Watch Your Step
April 10, 2020
There are any number of reasons tourists flock to Iceland.
The island in the northern sea lives up to its reputation of unbridled open space, raw beauty, wildlife, eye-popping horizon, vibrant cultures, and time for introspection away from busy lives.
The desire to capture a spirit of adventure is braided through the past and present and into the future. Present day harkens new bold adventures across expanses of ice sheets and over mountains and backpacking through remote stretches of forest and wildlands.
The drawbacks? That depends. Do your survival skills measure up to maintaining proper body temperature despite unpredictable weather, navigating harsh environments, overcoming unforeseen hazards and miscalculation, and all without immediate access to emergency help?
After all, an accident can happen anywhere, anytime even when the traveler is well-equipped for adventure. In the outdoors, no matter where your travels take you, slips, trips, and falls are the primary mechanism of injury, and in a remote area where response isn’t a given, minor incidents can escalate quickly into major fiascoes.
“Any number of places can be the death of you,” said Tomas Gislason, Deputy CEO, Iceland Consolidated Communication Center. “We do our best to trust people not to get into trouble. We trust they know how to behave.”
In 2018, two million people traveled to Iceland for reasons of culture, history, scenery, and adventure, while a comparatively small population of 339,747 people reside year-round in Iceland.
“People from cities want to see the natural settings,” Gislason said. “A recent group said they wanted to see ‘cold things.’”
In the outdoor environment, tourists and residents must follow the rules and use common sense: Stay on marked trails circumventing geothermal pools, dress for the weather, and resist the temptation to take selfies on a block of ice in a lagoon or at the water’s edge on the North Atlantic where a wave can suddenly sweep you to sea.
Although guards might be present at the more popular tourist stops, they can’t always save you. A vista of the “must-see” Northern Lights is, indirectly, a relative death trap for tourists preoccupied with sky watching while navigating icy, twisting, and narrow roads. Half of the 18 people who died in traffic crashes in 2018 were foreigners (not from Iceland) and, in 2017, more tourists were killed on the road than residents.
Despite what can happen, Iceland has gone the extra mile to keep you safe. The SafeTravel.is website provides advice and up-to-the-minute alerts. The country has 97% GPS coverage, and Gislason said cellphones are never more than one-half mile from coverage. The national emergency number 112 can be reached anywhere in Iceland, from any telephone, by voice or SMS, and is multi-language fluent. A 112 app checks you in to an emergency authority database that stores your GPS coordinates.
The 20 emergency medical dispatchers (EMDs) staffing the Icelandic Rescue Center in Reykjavik coordinate response for over 300 emergency and rescue units, including police districts, fire brigades, ambulance services, and search and rescue teams. The center also works with the Icelandic Coast Guard and sends alerts to government agencies.
Search and rescue teams known collectively as Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, or, in English, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue—ice-sar—are world class. They develop, maintain, and follow databased search techniques and internationally recognized standards for lost person behavior.1
Informed caution, of course, is always a tourist’s best bet. Before you go, study up. Sign the Icelandic Pledge2 that was developed to inspire a tourism culture of safety: “I will take photos to die for, without dying for them” and “I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road.”
“Try to be smart,” Gislason said. “Take precautions. Know where you are. No one wants to get in an accident, but accidents do happen.”
1 Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. http://www.icesar.com/ (accessed Oct. 20, 2019).
2 Hauksson K. “Be a responsible tourist and take the Icelandic Pledge.” ICENEWS. 2019; Aug. 1. https://www.icenews.is/2019/08/01/be-a-responsible-tourist-and-take-the-icelandic-pledge/ (accessed Oct. 20, 2019).