When I stepped off the plane in Keflavik, Iceland with my bike box in tow, I was well aware I was not the first cyclist to visit the country. That honor falls to Horace Dall and his 1933 crossing of the island. What I didn’t expect was seeing a Facebook post from my near-neighbor Kurt Refsnider that he too was in Reykjavik. Then there was my friend Chris Reichel who was inbound a couple weeks later, and Brett Davis and crew who had left just a couple weeks prior. It would seem Iceland––is the place to ride. Having spent all of July in Iceland, the bulk of that in the rugged interior atop my Salsa Bucksaw, I can understand the allure it holds for adventure cyclists. It is a magical landscape seemingly ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel. At nearly every turn I half expected Bilbo Baggins to grab me by the arm and shuttle me off to Middle Earth. There were scads of things that I had prepared myself for, but a ton more elements of bike travel in Iceland that truly caught me off guard. Below is my overview of how to plan for your own Icelandic bikepacking odyssey. The complete story from my journey will be available in print in the 2015 Gear Guide issue of Overland Journal.

Where the hell is Iceland, anyway?

Shocking as it sounds, many people haven’t a clue where this tiny island is, or what treasures it holds. At roughly the size of Kentucky, it is a remote island positioned just a few miles below the Arctic Circle somewhat equal distance between Greenland and Norway. It is a relatively new island formed by a volcanic hotspot. The human history is equally young with the land first settled only about 1,000 years ago. That history is filled with stories of vikings and settlers, fisherman and farmers. It makes for a fun backdrop to adventures in Iceland. 1 - map

Getting There.

Because Iceland is enjoying an accelerated boom in tourism, there are a number of flights arriving at the main airport in Keflavik, 45 minutes south of the capital city of Reykjavik, with increasing regularity. Some airlines are running multiple flights daily from major airports departing the U.S. and Europe. As such, fares are becoming more than reasonable. Even for me in Arizona, a round trip ticket to Keflavik in the high season was only $985.

Weather, daylight, and when to go.

Although the tourism season has pushed well beyond the summer months, bikepacking season generally runs from late June to mid September. Given its location in the North Atlantic, it has a cool but temperate climate for most of the year. Summer temperatures from June through August tend to hover around 55ºF give or take 10ºF. Because of its northern location, summer daylight hours can often provide ample riding light for 20 hours of each day. In July, there’s really no need for lights of any kind. That limited amount of darkness is also what keeps day and nighttime temperatures so consistent with minimal temperature swings. The two most daunting weather challenges in Iceland are relative to rain and wind. Wind can often present the most brutal conditions with sustained blows often exceeding 50 mph. Many riders have lost entire days of progress as winds kept them pinned down. Rain is another near constant and can range from a drizzle to intense downpours. All in all, it’s best to just expect a little of everything in any given week from sunshine to Biblical weather epics. It is necessary to pad your schedule with weather days as they will likely happen. The shoulder seasons can present significant challenges with either residual spring snow, or late season snow. There’s also the potential for high river levels during the early season as snow melt increases with summer temps. It’s important to note that almost all of the interior roads are closed with the first snow.

Gear for extremes.

2 rain Given the wet and severe weather of the North Atlantic, it is of critical importance you pack the best weatherproof gear possible. Temperatures are seldom the issue, although higher elevations (only 3,000 feet) can be quite cold when combined with wind and rain. It wasn’t uncommon for a higher elevation to drop into the mid 40s. It is extremely important to wear the very best waterproof jacket and pants you can afford. I spent several days in my GoreTex suit, hood pulled tight, and still got somewhat wet. And that tent you think is so awesome…it probably won’t hold up to the high winds. It is advisable to pack a hoop tent, one designed specifically for high winds. Since I was toting a bunch of professional camera gear, I went with a waterproof backpack, something I would fully recommend even if just used to protect your critical gear. I highly recommend the Sea to Summit Carve 24 Liter backpack and the Terra Nova Laser Comp 1 tent.

