The Arctic Rider – The Iceland motorcycle tour
The stunning beauty, open tracks and precious few other road users would make Iceland the perfect motorcycling destination. Or would it… Starting a regular series, Gordon Stuart, The Arctic Rider, ticks the island off his list of countries within the Arctic Circle, every one of which he plans to ride through.
I’m literally shouting into my helmet “aaarrggghhh” … “for f**k sake”. I’m several hours into the worst days riding of my life. Deep inside Iceland’s interior, I’m being battered by gale-force winds, rain, and near-freezing temperatures. There’s no protection across the barren landscape, high above sea level. The occasional waterfall or mountain pass takes my mind off the pain of the ride. “I bet this is pretty nice on a day with a light breeze,” I think to myself.
I daren’t pull the bike over on the side of the road for a break. I’m not sure I could hold the weight of the fully loaded 1000cc Suzuki V-Strom in these winds. No formal stopping points for dozens of miles, gravel slopes leading to soggy tundra, and other tourists with caravans and RVs struggling as much as I am to stay on the road, mixed with the deadly weather, make stopping even more of a risk than battling on along the road to get out of this weather. This was wild, this was dangerous, this was unexpected, this was Iceland.
My journey to the North Western most part of Europe had started 7 days earlier from my home in Newcastle in the North of England. I’d only had 2 weeks to plan this trip, although I had some idea of the logistics as part of my own personal mission to ride the Arctic Circle in every country possible by motorbike. My original plan, 2 years in the making, had been to ride the Dalton Highway and cross the Arctic Circle in Alaska but an insurance hiccup had seen me have to cancel my trip with only 14 days to go. I’d loaded up my V-Strom 1000 XT the night before, kindly loaned to me by Suzuki Bikes UK for the ride. The bike was full to the brim with camping equipment, stove, food, puncture repair kit, thermals, and everything else I might need for 3 weeks on the road. As I pulled away in the midday summer heat the bike felt heavy, and I wondered if I was doing the right thing, attempting to cross the Arctic Circle in Iceland with barely any planning.
My first few days was a nice introduction to life back on the road. I hadn’t made a big trip for 2 years due to having a pregnant wife, and subsequently, my son being born prematurely. My first day was a gentle 320mile ride to the South of England where I caught the ferry to Rotterdam in The Netherlands. The following day was another scorcher and I upped the ante, doing 420 miles through The Netherlands and Germany stopping in the delightful town of Flensburg in the far North of Germany. The power of the V-Strom’s 1037cc v-twin engine and the comfortable upright riding position meant eating up the miles and getting my bike ‘fitness’ back was a breeze. My final day on mainland Europe was to traverse Denmark from top to bottom. A 225-mile day, I was done not long after lunch arriving in the port town of Hirtshals where I’d catch the ferry the following day and head for Iceland.
Smyril Line run the only ferry to Iceland on their flagship the MS Norrona which sails once per week Hirtshals to Seydisfjordur in Eastern Iceland. The crossing takes 2 days, with a brief pitstop in Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. After 2 days rest from the bike I was eager to get going and ride into the vast landscape of volcanic rock and rugged mountains that is Iceland. My first sight was as the ship sailed for nearly 12miles along the truly stunning fjord of Seydisfjordur and into the port of the same name where the ferry unloads. The mountains of the fjord rose up from the sea like natures skyscrapers looking down upon the land below.
I rolled off the ferry, along with a few dozen other mainly German bikers and onto Europe’s most sparsely populated land. I chatted to a few of the bikers on the ferry. Most had lots of off-road experience and fully off-road tyres or were seasoned Iron Butt riders looking for some new scenery. I was the only one heading for the Arctic Circle though, and a few confused looks from these folks after I told them my destination didn’t fill me with confidence.
Day One in Iceland started with some cool and damp weather. I’d normally just take it easy in these kinds of conditions, but I was due to sail on another ferry in less than 24 hours. In addition, the only location I could buy a ticket for the bike and I was at the shipping company’s office at the port Dalvik, over 200 miles away and six hours according to google maps, and it was six hours until the office closed. I filled up the bike in the first town of Egilsstaðir. This is also where I joined Iceland’s famous ‘Route 1’ ring road, which would be the foundation of my visit around Iceland. 828 miles long, Route 1 runs around Iceland connecting the major settlements (I’m reluctant to call them towns).
