The sunlight was so bright that the only way I could track my progress through the virgin snow was by peering out of the open window, straining to find anything that could be used as a marker by which I could measure movement.
Carlton Boyce had more fun than building a snowman, on an Arctic Trucks Adventure in Iceland
As the modified four-wheel-drive crawled inch by precious inch through the metre-deep snow up the steep slope, I suddenly realised that we were stuck. A wedge of compacted snow had built up under the front wheels, and now all four studded tyres were churning uselessly, literally digging us even deeper into the hole we were in. I tried rocking us back and forth, smoothly shifting between reverse and drive to try and free the car. But we were going nowhere, and it looked like the mountains of Sveitarfélagið Ölfus had claimed their first victim of the day.
And it was all Jeremy Clarkson’s fault. The Top Gear Polar Special, in which he and James May raced to the magnetic North Pole in an Arctic Trucks-modified Toyota Hilux sealed the Icelandic company’s name firmly into British pop culture.Painted in the company’s trademark red colour and boasting 38-inch tyres, the iconic vehicles were the first to ever make the journey – and I’d wanted to drive one ever since
Of course, those with deep pockets can simply write a cheque and buy their own; the going rate is around £60,000+ depending on specification, which is rather a lot. Nor is it necessarily the best way to fulfil your Polar fantasies either because the very things that make an AT38 Hilux so awesome off the beaten path inevitably make it much worse on it.
Those fat balloon tyres, for example, might give massive grip in deep snow, but they squirm and wallow at high speed, and scrub when you want to turn at low speed. The fat wheel arches might look amazing, but they’re a pain on tight city streets, and studded winter tyres might give incredible grip on icy roads, but they chatter and hum terribly on dry tarmac.
To help demonstrate how single-minded the AT38 is in its pursuit of Polar perfection, my own personal D-Max AT35 – with its Isuzu-approved Arctic Trucks modifications and five-year manufacturer warranty – is fitted with slightly smaller 35-inch diameter tyres. As a result, it lacks some of the AT38’s off-road capability in extremis (although it’s still way better than anything else you can buy straight off the showroom floor) but I’m happy to trade a degree of indefatigability for much improved everyday usability. Anything I buy with my own money has to serve first and foremost as a daily driver and the ability to cruise quietly at motorway speeds and handle neatly in the bends is a daily requirement. Conquering glaciers isn’t.
So, the best way to emulate Clarkson is probably to contact Arctic Trucks Experience and ask it to lay on an Icelandic adventure of your very own. This might take the form of a bespoke multi-day quest (you can even cross Antarctica, stopping off at the South Pole for a commemorative photograph, if you’ve got $150,000 lying around…) or simply a one-day, self-drive rental of one of the iconic trucks.
I plumped for the former, which is how I came to be in Reykjavík, listening to Ørn Thomsen, the general manager of Arctic Trucks Norway, explaining what to do if I happened to drive one of his expensively modified vehicles into a crevasse.
Which is properly scary stuff but if it was easy, I suspect the appeal would be considerably diminished. Crevasses aside (sit still and wait for help is apparently the correct course of action, with child-like sobbing interspersed with the occasional scream being a stress-relieving optional adjunct…) the task of crossing glaciers and snow-covered mountains is made relatively easy due to the sheer competence of the Toyota Hilux AT38 pickups we were to drive.
Sitting on fat, 38-inch tall (hence the name) Arctic Truck-branded studded winter tyres, the chassis has been chopped in two and a 10cm extension welded in to move the front axle forward. Taller suspension is then fitted along with front and rear receiver hitches. These are a common sight in America and Scandinavia and allow the quick interchange of a range of accessories including recovery points, snow ploughs, towbars, and a winch. The latter obviously needs power, so heavy duty 12-vol, quick-release Anderson connectors are fitted fore and aft. This clever arrangement means that one winch can be shared between vehicles and swapped around as necessary as a last-ditch recovery option when all else fails.
Which isn’t very often. Mainly because Arctic Trucks has a policy of self-recovery whenever possible, and the trick to this is to control tyre pressure and judicious use of front and rear differential locks. The wheels have two valve stems, one of which has no core, which means that the air howls out at an ungodly rate when the valve cap is unscrewed. Even so, the volume inside those huge tyres is so great that it takes a couple of minutes per corner to drop the pressure from a road-going 20psi to the 5psi we used off-road. Re-inflating is almost as easy thanks to an on-board Viair air compressor. Flicking the dashboard switch gets it running, and it’s then a simple matter to connect the air hose to the quick-release connector that pokes through the car’s front grille.
The really trick kit though are the front and rear differential locks that allow all four wheels to transmit drive to the ground; this allows the car to inch forward even when just one wheel has grip. When all else fails, locked diffs and a sensitive right foot will haul you out of almost everything; we did use the tow rope but only twice, which was astonishing given the depth of virgin snow we ploughed through for three days solid. The winch remained bolted in place and served as front ballast rather than an essential part of our recovery equipment.
