The Arctic Trucks Experience: A 4x4 Adventure in the Icelandic HighlandsPosted in Features on June 25, 2018
We were in the middle of nowhere, between the harsh volcanic desert of Kjölur and the rugged peaks of Kerlingarfjöll when the weather turned from bad to worse. It was impossible to see the track, so we relied on our GPS to get us to our destination. Luckily, we were driving a modified Toyota Hilux AT38, a truck engineered by Arctic Trucks for traveling through the most hostile terrain on the planet. We aired down to 3 psi and motored through the fierce, unforgiving blizzard to Hveravellir Nature Reserve. Our goal was to drive atop the mighty Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland.
A day earlier, we approached the runway at Keflavík International Airport and realized that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Iceland is one of the most remote, volcanically active and sparsely populated countries on the planet. It rests on the edge of the Arctic Circle and has an incredibly diverse topography that includes mountains, lava fields, glaciers, farmlands, fjords, lakes, and rivers. We were greeted by Herjolfur Gudbjartsson, managing director of Arctic Trucks Reykjavik, and driven to the company’s headquarters where we were briefed on the itinerary for our adventure into the remote and mostly uninhabited Highlands.
Arctic Trucks is an international company founded in Iceland in 1997 that specializes in the re-engineering and conversions of modern four-wheel-drive vehicles for extreme conditions. For over two decades the company has offered a wide range of modified 4x4s, including Toyota, Ford, Nissan, Mercedes, Jeep, VW and Mitsubishi, all designed to deliver the ultimate mobility and handling package—on- and off-road, for leisure, business, and exploration. The company’s vehicles have been used for rescue services, mining projects, utilities and telecom providers, scientific research, and daily drivers. Arctic Trucks also has operations in the UK, Norway, Finland, Poland, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. The company has supplied vehicles for several high-profile expeditions to polar regions including Antarctica, Greenland, and the Magnetic North Pole. When it came to selecting a vehicle for servicing long-distance expeditions on the Antarctic Plateau, the company decided on the legendary Toyota Hilux, and modified it to handle the extreme conditions while maintaining reliability and efficiency. For those seeking a guided 4x4 adventure, the company offers Antarctica Expeditions and the Arctic Trucks Experience where you can climb behind the wheel and into the driver seat.
We left the Arctic Trucks office in a ’18 Toyota Hilux Double Cab 4x4 powered by a 2.4L turbodiesel engine that produces 174 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. The powerplant was mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and two-speed transfer case with a 2.6:1 low range gearing. For additional traction, it was fitted with an ARB Air Locker in the front differential and it retained the OEM electric locker in the back. Stefan Jonsson, store manager, and Hinrik Johannsson, R&D director, joined us in a ’17 Nissan Navara Dual Cab 4x4 built for a local customer. Their truck was equipped with a twin-turbo 2.3L turbodiesel engine that delivers 190 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. As we navigated the paved streets and numerous roundabouts of the city, we were surprised by the excellent handling of the Hilux, considering that it rolled on Arctic Trucks–brand AT405 38x15.5R15 tires and 15x12 aluminum wheels. The company designs and builds their own suspensions and the Hilux had a standard double A-arm setup on the front with custom Arctic Trucks lift kit and Fox coilover shocks. Out back, Fox 2.0 Performance Series IFP shocks are used in conjunction with standard leaf springs, longer shackles, and the company’s custom lift. The Nissan used a sophisticated double-wishbone front suspension with Fox coilover shocks combined with a five-link rear suspension, a custom Arctic Trucks lift, and Fox Performance Series IFP shocks. It rolled on Arctic Trucks AT405 38x15.5R15 tires mounted on 15x12 Arctic Trucks aluminum wheels. The Navara was fitted with an ARB Air Locker in the front differential and an OEM electric locker out back. Arctic Trucks provides customized bodywork for each vehicle that it builds, including trimmed fenders and fiberglass fender flares to allow for the larger tires. Both the Hilux and Navara came fitted with Safari snorkels, Arctic Trucks grilleguards, and Vision X Light Cannon Series lighting.
Within ten minutes, we were out of city and into the wild, harsh, and remote Icelandic countryside. Considering the terrain, it was apparent why so many folks were using an Arctic Truck for their daily drivers. We headed east on Route 36 towards Gullfoss, a massive waterfall situated in the upper part of the Hvítá River, located 119 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik. The pavement ended just past the Gullfoss Visitor Center at Kjölur road (Route 35). It quickly became a rough, rutted, and muddy mess, so we stopped to air down. A few kilometers later, we crossed a glacial-fed river and continued driving northward to Bláfell Mountain (elevation 3,950 feet) where we tested our rigs on its powdery slopes. Afterwards, we motored through the drifting snow with the help of the powerful 2.4L turbodiesel and onto the main track, which quickly disappeared into a blanket of white. Staying on course was a challenge since it was impossible to distinguish the ground from the sky and keep sight of Stefan, who led the way through the whiteout. Earlier that day he had programmed his GPS coordinates for Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort, a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts. We communicated on two-way radios and hoped that the blizzard would soon let up so that we’d arrive at Kerlingarfjöll at a decent hour. To our delight, we rolled in around 6 p.m. just as the weather was clearing and were greeted by the caretaker who showed us to our accommodations. Later that evening, we were treated to an amazing dinner consisting of local lamb, potatoes, and veggies grilled on the BBQ. After the feast, we became better acquainted with Stefan and Hinrik while toasting to shots of Brennivín, a popular Icelandic liquor consumed for special occasions. We agreed that our day of driving in the Highlands was a heck of a lot of fun and that the Arctic Trucks performed flawlessly. It was midnight when we decided to turn in, so we said goodnight, put on our boots and parkas, and headed out into gale-force winds to our guest quarters next door. To our surprise, the northern lights appeared in the Arctic sky as we were walking to our room…the perfect ending to a long and adventurous day.
