We had the pleasure of connecting with Brett Davis and Joey Parent after their Iceland bikepacking adventure. Read the interview below to hear about their experience.   So, you two just finished a bikepacking trip in Iceland. What inspired you to take this trip? BD:  Like most people I have a “Bucket List” that is miles long and a visit to Iceland has been on the list for some time.  The incredible variety of terrain from glaciers to volcanoes is alluring along with the vast potential for remote adventure.  Ever since I started riding fat bikes and started thinking about terrain that would be best suited for these bikes (beyond snow packed trails), Iceland always came to mind.  Beyond that, actualization of traveling there began in a hotel room last November.  We were co-presenting at the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) conference on introducing “Bikepacking” as an option for adventure for collegiate outdoor recreation programs.  Both of the programs that we work for were the first in the country to offer bikepacking as an outdoor pursuit for college outdoor programs. JP: I had been to Iceland a few times in the past. It’s really an incredible place. The vast array of terrain and landscapes with a huge network of dirt roads, and trails make it a perfect place for bikepacking. I had been thinking about doing bike trip there for a while, but for one reason or another it had never happened. When Brett and I were presenting at the conference I had just returned from leading a backpacking trip. It was a great opportunity to check out some different routes and also to see what the trails would look like. Brett and I spent a few evenings over a bottle of whisky dreaming up an adventure on dirt roads and mountain trails riding to different locations in the highlands. We started looking up flights right then and they really weren’t that bad.  Brett could fly directly from Denver and I had a pretty short flight from Richmond. It all kinda seemed too easy.   Tell us about the route. (specifically location, distance and terrain) BD:  This one’s yours Joey.  I was just along for the ride and looking to get off the beaten path and find the unknown and thus, some adventure.
JP searching for the “pot of gold.”—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP searching for the “pot of gold.”—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP:    I had a pretty good grasp on the lay of the land from previous trips to Iceland. I knew there were certain areas that I wanted to link together. The Hengill area, Thjofadadalir trail, and the Laugavegur trail were all places that sounded like there would be good riding. I also wanted to ride around one of the glaciers. Langjökull seemed like it would be a cool, off the beaten path, option. We flew into Reykjavik and rode right out of the city. There is a great network of greenways that connect the entire capitol and beyond. We rode the greenways out and were able to get onto dirt almost immediately.  Hengill is a short distance west of Reykjavik. There is a lot of trail in this area as well as a really spectacular hot flowing river for soaking. From there we rode more trail north to, Þingvellir National Park. The park is a UNESCO world heritage site and is the where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge. Further north still is the Langjökull (long glacier). Our goal was to ride around the glacier to the eastern side where we could connect to more single track. There is a fairly well traveled mountain track that goes up the western side of the glacier. The further we traveled along it, the fewer people we saw and the more deteriorated the roads got. The “road” across the north side of the glacier is much less traveled. This particular track is seldom found on a map and is little more than an eroded dirt path marked with cairns and painted sticks. It is an extremely remote part of the country that is littered with braided streams and small lakes. Eventually the track dumps out onto the Kjölur route which runs along the east side of the glacier.
JP riding on the moon.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP riding on the moon.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
After several days of riding in the rain we made it to the Hveravellir hut along the Kjölur road. There is a fantastic hot spring there that helped warm our soggy spirits. From Hveravellir a hut route heads south through Thjofadadalir (The Valley of the Thieves). This is a fairly popular trekking and horseback riding route. It also turned out to be a great mountain bike ride with some specular views of Langjökull. After Thjofadadalir we doubled back a bit and made our way to Kerlingarfjöll where there was another hot spring. Next we headed toward Þjórsá (Bull’s River). Here the interior of Iceland shows how barren and harsh it can be. For two days we crossed a massive arctic desert of black volcanic sand and rock. The Hofsjökull glacier could often be seen in the distance. It’s like nothing I have ever experienced. Eventually the track led us to a bridge where we could cross over the massive Þjórsá.  It was time to start making our way towards Landmannalaugar. A smattering of dirt roads and pavement with a strong headwind got us there pretty uneventfully.
