The good and bad of cycling Iceland

A few months back, I wrote about some things that might be good to know before bike touring around Iceland. Stuff like what weather to expect, where to camp, and how much to budget (oh, and how to get there and which way to travel). Those tips, I hope, captured the logistics of traveling Iceland by bike, but they didn't necessarily capture the experience of doing so. Iceland offers plenty of ups and downs along the way—things that make biking there a pleasure, and things that make it really, really difficult at times. Here are a few of them to consider. (For a little more about our experience in Iceland, click here.)

  Lauren riding around Snæfellsjökull National Park at the far end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Lauren riding around Snæfellsjökull National Park at the far end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Things that were good

Iceland is really, really gorgeous.

For such a small island, the country has an unbelievable density and diversity of landscape and color. Some spots are lush and others grimly desolate, but neither lasts for too long. The environment changes every few kilometers with new surprises right around the bend. Aesthetically speaking, there are no boring days, no long stretches of redundant scenery to slog through until something interesting appears. For a main thoroughfare, the Ring Road is surprisingly pretty, and any detours from it even more so.

There's plenty of daylight.

We went to Iceland in the peak of summer (anyone daring enough to bike the island in winter would, of course, not have daylight on their side). That meant we enjoyed over twenty hours of light per day and were able to cycle on our schedule, not the sun's. We camped when we found a nice spot to do so (not when it got too dark to ride), and we stopped for breaks for as long as we wanted (without worrying about how much further we had to get by sunset).

  Riding late into the night offers some really beautiful extended sunsets.

Riding late into the night offers some really beautiful extended sunsets.

Wild camping is legal.

For those who've never done it, wild camping can be scary for a few reasons: fear of the dark, fear of wild animals, fear of getting in trouble. In Iceland, there's no need to worry. With a few exceptions (generally in towns and within national park boundaries), wild camping is perfectly legal and accepted, and no one will give you any hassle for pitching your tent on the side of the road or off in the backcountry with a whole valley to yourself. That said, there are some pretty universal leave-no-trace ethics that need to be abided by: take out what you take in, don't tear up (or camp on) any delicate moss or lichens, and try to remain at least a little out-of-sight so as not to disturb the view of those pristine landscapes.

There aren't any wild animals to worry about.

In just a few months we'll be cycling through rural Botswana, and so we've been worrying plenty about steering clear of lions, hyenas, and elephants. In most parts of the world, one should be at least marginally aware of avoiding wildlife, be it wild dogs or bears or snakes or mosquitoes. In Iceland, there are simply no non-humans that present any real threat (even Arctic terns, which really were the worst annoyance, didn't seem to ever create any actual peril). The largest mammals are friendly horses and fluffy sheep, followed by reclusive puffins and (very) reclusive foxes. There are no biting mosquitoes on the island (this should probably be its own heading), certainly no mosquito-borne diseases, and the rivers are safe to drink from (with the slightest bit of common sense) without fear of parasites or other microscopic critters. 

  Icelandic sheep may look pretty ferocious and seek to intimidate, but never gave us any actual trouble on the road. They're way more of a danger to (or rather, endangered by) folks speeding along in cars.

Icelandic sheep may look pretty ferocious and seek to intimidate, but never gave us any actual trouble on the road. They're way more of a danger to (or rather, endangered by) folks speeding along in cars.

In general, it's just really safe.

Even the humans aren't that dangerous (at least when they're not behind the wheel of an automobile). Iceland has a really, really low crime rate, everyone is really friendly, and not once did we feel any sort of danger when meeting locals or fellow tourists. We didn't really worry about locking our bikes much (and probably still locked them more than we needed to); outside of Reykjavik, bike theft is almost nonexistent.

It can be a pretty cheap destination.

Because camping is so easy, the flights over are cheap, and the natural sights are all free, circumnavigating Iceland with a tent and a stove and some grocries from Netto can actually be pretty affordable. Theoretically, one could make it by on under $10USD per day.

There are plenty of other bike tourists.

With just one main road around a relatively small island (and with all the aforementioned reasons to come to Iceland for a bike trip), there's a high concentration of bike tourers circling the country. This makes it easy to meet others along the way and exchange bike-specific tips about the route ahead.

  Approaching Skaftafell National Park in southern Iceland.

Approaching Skaftafell National Park in southern Iceland.

