Jack Mac – Read this before you bikepack around Iceland!

Here are some things that I did and didn’t know about before my bikepacking trip to help you fellow bikepackers.

F-roads

If you speak to 90% of the people who’ve visited Iceland, I can almost guarantee they’ll just share their experience of the world-famous Ring Road. The reality is most tourists simply don’t venture into Iceland’s interior Highlands and they miss out on some of the best landscapes the country has to offer. I appreciate the harsh centre is not for everyone and the Ring Road offers some truly spectacular scenery, but if you want a true adventure, then you need to hit the F-roads.

These scenic dirt trails were largely built by energy companies to service remote power stations (the country’s powered using 100% renewable energy). Consequently, they provide the bikepacker with a network of largely well-maintained dirt/gravel tracks through Iceland’s heartland. However, don’t be misled into thinking these are charming country lanes. Oh no, these roads venture deep into Iceland’s barren wilderness and leave you completely exposed to the elements (pitching a tent in the Highlands is a real challenge with minimal shelter from the wind and often hard, rocky ground).

The trails vary from hard, packed dirt, gravel and rocks to deep volcanic sand and often a combination of the lot. The F-roads provide the cyclist with a superlative network of trails perfect for bikepacking and provide an intimate perspective of Iceland’s heartland.

Emergency shelters

Honestly, I had no idea these shelters existed until I stumbled across one on the F338. I can’t even begin to express the level of comfort and warmth these basic shelters provide against Iceland’s harsh weather conditions. The night I stayed in the F338 shelter, the wind was gale-force and pitching the tent in the open was simply impossible. It was such a treat to have four walls and a roof for the night. It’s times like these that really offer meaningful perspective and remind us that contentedness can be found in the simple things. While I’m not suggesting we all strip life back to these basics, I do feel it’s something to remind ourselves of in difficult times, when perhaps anxiety is getting the best of us or we’re in a bad place in life. I think stripping back our lives to food, shelter and the outdoors can be a valuable healing process during difficult times and offer a fresh foundation to rebuild. Moreover, aside from my philosophical tangent, apologies, they provide a valuable opportunity to get the bike indoors and carry out maintenance/repairs.

The Laugavegur hiking trail

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my bikepacking adventure in Iceland. The Laugavegur hiking trail is a 55km route that takes you from Landmannalaugar to Skogar (although I did it the other way round as I had planned to continue further into Iceland’s barren interior) and offers some of the most impressive landscapes in the country.

This is not a ride for the faint-hearted and will demand every ounce of strength from the bikepacker. It’s important to emphasise this is a ‘hiking’ trail and many sections are completely unsuitable for anything other than a completely unladen MTB. Nevertheless, I took on the challenge with my bike carrying enough kit/food for two weeks in the Highlands and it remains the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever faced.

I took on the trail before the route was officially open and this was not wise due to deep snow and treacherous river crossings (the latter would be the primary factor in getting hypothermia). There are numerous sections where you’re going to have to carry the bike, lift it over obstacles, wade through fast-running rivers, push up mountains of deep volcanic sand/snow (depending on season) and generally ask a huge amount of yourself both physically and mentally.

I’d strongly recommend tackling the ride in July-August to ensure warmer temperatures (although still pack clothes for all seasons) and safe river crossings, ideally with a second person/small group. It’s essential to keep the bike as light as possible (but not at the detriment of vital supplies), store valuables in airtight dry bags in case you slip during a river crossing and set aside time to focus on strength training pre-ride to ensure you’re able to frequently carry/lift your bike. At this point I guess a lot of you are thinking why the hell would you want to tackle this route? Well, in short, the scenery on this ride will change your life.

I can’t even begin to express how truly remarkable the landscapes are on the Laugavegur trail and can only summarise it as an entire planet compressed into 55km. It’s not simply that the environment transforms on an hourly basis, but that some of the terrains are almost completely alien to the rest of the world. Quite simply, if I had travelled to Iceland and only completed the Laugavegur trail, it would remain the greatest adventure of my life.

Read Jac’s previous article here and find him on Instagram @bicycle_touring_apocalypse.