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Update from the Trail: Iceland

Greetings from the Reykjavik Campground in Iceland! The first two segments of our trip of a lifetime/mini-retirement are in the books. It’s hard to believe it’s already been nearly two…

Greetings from the Reykjavik Campground in Iceland! The first two segments of our trip of a lifetime/mini-retirement are in the books. It’s hard to believe it’s already been nearly two weeks since we locked up our Boulder apartment and hit the road.  We spent a wonderful week in the Midwest visiting family and friends before hopping on an easy direct flight from Chicago to Reykjavik. We spent a night in this cozy capital before heading out to hike the Laugavegur trail in the south of the country. Before we get into the hike, quick aside about our first night in Reykjavik: 

When planning for an extended trip while trying to maintain a rather modest budget, we knew we needed to keep our lodging costs down.  We have managed to travel hack our way into a nice bounty of points and miles, but not nearly enough to cover five months of travel. Therefore, we created two guiding rules for strategically booking hotels using travel rewards.  

Rule #1: Maximize value. We tried to use the bulk of our rewards-fueled hotel stays in expensive places where we’d pay a pretty penny for accommodation if using cash. Lucky us, our Europe-heavy travel itinerary includes plenty of cities that fit the bill (pun intended). When traveling through southeast Asia, on the other hand, we will use cash for more of our accommodation since lodging is typically very reasonable in those parts. 

Rule #2: Hotels on travel days.  There is nothing better than finishing a long travel day with an easy check-in process (no fumbling in the dark to find the AirBnB lockbox or waking up the host), a hot shower, baggage storage options, and a clean bed.  We will happily rough it in our tent for most nights of our trip, but we are insanely grateful for the small luxuries of hotels when arriving somewhere new sleep-deprived and weary. 

After a very comfortable stay at the Reykjavik Hilton (early check in? Heck yes. Amazing breakfast buffet? Even better), we are feeling pretty swell about how The Rules have been working out. We spent a day exploring Reykjavik and running some pre-hike errands before hopping on a bus to Lannamanalugar, our starting destination for the  Laugavegur Trail, a 48-mile trek through rugged landscapes in the south of the country. 

Starting out on the Laugavegur Trail

The Laugavegur Trail is Iceland’s most popular and iconic long-distance trek. It is divided into four segments, each marked by a mountain hut and camping area at the finish. At the official end of the trail, there is the option to add on another day’s hike on the Fimmvorduhals Trail, which climbs up to pass between two glaciers and then descends into the small town of Skogar. Our plan was to combine the first two segments of the Laugavegur Trail on our first day to complete the entire thing and make it to Skogar in a total of four days. 

We arrived in Lannamanlugar in the afternoon with plans to camp there for the evening and then set off for our hike early(ish) the next morning.  Lannamanlugar is known for it’s amazing geothermal landscape, which is punctuated by otherworldly colors, random steam-spewing crevices, and some truly lovely hot springs. We almost talked ourselves into skipping the hot springs, considering the fact that we hadn’t brought swimsuits and didn’t want to haul around wet clothes in our packs for the next few days. Fortunately, Ian pulled the whole “It’s not everyday that you find yourself at some dope geothermal hot springs” card and I was quickly convinced. Us Coloradans would have preferred to soak in nude, but after a quick survey of the scene we determined that Iceland wasn’t ready for all that and opted to sacrifice one of our precious few pairs of underwear for the cause. Soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by dramatic mountains and dynamic colors in every direction was truly an unparalleled way to kick off our trek. We returned to a very chilly night in our tent before hitting the trail the next morning. 

The lovely hot springs at Landmannalugar.

We began Day 1 in good spirits. The initial uphill climb helped us thaw out a bit (did I mention that Iceland is a cold place for camping?) and the views blew us away from the start. Iceland is like no other place on Earth that we’ve ever been. The geothermal activity, volcanic landforms, vibrantly colored mountains, wide rivers, black sand deserts, and powerful waterfalls all come together to give this place a character that is completely unique and totally spectacular. The first day of hiking on a long-distance trek is always a bit of a euphoria-filled blur.  For example, we were so blissed out on our first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc that we missed an obvious turn and walked in the wrong direction for an hour before realizing it. On our first day of the West Highland Way, we stopped for a very long lunch (whisky included) thinking we were much closer to our stopping point than we actually were. On the Laugavegur, the trail really gave new meaning to the expression, “a surprise around every corner.” It seemed like every hill we crested or bend we rounded presented a completely new and wondrous landscape. Despite hiking for over eight hours, we finished feeling energized and totally stokey about the next day. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we decided to combine the next segments into another big day the following day. Why sit around and be cold at the campsite when we could spend the entire day exploring the trail? 

