Iceland by bicycle – practicalities and gear thoughts

Getting to Iceland

Ready to fly... Evoc bike bag at kit at Manchester Aiport

Ready to fly… Evoc bike bag at kit at Manchester Aiport

Iceland sits in the North Atlantic between the UK and Greenland. It takes just over two hours to fly to the main international airport at Keflavik, which is approximately 40km away from the capital Reykjavik.

If taking your own bicycle, you must check your airline’s current rules and regs for bike carriage. These can vary between airlines and it’s a good idea to take a print out of the rules to save any additional fuss at the check-in desk.

I flew with Iceland Air from Manchester. My flight cost a shade over £200 and I ended up paying another £100 to cover the cost of bike carriage both ways, all paid at the check-in desk. The airline also requests that you reserve a space for the bike in the baggage hold which I did separately by email.

Bike transport

I’ll outline my views on the Evoc Bike Bag which I used to transport my Surly Troll in a later post, but suffice to say it made manoeuvring the bike far easier around the airport. Qualifying for outsize luggage, the bike had to be ferried through a separate door at check-in. It appeared the other side (unscathed) in similar fashion so it pays to keep your eyes peeled for the oversize baggage point at Keflavik airport as it’s not obvious.

Other luggage

Due to the size of my bike frame, it was not possible to pack the bike with rear rack attached so this had to go in a separate kit bag with tent stove clothes etc. this bag ended up being rather heavy which has now made me mindful of lighter luggage carrying options when flying with a bike… Frame bags and lighter bikepackng kit may make sense in future.

Getting from the airport

There are no trains in Iceland but there is an excellent bus network. For those who are travelling on to Reykjavik, Fly Bus leaves regularly from the airport and are reasonably priced. Conditions on board are good too, with excellent wifi.

Accommodation in Keflavik

It is possible to leave the plane, and if unencumbered by bike boxes, you could reassemble your steed and ride into Keflavik, a functional coastal town with supermarkets and a campsite (along with other accommodation options). However, be aware that the authorities at Keflavik Airport can be fussy about cyclists pushing their bikes through the airport terminal. Better to rebuild your bike outside.

I stayed at Guesthouse Alex in a cabin. This is not a cheap option, but still is competitive compared with hotel options in Reykjavik, which are generally expensive. Having the cabin also gives you a comfortable place to build and check over your bike. Another advantage of staying at the Alex is that they will stow your luggage for free while on tour. However, they do charge 1000kr for transferring your bike to the airport. Transfers for passengers with regular luggage are free.

Cycling to Reykjavik

Many blogs and guidebooks urge against cycling along Highway 41 to Reykjavik. However, I found it to be fine (apart from the return in horrendous weather) as long as you make use of the network of excellent cycle paths when hitting the outskirts of the city. Maps of this network can be found at hotels and various places in the city.

I say ‘city’, but Iceland’s capital has a welcoming small-town feel in many ways. For bike travellers weary of the mayhem of London or other large cities, Reykjavik will offer welcome respite.

I found that riding on the footway in the city- and other major towns- was acceptable as long as you are considerate to other users. Why we can’t adopt a similar policy in the UK on busy routes I don’t know.

Another busy afternoon in Keykjavik

Another busy afternoon in Reykjavik

General road conditions

Hitting the gravel Highway 550

Hitting the gravel north of Pingvellir – the best of days on the bike

Iceland’s paved roads are generally in good condition, although the ferocious storms which hit the country do take their toll in places and you may find that the smooth shoulder you’ve been cycling on degenerates into crumbling asphalt. Highway 1 is to be avoided wherever possible, though. It’s not a particularly dangerous road, just dispiriting given the other options on offer in this stunning country. I rode too much of this highway, although the climb north through the mountains was spectacular. Better to get a bus, which (most of the time) will take your bike.

The roads of the interior are largely gravel and are usually denoted by an ‘F’ in front of the highway number. These are highly recommended for the touring cyclists. While they can be rough and require the right bike for the job (see ‘bike’) they offer by far the best experience, exploring lonely farmsteads and high mountain plateau. I only wish my route would have taken in more of them. Be aware though that the more minor a road, the more challenging it may be. You may have to push your bike at times.

