Bikepacking Iceland: When Things Go Low but Spirits Remain High

After completing the Westfjords Way Challenge in 2023, Werka Szalas and friend Louise Philipovitch decide they want to see more of Iceland. In the course of a week, they attempt to explore Iceland’s rugged and beautiful countryside, but like any bike tour, they find a few challenges along the way… 

Photos of Werka (this and subsequent) by Louise Philipovitch

If I had to describe Iceland in one sentence I would say: It is alive. Iceland is a full sensory experience, with its one-of-a-kind-scenery, the sound of the wind, the feel of the rain on your skin, the pure taste of the water, the scents in the air.

It is flowing. Not just with water but also with gradually changing colors on the mountains and with the structures of the landscape.

An island of contrasts: unspoiled nature and overcrowded viewpoints. Free access to the most delicious drinking water and sky high prices. Crazy wind and rain on one day then a burning arctic sun the next. A feeling of solitude juxtaposed with the heavily trafficked Ring Road.

It was a love-hate relationship at the start. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed when I arrived at the Keflavik airport. Mostly because it was so much busier than I imagined. Step by step, Iceland made me want to explore more of it though. It started to feel comfortable and welcoming. By the end, I’d even made friends with the wind—a wind that somehow made you feel cold even when it was warm.

But let’s rewind back to the start.

Last summer I was bikepacking through the north of Spain. I had no plan and each day was an improvisation. One morning Louise texted me that she was going to participate in the Westfjords Way Challenge and asked if I wanted to come along. We first met up last September during Woman’s Komoot Torino Nice Rally and immediately got along. Since then we knew we wanted to share another adventure together. I thought one week wouldn’t be quite enough time for me to travel to a new country though, so we decided that I would also sign up for the race and then we would stay another week exploring on bikes together.

When we arrived at Isafjordur, where the race was taking place, the sun was shining but we knew that it wouldn’t be for long so the next morning we set off to check the last pass of the challenge. Behind every corner there were mind blowing landscapes and big fjords dipping into the ocean. It was the right decision to do this slow ride up the pass in advance; rain met us on the pass during the actual race, the wind blew like crazy (I could hardly stay on my bike) and I was in pure survival mode.

During the event, we covered 600 miles/1000 km with 37,000 feet/11,490 meters of elevation gain on a mixed surface. It was an amazing experience even though the weather put all participants to the real test. We were battling with elements through the course but afterwards we agreed we would have done it all again. It was the route, the landscape, the organizers, crew, the people we rode and bonded with and all the cultural experiences along the way.

What we underestimated though was how tired we would be after the event. Since it was a staged and semi-supported race we thought beforehand one day of rest would be enough to jump back on the road. But we had pushed ourselves to the limit, camping each night, and being exposed to the cold and wind left us way more exhausted than we’d expected. But knowing we just had one week together left made us agree that we’d just have to rest later. The feeling of tiredness remained through the rest of our trip but so did the high spirits we shared.

Luckily the forecast was in our favor. We couldn’t quite believe it—sunshine for our entire week with some days reaching 25C. A few people told us that in Iceland when the weather is so good for so long, people feel so much pressure to spend this time outside because it just doesn’t happen too often. We now knew what they meant.

With perfect weather, we decided to use our remaining time to ride back to Reykjavik through Snaefellsnes Peninsula with some extra detours. We took gravel roads where we could and asphalt where there was no other option.

Day 1

We take a bus from Ísafjörður to Þingeyri to skip part of the route we have already cycled during the race. No one can tell us if the bus driver will take the bikes but we try our luck and manage to get on it. From there we take a new-to-us gravel road and aside from the herd of sheep on the mountain we are completely alone. The wind is blowing like crazy and it’s pretty cloudy. At the top of the climb, I have a real concern that my jacket will get ripped away by the wind while I’m stopped to put it on.

We descend and watch as the clouds wrap the fjords. Following the coast, we get attacked by Arctic Terns. We must have ridden into their nesting area. They are extremely protective of their young and attack anyone approaching them by trying to peck them in the head with their pointed beaks. We struggle to find a good sheltered camping spot and reach the museum that was a cultural stop on the race. We knock on the door to ask if we can put up the tent in the garden. The lady who looks after it says she would prefer if we didn’t then takes us inside the museum and gives us a little wooden room in the attic instead. We cook outside the hut as this was the condition set by the lady and enjoy the coziness and luxury of sleeping indoors our first night.

