Iceland has become a prized destination in recent years. The proof is that you likely know at least one person who’s been—if you haven’t already gone yourself. The (relatively) small island is a fascinating world to discover, covered alien-like landscapes of all genres like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Considering the country’s wilderness is its main attraction, renting a vehicle is the ideal way to make the most of your stay and see all the pretty sights the island has to offer.
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You could opt for a Dacia Duster to be on the safe side, or remove two wheels from the equation and get yourself some two-wheel adventure! If the number of motorcycle rentals per capita is any indication, exploring the island by motorcycle isn’t that daunting. Game of Thrones might have a Song of Ice and Fire, but it has nothing on this real-life land of fire and ice.
Iceland is a 40,000 square mile island located in the middle of the North Atlantic, located only a few hundred miles away from Greenland. Despite being grazed at the north by the Polar Circle, the country a fairly steady climate. Contrarily to popular belief, the country isn’t freezing cold all-year round. In fact, it never actually gets “freezing cold”. Temperatures around the island vary between 22°F and 56°F. Granted, it won’t make you want to hit that black beach in your bikini, but I also hope this isn’t what you’re going to Iceland for.
While in June, the sun is up for close to 22 hours, in the winter, the number of daylight hours drops down to roughly four in December.
The island’s topography is extremely diversified. In the north and east of the island, the coast is jagged with fjords—a literal mountain to sea. The center of the island is occupied by a volcanic plateau where most of the mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers are found. Vast lava fields create spectacular rugged terrains, often covered in moss for a striking black and green contrast. In the south, breathtaking black sand beaches dive into the cold Atlantic waters.
Including the numerous mountain ranges, fjords, and volcanoes, the island also nestles a wealth of lakes, waterfalls, craters, hot springs, and geysers, a testament to the island’s seismic and volcanic activity. There are 130 volcanoes in Iceland, 30 of which are still active.
Ring Road, Main Road
The easiest and most direct way to travel around the island is via Route 1, also known as the Ring Road. As the name suggests, the road circles the entire island. Sticking to the tarmac will allow you to experience most of the Icelandic goodies, but if you’re curious to know what’s beyond the beaten path, your curiosity will be rewarded. See, the Ring Road circles the center of the island, taking the most direct path around.
There’s a wealth of fjords and volcanic plains Route 1 avoids all together that are worth taking a left for. In the north, entire portions of the island are forgotten, including a jagged peninsula surrounded by glorious fjords.
There is also a network of F roads snaking through the Icelandic highlands (center of the island) and the mountains. These are proper off-roads in the middle of the tundra that need to be taken seriously. Tread carefully as these gravel roads are remote and require a certain understanding and knowledge of off-road riding. Because of snow and harsh weather conditions, these roads are usually inaccessible during the winter months and only open around June or July, depending on the conditions. It is also recommended that you don’t venture out on the roads on your own—it’s worth teaming up with other riders or even a group of 4x4s.
According to certain sources, there is also only one gas station in the Highlands so whether you need it or not, a pit stop is recommended. You know, to avoid the whole “stranded in the middle of nowhere” type of scenario.
Renting A Motorcycle
The best time to look into renting a motorcycle in Iceland is over the summer. It might sound obvious, but some more adventurous spirits would likely try to give winter a shot. In fact, most rental companies don’t offer any dates before May and past September—something to keep in mind if you wish to make the ride the focus of your trip.
The most popular models you’re going to find are from the BMW adventure range, more specifically the F 700 GS, F 800 GS, or R 1200 GS. A handful of companies have opted for other brands. For instance, AdMoto offers a fleet of Hondas including the Africa Twin, the NC750X and even the CB1100 out of its Hafnarfjordur location—from Reykjavik, only BMWs are available. At Sports Travel, the fleet offers Suzuki V-Stroms and Kawasaki Versys (no mention of the displacement offered,however).
All the companies require the rider to have a full motorcycle license. Wherever you travel, whether in Iceland or elsewhere, an international driver’s license is required. The age limit to get a rental varies from one company to another, ranging between 18, 21, and 25 years old.
The cost of the rental per day varies with the duration of the rental—the more days you book the bike, the less you pay per day. The average price for a BMW F 800 GS for a four-day rental is of roughly US$300 a day. With all companies, the price includes unlimited mileage, side cases and/or a top case, and insurance.
While there is a very interesting network of gravel roads to explore around the island, the rental companies do not allow their bikes to go on the F-marked roads. Because of the level of off-road difficulty they offer, the companies require that a guide accompany you. I mean, you can risk it, but if you end up in over your head, you might hear an “I told you so, you’re on your own” in broken English at the other end of the line and then a few Icelandic words that likely translate to “stupid tourist” before they hang up. I find trips much more enjoyable when I don’t get in trouble.
Fuel And Gas Stations
While almost everything feels remote when touring Iceland, gas stations aren’t as scarce as you think they’d be. That being said, it isn’t a “one at every street corner” affaire like we’re used to here. That means that you have to be smart about this whole range thing, especially on a motorcycle with a smaller tank capacity than a car. What do you do if you come across a gas station with only half a tank left? The right answer is: you stop and top up. You’re better off stopping too often than not enough. Unless taking a stroll with a jerrycan or whatever container you have on hand is your definition of a fulfilling experience.
Considering its remoteness, the price of gas in Iceland is pretty steep, especially by our American standards. You will pay on average US$7 a gallon which is more than double the US average. It is also one of the highest prices for gas in the world after Monaco, Norway, and Honk Kong.
To make sure you don’t get in trouble when filling up outside of normal operating hours or stopping at an automated station, make sure to have a credit card ready rather than cash to pay for your gas. Most stops have self-service stations that allow you to pay directly at the pump or at a separate machine. Stations located outside of cities and towns can also be fully automated and don’t even have personnel on-site to cash you out.
As for road signs, while they differ from what we see on our continent, the signs are also generally pretty straightforward and easy to understand—provided to use a bit of common sense.
Remember that speed is indicated in kilometers per hour. A good point of reference is 60 mph = 100 km/h (sort of—102 to be specific). The good news is that your rental will likely already be set up with the right metrics. Distances to different locations and gas stations will require you do a bit of easy math. One mile equals 1.6 kilometers.
If you plan to explore Iceland on two-wheels, be aware that Icelandic law requires that you wear a motorcycle helmet. No freedom riding on volcano island!
As for the rest of the getup, while there is no specific or legal mention of any other mandatory piece of gear, considering the type of terrain you will face, the ATTATG principle should apply here.
Sources: Lonely Planet, Guide to Iceland, Yellow Yeti ADV, Rental-Motorcycle.com, Rental Motorbike, Sports Travel, Bikes Booking, Reykjavik Motor Center, I Am Reykjavik, Sad Cars, Global Petrol Prices, Iceland with a View
Main picture from Explore 360