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?!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: