Bikepacking Iceland: More Perfect Weather Than We Know What To Do With

24 hours of daylight, and we have to waste time sleeping?!

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There are just two essential steps to plan the perfect Icelandic bike trip:

Step 1: Plan to do the ring road, and maybe the interior.
Step 2: Land in the airport at Keflavik, start biking, and immediately rethink your entire plan.

Iceland is everything and nothing like we expected. We’re starting out in some uncommonly good weather; we’ve had five minutes of rain in four days and our rain gear, tent, and waterproof bags are looking more and more like overpacking. But, of course, we know better- punishment is coming. Iceland always delivers (apparently).

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Kelley and I decided on Iceland for our first International bikepacking adventure because it matched our penchant for bad-weather camping, and it’s a remarkably stress-free location to plan a bikepacking trip. Iceland boasts almost no crime, plenty of well-serviced campsites, low vehicle traffic (away from Reykjavik), and otherworldly geography. Everyone speaks english, too, and the locals seem excited to help travelers who aren’t looking out a bus window.

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One piece of our plan did survive the landing. When we arrived in Keflavik Airport (KEF), we took a 5-minute van (~$25) to Sandgerði, a beautiful coastal village with an amazingly convenient campsite, iStay.

iStay gets a big thank-you from Kelley and I for making the hardest part of our trip so easy. Once we arrived, our hosts stored our bike boxes for our return flight, and we had a great space to rebuild our bikes, stock up on low-priced food at the local supermarket, and get settled in for the month-long journey. The night we arrived, a local band held a concert with 150 people in attendance, playing (of all things) American classic rock. And so, with Hotel California ringing in our ears, we felt more than welcomed. The campsite also has laundry, bathrooms, showers, and electricity.

 

iStay is a MUCH better jumping-off point than trying to negotiate the harrowing Highway 41 to Reykjavik. I highly recommend this route to anyone starting a bike trip in Iceland, as it puts you in a perfect spot to explore the coast of the Southern Peninsula.

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The Southwestern Peninsula has a lot of great spots to explore, and we found it completely uncrowded. No tourists, no buses, just us and Iceland. On the route between Grindavik and Sandgerdi, there’s the Bridge Between Continents, which marks the spot where the Eurasian Plate and North American Plate collide (or, rather, are slowly pulling apart).

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Helping the tectonic plates along.

After the bridge, we came to Gunnuhver, a steam vent with ferocious intensity. For me, Gunna was more exciting than a geyser. The steam billowed out like nothing I’ve ever seen.

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You can get pretty close, too, if you’re brave. There’s a very high chance you’ll die if you neglect to follow the roped-off walkways, since the ground and steam can easily top 212ºC.

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We got up-close and personal, lungs filled with sulfur, and I managed to fog up my camera lens for a good hour before I realized it.

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So, in our next spot, the pictures really fail to do it justice. These cliffs by a lighthouse just across the road from Gunnuhver were truly breathtaking. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Ireland. You can even see a lonely island deep out in the ocean, rising up like some magnificent ice sheet.

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The cliff was serious, too. Peering over the edge, it had to be at least a hundred feet to the ocean. Sheer drop. And what a view, too!

We camped overnight in Grindavik, and got a cycling map from the campsite office. Iceland’s 2016 Cycling Map is THE resource for a touring cyclist, and I’m ecstatic about this map. It has every road color-coded in 9 different ways, distinguishing tarmac from gravel, high traffic to low traffic, and the presence or absence of a shoulder. On top of that, it has every camp spot, grocery store, hostel, bike shop, ‘repair enthusiast,’ ferry, and bus stop labeled. The campsites even have an included key deliniating which ones have hotpots, showers, laundry machines, and which are car-free. It’s an indispensable resource, so find one as soon as you can- they’re all over the information centers.

The next day, we hit gravel.

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About a kilometer in, we found a busted chain on the F-road. A little bit foreboding, but we were feeling strong after such a good start, so we went for it. We were rewarded with mile after mile of chunky gravel, challenging climbs, white-knuckle descents, and all-around great riding.