Things that were not good

The weather can be difficult.

Iceland is cold, rainy, and very windy. One of the joys of bike touring are the impromptu mid-day breaks: picnics in a meadow, naps on the grass. With the right gear, Iceland can be comfortable on or off the bike, but it's generally not a pleasant place to just sit down and lounge outside. Even shorter snack stops required pulling on layers, and really sunny days with a really cool breeze could be difficult to dress for. While riding, there were plenty of really strong headwinds that made pedaling a very trying experience.

Paved options are limited for those with road tires.

The Ring Road is really terrific, and there's nothing wrong with taking it around the country. That said, it's more or less the only option to get around the island without beefier wheels. Bikepackers with fat tires can find plenty of off-the-beaten-track riding in the highlands, but those on narrower tires (or more delicate rims and frames) don't have all too much to choose from for route-planning purposes, beyond the occasional paved detour.

Iceland can be a really expensive destination.

Yes, it can be done on a budget, but compared to most other destinations it's still an expensive place to travel. Even one night in a hotel can run hundreds of dollars, and finding reprieve from the wind in restaurants (like we did) can quickly run up a large bill. Even groceries are pricey—Iceland is, after all, a small island that has lots of its food imported. And in the event of something going wrong, public transportation around the island can be costly. I imagine bike repairs (and new parts) would be, too.

  Icelandic huts were traditionally built into the earth for insulation. Livestock were kept on a lower level, and their body heat, radiating upward through widely-spaced floorboards, was used to heat the human inhabitants.

Icelandic huts were traditionally built into the earth for insulation. Livestock were kept on a lower level, and their body heat, radiating upward through widely-spaced floorboards, was used to heat the human inhabitants.

The tourist-to-local ratio is really high.

I mentioned that there are plenty of bike tourers in Iceland, and that's great. The problem is that there are perhaps too many tourists of all types, both for the sake of sustainability and for having interesting cultural experiences.

Iceland's population is about 300,000, and that's as much as the island has ever sustained during its millenium of human habitation. But Iceland's growing tourism industry now brings about 1,700,000 foreigners to the island every year, and that's increasing at a rate of 20% to 30% annually. The success of the industry brings with it a few sustainability challenges: (1) protecting the really fragile environment from folks who don't come with respect for, or knowledge of, the leave-no-trace ethos, (2) constructing services—like lodging, roads, and wastewater treatment plants—quickly enough to keep pace with that growth, and (3) ensuring equity between Icelanders in the tourism industry and those outside (many of whom are having trouble even finding housing, as it's just more lucrative to rent units out on Airbnb than to long-term Icelandic tenants).

This also means that at any given time in Iceland, a traveler is more likely to be surrounded by fellow travelers than actual Icelanders. We were strolling around Reykjavik one day when a woman looking for directions stopped us and asked if we were from there. We said we weren't, and she moved on to someone else, and then someone else, and then someone else, and is perhaps still roaming the streets of the Reykjanes peninsula to this day looking for a local. 

The Icelanders have a rich and fascinating culture and history, and the abundance of tourists (like us, of course) made it more difficult to really be immersed in that. We met a few really lovely people—a reindeer tracker we hitched a ride with up in the northeast, a man out on Snaefellsnes who, very kindly, bought us copious amounts of beer after finding us lurking in the back of a town festival—but in general we found the Icelandic people, though overwhelmingly friendly and courteous, to be quite uninterested in yet another set of foreigners roaming their lands for a few days or weeks.

Likewise, meeting fellow bike tourers didn't have quite the same novelty as it might elsewhere. They're a dime a dozen on the Ring Road and its offshoots, and many didn't even look up to wave as they barreled past. Whereas a crossing in more remote corners of the world might be an occasion for a stop, a conversation, or an evening sharing some food and drink, most travelers, whether going by bike or by car, seemed in a rush to carry on and catch their flight out of Keflavik in a few days' time. (To be fair, we met a few bike tourers who were going a little more slowly and were really wonderful company.)

  The highlands, off in the distance, are a more remote section of the island with fewer people, local or tourist alike.

The highlands, off in the distance, are a more remote section of the island with fewer people, local or tourist alike.

Overall, the good of cycling Iceland definitely outweighed the bad, and the little island way up north makes a wonderful destination for a long bike ride.

For more information on cycling Iceland, head here.