My name is Katie Featherstone, and I split my time between Scotland and Iceland. I'm the author of Bradt Guide's Inner Hebrides, a seasonal mountain hut warden in the Icelandic Highlands, and a freelance writer focusing on hiking, history and slow, sustainable travel.
My story is pretty scrappy. I used to travel a lot. After falling down a black hole into the refugee crisis for nearly half of 2016, my partner Dan and I escaped with the remainder of our sanity in our van Burt to recover. Through several strokes of luck and kindness, we found Summer jobs in the Fjallabak nature reserve in Iceland. Burt exploded in 2018 and subsequently I've spent most of my time hiking, cleaning beaches and trying to reconcile still too many flights with my attempt at a sustainable lifestyle.
The Laugavegur is Iceland's most popular multi-day hike for good reason. Starting amongst the colourful rhyolite mountains around Landmannalagar, the trail climbs up into the snow fields and desolate black rock piles around Hrafntinnusker, before descending into lush green moss and the beautiful lake at Álftavatn. Amongst the mountains, there are several rivers to cross around Hvanngil, before the path leads further south across the black sand deserts of Emstrur – where every tiny green plant looks alien against its inhospitable backdrop. Finally, the trail comes to an end in the lush forests of twisted birch trees around Þórsmörk: a valley at the base of two glaciers.
Firstly, apologies that this post reads as one long lecture about all the things to do, not do and be scared of. I'm publishing it to help readers prepare, rather than as inspiration, but I certainly do not mean to put you off. This will be my fourth year working as a warden along the trail and these are the things that I always wish hikers knew before they arrived.
This information is not official, but just from my personal experience. It is not a substitute for talking to the wardens in the Information Office when you arrive, as there are some things which cannot be checked online. The hike is very dependent on the weather and other conditions on the trail.
It's more than half way through our season in Hrafntinnusker and although you might have some romantic notion of it being quiet or even lonely at the top of the mountain, that really couldn't be further from the truth. I'd been craving a little anonymity; somewhere people don't look at me twice and I can ignore them too. Ironically, it's often easier to find solitude in the city.
I had never seen Reykjavik in the sunshine before. Sorry, but I don't have words, only the photos...
I'm not going to pretend this is the "ultimate guide" or draw you a map as, having worked there for much of the last two summers, I know how important it is that you talk to the wardens at Landmannalagaur and ask for their most current advice. Please refer to the text at the bottom of this page for information you should know before you arrive.
Being flexible with your timing and working around the weather forecast can make the difference between a great hike and a disaster.
The two most reliable online weather predictions are www.vedur.is and http://belgingur.is (often more accurate for Hrafntinnusker). You should familiarise yourself with both of them. It is good to look some days in advance, but things can change quickly and you should not forget to make a final check just before you leave civilisation. Wind and rain are the most changeable factors which I have focused on here, but you should also be aware of general temperatures day/night, the effects of wind chill and decreasing hours of daylight. Fog comes and goes at will and your only real defence against it is a GPS device.
Always speak to the wardens at Landmannalaugar or Langidalur before you start and in each campsite you visit along the way, to ask their advice about weather and conditions. Up to date local knowledge is impossible to find online.
I first wrote a version of this post for Anita Hendrieka, but I put a lot of thought and effort into it, so I wanted to share it with you here too.
Over the past decade, I'd spent plenty of time exploring Europe and South America, some in South East Asia and even Oceania, but was ashamed to have never ventured further into Africa than Morocco. I didn't have any idea what to expect from The Gambia although, having studied History, I had no illusions as to why this tiny river-bank country in West Africa spoke English.
Our colonial past and resulting wealth is uncomfortable and unavoidable, but I felt very little of the resentment I expected. Life has been, and continues to be, very hard for the majority of Gambians. Wages are extremely low and there is a lack of opportunities for young people which increases the further east you travel. Despite this, Dan and I were usually treated with warmth and respect, never felt at risk of a crime (a notable difference from certain parts of South America) and was guided through the country like a baton in a never ending relay race of people offering to help. Travelling east, “up-country”, where the taxis turned to donkey carts and people were still surprised to see us was easier than we'd imagined and I believe that we would have had a very different experience had we spent our time in cities and tourist beach resorts.