Day 2

The next morning we revisit Dynjandi waterfall. During the race we reached it quite early in the morning during one of the stages, finding reprieve in the toilets and warming our feet on the heaters. While it was empty the first time round, this time we are there around midday and the crowd of tourists from a big cruise ship docked nearby definitely take a lot of charm away.

One of the participants of the race rented a car to visit more of the island after the race and beeps at us as we make our way up another pass. It feels nice to see a familiar face.

We continue to the ferry from Brjánslækur to Stykkishólmur. On the ferry we meet Stephen, who also participated in the race, and his dad. We decide to stay in Stykkishólmur for the night and the next morning we take a long relaxing session at the local swimming pool.

Swimming pools in Iceland are something special. Sure, the natural hot pots are one thing but if you are a bikepacker surely you will appreciate the pools too. Each town has its own and it usually consists of a pool with lanes, three hot pots with different temperatures, an ice bath, a smaller pool, slide and sauna. While the changing room and showers are indoors, all the pools are outside. You get an entry and stay there as long as you wish. There is a rule that you need to shower naked (there are separate changing rooms and showers for women and men) before entering the pool area. Icelandic people are used to nudity at the swimming pools since there are children and it all feels very natural. These town swimming pools are like coffee shops; friends will meet there to chat and spend a few hours together.

Day 3

After the pool, we make our way to Snæfellsjökull peninsula. We enter a supermarket and the shelves are filled with Polish food. Polish constitute the largest immigrant group in Iceland. While I like to try local food when visiting other countries, I look at my childhood snacks with sentimentality and pick a few for the road.

Later on we make our way through an off-road section in Snæfellsjökull National Park and it’s one of the highlights on our route. It was very quiet and the evening light felt special. We stop quite a few times just to look and take in all the beauty.

We descend on the other side and reach the Djúpalónssandur beach for the night. As we cook our dinner, we watch the sun painting colors on the volcano covered with snow and later on spot something swimming in the sea—either dolphins or small orcas. We are short on water in the morning. We ask some tourists for a top off and while they don’t have enough to share we get offered a non-alcoholic radler. We pour it into our water bottles and deeply enjoy every sip of its refreshing and sweet taste.

Day 4

The next morning we wake up to full sun and a very hot day. We start in good spirits, with the plan of exploring the area near Arnarstapi. Then Louise got a phone call from her landlady in Canada to let her know that, while Louise was trying to soak up every bit of Iceland, her landlady decided to move her out of her apartment, saying that she hadn’t answer her phone for three weeks so she’d assumed Louise had left forever. The landlady had even painted the walls and started to look for the new tenant.

We were cooking our lunch in the middle of the mountain while she received that news. You know that moment when you hear something quite unreal and it takes a while until it gets to you. We were both in shock for quite a while, Louise to a much greater degree than I, obviously. The biggest blow had been finding out the landlady had thrown away some of her paintings and family souvenirs. We scrapped our original idea of exploring another off-road section and tried to continue down the coast on asphalt. In the meantime Louise had to stop a few more times to deal with police reports and other crazy stuff. It couldn’t wait so we were literally sitting in the ditch on the side of the road. She told me not to wait but I didn’t want to continue and leave her behind so while she was on the phone I went to see a nearby beach with seals while trying to digest what was happening.

After a couple hours of calls we decided that it would be best if we hitchhiked the rest of the route to the nearest town and stayed at the campground to sort ourselves out. Louise tried first, catching a car within a few minutes. I stayed on the road but as more and more time passed, I had no luck with anyone willing to take me. Few cars stopped to ask if I was ok or said they could take me but without a bike. In the end I decided to cycle even though it meant a battle with the strong headwind most of the way. We met at the campsite in the late evening, exhausted from the events of the day and both feeling a bit dejected.

Day 5

New day, new energy. Louise ultimately decided that she couldn’t do anything more about her house at the time and she wasn’t going to change her return flight, so the best we could do was to get back to squeezing what we could out of the remaining time together.

The day is hot, 24 degrees hot. Not a single cloud. Not a single breath of breeze.

We go to Bonus, our favorite budget supermarket. Its logo is a pink pig. It has been remade as the initial pig looked drunk and it was controversial. So the new version has been made to look more natural.