Grumpy geothermal activity.

3 ash
Huge piles, and indeed entire mountains, of black volcanic ash are everywhere in the interior.
Iceland is rife with geothermal activity, which is why it’s so awesome. The island’s many volcanoes erupt with regularity and this past season was no different. Prior to my trip in July 2014, warnings were issued stating that geothermal activity had threatened severe glacial melting resulting in the portent of serious floods. There was also mention of harmful gasses near some glacial lakes and rivers. As luck would have it, all was fine for my trip, but just two weeks later a different volcano erupted in full. It caused road closures which stymied some bikepacker’s plans. Plan on the unplanned, even with regard to volcanic eruptions.

Getting around.

There are many options available for ground transportation. Aside from dozens of rental car options, there are buses and domestic flights to nearly every corner of the island. Reykjavik Excursions [https://www.re.is] is the major bus line providing service to the most remote destinations via their impressive off-road buses. Prices are reasonable with a fare across the entire island likely not to exceed $120. It can be tricky getting your bike on some buses as they will only accept a bike if there is space for it, and there will be an additional fee. Hitch hiking is a popular mode of travel, but not an ideal solution for the bikepacker. Hordes of trekkers can be seen lined up at the edge of every small village as they work their way into the interior. If nothing else, there’s a lot of competition for open seats. The main bus station is in Reykjavik near the domestic airport close to the center of the city. Most trips to the other parts of the island depart from this, the BSI, bus station. There is a public city bus you can use to get around the greater Reykjavik area at a minimal cost. I used it to get from my hotel in Hapnarfjordur to the BSI station at a cost of just a few dollars. Although it is possible to ride around Reykjavik by bike, it can be a navigational challenge. There are loads of bike paths if you can figure out how to best use them to get where you want to go. Don’t plan on taking a taxi unless you want to blow all of your beer money goodbye. A taxi from the airport to Reykjavik is easily $120. Even a taxi from Harfnarfjordur to the BSI station set me back $50 for the 15 minute ride, but I was in a time crunch to get there for my 6am bus. 4 bus 4b second bus

From the airport to Reykjavik.

The main international airport at Keflavik, just 45 minutes south of Reykjavik, is tiny and as such makes for a great entry point. Once you pass through customs, you enter into a small receiving area with the usual ticket counters for buses and rental cars. Look for the Fly Bus as offered through Reykjavik Excursions. You’ll need to buy a ticket to Reykjavik for you and your bike, a total cost of roughly $45. The buses are parked just one hundred feet outside the main doors and hard to miss. These buses can also transport you directly to some hotels. 5 mountains

Resources and supplies.

There are camping stores in Reykjavik, Hafnarfjordur (20 minutes south) and in Akureyri, the largest city in the north. There are a few bike shops in the capital city, and one in the southern town of Selfoss. It’s important to be aware of how few towns and villages there are in Iceland. The vast majority of the Icelandic populous lives in the capital city and surrounding areas. Akureyri is the largest city outside of the western aspect of the country and most villages in the rest of the island have fewer than 500, if not 100 residents. Looking at a map of the island is deceptive as many place names indicate individual farms rather than townships. Regarding the interior of the island, there is effectively nothing with regard to resupply points. Once inside the paved Ring Road that incircles the island, you can expect no options for resupply. I will say that again––there are no resupply options in the interior of the island…at all.

F roads and other tracks.

Iceland is literally webbed with tiny backroads prime for bicycles. Many people underestimate the challenge these roads provide the bikepacker and don’t fully appreciate how fun they are to ride. Many are steep enough to make a billy goat cry. They can also be sandy, potholed, and many intersect with dozens of rivers, most without bridges. It is possible to string together several days worth of F roads creating a challenging and fun experience. I traversed a couple hundred miles of F roads on my trip and was nackered. Some of them are quite hard, steep enough to even require a little hike-a-bike. 7 church 8 f road In many places the F Roads were little more than rough paths just ten feet wide. I didn’t see another human on this road for 36 hours. Solitude can be found, even on well developed roads.

