Iceland is well known as being the ideal destination for adventure riding, so Jim Russell and Cass Jenks decided to pack their trail bikes on the back of a Hilux and explore all that the country has to offer…
Self-titled land of ice and fire, where off-roading is illegal and the price of cheese could make a millionaire think twice about their next toastie. That would be Iceland oversimplified. We wanted to get out there and see it for ourselves.
Getting over the most obvious hurdle, the cost, was priority number one. We cut out the luxuries to drag it down. We avoided exorbitant motorcycle rental by bringing our own: a DRZ400 and an XR250 Tornado strapped into the back of a modified Hilux (as seen in issue 31 of Adventure Bike Rider magazine).
Expensive accommodation was skipped by packing a tent, and we got away from that overpriced cheese (and all other foodstuffs; Icelandic supermarkets are a special kind of hell for the miserly) by cramming the Hilux with baked beans, beer and tinned fruit before its voyage.
The drive from the UK up to Iceland isn’t ideal for anyone weak in the stomach or short on annual leave, so I booked a plane to Reykjavik and a connecting flight to the harbour’s nearest airport, and let Jim tackle the 1,700-mile drive through the four intervening countries.
The route to Iceland covered everything from long stretches of autobahn to sea tunnels in the Faroe Islands. I left the Midlands at 2 am and passed through Holland, Germany and Denmark to reach the small port of Tórshavn two days later. The Faroe Islands are awe-inspiring and it’s well worth making the three-day stop-over en route to Iceland. The ferry, on the other hand, is mind-numbingly boring.
I opted for the cheapest cabins, on the lower decks. You certainly get to know your bunkmates with nine beds to a single room, but, apart from waking up at 4 am to witness two French chaps do their best Klitchsko impression, the crossing was smooth, on time and the most cost-effective method of transporting two bikes across the North Sea.
Border control confronted me the moment I rolled off the ferry into Seyðisfjörður. Surrounded by immigration officers and dogs, it took me a tense 30 minutes to explain why I needed two motorbikes, one without its V5, and over 20 tins of baked beans. Nerves were calmed when I hit the roads climbing up from the port town, which gave me a feel of the country right away.
The highway to Egilsstaðir snakes around frozen pools and mountain caps, before dropping down into our first major town and the airport where I’d meet up with Cass.
She hopped off a prop plane and promptly fell asleep in the passenger seat. What was supposed to be a 12-mile drive to our first stop turned into almost three hours along gravel passes.
While the timing wasn’t perfect, it offered a scenic first look at the country we would be living in for the next few weeks and taught us that, in Iceland, what’s marked on the map doesn’t tell the whole story.
The truck crawled over the peaks surrounding the airport and down to a wooden hut we had booked for the first night’s accommodation. The owner gave us our first taste of Icelandic friendliness with a six-part epic about his grandpa’s postal service, and we fell asleep the moment he stepped out the door.
We reached our first campsite near Lake Myvatn with only a few standard campers and a GS for company. By the time we’d freed our bikes from the truck, set up camp and got our tea brewed, a hoard of 4x4s had descended upon us: everything from a clapped-out Lada Niva to a camo-painted Unimog.
Clearly, this was a good hub for hitting the dirt, despite the ban on all off-roading, enforced to the tune of four-digit fines. Iceland has ‘f-roads’ all across it, from the tamer regions closer to the shoreline to its mountainous, volcanic interior.
Some of these are broad, flat grit surfaces. Others have whole chunks submerged beneath river crossings, and many of the mountain tracks are open for only a few weeks each year due to the snow. 4x4s with lift kits were clearly the tool of choice for these, but we knew our light dual sports could handle even more.
A ride in the woods
We visited volcanic mud puddles off the easier grit roads and a tiny power plant beside a geothermal lake. Iceland is proud of just how much of its electricity is generated using geothermal sources, around 26%, though I won’t be forgiven for saying that the best thing we found that day was a dead-end dirt track.
It was rutted, sandy and blocked by sheep, but it also showed up on the map. Fine, it had no name or f-road designation, but it existed. That had to make it legal to ride.