Emily doing her best to stay warm.

On Day 2, we packed up camp in damp conditions and a literally bone-chilling wind. One plus side of this weather is that it makes instant coffee taste like the elixir of life. Another positive was that although we had nearly perfect weather throughout the hike, we did at least get a little taste of Iceland’s moody dark side. We set off towards the next hut feeling a little stiff after the previous day’s efforts but totally excited for what the trail would bring. We did have some trepidation however, as we’d read that the biggest of our river crossings would occur on this stage of the hike.  For such an expensive country with otherwise impeccable infrastructure, Iceland seems curiously reluctant to build bridges over rivers. Both people and vehicles are routinely expected to ford sizable rivers if they would like to carry on towards their destination. The warden’s notes at the previous huts warned hikers to take caution crossing the Emstur River, and recent reports suggested the water could reach mid-thigh depths. We’d hoped we’d get an hour or two of walking behind us to warm up before crossing the icy water, but lo and behold, we met it within a few minutes of starting the day. For the second time this week in Iceland, we found ourselves stripping down to our underwear and stepping into the steely glacial waters. This time, however, there was no geothermal action to soften the blow. We forged into the icy, fast-moving currents, carefully choosing every step even though we just wanted to run to the other side and get out as fast as possible. Well, that was one wickedly efficient way to wake up in the morning. 

The rest of Day 2 was tremendously beautiful, but definitely more of a slog than Day 1, due to very long stretches through rocky desert and the fact that our bodies were starting to feel the miles a bit more. Still, we saw so many amazing sights, like the enormous canyon where two rivers-one slate gray and the other sepia toned-together hundreds of feet below us. Finally, we reached Þórsmörk, the technical end of the Laugavegur. We bought a ridiculously overpriced, but yet so necessary, Twix bar at the Þórsmörk campsite shop and then continued on another mile to the campsite at Basar where we’d be better positioned to start the next day’s big hike. Upon reaching camp, the sun had fully made an appearance and we enjoyed some very relaxing evening hours soaking up the endless daylight before putting on our sleeping masks and turning in for the night. 

The confluence of rivers on Day 2.

Day 3 brought more excellent sunny weather, and we knew we had to take advantage of it and bust out the last big day of walking before allowing ourselves a rest day. Today we would complete the Fimmvorduhals Trail.  Have you ever wanted to climb between two glaciers, see the youngest mountains on earth, witness recent volcanic eruptions where black ash meets white snow, crest a mountain pass to see the ocean in the distance, or gaze at 20 waterfalls all in one day? Well we never knew we wanted all those things either until we hiked this trail, but it turns out that it definitely doesn’t suck. You’ve got to work for your views though.  The trail included some ridiculously steep climbs, a mildly sketchy exposed section, and lots of hiking through slushy snow fields. Technically, today was supposed to be way harder in terms of challenge than the previous day, but we both felt significantly better. It was one of those all-around perfect days in nature.  

Cascading falls on the way to Skogar.

Reaching the end of the hike was an interesting experience. Skogar, where the Fimmvorduhals terminates, is a huge draw for tourists due to its proximity to the main highway and its very impressive waterfall, known as Skogafoss.  To us, after being on the lightly trafficked trail for the past few days, it felt like a total zoo. Giant busses dropped off camera-wielding tourists who aggressively fought their way into position for the perfect instagram shot.  It was such an entertaining spectacle that we had no other choice to embrace it and relish the experience. The campground was smack dab in the center of the action, so we enjoyed an endless stream of premium people-watching from the comfort of our tent. The waterfall views were pretty sweet too. Although we appreciated Skogar for what it was worth, we realized pretty quickly that we would struggle hang around at the campground for the nearly 48 hours until our bus was scheduled to pick us up (since we finished a day early). Fortunately, we were able to change our tickets and decided to make the most of our extra time by heading back to Reykjavik, which is how we ended up at the lovely campground where I began this post. We walked around the city for quite awhile yesterday before enjoying a picnic feast for dinner. Soon, we will head off to Chamonix, where we’ll spend a few days in town before beginning our next trek, the Haute Route.  We’ll spend nearly two weeks traversing the Alps as we make our way from Chamonix to Zermatt, sleeping in our tent all but a couple of nights. As we wrap up in Iceland, it is easy to get caught up in looking ahead to what’s next. Sure, that excitement is certainly part of the fun, but we have to keep reminding ourselves to try to stay in the moment. We’ve been planning this thing for so long and already the days are getting ticked off the itinerary at a remarkable pace. It’s amazing how time moves when you wake up every day and get to do exactly the thing you want to be doing. It has been an incredible experience to be in a given moment and realize that you honestly don’t want to be any other place or in any other time. What a rare and fortunate feeling. Until the next post, we’ll do our best to keep soaking it all up. 

