Adventure Islands Biking Iceland

Family biking to the crater of Hell…

Written by Stuart Wickes

Maps, guides, spreadsheets…. there’s a lot of detailed planning to be done

As our summer expedition to Iceland approaches, we are knee deep in maps and guide books, trying to figure out our route. Every big trip is different each year but this one throws up some challenges we haven’t had to face before with the kids. But along with the challenges come some exciting prospects for a wilderness ride on a truly adventurous island…

Iceland, Adventure Island

“If a road is described as really challenging, it may be because you will have to drag your bike through soft sand or loose pebbles for hours and hours.” Ivan Viehoff

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that Iceland is a country of surprises. Our guide books and cycling pamphlets are full of potential obstacles including lava fields, boulder fields, fast flowing glacier melts and high winds. And we’ve the added challenge of riding with children, tandems and trailers. But we are also sure of rewards we wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world; ice caves that steal your breath, waterfalls that crash into your consciousness and extraordinary volcanic features that can’t help but burn themselves on your memory.

Gulfoss – one of many iconic Icelandic waterfalls

An island where reading a map becomes a full time job

While I’ve been wrestling with maps of the Western Fjordlands and the Central Highlands, Kirstie has been  pumping the British Icelandic specialist Dick Philips for information over the phone and closely studying the accounts of Ivan Viehoff (quoted in red throughout this post) which are refreshingly and at times alarmingly honest about what we might expect.

“It isn’t a very nice ride from Keflavik to Reykjavik. There are tales of cyclists riding this road in very bad weather, and changing their ticket to leave the country as soon as possible.”

But as a family we’re up for a challenge, at least I think we are. For the last few years we’ve opted for long yet fairly predictable rides across Europe. A 2,000km ride from Amsterdam to Venice was never going to chuck a lava field or sandstorm in our direction. And on the Camino to Santiago, while God was a constant reminder in the crosses on the landscape, we weren’t required to negotiate our way to the rim of hell.

It’s easy to see why this volcanic landscape might be described as Hell on eart

An island where the roads are paved with gravel

“Near Oskjuvatn lies the explosion crater Viti, which means Hell. Altogether it is one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Iceland.” 

As cycle touring destinations go, Iceland is definitely one of the more interesting. But at this stage it’s all a bit of a nightmare. To establish how many miles we can go in a day, first I need to work out whether the roads are paved or unpaved, and what we might face on the way.

“Crossing this section when the sand is dry can be sorely trying, as the bike sinks in, and you have to drag it, which is both slow and very hard work. People have taken all day over it. A strong wind, which the area is prone to, doesn’t help either.”

An island where roads ford glacier fed rivers

Some roads change constantly according to the climate and other natural phenomenon.

“There are several fords in the first 30km, one of which is the hardest (though not the deepest) I have ever crossed on a bike.”

If fording a river is tricky for the lone cyclist, it’s a major hassle for us. While other cyclists can lift their bikes across, we will have to make several trips to get tandems, trailers, children and up to twelve panniers across the fast flowing, freezing glacier melt water. And I’m not sure if we should even attempt it.

Looking across Thingvellir National Park gives some sense of the varied landscape

An island that never sleeps

“Camping terrain varies from the very hard, where you will have to hammer strong pegs in, to very loose, where you will prefer broad pegs and be putting rocks on them.”

And then we’ll have to set up camp. Every night. Normally on cycle tours, we choose from a vast variety of hostels, hotels and well equipped campsites. But with very few cheap hotels in Iceland we’ll be camping, often in the middle of nowhere, and even getting a titanium tent peg in may take until nightfall.

Actually, I forgot; there is no nightfall.

“There is perpetual daylight through June to late July and it barely gets dark for 90 days from early May to early August.”

An island that never gets fat

Resupplying can be an issue too. Supermarkets are few and far between so it could be days between restocking opportunities. And then it’s likely to be a small store; Tesco hasn’t taken hold here and even its namesake supermarket Iceland hasn’t yet arrived in Iceland.

“Most food is expensive, especially bakery products, meat, cheeses, chocolate crisps etc…. Alcoholic drink is outrageously priced and only sold in special shops with short opening hours. Even fish isn’t cheap.”

