8 May

Mark Hirst

4 minute read

Chilled Thrills: Paddling North Iceland's pristine glacial rivers with Viking Rafting

Chilled Thrills: Paddling North Iceland's pristine glacial rivers with Viking Rafting

Since 2013, Viking Rafting has provided locals and international travelers with unforgettable whitewater experiences on glacial rivers in North Iceland.

Rafters in huge rapids on Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River) with Viking Rafting. Photo: Mirto Diego Menghetti

Rafters hitting a huge wall of rapids on Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River) with Viking Rafting. Photo: Mirto Diego Menghetti

Rising from the depths of the Hofsjökull glacier in the Sprengisandur Highlands in North Iceland, the Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River) & Vestari Jökulsá (West Glacial River) are often regarded as two of the last true wild rivers in Europe. 

The East Glacial River, fittingly nicknamed the "Beast of the East," is undoubtedly the jewel in Icelandic rafting's crown. The adrenaline-fuelled, heart-pumping rapids of the East Glacial River have been a magnet for international nature lovers and determined thrill seekers since the 1990s. The East Glacial River is ideal for those wanting to experience this mighty river by raft. To experience the intensity of the raw nature of the East Glacial is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those looking to get off the beaten tourist trails of Iceland and get wet. 

The lower canyon of the East Glacial River has a reputation as one of the most technical, most spectacular, and demanding one-day whitewater rafting trips in Europe for many years now. The river attracts an audience of adventure seekers and rafting fans from around the globe. The jaw-dropping scenery of the West Glacial River is a playground for geology lovers and those who prefer a more gentle and relaxing adventure. Immense rock-sculptured canyon walls protect the beauty of the West Glacial River. A trip down the West glacial river allows you to tune into the nature around you and forget about the outside world. 

Viking Rafting has built a global reputation as Iceland's premier rafting company. It is 100% guide-owned and operated. Many team members have worked on the East and West Glacial rivers for over 10 years. This much experience on the local rivers has allowed the team to share their knowledge and expertise to craft what is commonly regarded as Iceland's ultimate adventure day trip. 

All Viking Rafting's trips start at their base on the Hafgrimsstaðir Farm, 15 km (9 miles) outside the small village of Varmahlið in North Iceland, just off the well-known Ring Road (Route 1). The team at Viking Rafting has three main goals during your visit. 

1. Arrive as friends and leave as family. 

2. Leave knowing that your time with Viking Rafting was one of the highlights of your trip to Iceland. 

3. To take your fun and safety seriously. 

To achieve these goals, the Viking rafting team prides itself on running a unique rafting trip with a few added personal touches that all contribute to an epic day on the water for anyone, regardless of their experience level or expectations. 

Rafters enter big rapids on Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River) with Viking Rafting. Photo: Mirto Diego Menghetti
Rafters and kayakers navigating the canyon rapids of the Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River) with Viking Rafting. Photo: Mirto Diego Menghetti
Cliff jumping with Viking Rafting on Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River). Photo: Mirto Diego Menghetti

Photos: Rafters enter big rapids on Austari Jökulsá (East Glacial River), rafters and kayakers navigating the canyon rapids of the Austari Jökulsá, and a cliff jumping detour is always a memorable experience! Photos: Mirto Diego Menghetti

Let's be honest here! When you mention whitewater rafting, most people imagine hot sunny days in board shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt underneath their life jackets. You can forget that notion here. The river water is glacially cold, and during the summer in North Iceland, outside temperatures rarely exceed 20C (70 F). Viking Rafting is one of a handful of rafting companies worldwide that provide each customer with a drysuit instead of a neoprene wetsuit for rafting. All the customers need to provide are warm base layers and a sense of adventure, and let Viking rafting provide the rest! Neoprene gloves and hats are also available too. To truly enjoy your experience, you must be warm, comfortable, and dry. Helmets, footwear, and personal floatation devices are all provided. 

Before the start of each trip, each guest receives a comprehensive safety demonstration according to current best global practices. All of the guides at Viking Rafting hold qualifications issued by the International Rafting Federation, backed up by multiple seasons of guiding in various countries worldwide. 

The guide team takes the time to ensure that each guest can demonstrate how to paddle and swim before the rafts head down the East Glacial Canyon. Once the rafts are heading into the East Glacial Canyon, both the guides and guests will develop strong teamwork before attempting to tackle the continuous 18km (11 miles) of class III and IV rapids with captivating names such as Alarm Clock, Commitment, The Screaming Lady, and The Bedroom.

By the time the rafters arrive at The Green Room, a Class IV+ rapid and the most significant one on the East Glacial River, the adrenaline levels will peak at the right time. The rafting guests can face the challenge of rafting The Green Room or save it for another day. For those who accept the challenge, The Green Room has the reputation of providing the occasional turbulent surprise, even for the most experienced guides and white water enthusiasts. The Viking Rafting team has safety kayakers to help those who decide to experience The Green Room head-on. The East Glacial still has plenty more adrenaline-pumping rapids downstream of The Green Room, plus the opportunity to try an optional cliff jump for those not quite ready to quit the thrills. 

Over on the West Glacial River, the more leisurely whitewater is a playground for old and young Vikings. Mugs of steaming hot chocolate from the natural hot spring beside the river are an excellent and uniquely Icelandic surprise that will warm your soul. The opportunity to sit back and relax or swim in a glacial river wearing a dry suit is open to all. 

After a short bus ride back to the Viking Rafting base, the photography team will replay the trip memories on the big screen while the guests sit back with a locally brewed beer and a home-cooked lunch in the rafter's bar. All the ingredients used in the meals are sourced from local farms and growers, including lamb from a nearby organic farm. 

The team at Viking rafting loves to take their fun seriously—and so should you! Book your river descent today!

Viking Rafting

Photo of Mark Hirst, a veteran guide whitewater guide, rescue instructor, and firefighter.

This article was written by Mark Hirst

One of Viking's "veteran" guides and a rescue instructor. Mark is known for his deep knowledge of river safety and unmistakable English humor.

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