I tagged along with a group from Norway, headed by Ørn Thomsen, the general manager of Arctic Trucks Norway. Ørn is a powerhouse of a man, happy to party until 4am and still rise at 7 to cook breakfast for his group. He’s also an off-road enthusiast of the tallest order. Quite literally; he led the group in his heavily modified Toyota Land Cruiser complete with 44-inch tyres and sound-of-the-devil exhaust note.
In fact, I met my match in the Norwegians; they partied long and hard, generally drinking dodgy beer while sitting in a series of hot pools. Our first night was a slow slog from the Icelandic capital to Landmannalaugar, a wilderness campsite and wooden lodge that is off-limits to all but the most competent four-wheel-drive vehicles. Our Toyotas, fitted with 38-inch tyres were the smallest vehicles there, and even Ørn’s 44-inch Land Cruiser was dwarfed by a Ford F350 pickup that sat confidently on 49-inch tyres. The place would be utterly inaccessible for anything that was still in standard showroom specification. (We pulled two Toyota Land Cruisers out of the snow the very next day; they’d made the mistake of trying to drive on a snow-covered road with normal winter tyres.)
Ørn first trained as a chef, so the charcoal-cooked lamb he served with a homemade tarragon-infused Béarnaise sauce and baked potatoes was magnificent. But not as magnificent as sitting in a natural hot pool at midnight watching the Northern Lights struggle to make an appearance as snow fell (horizontally) on our shoulders. Aquavit and Penderyn Welsh whisky helped ward off the chills, as did the swirling, sometimes uncomfortably hot, spring water.
I shivered my way home to find that my woolly hat – and yes, I grant you that a woolly hat and a pair of swimming trunks is an unconventional combination – had frozen on my head.Strong coffee and a Scandinavian breakfast fortified the inner man ahead of another day in the mountains. We no longer worried about getting stuck because we knew we’d be able to get out of whatever trouble we’d managed to ham-fistedly get ourselves into. The reality is that if you’re sympathetic, then even the deepest snow need hold no fear. If you do get stuck, gently shuffling forwards and backwards by switching quickly and smoothly between reverse and drive will almost always get you free, providing you can generate enough forward momentum to ‘pop’ your way up and over the wedge of compacted snow that has halted progress in the first place.
The second night was spent in a one of a number of wonderful wooden chalets in a place called Minniborgir. Another good meal and some cross-cultural lubrication set the scene for another end-of-evening dip, this time in a conventional hot tub, albeit one that sources it water directly from the ground. In fact, the hardest part of the whole business is making sure that it doesn’t get too hot…
Day three saw weather that was so appalling that even the hardy Ørn decided that it would simply be too boring (too boring, you note, not too dangerous; Norwegians are obviously as hard as the cars we were in…) to drive on a glacier in whiteout conditions. So he led us to a snow-covered valley where we spent a joyful couple of hours driving through rivers and climbing mountains before enjoying a BBQ in a snow storm.
Tough, like I say.
We’d moved from snow-driving novices to reasonably competent, Icelandic off-roaders in three days. The pace was perfectly pitched and, like all the best tuition, delivered in a way that ensured that we discovered the right answers ourselves, safe in the knowledge that experts had ensured the learning environment was safe, but challenging. And I wasn’t alone is singing their praises; the group was unanimous in its admiration of both leaders and vehicles.
Arctic Trucks Experience, the travel agent arm of the company, runs a series of events throughout the year. As a guide, my four-day event, including a night in an excellent hotel in Reykjavik with a meal in one of the best restaurants on the island, cost a little over £1,500. That’s a lot of money, but when you factor in Icelandic prices, I doubt there was much of a profit.
And anyway, life is measured in value, not cost, and the value here was immeasurable; I defy anyone to undertake a trip like mine and remain unmoved. I’m lucky enough to be able to do this sort of thing for a living, so I can tell you that this was the very best trip of them all.
Yet the greatest compliment I can pay Ørn and his team is that despite spending the final evening in a superb hotel in Reykjavík and a restaurant, eating one of the finest meals of my life – all I wanted was to be back in my AT38, gently nudging my way through the freshly fallen snow. With the prospect of some good wine, good company, and good food shortly after. Plus a hour-or-so in a geo-thermal pool afterwards sharing aquavit and beer and swapping tall tales with the Norwegians.
Oh, and if you’re worried, you’ll be delighted to hear that I did manage to free myself in the end. Without a tow rope.
Find out more about Arctic Trucks Experiences
The ultimate arctic truck experience
A polar fantasy of immeasureable value
Pricey, but worth every penny
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