What to know about cycling Iceland

  Wild camping outside of Skaftafell National Park in southern Iceland.

Wild camping outside of Skaftafell National Park in southern Iceland.

Iceland is a popular cyclist destination—with good reason—so it isn't difficult to find lots and lots of really great and really comprehensive bike-specific information before setting out. We're including our own take below, but before getting to that, a few details about our trip:

When we went: July 2016, for just about a month
Where we went: All around Iceland, starting from the Keflavik airport, mostly sticking to the Ring Road but taking the occasional detour. We caught a bus from Akureyri to Borgarnes (a not-terribly-pleasant section of the Ring Road in the northwest), and spent our last week cycling clockwise around the Snaefellsnes peninsula before biking into Reykjavik via Thingvellir.

Oh, where even to begin? Icelandic weather is an experience onto itself, and one you'll have to deal with every day of your journey.

TEMPERATURES: Iceland can get pretty cold, but at the height of summer—like in July when we were there—it's actually a pretty comfortable riding temperature, maybe 10C to 13C (50F to 55F) on average. There's a bit of fluctuation from day to day, but because the days are just so long and bright (more on that shortly), night temperatures drop just a few degrees. July (or as near it as possible) is definitely the time to go; things can get frigid and dark almost any other time of year. Note that the wind can often make it feel much colder than it is, so there's a lot of layering going on day in and day out when hopping on and off the bike.

WIND: Iceland is notoriously windy, and it lives up to its reputation. Sometimes just a slight breeze and sometimes so strong you couldn't pedal downhill if you tried, biking in Icelandic winds usually isn't fun (at least the headwinds and crosswinds), and it's best to plan your rides around them—in other words, stay on the bike for as long as you have a tailwind or no wind, and get all your rest and relaxation in when the winds aren't blowing in your favor. Really, though, the best way to avoid gusts is to cycle at night, when everything is much calmer. Many claim you'll have an easier time of it if you cycle clockwise, though we disagree.

  Gloomy, overcast days are to be expected, though Iceland can be plenty sunny at times, too.

Gloomy, overcast days are to be expected, though Iceland can be plenty sunny at times, too.

RAIN: An old and well-worn Icelandic adage goes something like this: “If you don't like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.” As far as storms go, this is largely true. Rain gear should always be handy, and you should bring a tent that can be set up in under a minute, just in case you find yourself caught in a downpour despite sun shining in every direction. That rain will often disappear just as soon as it arrives, though we did have a few days toward the end of our trip that were more of the grey, dreary, misty variety, with light precipitation all day. Come to Iceland expecting to get rained on all the time, and at best you'll leave happy; at worst you won't leave disappointed.

SUN: The Arctic sun is enduring and strong. In the height of summer it'll shine for over twenty hours per day, dipping down to the horizon around 1AM for a quick nap before rising again at 3AM or 4AM. Dusk is about the darkest it gets, and bike lights are more of a precaution than a necessity. The sunsets are long and gorgeous. During the day the sun can feel much hotter than it is; don't be surprised if you wake up at 7AM or 8AM feeling like you're baking alive in your tent. A sleep mask is very, very helpful.

ALL SAID, respect the weather, don't take any unnecessary risks, and get to know the insides of restaurants and the depths of geothermally-heated pools (located in almost every town) when you need a break from feeling cold, wet, or windswept. It's all worth it for everything else Iceland has to offer.

As of July 2016, the Ring Road is fully paved—unless there's an unpaved stretch so small we're forgetting it (maybe in the East Fjords). It's flat in the south and hilly in the eastern and northern areas, and well-trafficked throughout. Some stretches, like Reykjavik to Akureyri and Reykjavik to Selfoss, can be busy and unpleasant during the day, but the further from Reykjavik you travel, the calmer and quieter it gets. Cyclists are allowed on all roads except the tunnel between Reykjavik and Borgarnes, where one's options are either to hitch or to take a lovely 40-kilometer detour around an inlet (Route 47: longer, but well-recommended).

  Empty roads and gorgeous views along the Route 47 detour.

Empty roads and gorgeous views along the Route 47 detour.

Off the Ring Road, things get bumpier. Most secondary roads are unpaved, and can range from rideable to downright atrocious. There are a number of highland routes crossing the center of the country that we're not qualified to speak to; other cyclists we met managed, though with many broken spokes, wind-wrecked faces, and a whole lot of difficulty. Bike paths in the country are rare, and shoulders can vary from almost nonexistent to plenty wide. The main road around the Snaefellsness peninsula is great, and well worth riding.

