Photos and Words By Chris Case

Chris Case is a writer, explorer, and guide. He founded Alter Exploration to help adventurous cyclists experience transformative journeys in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, including the Dolomites, Iceland, the Piedmont Alps, and Colorado. 

Riding gravel bikes in Iceland Shimano Gravel

Riding in Iceland is like being a character in a Pulitzer Prize-winning spy novel. In books and in life, the most gripping tales are steeped in tension. The higher the stakes, the more riveting the story. And this small island nation in the North Atlantic is a clutter of geological tension, fury, and friction.

Known as the “Land of Fire and Ice,” emerald-green grasses along the gnarled coastline abruptly crash into bleak, black volcanic sands. Roaring waterfalls shower mists onto nearby lava flows. In such a raw, remote, and rugged environment, the stakes can get high.

Riding gravel bike across the Iceland black sand beach Shimano Gravel

This harshness breeds spectacular discordance. The extreme contrasts of Iceland’s otherworldly terrain make it one of the most thrilling landscapes on earth to traverse on a gravel bike. Like that spy novel, the tension will keep you on the edge of your seat—or, in this case, the nose of your saddle.

Day Tripper or Bikepacker

One of the most important decisions you’ll make before visiting Iceland is whether to take day rides or string your days together on a bikepacking journey.

Riding gravel bikes in Iceland shimano gravel

Either approach will afford you the chance to take in the vast diversity of its landscape. Pick your pleasure: Plant yourself in one or a couple places and take day trips, always returning to the comforts of your guest house. Or, circumnavigate the island (or some portion of it) by bike, riding dirt roads and gravel tracks, taking in the full extremes and raw elements of the wild landscape.

The latter is what I did, with my riding partner Matt, in 2021, on a route we dubbed Alt Ring Iceland: 1,300 miles in 13 days, on as many dirt roads as we could find. It was brilliant. (Catch a video of our excursion here.)

Bikepacking in Iceland shimano gravel adventure cycling

For the utmost in freedom and challenge, consider the bikepacking option. The nation makes it easy to do: We built our bikes in the purpose-built facility at Keflavik airport, known as “The Pit.” We then set off, hugging the southwest coast on a series of backroads, avoiding Reykjavik for now. The Icelandic coastline is captivating. You’ll be accompanied by soaring seabirds—curlews and Arctic terns, which may or may not dive-bomb your head—who will float along and keep you company on the lonelier stretches of road.

But no journey in Iceland would be complete without a jaunt (or a days-long immersion in) the uninhabited interior, known as the Highlands. It might be a stark, black desert, but the area is also laced with hundreds of rivers, some of which rage and others which trickle. Many of the rivers lack bridge crossings, which can mean wading through bone-chilling waters.

Crossing a river in Iceland while bikepacking shimano gravel

We took our first foray into the Highlands on day two of our trip, climbing straight into the Mælifellssandur (“black sand desert”) on a collection of increasingly rugged gravel tracks, surrounded by the Myrdalsjökull glacier and ancient volcanoes.

In Iceland, the concept of “freedom to roam” has traditionally been protected by law. The 1999 Nature Conservation Act enshrined the right to camp: “Along public routes in unsettled areas, normal tents may be set up either on privately owned land or national land.”

So, generally, if there is an established campsite nearby, use it and pay for a pitch. Private property is just that—private. Ask permission before you do anything. But there are over 170 campsites in Iceland, with many of them open year-round.

Riding gravel across iceland on a bikepacking trip shimano gravel

Fire, ice, gravel, grass

To understand the wild beauty of this small island just below the Arctic Circle, it helps to know a bit about its geology. Iceland lies on two tectonic plates—the Eurasian plate and the North American plate—that are moving away from one another.

Not only that, but the country also sits atop a volcanic hotspot—like Hawaii and Yellowstone National Park. The Iceland plume, as it is called, is believed to have caused the formation of Iceland itself—some 16 to 18 million years ago. The result? This place feels alive, given both the frequent volcanic activity and the rampant geothermal phenomena.