Morning came, along with howling winds and below-freezing temperatures, so we bundled up to prepare for a frigid day on the Highlands. Breakfast was ready at 8 a.m. and we were joined by our new friends for a traditional buffet consisting of boiled eggs, ham, cheese, toast, sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and coffee. During our meal, we discussed our route and itinerary for the next two days. We agreed to head to a higher elevation with deeper snow so that we could test the limits of our Arctic Trucks, then make our way to Hveradalir, one of the most spectacular geothermal resorts in Iceland. We left Kerlingarfjöll and soon found ourselves in diff-deep powder near Setrid. We aired down to 3 psi to maintain forward momentum through the snow and arrived at Setrid around noon. Iceland has many remote accommodations (aka mountain huts) for the adventure traveler, and the one at Setrid even had a cell tower with 4G. We were surprised to have cell coverage in an area that could be mistaken as a distant, frozen planet. After devouring our ham sandwiches and chocolates, we headed west and followed the southern edge of Hofsjökull glacier towards Hveradalir where we planned to stay the night. As we traveled along the unmarked route, we came to a small creek and got our Hilux stuck in the snowbank while attempting to cross it. While attempting to find the winch cable, we noticed that it was buried underneath ice and snow and required some serious digging to locate the hook. Finally, we were able to spool out the synthetic rope and attach it to the Navara, making for a quick recovery. Soon thereafter, the weather cleared, and the sun illuminated the Highlands allowing us to see miles in every direction. We retraced our tracks and passed by a 10-foot-deep crevice that could’ve swallowed a vehicle whole. We considered ourselves lucky that we didn’t drive into it earlier that morning. The snow wasn’t so deep now so we aired up to 10 psi, a task made easy with the onboard compressor and dual valve stems. Our crew arrived at Hveradalir in the late afternoon and were greeted by a young lady named Victoria who showed us to our rooms. Victoria was a backpacker from Belarus who stumbled upon Hveradalir while traveling. She was offered a job and has since managed the place by herself with the help of Bella, her trusty canine companion. After checking in, we decided to take a soak in the outdoor geothermal springs. In Iceland, you do as the locals, so we put on our swimsuits, boots and parkas, grabbed two Viking beers each, and headed out into the cold for a bath. Later that evening, we all enjoyed Victoria’s homemade shepherd’s pie in the warmth of the cozy hut. After dinner we drank Brennivín and discussed our plans to drive atop Langjökull glacier the next day…weather permitting.
During breakfast, we reviewed the map and planned our route for the day. We said goodbye to Victoria and set off for Langjökull, the second largest ice cap in Iceland after Vatnajökull. Earlier, we had contemplated driving its entire length (50 kilometers) from north to south but had to scrap that plan due a storm that had just arrived. Instead, it was agreed that we’d head south on the Kjölur Road (Route 35) for about 25 kilometers to Lake Hvítárvatn, where we hoped to find better weather. From there, we turned west and headed towards Skalpanes, the basecamp for Mountaineers of Iceland, a snowmobile and 4x4 tours company. On our way, we carefully traversed several areas of “blue ice,” which is frozen glacial runoff that had flooded the track. Stefan took his time in choosing the correct line, as a wrong decision could have led to disaster if one of our vehicles broke through the ice. We arrived at the base of the glacier, aired down, and began our slow ascent. Several times we became stuck when our Hilux broke through the glacial ice and lost traction. Stefan explained that driving on a glacier was much different than in regular snow. The key is to go very slowly and to not break through the top layer. We found that it was easier said than done, and it seemed like we spent more time winching than glacial driving. We continued crawling forward in 4-Lo with front and rear lockers engaged. Within an hour we were at the highest point of the glacier and rewarded with an amazing view of the Highlands below. Suddenly, a blizzard blew in from the north and we were caught in a complete whiteout. We decided it best to head down and relied on Stefan’s experience and expertise to get us safely back to basecamp where we arrived three hours later.
Of course, it goes without saying that Iceland is a land of extremes, hence the nickname the “Land of Fire and Ice.” The Arctic Trucks Experience was the ultimate extreme adventure and should be on every off-roader’s bucket list. From the remote, frozen Icelandic Highlands to the top of Langsjökull glacier, you can be assured that an Arctic Truck will get you there and back.
Stefan helps with a winch recovery of the Hilux on Langjökull glacier.