Driving tips for Iceland
I feel we could not finish our posts on Iceland without providing at least some tips about what you can expect driving there. Different times of the year will of course present different challenges especially if you wish to go off the beaten track. As for us, we were there at the tail end of winter so read on, if you are considering hiring a car and making your own way around this beautiful country.
Our plan right from the start was that we wanted to drive from Reykjavik to Jokurlsalon. We just weren’t sure what Iceland would throw at us so we read up as much as we could online from other blogs. From hire car companies to how dangerous reindeer can be! Certainly, we wanted to expect the best but as they always say, you can’t go wrong preparing for the worst. So, starting from a snowy Reykjavik (a winter which they have not had in years), these are some tips we picked up on our road trip in South Iceland. Of course, these are all our personal opinions.
First of all get a 4WD. Hiring a 4WD may not be necessary in summer but in wintery conditions, we were glad we did. It will be worth the little bit extra you pay for when are stuck and need the 4WD capability to get you out of trouble. On top of that, check that they have steel studded tyres. I believe most hire cars in winter do but if they don’t, make sure you ask for them. With snow and ice on the road, we felt so much safer going at speed with the steel studded tyres. Of course, you may see locals going even faster but trust me, after a fishtailing once or twice going over a patch of road covered with snow, we were happy to slow down and take our time.
Our rental car came with an ice scraper so if yours didn’t, you will need one. Its a great tool on icy mornings. I have also read that you should bring a shovel with you. I am in two minds on this one. You will ever only need a shovel, if your car gets stuck like in the snow. Maybe the idea here is to not get your car stuck in the first place. So that brings us to our next tip.
Be careful where you pull over. You cannot tell how deep the embankment is when it is filled with snow. You could get seriously stuck in the snow if you misjudge it. Either look for a better spot or if you absolutely have to, it is almost safer to just pull slightly to the side of the road and put your hazard lights on. We never had trouble with anyone with this and we weren’t the only ones either stopping to take photos.
Now back to the shovel, we definitely needed one when our friends car got stuck in the snow. Believe it or not, it happened twice. (Those tricky embankments) The first time, a local stopped and lent us his shovel. The second time, we had 4 other cars who stopped to help us dig the car out without a shovel. So, you may understand why I am not sure about this but if its a long road trip around the ring road in winter, I would say its a good investment.
The next tip has to do with how you get your car out. When we were stuck the first time, and we had dug all round the four wheels with no success, a local stopped and asked if we had tried using floor mats. We had never thought of that but thought it was worth a shot. So we pulled the rubber floor mats from the car and wedged them under the tyres to give it some grip to stop it slipping. Amazingly, it worked like an ABSOLUTE CHARM! If you had more floor mats, you can even make a little path with it to help the car get all the way back up onto the road (which is what we did the second time when we had more help from other cars!)
Check the weather forecast. Conditions can change dramatically in Iceland (as it did on the third day) so it is important to know what’s ahead. Especially how windy it is going to get. Vedur.is is a good website. It also has a great section on the aurora rating at any time. Combine that with map for cloud cover, you almost have all you need to chase auroras in Iceland! Speaking of websites, another useful site is Safetravel.is
And if you are wondering if all this data roaming is going to break the bank on your phone, you can opt for a prepaid Síminn card (they even sell them on the Icelandair flight). Síminn is the oldest and biggest company in Iceland. Coverage is good and that also means you don’t have to worry about not getting access to the internet whilst you are on the road.
Did I mention how windy it is in Iceland? It is not always windy but when it gets going, it is unbelievable. Hold onto your door when you open them. Your rental car company will thank you for that. As there are not many trees in Iceland and the landscape is mountainous or mainly flat, the winds can get very, very strong. Which also means you don’t know how strong it is until you open your door to step outside. A couple of times, it caught us unawares and luckily we grabbed onto the door just in time. I’ve never seen a door damage its hinges but I certainly did not want to find out.
Petrol stations are not always manned but all of them we encountered accept credit cards. So, refuelling at any time of the day is not a problem. However, they are only located in towns which are not always plentiful on the Ring Road so fill up whenever you can would be my advice.
Since petrol stations are not always manned, it also means a lot of them do not have toilets. This is not a problem for guys of course as there’s a toilet behind every rock. But if you are a gal, my tip would be to carry a roll of toilet paper with you for when you absolutely have to.
Iceland is the one place I have been to that has one way bridges on a major road! And there are a quite a few of these one way menaces. Here you are advised to stop and give way to whoever came first. That is alright if the bridge is short. However, if the bridge is long and you can’t see the other side, this becomes a bit more tricky. On these long ones, they have alcoves at a few sections where you can drive into to make it two way. So, we went slow on these ones. The ones we worried about most were the short ones which had a crest. You simply can’t see who is coming the other side and once you are on the bridge, you are committed! On these ones, we took our time and extra care to go slower. Thankfully, we only encountered one or two of them and the traffic was light on the Ring Road.
And last but not least, if you come up to a snow plough in front of you, best not to overtake as its probably doing you a favour!
To finish this post, I would say that there are many ways you can see Iceland, We chose to self drive and did not regret it one bit. We reckon it is the best way to see this unbelievably beautiful country. And if you are prepared, it is not a hard drive at all. With so much to see along the way, the difficulty is really not to be distracted by it all. And the only injury you will get (if you happen to be the driver) would be the whiplash you get from the postcard shots that keep whizzing by as you try to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel!
4 thoughts on “Driving tips for Iceland”
Great post and great tips. We experienced the serious winds once or twice but went in June, although icy cold there was no snow (plenty of driving rain though). Definitely good to know things like the shovel tip – not something I would ever have thought of but sounds like it could be invaluable!!
Thanks. Fortunately, we didn’t experience the driving rain. Probably too cold at that time although after reading your posts, we were prepared for it nonetheless with wet weather gear. (We thought about an umbrella but ditched it when we read about the winds!) 🙂
Definitely has some similarities to my driving experience in the Faroe Islands in March/April this year – though it looks like you have more snow. One situation I found to be tricky was when the wind blew up the snow – low visibility – fortunately it didn’t happen often.
By the way, you will have to come to New Zealand some time to see one way bridges on state highways – you may even encounter one or two that also share the road with railway tracks (but it isn’t as scary as it sounds).
Thanks Rob, we were certainly worried about the ice but thankfully it was not too bad. And yes, I have NZ on the list. I’ve been to North Island but not the South which I know is absolutely breathtaking. And if you are VERY lucky, I hear you can catch the aurora too!