NOTE: I am a recreational bicyclist who, when traveling, likes to rent bikes for local sightseeing.
Bicycling in Iceland is both very rewarding and very challenging. Iceland’s epic natural beauty is best experienced up close and personal, and for that a bike is the perfect vehicle. However, unpredictable and severe weather, long distances between destinations and a general lack of bike paths on roadways in outlying areas pose significant challenges.
There’s a lot to like about bicycling in Iceland. Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (graffiti notwithstanding). There are virtually no wild animals or snakes in Iceland. The scenery is epic, the food is hearty and the people are super friendly. Summers are warmer than you would think for a country near and in the Arctic Circle. Technically, the island is considered Europe, and it has many of the charms of European countries. If you’re flying from Dallas-Ft. Worth for example, a direct flight (when they are offered) is a little more than seven hours. Not bad for a flight to Europe, and many U.S. cities closer to Iceland have even shorter flight times. Best of all, Iceland has a number of epic bicycling opportunities.
Iceland Bicycling Opportunities
First and foremost among Iceland bicycling opportunities is a circumnavigation of the island on Ring Road that is a bucket list item for many bicyclists. This 828-mile road trip is a two-three week undertaking that requires much planning, fortitude and bicycling experience.
A great way to see the nation’s capital (Reykjavik) is by bike. This bike-friendly city boasts a number of landmarks, including the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church and the ultramodern Harpa Concert Hall, that are within easy bicycling distance.
PHOTO: Iceland’s iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church at the top of the street!
PHOTO: Some Reykjavik hotels have loaner bikes for guests to use. Bicycles (and Segways) for rent can be found near the harbor.
In summer months, there are many mountain biking and off road opportunities in the vast and otherworldly interior of Iceland. You can bike across a “moonscape” to Landmannalaugar or rent a fat bike to see the famous Iceland plane crash. (The fat bikes can often be found at a trailer in the Iceland Plane Crash parking lot during the most visited hours in the summertime.)
Know that much of the coastline and some interior parts of Iceland are covered by black volcanic sand. This volcanic sand is like riding on any other sand (like a beach or desert). As such, not even mountain bike tires will be sufficient in these locations. Research the specific areas you will be bicycling if you plan to go off-road.
Bicycle Events in Iceland
A number of bicycling events are held in Iceland, many annually, including the Iceland Cyclothon, Glacier 360 and The Rift, a 125-mile off-road bike race through the lava fields of the Highlands.
PHOTO: Bicyclists get ready for the start of the Iceland Cyclothon at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. The Iceland Cyclothon is an annual non-stop relay bike race around Iceland.
Best Way to See Iceland on a Bike
PHOTO: A Land Rover Defender is a popular vehicle in Iceland and is well-suited for the varied terrain of the island. Defenders can be rented at the airport.
In my experience, the best way to see Iceland with a bike is with a vehicle and a bike. A vehicle, preferably an SUV or camper van, can navigate the long stretches between destinations and offer protection and options against severe weather.
Outside of Reykjavik, which is the vast majority of the country, the roadways are mostly two-lane highways (one lane each direction) with narrow shoulders (if there is any shoulder at all). There are some bike paths adjacent to roadways, but by and large, bicyclists must contend with narrow shoulders and formidable traffic. Moreover, many bridges are one lane, posing additional challenges. Tour buses are common, but what is more worrisome for bicyclists is the heavy machinery that plies the roadways. Iceland is a raw and rugged land with mining, geothermal, hydroelectric and other projects throughout the island, and these industries require heavy-duty and oversized trucks and machinery. Additionally, extreme weather can be a factor even in the summer months. Sustained high winds (I’m talking 30-40 mph winds ALL day on occasion) and cold rain can certainly put a damper on a bike ride. A vehicle will also allow more time bicycling at the best, most scenic, and most worthy locations. These are some of the reasons I recommend a vehicle and a bike unless long distance bicycling/ultra distance cycling is your thing.
Please note that although the entirety of Ring Road is now paved, many other roads in Iceland are not paved. The unpaved roads are known as F-roads and are located mostly in the Highlands of Iceland. Whether you are driving a vehicle or riding a bike on an F-road there are certain things to consider:
- Only 4×4 vehicles and other off-road vehicles (mountain bikes, etc.) should be taken on F-roads.
- Many F-roads are closed for the winter. Know when they open and closed.
- Streams and rivers are common on F-roads (with no bridges). Cross with care. If there is a bridge you may want to inspect it first unless it is newer (concrete) construction.
- Do not travel alone on F-roads.
- Cellphone service is spotty or non-existent in some areas.
- There are few gas stations in outlying areas. Plan accordingly.
- Satellite GPS is very helpful in the Highlands.
- Drive slowly and carefully on F-roads to avoid potential problem areas.
- Bring extra food in case of an emergency.
- Driving off designated roads is strictly forbidden as it damages the environment.
Best Time to Bicycle in Iceland
The best time to bicycle in Iceland is mid-to-late summer. Often, in some areas of Iceland, ice and snow are still melting into June, creating wet and muddy conditions. July, August and early September are the best months, if you have a choice.