BD exploring the “Hot Spring Road.”—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
BD exploring the “Hot Spring Road.”—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
Landmannalaugar is the starting point of the famous Laugavegur (The Hot Spring Road). The trail is particularly breathtaking, but it is also heavily traveled with tourists hiking from hut to hut. We rode the first section of trail. It’s very steep and involved a good bit of hiking to get to where we could ride again. The top of the mountains are peppered with steaming hot vents and black glassy obsidian. It was a really beautiful ride, but the number of people on the trail was too much to handle. Brett and I opted to drop off the back side and ride some lesser known mountain tracks. Besides, there was, you guessed it, a hot spring not too far away. We rode over another lava field to get to Strútslaug. This hot spring is really stunning as it overlooks a beautiful lake and valley. There is a campsite at the hot spring and we had it all to ourselves. At this point it was time to start making our way back to Reykjavik on the Fjallbak road. We were running out of food and had flights we needed to catch. This section of Iceland had the steepest and most deteriorated roads of the entire trip. We pulled, pushed, carried and road the Fjallbak until we finally started descending back down to the ocean. The views were incredible, but they had to be earned. Over the next few days we took our time riding the southern coast. We stopped in all the towns along our route to replenish our very calorie deficient bodies with as much food as we could eat. On our final day we road single track back into Reykjavik. All said and done, we did a around 550 miles almost entirely on dirt roads, and single track. I believe we only road about 40-50 miles of pavement.   What type of obstacles did you encounter while bikepacking in Iceland? BD:  I think one of the obstacles that we encountered both before we arrived and once we were there, was finding accurate information about potential routes.  There are lots of people touring by bike in Iceland, but the vast majority of riders are touring along the ring road (the main road that circumnavigates the entire country).  It is a busy paved and gravel road that connects towns so you are never too far away from some semblance of civilization.  Given that we wanted remoteness and wanted to push ourselves and the capabilities of our bikes we opted to stay away from the main roads and sought to explore areas that are rarely travelled by bike.  The local mountain bike culture is just beginning to blossom with guys like Emilthor Gudmundsson (an owner of Kria Cycles and the originator of icelandtrails.com) developing and pioneering off-road routes.  Overall though, the mountain bike infrastructure is in its infancy with virtually nothing mapped and officially established.  We found that there is no one reliable map that could be used as a riding resource.  One map would show a trail in an area we were interested in traveling through while another map of the same area would not even mention the same trail.  I felt like we were riding by Braille at times—which gave our trip that bit of the unknown that I was looking for.
JP getting his feet wet yet again.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP getting his feet wet yet again.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP:  The terrain is all over the place and it can change many times throughout the course of a day. There were lava fields, moss covered boulders, black sandy deserts, muddy bogs, and hard bed rock. Additionally, we also rode some really steep single track, dirt roads and horse trails. Each surface presented its own set of challenges. Often times the terrain did a pretty good job of beating you up and making you tired. The thing that surprised me the most was all of the river crossings. I think one day we counted something like 30 stream crossings. Some of them could be ridden, but some we had to carry the bikes through. I had wet shoes pretty much the whole trip.   You must have jobs that allow you to take an extended trip like this. What are your professions? BD:  I have a dream job as I direct the Outdoor Pursuits program at Fort Lewis College—a small liberal arts college located in Durango, CO.  The job entails getting college students outside to experience what the natural world has to offer.  I am kind of a jack of all trades when it comes to outdoor activities with the ability to lead and teach rock & ice climbing, whitewater kayaking & rafting, cycling, backpacking, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing.  Consequently, I spend a lot of time outdoors in the backcountry and have the support of the college to take extended trips for both personal and professional development. JP: I also direct an outdoor program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. It’s what I have always wanted to do and I can’t imagine a better job for myself. It’s awesome to get students outside and teach them how to do these types of things. I’m lucky that my job is something that I am so passionate about. Ido spend a lot of time in the field on weekends for work so I don’t get a ton of time off during the semesters. When I do have a break I try and get out and do something that will push me. I’m also fortunate to have a wife that is very supportive and helps push me to do these types of things.   