Accessibility notes by a visitor to Iceland’s awesome public pools with hints for proper locker room & swim protocol

Icelanders expect you to follow the letter of their law when going for a swim: wash, naked, with soap before entering a public pool or hot tub.

I’m shocked by how many Americans post comments about washing first not being required at home. Actually, at my local YMCA in New England, a sign clearly states that “soap showers are required” before entering the pool.

It’s just that, at American pools, nobody enforces the law.

We have laws against jaywalking, too, but you’d never know it in most cities based upon enforcement.

Also, our instructional posters are plain English language ones without the helpful “red zone” graphics employed in Iceland.

Cell phone or camera use isn’t allowed in locker rooms thank God! so I’ll point you to others’ mysteriously captured photos for illustrations. Follow the links to pool etiquette articles, below.

Picture the typical men’s room sign “guy” infographic, then add big red circles glowing around head, armpits, groin, hands, and feet. Those are the parts it is mandatory to wash with soap before entering an Icelandic public swimming pool or hot tub.

I’m reinventing the wheel here, but it bears repeating again! since every Icelander seems to know that Americans (and Brits) arrive unprepared for proper Icelandic pool protocol. I read about a dozen “how to use a public pool in Iceland” posts myself, and yet, here I am reiterating much of the same advice.

IHeartReykjavik.net posted my favorite for average travelers (make sure to read some of the 133+ comments); IcelandWithKids.com is also very thorough, especially with information for families and parents traveling with children.

Those posts helped me, so I hope to offer the same to another reader. Good travelers respect the places that they visit by following the rules.

Access for visitors with mild physical impairments to Icelandic pools

Another, perhaps less common, thing I want to address is accessibility in Icelandic public pool locker rooms.

I did find one blogger who writes about access from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but he only seemed to visit the swanky Blue Lagoon spa. For over $40 per person, it darn well better be fully accessible!

I was looking for an affordable, family-oriented experience more akin to what average Icelanders might enjoy with their own kids.

Also, my needs are far less intensive than those of a pool user who requires a lift (hoist) to access the water. I have arthritis and chronic pain due to an autoimmune condition. My accessibility needs are variable, but often minimal, and most relate to twisting and pushing with the hands.

Sometimes, however, hip or knee joint stiffness makes it hard for me to reach my own feet. Heck, I couldn’t get my arms high enough overhead (shoulder stiffness) for the requisite TSA scan when I departed from Boston the night before I visited my first Icelandic pool.

Some days, aside from morning stiffness in my fingers, I bend like a healthy person; other days, not so much. This is a big part of what drew me to the famous geothermal hot pots of Iceland during even a brief stopover.

When my joints are stiff, I’m also more prone to balance issues and potentially falling. My limbs don’t always respond the way I’m expecting to the commands sent from my brain.

I had questions before my first visit to a public pool in Iceland to which I couldn’t find answers online. I’ll try to enlighten those of you with similar concerns according to my own experience as an English speaking tourist with about two weeks’ experience in that country.

1) Arrive at a pool complex.

Even small Icelandic towns have a year ’round, heated public swimming pool thanks in part to the abundant geothermal energy simmering beneath the island’s surface. Many will be accessible even to those relying upon public transit. For example, staying in the center of suburban Hafnarfjördur, one could walk to two different pools within 15-20 minutes.

Pools will also always have a parking lot. Iceland is a low density country where most citizens rely upon private cars for transportation. You’ll find a place to park yours if you arrive in an auto. Parking is free and easy almost everywhere with the obvious exception of the very heart of capital city Reykjavik’s commercial center.

Swim centers^ have generous hours to accommodate locals who wish to exercise or soak before and/or after work. It should be easy to find a pool open at a convenient time during even the shortest stopover in Iceland. Hours can be longer on weekdays than at weekends, especially for evening swimming.

Bring a bag to carry your stuff for convenience. I designated our Red Oxx Laundro Bag as a second voluminous tote for my son to take into the men’s locker room while I visited the ladies’ with my usual Tom Bihn Shop Bag. A basic canvas grocery bag will suffice, but water resistance or open mesh offer obvious benefits.

Stuff in a bag on a hook is stuff that isn’t dropped into the one puddle of water where it is supposed to be dry! After all, it is never their own clean underpants my kids seem to knock into the single spot of muck in a tidy facility…

Don’t forget a waterproof bag or pouch if you will be packing a wet bathing suit when your travels continue. Mine is a left over accessory from our old diaper bag; I’m also partial to the Bumkins cloth diapering brand for cute water resistant pouches of all sizes. A gallon size Ziplok bag will also work well.

2) Pay the attendant near the door. Ask questions!

Entrance fees to public pools in Iceland are inexpensive, especially by Icelandic standards. Expect to pay less than $10 for an adult and a teen. The adult ticket makes up a far larger percentage of that cost.

Large families, rejoice! Discounts for kids are typically quite generous in this country, especially at public institutions. Each child’s cost is around $1.50. Discount cards are also available for people who plan multiple visits to the same facility.

Asking questions isn’t required, but this is the ideal time. You will still be fully dressed and can stay relaxed, so you should be able to take in information about the new environment now.

I had a hard time getting across to the cashier what I meant when I asked if there was a “handicapped accessible bench” or shower for safe bathing. This is what’s available at two local facilities I’ve visited back home, so I started by asking for what I know.

Though those specific accomodations stymied this pool employee, she could tell me affirmatively that there was a grab bar for safety. I figured that was good enough for me on that day and went ahead and paid to go in.

We brought swimwear and towels* from home, but I gather you can rent them for a fee from most Icelandic pools. Rentals approximated the cost of adult admission per borrowed item, so bring your own if your budget is tight.

On the other hand, wet stuff in the luggage could be a bigger problem for a very brief visit with lengthy additional travel to follow.

Take this opportunity to ask the cashier anything you might want to know. I asked:

  • Are all the pools outdoors at this facility?
  • How many hot tubs do you have?
  • Is the temperature for each hot tub posted?
  • Which way to the men’s (for my son) and ladies’ (for me) locker rooms?

Yes, of course there is signage, but it is in Icelandic. Exception: the rules about hygiene requirements! Those are posted in many languages as well as in the pictorial infographic.

I can say “takk” (thanks) and “bless” (bye) in the Icelandic language, nothing more. Add to the language barrier “I’m standing around naked or scantily clad in swimwear and it’s only 40 F with a breeze and which pool do I want to climb into right now?”

You can imagine how quickly rational thought can fail one.

I also wear glasses. I require them for all but the most primitive tasks, and certainly wouldn’t move around an unfamiliar environment while blind and naked, at least not by choice.

While I did wear my spectacles out to the pool area, I also removed them for brief periods during changing and showering. I made sure to look ahead before those steps to avoid any surprises!

3) Leave your shoes in the racks by the door to the locker room.

Dirty shoes plus bare, damp feet would be gross. Locker rooms at pools are kept quite clean in Iceland, and leaving outdoor footwear at the entrance helps with this. You can leave your socks in your shoes if you prefer, or wear them in. The main locker area floors will be dry.

That’s part of what you’re reading this to learn.

Some people do wear shower shoes, so switch into those if you need them to navigate the tile safely or comfortably. Just make sure they are clean, INDOOR shoes to keep within the guidelines.

I washed my Crocs in the washing machine at home before my trip to ensure they were free of dirt if I wanted them in the locker room.

I do wear non-slip aqua socks while exercising in a pool on my physical therapists advice, and no one balked at those when I was in the water.

No one else was wearing these either, though, if you’re worried about blending in.

I didn’t put the water socks on until after I’d washed, though, for reasons you’ll read about at the end of step 5.

4) Put all of your stuff in a locker except your swim wear (in hand, NOT on your body) and towel.

Here’s where you leave most of your stuff behind. All you carry away from your locker is your swimwear and towel, plus items such as goggles used at the pool. You may also bring your own soap/shampoo if you want to, but at least some form of body wash should be available in the shower stall itself.

You might have gotten a token from the cashier to release the key from a locker. Some places use fancy electronic wristbands (Blue Lagoon) or an honor system for access. This was never complicated in my experience, nor did I have much concern for the safety of my belongings.

My son did lose his token by “testing” the first locker door, which “used up” his single token. Since he hadn’t brought in anything aside from his clothing, he just left that in an unlocked basket adjacent to the lockers. He assumed, rightfully, that it would be safe from pilfering, and it was.

Go back out and ask questions before you undress if you are really confused. Or, just leave your stuff unlocked. It is very unlikely to be stolen in Iceland. I wouldn’t leave a pile of cash or expensive jewelry out while I swam or anywhere else, really, but, then, why would you bring these to the pool at all?

Having situated your belongings, put the locker key usually on a rubber band on your wrist, ankle, or bathing suit strap. You should be naked at this point except for that locker key, plus I was wearing glasses to find my way to the shower.

If you wrap yourself in your towel, you will draw attention you’re unlikely to get otherwise. Perhaps this act makes you more likely to earn unwanted advice or criticism from local users because they will know you are a foreigner unused to Icelandic pool culture when you violate norms in such a visible way.

Then again, there is no rule that says you may not walk ten feet wrapped in your towel. There is a rule that you should not yet be wearing a swimsuit to allow for thorough washing of your naked parts.

Take heart: it’s just a few feet to a shower.

Yes, it’s “public” nudity time.

There’s a major cultural divide between North Americans and Icelanders about this. In a ladies’ locker room with only females present, it is seen as reasonable to walk nude the short distance to the large, communal shower room, bathe all the parts required by law with soap, and only then put on swimwear.

The attitude is “we’re all women here, so what is there to be shocked about”?

If you can’t get past this, you’ll want to seek out those few Icelandic pools with some private` shower cubicles. Blue Lagoon is said to have a few, usually with long lines of anxious Americans waiting for them. Otherwise, you are better off skipping taking the waters. I’d say the latter would be a shame.

“Getting away with” washing in your suit because no one is there to police your actions is nothing of which to be proud. I’ve seen comments to that effect on other sites. It’s not your prerogative to pollute a public pool used by others because you are squeamish about your body.

Icelandic public pools are chlorinated (or salinated) to a level deemed safe by their health department for human bodies being introduced to the water washed free of pathogens by use of soap. Regardless of what your home community does at its pools, this is what Iceland does with its own. Comply, or go enjoy one of the nation’s other wonders.

As I mentioned, shower gel was offered in wall dispensers at the pools I visited. I used my own travel bottles of toiletries, however, because many products bother my sensitive skin.

This was easier at one pool (that had wall shelves) than the other (that seemed to offer neither grab bars nor soap dishes along the walls.) The former was the nicer, perhaps newer, facility. I just stood near a soap dispenser and balanced my little bottles on its top for that one, but I’m getting ahead of myself into step 5.

At this step, just remember to bring anything you will want outdoors with you at the pool as well as anything you want in the shower itself. You don’t go back to the dry changing area once you are wet.

Hint: toilets were located in the wet zone. It’s a good idea to go before you shower, because wet foot prints are frowned upon in the changing zone. Again, it is dry on the floor by the lockers. Other users of the space want to keep it that way.

5) Walk naked over to the wall of shoebox sized cubbies near the shower and place suit and towel inside. Go naked into the shower to wash yourself like everyone else.

There will be a dozen or so shower nozzles, each with its own controls. You won’t be touching anyone, so don’t worry. Every shower I saw was large enough for personal space. From the littlest girls to elderly women, all the ladies’ use this same space.

For those of us with weak eyesight, I’d suggest peeking discreetly into the shower area before removing your glasses.

You’ll want to create a mental map and can also double check the posted sign telling you what to expect to wash. It’s a fairly obvious list of body areas: feet, groin, armpits, and hair, but view the sign as a refresher while you can see.

You might be able to skip hair washing if you don a swim cap at this point, but I didn’t ask this question of the attendant. Be a good guest: ask, don’t assume.

Don’t stare at anyone who is bathing, obviously. That’s just rude, in Iceland and everywhere else I know of.

To minimize your naked time, stack your stuff in a logical order before leaving the locker area.

You’ll pull on your suit as soon as you’re clean, so that should be on top along with any toiletries you will use in the shower. Your towel stays in this indoor cubby until you are done swimming, so put it on the bottom of the cubby.

I carry a small waterproof pouch to take my wet swimwear home, so that was my bottommost object in the slot. Bringing it to the cubby meant my used, wet suit didn’t drop onto the dry locker area floor after I rinsed off post-swim.

The towel thing is a major difference between Iceland and every pool I’ve used in the USA. We typically carry our towels to the pool with us and leave them on a chair, or, for my kids, on the ground, probably in a puddle someone else left behind.

I, for one, would usually walk out wrapped in my towel for a little warmth and a little coverage. That’s our cultural norm, but it makes less sense in Iceland.

Ignoring completely whether or not this habit is a result of body shame, Icelanders are often swimming outdoors in their lovely, warm, heated pools, when the weather is wet, windy, even snowy. A towel brought outdoors will be useless for drying oneself in these conditions.

I don’t think there’s any rule that says you may not bring out a towel to the poolside, but, if you do, you should also leave a dry one in your cubby for after your swim. It is important for a later step (step 9.)

6) After washing naked, pull on your swimsuit in the vicinity of the shower cubbies.

Leave your dry towel in the cubby, and put any personal toiletries you just used back in there with it.

Notice that you are putting on swimwear while still within the confines of the gender-appropriate locker room. You are expected to be naked at an Icelandic public pool, but not in mixed company. Somehow, this fact seems to confuse a lot of visitors to Iceland if internet comments can be believed.

I put my suit oninthe shower at one pool, and near the cubby at another. Why? I needed to hold on to a handicapped-stall-style grab rail to keep my balance when my arthritis was bothering me.

I put my suit on in whichever place allowed me to hold on for safety!

On the first day, I also made use of a plastic chair placed near the shower for putting on my aqua socks. (I’d already put on my swimsuit, thinking a naked butt on a public chair was just wrong regardless of rules or etiquette.) If I’d been very unsteady, I might have sat on my towel to suit up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see a similarly placed chair at the next pool I visited. Luckily, I was feeling much more flexible and got by with a grip on a sturdy rack near the shower that seemed designed to hold wet bathing suits.

I suppose I would have pulled on my aqua socks on the side of the hot tub outdoors if I hadn’t been able to reach my feet there.

I saw a plastic, waterproof (I’m assuming) wheelchair in the hallway at one of the pools, so perhaps this is how people more more significant mobility issues are accommodated in Icelandic locker rooms.

I was actually a little surprised not to see a handicapped access fold down bench and adjustable shower head here because every gym I’ve belonged to in America has one according to code.

This was a worry I’d had before travel, and I couldn’t find the information I wanted about this issue in my own online search. I hope this helps other future visitors to Iceland’s pools who have flexibility problems.

7) Exit the locker room through the door to the pool.

By this stage, you’ve completed the part that stymies most visitors to Iceland. You’re finished with mandatory public nudity! Now you need to find the door out from the locker room to the pool. It’s probably just around the corner from the shower itself because everyone is dripping wet by this point.Since all users are expected to wash upon arrival, this should often, probably always, be a different door from whence you entered. Your wet body doesn’t go back to the dry area! Remember that it is bad form and against the rules to walk dripping from the showers back into the changing room where you started.

I gather you could get reprimanded if you dripped your way into the dry zone, but didn’t test this theory by breaking any rules myself.

Now back to that exit door…

I didn’t want to end up anywhere weird, but it was wildly obvious at one pool, and fairly obvious at the second, where I should go after putting on my swimsuit. I did open a broom closet door** on my way out, but no one yelled at me for that. Little girls may have giggled.

I had to walk a few steps further along a short hallway to see a sign in Icelandic, naturally pointing the way out.

Iceland in mid-June

For an outdoor pool, you will emerge damp and scantily clad into the bracing air of Iceland. If you have painful arthritis, this part will suck. I compulsively wrapped my arms around myself as I walked as quickly as possible toward the nearest hot tub.

Icelanders seem to be made of much tougher stuff as none of them grabbed reflexively around their bare parts. Maybe I did stick out like a sore foreign thumb?

But let me make this clear: no one yelled at me or my child during our visits to Iceland’s pools. Some people were kind, and most kept to themselves.

8) Enter the pool or hot tub you want to use first

Finally, the good part! You get into the water. Now the cold air feels wonderfully cool against your face as your body relaxes in warm water.

In both pools I visited, there were “play” and “lap” areas to use. I’m assigning these designations, having no idea what, if anything, the locals call them. My point is, you needn’t stick strictly to the hot pots if you aren’t going to swim laps. The “play” area of each pool felt somewhat warmer than the more exercise oriented section according to my son.

I avoid pools at home because many are so cold, they shock my joints and trigger pain. I can’t seem to warm up enough through exercise to reach a point where I can tolerate cool water. I was able to spend 10+ minutes in the regular pool “play” section getting a little bit of cardio time at two different Icelandic pools.

Neither place posted temperatures for the pool, so I can’t confirm what “warm enough for me” means in degrees C. It’s warmer than the average American YMCA pool in my experience, however.

The hot tubs were clearly labeled at each place. This was helpful because, after the first visit, we each had an idea of our ideal soaking temp for the next one. Even so, I’d advise beginning with the lowest rated hot soak to warm up a bit, then moving on to another if you think you want more heat.

Another fine strategy would be “enter the nearest heated pool after exiting the locker room,” especially on a chilly, windy day. Iceland has a few of those. We experienced highs in the 40’s in mid June.

9) When you’re done, make the chilly walk back into the locker room and reverse your steps.

Leaving is almost as bad as arriving from a cold air + arthritis point of view. Walk quickly, and you’ll get through it.Back in the shower you used before, I’d suggest washing off the chlorine. At this point, it is up to you which body parts you want to wash and whether or not you use soap. It’s a myth that there is no disinfecting chemical at all in Icelandic pools. They just use less than we do in the USA.

I chose to wear my swimsuit back into the shower, rinse it while on my body, then peel it off and wash the skin beneath. I am sensitive to chlorine , so did this to save my skin and myself from a headache later.

Give your suit a good wringing in the very wet shower area so you drip less. After I noticed one woman walking back to squeeze hers right over the floor drain, I followed suit at that same spot when she was done.

Both locker room showers had metal baskets of some kind where a suit could sit off the floor for a minute while your hands were busy. I left mine there, put my towel on my head to start drying my hair, then grabbed my waterproof pouch and went back to get my previously squeezed swimsuit to put inside.

I set the pouch-with-suit back in a second cubby right next to the one still holding my toiletries from before swimming, dried my body thoroughly with my towel, then worked a bit more on my wet hair.

One pool had a towel placed between the wet shower area and the dry locker room area. The other did not. Hoping to keep my towel fairly clean since I needed to use it repeatedly on this trip, I used a paper towel to dry my feet more throughly at the facility without the makeshift “bath mat” at the border.

Once you are pretty thoroughly dry, walk back to your locker to dress. Remembering this is a dry area, take care not to plop your wet swim suit anywhere it might leave a mess that affects someone after you. My pouch worked great for this.

I didn’t notice what any locals were doing because, well, no one was staring at anyone else. We were just women getting dressed in a room at the same time.

For travelers, the quick dry trick of rolling your wet swimsuit up in your towel and stepping on or hand-squeezing it is a good idea. My Packtowl dries far more quickly than my swimwear. Fortunately, our lodgings in Hafnarfjördur also had radiators that needed to be on even in June, so the suits did dry overnight before we packed up to fly away.

Summary

This has been a lot of discussion of something that should be pretty simple in practice. I’m sure most visitors, most of the time, handle all of the expectations of an Icelandic public pool locker room very well.

Those of us with certain personality types–speaking for myself, anxious and prone to serious prepping for every possible unknown–prefer to explore new situations as much as possible in advance.

It is for us that articles such as this are written!

Even if you have some mobility or functional issues, consider visiting a public pool if your find yourself in Iceland. Facilities are modern, and accommodations can probably be made if you ask the staff for assistance. The experience is a uniquely Icelandic one, and the water can ease some of the same difficulties that may be making you fear the attempt.

Go on in! The water is fine.

^Some also have gym or fitness facilities, but I didn’t explore those options.

*I always travel with at least a small Packtowl because I am somewhat spill-prone and very anxious about stained clothes with a limited carry on capsule wardrobe. These take up far less room in luggage than cotton terry. For trips where I know we will be swimming, I bring XL Packtowls. Peshtamals or linen towels are fairly compact natural fiber options, though they wouldn’t dry as quickly as synthetics.

Note: I love Linoto, to whom I link above for linen towels, but I’ve only bought bedding and table linens from them. I’m just guessing that their bath products are equally good.

`I also gather that gender neutral solo washrooms are being considered for some Icelandic pools to meet the needs of those with more complex physically/emotionally misaligned gender situations, but that’s all I’ve read abut that.

**Proofreading this post for me, my son told me he made the exact same mistake in the men’s locker room at that pool. They must be mirror images. Perhaps someone should put a pictograph of a broom on those doors.

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