We ploughed down the next one we found. In just a few days, we’d seen a hodgepodge of regions. The Icelandic landscape had included volcanic plains, desert stretches with dust devils, and lush wetlands encircling Lake Myvatn itself.
This dirt track seemed to visit a lake too, but we weren’t expecting to crest a hill and descend straight into woodland. The bikes gobbled up muddy ground until even Iceland’s ever-present mountain backdrop was lost behind the trees.
We stopped with lunch in mind, completely forgetting an important wildlife point every British off-roader must know. The mosquito net we hadn’t packed would’ve been easier to see through than the veil of mozzies that blitzed us. I got my helmet on way too late; they were in my ears and goggles and it took a mad ride through the thickening undergrowth to clear them out.
By then, the twin tyre tracks we’d been following had disappeared beneath new growth. We barrelled through saplings until encroaching trees and a muddy stream made it a dead-end, at which point the DRZ toppled mid-u-turn. As I flailed to go and help, the XR went down too.
I should have left Jim to his own devices. The DRZ righted easily enough, but the XR landed on its side sucking in mud. Even with both of us trying to get it upright, we’d been bitten half to death by bugs before we’d wrenched that bike free.
Every possible cranny was caked in sludge. Add in a necessary push to get the DRZ moving again and the both of us emerged from the woods absolutely plastered in filth and mushed mosquito. It couldn’t have gone better.
Departing our Myvatn campsite, we intended to wild camp across Iceland’s northern regions. Given that daylight lasted 24/7 and areas of woodland were so sparse that every secret glade had someone’s cabin nestled at its centre, this may have been short-sighted. After a day spent moseying up conspicuously to holiday homes, we paid a nominal fee to officially camp at the riverside.
Our first ride from the new campsite brought us to an all-important sign – ‘4x4s only’. Not three minutes down this unexpected f-road, the river cascaded across our path.
It was thigh-deep, complete with a dragging current. Jim and the DRZ made it about a metre across before the rockiness of the riverbed had me wading in after him to help pull the bike to dry land.
Obviously, this wasn’t going to deter us, although I’d never crossed a river before in my life. We set up a camera to make sure we’d at least get something out of this to amuse family/friends/YouTube, and walked our bikes over.
The freezing water soaked us through and demonstrated the downsides of waterproof boots when they get wet on the inside, but fortunately, it wasn’t a lesson we learned twice. We tackled rivers so often over the next two weeks that the crossings became second nature.
Between its f-roads and dirt lanes, Iceland provided a wide variety of terrain and challenges. We spent one evening kicking up black sand on an unmarked beach, watched by seals; on the next day, we encountered the most technically challenging section of the lot.
‘Impassable’, a sign at the f-road’s foot declared. We soon found out why. The narrow road wound up a mountainside that haemorrhaged water across it. Each stream had gouged out deep grooves and eroded the embankment away.
We crossed the first streams without casualties beyond a few dislodged stones that we sent tumbling into the valley be- low. Larger rocks betrayed no easy route across the first challenging river, which forked into two.
Careful pathfinding, combined with a heavy throttle hand to force the bikes over the slabs that blocked our front wheels, brought us to the central island, land, where we stopped to take in our surroundings, the water rushing down the volcanic hillside toward us. We took part two blindly, bouncing over the rubble as we went.
The next river had torn out a deep gully with loose dirt banks. It gave way beneath my front wheel, throwing the XR’s weight forward. We scrambled to grab the subframe and get on the throttle, barely keeping it from crashing on its side.
The quick-flowing river at the bottom, deeper than its predecessors, hid a bank of slippery stones beneath the foam, complete with a trench to one side that I found, fortunately, with a foot rather than a wheel. With our planned path collapsed, guiding the heavier DRZ down into the spray was part brilliance, part slide. It erupted from the trench and onto solid ground with less than a scratch.
High on success, I saw a deep but dry ditch ahead and charged into it. My bike’s belly slammed into the rocks, which ripped away my makeshift bashplate; the XR teetered, beached on its engine. The only way out was to build the ground up to the rear tyre, a dusty, shame-filled task. Jim had to reattach the bash- plate with zip-ties, but finally we rode on, triumphant, to the very top of the snow-capped trail.