I climbed up out of Egilsstaðir into Iceland’s interior. The wind speed and gusts started to increase, as did the rain. I’d started by overtaking traffic, then I was just keeping up, and before long I was struggling to do 45mph and keep the bike on the road battling against the rain. I’ve in some bad weather before, but my experience is that you can ride through it, even if it takes a few hours, you always get through. Not today. I rode over some mountain passes, praying that the weather would turn but the wind kept blowing and the rain kept coming down. I didn’t even have the tease of the clouds becoming a touch lighter or any towns on the horizon where I could pull in as a break from the weather. Every mountain pass I approached, I was hopeful of a reprieve on the other side, but I never materialised.
Hour after hour the conditions were the same. I knew I just had to keep shouldering on, but after about 2 hours I started to get cold (the V-Strom was getting great mpg at these slower speeds, though!). I had my thermals on, another layer, then my leathers, and an all-in-one over suit as well as heated grips. The bike was showing an air temperature of 4-5˚c, but with wind speeds of around 45mph (I later discovered this on the helpful Iceland weather app) it was more like -4˚c.! No wonder I was cold. It was around this point too that I’d started to shout into my helmet. I always didn’t know what else to do. I knew it wouldn’t help, but it almost gave me some mental relief to vent my frustrations at what I was going through.
Somehow, I kept battling through until I reached Myvatn nature baths, a natural hot springs and tourist mecca on the shore of Lake Myvatn in North Iceland. I managed to get some soup and bread while thawing out. The stunning views of the natural hot springs was a silver lining on an awful day. I carried on through the weather to Akureyri, Iceland’s second ‘city’, where my stop was to refuel and nothing more. I was still against the clock with less than an hour to get to the ferry office.
After navigating some Icelandic style roadworks (code for deep gravel where the road once was), I bombed up to Dalvik where I made it to the ferry’s office with 20 minutes to spare. I bought my ticket for the bike and I then settled down for the night. The backdrop of the North West region is something to witness. Seemingly endless rolling mountains and crisp, clear fjords become the norm as far as the eye can see.
Iceland is often, due to its name, accused of being in the Arctic, but only a minuscule part of the Northernly island of Grimsey crosses the Arctic Circle. On Day Two I took the small ferry three hours across the Arctic ocean to Grimsey to satisfy my obsession with trying to cross the Arctic Circle in every country possible by motorbike. Once on Grimsey, I literally only had a few miles to ride before I crossed the circle. With only a few miles of paved roads on the island, I took to attempting some hiking trails. While the fully loaded V-Strom 1000 I was riding was more than up to the job, my own confidence and realisation that there was no doctor or mechanic on this tiny island, combined with the continued gale-force winds stopped me from making it all the way to the North tip of the island. The views of mainland Iceland from the Grimsey, and the huge numbers of puffins living undisturbed, made up for the lack of ridding opportunities and 6 hours in choppy seas.
I’d completed my mission to cross the Arctic Circle but, with the ferry back to Denmark only once per week, I had 5 days to explore this rugged island. The next few days saw me riding West across the Northern Peninsulas through some of the most rugged landscapes that Iceland has to offer and on to the mountains of the Western Fjords. As I travelled further West the roads deteriorated in width and quality. So-called paved roads littered with potholes and loose gravel, and off-road sections a real challenge to make any progress while staying upright. On my final approach into the Western Fjords, I did battle with Route 68, 70 miles of exhilarating unpaved gravel roads including a daunting 6-mile pass with 12% incline both ways. From start to finish the views fjords mountain ranges were in constant sight. As I continued West the scenery continued to amaze me, with roads zigzagging through dozens of Fjords, passing by untouched waterfalls and glacial rivers, with barely another soul in sight.
I continued my circumnavigation of Iceland but heading South from the Western Fjords towards the South East and Reykjavik. I had planned to visit Iceland’s interior and the ‘golden circle’ attractions of Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall but ended up being a day of city sightseeing and meeting up with some Icelandic bikers. The wind continued blowing near gale-force speeds and rain barely let up either. I managed to survive an hour of riding towards the golden circle before a lucky escape with the wind and a tour bus made my decision. There is nothing better than motorbike adventure and riding to the limit, but having a wife and 2 kids back home, trying to battle mother nature in these conditions was a fight I thought I might not win. Later in my trip I met two other British bikers who’d been blown off the road at a junction by the winds and were rescued by some truckers. Iceland is truly wild and should not be underestimated.