To Fatbike or Not to Fatbike

9 fatbike tire Part of the reason so many riders are heading to Iceland can be attributed to the advent of the fatbike. These bikes love varied terrain, and Iceland certainly has that. Because I was on a fatbike, and most importantly, a pre-production full suspension Salsa Bucksaw, I was able to tackle sandy roads, black sand beach, volcanic deserts and anything else in my path. It proved a perfect platform. Many riders still opt to travel the island by traditional bikes, either on mountain or road wheels, but even a standard mountain bike wheel will struggle on some developed and maintained F roads due to the sandy conditions. For that reason, I strongly agree with many that the fatbike is the ideal option for this tough terrain. I can’t imagine not having my Bucksaw for this ride. It was perfect, even when riding 20-30 mile stretches of pavement to access the interior roads. And, as of this month, Bucksaw bikes should be hitting your local Salsa Dealer. I owe Salsa Cycles a heartfelt thank you for letting me test their latest fatbike in such an extreme setting.

Singletrack and trail systems.

This is where I struggle to not fold in a subjective bit of personal opinion. Icelandic mountain bikers are quick to laud their network of trails, and will quickly tell you how great they are. Maybe I’m spoiled, but much of the singletrack in Iceland as adopted by mountain bikers, was originally designed for trekkers. As such, it can often be very steep, very loose, and involve hours of hike-a-bike. The famed trekking route of the Laugavegur is a prime example. Having ridden it, I admit I really hiked it, all 50+ miles of it when connected from Landmannalauger to Skogar. The other less than ideal element to Icelandic singletrack is how disconnected and short much of it is. Good trail can be found, but many segments are short, don’t link well to other trails, or start and end in strange areas. Akureyri has a nice network of trails, as does Reykjavik, but for the bikepacker, not many trail systems further inland link together for a continuous multi-day singletrack ride. However, fold in some F roads with some of the interior’s more austere “tracks” and you have one heck of an adventure. 10 road One word of route warning: Venture off designated trails and roads and you could find yourself facing very stiff fines if not criminal charges. Stay the trail, road, or other designated route. Icelanders are feeling the effects of unauthorized off-road travel and it’s a raw nerve. Don’t get off proper routes. 11 push

Where to, and not to camp.

Because of the influx of tourists as of late, Icelandic authorities are beginning to crack down on at-large campers. Iceland’s environment is delicate and also more developed than many bikepacker’s realize. The entire island is ringed with farmland, so just plopping down a tent in the nearest patch of grass is likely to put you on someone’s private land. Stories abound of this not being an issue, but I think those days are over. I did see one bicycle tourist being issued a fine and invitation to come back to appear in court. He also said the land owner chewed his ear off for a good half hour while he packed his things. 12 camp In the interior of the island where private land is less prevalent, wild camping is the norm, but realize how rugged the landscape is. Jagged rocks and low bushes can dominate the ground for dozens of square miles. Wild camping is also prohibited in some nature preserves and parks. Just don’t assume you can camp anywhere you please. It would be safe to say that Icelanders are an outdoorsy bunch and as such have a good network of designated campgrounds that are typically extremely clean, have nice amenities, and don’t cost much more than $10 per person. Most designated camping areas are located along the paved Ring Road, usually near or in small villages. 13 stove

Budgeting for expenses.

The only thing to say here is, bring lots of funds. As of this year, gas is around $8/gal, beers in most restaurants cost $9, and hotels easily reach into the $200 range. Food is very expensive, car rentals are extremely high, and in general it is an expensive place to travel. You can trim these expenses if you’re careful and forego the island’s travel luxuries.

Route planning.