This is why we brought mountain bikes.

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Kelley is riding her Surly Ogre, mostly de-labeled and with a brilliant combination of colored bags. Her sleeping bag rides on the top of the rack, loosely packed so she can stuff in more clothing if she needs pannier space for food. The panniers hold her clothes and food and other things, and her water rides in the frame pack. Two Silo stem bags from Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks hold gummy bears, mostly. Salsa Anything cages act as front panniers. Her rear tire is a super fat 2.4″ to take the sting out of washboard gravel, and to keep vibration from rattling the rack bolts off.

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I’m riding a Surly Pugsley, with an Old Man Mountain rack. I’m using 29+ wheels and 3-inch tires as a speedier alternative to my fatbike wheels. Mostly the same setup as Kelley: a Rogue Panda framebag, Ortlieb panniers, a drybag for my sleeping bag, and Salsa Anything cages.

Kelley’s bike weighs in at 60lbs without food/water, and I’m sitting at just about 69lbs, with a few more tools and a spare tire in my bags. I have a lot less food capacity than Kelley, so I had to buy a backpack in Reykjavik for our planned excursion to Landmannalaugar later in the trip. It’s tough to plan Iceland with a slim-and-light setup, because 20,000 calories worth of food takes up a lot of room. Five days between food stops is not uncommon, especially in the interior, and a bad storm can absolutely level your mileage. So, make sure you have a lot of empty space in your setup.

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I have about 8 liters of water capacity, too. Kelley has about four. That’ll keep us going for two to three days, since the air is very humid here. Not all the water is drinkable; some of it is full of glacial runoff or volcanic minerals and metals.

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Other times, the water is clean enough that you can probably get away without a filter (not recommended). Absolutely crystal clean, and beautiful. Some areas have tons of water, while others are arid and dry, so plan carefully and talk to locals (or other cyclists- in July, there are tons).

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Campsites in Iceland are awesome. Almost too comfortable… I can’t imagine paying for a hotel when the campsites are this good. iStay even has modernized cabins. We’re really growing attached to our Exped tent, which shrugs off the high winds that blow in from time to time (read: always). It’s our little red house, a port in a storm.

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On our third day, we headed past Lake Kliefarvatn and some more hot springs and volcanic mud. It’s a lot of fun stepping between hot springs, walking on wooden boardwalks over a boiling cauldron of death. We didn’t skip a single one of the geologic formations along our route.

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There’s so much to share from this trip, and it’s only been four days. I’m going to leave it off here and pick back up later in the trip. For now, enjoy the rest of the photos I took on our way across the Southwestern Peninsula. For the next couple of days, we’re in Reykjavik, and then it’s off to the Golden Circle!

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Translation: Two Surly’s!

 

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Hjólaðu Áfram!

Max

 

9 thoughts on “Bikepacking Iceland: More Perfect Weather Than We Know What To Do With

  1. I was stationed in Iceland in 1993-94 while in the Air Force. Your pictures and journal bring back great memories. Enjoy your trip and stay safe. Iceland is a great place.

  2. I have a Pug as well. How did you like the Rogue Panda frame bag? I have a seat bag from him and I was wondering how well the frame bag would work. It looks almost too big!

    I’m guessing you had to do some bending on the Old Man Mountain rack to get it to fit?

    1. No bending at all! Old Man Mountain has a custom mount for the Pugsley. A perfect fit.

      The framebag is beautiful. I asked Nick to add a little extra width. It’s just barely inside my knees. You can ask for a regular width if you want a slimmer fit.

  3. Wow this looks incredible! Do you have a digital map of the route by any chance?

    Also, strange question Max but what cycling pants are you wearing? I’m in the market to buy some winter cycling gear since winters are much colder in Washington state than in the Bay Area.

    1. Sorry, we kind of wandered around so I didn’t map the route very carefully.

      Those winter pants are from Ibex! I love them. For dry cold, I use those or Windstopper tights if it’ a bit colder. Baselayers help.

      If you ride when it’s snowing, slushy, rainy, or threatening to be any of those, then choose rain pants every time!

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