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How Good Is Iceland’s Skiing, Really?

Author: Peter Wadsworth

January 10, 2019

Last spring, I returned from my third trip to Iceland, once again blown away by quality of the ski touring there. The skiing there is good enough that I fly half way around the world from my home in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, in the middle of ski season, to meet friends and skin new-to-us peaks for a week. We arrived right after a brutal mid-winter thaw, but the sun came out and gave us several days of steep corn harvesting.

Iceland has an amazing mix of qualities that make it a special ski destination:
- Thousands of square miles of undeveloped mountains with skiable slopes and couloirs
- Summits are only about 1,000 meters above sea level, very lung friendly, but tree line is at sea level, so it's all alpine and snowy.
- Incredibly low population density, meaning no competition for terrain
- Well maintained modern infrastructure, allowing easy driving to reach remote places cheaply and safely
- Friendly multi-lingual people who are happy to have tourists support their rural economy
- Stable maritime snowpack
- Sweet geo-thermal pools everywhere for down day soaking

What you'll be in for

We choose to ski in the Tröllaskagi Pennisula in the center of the northern coast of the island. It boasts more than 1,300 square miles of mountainous terrain, and every valley we skinned up from the road revealed another dozen slopes or couloirs begging to be skied. Many days our hardest decision was figuring out which ski runs we would have to pass by. The sheer amount of easy-access ski terrain is impossible to overstate. Steep 1,000-meter lines right to the Arctic Ocean are a special prize, especially when you can see them from your hot tub, and there are no other skiers to compete with.

On a budget

Iceland is notorious for being expensive.  Before I traveled there myself, I heard lots of stories of $15 draft beers and other dirtbag horrors in Reykjavik. While it's true that it's easy to blow a month's pay very quickly in the capital city, traveling elsewhere in Iceland on a lower budget is entirely doable with some friends to spread the costs. If memory serves, we did an eight-day ski trip in 2015 for about $900/person, including all food, transportation, lodging, entertainment, etc. This is possible because of a few key decisions: We rented a van for all seven of us to share transportation—asking specifically for studded winter tires. We rented remote cabins or whole-house AirBnBs instead of staying in individual rooms at hotels. And we cooked all of our meals family style by shopping at local grocery stores.

We sought out wild and natural hot springs (What an adventure! They're everywhere!) instead of paying for fancy developed spas. The group I travel with is not so into night life, so we didn't lose much money hanging out at bars, and instead got a lot of early morning skiing in, and enjoyed our libations on mountain tops at noon. And, of course, we skinned for all of our skiing. As far as travel, if you're on a tight budget, check out WOW Airlines. It's an Icelandic-based economy carrier similar to Southwest Airlines in the U.S.

Not to miss

If you go, you must—absolutely must—seek out wild and semi-developed hot springs. Don't worry about how to schedule this; the weather will do it for you. Being in the far north Atlantic, there will be days that are too nasty to ski, but that are just perfect for parking your aching legs in a hot soak with your friends. Iceland has ton a volcanic activity, so there are natural hot springs everywhere. Start with some Google searches for out-of-the-way soaking pools, but don't stop there. Ask locals for tips—which requires meeting and becoming friendly with locals, which is worth it on its own accord. Buy some old topo maps and see if any hot springs are marked. Cruise some travel forums and find hints and tips for locating your own secret hot spring. Lastly, take a few "wrong" turns while exploring rural Iceland, look for the tell-tale snowless spots on mountainsides, or steam rising from rocky shores.

Crucial gear

While a good synthetic puffy jacket or some softshell ski pants make sense, you'd also better remember some Ferrosi shorts.  They're good for swimming in hot springs, but tough enough to not tear on all that volcanic rock. While you're at it, bring some Alpine Onset merino base layers. That will make it easier to stick to a budget airline's strict baggage rules, since merino lasts a lot longer before becoming stinky while on backcountry ski trips. Pack less, experience more.

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Photos by Peter Wadsworth and Greg Petrics of FamousInternetSkiers.com.
Skiers include Peter Wadsworth, Jake Evans, and AJ LaRosa

Peter Wadsworth

Peter used to work as a consumer product design engineer. You’ve seen his work on shelves at The Apple Store and The Home Depot. But, he’d much rather talk about how much vertical you managed to skin yesterday or how under-appreciated the backcountry skiing is in Vermont. Peter’s passion is moving swiftly and efficiently through the mountains whether on skis, wheels, or sneakers. He moved to Alaska a few years ago to do that more. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Alaska Avalanche School.