Jack Mac – Bikepacking in Iceland: Tips

Iceland is without question one of the most beautiful bikepacking destinations in the world. This is not a land for the faint-hearted, it’s a proving ground that asks you to dig deep and work hard for a view that will quite simply change your life. This is not a country, but an entire planet. Landscapes transition from desolate black sand to luscious green forests; crystal-clear lakes reflect snow-capped peaks; glaciers as old as time itself consume the horizon and huge valleys conceal turbulent rivers that carve their way through the country like the veins that feed your racing heart.

It is once again time for 7 bikepacking tips from me, the two-wheeled Beelzebub.

1. Food
You will not be able to buy food in the Icelandic Highlands, so ensure you’re prepared. Iceland is furiously expensive and you need to think carefully about where to load up on supplies (I have an Icelandic friend who paid £12 for one red pepper). I would recommend factoring in ‘Budget’ (the cheapest supermarkets) into your route; this will save a small fortune. I would also recommend stocking up on purpose-made expedition food before departure as these meals are high-calorie and easy to prepare.

2. Water
Iceland has some of the cleanest natural water in the world and I drank almost exclusively from streams/rivers. In the Icelandic Highlands, natural water sources will be your only option, so make sure you’re sourcing it from fast-running rivers and NEVER from standing water (bear in mind you can still be unlucky, so it’s worth considering a filter to be extra cautious).

3. Rivers
Rivers will provide vital access to clean water but are also extremely dangerous and should be crossed with caution. I took on this expedition in early June, but in retrospect I would recommend July/August to avoid perilous river crossings. In late spring the glaciers start melting and water levels rise drastically. This is made worse by high rainfall during this period. Consequently, knee-height crossings can quickly become impassable. I have NEVER experienced such strong currents and ultimately they broke me. I spent three days struggling to cross glacier rapids with no food and limited shelter in the Highlands and it was the primary factor in getting hypothermia.

4. Weather
The weather in Iceland can be truly brutal; it’s crucial you’re prepared. I think what’s so interesting about Iceland’s climate is the way conditions can change so dramatically on an hourly basis. During the first few days I experienced beautiful summer weather, but just a few days later it was snowing. However, varying temperatures are insignificant in comparison to the challenges posed by gale-force wind/rain (on several days I faced 80mph wind/rain with literally no shelter). In these conditions you simply cannot ride against the elements and it’s imperative you have enough protective layers to keep warm or you’re really going to suffer. I was kitted out with the latest Berghaus Extrem range and remained warm/dry despite the extreme conditions. I work with Berghaus for no greater reason than I trust them. In the intense heat of the Kyrenia Mountains, my Berghaus gear kept me cool, prevented heat rash and chaffing, while in Iceland they, arguably, kept me alive. On every ride I’ve ever completed it has been with the help of purpose-made expedition gear and in Iceland it’s absolutely imperative you’re dressed appropriately.

5. The Bike
This will be your ultimate hero or villain depending on the choices you make.  The first time I rode my Surly ECR, with its huge 3” tyres, it was like riding a bike for the first time. After a few months of bikepacking adventures you soon get used to the comical size and ride characteristics. Fat bikes have some unquestionable benefits but I’d argue that for most bikepacking adventures a standard MTB tyre is perfectly sufficient. However, there are definitely times where a larger tyre can make all the difference and this is certainly the case in Iceland. The F-roads offer an extremely diverse range of surfaces. I met with few fellow riders on the F-roads but the ones I did were using standard MTB tyres and mentioned their struggles on trails that the ECR had glided across. I don’t think a fat bike is essential by any means, but it was definitely an advantage.More often than not I talk about saving weight and Iceland is no different. However, if you’re planning an extended trip (week or more) into the Highlands you’re going to need a lot of food, making a super-lightweight rig impossible. It’s frustrating when you’ve cut every unnecessary gram of weight from your pack-list only to then fill every spare inch of space with heavy supplies, but in Iceland it’s absolutely essential. I can honestly say that I’ve never been so consistently undernourished/hungry and completely underestimated the sheer quantity of calories necessary to take on such a challenging environment. So make sure your pack-list includes just the essentials to ensure that once the bike is also loaded with supplies you’re still able to carry it across rivers and other obstacles (of which there are many). The bike needs to be durable, comfortable, geared appropriately (remember you’ll be taking on insane elevation) and running super-durable off-road tyres. I would strongly advise against panniers (although a rear rack is useful when it comes to carrying the bike across rivers) and opt for bikepacking bags to make the bike as easy to carry as possible/prevent luggage from swinging around on technical sections.

6. Bike Maintenance
The Icelandic Highlands are particularly savage on your bike and if anything breaks it’s up to you to fix it. Thus, it’s a good idea to know basic bicycle maintenance encase you’re forced to make emergency repairs. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a bicycle repair guru but just enough to ensure you can get moving ( if you’re new to bicycle touring/bikepacking I’d also recommend downloading a free bicycle maintenance app on your phone ). Furthermore, ensure the bike has a full service before departure as the riding conditions are likely to put a lot of strain on old parts. I live on the road full time in my VW Syncro so I’ve become very used to preempting old parts breaking and changing them in advance to prevent break downs; the same goes for bikepacking. The investment in new parts might hurt your wallet at the time, but when an old chain snaps hundreds of kilometres from help you’re going to be willing to pay ten times that just to get moving again! Investing in your bike is money well spent.

7. Smartphone
The latest smartphones provide us adventurers with an unlimited array of intelligent apps/functions that offer useful tools in the wilderness and could even save your life.There are simply limitless apps on the market that are helpful on the Icelandic trails, but for me there is only one that really matters and that’s the 112 app. If you press the red ‘emergency’ button, then your location will be sent by text message to the 112 response centre. The green check-in button lets you provide updates along your journey so if something was to happen, then the emergency services have more information to locate you (this is a very quick overview, search ‘112 Iceland app’ online for more). I’d also recommend downloading a few different offline maps from the App Store so you have as many resources as possible to help find your way in the Highlands (most of the ones I downloaded for Iceland were free). Another little trick is simply typing in something along the lines of ‘Iceland F-road maps’ into Google images and saving a ton of the images as PDFs on your smartphone. They’re not the most detailed but they can offer additional trails/shelters.In addition to millions of useful apps, many smartphones have the ability to take beautiful photos and offer a good compromise for you super-lightweight riders. I’m obsessive about photography and invest the vast majority of my income in my equipment. So it pains me to admit that the cameras on many of the latest smartphones are nothing short of extraordinary.It’s worth noting that apps drain your battery, so be wary of using lots of unnecessary apps in the Highlands in case you need your phone for an emergency. I’d strongly recommend portable battery packs to ensure you’re always able to charge your phone. Lastly, the cold weather shut my phone down on several occasions, so keep it stored somewhere warm/dry – ideally within a dry bag.

Conclusion

Iceland is without question the most incredible country I’ve ever explored. The landscapes redefined natural beauty, pushed me to my physical/mental limits and offered the best bikepacking trails I’ve ever experienced. Living on the road can be tough but rides like these affirm that this is the only life for me. Go to Iceland, challenge yourself and fall in love with adventure.

To read more of Jack’s adventures, head to his Twitter here!