Bikepackers, like many travelers, often sucker themselves into the pitfall of planning routes just because they either cross or circumnavigate a given plot of earth. Riders hell bent on crossing the island as their main objective often fail to experience the many varied and beautiful places of Iceland. Same for those hell bent on just riding around the island. It’s not a big place and there are ways to design routes to get maximum experience, but you may have to couch your ambitions to say to friends at cocktail parties, “I rode all the way around Iceland…” The best routes often hone in on a small and diverse region and employ a host of paved roads, F roads, trails, and tracks. If you aspire to design a route with all singletrack, you’ll likely not find such a route, and if you do, will likely miss places like this one pictured below. 14 landman

Many Rivers to Cross.

It might be the most underestimated component to Icelandic bikepacking logistics. Iceland is home to thousands of rivers and streams, some small enough you can step over them, many too large to even brave with a pack raft. If there is anything that is most likely to thwart a given route, it will be a river. On my recent trip to Iceland, I crossed 54 rivers, counting every crossing that wetted my feet during a 12 day trip. Every year people die, or nearly die, crossing the country’s wild waters. There are rare opportunities to hitch rides across some rivers by passers-by in big trucks, but don’t count on it. For one section of my trip, I had to book a ticket on a Reykjavik Excursions off-road bus to get me beyond one whopper of a river. I did have one 35 mile detour around a big river and after a five day period of rain, even one footbridge failed to span the full width of another river. I also had one crossing that scared the hell out of me with water up to my chamois. Rivers are a serious element to bikepacking Iceland. 15 river The river on the left was not a problem at only thigh-deep, although I was well practiced with my fording skills by day five. The river on the right did thwart my progress resulting in a five hour detour, but only after I spent 30 minutes trying to cross it. I fell in that river, nearly lost my bike, and felt like a proper idiot for the attempt. It could have been ugly.

Drinking Water.

One of the best aspects of travel in Iceland is the water quality. Known for the cleanest water in the world, I just drank right out of the wild streams almost never carrying more than a single liter of water. You will have to quickly develop your water-scouting skills as any river originating from a glacier will be heavily silted with sediment. All other rivers will be crystal clear. 16 water

Language and Locals.

Although Icelanders primarily speak their native language, nearly everyone in the service sector, and almost anyone under the age of 30, speaks English. They’re also a friendly lot, eager to help and generally very welcoming to tourists. It’s a beautiful country, full of breathtaking views. It’s not an easy country to travel by bicycle as the elements and scale of the landscape can take a toll. Like all wilderness destinations, expect to have your best laid plans challenged if not thrown out the window outright. Be prepared for setbacks and they will eventually become highlights of an adventure of your lifetime. 17 beach 18 dust 18a horses 19 lavaflow 20 beach 2 21 tread

My favorite Icelandic Resources

The Hotel Hafnarfjordur: This simple hotel is located in the harbor town of Hafnarfjordur, one of the old viking villages of antiquity. It’s a clean hotel with storage for bike boxes and a very friendly staff, which as of this summer, is well acquainted with stinky bikepackers. The Fly Bus stops right at their front doors for easy to/from airport transport. It’s only 20 minutes into the center of Reykjavik from here. There is also a camping store on the same block as the hotel. Hotel Hafnarfjordur The Blue Lagoon: Ya, it’s touristy. You’ll be processed like cattle, but after the first beer and ten minutes in the hot water, you won’t care. It’s one of those must-do experiences that probably is worthy of that status. It makes for a nice end to a backcountry trip. Blue Car Rental: If you need a rental car, look no further. These guys are the best in the business.   All photos and content courtesy of Christophe Noel

14 Comments

  1. thanks for sharing, seems to have been an awesome trip 🙂

    what time of the year have you been? last time in Iceland people told me early June would be good timing…

    best wishes
    D

  2. Pretty bike! Amazing scenery! What did you carry in your maintenance/repair kit to keep everything so clean? With that much rain and mud, your gear still looks brand new in every shot. I want to learn that trick.