And, with the right bike and gear, an adventurous spirit, and a sense of humor, you get to ride your bike through the middle of it all.

Bikepacking across iceland shimano gravel adventure

The island isn’t tropical, of course, yet it isn’t just a bleak span of midnight black volcanic grit either. Much of the island is swirling with color—often it’s electric green, the vibrant grasses and mosses given life by thermal vents. And there are also earthy shades from one end of the spectrum to the other: obnoxious orange to muted ochre.

It’s simply science: Pure sulfur in the Krysuvik area marks the landscape yellow. Reds and browns abound from the iron and sulfur amalgams, which assimilate with the oxygen of the atmosphere and oxidize like old anchors. A hundred shades of gray materialize as sulphuric acid dissolves basaltic rock. Meanwhile, silica, calcium, and gypsum punctuate the pores of this lunar landscape.

Riding gravel across Iceland shimano gravel adventure

Riding here can give you whiplash, as you twist your neck back and forth, trying to comprehend how such a lush mountainscape could suddenly appear amid a barren lunar-like expanse. And that’s the contrast that makes it so special: Not only will you not be able to predict what will appear around the next corner, you’ll likely see things you didn’t know existed.


Because Iceland is a small island in the North Atlantic, there is a certain strength and determination to the wind. You might call it relentless. That’s not to say there aren’t calm days. But those days are… infrequent. And when the wind does blow, it is usually in your face, it is usually lively, and it usually sticks around for a good while.

bikepacking through Iceland shimano GRX gravel bikes

In Iceland, you are exposed. This shouldn’t be intimidating; this should be invigorating. This is why you come to Iceland: To feel alive. Embrace the sea breezes as they envelop you with their salty sweetness. The locals like to say, “If you don’t like the weather right now, wait five minutes.”

You might think that the frequent winds and harsh climate are the reason why there are few trees in this land. Not true. When seafaring Vikings sailed from Norway and conquered the uninhabited island in the late ninth century, forests of mostly birch trees covered more than a quarter of the island. Within a century, the settlers had razed nearly all the original forests seeking material for houses and to clear land for grazing.

Riding shimano grx equipped gravel bikes around Iceland

Now, Iceland is considered the least forested country in Europe. Which is incredible for sightseeing, but makes the miles go by a little slower as the headwinds grind away. Just remember, forests in Iceland are so rare, and their trees so young, that if you do get lost in the woods, just stand up and you’ll find your way. (That’s a local joke!)

The lack of trees also means there isn't any vegetation to protect the soil from eroding, which has led to vast deserts across the interior Highlands, despite the country's far northern location.

Traversing the Highlands is as close to riding on the moon as you can get. Surreal is an appropriate word. This is where big, sturdy tires will add a bit of plushness and confidence to your wanderings. Welcome to outer space. Yes, NASA and other space agencies now take advantage of Iceland’s diverse habitats and off-world landscapes to test equipment and procedures.

Riding shimano equipped gravel bikes across iceland

Since Iceland sits so close to the Arctic Circle, summer days are filled with continual daylight. And without any impetus to set up camp before darkness, you can ride into the night. If you find yourself on the southeastern coast near midnight, visit the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where the icebergs glisten against the black sands of Breiðamerkursandur.

During Alt Ring Iceland, Matt and I took every opportunity to choose the less-beaten track. This took hours of scouring maps and websites, occasional conversations with locals, relying on intuition, and a simple love of curiosity.

Taking a break bikepacking across iceland

But the rewards were priceless. In the remote northeast of Iceland, we climbed to Hellisheiði Eystri, 644 meters (2,112ft) above sea level. Its 15 switchbacks on the northern approach are easily visible on most maps of the country. Because of that, when I learned it was also one of the steepest climbs in Iceland, it was an easy target to add to the route.

