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?

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34 Comments

Þorkell Sigvaldason's picture

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

user-156929's picture

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! :-)

user-156929's picture

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.

Tim Ericsson's picture

I see we find common ground in killing squirrels and the positive effects of experiencing cultural differences, lol!

user-156929's picture

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

Tim Ericsson's picture

Lol true. Squirrels can be delicious, btw: they did not die in vain!

user-156929's picture

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.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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

Tim Ericsson's picture

The psychology of hunting is definitely complex. I find it more personally justifiable to eat meat knowing that I've killed it (putting the animal to good use, etc.), but I understand the moral dilemma when you're staring at an animal down the barrel of a gun.

Either way, it's too tasty not to eat meat! Just hope the animal never suffers for it.

Thanks for the share.

Nathan McMahon's picture

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.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

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 =(

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

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.

Jonathan Reid's picture

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?

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

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. :)

user-156929's picture

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?

Jonathan Reid's picture

Just responding to what the video says...

Dan Zafra's picture

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!

Jonathan Reid's picture

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.

Cesar A Mendez Garcia's picture

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).

Pros:
- 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.

Cons:
- 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.

Cesar A Mendez Garcia's picture

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.

Jonathan Reid's picture

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.

Jon Kellett's picture

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 :-)

Sveinn Kjartansson's picture

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!

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