The University of Iowa

Sam Rust’s Guide to Icelandic Hot Pools

December 17th, 2014

By Sam Rust

So you’ve made your list of things to do in Iceland, and nestled in between subjecting yourself to eating fermented shark and witnessing the original geyser, Geysir, spout is a trip to the Blue Lagoon.  You’ve heard about the unlimited supply of a relatively important resource that is hot water and the ways in which Icelanders utilize and enjoy said resource. Despite the ever increasing suffocation of the tourist industry, Icelanders still buy their pool passes and are the primary occupants of both local and obscure hot springs scattered throughout the country.  Although the Blue Lagoon is an overpriced tourist trap, it is still undoubtedly a staple in the Icelandic itinerary, but just in case you can’t make the trip to the Blue Lagoon – don’t panic. Swimming (or just sitting in hot water) is apparently “Iceland’s Favorite Pastime”, and there is no shortage of places to swim, relax, and socialize in Reykjavík.

For instance, the main street in Reykjavík is called Laugavegur which translates to “pool – road.” The reason for this is that this road is the path that settler women used to take to wash their clothes in the largest area of hot springs, which by no coincidence, is where the largest swimming pool in Reykjavík is now located.  The novelty of Icelandic hot springs and swimming pools is probably because there are so many of them, and the vast majority of them are all located outdoors. The experience is reminiscent of sitting in your aunt’s hot tub in the middle of winter, going out to make a quick snow-angel and then jumping back in to feel the sensation akin to millions of needles prickling your entire body. Who doesn’t love that?

This was the hot pool (called Grettislaug) that my friends and I camped in the first night of our trip to the north. The mountains are to the left of the photo -- absolutely breathtaking.

 If you’re traveling to Iceland and don’t want to join the status-quo at the pools in Reykjavík here is some advice from someone who doesn’t really even enjoy water but has been in various hot-water-filled holes in the ground in the Icelandic terrain:

See? No monsters at the Blue Lagoon -- only my new friends and me having fun.

1. My first piece of advice for those searching for hot springs is to know where you’re going and eliminate all expectations regarding said hot spring. Iceland is pretty efficient when it comes to directions towards attractions such waterfalls, hot springs and hiking routes. Additionally, there are usually guest houses and/or camp grounds near the areas in order to maximize comfort for those coming to experience Iceland.  For me personally, I was directionally oblivious during my weekend excursions, so I have had zero expectations. About a month ago, for example, I packed myself in the trunk of a Suburu at max capacity and went north. Equipped with a Lonely Planet guide book and a vague idea of where we were supposed to end up for the night, the seven of us started driving after sunset.  Night driving in Iceland is virtually inevitable as the winter months guarantee no more than four hours of sunlight per day, and despite staggering deficiencies in vitamin D, I personally enjoy the endless dark (hello, northern lights?)  After four hours of driving north, we set up camp using only a few head lamps and the abysmal light from the moon and jumped in the less scalding of two hot springs at the camp grounds. Morning brought with it one of the more peaceful and spectacular views I’ve experienced in Iceland. The ocean was to my right and a mountain was to my left and everything was covered in snow. I wouldn’t have been exposed to this sublime view if it wasn’t for the promise of natural hot tubs, so thanks, hot tubs.

Apparently I'm not the only one with this mentality. My friends and I camped outside this hot pool in North Iceland. Not only is it located within a huge fissure in the earth, but some scenes in Game of Thrones were filmed in the same pool!

 2. Swim naked (in hot springs… not public pools). Nudity and the aversion to naked bodies are aspects of American culture that are probably reflected upon most when traveling outside of the US, and in my opinion with good reason. Iceland’s pools make you shower before entering any pool for sanitary purposes (there isn’t a copious amount of chlorine added to the pools in Iceland, e.g. nothing to kill the germs on your germy body), so you get used to being naked in communal showers. In these situations, no one is comparing and no one is sexualizing your body.  During my trip to northern Iceland, being naked made more sense than struggling with swimsuits. With temperatures below freezing and it being dark most of the time, soaking in the buff was more efficient and comfortable (no wet and frozen suits, no standing in the snow struggling to change clothes, and less means more concerning sleeping bag warmth.) Besides, how many people can say they’ve gone skinny-dipping in Iceland?

3. And finally, try everything. Hike mountains in search of one rumored hole in the ground, because even if you can’t find it you’re still going to be at the top of a mountain. I spent two hours hiking in the rain in a geothermal valley (Reykjadalur in the town of Hveragerdi) surrounded by geothermal rivers and pools and still didn’t find a place to soak, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Say yes to group trips to the swimming pool you’ve been to ten times already, because of friendship and people-watching and relaxation. Try ocean swimming at Nauthólsvík even if you’re afraid of water, salt and the cold, because there’s a hot tub waiting for you at the end of your swim, and your adrenaline will fight the cold. Go to the Blue Lagoon, because someone needs to tell your family back home that there isn’t really a creature, but instead exfoliating face scrubs and surreal lava fields.

I am far from an expert, but all I know is that even if you are in Iceland for only two days, spend an hour of those forty-eight in one of Iceland’s many pools. You wouldn’t be experiencing Icelandic culture unless you did.

Happy soaking!

Samantha Rust is a senior from Ramsey, MN majoring in English at the University of Iowa. Sam is currently studying abroad on the University of Iceland Exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland.