Driving In Iceland In The Winter

Driving In Iceland In The Winter

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Are you wondering if driving in Iceland in the winter is dangerous?

As travelers who prefer to take international road trips, these are tips that we found helpful for driving down the snowy Icelandic roads.  Find essential websites, emergency numbers, and helpful suggestions to keep you safe.

Are Thoughts Of Driving In Iceland In The Winter Giving You Nightmares?

It’s time to get real:  Driving in Iceland night terrors kept me awake well before booking our February Icelandic adventure. Were we INSANE?  Did we have a death wish?  Would we hit a patch of ice and slide off the road?  Could an avalanche bury us alive? What if we could not find gas or help for hours?  What type of road conditions would greet us?  Sadly, these are somewhat justified fears.

I did not want to meet my icy grave prematurely or leave my four beastie children orphaned.  Who would take a poopy panda mutt Maine Coon?  Mom?  MOM?!

icy road with snow covered mountains and a farmhouse in Iceland in the winter

One of the icy roads we drove in Hella, Iceland to get to our B & B.

Notably, we are also New Englanders now living in Florida.  No, I am not a snowbird. Growing up, CT and MA received quite their fair share of blizzards and snow.  These states treated the wet stuff like the plague: Go out in a snowstorm and you will perish.  So much hype; so little snow. 

Having lived in FL for 7+ years now, though, we worried that we lost our winter driving skills.  Plus, New England is not Iceland.

However, after a few days on Route 1, we started to get the feel for self-driving in Iceland in the winter.  Yes, we almost got caught in a whiteout.  I had a momentary hydroplaning scare as a bridge fast approached.  GD snow tires.  We also had to change plans frequently due to road conditions. Yet, driving in Iceland in February was manageable and not a decision I regret.

blue water with black cliffs from an Icelandic road

Who could miss out on these views from Dyrhólaey where the roads require a 4WD vehicle?

Should You Drive Around Iceland In January or February?

Do I recommend driving around Iceland in the wintertime for everyone?  Honestly, I cannot make that decision for you.  Driving internationally for some may always be out of the question.

However, I read quite a few terrifying blogs that said, “DO NOT DRIVE IN ICELAND IN THE WINTER.” Oh my god! Not very helpful when we were clearly going to rent a car.  Who wants to cruise around Iceland terrified?  Not me…

What I can advise from personal experience is to know what to expect.  Gauge your expertise and comfortability.  We are incredibly glad that we spent our week driving around, but you have to be careful, smart, and safe.  Adaptable, too!

brunette woman eating a hotdog in an icy Icelandic parking lot

Driving In Iceland stress means that I earned a hotdog, right? Check out this parking lot at the glaciers. Inexperienced drivers got stuck and slid all over.

Let this post be a guide to helping you make the decision for yourself and to know what to expect.  Driving in Iceland isn’t necessarily a breeze.  Just remember: I am not an expert on cruising in Iceland.  After 12 years of driving abroad, though, I hope these guidelines make you have the best driving experience possible.  Always be sure to do your own research and verify information.

Is driving in Iceland in the winter terrifying and dangerous? Learn a few tips and tricks to keep you safe and having fun for your Icelandic winter adventure. #Iceland Click To Tweet

Driving in Iceland in Winter Pinterest Pin Cover with car and icy road

Driving In Iceland In The Winter

Do You Want To Rent A Car? Do You Need To Rent A Car In Iceland?

Let’s start from the beginning. Do you need to rent a car for a week in Iceland?

For us, we did not want to take tour buses.  Public transportation exists but felt scarce, unlike say, Paris.  There is no Uber in Iceland as of 2019. We saw few taxis, although they are around.  Based on prices in Iceland and from others’ tales, I am sure all of these options are pretty costly, too.

Plus, Iceland is still largely untouched.  Unlike Italy, you won’t be able to hop on a train from Florence to Venice to Milan and Lucca.

However, we briefly met up with a friend who was also touring around Iceland.  If you base yourself in Reykjavík for part of the trip and take group tours either from Reykjavík or around other areas of Iceland, you would not need to rent a car.  Some people use the local airport to fly around the island too.

orange and brown horse on the side of a road in Iceland

We love driving ourselves to take time for stops at designated pullovers for scenic pictures and autographs.

We loved having a car for convenience.  Reykjavík is easy to navigate, and you can find free and metered parking plus [expensive] parking garages.  For us, we love touring the countryside on our own time and had a list of natural wonders that we wanted to see sans huge tour groups.  As a traveler with a chronic illness (UC), I also like to be on my own time, with no pressure.

For our week-long trip, we rented a car and drove around Southern Iceland.  This trip included part of Ring Road and the Golden Circle.  We made it as far east as Jökulsárlón and as far west as the West Fjords.

Renting A Car In Iceland: What You Should Know

We rented our car from Auto Europe, which in Iceland, landed us at the Avis/Budget counter. When renting a car in Iceland specifically in the winter, I highly recommend:

  • 4WD – This isn’t even debatable if you ask me.  You just need 4WD for the snow, smaller roads, and road conditions.  Of course, you will pay more for 4WD. Also, know that some Icelandic road signs are labeled ‘4WD only.’  That means that if you want to visit Dyrhólaey to see the infamous arch and lighthouse, you need 4WD for the massive offroading hill. Trust me; you really do.

Don’t Skip Out On:

  • Full Coverage Car Insurance – Don’t be the family next to us on each vacation, crying and yelling at rental car staff.  I cannot even begin to tell you how many times we return our car to watch others owe thousands in minor damages.  Thousands.  Plus, in Iceland for us, this coverage included roadside assistance.

Hint: Driving in Iceland in the winter means that most likely something (hopefully minor) will happen to the car.  The winds are strong AF and will scratch the paint.  The door might blow off its hinge or take a hit.  Rocks will kick up and dent the windshield.  While watching the Northern Lights, lava stones pounded the car to death.  Your car will take a beating.

When we received our rental, my side door required a nudge to shut it from previous damage and the windshield had a sizable, recently sealed crack. The car was safe and still in great condition, but like Italy, cars demonstrated battles with the landscape.

We also have AAA insurance and added extra coverage to this trip.  More so because if we didn’t make it to a hotel due to snow, we’d get our money back.  Even with the car booked on a credit card, we never surpass full auto coverage for a vehicle.  Your personal insurance, if you get hurt, is another story.

  • Snow Tires – Triple check to make sure you get snow tires when renting an Icelandic vehicle.  Most rental cars have them in the winter these days.  If you are driving in Iceland in the winter, you need 4WD with snow tires.

You do not need your international driver’s license for Iceland, although I always carry mine.

icy road while driving in Iceland in the winter

This road was listed as icy but drivable on the road conditions website. We probably went about 10 mph down it, safely.

The Cost Of Renting A Car In Iceland

…is not for the weak.  For 7 days, we spent a little over $500 for the rental car.  Not so bad, right? 

Then, add in the $90 a day for insurance…

Lastly, add in the price of gas, which for us was around $80 every two days based on our driving.  We had to fill up with diesel.

I also searched around, but I loved Auto Europe.  They had quick and easy service, acted professionally, and gave us a solid car.  We didn’t have a single problem.

Tips For Driving In Iceland In The Winter

Car rented, check! Our first trip-planning task after booking airfare included renting a car for Iceland.  Hotels and itinerary came next.  These are the most important tips and tricks that I found helpful for self-driving in Iceland in February:

Check Traffic and Road Conditions Frequently

A Cautionary and Humbling Tale Of Driving In Iceland, even on more trafficked roads

Imagine leaving barely snowing Reykjavík first thing in the morning.  You check road conditions on your phone and with the hotel.  All looks smooth! You head out barely 30-minutes into your Golden Circle tour.

You are headed to Þingvellir for some ruin hiking.  As the snow gently falls, you watch as a beautiful Icelandic horse grazes in the distance.  Rather suddenly, the horse disappears into a white gust of snow.  Where are the mountains?  Where is the horse?  But, look at all that glorious white!

