Iceland: Land of Fire, Ice & Fatbike Dreams
Part One: Turning Ideas Into Actions
Amazing things happen when there is enthusiasm and will behind an idea. If these elements are missing, then an idea remains just that…an idea. Last November, in a hotel room on the campus of the University of Maryland, an idea was formalized with enthusiasm and will—albeit, a little bourbon might also have been involved. My good friend Joey and I had just finished co-presenting at a conference on introducing “Bikepacking” as a new programming option for collegiate outdoor recreation programs. As is typical at such conferences, the real business happens outside of the educational presentations, clinics and round table discussions, and instead occurs in the hotel bars, lobbies and rooms. The idea to ride fatbikes in Iceland took root in such a scenario. It went down something like this:
Me: So Joey, in August you took a group to Iceland to do some trekking?
Joey: Yep. It was a great trip.
Me: I’ve wanted to go there for years to do a fatbike adventure, but the time and cost of getting there from Durango is quite lengthy and expensive.
Joey: Dude, I believe you can fly direct from Denver on Icelandair.
Me: No way! Are you sure?
Me (after typing vigorously on the iPad searching for flights from Denver): You’re right. Let’s do this.
And thus, the idea took on a life of its own and preparations were made for a fatbike adventure in the “Land of Fire And Ice” during the summer of 2014.
Flying over Greenland. Next stop…Iceland…
Seven months later my Icelandair flight touched down on a rainy tarmac in Keflavik at 6:30 in the morning. Our idea had become a reality. During the previous months, plane tickets were purchased, bikes were tuned, gear was discussed and prepared, a route was formalized, and personal goals and objectives were shared. Having been there previously, Joey was very familiar with the terrain and what would be possible for us to try and accomplish. Additionally, having read previous trip reports and seen pictures of the desolate and rugged interior of the country, we believed fatbikes would be the optimal machines for this bike tour. Many cyclists visit Iceland each summer. The majority of them are there to ride the “Ring Road”—a paved and gravel road that circles the country’s perimeter. Neither Joey nor I had much interest in sharing our experience on a busy road with vast amounts of car-driving tourists and tour operators. We were outdoor educators after all—we wanted to be away from the crowds and experience the Icelandic backcountry. To do this meant heading to the interior and into the highlands. Furthermore, fatbikes are not really meant for pavement.
Volcanic sand riding in the highlands…
In short, our objective was to ride out of the capital of Reykjavik into the highlands and attempt to find a route around the country’s second largest glacier, Langjokull. Once around its north side we would try to connect old trade routes and further explore the desolate landscape of the highlands. The goal was to seek out as much trail as possible and stay off of the well-trafficked interior roads—which most cyclists tour on. Rather than identifying a single sole objective that we sought to complete, we both looked at this trip as an exploratory mission to experience the country and see what was possible on our fat machines. Without a schedule or any time pressures, we could take our time to linger in places of interest or easily adjust to unforeseen circumstances such as poor weather, mechanicals or unrideable terrain.
Our route: 520 miles of dirt plus 30 miles of pavement equals fatbike fun…
One of the biggest challenges of riding in Iceland is preparing for the weather. Lying just south of the Arctic Circle, the summer weather can be fickle with sunshine one moment and rain the next. Additionally, high winds are known to ravage the landscape and those who are travelling across it. We were told to be prepared for anything and everything—especially for being cold and wet. My arrival into Reykjavik was a wet one. I unloaded my bike box from the airport shuttle at the Reykjavik Camp site in a downpour. I quickly made my way into the campground reception and was hesitant to venture out into the large grassy field and find a place to call home for a couple of nights. Due to other commitments, I had arrived four days earlier than Joey—so I had some time for exploration on my own. Upon paying for my campsite, I found out that the summer’s weather had been the wettest on record since the 1950’s and that rain dominated the forecast for at least the next week.
Good rain gear is a must for any trip to Iceland…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
Because of the potential for less than ideal weather conditions, a great amount of time was spent considering clothing and backcountry lodging options. Staying true to our “light is fast” philosophy we needed to find the balance of carrying the appropriate amount of gear that would not compromise our safety and well being in the backcountry, while allowing us to travel quickly and not be overburdened. Due to the potential lack of resupply options, we figured the bulk of our packing space would be filled by food. Unlike the Great Divide where one encounters a gas station every day or two (at the least), the highlands of Iceland are void of such amenities. We had been warned to be prepared to carry ten days or more worth of food. Needless to say, we would find out that this amount of food wasn’t nearly enough and that dealing with hunger would become a central theme of the latter stages of our trip.
Upon seeing the setups of other cyclists, who were touring the Ring Road, and examining our own setups, I began to question who was crazier…the Ring Roadies with their double sets of panniers and extra drybags or us with a rackless system of frame, seatpost and handlebar bags. We definitely were carrying a lot less and venturing off the beaten path way more than our counterparts.
A typical Ring Road touring setup…
As for clothing, wool and bomber raingear dominated the packing list. Given the availability of various fuels, we decided to leave our alcohol stoves at home and carry one MSR Whisperlite International stove between the two of us knowing that Coleman fuel was easily available. We each had our own pot for cooking since our diets are a little different. We each carried a MSR fuel bottle. Of much debate was what shelter we should take along. We went back and forth from hauling a four-season mountaineering tent that we knew could withstand the elements (especially the pole-breaking high winds) to going super light and carrying a tarp tent of some sort. Again, given our experience levels, propensity for choosing light over heavy, and ability to suffer the elements, we left the tent at home and brought a single-pole floorless shelter that I have spent a great deal of time in—in all kinds of weather. We went light and hoped for the best.
One of the many beautiful camps we called home in the Trango Wind Wedge…
Though we were expecting to be wet, I still opted to bring a down sleeping bag that would be protected by a nylon dry sack. I did add a little more weight to my kit with a lightweight bivy sack—which was a last second decision made out of worry if our shelter happened to succumb to the high winds we would surely encounter. As another precaution for the weather, I brought a pair of lightweight liner gloves with some waterproof outer shells.
Given that water is plentiful throughout the Icelandic backcountry, we each only carried a bike bottle with an extra 1.5-liter bottle for camp. Forgoing the use of iodine or a water filter, Joey brought a Steripen that worked great for purifying our drinking water and was lightweight allowing us to drink immediately without waiting for chemicals to do their magic or having to carry a bulky filter.
The UV light of the Steripen doing its magic…Photo courtesy of Joey Parent
The rest of our gear included the usual ground cloth, sleeping pad, toiletry kit, bike repair stuff, and chargers for our various electronics (Garmin GPS, camera batteries, iPod, etc.). Each of our camp shoes were lightweight rubber units similar to Crocs that would dry easily when wet and could be used as a sandal for venturing into backcountry hot springs or river crossings. Speaking of hot springs, one extra piece of clothing I brought was a pair of river shorts. Iceland is known for its hot springs and we were definitely planning on experiencing them.
An Iceland highlight…a soak in a backcountry thermal pool…
With my Mukluk Ti out of the box, built and loaded, I contemplated my next move. I had a few days before Joey would arrive and our adventure would begin. An idea that started in a hotel room months ago and thousands of miles away, was starting to play out. I was in Iceland. The preparations were complete. The bike was tuned and loaded with gear. There was only one thing left to do: ride!
TO BE CONTINUED…
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I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.