I’m not too upset about the fish. And there are some definite positives. Crime is almost unheard of outside the city and main towns. Wild camping is widely permitted and there are no dangerous wild animals, few insects with bite, and indeed few humans. The country is about half the size of Britain and with only three hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants is less populated than our own home county of Cumbria.

An island that’s prone to exploding

And what the guide books can only hint at is the sense of wilderness and sheer beauty of the youngest country on earth. On our honeymoon tour in 2000, Kirstie woke up on her birthday with a view of Villarica volcano in Chile and was convinced she’d never be as happy again. But in Iceland, volcanoes outnumber shopping malls.

Geothermal venting is not unusual, nor are active volcanoes

An island where you need to wear a hat

On this trip we won’t even be able to afford discounted luxury hotels or eat a fine meal. But we will get as close to nature as we have ever been. We will spend days cycling without meeting another person. And we will spend time in places where the only moving objects are carried on the wind.

“Arctic terns are common and aggressive around their breeding sites. Mostly they try to surprise you by suddenly making loud noises close to your head, but sometimes they hit your head with their feet, or crap on you, so wear a hat.”

The kids say they are looking forward to that. But I bet it won’t be so funny if or do I mean when it happens. Unless it only happens to me.

An island of adventure

We will have an adventure. It’s perhaps the only thing we can guarantee in this unpredictable and unpopulated place where the glaciers stretch into heaven, and at least one road leads straight to Hell.

The morning post brings maps, notes, expedition grade tent poles and titanium tent pegs.

What’s the most adventurous destination you’ve visited?

This post is part of our 2012 Iceland Season.  We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike.  We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. 

Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!

8 Comments

  • I’ve been thinking of a bike ride next summer to Iceland with my husband – but we thought we’d take a guided tour – more because of the time involved in trip planning. I do love the sound of your upcoming adventure though.
    I’ve had plenty of adventures over the years – hikes in England, Scotland, Ireland + France and lots of remote sea kayaking and backpacking trips in Canada – all on our own.
    I’ll be interested to see how this bike ride works out for you. I would have to think that weather (rain and wind) will be a major factor.

  • hi there as a fellow traveller with two young kids i have loved reading about your life experiences with your children …we are planning our own long term travels next year possably travelling through iceland and the faroes and onwards to russia and the wonderful trans siberian express to china, so i am looking forward to following your new exciting blog on this trip and wish you all the luck it sounds like its going to be a hard one but breathtaking.

    One of my best adventures was when i travelled to africa in my 20s, i was in cape town and i heard that you could scuba dive in malawi for £100 so we hitched hiked from south africa through four countries with only a piece of paper for directions.

    Its a bit weird but after reading about how you have managed to bike with kids to so many exciting places i have had this tiny thought wondering if we ( my partner, kids and i ) could start doing some biking trips as well. but we havnt done anythink like this before and we keep asking our selfs is this some thing we could do! (am i fit enough, tough enough, brave enough, want it enough ect.. we are trying to get out on the bikes more with this in mind…….
    so good luck with your plans it inspires us all, tracey h

    • Thanks for commenting Tracy. Sometimes a piece of paper is all you need, I sometimes forget that. I think taking the kids along makes us a little more obsessive about planning and thinking things through. Your plans to take the Trans-Siberian to China sound fantastic…. that would be an amazing journey I’m sure. And as for that tiny thought about bikes, give it space. Believe me you do not need to be tough or strong or clever or brave or even wear lycra to bike with or without kids. We started nervously, learnt as we went, journeyed at home at first, gained in confidence and have taken on more and more. The main thing you need is the will to make the pedals go around, and to cultivate a love of journeying on two wheels with all that it brings. There are many styles, paces, places and ways to do it too. And I don’t know a better way to experience the world. But I am very biased!

  • I love reading your posts and accompanying comments. It is nice to know that there are others out there who enjoy exploring the world on the seat of a bicycle.
    Keep the great articles coming. I’m especially interested in island bicycle opportunities.

  • I am planning to go to Iceland with my husband and I am so excited for the bike riding there. I preferred the travel agency tripguide.is to go there. It’s very nice blog or quite informative as well. Thanks for sharing it.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...

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