Crossing the Big Empty: Confessions from Chris Burkard on the Trans-Icelandic Bikepacking Route

Editor’s intro: I’ve long been inspired by the work of Chris Burkard, particularly his work in Iceland, so when I saw he had taken up bikepacking and was about to embark on a crazy tour across Iceland’s interior, I reached out to see if he’d be willing to share his story. Read on below for an intro by Chris and an interview…

First thing’s first, a confession is in order.

This trip was probably my 25th time riding a mountain bike in my life and I could count on two hands the number of nights I’ve spent actually bikepacking. I’m a rookie by all accounts. The crew was comprised of a ragtag group of roadies, Olympians, and seasoned adventure junkies that bonded together over the simple undeniable fact that this year all bets were off and the opportunity to experience something new was the greatest driving force we had. No race schedule, no Olympics, no traveling, and no sense of normalcy. So when the map of a new route through Iceland came to the Canadian’s inbox, I was a bit surprised how quickly they said YES.

For me, this line through Iceland’s rugged and unforgiving interior started to creep into my mind somewhere during the last 43 trips I have done to the country. Constantly examining the landscape through my camera lens has given me a lot to think about when it comes to raw wilderness and the chance of capturing nature in its purest form. And that was really the inspiration behind the goal. How can you spend the maximum amount of time traversing every major geological feature this place has to offer. It only made sense to go… sideways.

Passing every major glacier along the way and with it… many river crossings. From the start that was a major crux of East to west. You move perpendicular to the rivers as opposed to many routes that simply move in parallel. We planned we scouted we rooted and rerouted to find that perfect path that kept the line intact. It forced us to cross over 75 Rivers. Some dry, some deep, some fast, and some (luckily) with bridges.


The landscape changed daily, sometimes hourly depending on how close or far we moved from the glaciers & away from the lush green fjords of the East. I was shocked at just how dry large sections were and the lack of water that presented itself. I would even see distant sun haze mirages on the horizons at times it got so warm. Other mornings we woke to frost and fresh snow. Light rain and the thick soupy fog was a regular pattern as you climb up and over the fjords.

In the end, the bikepacking was world-class. The route was technical, varied, and honestly required every inch of our 2.6 tires we brought. Bikes suffered, calories were lost and hot springs were soaked in. But ultimately none of that matters as much as the opportunity to feel incredibly small and in many ways insignificant when compared to this massive landscape. This huge abyss of sand, rock, glacier, and water. I cannot express the beauty of what we witnessed as no camera can really encompass it. I would bet my life it’s destined to be one of the great bikepacking trips of all time, and I can only hope others experience it too.

Along the route we ran into an old hut owner who told us that every hut was designed to be a days ride apart by horseback … he asked us where we had come from. We told him the last humans we had seen were in Askja … “ so you crossed the big empty” he said … “ that’s what us locals call it, nothing around for miles and miles”

An Interview with Chris Burkard

-People know you for your insane adventure photography and I think I speak for everyone when I say that I was stoked to find out you were a cyclist! What got you into bikes?

Bikes were a funny obsession, to begin with. I bought my first bike from a craigslist ad because I wanted to commute to work and felt like a loser driving my car. I started commuting and realized quickly the joy that comes from that. I started taking longer and longer routes and wanted to relive every road I had ridden as a kid on a bike. The slower pace just allows you to appreciate the mundane things so much more. Eventually, I had a kid. Riding bikes kinda slowed down for me until just 2 years ago when I finally got an itch and felt like I needed to get back on the road. I found this crazy fire to attempt some of these ultra-distance rides through landscapes I really loved. It’s always been the landscapes that have inspired me to ride.

-I must say, your work inspires me to be a better photographer. Who inspires you?

The work of Ragnar Axelsson – who documents vanishing arctic landscapes and people has been a huge influence. Also, Michael Fatali’s work in the southwest shooting large format landscape photography. It’s weird because most of what I shoot exists in a cross between action sports, commercial photography, and landscapes. But what I really feel drawn to are people trying to tell deep and meaningful stories with their images.

-How is cycling different from your other hobbies? What do you gain from two-wheeled travel?

It’s interesting that we tend to gravitate towards solo sports after high school. Or at least I did. Climbing, surfing, yoga, and all these things I could do by myself became really important. Cycling was one of those things. Yes, it’s fun in a group. But I love the solo aspect of it. It has this sweet spot between running and surfing where you can really truly take in your surroundings. You can even get lost in it for a second and not be forced to stare at the trail or at the bottom of a pool. That felt really special. Plus there is undoubtedly a rhythm that can come from it. It’s weird to explain but as I’m sure you know … you feel connected to the machine and to the earth when you find that sync.

-Why the migration or at least the interest in MTB riding and bikepacking?

