Shoote The Breeze; Bikepacking Across Iceland in a Weekend
January 25th, 2017
January 25th, 2017
World-traveller and all-round adventurer, Ed, loves riding in new places. If he's not on a bike he's looking at maps of where to go next!
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Hello there. I'm Ed Shoote (hence the title!). Cycle touring Iceland is something that’s always been in the back of my mind. The desolate empty interior of the place captures my imagination with its volcanoes, ice caps, hot springs, geysers and miles of gravel roads. It is certainly a place that needs exploring and there’s no time like the present! I booked surprisingly cheap Easyjet tickets and quickly packed my large Apidura saddle pack, large frame bag and bar bag, and the Kinesis Tripster was fitted with 37mm tyres.
With a big adventure planned in October I only had limited time off work, so I booked the ultimate long weekend: Easyjet flights from Edinburgh leaving Thursday, returning Sunday and covering as much of Iceland as possible. I initially thought of riding from south to north along the Kjolur or F35 road. This is a well maintained gravel route with bridges over the rivers, however; it felt too short and was maybe not the most fascinating area to ride through. I decided on west to east, detouring into the Landmannalaugavegur area (the iconic nature reserve famous for hiking), then along the edge of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður national park past the glaciated Skaftafell and Hvannadalshnukur peaks. The volcanic gravel roads here were to be more basic but far more rewarding, although gravel still only made up about 35% of the route.
As an overview, I would start in Reykjavik heading out east along the ring road before turning north on the F26 road, until I head east on the gravel F225 track. I should reach the junction with the F208 south, before bivvying for the night and riding back to the ring road to cover the remaining miles on tarmac. I would finally end with meeting my wife, Marion, at the Iceberg Lagoon past Hof. A route of 420km into the prevailing winds in just 2 days seemed a good challenge. It was a week’s worth of adventure crammed into those few days and, as if to prove this, I met a German tourer along the F26 road carrying his own body weight in kit; “we Germans say ‘just in case!’” he joked. He was taking 8 days to do the same route.
Our flight was delayed (as ever) so it was after 10pm until we got the keys to our hire car. We drove to Reykjavik and on the outskirts, next to a 24hr supermarket, I jumped out, built my bike and said goodbye to Marion, before I rode off into the darkness. She had trips planned to visit hot springs and a selection of other sights, as unfortunately she was not allowed on her bike after recent surgery. The roads around the city were a bit confusing in the dark and I used my phone GPS to navigate a couple of times.
Finally I reached Route 1; the famous Icelandic ring road. Given it was midnight, the traffic was light and I headed off eastwards in the dark. It was then I realised my rear light was missing, so cautiously carried on along the wide shoulder, only feeling safe because of so little traffic. As I climbed higher through moss covered lava fields, the mist descended in the already pitch black night, so with no rear light it was just plain dangerous. I pulled off to bivvy for the night on the softest section of moss I could find. Not easy between sharp chunks of black lava and, all the time, with literally no idea where I was.
The next morning it was damp from the mist, but my bivvy bag was dry inside and I had a good night’s sleep. There was still a light mist but I took in my surroundings in daylight. It seemed I had camped not far from the steam outlets of a Geothermal power plant (I had missed the warning signs in the dark), but at least it was warm! Setting off on the ring road, the scenery was stunning, with cloud flowing over the hills and steam vents visible in the valleys. I headed towards Selfoss and picked up some camping gas, together with two days’ worth of lunches and some chocolate covered liquorice men (better than they sound, if you like liquorice that is!).
The ring road was still very busy, even past Selfoss. I knew there would be lots of tourists, but there were even more than I expected - buses, campervans, other rental cars - it was like the M25! Seriously though, it was actually one of the most unpleasant roads I’ve cycled on in a while. Hire car drivers and locals seemed intent on not pulling out to give me room, making it quite sketchy at times. I can’t imagine riding the entire ring road with drivers like this, despite it taking in world class views all the way.