Joey, you broke your hand a month before you left for the trip. Tell us about the challenges you faced while riding the entire route in a cast? I was riding the local trail system here in Richmond when I took a digger going way faster than I should have. I knew something was wrong almost immediately, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. It took me three weeks before I finally went in to see a doctor. Sure enough, I broke the hook of hamate in my left hand. Things have changed a lot since the last time I got a cast (which also happened when I wrecked my mountain bike in middle school). The doctor set me up with a new Boa cast from the same company that makes ski boots and bike shoes. The cast is heat molded and they can make it fit a lot of different shapes. I brought my bike into the doctor’s office and they molded the cast to fit my mountain bike. It worked great, and I really didn’t have any major issues while we were in Iceland. It certainly wasn’t as comfortable as riding without a cast, but at least I didn’t have to cancel the trip. It was nice to be able to take it off when we went to the hot springs and also to clean it when I needed to. It did bother my shoulder on some longer days. I think it was because my shoulders were uneven due to the extra material under my hand.   What bikes were you riding? BD:  I was riding a Ti Salsa Mukluk built with Sram X-9 shifters and derailleurs and BB-7 brakes.  I was running a Surly Nate on the front with a 45 North Husker Du on the rear.  The bike performed flawlessly and was the perfect choice for the terrain and conditions.  I don’t think I could have accomplished what we did on a typical mountain bike.  I had one mechanical which was a rear flat after riding across a lava field of obsidian.  The Icelandic backcountry is made for the fat bike.
The Highland Machines.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
The Highland Machines.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP: I was riding a new Mid-Fat/29+ from Chumba Cycles called the Ursa.  The bike was built up with a 2×10 shimano XT drive train. Hope hubs laced to Rabbit Hole rims and Knard tires did the rolling.  Paul levers hooked up to BB-7 brakes and massive 190 rotors did the stopping.  We threw everything at the bike. I can’t imagine harsher conditions to ride a loaded bike through. The Ursa handled it with no issues.  This was my first tour on a 29+ platform and I have to say, I’m sold.   Tell us about the bags you used for your rigs. BD:  I had a potpourri of bags for the trip.  I used a Viscacha seatpost bag from Revelate Designs to carry items I wouldn’t need access to during the day—things such as my sleeping bag, camp clothes, small toiletry kit, and chargers for our cameras, etc.  For a frame bag, I was originally going to use a specifically designed bag for the Mukluk by Revelate Designs, but ended up opting for a homemade “BD Special” that I had designed and used on my Fargo when I rode the Great Divide Trail in 2011.  The bag was a little bigger and with two separate compartments allowed me to access contents a little more efficiently.  I stored bike repair equipment (tools, pump, lube, extra tube, patch kit, brake and derailleur cables) in the lower compartment with clothing I would need for the day in the upper compartment (rain jacket, leg warmers, wind shirt, etc.).  Before I left for the trip, I received support from Andrew Wracher of Bedrock Bags—a local company making simple and bombproof bikepacking bags.  In my Entrada Handlebar Bag I stored my sleeping pad, cook kit & stove, bivy sack and GoreTex glove shells.  The bag pocket held maps and other items I needed to access quickly.  Our lodging, a single pole tarp, was sandwiched between the handle bar bag and pocket.  In addition to these main bags, I ran another “BD Special” gas tank which stored my snacks for each day as well as a small camera tripod.  My Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbag was used as a bike bottle holder.  A Salsa Anything Cage located on my front fork held my camp shoes and two stainless King Cages held an additional 1.5 liters of water and a fuel canister for our stove.  Lastly, I carried a small pack which carried the bulk of my food. JP: I had a Sawtooth Bar Bag from Wanderlust Gear up front. My sleep system and some camp clothes  were in the main roll. In the pocket I had maps, and other essentials that I would use during the day like my Steripen, hat and gloves. In the main triangle I had a custom Divide Frame Bag also from Wanderlust Gear. I typically carry as much heavy stuff (tools, batteries, water, etc…) and food as I can in the frame bag. It keeps the center of balance low on the bike, and also off my back. I had a Wanderlust Beargrass gas tank bag on the top tube with snacks for the day and a homemade stem bag with my water bottle in it. Under the down tube I had a bottle cage with an MSR fuel bottle in it. A Viscacha seat post bag from Revelate Designs held my extra clothes, rain gear, and misc. camping gear. I had a fairly large ULA-CDT backpack that was designed for ultralight backpacking. I used it to carry my camera gear, down jacket, cook set and lots of freeze dried food. The extra space came in handy when we had more than a week of food to carry.   