not convenient if you are shooting during midnight, after you are done (around 5 or 6 am) you´ll get only about 3 hour sleep before you need to check out.

- A bit uncomfortable.
- You need to use campsites facilities to clean up.
- You have to be super organized to have a better experience in the van.
- As I was on the tip end of the winter/spring, it was super cold, so layer up!!

If your thing is photography, I highly recommend to use a camper van.

Yes! In summer this sounds like it was a really nice experience. I'd love to try the camper again in May for a short trip. I think the combination of 19 days + winter + Iceland + short days + crazy weather turned out to be a bad combo, but I still love the idea of flexibility.

I wonder if the campervan would end up being cost effective in summer with prices up? In winter, it ended up being 50% more than rental + accommodations, plus just overall a barebones experience.

During May I felt the cold during the night, the weather in Iceland as you may know is implacable, and I had hurricane winds up to 60 miles/h, a bit of snow, lots of hail and rain; I just can´t imagine being in a camper van during winter at its fullest.

About pricing, I did some calculations before renting the van, and maybe the van was like a 100 dollars more expensive than renting a normal car + guest houses.

Can I add another negative which you may not have thought of traveling solo? I spent 1 month on the South Island of New Zealand in a campervan with my wife and 2 kids (3 and 1 at the time). I didn't realize what a problem it was going to be having my sleeping quarters also being my vehicle. It was very difficult to be in great locations at sunrise or sunset unless I was going to wake the entire family.

Also with "freedom camping" being banned in more and more places in New Zealand, it's becoming less viable all the time. I'd still not recommend against a camper van in NZ, just make sure that it's self contained :-)

While true yes, renting a camper is awesome for doing things on your own time, However you cannot park and camp over night anywhere you want, only in designated camp areas, and you cannot take the vehicle offroad. So the idea of just staying the night in an awesome location won't be like how you think of it, you still have to drive to a designated camping area for overnight stay. That said being able to use it to travel around and not worry about hotels, guestrooms or such is great! Also when you're someplace that is a road and pull over for a astrophoto, its nice to sit in the camper with a remote LOL!

Hehe, that's the way to do it! I haven't yet had my landscape be quite close enough to the car to stay warm and toasty while the camera does its thing overnight =D

Initially I was really looking forward to ditching the stress of booking guest houses, but funny enough — in winter in Iceland, I've started booking night to night and I actually love it! The key is I've become less picky about location + accommodation type, so I'm easily able to book a <$40 stay each night in about 20 minutes. Maybe it's a fluke, but I'm having some fabulous experiences now that I've gone back to booking places, and it's cheaper.

The one catch: you need WiFi. I will be grabbing a local SIM card for each country so I can have cheaper access anywhere, but otherwise I love coffeeshops =)

As someone living in Iceland I thought this video was very interesting. When out photographing I'm amazed at how many camper vans there now are travelling around the country. There must be at least 10 companies offering them and in summer they're all pretty much booked out. Hence they can charge the high prices. Even last winter, in the depths of a severe winter storm in January, I was amazed to see people still out camping in these vans in vicious winds and driving snow. There is a lack of accommodation that can make camper vans seem an attractive option but in winter I wouldn't want to do it. And I'd agree that the with Þorkell that technically this doesn't look like winter to me - I reckon the video would be VERY different if it was winter proper.

A couple of other things to note. He rightly says that these vans are basically converted cargo vans and as such they do not meet the strict safety standards that cars tend to have. In an accident they simply don't offer the same levels of safety that a hire car would and that is something to consider on winter roads and in dangerous conditions. Similarly, I'm not sure if they get kitted out with things like winter tyres but I know for the most part these are not 4 wheel drive so in winter, they could be potentially a real handful to drive, especially in windy, icy conditions on roads that are sometimes less than ideal in the first place. Add to all this that they're pretty basic inside, so spending long dark hours in them won't be necessarily that cosy and fun after a few days, and I'd say that there are better value, more comfortable options available. There are places with glamping pods and hot tubs for example which I've stayed in and I'd much prefer!

One other bit of advice to those who still want to venture out in these vans is to make use of the swimming pools here. For around 6-800 ISK (around $5-7 USD) you can go to a pool, where the shower facilities are excellent and the pools and hot tubs are fantastic - basically have your own spa experience. They are located in most towns around the country and are a lovely way to spend the darker hours of winter rather than sitting in a dark van! Plus you solve the showering issue mentioned too!

Hah, for this Georgia boy it feels like winter =D in January, my experience would probably have been much, much worse! Glad I got the experiment out of the way earlier in the season.

Yeah, that's barely fall.
I was in Iceland in Feb 17, and as much as it was warmer than in Toronto, the 80km/h winds, the rain and the 16h/day darkness made driving around difficult - we had to stop numerous times just to put the wipers back after being blown off the windshield by a gust.
At night we kept being woken up by the sheer wind noise and cracking wooden structure of the cabin we were renting, and looking at the shaking car outside I knew for sure where I'd rather be.
A couple days after we left, Iceland was hit be a huge storm, effectively stopping all traffic in the south - wouldn't have wanted to be caught out someplace in that!
Also, hoped to shoot the Northern Lights while out around Vik, but cloud cover was 100% for a week, and only got a tiny break the night before we left... in Reykjavik.
Would I go again? Sure, but planning a trip months in advance is tricky, since weather in February can make it very tough to get to travel to your next airbnb you booked in Nov.