Then, you disappear. The road disappears. Everyone has stopped, and there is an accident in front of you. You can’t really see it, though.

You make a call to turn around.  This is an unfamiliar land.  You are in a whiteout.  Your GPS and cell service is wavering, and you only know the way back and not forward.  Gosh only knows what happens if this weather gets worse ahead.

Returning to the hotel you just checked out of, you look at weather conditions.  That road has officially been labeled a blizzard area and the road gate is up now.  Within a 45-minute period, a clear road is closed.

Does this sound like an oddly true story?  If yes, it’s because it is.

picture taken from car driving in Iceland in the winter with snow plow in front

We followed a snow plow for quite some time until the road and weather cleared up.

A Few Ways To Avoid Getting Caught In Bad Weather

The above happened on our second driving day in Iceland and made us approach the weather and roads even smarter in the future.  Was it the end of the world?  No.

If the weather suddenly turns in front of you, check the weather and roads.  I highly recommend having some sort of phone service.  We turn on our Verizon international plan for short trips.

The best source for Icelandic road conditions is the Roads IS website.  Click on ‘Road Conditions and Weather.’  That map is your new Bible.  

If you don’t have internet, you can also call 1777 for road information.  

112 is the Iceland emergency number.

Also, use a weather app for radar and weather conditions.  Check it frequently.

Know A Few Key Road Tricks (like using the yellow poles) while self-driving in Iceland

Something we quickly learned from hotel staff members:  Look for the yellow poles on the side of the road.  These mark the road’s edge.  A single and usually silver line across them designates the right side of the road.  A double silver line signifies the left side of the road.

Old School Time: Have Back-Up, Screenshot or Printed Maps 

We did not venture too far off of the Golden Circle or Ring Road/Route 1.  Although we took some side roads for sights and used routes off of the main roads, we almost always knew our way around.  We off-roaded in uncharted territory only 2-3 times that week.  Southern Iceland is not hard to navigate.

screenshot of a map of driving in Iceland directions

Sometimes roads are not labeled on GPS, like this farm overnight in Hella.

However, with sometimes spotty cellular reception and after our whiteout experience, I always took a screenshot map of the day’s route.  If my navigation died, I knew where to go and how to get back.  I am sure you can buy an actual map (you mean those aren’t just for decoration and book crafts?!), but I’m an aging millennial.

Wind Is Wind Is Wind

I live in Florida so hurricanes are for real.  I had no idea that winds in the 30s and 40s happened without a hurricane.

Prior to going to Iceland, Crystal of the dark tourism blog, Wandering Crystal, and I not so jokingly laughed about driving in the winter in the northernmost places.  Crystal warned that car doors can literally blow off the car, which a sticker in our rental car also depicted.  As Crystal recommended in our chat about not blowing away in Iceland:

“We put sandbags in the trucks of our cars in the winter to weigh down the vehicle a bit more to help prevent being pushed around by the wind. I have definitely noticed a difference! Just always carry all your luggage with you in the trunk of your car on your Iceland trip, haha.”

HAHA, for REAL.  I am writing this blog post so I was not like Rabbit in the Hundred Acres Wood; thank gosh.

However, Iceland is windy in the winter.  We rented a Subaru Forester.

Just know that wind will push and shove you all over the road.  As noted above, we also watched the Northern Lights from a hill in Vik.  Lava rocks and sand pelted the car at 30+mph.  I opened the window for a picture and let’s just say that lava rocks jiggled all over the dashboard the next day.

Never Pull Over in Random Spots

Ohhh, pretty horse!!  Let me just stop on the side of this extremely narrow road on a blind turn with 60 mph driving speeds…

Don’t DO THIS!!!

The car rental place will tell you never to pull over on the side of the road in random spots unless you cannot help it.  The locals will tell you the same advice, and the hotel staff members will remind you again.

