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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Guided tour on the Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue in Skaftafell

Guided tour on the Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue 
in Skaftafell nature reserve

Almost everything I read about Iceland said DO THE GLACIER HIKE.  Make the time, cough up some dough, and do it.  And truth be told, I didn't need a ton of convincing to spend some the time out on one of Iceland's famous glaciers.  My only regret?  Not spending more time and money to do a longer tour or an ice climbing adventure out on the ice. 

 Iceland's glaciers and volcanoes and various extremes are the reason that this country is known as the Land of Fire and Ice.   Active volcanoes and moving glaciers surely makes Iceland a unique spot and tops the charts for many bucket lists.  Being able to walk out on this glacier with a tour guide educating the group all about the glacier, formation, and the island in the face of climate change is pretty amazing.   You pull up to the glacier and look up to see this large sheet of "living" ice, crawling down the mountain-side making its way to the water. 

Being out on this marbled looking ice makes you feel like you are on another planet.  Every time I looked out at the wild landscape all I could think was A: this could be another planet and B: This ice looks like a gorgeous sheet of marble. Then you have to stop and think about how awesome it is to be out in Iceland with your crampons and ice axe walking on a glacier. And then you realize that your ice axe is sort of more for show as this is nothing more than a leisurely informative guided stroll, and your expectations of rappelling down glaciers is really on the other tour you didn't want to spend $300 or 4 hours on. 

Glacier in Iceland

This hike offers amazing scenery and unique experience with an educational and informative guide.  It was slightly underwhelming in the fact that it's just a quick stroll around the glacier.  Oh, and did I mention the foreign tourists who had to be reminded constantly to stay in line and stop posing every five seconds in crazy forms with their ice axes? Yep, that happened. But overall this was a great experience and something I would recommend (especially a longer more intensive tour/hike).  Now that I warmed you up- pun intended in this glacier post- let's talk about joining a guided tour out on the Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue in Skaftafell nature reserve.

Crampons and ice axe 

Visitor's are strongly urged to go out on the glaciers with a guide for various (and obvious) safety and gear reasons.  The weather changes fast here in Iceland, it is easy to lose your footing, and there are large crevasses that you can slip into all over the ice.  One big reason to go with guides is that the "safe path" changes daily. Guides spend time every morning determining where it's safe to go and adding steps to dangerous areas.  They even carve out some stairs in the areas that have steeper inclines or are slippery.  And if you are like me, you want someone you can assault with questions. 

We booked through Extreme Iceland to go out with Glacier Guides on their "Ultimate Icescape" tour.  We picked this tour for its schedule, shorter duration on an already busy day, and more affordable price.   The tour cost ISK 9,900 per person (about $94 dollars).   The tour was described as " A surreal labyrinth of millennial ice.  This activity tour takes you safely with an expert glacier guide among the crevasses and glacier sculptures of Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue in Skaftafell nature reserve. You'll be totally surrounded by the majestic scenery and experience the power of the living glacier".   You are out on the glacier tongue is an outlet of the immense Glacier Vatnajökull, and the ice is 1,000 years old.

Total duration: ~2.5 hours     On the ice: 1 - 1.5 hours
Difficulty: Easy     Minimum age: 10 years old      Available: All year
Meet: Glacier Guides booking office in Skaftafell 30 minutes before departure
GPS location: 64.015999, -16.966754      Contact:

The tour included guiding services, glacier gear (crampons) and safety equipment (an ice axe).  You were told to bring warm clothing, raingear and hiking boots.  Hiking boots had to be real hiking shoes that have a thick sole and cover your ankle. The ice crampons cannot be attached to normal shoes and still don't fit on all hiking shoes.  If you don't have compatible boots, you can rent them at an added cost.  

Glacier in the valley

Glacier in the valley

After we got our gear together, we loaded up on the bus for a quick 5-10 minute drive to where we would start our glacier hike.  We broke into smaller groups and headed to an area where we learned the proper way to put on the crampons and how to hold our ice axes. We followed our guide in a single file fashion over different parts of the glacier learning about its origins, how fast it's moving, and why the ice was different colors in different areas.

Entrance sign to the glacier 

Putting on our crampons 

Crampons and ice axes - provided equipment 

Single file lines over the glaciers 

One of the crevasses


  • Approximately 11% of Iceland’s total area of roughly 100,000 km2 is covered by glaciers.
  • The largest ice caps in Iceland are located in the southern and central highlands.
  • Glaciers form where mean annual temperatures are below 0°C, and where winter precipitation in the form of snow surpasses summer melt.  Glaciers are located in highlands and mountainous areas with high precipitation.
  • Precipitation is highest in the south-eastern part of the country, where it surpasses 4000 mm water equivalents per year
  • The largest ice cap is the great Vatnajökull which is also the largest glacier mass in Europe.  It covers an area of about 8,000 km2 and is 950-1000 meters in the thickets spot (average thickness is about 500 m). 
  • Glaciers move!  Icelandic glaciers are presently retreating. Warming climate since 1985 led to an increased number of retreating glaciers.  All Icelandic outlet glaciers are retreating presently and the ice caps are losing ice volumes due to accelerating summer melt.
  • As a glacier glides forward, its surface cracks because the top layers of ice (about 20-30 meters deep) are brittle, resulting in many deep cavities and fissures.
  • The various colors in the ice (the marbling effect you see) is due to the glacier picking up various debris, especially volcanic ash.
  • Parts of glacial ice appear blue when they have become very dense. Years of compression gradually make the ice denser over time, forcing out the tiny air pockets between crystals. When glacier ice becomes extremely dense, the ice absorbs a small amount of red light, leaving a bluish tint in the reflected light, which is what we see. When glacier ice is white, that usually means that there are many tiny air bubbles still in the ice. Source
  • There are various excursions out on the glaciers from jeep excursions, glacier hiking and snowmobiling

Glacier in Iceland

Ice axes and people ice climbing in the distance

This quick tour was a great preview of Iceland's glaciers.  A trip to Iceland isn't cheap but a guided tour out on the glaciers is definitely worth your time and money.  If I could do it again, I would slot more time on the glaciers and probably do some ice climbing.  This was a great way to get on Iceland's glaciers and learn more about the area.

Group photo at the end of our tour 


  1. I love travelogues. This post of yours is very informative and amazing too. The pictures are breath taking. For me Ireland had always been a fairy land. Thank you for suggesting a guided tour. I Hope I will visit Ireland someday.

  2. Wold you say that a tour that gives you 3 hours on the ice is long enough?

  3. It depends on what kind of tour. Ours was just a casual walk and info and 3 hour would be MORE than enough (especially if its rather cold...). For something more extreme like ice climbing you may need more time. Hope this helps!


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