You guys experienced some extremely wet weather over there, wettest weather on record since the 1950’s. How did you overcome this? BD:  The weather provided some challenges that we were prepared for from an equipment stand point (proven rain gear, wool base layers, warm gloves and waterproof shells, bombproof lodging, etc.).  In our pre-trip research we knew that we needed to be ready for anything and everything when it came to Iceland’s climate.  Plus, I have a reputation for being followed by less than ideal weather conditions.  Put both together and trips with me can be interesting.  Being optimists though we prepared for the worst, but figured we would get more sunny than rainy days.  We were so wrong.  We only had two rain free days the entire two and half weeks we were in the highlands.  At one point early in our journey we holed up for two nights in what can only be described as a “Hobbit Hole.”  This small traveler sanctuary was a godsend as we stayed dry for 24 hours while it poured nonstop.  After having been wet and soggy for several days neither of us could muster the energy to ride in a downpour.  Consequently, we decided to wait it out and enjoy the warmth of our sleeping bags for a day.  The following day wasn’t much better, but mentally we were ready to take on the elements once again.  Rain was a constant companion and if it wasn’t raining we had wind.
A welcome home to escape the elements.—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
A welcome home to escape the elements.—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
JP:  The weather was pretty tough. It was almost always at that perfect combination of cold, wet and windy to really chill you to the bone. In a country with virtually no trees, there is not much you can do to get out of it. All we could do to stay warm was to keep moving. It was when we stopped that we really got cold. To me however, the wind was worse. On several occasionswe had winds so strong that they would literally blow us off the road. When it gusted, it almost felt like hitting a wall. The days with big winds were much harder on me mentally than the rainy days. It just took so much energy to ride distances that should have taken half as long.  We were fortunate to have a shelter that could stand up to the winds without getting pancaked. We used an old Trango Wedge. Once that thing is staked out it does really well. It was very comforting at night to get out of the elements and into a dry shelter.   Iceland is a pretty magical place. What was your favorite region, town, mountain range, etc? BD:  This is a tough one as Iceland is like one big national park—there are natural wonders in all directions.  I think my favorite day of riding was when we rode the old Kjolur Trade Route through what is known as the “Valley of the Thieves.”  It was one of our rain free days where we had sun for the majority of the day.  Located on the east side of the Langjokull Glacier, the trail traverses through a beautiful volcanic and glacial valley.  The riding was technical at times as we bounced our way through sharp fields of lava, but the views of the glacier falling to the valley floor were amazing.  We had the trail to ourselves and were constantly stopping to try and capture the beauty of the place through our camera lenses.  Our photos don’t do it justice, but it will be one of the more memorable days of the trip for me.
BD stealing some single track in the “Valley of the Thieves.”—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
BD stealing some single track in the “Valley of the Thieves.”—Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
JP:  I really enjoyed the Hengell area that we rode to on the first day.  We didn’t get riding that day until 4 PM or so. By the time we got to camp that night, it was midnight. It wasn’t that big of a deal since the sun doesn’t really setin July. Hengell is a very active geothermal area set in a pretty rugged mountain range. There are tons of trails that run throughout the area. The crown jewel of the park is a hot spring river that flows through the middle of it. I have been to a lot of hot springs in my lifetime, and this is absolutely the best. There is nothing like sitting in hot water as it flows over you and through little rapids.   What was the climate like along your route? BD:  I think we encountered it all from lush grasslands to barren lava fields.  On our ride out Reykjavik we rode well-groomed single track through Heidmork that was lush with lupin and small conifers.  As we traveled further from the city, the trees diminished and we were soon in a lush landscape of spongy green moss which covered an entire landscape of lava.  The riding became more technical as we progressed, but the stability of our big rigs allowed us to easily surmount the obstacles presented by the environment.  Soon we were climbing steeply into volcanic created mountains where the hillsides were steaming from geothermal vents.  I believe I asked Joey everyday how much further he was going to take me into Mordor.