You can pull over in nooks designated for cars.  There are plenty of them everywhere.

brunette woman take a picture of two Icelandic brown horses on the side of the road in Iceland

We stopped for horse pictures a few times.  Locals told us this was perfectly OK (just be respectful and mindful) and that it was even OK to pull near those long farm driveways.  Just don’t stop on the side of the road with no pullover.  The same goes for Northern Lights hunting.

Unfortunately, not all tourists got the memo.  A ton of people who could barely drive as it was, were stopping last minute all over the place.  Iceland is beautiful.  Horses and waterfalls pop-up everywhere.

As I recorded a mess that was happening with tourists taking horse pictures in an awful spot, a car didn’t see us and pulled back onto the main road almost causing a huge accident.

Watch Your Speed

Pay attention to speed signs and know that cameras monitor some of Iceland’s roads.  I don’t think we saw speed signs higher than 90 km/h.  In the winter, I doubt you’ll want to surpass this.  Signs tell you where the road is under surveillance too.

Main roads are cleared frequently and dusted with gravel/sand.

Tiny roads are an adventure in themselves.  A few are sheer sheets of ice.

Single Traffic Bridges Are for Real. WHY, Iceland, WHY?!?!

I will never understand the logic of single traffic bridges.  Usually, you can see traffic coming from afar, but a few times, you could not spot oncoming traffic.  We nervously giggled our way over this giant one-way, steel-grated bridge on the way to Jökulsárlón.

You get there first: you go.  BUT, you may get there first, and the other car may be a tourist and not know…proceed with caution.

Fill Up With Gas When You Can

When people described Iceland, they made it sound like we would never find food or gas along the south coast.  They really freaked us out.  However, none of this was the case.

As two people with food intolerances galore, there were plenty of food options.

The myth of no gas is unwarranted too for Southern Iceland.  You should always try to leave with more than half a tank in an unknown country.  We found gas stations in small and big cities, every 1-1.5 hours at least.  Maybe we hit a two-hour stretch too.

However, be safe and fill up when you can.  I cannot attest to Northern Iceland.

brunette male filling up a silver car with gas after driving in Iceland

Who wants to fill the car with gas? Not IT! At some two-sided pumps, only one person can pump at a time.

A Summary of Winter Driving Tips in Iceland

Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime?

Iceland in the winter is beautiful. February is the best month for catching the Northern Lights and avoiding the crowds.  We visited the Blue Lagoon Spa first thing in the morning and had the infamous bucket list item largely to ourselves until after the gorgeous sunrise.  We never had to make dinner reservations for popular places.

While driving in Iceland in the winter is tricky, you can manage it.  Just remember to:

  • Check the weather and road conditions
  • Pull over only in designated areas
  • Have a backup map
  • Know important numbers to call for information and help
  • Watch your speed
  • Use etiquette and caution for one-way bridges
  • Fill up with gas when you can
  • Rent a car with 4WD and snow tires

Is there anything else that you would add to this list about driving around in snowy conditions anywhere?

Stay Well Informed and Safe.  Pin These Driving In Iceland Tips for Later:

Can you drive in Iceland in the winter Pinterest pin cover with three pictures of Icelandic landscape

 

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17 Comments

  1. February 28, 2019 / 8:53 am

    I’m just going to keep repeating that I want your life or i want you to hire me as your personal assistant. Then you can enjoy more of all these exotic places and I’ll do all the logistics. Just let me read and write. That is all I ask in return.

    These pictures are absolutely stunning. Who would ever have thought… Iceland? Mercy. Do that thing.

    • Christine
      Author
      February 28, 2019 / 10:16 am

      Haha, thank you! Reading and writing is my favorite part! I feel you: that’s all I want to do. Read, write, travel, and not do SEO ; )

      Iceland is stunning! I hope you make one day. Thank you for your support!

  2. February 28, 2019 / 9:11 am

    How interesting!! I’m not even brave enough to drive in the U.K., so I doubt I could pull this off, but it sounds like such a fascinating country! xx

    • Christine
      Author
      February 28, 2019 / 10:18 am

      I have yet to drive in the UK. However, I feel like driving in Ireland might have better prepared me for the UK. I’ve only been to London, and I could not imagine driving through the wild city streets. Although…Palermo was pretty crazy too, but at least I was on my known side of the road in a much smaller car.