Luckily I soon hit road F26 and turned off north towards the highlands and Mt Hekla on a peaceful paved road. I enjoyed covering the distance quickly with only sheep and horses for company. The road was starting to get more lonely as I passed through the green fields back to the lava fields and flanks of volcanoes. Gaining height, I hit the F225, a rough gravel road that would carry me into the real highlands of Iceland. There were warning signs suggesting this rough route was for serious 4x4s only. It was actually very good riding, rough in places and steep ups and downs but a lot of fun. I reached the junction with a route for hikers climbing Mt Hekla. There’s a reassuring sign saying Hekla is overdue for eruption and advised visitors to download the app to see when it will erupt via text. That’s not a text many climbers would like to see while on the mountain, but worth noting that mobile coverage is very good across more of this route than you might imagine.
Next up, a barrier was across the road saying "rally race in progress 2pm to 3pm". I had no watch and figured it was much later than this so I carried on. It seems I was wrong. It was actually 2pm and the rally race was in progress. A jeep sped towards me to announce that the race was oncoming. I heard the roar of engines miles off and was very lucky to reach my junction in the nick of time. I never did see a rally car, but could hear the engines for miles as they drifted on the loose volcanic dusty tracks. Solitary Bikepacking is never dull.
There were a couple of river crossings on the route but nothing above mid calf depth (little did I know what day 2 had in store!). My progress was only slowed by stopping to take so many pictures. It’s a pretty unique and amazing part of the world. The black volcanic dirt was contrasted by bright green moss and grass that was so sharp in contrast, it was breathtaking. That, coupled with the constant threat of rain made the sky dramatic. It felt I was on the brink of getting wet all day, but managed to ride fast enough to stay ahead. When I slowed, it caught up. So I figured if I was doing 15mph and the rain dropped back and did 10mph! After many scenic miles in the natural reserve I reached the sign for Landmannalaugavegur (No idea on pronunciation!). This is one of the best hiking spots on the planet and I could see why. The lakes, green hills and volcanoes certainly suited endless days out walking.
The paths and vegetation are incredibly fragile and tyre tracks off the track would quickly become an eyesore. It’s not often I say this, but I just hope any mountain bikers out here are thinking about what they’re doing, before shredding trails that will take a generation to re-vegetate. I spotted a few black lines in the moss that didn’t look all that sustainable. Gravel riding is maybe a more sustainable bikepacking journey. The rain was going to start again soon, so I opted for a campsite, mostly due to the hot spring river that I could sit in until it was dark enough to sleep, as I only had a less than welcoming gore-tex bivvy bag. I had covered over 200km and felt fresh but it was foolish to carry on with steady rain forecast. There was also drying space and a shelter to cook under, which had sold it to me for the £9 fee. There were about 40 tents already here. Iceland’s not a secret and if you can drive there, even in a 4×4 it will be busy, it seems. After hours soaking my legs, which were now feeling the 200km+ day, it was time to sleep and hope the bivvy bag stayed dry. The next two days proved to be even more spectacular.
There’s little less inviting, than waking up, warmly cocooned in a gore-tex bivvy bag and hearing rain pattering down on the fabric, resting just millimeters above your face. I was warm and dry, but lay contemplating why I didn’t bring a tent? Eventually the call of nature was too great, I had to unzip the bag and escape into the grotty weather. In my panic to get out quickly, disaster struck. The zip was caught in the sleeping bag fabric and wouldn’t shift. I was getting desperate. Other campers must have looked on in wonder at the green gore-tex caterpillar thrashing about on the ground. Water spraying off the bivvy bag in all directions.
Finally, I got the zip to move and, in the nick of time, I emerged like a butterfly in my stripey thermals and ran into the toilet block. It was day two and I was already wet through (from the rain - I did make it in time!). I had considered a dip in the hot springs by the campsite, but instead cooked up 3 sachets of 'Oat So Simple' porridge in the shelter. Today would be another 200km and this rain was forecast until noon. I had read there were 20 river crossing on route F208, which I assumed was wrong, but was sadly proven to be true. Next was the paved ring road number 1 for 130km. The advantage of a bivvy bag is that; a) it’s ridiculously small and light; b) it packs up in seconds. On reflection, however, when the forecast is day after day of rain, a tent is sensible.
