Where are the most popular locations to partake in ATV and Buggy tours in Iceland? Do you need prior experience to ride, and how fast do the vehicles go? Are ATV and Buggy tours safe, and what can you expect to see? Read on to discover all there is to know about ATVs & Buggies in Iceland.
There are a great many ways to explore Iceland’s gorgeous and eclectic natural landscapes, many of which have become staple activities for those who choose to vacation here. Amongst the more popular choices are horseback riding, snowmobiling, helicopter flights and river rafting. Others will take by foot to the island's hiking trails, or catch a Super Jeep tour.
There are, it would appear, an almost unlimited number of activities available to those looking to break out of the confines of Reykjavík's luxury hotels; Iceland is a land of rock and ice, untamed and raw, and readily rewards though who seek its multitude of hidden treasures.
Each activity here provides an experience uniquely its own, offering guests a perspective of the country that, quite simply, is intangible to those standing idly by on an observation deck.
Why? Because these activities share one fundamental similarity, that they perch the participant nefariously between two opposite poles; rip-roaring adventure and natural tranquillity.
Consider scuba diving in the silent, blue glacial spring that is Silfra Fissure; imagine climbing the ice walls of Vatnajökull, only to be rewarded with a sweeping panorama of Iceland’s South Coast; visualise the radiant colours imprinted inside a volcanic magma chamber, having just descended deep into its dormant caldera.
These charming dichotomies are abundant in Iceland and are all there ready and waiting for those willing to outstep their comfort zone.
Photo from Easy 1 Hour ATV tour from Reykjavík
The newest members of this family are the ATV Quad Biking (All Terrain Vehicle) and Buggy tour operators, offering yet another means by which visitors can uncover the many highlights of Iceland’s countryside.
Since 2003, quad biking and buggy tours have been available as a pastime across the country, operating tours that have quickly captured the hearts and minds of adrenaline junkies everywhere. Offering hours of windswept fun, ATVs and Buggys are the perfect transportation for allowing guests to feel immersed on all sides by the glorious panorama of Iceland's countryside.
So, if you're flirting with the idea of some motorised action during your stay in Iceland, allow us to break down the sport, culture and possibilities that ATV and Buggy Tours provide.
Taking an ATV or buggy tour in Iceland presents guests with the opportunity to see the country’s nature as it should be.
As opposed to seeing the country’s major highlights from a bus window or viewing platform, these mobile and adaptable machines get you up close and personal to the diverse range of mountains, waterfalls, river and glacier tongues that dot the landscape.
Guests can explore volcanic peninsulas, black sand beaches, fertile valleys, mountain passes and quaint farmlands, periodically hitting the throttle for that much-needed shot of adrenaline. So too can visitors experience Iceland's smaller settlements, its jet-black deserts, its rumbling rivers and stretching ice-caps.
Out in the wild, exposed to the elements, ATVs and buggies provide a means of long-distance transportation and are able to easily cross terrain that a hiking party could not.
Using ATVs and buggies for sightseeing alone is a relatively new possibility in Iceland, having been utilised before the tourism boom, for the shepherding of rogue sheep.
One could be forgiven for believing that four-wheeling is best left to Africa's sand dunes, or America's forest trails, or Mexico's jungle, but in truth, ATVs and buggies bring forth an entirely new world of experience in Iceland, a world of experience that’s easy to overlook—this is especially true considering the sheer amount of other activities available here.
ATVs and buggy tours provide a memorable and bonding experience for adults and children alike, requiring minimal physical effort save steering the wheel or hitting the throttle.
Thankfully, the tours are available regardless of the season; one could be hitting snowy trails in the dead of a tempestuous winter, or roaring through a flowering meadow emblazoned with sunlight. At whatever time of year you choose to visit, the ATV and Buggy experience will be here waiting.
Photo from Easy 1 Hour ATV tour from Reykjavík
Guests partaking in an ATV or Buggy Tour best be ready for a dusty, dirty, bumpy adventure. Rolling across an inhospitable landscape, riders will experience every twist and turn in the road, every gust of wind, every wave of rain and snowfall. It is but part of the journey, a journey sprinkled with intrepid decisions and stunning visual displays.
To help prepare for your ride, your guide will first provide you with a safety briefing, detailing how to operate your ATV or buggy, advising on maximum speed and potential hazards on the trail. Fear not, your guides are not there to restrict your appetite for adventure, but to ensure that you feel comfortable riding throughout the duration of your tour.
