Winter is Here
Iceland’s a rough place. A snow- and glacier-covered volcanic rock located smack dab in the middle of the North Atlantic, it was settled by Vikings who were so good at raiding, killing, and exploring that the king of Norway exiled them. The early Icelanders, like their modern-day counterparts, were tough folk. They took no nonsense; respect was everything. Egil Skallagrímsson, an Icelandic hero from the 10th century, provides us with a great example in his saga when he drove an axe through the skull of a teenager after he felt he was disrespected during a ball game. Egil was 7 years old. These early Icelanders like Egil put up with the island’s unforgiving terrain, occasional volcanic eruption, and harsh weather and made it their home, using the island as a staging ground for the European discovery of North America by Leif Ericson (sorry, Columbus).
The history lesson tells us a lot about modern Iceland. Largely rural and with more gravel roads than paved ones, Icelanders have few ways to travel around their country, especially during long winters. Iceland’s location has led to the development of a very unique type of vehicle, what locals call “Super Jeeps.” Originally based on surplus World War II jeeps (hence the name), Super Jeeps were essentially military jeeps fitted with upgraded suspensions, bigger tires, and other gear designed to help conquer Iceland’s unforgiving terrain like the early Nordic warriors did. Nowadays Super Jeeps are more likely to be heavily modified Ford Econolines or Toyota Hiluxes than Jeeps, and there’s a pretty good reason for that.
Arctic Trucks first entered into the minds of international car enthusiasts when our favorite Top Gear presenters took one of their modified Hiluxes to the magnetic North Pole in 2007, but the company is actually much older than that. As Emil Grimsson, chairman of Arctic Trucks, tells me, in the late ’80s, people discovered that large tires running very low air pressures significantly improved traction in snow, so they started modifying their vehicles with monster rubber.
When Grimsson began working for Toyota Iceland in 1989, he got the company thinking about how it could provide vehicles ready to tackle Iceland’s terrain directly from the distributer without hurting performance, reliability, or durability. In 1990 Arctic Trucks was born. Fifteen years later, Grimsson bought out Arctic Trucks from Toyota Iceland and hasn’t looked back since. Now Arctic Trucks has outposts in nine countries (plus Antarctica), has distribution deals with a handful of automakers, and modifies everything from the Ford F-350 and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter to the legendary Toyota Hilux.
Whereas Americans tend to over-prepare for road conditions and then never use that capability (see all 203,000 of last year’s Jeep Wrangler sales for proof), Icelanders use the capability they purchase. All of it. With road closures due to weather common year-round, those living outside of the capital may have to traverse deep snow, mud, and even rivers in order to get to the closest town and get something as simple as a hot dog (fun fact: Icelanders LOVE hot dogs).
Being an American in Iceland with my new(ish) wife, Elayna, we opted to celebrate our belated honeymoon by venturing beyond the south coast where most tourists spend their time and lapping the country’s ring road, breaking off onto 4×4-only F-roads to explore the real Iceland where we saw fit, just like the Vikings before us. To do so we needed something beyond your typical rental Suzuki Jimny. We needed a modern-day wheeled longship: an Arctic Truck Toyota Hilux AT38.
Arctic Trucks builds Hiluxes in several specs (including a 6×6 version on 44-inch tires that’d shame a Mercedes-AMG G63 6×6), and the Hilux AT38—the number denotes the tire size—is among the most popular. The same spec truck that James May and Jeremy Clarkson sailed to the North Pole, the Hilux AT38 starts its life out as a stock Toyota Hilux Double Cab with four-wheel drive and a 3.0-liter, turbodiesel I-4 producing 168 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque.
Arctic Trucks takes things over from there. Although the Hilux’s famously reliable powertrain is left alone, modifications are extensive; the body and frame are re-engineered and reinforced to accommodate the massive Arctic Truck-branded 405/70R15 studded mud- and snow-rated tires, a Fox Racing coil-over suspension is fitted up front, Arctic Truck coil springs are paired with Fox Racing shocks in back, and the whole truck is given a 3.5-inch suspension lift. With the added clearance the tires provide, the Hilux AT38 boasts 12.7 inches of ground clearance. The Arctic Truck team then adds an ARB air-locking front differential to pair with the stock mechanical-locking rear diff (now with a 4.88 final drive ratio), a 26.5-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, a snorkel, a bull bar, front and rear tow bars, and electric air compressors, along with a handful of other small items.