Motorists are, on the whole, very courteous in Iceland. It’s refreshing given the nonsense regular cyclists have to stomach while riding around the UK. Drivers will generally pull over to their other side of the road to overtake. Some did appreciate a wave of thanks, but I got the impression that most regard this overtaking manoeuvre as normal practice.

Trucks can pose a problem for cyclists. Given the lack of rail network, logistics are handled by road and so trucks a numerous , particularly on the ring road. Added to the country’s notorious winds, they can make conditions difficult for riders, either by creating ‘vacuums’ in their wake or pushing a wall of air into your face when driving into the wind. Best advice it to be aware of them. Once your bike has been rocked by their passage, you’ll give them plenty of respect and a wide berth.

Finally, at the time of writing, helmets are not compulsory in Iceland for over 15s. I always prefer choice.

Camping

Campsites are numerous in Iceland and most have good facilities, generally on a par or better than in the UK. Most will not have shops though so it pays to stock up on provisions when you can (see food). A night in your tent will generally set you back 1000Kr… More in the popular tourist areas. Most will not have a place to lock your bike although this is generally not a problem as petty crime rates are low – the exception being Rekjavik’s campsite which has a reputation for theft.

It is relatively easy to wild camp in Iceland assuming you adopt the normal common sense measures and courtesies. However, wild camping is not allowed in the national parks and it’s worth bearing in mind the local geothermal conditions if pitching wild (!) I didn’t wild camp the end, although was ready to in the interior had the weather conspired against me. To be frank, I don’t want to crap outdoors if I don’t have to… It helps to keep places pristine.

Tents need to be strong and well maintained. My Hogan XT was up to most conditions, although did struggle on the last night in Grindavik. It’s worth bearing in mind that the ground can by stony in Iceland which may influence the peg/stake choice if your tent is not a free standing model. That said, I think my GoLite Shangrila tarp would have been more than adequate – and a good deal lighter and more compact.

Gas canisters can be bought at petrol stations and some campsites. They are expensive, though. It’ s good idea to hold off buying gas until you visit Reykjavik campsite (assuming this is your first camping spot). Here you’ll find campers leaving gas before their flights home and I picked up a 500 g canister that was nearly full. Users of other stove types will have no problems refueling, I prefer gas as the control allows me to be bit more creative with menus.

Pitched and airing kit at the excellent Daeli campsite

Pitched and airing kit at the excellent Daeli campsite

Food

I became addicted to these... cheese bread mini loaves

I became addicted to these… cheese bread mini loaves

A great deal of Iceland’s food is imported so expect it to be more expensive than back home. Supermarkets offer a good range of products at good prices so make good use of these stores as you find them.

Outside major towns, stocking up on food may be more tricky. The network of petrol stations in the country offer some staples but stocks can be infuriatingly inconsistent. Fast food is always available at these places, though, so it’s generally easier to get a hot dog than a bag of dried pasta.

My staples consisted of pasta, as normal, and dried soups, pesto sauces, local smoked meats, local donuts (plentiful and delicious), Corny Bigs (peanut a particular favourite!) and Skyr for breakfast, Iceland’s home-grown delicious yoghurt.

Guillemot - part of an Iceland sample menu in Reykjavik

Guillemot – part of an Iceland sample menu in Reykjavik

I ate out a couple of times in Rekjavik and elsewhere. Fish is superb and plentiful in Iceland and highly recommended. I had salmon, salt cod, char and herring… all delicious. I also tried guillemot which is also recommend. I passed on the whale, though, and the fermented shark which smelt absolutely disgusting. Fast food staples such as burgers, hotdogs and pizzas were all very good… And represent good bang-for-buck on the calorie front.

Alcohol

Booze is eye watering expensive in Iceland. It’s no wonder that locals stock up on wine and spirits at Keflavik’s duty free shop (open to inbound and outbound passengers).

If you want to splash out, local beer such as Viking, Boli and Gull is very good. Expect to pay between £5 and £10 for a pint. Cans from the state off licenses (if you find one open) are also pricey. You may see cheap beer in supermarkets, but this will almost certainly be a weaker, insipid variety. It’s OK, but not as satisfying as the premium brews.

Brennivin or ‘Black Death’, the local schnapps, is worth trying. It’s an acquired taste and best from the freezer.

Cash

I took plenty of cash to Iceland and there was no point. Without exception, places took cash and credit cards and ATMs were fairly widespread.

The weather

As you may have gathered reading some of the posts from Iceland, I was preoccupied by the weather most days. In fact, I was lucky. Most Icelanders I spoke told me that conditions had been settled during my stay, save for the last few days when I encountered nasty squalls in the south west.

It is unpredictable and can seriously hamper your progress. Therefore, a flexible itinerary is a must, particularly if you have just two weeks like I did.

The winds live up to all the hype and snow can fall in July, particularly in the mountains.

That said, when the sun does shine, it can be fierce, particularly up high where I had some pretty bad sun burn. Pack sunscreen and good quality sunglasses.

The gear

Bike: My Surly Troll was more than up to the task of a mixed tour in Iceland where gravel roads are on the itinerary. Apart from two loose spokes after the Kjolur, it performed brilliantly carrying heavy loads at times with no fuss. If I am being really picky, a wider tyre that my two inch Schwalbe Marathon Extremes would have been handy for the interior but these may not have performed so well on pavement. All in all, the Schwalbes were a good compromise.

Tent: My Vaude Hogan XT suffered a broken pole which snapped like dried spaghetti when pitching one night. This may have been damaged in transit. Apart from that, the tent performed well until the last night when conditions were awful. The guys that shipped with this tent have a nasty habit of working loose in very windy conditions. Third-party guys fitted to the tent remained true.

Sleeping bag: I took my three season Mountain Equipment Co-op Merlin, which proved to be the right compromise for summer. While too warm in the lowlands some nights, it was perfect for the mountians (I am a warm sleeper though).

iceland bicycle tour planning

The excellent Ferdakort maps

Maps: Iceland is covered by excellent Ferdakort maps in differing scales. These turned out to be expensive in the UK so it’s better to buy when you arrive.

Everything else in my touring kit performed as it should. I didn’t take my Samsung Galaxy tab in the end and used my Galaxy phone as web browser and sometime route planner, book, radio (wifi is plentiful, even in some campsites). I did take a Powergen Mobile Juice Pack which worked very well.

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About Matt Hobley

Hillwalker, backpacker, cyclist, whisky fan.
This entry was posted in Cycling and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Iceland by bicycle – practicalities and gear thoughts

  1. What a great trip! I spent a summer there a few years back; part of it spent working to remove stones from a field to be used as a campsite, a never ending task in Iceland. The Surly Troll looks great; its certainly a tough touring bike; I run mine with an Alfine 11 speed hub and its bombproof. Did cars and trucks throw up a lot of dust when passing on the gravel roads?

  2. Ralph says:

    Hi,

    my lad and I were cycling Iceland for a fortnight end of July this year, in one word: epic! We’ve had our bad days as well, just to mention the horrendous wind. I’ve took my Fahrradmanufkatur T700, my son a Giant cross-over. Both bikes performed marvellous, the Giant was better for the Kjölur rout though, wider tyres and front suspension paid off, my rigid fork and the relatively narrow tyres 700×35 didn’t reallly help, c’est la vie.
    We both took rear panniers and handle bar bags only, total weight incl. tents 18 kgs each. For transport we’ve had the ctc plastic bags. Dead easy and no hassle at all. Flew with wow air. Staff at Gatwick were a reserved but managed well, staff at Keflavik were obviously used to. Staff obviously took care, no damages!
    Cheers
    Ralph

    • northernwalker says:

      Hi Ralph, glad to hear you had a great trip and thanks for the feedback on the CTC bags. I really want to believe these are the best solution so your feedback gives me faith :-)

      I found my rigid set up to be fine on the Kjolur, but some meatier tyres would have helped. That said, I’m not a huge fan of sus forks and ‘prefer’ to ride a bit more slowly and get a bit beaten up that bit more.

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