Iceland rewarded us with complete wilderness. The trail wove ahead through the mountain peaks, draped in powder snow and flanked by icy lakes. Perfect isolation spread out in all directions. We had found the vastness of Icelandic spaces at its most awe-inspiring.
Repairs and quick fixes
Jim is always prepared. I brought my XR’s standard toolkit; he attached a Pelican Case to his bike and stuffed it to the brim. Thanks to an enlarged tank in- stalled by a previous owner, the DRZ had suffered a fuelling problem before we’d left England.
When it started running unevenly again, he was equipped to whip the tank off and sort it out. Fortunately, the true culprit was a loose throttle cable. One rifle through the case and a bit of spannering had it fixed.
While heading out into treacherous terrain without so much as a pump seemed mad to our British brains, Iceland had more weirdness in store.
First was a simple dish to prepare: find a shark, kill it, bury it, wait a few months, then chow down. We found a flea market stall in Reykjavik that would sell us a tiny sample pot.
The soft, cold, velvety texture carried a fishy tang, but the first bite down unleashed a flood of stilton-flavoured juice. The faintly alcoholic aftertaste just made us wish we had real spirits to purge it all away.
Thinking of purging, the Icelandic Museum of Magic and Witchcraft is well-worth a stop. Iceland’s witch hunts are described on the info plaques inside, alongside depictions of local spells. Take the necropants: flay a man from the waist down and wear him like trousers, and you’ll get rich with pennies from his scrotum. I’m not sure why we’d never thought of it before.
We finished our tour with a series of river crossings up into the Thórsmörk area, where we camped at the riverside and woke to find the fog had cleared, revealing the enormous glacier, Eyjafjallajökull, looming over us. It summarised the place perfectly, from the challenges of the f-roads to the beauty and sheer scale of the landscape.
Iceland is expensive but worth it; it’s a small country with enough in it to keep you riding for weeks. You could bring a big adventure bike, forego the hardest trails, and still have plenty to do.
For us, our bikes were the right choice. A bit of irritation on the bigger roads was justified by the challenges we could tackle on the smaller dual sports. The DRZ400 is a tried and proven adventure steed that lived up to its pedigree, while the XR250 Tornado, built to withstand life as a daily commuter, had no trouble with the mileage and performed admirably on the gnarly stuff.
We sacrificed the unerring sense of progression you get on a point-to-point ride by taking the truck, but it gave us time to explore each area properly and let Jim carry a mountain bike, pack raft and kayak, too. He used his downtime to float over glacier pools and frozen rivers and rode the smallest trails using pedal power. We’d recommend the lot – but spare yourself the rotten shark.
In years gone by, magic and witchcraft were regularly used and practised in Icelandic homesteads. Magical runes were most common, used to help heal or settle scores. Each spell earned a sorcerer a good deal of respect.
Magic was held in such high regard, in fact, that witch-hunting had to be actively imported from mainland Europe. When the fearmongering and finger-pointing got a hold on Iceland, however, everyone already knew who had spellbooks hidden under the bed.
Over 20 people burned to death; still more drowned. Torture was unnecessary to wring out the fatal confessions: who could deny they used magic when their whole reputation had been built upon it?
- Getting there
Ferry to the hook of Holland, Drive overland to Denmark and grab the Big ferry from Hirtshals – Faroes – Iceland (Smyril Line). Use the couchettes but be prepared to share with loads of interesting people!
Passport, No visa
Icelandic, but near enough everyone speaks English.
- When to go
To ride: June – Sept, To see the Northern Lights: Sept – January
Dairy products are expensive but all the gas stations do bargain hotdogs. Try the shark (hakarl) in Reykjavic (but only buy the little tub from the flea market) and Reindeer Ptarmigan.
Wild camping spots and campsites are cheap and in abundance.
No off-roading but don’t be put off by road closed signs The rivers run deep – make sure you know how to cross water/fix a flooded bike. The place is huge – big gas tanks are a plus.
Genuinely a country of all four seasons at once – can go from ice cold to boiling hot! 24-hour daylight means long riding days…we often rode from 8 am to 11 pm.
Showers and water are all heated by (and smell like) sulphur! Try the hot springs – go late in the evening and meet the locals.