1,050 miles of trail riding through the heart of Iceland - south to north, north to south and west to east - on a Yamaha XT225 Serow. It was ...


(Written 2000)

Trail riding in Iceland is as good as it gets. It's an off-road Valhalla, with some of the longest, most varied and awesome dirt roads in the world: and it is just 100 minutes fly-time from Glasgow.

So why isn't it throbbing with British riders every summer? Search me, chief, because with a bit of nifty organisation, it is as easy to get to as Spain.

Problem one is that there are no bikes for hire in Iceland (or none I could find). Problem two is that if you want to go with your bike by ferry, it will take you upwards of a week there and back from Aberdeen, with a two day stopover in the Faroe Islands.

The answer is blindingly simple: send your bike as freight to Reykjavik, then fly out and pick it up. You don't even have to crate it. Just deliver it to a terminal at Immingham and they wheel it into a container. Easy peasy.

I have been dreaming of riding Iceland since the first time I saw a map of it. Just a single ring-road winding 800 miles, with a couple of dotted lines indicating trails right through the middle.

If you want to get away from it all, this is the place: a land mass 20% bigger than Scotland, with a total population of 270,000. That's less than Nottingham, and with around half of Icelanders living in the Reykjavik area, the rest of the country is often frighteningly wild and remote.

Frightening? Damned right. Break a leg in the Icelandic highlands and it is not a matter of crawling to the nearest farmhouse for help. There aren't any. Even in the height of summer, it may be hours or days before another vehicle comes along.  

Mountain refuges are seriously well-equipped, though.

Crossing Iceland in any direction is like deep sea sailing. You are essentially on your own, with only occasional encounters with other mariners. Take all the fuel, food, spares, equipment you need to survive with you, because it's a long way to anywhere and even when you get there, you may not find much.

There is also a very real danger of drowning. Literally. Crossing the hundreds of rivers which lace the highlands demands maximum respect, because they can kill you.

The rivers come in two flavours: regular and glacial melt. The regular ones are great fun to cross and only get tricky after heavy rain. But when the weather is warm, the gullies that drain the glaciers can turn treacherous.

And so it was that I hit my first big one, five miles short of a planned stop in the middle of  Spregisandur - Europe's largest desert. A 20 metre span of boiling brown water, mud and gravel, doing about 10 knots, with half a dozen 4X4s poised nervously on its edge, drivers scratching their heads.

A Belgian in a 12-foot-high ex military command vehicle decided to go for it and made it. I studied the depth against his tyres. Hmmm. Then, for reasons which escape me now ('damn it all, I'm British' was in there somewhere), I took the plunge.  

Here's one I crossed earlier.  

First gear, steady on the throttle, nice and balanced on the pegs, in we go.  Half way across, things were looking good. Then I dropped into a hole.

The current suddenly pushed the front way off line, with water piling up and over the petrol tank. Thinks: either I get swept downstream and start tumbling towards the nearest fjord or the engine is going to suck water. Game over, either way.

Then the back end was swatted sideways and miraculously I was back on line. Doubly miraculously, the intake must have gulped just enough air from its space under the seat to keep working in submarine mode for a second or two.

Emerging with boots and panniers full of water, the performance earned a round of applause and a slap on the back from the bearded Belgian (he crossed the highlands last year on an XL250). But any triumphalism on my part was tempered by the realisation that it was a plainly stupid move, which I survived more by luck than skill.

Every guide book is packed with warnings about crossing glacial rivers. When they are in spate - usually towards the end of the day - the best plan is to camp up and wait until early morning when the flow has eased. As one chillingly states: "it is better to be patient than dead". They're right.

For the rest of the trip I had heeded the advice of  Dick Spring, an American veteran of many solo desert adventures: "If it looks bad, walk it first. If in doubt, don't do it."

The two main north-south highland routes, the F821 across Sprengisandur and the F35 over the Kjölur desert, are mostly graded gravel roads, without any special obstacles, but getting rougher in the north. They can be rocky, sandy, rutted, muddy, and with enough mini stream-crossings to bring smiles with every mile.

On the big routes the real challenge is a combination of length, rivers and unpredictable weather. From Akureyri in the north, it's more than 120 miles across Sprengisandur to the nearest petrol pump at Versalir - still little over half way to the next town.

The route is breathtaking. Starting in a valley as pretty and green as anything in Switzerland, the track climbs onto a desert plain that's as desolate as the moon. Ringed by vast glaciers, crags, craters and dormant volcanoes, the ride can be downright eerie. 

Mountainous mirages shimmer on the horizon.  A single, random rock the size of a football on an otherwise featureless flat becomes so fascinating, you almost ride over it. Stop the engine for a moment and your hear ABSOLUTE silence - one of the rarest sounds in the modern world.