    • Iceland is in short…paradise. There are no bugs to speak of, no predators, and…very little mud. Much of the soil is volcanic sand which doesn’t really flick up on the bike or rider too much. That helped keep my bike clean, as did my 54 river crossings and buckets of rain. I did go through tons of lube, often applying lube two or three times a day due to the rain and water crossings. My maintenance kit was pretty basic with nothing unusual other than many, many flat fixing goodies out of fear of the sharp volcanic rocks around.

      I’m also like a cat and hate to get dirty. 🙂

      In environments like this it is important to take time every day to maintain your bike. I spent about an hour on day 8 to give it a good cleaning with a brush to extricate some of the build-up of sand and goo that was on my drivetrain. Rain almost every night gave my bike a nice little bath.

      Oh, and D, I was there from roughly mid July to mid August.

  3. Hey, what a neat looking place to explore. Could you share a link to a gps file of your route? I see that you had an eTrex mounted to the bars. Sharing this would really help me with planning a trip there for one of the next few summers. I’d be particularly interested to see which rivers crossings you had to detour around.

    • Many people have asked about my route and a GPX file. Truth is….planned routes in Iceland are meant to be thwarted and my route was re-routed at least 4 or 5 times. As such, it was a bit convoluted by the end of two weeks. The only thing I really had on my to-do list was the ride from Landmannalauger to Skogar via the Laugavegur and fimmvörðuháls trekking trail. Neither are ideal for bikes and royally kicked my butt with HOURS of hard hike-a-bike. I must have carried my bike for a solid hour at one point. Glad I did it. Couldn’t do it again. Wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy despite how stunning it was.

      Regarding the rivers to avoid, that just depends on variables you can’t plan around. Rivers swell with rains, high temps and melt-off, or even geothermal activity melting the nearby glaciers. So, there’s a lot of x-factor to planning routes in Iceland, particularly the more remote you get. I counted every river and stream crossing that wetted my feet and in 14 days crossed 54 rivers, a few of which were very sketchy with swift water up to my chamois. Only two rivers were too big for me to cross, one required a 35 mile backtrack, the other a 12 mile backtrack and a crossing in a massive 4×4 bus.

      I would suggest planning any trip with an abundance of F-Roads in the mix, and with ample alternative routes as bailouts. Of the four bikepacking groups I knew of this year in Iceland, only one group completed their route and in my opinion it was pretty tame. But, that’s why it’s a great place to adventure!

  4. So you’re not willing to share your gps file? I would love to be able to plot that up in TopoFusion and see where you rode and where you got stymied. Please do share…that’s one of the best aspects of the bikepacking community in my opinion – route sharing! I think that in and of itself would be as valuable as anything you wrote here in your guide.

    • It’s certainly not that I don’t want to share. I abandoned my initial route on day one if that gives you an idea how fluid Icelandic bikepacking is. 🙂

      In short, I originally planned to ride around Katla volcano to Landmannalauger. From there, I rode or largely hiked, the well established Laugevagur and fimmvörðuháls trails to Skokar. I went between Katla and the well known Eyjafjallajökull volcano, north to south.

      There was one 48 hour deviation I made at Lake Aftlavatn just north of Porsmork to go visit some other sites to the NW I wanted to see and to hit some two-track routes, which again, included rivers I couldn’t cross. It would be hard to recommend or not recommend certain routes due to the the variable nature of the rivers. Sometimes they’re fordable, sometimes not. In the end, I stopped recording my route, did a lot of finger dragging over a paper map, and at times just went with the route I knew I could accomplish as it unfolded.

      In other words, even if I had a full GPX file, and you followed it, it’s no guarantee you’d be able to complete the route due to the hit or mis river levels, and you’d think, “where the heck are we going NOW?” It was a pretty random route at times. 🙂 Again, part of the fun. However, if you’d like help planning a BETTER route than mine, shoot me an email. christophe at overland journal dot com. I’d be happy to help.