We eat a second breakfast and remake the plan for the next few days. We decide to go a bit more inland to get into a more remote area and see something new. The route was beautiful. At some point it started to get a little bit too rough for our bikes but we enjoyed every push up the steep hills, enthralled by the new landscape. Until… I felt something was not right with my bike. After a short inspection we realized that one of my jockey wheels was completely worn out and lost most of its teeth. This was causing my chain to fall into my derailleur cage. At first just every now and then, but the problem slowly became more frequent and it got to the point where I couldn’t ride for more than five minutes without stopping and putting it back in place. Our dreamy quest for more remote roads was turning into a trap. We definitely wouldn’t find a bike shop for the next couple of days and we were too far from pavement to turn back, so we continued and reached a camp spot for the night.

The spot was a win. We were alone, skinny-dipped in the river and watched a beautiful sunset. By this point we were well learnt in appreciating what we had and not what we could have if this or that had gone differently.

Day 6

We leave our quiet camp spot and cycle through Thingvellir National Park. Parts of it remind us of Spain more than Iceland. At some point we rejoin pavement and, after a day of being almost alone. we see a line of cars. What the heck? We thought. Where are they all coming from? After enjoying brief periods of solitude and remoteness  we weren’t excited to see this much traffic. But, of course, I couldn’t help but think, do I contribute to this image? I also take all the photos, trying to avoid unwanted cars or people in them. If I didn’t document the traffic on that road it was because I was so disappointed at that point rather than trying to hide it away.

We come to find out that it’s a national holiday. With the uncharacteristically good weather, it makes sense that most of Reykjavik had come out to that national park, as it is an easy drive from the capital. But our morale felt lowered and we both felt overwhelmed: all the cars, much more people that we’d seen in the previous days and me with a bike that kept breaking every kilometer. We decide to continue under the burning Arctic sun to find a quieter place. Indeed, burning was a much more accurate description of it than hot.

It is our last evening together and when we pass the only bar/shop we’d seen that day we reach an unspoken agreement that we need to stop. It’s getting late so we decide to buy two beers to take away. Ten euro for a can of beer hurts, but with the exception of the gifted non-alcoholic radler we hadn’t had any alcohol on the trip and we wanted to toast our adventure together. By this point we’d abandoned all expectations, but the route pleasantly surprises us and we find a good camp spot for the night. Under a sun that seems to set in slow motion, we have a view of the fjords and we make friends with some nearby horses.

It is still very warm but a swarm of flies descends on us as we’re setting up the tents so we both hide in mine. Inside, we sip our beer and it feels like something good is ending.

Despite all the hiccups along the way, as we reflect on the trip we’re glad that we stayed positive and managed to laugh through  the challenging moments. If only we could have more time to keep riding together—no end date—so we wouldn’t have to plan at all. At the same time Louise knows that she needs to get back to reality soon and deal with the apartment situation.

Day 7

We have a lazy start towards Reykjavik. We stop to pet another group of horses and lay down on the grass to enjoy the heat and prolong our return to the city. I find a bike shop in Reykjavik that I hope will have a new jockey wheel for my bike and a bike box for Louise for her flight home.

We reach the store and I meet Eric who’s working there that day. He is Polish and we quickly find a common language together. When he finds out we completed the Westfjords Way Challenge his face brightens up. He was also thinking about participating in it. He takes my bike and promises to look at it straight away, while me and Louise go to grab some food. When I am back I find my bike as shiny as it has been in a long while with new jockey wheels installed. Salvation. Louise gets a cardboard box and after a longer chat with Eric we find out he lives next to the airport and can drop Louise with her bike.

We wait outside the shop for him to finish his shift. Eric brings us ice cream, the same twisted type of ice cream I used to buy on the hot days in summer in my primary school. We sit on the floor outside the shop, savoring the treat. We definitely feel a bit nostalgic knowing that this part of the journey has come to an end. A cat comes by and Eric says that it’s a famous cat who even has its own Instagram account. He lives on the street and people of Reykjavik adore him.

Saying bye to Louise feels emotional as she drives away with Eric and I make my way to a friend who will host me for the next two nights in Reykjavik.

I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a ticket anywhere yet either. I check the weather forecast and with no rain in sight and the feeling that “I am not done yet here”, I decide to stay a little bit longer in Iceland.

I will tell you more about it next time…

Thanks to Louise Philipovitch for contributing all the photos of Werka!