The weather is fickle, even in the near-perfect conditions I experienced. Sweating one minute, the next you may be hit by the blast of  an icy wind funnelling off a glacier. The week before, I heard, a sandstorm had stopped all movement and flattened a campsite in the interior. Next day was thick fog. Rainfall on one side of a mountain can be 200 inches a year, 20 inches on the other side.

In southern Iceland, newly-formed icebergs break off a glacier

Even on the gentler interior roads, the hammering you take can be relentless. The surface can change from sand, to jagged rocks ranging in size from golf to tennis balls, for mile after mile.

But the toughest of the lot is washboard ripples of hard earth, spaced about 18 inches apart. Whatever your speed, they turn the bike into a road drill that blurs your vision, makes braking into corners a distinctly dodgy business, and breaks traction on the way out.

A couple of mountain-bikers I met said they finished every day with hands like dead claws from ripple vibration, which regularly destroyed fittings and added to the damage caused by falling off in sand with spirit-sapping regularity. Hats off to you, brave idiots.

Look at a detailed map of Iceland and you will find several grades of dirt road. The lowliest could be tackled in a normal car: OK on something like a Triumph Tiger or R1100GS. The intermediate grade (dotted lines on the map) is for normal 4X4s, fine on any half-serious trailie.

The top classification is "unofficial tracks: specialist 4X4s only". That can be pretty darned tough, because in Iceland, specialist 4X4 means JCB-sized wheels, ground clearance measured in feet, emergency radios and goodness knows what else.

There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles of each type, so take your pick. I did one big trek on the specialist grades, about 60 miles from Borgarnes to Geysir, plus a few excursions, but I was not about to push my luck too far solo.

Cues for turning back on any trail include a  growing litter of broken vehicle parts, plus the occasional abandoned whole vehicle. If you meet a river where the tyre tracks indicate everyone has turned round, do the same.

In 1,050 miles and seven days, my '91 Yamaha XT225 Serow grey import didn't put a foot wrong. Even loaded with about 80lbs of kit, it averaged 72 mpg and the only casualty was an indicator bolt working loose. As an increasing number of Brit trail riders have discovered, it's an amazingly good bike for a little 'un.

Here come the Germans

The only bikers I met were Germans (no surprise there, then) on big trailies - R80GS, Tenere, Transalp etc. - using the lighter trails. I  saw just one other motorcycle tyre track on the heavier going.

Any lightweight four stroke that's reliable and has genuine off-road ability could tackle Iceland comfortably, but I would shy away from anything bigger than a 650 single if you really want to explore. Something as beefy as a Funduro would be iffy.

For road riders, the excellent Route 1 ring road would make a fabulous tour, but you will be kicking yourself at not being able to head up the dirt roads - like being confined to seeing France using only motorways.

Iceland may be chilly, expensive and short of pubs - but it is seriously cool bike country.


   The route: across, up and down.

Getting There

Two day break (one night start and finish) in Reykjavik. B&B in good hotel. From Glasgow £461 (London £482). Call Arctic Experience - 01737 218800.

Bike by container freight, Immingham/Reykjavik return £300. Call Eimskip UK - 01469 550200.  Takes a week each way, includes customs clearance.

Ferry to Iceland via Faroes. Call P&O Scottish - 01224 572615.


When to go


In summer, the green bits are very green indeed.

July-August. Some high roads are still closed well into June and are open only until September.


Living costs

Iceland is eye-wateringly expensive if you want comfort. Slum it a bit and you can live reasonably cheaply.

Petrol: 90p/litre

Pub/restaurant beer: £5 a pint

Supermarket beer: £1 a pint

Dinner: £15-£30

Fast food: £3-£4

Small hotel B&B: £60-£100

Private room/shared bath and kitchen, hostel: £8-£12

Camping: £3-£5 (free in the wilderness)


Riding gear

Dress for UK March/October: thermals, waterproofs, good boots. The Germans take waders for the rivers …



A STRONG tent with lots of pegs (for the wind). Winter sleeping bag and mat.



Mostly rocky/sand. Enduro rubbers (Metzeller Sahara 3 or Pirelli MT21) probably better than full knobblies. Run high pressures to prevent rock bursts. Treat tubes with Slime or similar.



Everything you can carry. Better still, take a reliable bike. If anything is loose or fragile, it WILL break: that includes crap luggage racks.

For luggage, forget aeros and spiders. Good quality cam straps are essential.

Take fuel for 200 miles (you may miss a pump or need to detour).


Maps & Guides

Call Arctic Experience  - 01737 218800, http://www.arctic-discover.co.uk. 1:600,000 map covers whole country. 1:300,000 set useful for finding smaller trails.



My Norwich Union cover included Iceland. If yours does not, you need a Green Card.



Brits fully covered under reciprocal agreement with Iceland NHS. Get form from Post Office.