Crossing Iceland was intense. Here are a few relevant thoughts:
Trails are mostly different to what we take for granted in the middle earth. I only hiked in a proper hiking trail along the Laugavegur (3 final days), between Asbyrgi and Detifoss along the Jokulsa a Fjollum on day 3 in the north and a short section in the Vonarskard, less than 100 miles total. Most of the route was over 4WD tracks of varying quality. I often wondered how it was possible for a 4WD vehicle to go through some of them but it obviously was as evidenced by the tyre prints.
Following the tracks was mostly easy. They’re marked by wooden posts and the tyre prints/track bed. It all varies wildly depending on the track category and the underlying ground. Main tracks have a high density of posts, lesser tracks far less so to the point that they ’d get tricky to follow in low visibility if relying only on the marking. The track bed is clearly visible in sandy ground, fairly visible in gravel and hard to spot in solid lava. Overall I’d say route finding would hardly ever be a problem.
This was my major source of concern. In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad or any far from expectations.
I was unlucky in a way: northerlies would plague my first week on the trail, bringing constant instability and quite some wind-driven drizzle to the northeast right when I was in the area. This is not the usual weather pattern in Iceland. At least, I had the weather on my back.
Just when I started facing south, winds drifted to the more usual direction and I then I had the rain on my face. Perfectly bad timing, it seemed.
Eventually the southerlies didn’t hold and the second week was a mix of variable wind, lots of cloud, a few showers and even some sunshine.
I had rain every single day of the trip, even if only for some scattered drizzle. The best part is that I didn’t experience the dreaded blowing sand. I used to think of the daily rain spell as the sprinkling to keep the dust on the ground. It helped me make friends with it.
I eventually avoided the potentially trickiest fords of the Svedja and Sylgja rivers by detouring. ICE-SAR warned me about them and the only feedback I could get from other hikers was that same advice. I didn’t meet anybody who tried those fords or meant to. Trying them and backtracking was not an option if I meant to complete the traverse as I was on a tight schedule. The preemptive detour meant a slightly longer total mileage and a rather boring section along a main highland track.
I went through only a couple of serious fords. Ironically, neither of them was strictly necessary.
I crossed the Rjupnabrekkukvisl further downstream than needed due to a change of plans on the spot. It wasn’t dangerous but needed great care. I can imagine it would have been much easier if taking the more logical route that crossed it near the headwaters where it was braided and surely shallower. In my particular case, I was hiking on a fairly easy route but changed plans on the go, encouraged by a good weather spell. I took a cross-country route and found the Rjupnabrekkukvisl downstream of the headwaters where it had turned into a glacial-fed, milky and powerful stream with water above the knee at some points. It felt like a test. I made it across without issues.
The other big ford was massive. Too much, in fact. I was hiking on the F26, the main north-to-south track in the region that I needed to trudge through for nearly two days. I took an apparently eventless shortcut on the F26, the map showed a river to go across but it didn’t look like a big one and it needed to be crossed either way, F26 or shortcut. When I got there, I found this beast:
I tried to cross it. Twice. Got to less than 15 meters from the other bank but got too scared to try the deepest channel. Being in a shortcut attempt, I had the option to backtrack to the F26. Trying to force the ford was unnecessary risk and hardly worth it. I was curious to find out how the hell the road crossed such a mighty river.
There was a bridge in a narrow spot.
The Marathon pace
Final route came down to 570 km (350 miles). I needed to fit this in a two week window with 13 hiking days so I needed to average 44 km (27 miles) per day. I had done such average before but not in any place like Iceland. I was happy to take it as a challenge that would fit well with my fastpacking ethos. I’m not particularly proud of the achievement, it was more of a side effect of my available time frame.
It was physically demanding but I specially recall the psychological weight of it all. I had not much margin for error or contingency plans. I worked harder than usual with my motivation to live day to day and try not to think much of the days ahead. I tried to live day-section to day-section even: mornings would be fine, with my body still fresh. Afternoons were the worst, already tired and still with many miles to go. Evenings were usually much more of a breeze -by then the mind was eventually convinced that the body would do it and everything was flowing better.
Day 2 was probably the hardest of them all, as usual. By then the body is not yet ready for such beating. Nothing gets your ready for backpacking as backpacking itself.
The Inner Game
It’s mostly mental. The whole thing. It’s your mindset that will take you through or prevent you from getting there.
I already know this but no matter how much I know it, no matter how loud or how many times I say it to myself, it’s still a weight heavier than anything I can put on my shoulders.
During my crossing of Iceland, I worried too much. As usual. I see it now and I’ll try to recall it next time around.
I worried about route finding before realizing I’d be on mostly straightforward tracks. I worried about the weather before getting to terms with the local patterns and getting to know better about what to expect. This at least is quite reasonable: 13 fastpacking days is barely enough to get familiar with such a complex region, weather wise.
The first week was a nearly seamless Type 2 Fun line. That’s tough. Type 2 Fun is fine in small doses. There were days when I hated every minute of it and my only guiding star was the hopes of a warm and dry night within a closed tent. Yet I remember fondly those moments when I finally was in my tent and the work for the day was done and I was victorious despite all the hardships.
I didn’t meet many people along this route. Sometimes it happened for the worse: I’d meet 4WDs rather than hikers and 4WDs would remind me of my self-punishment and would make me feel that all I wanted was to stay inside. There were a few times when I did meet other hikers though and I remember those times vividly. Every time it made me like I was not alone in some sort of psychological level. It helped more than anything. My hiking fellows were the team on my side in my inner game, even if I only crossed paths and a few minutes of conversation with them. Knowing they were there and that they were going through similar hardship would make me realize that I could do it. A smiling face and a good omen were my best support.
Sweat oddities, thirst and wearing waterproofs
“Let’s be bold for once” I thought when I left the prospect security of a car park nearby the biggest waterfall in the island in the middle of a day-long rainy spell that was making me feel truly miserable, so tempted to just hitch a fucking ride… but I kept walking.
It wasn’t just the rain or the walking: if I kept on, I would face my first highland wild camp and I was running out of (carried) water. Hence the “be bold” stance. It wasn’t the most reasonable thing to do.
I went on hiking, I camped, I drank my remaining water. I woke up the next day, I kept on hiking, I found no water through the day and I didn’t bother to look for it. Surprisingly for me, I wasn’t thirsty. I went on for the whole day with just a few drops in my bottle and when I eventually passed near a stream I didn’t bother to go for it. I had just realized that I needed far less water than I usually do.
The other odd, related fact is that I could wear my waterproofs non-stop and be comfortable. This was great news because the weather was showery, raining on and off all the time.
I wasn’t sweating. At all. And I wasn’t thirsty. Everything else was normal: I would pee, business as usual, I would feel physically fine beyond the expected beating. I just needed no water.
I credit it to the Iceland weather mix: cool temps and a constant breeze. It had to be Iceland, not me: as I write this I’m back home in 30+ degree, dry heat and I’m drinking as usual, including the beer.
This no-sweat, no thirst thing was a very interesting experience. It had never happened to me before.
It was only 13 days but it felt like months. It was intense.