We interview legendary adventure photographer Chris Burkard on what bikepacking across Iceland was like. If you missed the film earlier this month, you can watch it here
alongside our interview with Emily Batty. Together Chris Burkard and Emily Batty, alongside Eric Batty and Adam Morka, rode 913km across Iceland in a self-supported journey. Burkard talks about how difficult it was to plan the journey, how terrifying the river crossings were, and his deep love of Iceland.
What is your background as a cyclist?Chris Burkard:
I started cycling just simply as a way to get to work. 8 years ago or so, I was sick of driving and bought a cheap bike off craigslist and just kinda fell in love. Daily rides commuting turned into long weekend rides, which turned into my first century. All of a sudden I had a kid and my weekend rides were kinda over. But I fell in love again with cycling again 2 years ago and really started digging the ultra-distance rides... 2, 3, 400 miles or more, where you really dig deep and explore the often remote parts of yourself. I set a few goals for myself and actually set the speed record for cycling around Iceland in 2018. 854 miles in 52 hours. At that point I was full blown hooked.
Why did you decide to bike pack across Iceland?Chris Burkard:
I’ve been to Iceland 43 times for different expeditions and work trips. Every time I go I am looking for a new, deeper way to experience this place that I love. My travels there have led me to explore so many remote parts of the country, but the interior has always been a mystery. I wanted to experience it in a deep and intimate way. When the opportunity arose to ride with this group, I started dreaming up a route that really clung to the remote interior. We built it and realized that it wasn’t just a mega adventure, but that is was a massive undertaking and I guess that’s where the idea was born.
How do you know Emily Batty, Eric Batty and Adam Morka? How did you become a foursome on this adventure?Chris Burkard:
To be honest, I have just always been a fan of Eric and his exploits on the bike, especially the winter trips. The guy is a legend and I was just so stoked to be in touch with him, let alone plan something. When this opportunity came up to bikepack Iceland together, we both just put our heads together and started planning. He brought together the team given that Emily and Adam wanted to do something fun before the Olympics and that was how the team was born. Kinda wild.
How much time had you spent riding with Adam, Emily and Eric before the traverse? How much time have you spent bike packing?Chris Burkard:
Hahahaha that would be a total of zero days! I hadn’t even met them except a few phone calls. Which was terrifying, just the added fear of that unknown. But we obviously all knew each other’s backgrounds. As for bikepacking, I had literally bike packed 3-4 times before this trip and to be honest it was like, my 20th time mountain biking in my life. But those trips I did in preparation were really brutal. I tried to really push myself into the sport as much as I could. I learned as much as possible and really dedicated myself, in the hope I wouldn’t be weak link. Each of those 3-4 bikepacking trips was a a mega 2-300 mile epic through some harsh landscapes. I felt like I was as prepared as I was ever gonna be.
Do you think you made the right choice to ride cross-country race bikes?Chris Burkard:
To be honest, I worked with what I had. I felt like having a more tried and true setup that wasn’t carbon and maybe was a bit burlier would have put my mind at ease, but my bike was so light to begin with that when I put those extra 65 lbs on it, it didn’t feel that bad. So I was grateful for the bike and the weight and the way it felt, but at times, especially over the really gnarly terrain, I wish I had something that was a little more burly or could withstand a brush with volcanic rock better.
How long did it take to plan the journey and what was that process like?Chris Burkard:
That was one of the most complicated parts. I hired an Icelandic cartographer, Snorri, to build the route with me because it was so complicated. It took a good 6 months to build the route, then another few months of prepping with the production team and obviously just getting all the sponsors aligned. Not to mention bikes, gear and physical training all added up to over a year in total. But the bigger issue was that all that got put on hold when Covid-19 hit. We didn’t know what was going to happen and everything was in limbo. Thankfully the Icelandic government granted us access because we were bringing attention to a threatened landscape they feel needs attention. So that felt pretty good.
Was there anything you wish you’d packed that you didn’t? Chris Burkard:
Yes... more junk food and less nuts. I am as healthy as they come but after so many hours and long days on the bike you just cannot eat that crap. Your body craves simple sugars and chocolate and gummies hahaha. So I guess that is what I wish I had more of. I honestly tested everything else including my clothes before the trip on other bikepacking adventures. And I knew it all was going to work well so I guess I felt pretty dialed.
How certain were you that completing the trip would be possible when you set out on day one?Chris Burkard:
Completely uncertain. In fact, I would say I thought it was 50/50. This is kinda the part of the trip that nobody talks about and the film doesn’t address that well. The route we had was just a line on a map. Nobody really knew if it “went” or not. So every day was a bit scary in terms of how good the trail, road or route was going to be. There were no trip reports to go off of, or current condition write ups. It was a full blown expedition in the truest sense. The biggest thing was the mega river crossings that were honesty a huge question mark on our route. We would build giant workarounds for these rivers because if we couldn't cross them we would have to pack up and tack on an extra 100km or so just to get back on track. It would have added days and days. It was nauseating to think about and it kept me up at nights.
How much camera gear did you carry along with you on the bike? Chris Burkard:
Each person took a camera or two. I had a small camera and a Xperia phone, Eric and Adam brought point and shoots as well as DSLRs and Emily had a point and shoot - the Sony ZV1. We each kinda took what we could carry given how heavy our load already was on our bikes. Ultimately, we each had different styles and chose the camera and lens that suited us.
What was the hardest part of the journey?Chris Burkard:
Easily the river crossings. Specifically the ones on the northside of Hofsjokull glacier. They are dangerous and can flood almost instantly. You can also find legit quicksand there. It's a wild environment that I was actually scared to cross. We had some friends scout a few river crossings the week before the trip and the rivers were so swollen they couldn’t cross them in a super jeep with 54” tires. We were tripping out. I was like, 'how in the hell are we going to cross a river like that with an 80lb bike on our back? We are gonna die out there or get swept off our feet.' Low and behold, the night before the crossing came and I honestly couldn’t sleep, I had so much anxiety. We started at the crack or dawn to get to the river early as possible, so that it was still cold and the water levels were low. We lucked out and were able to cross without doing some heinous workaround. Once we did that, the river crossings became our favorite day. Each braided stream like a chess game or some kinda puzzle to work out. We probably crossed 100+ rivers all in all.
What was the most surprising part of the journey?Chris Burkard:
How dry and empty Iceland’s interior really is. I had no idea. I had always associated this place with water and an abundance of it. But to see just how dry and sandy and dusty it can be blew my mind. It truly is a desert. There were these stretches with nothing around for hundreds of miles. You felt so, so empty and lonely at times, then out of nowhere something unique and vibrant. One the locals at the mountain hut called it the big empty. He said that is what they always called it. That really stuck with me.
What was the highlight of the trip?Chris Burkard:
All Eric's jokes in the morning! I can't get enough of that guy. He is so freaking funny it's awesome. Every morning I thought I was gonna vomit because he would be telling jokes forever. He has a knack for taking your mind off ride.
Do you have any more bike packing trips planned?Chris Burkard:
A ton. I just actually got back from a few rad ones and I hope to explore a few more of my favorite landscapes by bike. Iceland again for sure. But maybe in winter on fat bikes. Also Alaska and the Faroe Islands would be rad. But even my home of California is truly amazing. That is the beauty of the bike, it lets you see a familiar place in a new way, slowing down the process and letting you absorb more. Hell, I’ll ride anywhere if I have the opportunity.