It’s the classic evolution. My rides are getting slower and more fun the longer I ride bikes. I started wanting to fly around and then go long distances and now I love the more technical, slower pace of bikepacking and ultimately traveling over unique types of terrain. Again, all I really care about is the bike as a tool to experience a place. I find that every mode of transportation has its place. When bikepacking through an environment you really love, It’s kinda that sweet spot of being able to take it, yet move at a pace that is totally exhilarating. I love that. I love going slow and I love flying through an environment. There is a time for both. Ultimately when I think about a place I have dedicated myself to over the years and spent a ton of time exploring. it makes me want to experience it in a new way. That is where bikepacking comes in.

-Had you ever done traditional “touring?” Like with panniers and racks?

Never hahahah.

-Tell me what piqued your interest in Iceland? It’s an amazing place. We traveled there a few years back and my mind was blown away by the relatively young geologic formations when compared to what I had experienced in the States.

Coming from California which is basically turning into a desert, I was blown away by the diversity on my first trip a decade ago. It piqued my interest so much that I kept finding ways to come back. 43 trips later. A handful of films, books, and overall thousands of images. I feel like this place is a part of me and I have always sought ways to experience it in a new way. The youthfulness of the landscape can be overstated. I have watched it change and grow in my time visiting. Documenting that has been very meaningful to me.

-How did you go about planning this route? Local intel? Google Earth? I always look to 4×4 guide books for good bicycle touring routes, what was your main inspiration?

4×4 guides are honestly one of the best places. I actually knew a handful of local MTB riders there. The guys that sorta started the trend in Iceland and one of them was actually a cartographer. Snorri. He is a legend and I hired him to help build a route. He talked to farmers, 4×4 enthusiasts, locals, and so on to create the route. I went over that route with the team – Eric, Adam, Emily – and we all agreed it was EPIC. A worthy adventure and also worthy of failure. It was crazy to turn down all the other premade routes out there. And that was the struggle. Do you just do something you know is gonna be awesome? Or try and do something new… something worth sharing?

-What was it like traveling during the time of Covid. I thought Americans were banned from entering most countries right now. How did you go about this trip logistically?

They totally are. And we got lucky. We had applied for a film permit pre-Covid and I thought we would be shut down. But luckily they honored it and let me come in. I was shocked. But I guess all that work for the government I had done years prior maybe helped hahaha

-What was the most miserable, type 2 ‘fun’, “fuck it” moment? Crossing the rivers? Wet feet? We often romanticize these trips but they are grueling feats of strength both mentally and physically.

Honestly, the anxiety was the worst part. The wet feet for 8 hours totally sucks, eating the same bag of nuts for 8 days sucked, the deep sand, etc. But it was the anxiety that kinda tore me up and didn’t let me sleep some nights. Eric Batty and I would stay up late and stare at the route knowing that it may not go. We would either have to do a huge workaround or go and attempt it. Knowing that it might be way too gnarly to cross certain sections. Which, if we turned back would be heinous. Those moments go tense for me and I was lucky to have such a rad crew to keep the positivity high.

-Aside from air-dropped gummies, what is your favorite food in Iceland?

Dude for sure it’s the Rye Bread that they make. It’s thick, dense, and tastes like cake. You slap some butter on that and maybe smoked trout and you have yourself a good taste of heaven!!!

-It must be weird to come back to the US – particularly California where everything is on fire and the temps are in the high 40º C range. What was that like?

To be honest, I felt guilty. I really did and even saying that sucks because I know it’s weird to be on a trip suffering but ultimately doing what you love while California is burning down and also the world is suffering. That felt really wack for me. Some mornings I would wake up in Iceland and FORGET there was even a pandemic. I guess there is nothing I can do to change it but still. It was a good reminder to never take these moments, these opportunities for granted. It was such a gift.

-Do you listen to music on your rides? If so, what’s one album you could take on a trip like this?

I freaking love music. On this trip, I surprisingly didn’t because we were laughing our butts off the whole time and chatting and, to be honest, I really missed the group aspect of riding with people you really enjoy. As for an album. I could listen to Neil Young or John Denver almost any day. Anytime and be happy.

-What does “Shred Lightly” mean to you?

To me, It means more than just leaving no trace in the places you love, but also to move through places with mindfulness in the end. All the suffering is optional. Riding bikes isn’t trivial. It never needs to be even when it’s hard. It’s an elective. So when things get hard, when the weather beats you down and nothing seems to be going your way. Don’t be afraid to smile, even just a little to remind yourself that you are doing something you love.

-What are your plans for this route? Will you publish it? If so, where can we find out more?

The goal more than anything is to see people go back and experience it. That’s the only way to truly immortalize the experience is to share it. It’s published on Strava and will live on eventually. More than anything, this route demands respect and planning so I hope to provide people the route but not every bit of beta as that changes from year to year and season to season.

Many thanks to Chris, Adam Morka, Eric Batty, and Emily Batty for allowing us to share this experience!