      Iceland is my favorite to-date. Thanks for reading and commenting! Hope to catch you in FL one of these days. Xxx

  3. February 28, 2019 / 10:28 am

    It makes me so nervous thinking about driving on those very icy roads, but the views look incredible! Great tips! I think your post will really help people decide if they can handle Iceland in winter or not. I’m thankful I went in September and only had to worry about one snow storm and some crazy wind.

    • Christine
      Author
      February 28, 2019 / 8:56 pm

      As we were driving around, my husband and I joked about what Iceland might look like at a different time of year. Since most of the landscape was under snow, I bet we would not recognize some places in the summer or early fall. We stopped by Kerið Crater during a snowstorm. Typically, you can see this gorgeous blue crater. All we got was a hole with some snow. It was still cool…kinda.

      The views overall were still stunning and breathtaking, though. I think there is something magical about snow all over Iceland. When the sun would set, the mountains would turn navy blue. Plus, you have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

      Thank you so much! And thanks for reading!

  4. February 28, 2019 / 1:31 pm

    Another informative post! I am pretty confident in hubby’s driving if and when we ever visit Iceland, however, there are some amazing tips here to let us know what to expect. Driving internationally always scares me. Usually, it’s not because hubby is driving, it’s everyone else on the road that I’m worried about. Only recently have we rented cars and decided to go out on our own. It’s just cheaper that way.

    Next time you should look into travel car rental insurance. $90 a day?!!! Omg. That is steep!

    Can we talk about your photos?! They are amazing! I swear the picture at the very top belongs in a commercial or something. The editing is on point. There is lots of snow but its so pretty! Loved this post!

    • Christine
      Author
      February 28, 2019 / 9:14 pm

      Usually, I am the international driver unless it’s a manual car. I just can’t handle anything other than an automatic–although I tried to learn in the Sicilian vineyards. I was much better at driving in Ireland than Tom, but he was the better driver for Iceland. The snow exhausted me. So I can manage the other side of the road with jumping sheep, and Tom can do ice.

      It’s true: the other people are really the problem most times. We watched some of the craziest driving in Iceland. Sometimes I think that some of these tourists might not drive a lot, if at all, back home. In Ireland, we saw people on the other side of the road. In Iceland, we watched people drive off the road, have no idea how to approach a one-way bridge, drive with their hazards on in snow…you name it, we probably saw it.

      So we’ve actually tried travel car insurance via home before. It seems like most times you find out the international car company won’t honor the policy or there are major loopholes. This trip was insured by AAA but cars are another beast. When we got to Ireland, we had paid for travel car insurance in advance elsewhere only to find out it was unacceptable. We had to pay again at the car rental place and did get our money back via the other insurance company. It was a mess. After that lesson and talking to car rental places and insurance companies, my understanding is the rental place is the safest/best option. I’m open to suggestions, though!

      Thanks in regards to the photos! It is so funny because that top photo was taken from a moving car! My iPhone is magic only sometimes.

  5. February 28, 2019 / 5:57 pm

    When I read about one-lane bridges, I was like, what? I am glad that I know, but as you said, there could be other tourists who are unaware. For me, the scariest part of driving in winter(or any time) is other drivers.

    I can handle snow and ice. In Ohio, it takes subzero temps or blizzards for schools to close, and I still have to drive to work. I got this. I am just going to keep hyping myself up! I CAN drive in Iceland!

    Thanks for sharing. This post makes me feel a bit more confident.

    • Christine
      Author
      February 28, 2019 / 9:26 pm

      Yes, it truly is about the other drivers too. We definitely saw a few minor tourist wrecks, and we stayed far away from anyone that looked like they were struggling. This car in front of us starting swaying back and forth. They freaked out and yanked the wheel (not sure if they thought they saw ice?! Nothing was there)…we just backed off and hoped they didn’t wreck. Other than that, it really is not that bad at all. You just have to watch the road closures and conditions when you get off the beaten path.