Drivers are exceptionally courteous, though the increasing presence of tourists with short layovers and long itineraries is sure to change that. Folks in Reykjavik can be in more of a rush (we were honked at once and it was positively jarring), but otherwise motorists seem totally happy to yield or to give you lots and lots of room while passing. Be careful when riding near trucks in high winds; they can create vacuums that suck you right into the middle of the road as they pass.

Kilometer for kilometer, Iceland may just be one of the most diverse, unique, and beautiful places on earth. From lush green farmland to spiky alien lava fields to a mind-boggling abundance of waterfalls, the little island packs a lot in. The south and the eastern fjords are prettier than the north, though the north is plenty beautiful too in a desolate, black desert, end-of-the-world kind of way. It's tough to get bored of the view from over the handlebars; whenever it's just starting to get monotonous, you round a corner and it's a totally different type of landscape. The Snaefellsness peninsula in particular presents a nice sample of all Iceland has to offer for those short on time, from glaciers to volcanoes to geological formations found nowhere else on earth. The area around Vik, as well as the East Fjords, are also really gorgeous.

  Just one of hundreds of Iceland's otherworldly geological features, this one in Hellnar, at the end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Just one of hundreds of Iceland's otherworldly geological features, this one in Hellnar, at the end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Motorists we met along the way often complained about not being able to stop enough, for pull-outs and shoulders can be in short supply. One of the treats of cycling the country, then, is that you can really stop wherever—and you totally should.

Icelandic cuisine is a real treat for those who like fermented seafood; for everyone else, it leaves something to be desired. As a vegan and vegetarian, we probably struggled and suffered more than most, with the majority of our meals out consisting of cheese-less pizza, breadsticks, veggie burgers, or fries. Most towns have a decent grocery store with a respectable selection for an okay price. Reykjavik is a surprising culinary delight, with some delicious international offerings.

For the record, Icelandic people don't really eat whales and puffins anymore. It's an industry just kept up for tourists, who think they're eating like Icelanders do, and most Icelanders detest the practice.

N1s, Iceland's biggest gas station chain, typically offer a small grocery and a place to sit inside, and are sometimes the only option for some stretches. Bonus and Netto grocery stores are much larger and also tend to offer some seating space inside to make sandwiches or just rest. Muesli, a shelf-stable granola, is one of the better deals in terms of calories and cost per kilo. It comes in three flavors and can be found all around Iceland.

  Drinking straight from a waterfall (with a little common sense) is totally safe.

Drinking straight from a waterfall (with a little common sense) is totally safe.

Water is plentiful. It's perfectly safe to drink it unfiltered from running streams and waterfalls, as long as there isn't anything dead floating in them or an obvious source of pollution right upstream. It's easy to fill up at any restroom tap, though note that most of the bathroom sinks in Iceland are pretty shallow and it could be difficult to cram a hard-sided Nalgene underneath the faucet. There should never be a reason to buy water, and Icelanders will probably make fun of you if you do. For most days, carrying a gallon of water should be plenty (saving a liter or two as an emergency supply). If you're cycling at night through the north—where stores can be closed, far apart, and water sources more sparse—maybe carry a little more. Cycling through winds will dehydrate you more quickly than you realize, so be sure to keep drinking water (and consuming some salt, too) throughout the day.

We can't offer any advice on proper lodging, as we camped all twenty-six nights that we were in Iceland. Of these, maybe half (or a bit more) were wild camping spots, and the remainder campgrounds along the way. A few notes on each:

WILD CAMPING: You can camp almost anywhere, with the exception of national parks and in towns where wild camping is forbidden (Hofn, Djupivogur, and Reykjavik, among others). Tourists are increasingly testing Icelanders' patience with poor camping etiquette, so please try to be respectful by getting off the road a bit, packing out what you pack in, and the common-sense basics of leave-no-trace. Leave the moss and lichens alone, don't start fires (there's nothing to burn, anyway), and don't camp (and especially don't relieve yourself) right by water sources. Don't expect to be able to hide—there are very few trees, it doesn't get dark (at least in July), and hikers are everywhere—but don't feel like you need to, either. 

  Wild camping in southern Iceland. This is about as dark as it'll get in early July.

Wild camping in southern Iceland. This is about as dark as it'll get in early July.

CAMPGROUNDS: Icelandic campgrounds are very different than American campgrounds. You're not paying for a campsite, but for the right to pitch a tent, and so you'll generally find yourself squeezing in on an open field amongst a lot of other tents. Costs are per person, not per tent, so doubling up won't save you a whole lot. Expect to pay about $10USD or so per person, or a little more in the larger towns. Sometimes showers will be available (though often for an extra charge), but Icelandic campgrounds are struggling to keep up with increasing tourism demand and most facilities are severely overrun. 