My Apidura bags were all loaded and strapped up tight, so I rode off to face the day. Just 50 metres later was my first river crossing. It was ankle freezingly cold. The scenery here is epic, even though the cloud covered half of it, it was still a remarkable place to start riding. The first big climb brought me up to patches of snow, which looks a lot like a meringue on the top of a baked Alaska dessert (was I hungry at this point? Maybe). Sadly it wasn’t meringue, having tested it just in case. However, it was still the most snow I’d seen in the northern hemisphere in August for a long time.
After four or five river crossings, my feet had lost feeling for the day. The rock turned blacker and the greens brighter. The views to tall peaks, shrouded in mist, caught my eye. Snap, snap, snap! I couldn’t stop taking pictures, it was so cool there. The rain only added to the dark theme in the pictures but riding fast on the loose volcanic gravel, really was a lot of fun. It’s not too deep that you struggle to ride, but is loose enough to drift the corners at speed. The first signs of life appeared finally with three inquisitive sheep. I used my new telephoto lens to take some cool shots. The lens is super fast but, at 1.4kg, it had to be used a fair bit to justify bringing it along! The road continued going up and down via steep, loose black gravel tracks, while fording numerous streams and a few patches of sand. Mostly, it was still a good surface to ride with my 37mm tyres.
After a few hours, I began to feel almost claustrophobic in the surreal landscape. The fluoro green hills were never ending. Was I stuck in some alien land? Was I simply going around in circles? I then really did panic, as I saw a sign saying "Welcome to Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park". The park I can’t pronounce should be 50km in the opposite direction? Where the heck was I? The phone battery was dying, so I relied on my map. I assumed the park had moved. This seemed unlikely, but I had certainly turned left, not right at that junction? I carried on riding.
Then, finally, a road sign showing I was on the right track. I relaxed and the rain died off. The hills were still rolling, but never huge and generally it was a lot of fun to ride along the F208. I was gradually getting onto better road surface too, as the ring road beckoned. The sheep were still there though. The weather was improving finally too, with the cloud blowing away to reveal glorious sunshine and the icecaps for the first time, behind the sheep, that is. Then, it was back on the ring road with the hope and huge relief that I might see Marion again, at some point today.
Reaching civilisation was relative, with miles of cliff like scenery and little else. The rain was never far away, despite the sun shining. Those dark clouds were always threatening behind me. The glaciers were dramatic, as they tumbled down the mountains to sea level. Amazingly, even here, they had receded vast distances in the last century. I clocked up the miles quickly now, on the paved road, with just a light headwind to endure. While the traffic was busier than expected, I enjoyed the views, if not a few near misses from huge monster trucks.
Finally, I was close to reaching my destination; the Iceberg lagoon past Hof on the east coast, but short diversions signposted to waterfalls often persuaded me to detour. Then, there it was, the first Iceberg lagoon. A small one, with stunning reflections. It was incredibly photogenic and reminded me of similar sights I’d seen in Patagonia a couple of years back. Finally I heard the beep of a car horn. Marion had caught me up in the tiny Hyundai. My riding was pretty much done. We camped in a small spot near a Glacier and it rained, yet again, overnight. Marion kindly took some shots of me, at the Iceberg Lagoon on the Sunday when the sunshine was better, and they came out pretty cool. The sun was picking out individual ice chunks, while seals were bobbing about in between.
The final hurdle and disaster almost struck, as we got the flight time wrong. In Iceland the speed limit is a firm 90kph, with a maximum $500 fine for speeding. All strictly enforced apparently. We got close to 91kph a few times, hoping to avoid missing the flight. After much stressing, running and the quickest ever bike box packing, we made it on board and the plane even left early! A penalty for not refilling the car of £20, the only cost. We were back in Edinburgh at 11pm, after the busiest long weekend I think I’ve ever had. In short, I highly recommend a trip to Iceland, but there’s so much to see and do. Perhaps a week, even two, next time!