Winter Driving In Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland can be a bit tricky, especially if you are not used to driving on snow covered roads, using studded tires or having sand and snow storms whip up around you.
If you are planning a trip to Iceland during the winter months you will need to plan significantly differently than if you visit during the summer. In this post we are going to talk about winter driving in Iceland. We will start off by saying we live in Edmonton Alberta, which typically has snow on the ground from November through March. We are used to driving on wintery roads. We are experienced with driving in winter storms. We are experienced with driving in conditions the vast majority of people likely will never have to deal with.
All that being said, there are a lot of things you can do to help prepare if you are not as experienced driving on winter roads. The main highway in Iceland is the Ring Road or Route 1. It wraps around the entire island and is over 1300kms long. This ring roads runs through the most populated areas of Iceland. Very few people live significantly far off the ring road. The majority of the highway is two lanes (one in each direction) but there are still sections that contain blind curves, blind hills, one lane bridges and narrow passes. It is mostly paved but there are areas that are gravel.
Visiting Iceland as a tourist can be an amazing experience – but do not become a statistic. In 2015 Iceland road deaths quadrupled, mostly because of tourists.
Rent a 4×4 vehicle
If you plan on driving the ring road in Iceland in the winter, you DEFINITELY should rent a 4×4 vehicle. We rented ours with SadCars. We got a Toyota Rav 4 that had about 360,000kms on it. They were the cheapest option and you can see our SadCars Iceland Review here.
Get Studded Tires
I e-mailed SadCars and specifically asked for studded tires. They informed me that all their vehicles get studded tires in the winter. Don’t mess around with this – get studded tires. We experienced winds while driving over 100km/hr. If there was blowing snow or the roads were icy it would be have been extremely dangerous. Luckily the roads were clear for us.
Stay Informed On Road Conditions
Visit the Iceland road conditions and weather website often and check your routes. The website is updated in real time. You can view webcams from across the country and see what the roads look like. Winter driving in Iceland is dangerous. Make sure you keep yourself well informed.
Get A Map
We picked up physical paper maps every time we could. Gas stations, visitor centres, tourists stops. Most of them had free road maps available. We also used our cellphone and Google Maps, but there may be areas with poor coverage. DO NOT RELY ON CELLPHONE COVERAGE! You can also rent GPS units from most rental car companies in Iceland. You can also download the Europe maps onto your own GPS and bring that too.
Keep Your Gas Tank Full and Pack Extra Snacks, Money and Water
Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Expect that you will run into very bad weather and plan accordingly. Pack extra food water and money in case you need it in an emergency – or come across someone stuck on the road.
There are a few major fuel station companies in Iceland. N1 is a common one and they have a map of all their locations. You can see how spread out they are. The good thing is that Iceland is small and there is no reason for you to run out of fuel. Fill up every 200-300 kms. There are more than enough gas stations right on the ring road. If you get stuck in a massive snow storm you may need to wait up to 12 hours – so make sure your tank is full so you can keep warm in the car.
Make Use Of Daylight Hours
If you are travelling to Iceland in the winter you should already know that the days can be very short. We were there in February and it would start to get light around 8am and it would be dark by 6pm. Plan your day trips accordingly – drive when there is light. Drive slower when it is darker.
Watch Out For Wildlife
This one is simple. There is wildlife in Iceland. Be aware. Use your highbeams when driving at night.
DO NOT SPEED!
Not only is it dangerous, its illegal. In Iceland there are photo radar locations that will take a picture of your license plate if you are speeding. If you are renting a car this could mean a nasty surprise when you get home.
You should definitely drive slower than the limit if it is snowing, the roads are icy or you are not a confident driver. When we travelled to Scotland I felt uncomfortable driving the speed limit on their narrow roads, so occasionally I would simply pull over and let people behind me pass me. I was in no hurry so stopping for 10 seconds seemed like a better option than holding up traffic.
Clear The Snow From Your Car!
We never encountered this in Iceland, but we see it all the time at home. It snows and people’s cars get covered in snow. They don’t brush it off. It makes seeing their signal lights very difficult. It also leads to snow blowing off of their vehicle when they are driving at fast speeds. This is dangerous and annoying if you are driving behind them!
Read, Understand And Obey Traffic Signs
There are roads with river crossings. There are roads only 4×4 vehicles are allowed on. There are roads that are closed. They will be marked. OBEY THE SIGNS!
We were fortunate when we travelled to Iceland in the winter. We went Feb 1 – Feb 8 and the weather was very cooperative. There was snow on the ground and roads for the first 2 days, then it warmed up a little and started to rain. The rain melted most of the snow. It did not get cold enough for freezing rain, but 2 or 3 degrees colder and it would have been extremely icy. We did encounter gale force winds (over 100km/hr) every day of our tip and that led to some harrowing drives – especially at night.
It was so windy these waterfalls turned into waterrises. The water was flowing up. That’s how strong the wind was.
If you plan on doing any winter driving in Iceland make sure you be safe and have fun!