The Reykjavik campsite is definitely worth checking out. It's a very short bike ride from downtown (under ten minutes), and an absolutely huge complex with tons and tons of campers, fellow cyclists, and a bustling kitchen and common area. Here and at other campgrounds around the island, you can find left-behind gear like gas canisters, food, seasonings, and even boots, clothes, and sleeping bags.

Fear of the weather is well-founded; fear of the people is not. Coming from the States, we've perhaps never felt safer than we did in Iceland, where by the second week we were leaving our loaded bikes unlocked and unattended for hours at a time. If a cable lock will afford some peace of mind, bring it, but don't be like us and carry along two heavy u-locks; they're just not needed. Hitching is totally safe (we did it twice), and outside of Reykjavik petty theft or violent crime is virtually unheard of. Spare the occasional polar bear that floats in from Greenland every few years, Iceland has no dangerous mammals to worry about, most of its streams are fine to drink from, and your only real threat are the admittedly-terrifying Arctic terns that inhabit the coastline

  The many, many sheep can be a little intimidating up close, but proved harmless.

The many, many sheep can be a little intimidating up close, but proved harmless.

A word about Arctic terns: they're awful. They're pretty birds until you get close to them, and then they worry you're coming after their young and they do their best to intimidate you, and they can be very, very intimidating. Our first experience with the pests was cycling on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, where terns chased us on our bikes, squawked aggressively in our ears, and dive-bombed our helmets in a dizzying array of harassment. This continued on during the next few days, with trips from the tent to the bathroom inevitably involving an embarrassing maneuver that resembled an American football play: lots of ducking, lots of zigging and zagging, and lots of covering one's head and shouting unintelligibly.

Arctic terns are bullies, and the best way to stop them is just to ignore them. The more you respond, the more aggressive they become, and while they have been known to actually break skin (an Icelandic man we met had gotten his head bloodied by an Arctic tern when he was younger), staying calm and not flinching at their blood-curling squawks is more effective at communicating you're not a threat. And hey, maybe just keep your helmet on all the time, just in case.

If you speak English, you'll be just fine. Most Icelanders speak it really well, particularly younger ones. Icelandic itself is a beautiful language, though really difficult for outsiders to master. It can help to pay attention to suffixes on road signs (-fell, -jokull, etc.), as these will often let you know what's up a head (waterfall, volcano, etc.).

  Icelanders are people of few words, but they're as dependable as a rock.

Icelanders are people of few words, but they're as dependable as a rock.

Iceland has loads of bike tourists. Campgrounds are just littered with them, and given that most are following the tried-and-true Ring Road, you're likely to leapfrog a few of them on your way around. Folks can be pretty hardcore, cranking out the miles in an effort to make it around the whole island in ten days or two weeks, but we also met some really lovely, really low-key bike tourers while we were there, as well. All roads lead to Reykjavik, so by the end of your tour you're sure to see some familiar faces at the sprawling campground outside of the city center.

As part of the Schengen area, normal European Union visa rules apply. Americans are free to stay in Iceland for up to 90 days out of any 180, and Europeans are, of course, welcome to stay much longer. Other nationalities should check with Icelandic immigration for specifics.

Iceland is an expensive country, but biking and camping is a great way to do it on the cheap. It wouldn't be too difficult to wild camp every night, eat peanut butter sandwiches and pasta everyday, and make it around the country for under $10USD or $15USD per day. We got a little carried away with long lunches and pints of beer in restaurants, and ended up each spending about $40 per day, but that also included a few buses (almost $100 per person for two legs), a pricey but really fun whale-watching excursion ($140 per person), and the aforementioned beers (between $8 and $10 per glass) and meals (between $12 an $25 per meal). We were coming back to salaried jobs and thus didn't mind the added expense, but met many others who were more frugal in their choices: making lunch at a table in a grocery store, avoiding alcohol and excursions, and sleeping outside of campgrounds.

Oh, and this is really important: natural things are totally free. Iceland could make a killing by charging for admission to its natural wonders, milking tourists at each and every waterfall, formation, or glacier. Thankfully, it's not in their nature, and you're free to behold any of these things (at any hour of the day, no less) for nothing. There has been talk in Iceland's parliament about imposing some sort of nature conservation fee on tourists, to help pay for the increasing demand the booming industry is placing on the fragile environment. Previous efforts have been shot down, and current proposals are super-modest: something like $10USD per person on entry to the country, which would still be an exceptional value for all Iceland has to offer.

  Skaftafell National Park: like all natural wonders in Iceland, totally free.

Skaftafell National Park: like all natural wonders in Iceland, totally free.

Did we miss something? Drop us a comment if there's something you'd like to know about cycling Iceland that we didn't mention, and we'd be so happy to answer it if we can.

  The coast between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

The coast between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.