My final two days in Iceland involved riding the South Coast from Reykjavik along Route 1 back to Seydisfjordur in East Iceland. The weather finally broke with the winds dying down a little, the rain mainly clearing up, and I even got some blue skies. While only just over 400 miles, this was a long few days for several reasons. The road conditions were challenging in the East with numerous sections of deep gravel, roadworks, and some slippery single-lane wooden bridges, all requiring extra attention and time on a big adventure bike. Also, the South of Iceland is filled with wondrous sights that I just had to stop and look at. Volcanos, icecaps, the wonders of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, iceberg lagoons, volcanic ash beaches, more mountains and fjords, and glaciers as far as the eye can see, is that enough? Truly epic.
Before I knew it, I was back in the picturesque Seydisfjordur waiting to board the MS Norrona ferry back to Denmark, alongside a few dozen other bikers. Being back on the ship was a reality check after riding in some very tough conditions, but part of me wished I was still exploring more of Iceland. After another 2 days at sea, I landed back in Northern Denmark just after lunchtime and the first thing I noticed was the warm breeze into my visor and no urge to reach for the heated grip button. I’ve ridden several times in Denmark and Germany when visiting other Nordic destinations, and my primary target now was to get home quickly, but safely. Having 1000cc of Suzuki underneath you does that job a little easier. After speed limits of 55mph and average to awful road conditions in Iceland, it was a pleasure to open the throttle and really turn in some miles. My aim for the afternoon was to get into Germany but I made great progress, and before I knew it, I’d passed Hamburg and Bremen and had turned in 400miles, not a bad afternoon at all.
Somehow, I was on day 16 of my trip and heading back towards Rotterdam to catch my ferry back to the UK. It was Sunday meaning very few lorries on the Autobahns, so again my progress was excellent, made easier by the gorgeous sunshine and warm weather in Germany and the Netherlands. After an easy check-in and present overnight crossing, we arrived in Harwich, Essex, at around 6am. I was desperate to get going on my final 350 miles home but, even after being nearly first off the ferry the queues at passport control were very slow. When I finally made it to the booth, I was grilled for a good 5 minutes about where I had been and “What had I’d been to Iceland for?”. It all felt very strange after having such a care-free passage across 4 other countries. When I finally did get on the road and dodged some rush-hour traffic, I had another morning of excellent progress. The V-Strom gave me a range of about 230 miles, and with its comfortable riding position, I was able to ride the range for the first time on the trip. With two-thirds of my day done before midday, I pressed on up the A1 for just over 100miles before arriving in Newcastle to wind and rain, just like I’d had in Iceland.
While I’d been battered by the weather for most of my visit to Iceland, this negative was far outweighed by the positives endless of striking scenery, empty roads and great off-roading opportunities that Iceland has to offer. When you plan a visit to Iceland, just make sure you have another rip in the diary to somewhere warm to thaw you out.
Fancy your own Iceland motorcycle tour?
How to get there
The only ferry from Europe runs once per week from Hirtshals in North Denmark to Seydisfjordur in Eastern Iceland. The ferry takes 2 days and makes a stop in the Faroe Islands (with an optional 3 days stopover on the return leg). http://www.smyrilline.com/
How long do you need
At least 2.5 weeks, ideally more to factor in the time taken to get to Iceland and that you must stay in increments of 7 days due to the ferry schedule.
When to go?
The best times are June to August. Most mountain passes and F roads will be open. Weather should be warmer, although you should plan to experience every season.
Camping is easy and relatively cheap (wild camping is illegal in Iceland). Hostels / AirBnBs start to get expensive, hotels as a luxury.
Icelandic krona (ISK). 1GBP = 139ISK today
Specific advice for riding in Iceland
Have some off-road riding experience before travelling to Iceland. Even the Route 1 ring road has stretches of unpaved/deep gravel in the East which can be challenging.
Bring your own tools to keep you on the road. While only LV in the UK will offer Breakdown cover in Iceland, the remoteness of many locations means you’ll be waiting a long time for recovery.
Many fuel stations are unmanned. Find a credit card that doesn’t charge you fees for spending abroad to keep costs as low as possible.
Pack warm and dry clothes. The weather is variable, to say the least, and even in the summer months can get very cold, and storms can be wild and frequent.