      • You actually told your eTrex to stop recording your track mid-ride? I’ve never heard of someone doing such a thing. I wasn’t thinking about following most of your route – I wanted to plot it up and see exactly where you rode compared to all the other folks that have been bikepacking over there the past few years, especially those Salsa dudes that were also there this last summer. It’s just fun to see it all on one map when scheming about where to go.

        • I didn’t tell it to stop recording my track, I just didn’t turn on the eTrex after a while. I had my original route loaded into the eTrex, but having deviated from that route so early on, it was just a paperweight, primarily because my third party maps on that device were pretty weak.

          My backup became my preferred means of navigation which was my iPhone with preloaded MotionX HD maps and a Bad Elf Lightning GPS receiver. Being out for 14 days, I only flicked on the iPhone periodically to pinpoint my location and plot out my routes agains a good old paper map. So, laying out a full track was not really an objective. But…I have enough of a route to compile a gpx file, and I’m happy to share it.

          Brett Davis’ route was a biggie, and roughly 220 miles longer than mine. I spent 5 days on the super rugged trekking routes in the Fjallabak Reserve which was not just slow going, it was stunning, and with a full size DSLR and full photo kit, I spent a good amount of time on images.

          With regard to mileage and planning, if you stick to the F-Roads, which are a blast to ride, it’s not impossible to knock out 50-75 miles in a long Icelandic day. Riding the trekking trails in the mountains – slows the pace to a daily crawl (sometimes literally) of 20-25. Throw in a bunch of rivers and that too slows progress. I also through in some beach riding east of Vik, which required some long reroutes to get to the few bridges on the Ring Road to get by some really monstrous rivers.

          Another interesting route this year was attempted by Chris Reichel. They attempted to ride from Akureyri to Skogar but rivers and winds foiled the attempt. One thing is for sure about Iceland, there are plenty of routes to be designed. I probably tried to fold in way too much singeletrack.

  5. Yeah, your bike looks too clean to have been out for 10, 12, or 14 days…which was it anyway? Each story conflicts with the next. And who are you to call someone else’s route “tame?”

    • From start to finish (from Vik) I was on the bike for 14 days, but the last ~2-3 were pretty mellow and not really in the backcountry as I visited many of the popular site seeing spots and camped in a couple developed campgrounds. I didn’t want to just experience the backcountry, but wanted to see as much as I could, event the touristy sites. I also basecamped at one spot for two nights to do a loop ride without my gear on the bike.

      As for the cleanliness of my bike. Well, it is what it is. That volcanic sand doesn’t really goo-up a bike like it does in other places, and it did rain nearly every night I was out. I also did my best to keep it clean as that sand can be rough on a drivetrain.

      And, “tame” was a poor choice of words, and I apologize. There were three riders I met from the U.K. who said their previous year’s route forced them to turn around several times, just like me. This year they said they planned a route with more F Roads and less technical terrain and completed the route without problems. I do think, the more ambitious the route with regard to the technical nature of the terrain, the more likely you will have to turn around at some point, again, as happened to me. And I need to correct myself again as Brett Davis and friends completed their route as well and it was a monster of a route.

  6. Hola Christophe,

    What a great story & adventure… and a gorgeous bike, too 😉

    Greetings from Buenos Aires!
    Federico

  7. Hi Chris. Thanks for that, very informative indeed. I’m going at the end of July (2017) for a week with a mate. I’m leaving the Mukluk at home and taking the Bucksaw because as you say its probably the bike for Iceland! Can’t wait!! Cheers 🙂

  8. Hey Christophe.
    I am heading there for two weeks in mid June. thanks for all this information! F-roads it is!!!!!
    I have extensive whitewater and River Rescue training and am thinking of a Klymit packraft to float gear/bikes across (there’s two of us riding). raft only weighs 4lbs….thoughts on this for being able to cross almost any river you mentioned ?
    Cheers,
    Cameron

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