After driving around Iceland during winter, I’ve decided to put together this useful guide. Iceland is an amazing country and the scenery is spectacular but planning a road trip in winter can be a challenging experience if you’re unprepared.
This guide will cover all the aspects of driving in Iceland in winter and will hopefully serve you as a guide in your Icelandic adventure. Winter can be fierce but oh, so beautiful.
Is driving in Iceland in winter safe?
You can absolutely drive in Iceland in winter but the decision is really up to you. It all depends on your driving skills and whether or not you feel comfortable driving in challenging conditions (snow, strong winds). If you follow the tips & tricks below, you will most probably be safe.
The biggest advantage of driving is having the flexibility to plan your trip any way you want. However, driving also requires you to be more responsible and plan your road trip in advance.
A self driving tour of Iceland will take you through some breathtaking scenery. At some point, you might even think that you’re on another planet. Cities in Iceland are quite far away from one another and most of them (except Reykjavik) are quite small (a few hundreds people). Be prepared to drive long distances without seeing any sign of civilization.
When planning your trip to Iceland, don’t forget to check out these 20 tips & tricks for the perfect holiday.
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Winter road conditions in Iceland
The official winter lasts from December until the end of February. However, in Iceland the winter is a bit longer, lasting from early November towards the end of April. During these months, you can expect heavy snow, strong winds or closed roads.
Although the main coastal roads are always kept in good conditions, in the countryside the things are a bit different. Inside the island the roads are mostly closed during winter.
Most of the main roads are paved. Also, usually the roads have two lanes, one in each direction but be prepared for one-way bridges along the ring road. When approaching a bridge, stop and check if anyone is coming from the opposite direction. Also, don’t stop too close to the bridge to allow others to pass.
Keep in mind that road closures during winter are common. Weather can change any minute in Iceland so even though a road is opened now, this doesn’t mean that it will still be open in two or three hours.
Winter road conditions in Iceland can be unpredictable but as long as you are flexible, you’ll be fine.
Iceland winter driving – 15 useful tips & tricks
1. Keep an eye on road.is
Road.is is a life-saver. This amazing tool will help you plan your itinerary around Iceland, no matter the season. Here you can check out the road restrictions and see which roads are closed, slippery or easily passable. Another amazing feature are the webcams around the country. By looking at cameras in a particular region, you can check the road conditions live.
2. You don’t need group tours. You can self-drive.
If you don’t have a drivers license, then you should totally go for the group tours but if you do, definitely rent a car. The roads in Iceland are good and the biggest advantage when renting a car is that you can stop anywhere you want to take in the view.
Also, renting a car for a few days will save you some bucks, especially if you’re travelling as a group.
3. Get a 4×4 with studded winter tires
Make sure to get a car with studded winter tires, you’ll need them. The studded tires will help to achieve the best, possible traction but they won’t relieve you from the responsibility of driving safely.
4. Don’t ignore the optional insurance plans
Iceland is a very expensive country so you’ll want to be covered! Usually, a basic insurance called CDW (collision damage waiver) is included when renting any type of vehicle in Iceland. However, make sure to double check.
A common optional car insurance plan in Iceland is the “sand and ash protection”. This comes in handy if your car is damaged by sand or volcanic ash. Even if snow storms seem to be the obvious in Iceland, there are also sand storms so I’d recommend this insurance plan too.
5. Keep the headlights on at all times
When driving in Iceland, you must keep the headlights on at all times, no matter the season or time of the day. Weather can be unpredictable and following the rules will diminish the chance of accidents.
6. Careful with speeding!
Speeding tickets start at 195$. Usually, the speed limits are the ones below but they can vary so definitely keep an eye on the signs and obey the speed limits.
- urban areas – 50km/h
- rural or gravel roads – 80km/ h
- paved rural roads – 90km/h
Weather conditions in winter can be challenging in Iceland. You can go from sun to snow to rain in just a few kilometers but there is nothing to worry about as long as you take it slow. Take your time and drive safely. You’ll get to your destination eventually.
7. Be careful when taking breaks
Yes, Iceland is incredible and the views you’re about to see are jaw-dropping. Driving in Iceland during winter is a bit challenging but rewarding at the same time. Be prepared to see steep mountains, hidden valleys, crazy waterfalls and glaciers. When stopping, make sure to completely exit the main road.
8. Pack some emergency supplies
A road trip around Iceland in winter requires you to be prudent. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Therefore, I would recommend bringing some emergency items with you, just in case something bad happens. In the event of a car accident or road closure, you’ll want to have these items with you:
- know the main emergency number: 112
- first aid kit
- extra change of warm clothes
- snow & ice scraper
- external battery for your phone/ tablet
- food & water
9. Make the most out of your time
In Iceland the day is quite short during winter. For example, in December the day is only 4 hours long (check this website to see the day length in Iceland). Consider driving part of the journey in the dark to make the most of the daylight hours and beat the crowds.
10. Don’t drive on F-roads
F-roads are just for off-road vehicles. Moreover, they are closed during winter so it’s illegal to drive on them. Make sure that your GPS is not taking you through these kind of roads. Also, keep in mind that insurances do not cover accidents which happen on F-roads.
11. Park against strong wind
Don’t underestimate the power of the mighty Icelandic wind! Park against strong winds and open your car door carefully as the wind can rip the car door out of your hands and cause damages. Strong winds can also cause rocks hitting your car so be careful!
12. Be flexible
Plan the places you want to see but be flexible. Iceland is full of incredible places to see, especially during winter and even though some roads might be closed, you’ll still find plenty to do! You can check out my favorite places in Iceland here.
Having a flexible schedule when driving around Iceland in winter will save you a lot of stress.
13. Check the Northern Lights forecast
Winter driving in Iceland can be a once in a lifetime experience if you are lucky enough to also see the Northern Lights. If you want to see the famous green lights dancing on the sky, you’ll have to get out of big cities such as Reykjavik.
Drive for a few kilometers outside the city and you might have a chance to see the Northern Lights. This website will help you see what are the chances of seeing the Aurora. You can check out my full guide about chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland here.
14. Make sure you have phone service
I would recommend getting a local sim card. If anything happens to you, having a phone with a local sim card will be extremely handy. You can of course use your foreign number but keep in mind that charges might be really high.
15. Get a paper map and an offline map
Paper maps can help you a lot if your phone battery dies. It’s best to have one just in case. Additionally, make sure to install an offline map on your phone such as Maps.me. Even if you have a local sim card, there might be areas where you won’t have internet connection.
Keep these tips & tricks in mind when planning your winter trip to Iceland and let me know if your driving tour of Iceland was as fabulous as you imagined it.
May the travel bug bite you!