All smiles after the Laugavegur Trail!

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Planning the Trip of a Lifetime

Here at TMBtent, our top passions include travel, backpacking, and financial independence. For the past several summers, we’ve been fortunate enough to take a few weeks off to explore the…

Here at TMBtent, our top passions include travel, backpacking, and financial independence. For the past several summers, we’ve been fortunate enough to take a few weeks off to explore the world. More recently, we found a way to combine our passions and experience new cultures while trekking through incredible wild places and sleeping under the stars.  We started with the Tour du Mont Blanc, then completed the West Highland Way, and we quickly realized we were seriously hooked on this kind of travel. Now, we are getting ready to realize our longtime dream of taking a more extended trip to get our boots dirty on as many thru-hikes as we can.  We are excited to share our experiences and comprehensive trip guides as we go.  Starting in July, we’ll be loading up our packs (hopefully not with too much weight!) for six months, five major treks, two continents, and countless adventures. In this article, we’ll outline our plans, how we’re pulling it off, and what we’re packing.

The Plan

So many amazing hikes, so little time… Don’t worry, we realize this is a pretty great problem to have.  However, it was a real challenge to choose which treks to complete. Although we are planning to travel for six months, the hiking season in many parts of the world is significantly shorter than that. We used a few parameters to narrow down our options. First, we decided to start in Europe since there are so many treks there that we’ve been lusting after for years. Once we decided on Europe, we tried to string the hikes together somewhat geographically so we could minimize crisscrossing the continent unnecessarily. We also tried to plan our itinerary to maximize our travel hacking schemes and minimize our costs.  That included taking advantage of a free stopover in Iceland and using hotel points for free week-long stays in Munich and Amsterdam. Lastly, we tried to include some longer treks that we might not have the time to complete in the future when we go back to “real life” and limited vacation days. Here’s our current plan:

Hike #1: The Laugavegur Trail, Iceland

We strategically booked our flights to Europe so that we could take advantage of a free week-long stopover in Iceland on the way.  We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Iceland’s colorful, otherworldly landscapes and hike the acclaimed Laugavegur Trail.  This 54km trek (with an optional 25km add-on to Skógar) climbs over snowy peaks, past towering waterfalls, through stark deserts, volcanic wonders, and green valleys. We hope to complete the hike from Landmannalaugar to Skógar in four days (camping each night), which will give us a couple of days in Reykjavik and some wiggle room to wait out any poor weather.

Beautiful landscapes of the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland.

Hike #2: The Walkers Haute Route, Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland

From Reykjavik, we’ll fly to Geneva to prepare for the Haute Route.  We fell in love with this part of the Alps while hiking the TMB, and we can’t wait to explore this strenuous, high-level route that takes hikers from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. The 180km trail traverses high mountain passes, picturesque valleys and villages, and offers spectacular views of commanding peaks, stunning glaciers, and colorful wildflowers. We hope to complete the trek in 13 days, including at least one rest day in La Sage. We will camp as much as possible, only staying in huts when camping isn’t permitted and treating ourselves to an AirBnB for our rest day.

Hike #3: The Lechweg Trail, Lech, Austria to Fussen, Germany

This lesser-known trail will conveniently help us work our way towards Munich, where we will enjoy our first week off from hiking after completing the Lechweg Trail.  From Zermatt, we’ll hop on a train to the town of Lech, Austria, where we’ll begin our six-day, 125km walk towards Fussen, Germany.  This relatively new trek follows the turquoise waters of the Lech River, as it passes through quaint villages and some of the last wild landscapes in the region.  In doing research on this hike, we found that there was relatively little information about camping, so we are excited to gather information and share it with the community. As of now, we plan on camping all but one night along the route. Since the Lechweg has an overall downhill trajectory, we hope this hike will feel “easy” compared to the previous two and provide our legs with a little bit of a break!

