When in Iceland driving is the perfect way to make your own travel plans or, as we Icelanders do, “chase the weather” and go where the conditions are best. This said, there are a few things to consider before you put your foot on the gas. Don’t be put off, most of them are common sense so we won’t burden you with statistics and data. We want you to have fun but also stay safe!
Renting a car in Iceland
Being prepared with all the essential facts before you rent a car and take off on your Icelandic road trip is the sensible thing to do. But no matter how much you know, it is still really important to assess your own abilities. Everyone has different levels of experience and confidence behind the wheel. Also, depending on which part of the world you come from, you might be used to driving in winter conditions or not. So you are the best judge of how to plan your trip and whether you’ll feel comfortable with your choices.
Roads in Iceland
Because of its terrain and the fact that is sparsely populated, the roads in Iceland are not many outside of the towns and villages. We have the Ring Road (Hringvegur) or Route 1 which goes all the way around the country and is almost entirely paved apart from just over 30 km which is dirt road. As you go inland, majority of roads, also knowns as F-roads are gravel or dirt.
What makes driving a bit more challenging is the narrowness of the roads, the fact that they’re usually elevated so you risk running off the edge if you are not careful and the lack of guardrails in most places. With the increase of visitors to Iceland, the roads also tend to get pretty busy so you really need to give driving your full attention. Your eyes will be drawn to the roaring waterfalls, glittering glaciers, rugged snow-capped mountains and if you are lucky the northern lights. By no means admire them, but only after you’ve found a safe place to park so you can fully enjoy the views.
Do I need 4X4 car in Iceland?
To best answer this, ask yourself another question “What trip?”. Depending on your plans and budget, you can choose from a wide range of vehicles. If you are going to stick to the paved roads then a normal car will do. However, if you want to go further into the highlands, then it’s best to get a 4WD as most roads there are hard to access and you risk getting a big fine if you drive a normal vehicle there. But above all this, you’ll be compromising your safety, especially on wet, snowy or icy roads. If you have to ford a river, then even a 4X4 might not suffice, so make sure you do some research on the area where you plan to drive. There are many companies that offer ‘super jeep tours’ so you can always join one and leave your rental vehicle for a few hours. It’s enormous fun and you can enjoy it being safe in the hands of the experienced driver-guides.
Rules for driving in Iceland
Here’s a quick checklist of the main rules and guidelines that you need to follow:
- Always keep to the speed limit. It’s between 30 to 50 in populated areas, 90 on paved roads and 80 on gravel roads. As we mentioned above, there’s a good reason for this, given the challenging nature of the roads in Iceland, so don’t grumble about the lower speed limits, they are there for yours and everyone else’s safety. And if that’s not enough of a reason, then also keep in mind that the penalty fees for speeding are quite high, so you don’t want to continue paying for your trip to Iceland after you go back home and receive a letter from your car rental company...
- No off-road driving. Stick only to clearly signposted roads, as off-road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland and, again, the fines are no joke. Imagine if everyone started driving wherever they wanted, damaging the fragile soil balance of lava fields and destroying natural habitats. Not to mention that it can be very dangerous. Even if you see tracks, that doesn’t mean it’s a road, just that someone else before you ignored the rules.
- The 4 B’s - Belts, bridges, blind corners and blind hills. Always wear a seatbelt for your safety and also, you guessed it, to avoid the fines. The biggest cause of road accidents in Iceland involves rollovers or driving off the road, so a seatbelt really is a life saver. We also have a lot of bridges, blind corners and hills, so always slow down and approach with caution. The same goes for the places where a paved road turns into gravel, slow down so you will avoid an accident.
- Don’t drink and drive . Iceland has a zero tolerance policy towards drink driving, so even one beer is a no-no.
- Keep your lights always on . By law you’re required to always have your headlights on, even during the day, even in the summer. Most rental cars will have the lights coming on automatically when you start the engine, but you should check anyway.
- Too tired, then stop - don’t be tempted to drive on all night when it’s light in the summer or to push through the dark in the winter. You need your rest and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. In any case, once you’ve parked your car, the views will never disappoint you and you can give them your full attention now you are not behind the wheel.
- Check your rental car agreement . Depending on the type of vehicle you’ve hired there might be some restrictions about driving on F-roads for example. Always check your agreement and if in doubt ask your rental company so you can be sure you don’t make your insurance void.
- Fill up with gas. Make sure that you always have enough fuel in your tank as in some areas the gas stations are few and far between so you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere unable to continue because you didn’t plan where your next fill up will be.
Weather in Iceland
There are not enough words to say how unpredictable the weather in Iceland can be. Even with the over 2000 words we have in Icelandic to describe it, it’s still surprising how often people ignore the warnings and take unnecessary risks. In a nutshell, anything is possible at any time of the day, month or year, so always check the forecast . Never attempt to drive if the roads are closed or there’s a severe weather warning. Apart from the ice and snow which you can expect in any season, one of the things that cause many accidents are the strong side winds. As many of the roads here are slightly elevated and there are no guard rails in most places, you can easily lose control, go off the road or even roll over.
Wildlife in Iceland
It’s very common for animals to wander on the roads in Iceland. The most common encounters you’ll have are the Icelandic sheep which roam free during the summer months, but sometimes you can also see horses, cows or bigger birds. Please keep your eyes open and protect the animals, yourself and everyone else on the road by driving sensibly.
We hope that these few rules will help you understand the challenges of driving in Iceland so you can have an awesome time. Our intention is that you have fun and enjoy your travel, but also stay safe and keep within your budget by avoiding unnecessary fines. Driving in Iceland really is an unforgettable experience and one that you will want to repeat again and again.