Thankfully, the vast majority of machines possess automatic gears, making the actual driving aspect of the tour an incredibly simple affair.
Still, it is best to listen and gather as much information as possible; many of the guides have been quad biking for years, spending hours of their free time exploring the landscape’s hidden corners. They are the masters, and by taking on board there advice, you are sure to have a deeper and more fulfilling experience.
Your guides will also provide you with all of the other necessary equipment, including comfortable rain/windproof overalls, a balaclava, gloves and, of course, a helmet. Questionably fashionable, this attire is designed to protect riders from the elements and from any bumps and scrapes that might occur should, for any reason, the rider crash their ATV or buggy.
Before partaking in the tour, a full international driver's license must be displayed, and all guests will sign a liability waiver. This is not only to ensure that you are experienced enough to partake in the tour but to protect the operators should their expensive machines be in any way damaged through reckless driving. Normally, children of six and above can ride as passengers in the ATVs or buggies.
Once the party feels collectively ready to take on the trails, your lead guide will speed off, requiring all ATVs and buggies behind him to follow. Depending on where you've decided to take the tour, you might be rushing through river systems, across lava plains and even up dramatic mountain peaks.
Actual driving time can range from one hour to three—depending on the tour you choose—providing more than enough time to both check out a variety of attractions and to master the ATV or buggy itself.
Photo from Easy 1 Hour ATV tour from Reykjavík
One of the most important questions you’re probably asking yourself is, do I take an ATV or a buggy tour? Well, for starters, let us look at the vehicles’ shared similarities; both, quite obviously, share an amazing capacity for speed, four thick tyres and an openness to the elements. Both will provide hours of adventure, and both allow you to experience Iceland in a unique and exciting way.
Both vehicles make the rider feel invincible, a roaring force of nature that shatters the surrounding tranquillity like—as Meat Loaf might say—a bat out of hell.
To reiterate, both also require an international driving licence, and for the driver to sign a liability form prior to riding. This should be incentive enough to drive carefully; upturning or otherwise damaging an ATV or a buggy will seriously dent your wallet.
As for the differences, a buggy is a car-like vehicle with a built-in roll cage, adding extra protection in the event of an accident. The buggy allows the driver to sit in a flat position on the seat, using a steering wheel and pedals to operate the vehicle. Most buggies in Iceland have two seats, side by side, facing the open road ahead.
The buggy has a very high horsepower to weight ratio. Storage on a buggy is usually found at the back of the vehicle, rather than under the seat, as with an ATV. Buggies can also be referred to as a UTV ("Utility Vehicle") or a 'side-by-side'. Their maximum speed ranges from 40 km/h (25 mph) to 80 km/h (50 mph).
When it comes to All Terrain Vehicles, guests can pretty much expect what it says on the tin, a vehicle that can handle all terrain. Good job too, considering the ratchety stability of Iceland’s landscape; if not snow, then ATV riders will face rumbling rivers, volcanic plateaus, rocky embankments, gravel roads, mountain slopes and ice sheets. ATVs are also known as four-wheelers or quad bikes.
The ATVs used in Iceland are of the latest design. Experienced riders can expect to drive a Can-am Outlander Max 650 cc, or near enough, providing more than enough speed, mobility and robustness. Many quad bikes will even have built-in heaters, warming up the seat for those long winter rides. The speed of an ATV will usually max out at around 56 km/h (35 mph).
Outlanders are 2-up ATVs, meaning they are stretched to be able to accommodate one extra passenger. This not only provides the option of the letting those who don’t want to drive still experience an ATV but also opens up the opportunity for kids.
A longer seat also provides added comfort to the single rider, as well as providing ample storage space. ATV riders must sit in a fairly tight position, leaning forward against the handlebars.
There are two prime locations across Iceland where one can partake in an ATV or Buggy tour; the South Coast, and the Reykjanes Peninsula. Given the wide stretches of open land here, the diversity of the terrain and the physical capabilities of the vehicles themselves, it is as though this country was somehow designed with off-road vehicles in mind.
Even so, it must be remembered that off-road driving is strictly illegal in Iceland; those caught are subject to astronomical fines—fines that will easily flip a holiday from an expectedly pleasant experience to a financial nightmare. Under some circumstances, those caught off-roading will even face a spate of imprisonment. According to Icelandic media, in 2014, one tourist paid an on the spot fine of 500,000 ISK (£3609/€4048) for driving off-road in Vatnajökull National Park.
