How to Survive Driving in Iceland

How to Survive Driving in Iceland

11.09.2017 | Lella Erludóttir

There’s nothing like a good road trip, especially when driving past active volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, black lava fields, towering glaciers, and roaring waterfalls. Driving in Iceland is an experience in and of itself and self-drive tours are a popular way to travel around the country. Having your own car gives you certain sense of freedom and allows you to set your own travel pace. Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that the rugged and raw Icelandic landscape can also create challenges that you may not have experienced in other countries. Getting around the island is mostly easy during the summer, but can be difficult during winter when some roads are impassable and driving conditions can include blizzards, darkness, icy roads and limited visibility.

We want to help you be as prepared as you can possibly be before tackling the Icelandic roads, so we have put together this helpful guide to driving in Iceland.

Icelandic roads

The Icelandic road system is extensive and easy to navigate and the most popular are easily accessible by car. The most travelled road is Highway no. 1, commonly known as the Ring Road, as it runs in a circle around the coast of the island. The Ring Road is mostly paved, well maintained and open throughout the year. Temporary closures can occur in some parts due to bad weather conditions. Even though most major highways are paved, a large portion of the Icelandic road system is made up of gravel roads, particularly in the Highlands. Gravel roads can be in various conditions with potholes, washboard surfaces and loose gravel that can cause damage to your vehicle. Please be careful when driving on gravel roads as you can easily lose control of your car. Most Highlands roads are closed until the beginning of July and sometimes even longer if conditions are bad. When these roads are open, they are only passable for 4×4 vehicles it is strongly recommended that two or more cars travel together.

Please refer to this map to see road conditions in Iceland in real-time.

It all depends on the weather

The Icelandic weather can be harsh and unpredictable. It also changes frequently. You can expect to be driving in heavy rain, thick fog, freezing blizzards, extremely bright sun, and everything in between. Conditions can even change rapidly within the day. Driving in the Icelandic winter is not for the inexperienced. Conditions can turn bad quickly, roads are often covered in snow and surfaces get slippery. Please be careful when driving in Iceland in the winter, check for weather reports and stay well within speed limits.

Speed limits

The general speed limit for cars in Iceland is 50 km/h in urban areas, 80 km/h on rural gravel roads and 90 km/h on paved rural roads. The number given on signs is the highest speed allowed at the best possible conditions on that given road, so please take that into account when conditions are less than perfect.

Driving regulations in Iceland

• Drive on the right side of the road and overtake on the left
• Keep the headlights turned on, always
• Off-road driving is strictly forbidden
• Everyone in the car should wear seatbelts
• Children are required to be seated in appropriate safety seats
• The alcohol limit for driving is 0.05%
• The use of hands-free equipment is obligatory if using a mobile device while driving
• The minimum age for driving in Iceland is 17 years

What documents do you need?

When driving in Iceland you need to have your driving license on hand along with your passport, some proof of insurance and your vehicle registration information. A foreign driver’s license is valid in Iceland for those who stay in the country on a temporary basis.

Off-road driving is illegal!

Please respect the precious Icelandic nature and commit to only driving on clearly marked roads or tracks. Off-road driving is strictly prohibited by law, and it can leave irreparable damage to the vulnerable Icelandic soil and vegetation. Driving outside marked roads or tracks can also cause serious damage to your car.

Narrow passes

Gravel roads can be quite narrow, so caution must be taken when two cars meet. Narrow passes also occur on blind summits and single lane bridges. Blind summits and curves are common in Iceland and can be very dangerous if not approached with caution. Make sure to slow down and keep to the right side of the road. There are also many single lane bridges in Iceland where the actual rule is that the car closer to the bridge has the right-of-way. When approaching these bridges, slow down and be careful.

Crossing rivers

Crossing rivers should only be attempted in 4×4 vehicles, such as jeeps, and only by drivers experienced in river crossing. An important thing to keep in mind is that fords over glacial rivers are constantly changing and the flow increases on warm summer days, and heavy rain often causes rivers to swell. Sometimes so much that they become impassable. Deaths have been caused by underestimating the water volume in rivers so please do not try to cross rivers unless being very well prepared. You need to examine the velocity, depth and bottom of the river by wading into it. If you find that you would be unwilling to wade across the river on foot, you should not attempt to drive across it.

What to do in case of an emergency

If an accident occurs, your priority is to ensure that everyone in the car is safe and call the National Emergency Number at 112. Don’t move your car (unless it is in a dangerous position which might lead to another accident) and wait for the police to arrive. If you’ve had a collision with another car, you should swap insurance information, addresses and phone numbers with the other driver. It is a good idea to take pictures of the cars, the damage and the conditions on the road for police and insurance documentation. You should give a copy of the police report to your insurance company.

Be polite

Good manners go a long way and in the Icelandic traffic, and there are some general courtesy rules drivers are expected to follow. The rule of thumb is to be courteous and alert while driving. Here are some examples of a good traffic manners:

• When another driver moves aside to make room for you and your vehicle, thank him with a friendly nod or a wave of hand
• Blink your left indicator light to let the following vehicle know that it is safe for them to pass you on the road
• Turn on your right indicator light while passing another vehicle
• Slow down when you meet another vehicle on a narrow road or gravel roads
• Don’t stop your vehicle whenever and wherever to take pictures or pet horses
• If you absolutely need to make a stop on a road, make sure to park your car so that it does not impose danger to others
• If sheep cross your path on Icelandic roads, slow down and honk your horn to let them know you need to use the road

Useful apps and websites

SafeTravel: The official source for safe adventure in Iceland
Information about road conditions and weather
The Icelandic weather forecast

The key to surviving an Icelandic road trip is to be prepared and respect the weather and road conditions. Seek information before driving off, be careful and respect speed limits and other driving regulations. Then you should have a safe and wonderful journey and live to tell some amazing stories about your adventures.

If you are planning a trip Iceland and want to be prepared, you might also want to read our article about what to wear on a trip to Iceland.

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