Before Elayna and I set off on our journey, I wanted to find out just what the Arctic Truck Hilux was capable of. After all, I can’t imagine anything turning Elayna from “new” wife to “first” wife quicker than asking her to hop out and push after getting us stuck. So our first day of our honeymoon would be spent off-road, figuring out just what the Hilux AT38 could do.
Parked in a small underground garage, the Arctic Trucks Hilux looked huge parked among a mix of small Skodas and stock Toyota Land Cruisers. Hoisting my 6-foot frame into the Hilux felt like I was climbing into a big rig, but once I was inside, it felt like your typical Toyota truck, with the exception of the CB radio and extra fuel gauge mounted in the center console and the four auxiliary switches—two for the ARB locker, one for the air compressor, and one for the auxiliary fuel pump. It was practically a previous-generation Tacoma.
Any indications that the Arctic Trucks Hilux feels anything like a Tacoma to drive disappeared as I squeezed the Toyota out of the garage and into the streets of central Reykjavik. The diesel’s relaxing clatter and torque is one indication. The last Tacoma I drove spent most of its time revving it’s V-6 over 4,000 rpm in order to get anywhere; the Hilux’s diesel, on the other hand, redlines just above 4,000 rpm, with most torque available between 1,100 rpm and 3,500 rpm, by which time the five-speed auto usually shifts. The other indication is where the rubber meets the road, literally. The big 38-inch tires’ metal studs emit a constant though oddly pleasing thrum as the metal studs hit the pavement—kind of like the sound your car’s tires make as you drive down a rural gravel road.
Out on the highway, the Hilux pulls strong as you accelerate to Iceland’s 55 mph (90 km/h) national speed limit; you won’t be winning any drag races with this Toyota, but it doesn’t at all feel overmatched by the massive rotational weight of the tires and extra off-road hardware. I initially hit the road annoyed at the low speed limit, but 55 mph is probably about as fast as you’d want to go in the Hilux. As you get up to speed, the steering wheel starts to gently wobble and shimmy in your hands as you drive down the road. It’s not violent like the so-called “death wobble” some Jeep owners get after modifying their vehicles past their mechanical limit, but it certainly gets your attention at first.
Pretty soon, we’d turned off the ring road and pointed our Hiluxes down a gravel road leading to the entrance of a massive geothermal power plant. The road had seen better days: rutted, uneven, scarred from many harsh winters. The Hilux nevertheless floated down the trail in relative comfort. The closest analogue to it would be a Ford F-150 Raptor, which has a similar ability to make the roughest of roads feel pillow soft. After a spell on some gravel roads, we turned down a spur that led onto an unplowed snow-covered trail, pulled over, and, at the insistence of our guide, Jón, aired down the truck’s tires.
To be perfectly honest, airing down the Arctic Truck’s tires seemed like overkill. I grew up driving in New York winters and last winter spent some time in some of America’s best off-roaders in snowy Colorado, and I never felt the need to air down our SUV’s stock tires then, so why now given the Hilux’s barrel-sized tires? Not wanting to offend my gracious guide, I nevertheless crouched down in the cold snow and watched as Jón showed me the Arctic Truck wheel’s party piece. The bead-locking wheels have two valve stems to aid in the airing-up and airing-down process. The idea is that you use the outboard valve stem to check your tire pressure, and the inboard valve stem, when uncapped, expels air like an untied balloon. It’s a pretty ingenious system. Jón said that if you’re quick enough, you can air down two tires at a time. I am not that quick, even when airing down from our 25 psi road pressure to the 10 psi off-road pressure.
