The elements are relentless anywhere you go and Iceland is no exception. Although the fjords and stunning views evoke a sense of calm, powerful winds, and stinging cold can instantly shatter your pre-adventure expectations. After all, that’s why they call it an adventure.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, we follow Eric Gordon and his partner on an Icelandic bikepacking adventure where they encountered shattered expectations, involuntary smiles and warm nights with the Parsec and Oberon sleeping bags.
I couldn’t help but think back to the wild-minded conversations that brought us to this point. It was that certain kind of dreaming that leads you down unknown paths and promises unforgettable memories. I’d been drooling over the Iceland photos flowing out of the internet for the past few years. My girlfriend Britt and I quickly planned a bikepacking trip to this foreign country that would entail traversing unfamiliar terrain by bike and camping through the frigid nights of springtime Iceland. But when the stoke is high, you don’t sweat the details.
As gear nuts, packing is one of our favorite parts of every adventure. Having done our fair share of lightweight, cold weather travels, we knew exactly what to grab when choosing our kit. A lightweight stove, a good puffy and packable GoreTex shell immediately go into the bag. Next, we packed our brand new sleeping bags- a Parsec 20 and Oberon 0.
I knew that Icelandic temperatures would drop waaaay down at night, making it extremely important that we stayed warm. Losing heat through the night would leave us with little energy to climb hills or battle headwinds the following day. It’s also way harder to have fun blasting down Icelandic single track if you’re sleep deprived.
We toted two huge bike boxes through the check-in line at the airport, mentally running through our trip’s checklist. It was really happening! I was psyched for a more “casual” adventure. My dreams of bikepacking Iceland included cruising down groomed singletrack, relaxing in hot springs and good coffee—all in a beautiful new setting. My fantasy was almost a reality.
We finally touched down in Iceland. It was mid-April and we expected clear brisk days with a touch of weather. Instead, a whirlwind of shivering rain and oceanic gusts greeted us. I looked out the window at a mossy volcanic field as the wheels of the plane touched down. Britt and I looked at each other, the stoke building behind our eyes.
The next twenty-four hours were spent building our bikes, repacking gear and reviewing our route. We would trace the southern coast of the island and then break towards the northwest shore. Bike touring this island seemed to be a very strange concept to the locals inspecting our laden down bikes. Nevertheless, they wished us a safe journey as they headed back to their homes. Toting a four-season tent, Parsec, Oberon and a giant stash of snacks, I was confident that we were ready for anything Iceland could throw at us.
After a full day of pedaling over gravel roads, climbing steep inclines and stopping to enjoy the views of this volcanic masterpiece of an island, we turned in for the night. It felt good to finally be sheltered from the artic wind, curled up in our warm down bags.
Fast-forward another 36 hours, and we were scraping frost off the roof of our tent and getting slapped in the face by 40 mph head winds that have now become our constant companion. We realized why the locals were so perplexed by our decision to ride into the hills during spring squalls.
By the fourth day, we were getting tired and the stoke tank was running on empty. We felt like we had been riding in a wind tunnel. The gusts were so strong we couldn’t even coast downhill. Our cheeks and lips were chapped beyond relief and blustery snow burned our eyes. Something had to give.
Our endurance had faded. Frustration was getting the best of us. After a warm cup of coffee and a piece of well-deserved pie, we raised the white flag. We loaded our bikes on a bus and headed back to Reykjavik. We quickly found a rental agency, paid for the tiniest car on the lot and immediately headed back into the great wide open. With the power of a four-cylinder engine, we cruised our way up the western coast. As we traveled through the mountainous peninsulas, the weather became more intense, blowing our little clown car back and forth like a ragdoll. It made driving difficult and pitching our tent impossible. We opted to sleep in the car for the night, refusing to let the wind rob our adventure again. We couldn’t help but laugh. Like they always say, it isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong!
On our way around the northwest region, we stopped to stretch our legs and push our toes into the cold sandy beaches. The sand stretched towards the horizons before giving way to distant, snowcapped mountains. I sat gazing out at the scene, reflecting on our “casual” adventure. This trip challenged and beat me around. I felt like a boxer who walked into the ring confident of victory, only to be knocked on my ass in the first round. Adventures challenge you to the core and expose who you are underneath it all. All too often, we end up being disappointed when things don’t turn out the way we expected, but that’s no way to treat life. Life is for bundling up and running barefoot on a beach in Iceland!
A couple days before leaving we stumbled upon, what we considered to be, the best hot springs in all of Iceland. Maybe the entire planet. With temps still hovering around freezing, we stripped down and hopped in, just in time for a lightshow in the clouds.
A few moments later, a group of Icelanders arrived at the spring. We enjoyed the warm waters while discussing cycling, mountains and coffee. After explaining that we were “camping” in our rented subcompact, they invited us to stay in their spare room for the night. We readily accepted.
The roof and full-size bed weren’t even the best part. We ended up getting a locals tour of the nightlife in Reykjavik that lasted until six in the morning. The “tour” was like a scene from “Night at the Roxbury”, except instead of trendy nightlife clothes, we were rocking sweat-stained baselayers and hiking boots.
With the sun coming up on our last day in Iceland, our windblown cheeks were ripe with exhaustion and our tired bodies were ready to go home. As we boxed up our bikes and gear, I packed down my Parsec for the last time. I knew it wouldn’t be our only visit to this beautiful and windy place. I’d come back wiser and more prepared with this trusty bag in my pack.