It is a country of violent seas, fishermen and complicated mangrove networks. The variety of birds is world renowned and my only naive resolution (to see a baobab tree) was completed countless times within the first week, but (for me) The Gambia was about Gambians.
I had not seen my family, or visited the Hebrides, since the previous January; a trip to Islay was long overdue...
Twitter tells me that the German word of the year for 2018 is weltschmerz (n.) - the feeling of depression that comes on when you compare the current state of the world with how it could be ideally.
However, in a continuing monologue from my previous post, I have reached the conclusion that we must continue to fight "the good fight" in whatever ways we can feasibly manage [even if they seem pointlessly small by themselves]. I never really believed otherwise, but sometimes it would be a great relief to just forget about our impending doom for a moment. Unfortunately, we don't have time; climate scientists have warned there are only twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond that point even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, not to mention the effects on our ecosystem. The oceans are drowning in plastic, habitat for our dwindling numbers of remaining species is being eradicated as I type, we are still ignoring the millions of refugees and homeless people worldwide and we seem totally unable to tackle the vast inequality in our own country (the UK for me), let alone internationally.
We need to do something dramatic and I am so proud of all my friends who are trying. Personally, I am starting small as I am not sure what else to do right now.
Desires for less and more jostle under my consciousness. I can't settle. I'm chasing an ever-elusive "enough", but am always swamped or somehow lacking. The thought of this perfect life, shaved of excess, weighs on me. My things totaled fill me with guilt, I'm ashamed of my consumption and the ease of my existence. Privilege is not merit based, we cannot buy "content"* and maybe happiness only exists in retrospect. The earth is on the brink of implosion but, with varying degrees of drama and self-importance, we've been saying that since time began—Apocalyptic Literature—I studied it. To justify our existence in the Universe we have to exaggerate our impact, if only to ourselves. Maybe we could save the World? Maybe someone... something?
Sometimes I feel like my words are just a vessel to facilitate sharing a collection of (far too many) photos with you.
This is one of those...
It's nearly two years since I left Calais. The refugee crisis is less of a deafening scream, swallowing my other thoughts. Now it is more of a solid lump, a quietly judgemental resident
in the side of my mind; we are cohabiting the space and doing a somewhat reasonable job of getting on with another sort of life.
This isn't about my head though; this is about the group "Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People". Observant readers will have noticed their link at the bottom of my site and anyone who follows me on social media was probably bored of hearing about them years ago.
"You don't even have a smart phone Katie! You haven't checked your voicemail for three years! Why do you care so much about refugees having phone credit?!" I hear you protest.
Let me tell you why it is so important for refugees to have phone credit...
Over the last six months, this blog has become a hikers' instruction manual. My "warden" job in the highlands is totally immersive — I love it for that — and there is little space in my brain for any other line of thought. Since we left, I've lost my focus; I've been stuck in my head and forgotten how to write it out. Those of you who only check this site* will be totally unaware that we have moved to the East Fjords. It feels like about time to show you what it's like.
*I post photos on my facebook page most days.
Skalli is a marked, 15km day hike from Landmannalaugar. The peak is around 1027m, but the path skirts around it on the southern side. Landmannalaugar is at 550m, so the elevation gain is probably something around 460m. Depending on your fitness, pace and ability, you should allow between six and eight hours to complete the loop.
Unless you have a GPS devise (with the route saved into it), it is only advisable to attempt this hike in good weather and later in season — towards the end of July, August and early September — once most of the snow has melted [and you can see the stick markers]. The wardens in the information center can advise you whether conditions are suitable on any given day, so you should always talk to them before you set out. Don't be disappointed if it is not possible for you to do this hike as there are many other amazing day hikes around Landmannalaugar which are less weather dependant.
Please note the the majority of these photos were taken on two incredible days of sunshine. You would be very lucky to experience such weather on a short trip to Landmannalaugar, but it is definitely worth checking the forecast before you arrive and planning your trip around it.
Strútsstígur is an unmarked path; it is not possible to follow indications or footprints. It is also not guaranteed that you will meet staff working in campsites or even other hikers. It is therefore, vitally important that you are experienced at hiking in Iceland, have a GPS and are entirely self-sufficient. I have added some useful information at the bottom of this article.