Adventure Islands Days Out Have a Go Iceland Paddling

Family Rafting in North Iceland

Rafting on the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland
Written by Kirstie Pelling
Arctic Rafting Bus Destination Deathproof

The traditional rafting bus, destination: Deathproof

Water is what Iceland does best, and to get under the skin of this country, you really do have to get wet. From glacial waterfalls that freeze the blood, to geothermal pools that warm the feet from the centre of the earth, there are endless opportunities to dip a toe or dive right in. So when we had the chance to go white water family rafting Iceland style with Arctic Rafting, we didn’t think twice…

No getting away from glaciers

It’s hard to get away from glacial flows in Iceland. In less than a week I’ve been around one (cycling round the Lagarfljot), I’ve crossed one (in a jeep en-route to swim in a volcanic crater), and now I’m about to go on (but hopefully not in) one. My idea of rafting is to look cool without getting wet, although I’m sure the kids have another plan.

The chill begins in the rafting base

Everything about Arctic Rafting is cool; from their hangout rafting base in the Skagafjörður valley, with its table football, comfy sofas, help yourself coffee and whitewater videos, to the young, personable guides who populate it. As soon as you walk in the door you can feel the vibe (check out the video). And before you even pick up a paddle a torrent of enthusiasm tells you you’re in for a good time.

“This place is shaped in the spirit of rafting,” agrees General Manager Chris Doyle-Kelly as he gathers everyone together for a coffee and a briefing.

“Better than rafting in Colorado” … message on the Arctic Rafting visitor board

Arctic Rafting, Hafgrímsstaðir Rafting Base in Skagafjörður

Arctic Rafting’s Hafgrímsstaðir Rafting Base in Skagafjörður

All this just to get wet

Before the fun, the necessary faff. Safety instructions, talk on clothing and gear, suits with much rubber involved, helmets, booties, life jackets. And all this just to get wet. Because getting wet is inevitable. In this game it’s you against the river; and the river is way bigger than you and has been around for longer.

“We call this a dry suit but we don’t really mean it. I can already tell most of you are going to be swimming and splashing,” says Chris, as he hands out kit to thirty nervous would-be rafters.

“It was cold and I leaked but it doesn’t matter.” … comment on visitor’s board

Loading the Bus for Rafting on Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

The bus is loaded ready to go rafting…

Made for rafting

Iceland seems made for white water rafting. Whether fed by glacier or spring water, rivers here are the real deal. At Arctic Rafting’s northern base in Hafgrimsstadir, you get the option of two white water courses; the West Glacial River (Vestari-Jökulsá) and it’s sister course; fondly known as the Beast Of The East. Which you do depends on your age and amount of bottle.

“The East Glacial River (Austari-Jökulsá) is getting a reputation for being one of the best rivers in Europe,” says Chris, as we make our way down in the rafting bus to the start of the West. The kids’ ages and my wimp factor preclude us from taking the other path.

“One of the highlights of my trip, even though I took an extended swim in the river all by my lonesome.” ….comment on visitor’s board.

Getting Kitted up for Rafting

Up at the riverside, the boys make final adjustments to their dry suits

On the East course you have to be mentally prepared to hit the water. Because it’s likely. On the West, the choice is yours about whether you go in, although Chris says there’s usually one who takes an accidental tumble. “It’s often just a question of who!”

“Turned around and my wife was gone!” ….comment on visitor’s board.

Rafting on the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

Setting off down the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

Am I ‘the one’?

The course passes through a spectacular gorge, where sharp rocks provide the fear of a bashing at every curve and rushing water continually sprays the boat and all who raft in her. With one eye on Hannah who is gamely sitting on the edge of the boat with a paddle almost twice her height, I paddle and splash and do a rafting high five and know I’m probably going to be ‘the one.’

“So epic I chipped my tooth.” ….comment on visitor’s board.

Rafting on the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland. Family Rafting Iceland

The boys take charge at the front as we descend the Vestari-Jökulsá

But in the end it doesn’t matter, as everyone goes in by choice. First of all it’s via a Geronimo style jump from a high rock. When you’ve got your bearings and put yourself the right way up, a mad doggy paddle helps you beat the current and meet the others back at the bank. Later most people jump in again to swim in the freezing water; where the real challenge is not trying to stay warm but trying to haul yourself or your rafting partners back on board. With the ease of someone who has done it before, Chris swipes a hostage from another boat, and they capture him back again with more splashing than seems really necessary from my corner of the raft!

Riverside refreshment

Part way down the river we make a stop for refreshments.  There’s no cafe, Starbucks or picnic. But there is a geothermal river, chocolate powder and cups, everything you need for a perfect riverside hot chocolate. It’s a surprising moment and I just know that we won’t be able to pass by a hot river again.

“The fun is on the other side of fear.” ….comment on visitor’s board.

Hot Drinks by the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

Hot Drinks by the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

The river runs out too soon and we’re left wanting more (check out the video). More fun, more fear, a bigger, more untamed beast. But to get anywhere near that course, Hannah will need to get past her baby teeth and primary school as the minimum age is 18.

Arctic Adventures, the parent company of Arctic Rafting, offers other high adrenaline ways to get to know the country, and in a couple of weeks we will go glacier hiking on the south of the island. But today I feel we’ve edged one step further towards bonding with Iceland, in those brief few hours paddling about in her icy depths.

Hot Drinks by the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland

Hot Drinks by the Vestari-Jökulsá, North Iceland


This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. And thanks also to Dagny at Arctic Adventures  and Chris and the crew at Arctic Rafting Northern base for helping us to bring you this story. All views and opinions are as ever our own.

You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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