Finally, one parting caution: If you hate waterfalls, don’t visit Iceland. You’ll be extremely unhappy. Most of the waterfalls you come across are devoid of signage, parking lots, or any tourist infrastructure. That is to say, you will have them all to yourself. If that sounds like a nightmare, visit the Sahara instead.

Riding gravel bikes arcoss Iceland on bikepacking trip


Best Town to Call Homebase

Riding out of Reykjavik is possible, but staying in the more gravel-accessible areas of the Highlands will be a more efficient way to pack in as much riding as possible. Of course, the most effective way to maximize adventure is to plan a bikepacking excursion.

Getting There

Fly into Keflavik International Airport, just outside Reykjavik

If you’ll be bikepacking, build your bike in “The Pit,” a purpose-built facility on the airport grounds. Otherwise, a rental car is most practical for getting to and from wherever you decide to base yourself. It also allows you to drive to other areas like the remote Westfjords, which significantly expands the riding and terrain options. Or, travel with a company like Alter Exploration that will shuttle you to and from whichever location(s) you choose to be based.

Getting set up for an epic bikepacking trip in Iceland


There are good AirBnB options and guesthouses. Near the Highlands on the southern coast, the Glacier View Guesthouse offers excellent rooms, incredible meals, and a wonderful staff, not to mention access to some of the more rugged and scenic areas of the south shore.

Time of Year

June through September is the heart of the warm season, though the shoulder seasons bring their own perks. June and into July, the daytime will be incredibly long, which allows you to ride seemingly forever.

Key Equipment

If your focus is to ride in the rugged interior, bring a gravel bike fitted with a minimum of 45mm tires with a chunkier tread (ideally, the bigger the better). However, many of the dirt roads closer to the coast are far less rough—some are even glassy smooth—and in that case an all-road or gravel bike with a 38mm tire would do just fine.

Shimano equipped gravel bike for bikepacking

Be equipped with a large range of gears (at least a 1:1 low gear, but preferably more). Bring a bar bag or hydration pack to store food and water; there aren’t many places to refuel once you get out there. Water abounds, so bring a compact water filter or filter bottle and replenish on the go.

Clothing! Before leaving home, think long and hard about which pieces of clothing to bring. Windproof? Yes. Waterproof? Indeed. Durable and compact? Yup and yup. Always bring a weatherproof layer; Icelandic weather is fickle.

Recommended Side Trip

Take at least a day to get off your bike and explore on foot, whether that’s a glacier or a volcano (if one is erupting and it’s safe to be near it, check with the local authorities before treading into the area of activity). There are many sights and national parks to choose from, so depending on where you base yourself, you will have plentiful options.

Gravel biking in Iceland shimano gravel

Must-Visit Locations

If you like to explore city life, Reykjavik is a must-see stop. It is a famously progressive and vibrant city, filled with attractions, shopping, museums, and life.

If national parks are more your speed, take your pick. There are many to choose from and the scenery in each is unique and captivating. For example, not far from Reyjavik, Thingvellir National Park (or, in Icelandic, Þingvellir) is the only place in the world where you can stand between two continental plates.

bikepacking across iceland shimano GRX

Part of the Golden Circle, Þingvellir is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an important historical location in Iceland. The name translates to “assembly plains,” and this is where the general assembly was established around 930, and continued to meet there until 1798. It is considered the birthplace of Iceland.

Must-Ride Route

Húsafell to Mosfellsbær via Kaldidalur, Þingvellir National Park, and Nesjavallavegur.

Check out the route with Strava.

This route has everything, from volcanoes to glaciers, rugged dirt tracks in the Highlands to super steep, super gorgeous quiet mountain roads. Start by climbing 13 miles on a fairly rugged dirt track up the Kaldidalur, where the vast Highlands emerge. Throw in a visit to the birthplace of Iceland, Þingvellir National Park. And save something for the end of the 100-plus mile day: grind up a 15% climb as you snake along a geothermal pipeline that brings energy to Reykjavik! Challenging, rewarding; vast scenery, solitude; dirt, pavement—this single route has everything.