      I remember driving in CT to work in blizzards. I worked for this nonprofit that would not close and let us go home unless the state was released. State workers rarely got sent home early so we had to drive home in insanity. Or, they’d let the state out after it was too late: the roads were wrecked. CT wasn’t amazing with plowing. CT closed schools with the threat of snow, though. lol

      You can totally drive in Iceland. Just slow down when you need to and enjoy the sights. My biggest recommendation is just be flexible with plans. Ring Road should be cleared. It’s just those side roads and anything into the mountains/higher elevations that gets a little iffy. We missed out on some parks and minor hiking due to weather, too. Our days were still ballz to the wallz, though.

      Honestly, the snow makes Iceland pretty beautiful. I just loved it! And your Ohio blood is thicker than my now FL blood so you won’t need 3 layers of clothes before the coat. Hehe.

  6. February 28, 2019 / 9:31 pm

    So glad you had a fantastic and safe journey in Iceland! Winter driving sucks! However, the views in Iceland are definitely worth the torment! Great tips! ESPECIALLY the one about making sure your vehicle is equipped with snow tires! I notice such a huge difference in the winter. Can’t wait for more Iceland blogs!

    • Christine
      Author
      March 4, 2019 / 1:47 pm

      Me too!! I am glad that for the most part, we had pretty decent weather. The views definitely make driving in Iceland in the winter worth it, and I do think that the snow added a magic component. The snow also made us appreciate what we got to see.

      Thank you!

  7. March 2, 2019 / 2:32 pm

    What great tips! This whole post did give me heart palpitations though since I’m such a nervous driver. Those one way bridges!? Yikes! Hopefully one day I can go with someone who is a good driver! We’ll definitely be referring back to your post. It’s so helpful!
    Also, I LOVE your pictures!

    • Christine
      Author
      March 4, 2019 / 1:43 pm

      The one way bridges were wild. I meant to look up why they are one way–we definitely felt like they could have been built two-way. Probably wishful thinking on our behalf.

      Thank you! You’d love Iceland.

  8. March 17, 2019 / 7:25 pm

    Wonderful post Christine! I will be referring back to it if I’m ever brave enough to drive in Iceland! With the only lisence holder between Dave and I being myself I don’t think I’d be brave enough just yet! It scares me to my bones driving in the UK when it snows and it’s little like you said, so much commotion for not so much snow! Looks like you guys did a great job though thank you for sharing your tips!

    PS Iceland looks so beautiful and the horses are too cute!

    • Christine
      Author
      March 19, 2019 / 4:27 pm

      You definitely have to gain a little courage to drive in Iceland. I never gripped a steering wheel so tight.

      I’ve never driven in the UK–although I don’t think that I’d last in London–but Ireland at least prepared me for the other side of the road, which wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Snow in general, though, is extremely nerve-wracking. Ice is even worse.

      Iceland is stunning! I want ALL the horses. I wish we had time to go riding.

  9. March 20, 2019 / 10:10 pm

    Holy. HELL. Woman. I knew you were adventurous, but…well, holy hell. *bows down* I am in awe of your adventurous spirit. I loved this post and you give some amazingly helpful advice…but this has decided it for me: I am NEVER visiting Iceland in the winter, lol. I am way too anxious to handle it. Before reading this post, I might have thought I could handle it, but now I know that I just couldn’t, lol. Thank you for the honest depiction of what one might (okay, will) encounter if visiting Iceland in the dead of winter. BTW, I would be that tourist randomly pulling over to pet the horsie on the side of the road. Just sayin’. So…I’ve noted not to do that. At any time of the year.

    Your photos of Iceland are STUNNING. I love a good wintry landscape, and these photos are everything. #AllTheHygge. That drive up to your B&B in Hella looks hella icy, though. 😉 Bahahahaha. Sorry. I couldn’t let that one slide! Thanks for letting me live vicariously through your Iceland adventures. 😀

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