Lech, Austria

Hike #4: The Coast to Coast Walk, England

After a week off in Munich, we’ll hop on a flight to Manchester, England to begin the Coast to Coast Walk. As the trail’s name suggests, we’ll be hiking from St. Bees on England’s western coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the eastern coast.  We’ll get to experience hiking in the celebrated Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks, and numerous colorful towns (and pubs!) along the way. We’ve planned to take 17 days to complete this 309km trek, which includes two rest days.  With the exception of those rest days, we’ll be camping every night along the route, and gathering information about the many options for campers along the C2C!

The iconic Lakes District.

Hike #5: The GR20, Corsica

Known by many as the “hardest hike in Europe,” we are excited to take on the challenge of the GR20! This 180km trek covers about 10,000 meters of elevation gain as it traverses the jagged peaks that span the length of the Mediterranean island of Corsica.  For their efforts, hikers are rewarded with amazing views of the coast, forests, and rugged mountain landscapes.  We have allotted 18 days (including a couple of rest days) to complete this trek, and we plan to camp every night.  We gave ourselves lots of time for this one to allow for less-than-ideal weather and other challenges that might arise.  We’re also very excited to spend some time immersing ourselves in the unique and rich Corsican culture.

Stunning Corsican landscape

What’s Next?

After we complete the GR20, we’ll fly to Paris to replace all of the calories we burned in the past several weeks of hiking by consuming as many baguettes, fine cheeses, and local wines as possible. Then we’ll spend a week exploring Amsterdam by foot and bike.  From there, we’ll travel to Slovenia, where we hope to complete some additional hikes, although the length and type will depend on the weather conditions in October. Finally, we hope to head to Southeast Asia for several weeks for our final leg of the trip.  While these plans are still in their early stages, we hope to do some hiking or bikepacking in Taiwan, and also explore Vietnam and/or Cambodia.

The Logistics

Who can afford to quit their jobs and spend six months traveling?

We realize how fortunate and privileged we are to have this opportunity, but we also believe that taking a “mini-retirement” is more attainable than many people realize.  A few years ago, we learned about the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which basically encourages people to increase their savings rate in order to have more flexibility with their money and time. By getting more intentional about our lifestyle and making some minor tweaks to our spending, we were able to start saving more and living on less.  With the addition of some side hustles, we were soon able to set aside enough savings to get through several months without a paycheck. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we’ll be camping and eating peanuts for a lot of that time!

We also relied on some pretty nifty travel hacking to save thousands of dollars on our upcoming trip.  In essence, we strategically gathered credit card miles and points, and put them towards our flights and hotels. Check out our Travel for Free Series to learn more.

You guys seem like planning nerds, did you leave anything open-ended?

Yes, and no.  For the five hikes we’ve planned so far, we have the distance we’ll cover each day and our sleeping arrangements for each night mapped out.  Many of the campsites on the Coast to Coast and the refuges on the Haute Route get booked up pretty far in advance, so we knew we needed to get our act together ahead of time.  That being said, we know that there are going to be some unexpected surprises on a trip like this. We’ve built in extra days on the bookends of each hike to allow for illness, travel delays, inclement weather, and any other unpredictable occurrences.  For us, planning trips is a very enjoyable hobby, so we didn’t mind going through each part of the trip day-by-day.  In fact, it was essential for wrapping our heads around the practical and unique aspects of each hike.

What does one pack for a trip like that?

It is both exhilarating and a little intimidating to think that we’ll be carrying everything we’ll need for six months of travel on our backs across hundreds of miles of wilderness. To prepare for this trip, we’ve upgraded a few key pieces of gear for lighter, better-quality items.  Outside of that, we are trying to keep our pack weight down by only bringing necessary, versatile items. As hard as it is, we are trying to avoid playing the “just in case” packing game. If we really need something when we’re over there, we’ll buy it.  A full packing list is coming soon!

 

Have you completed any of the treks on our itinerary? Do you have big summer travel plans? Will we cross paths on the trail? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

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