The reasons for the fines are clear and easily understandable; Iceland’s ecology, it’s unique flora, fauna and geology, is young and fragile, and damage can often take decades to repair.
Riding ATVs and buggies ‘off-road’ in Iceland takes place on designated trails specifically carved out to accommodate the passage of vehicles. These are the only trails in which ATVs and buggies are permitted to ride along, and your guide will be quick to embarrass you should think yourself above the law.
Trail riding certainly brings about a feeling of freedom... fines, on the other hand, are a welcome constraint.
The South Coast of Iceland is known the world over for its awe-inspiring coastlines, its variety of glistening waterfalls and its wild and diverse terrain. ATV and buggy tours here allow you the chance to experience such attractions in a truly unique way, dodging past the onslaught of sightseeing coaches and large crowds and getting right to the heart of the action.
Among the many attractions along the South Coast are the popular waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, as well as a mighty Mt. Heiðarhorn and the dramatic rock arch at Dyrhólaey. More often than not, the Sólheimasandur fields are included on South Coast ATV and buggy tours.
The black sand desert of Sólheimasandur is perhaps best known for two things; first, as a wild open expanse which guests must cross to reach Vatnajökull, Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, and secondly, as the final resting place for the DC plane wreck, having rested there since crashing in 1973.
Photo by Anders Jildén
The plane, a Douglas Dakota, once belonged to the US Navy—one of four stationed at the former US Air Base in Keflavík—and saw action in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Douglas Dakota came to its end after making an emergency landing; the reasons as to why the plane crashed are, to this day, still queried, with accounts ranging from a lack of fuel to a mechanical failure or a storm. Thankfully, all of the crew members survived the crash.
Now, the plane wreckage is widely considered a makeshift visitor’s attraction, with numerous photography and sightseeing tours using it as a subject. It is also widely used as a stopping point on ATV and buggy tours, providing one of the more surreal vistas available in Iceland; a gleaming white wreckage resting on a flatbed of black sand.
The area itself was formed after a series of eruptions at the nearby Katla Volcano; the volcano' is covered with 200-700 metres of ice, meaning that as the heat from the eruptions began to build, glacial flooding began to sweep down across the surrounding region. This is why the area is flat, devoid of life and black. On a clear day, visitors to the area will have incredible views of Mýrdalsjökull glacier and of the Dyrhólaey Peninsula, Iceland's southernmost point.
The Reykjanes Peninsula is, without doubt, Iceland’s premier ATV and buggy spot, and is one of Iceland's most densely populated regions, being home to over 22,000 people. Those arriving in Iceland by Keflavík Airport—and that's, by far, the majority of travellers—will first set their eyes upon this region as they make the transfer from the airport to the capital city.
This volcanic plateau provides a landscape reminiscent of science fiction, with sweeping fields of craggy rock, hidden valleys and an omnipresent covering of Icelandic moss. On one side rest the rolling blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean, on the other, a sweeping panorama of hillsides and mountains. This region was used a shooting location for Clint Eastwood's WW2 drama "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006).
The reasoning behind this peculiar country and its sparse lack of vegetation is due to an expansive underground volcanic network, covered almost entirely with a dried plateau of lava.
At the peninsula's southern end, near Kleifarvatn lake and the Krýsuvík geothermal area, visitors will also observe steaming hot springs and sulphur vents. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the Reykjanes Peninsula is home to one of Iceland's most famous attractions, the Blue Lagoon Spa.
Only fifteen minutes drive from Reykjavík, the peninsula makes for an easy morning or afternoon excursion, allowing you to combine ATV or buggying with one of Iceland’s many other attractions; ie. the Golden Circle sightseeing tour, for instance, glacier hiking or snorkelling in Silfra.
Most ATV and Buggy tour operators will also offer the opportunity to try cycling in Iceland, be it on the road or up into the mountains. Such operators will either provide biking tours, bicycle rentals or both.
Cycling is popular amongst both locals and tourists. The long roads that wind themselves vine-like across the island are often dotted with groups of cyclists, the subject of much sympathy and credulity to those driving by in the luxurious warmth of their rental cars.
Little to do they know what an incredible experience it is to pedal one's way through a diverse and open countryside. Besides, arriving at a destination by bike is, I imagine, a far more rewarding experience than simply arriving by coach or car.
Cycling in Iceland is perfectly safe, granted that you are fully prepared; long-distance rides will require you to carry food, water, a first aid, and you should be well aware of where exactly you'll be ending up for the night. Camping is an excellent way to go for those on a budget.
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