With the tires aired down, I fired the truck back up, slotted the Hilux’s transfer case into four-high, and plowed forward into the untouched powder. I felt unstoppable—on top of the world! Visions of exploring deep into the untouched highlands or out onto the western fjords with Elayna flashed through my head. Maybe we’d even see puffins! As I snapped back to reality, I realized I wasn’t going forward as fast anymore. The diesel was happily chugging along, and the tires were spinning, but we were sinking—fast. We were stuck. I’d made it all of 15 feet.
Turns out Icelanders have the same word we do for the type of snow the country gets in early May: crap. With temperatures starting to warm, the snow changes from an icy powder to a wet slush that doesn’t compact well into a tire’s tread, making getting stuck a regular occurrence—a reason why many of Iceland’s interior roads remain closed through the middle of summer.
It’s a good thing we brought a support truck along. With the backup truck following my tracks, it easily made its way toward my stuck Hilux so that we could yank it free with a rope. We aired the tires down to 5 psi for good measure and shifted into four-low.
Iceland’s no joke.
After a yank from the backup Hilux, we continued down the untraveled path. Even with the snow working against us, the Arctic Truck felt unstoppable with the Toyota in low gear and the nearly airless tires slinging snow as we made our own way. When it did get stuck, reversing, locking the rear diff, and continuing forward usually did the trick. If not, the ARB front locker often proved to be the difference maker.
Things can get dire while off-road in Iceland’s interior. As we pushed on, following where we thought the road markers would be were the snow gone, we found ourselves in a small valley. Covered in pure white snow, the ground would’ve blended right into the cloudy horizon were it not for the small pockets of gray volcanic gravel and lava moss helping provide some contrast. Just visible on the other side was the road we needed to head back to civilization. Onward.
It was slow going as we plowed through the snow, but progress was being made. Halfway through the snow-covered valley, Jón yelled to stop. I brought the Hilux to a quick stop, and the truck started to settle down into the snow. Jón told me to slowly back up as he hopped out to investigate the trail. “Look at this!” he excited said. As he lightly put his foot on the snow we were about to drive over, it crumbled away, revealing a running stream about 2 feet below. Had we driven into that, we would’ve not only sunk fast but also likely done some damage to the Hilux. If we didn’t have that backup Arctic Truck, we would’ve been stranded. End of story. Not all is as it seems out in Iceland’s inland.
This river crossing would prove to be the toughest obstacle of the day. After backtracking through the valley, we powwowed to figure out a best way around the river and eventually settled on a plan. The trucks would straddle the volcanic rock on the hillside, work up a head of steam, and plow through the deep snow, staying wide of where we thought the deepest part of the river was.
The transmission in low gear and four-wheel-drive system in low, the Hilux got up to speed before running out of rock and plowed into the deep powder.
The Arctic Truck made progress, but by the halfway point it was slow going. The road to return was so close and yet so far away; it looked to only be another 100 yards or so through the snow, but it took nearly an hour to get through. Even with the locked diffs helping out, forward progress was exceptionally difficult. I’d get the Toyota going at a decent clip only to be brought to a halt. I soon got into a routine: low gear, roll slowly on the gas, accelerate, get stuck. Reverse 15 feet. Low gear, slow on the gas. Use my tracks for traction. Pick up speed. Stop. Rinse. Repeat. Two steps forward, one back. As the time passed, the Arctic Truck Hilux pushed and dragged itself closer and closer to the safety of the trail. A sense of excitement washed over me as my bright red truck approached the last stretch of untouched snow. One final push as the diesel roared forward, and we were back on solid ground. We’d made it.
Compared to the snowfield, the Hilux AT38 made the rest of trail look easy. That road we worked so hard to get to continued through a river—not across—which turns out to be a pretty common occurrence in Iceland. With the water no more than a foot deep, the Toyota didn’t even seem to notice that it was fording a river, the only sign of the feat water being thrown up by the tires like the salt spray from a Viking longboat’s oars. Pretty soon I could make out our paved road back to civilization. With one final push, the Hilux powered up and over the muddy river embankment and back on the road, and we aired up. Time to hit the road. My shieldmaiden and I have got a saga of our own to write.