BD finding some sweet lava single track.—Photo Courtesy of Joey Parent
BD finding some sweet lava single track.—Photo Courtesy of Joey Parent
  JP:  It was all over the place. Black volcanic sand, boggy wet marshes, rocky mountain roads and trails. We even rode over an obsidian field. It can be so lush and vibrant at times and then so desolate and lonesome at others. I think that’s the thing that made it such an exciting trip. We were constantly wondering what was going to be over the next horizon. It could change at any moment, and when it did it was like nothing we had ever seen before.   Favorite Icelandic food you ate? BD:  To be honest, due to the remote nature of our trip and the expense of food in Iceland, I didn’t eat a great deal of authentic Icelandic food.  Out in the highlands we did not have many opportunities to experience the local cuisine.  Prior to our departure and after our return to Reykjavik I enjoyed consuming the Icelandic delicacy of hotdogs.  Hotdog stands are located outside of every public pool and throughout the street corners of the city.  They make for a cheap snack and really do hit the spot after soaking in a hot spring.  Prior to the trip I was told that trying Skyr yogurt was a must.  As a yogurt connoisseur I enjoyed it and purchased some whenever it was available.  Joey only laughed at me once as I carried a large tub of it on the outside of my pack on our first day of riding out of Reykjavik.  I am saving the putrid shark meat for my next trip to the country…gotta have something to look forward to.
Yet another stunning backcountry camp.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
Yet another stunning backcountry camp.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP: We didn’t get a lot of opportunities to eat out on the trip. We were in the middle of nowhere most of the time. To complicate things further I’m vegetarian which cuts out a lot of traditional Icelandic meals. We did do a bit of grocery shopping when it was available. I tried to stocked up on local foods when possible. I really enjoyed the mild cheeses and I would try and get some fresh pastries when I could. The pastries and sweets were all amazing.   Sponsors? BD:  I have been adventuring by bike and riding as a sponsored rider for Salsa Cycles for several years now and recently gained some support from Bedrock Bags. JP: I recently started riding with Chumba Cycles and Wanderlust Gear. I’m very excited to be working with two companies that are producing mountain bike products which are handmade in America.  They are both pretty new, but the quality of the equipment is excellent.  Like I said earlier, we really put the gear through its paces. I have been very impressed with how well the bike and bags have held up. I think there are a lot of great things to come from both companies.
JP putting his gear to the test.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
JP putting his gear to the test.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
Lasting Impressions? BD:  It was a great trip!  Iceland is a fat bikers dream with endless possibilities existing for those who like adventure and getting off the beaten path.  Everyone we met were great and the country is very user friendly when it comes traveling.  English is a second language of the country so communication barriers are minimal.  It can be expensive for those seeking to spend nights in hotels and eating in restaurants (a cheap restaurant meal is $20).  Joey and I brought a lot of our backcountry food with us which helped keep our food costs down.  Additionally, we were camping in the wild nearly the entire trip—which was our ultimate goal.  Wahoo! JP: This trip has been a dream of mine for some time now. I knew that this would be an incredible experience going into it, but the things that made it special were not the things that we planned on, it was the things that were not. The weather was terrible some of the time, but it created some spectacular rainbows and forced us to sleep in a grass covered hut. The route wasn’t exactly what we planned on, but it turned out better than we could have imagined because we allowed ourselves the opportunity to take a different path. Getting out and pushing myself has taught me a lot. It is something that has always been important to me. These experiences are typically the ones that have a lasting impression on me. I’m just really psyched that I had the opportunity to share it with such a close friend.
BD &  JP soaking it in at Strutslaug.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
BD & JP soaking it in at Strutslaug.—Photo courtesy of Brett Davis
 

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Joey Parent TNGA Pre-race Report - Bikepackers Magazine

  2. FATBIKE = 3.7 OR WIDER

  3. Pingback: Adventure Advice from Avid Adventures: Brett Davis - Bikepackers Magazine

  4. Hey guys, looked like an awesome trip!

    Do you have any GPS data of the route? It would be super helpful to see the route on a map.

    Thanks!

  5. time of year?

  6. I too am wondering if there is a file of the route taken. Looks awesome and It’s on my list. Great write up Lindsay.

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