When we decided to visit Iceland in December, people told us we were crazy to drive in Iceland in winter. However, our Iceland road trip in December was great. Winter in Iceland is fierce, but beautiful. Keep reading for more travel tips for Iceland in winter if you’re considering a self driving tour of Iceland.
Although this guide sounds… cautionary, Iceland in winter is magical. Visiting an ice cave, which only forms in winter, was one of the best parts of our Iceland trip. Similarly, we were able to save money on accommodations, explore Iceland without the crowds, have the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights, and pack in more adventure activities as we’d position ourselves near multiple tours that we’d be doing. You’ll rarely meet people (except at guest houses), so it makes it an instant bonding moment about the insanity of driving in Iceland whenever you meet anyone else.
If you’re considering visiting Iceland in winter, you’ll notice that all tours (even if they’re 1-4 hours) last all day as transportation to/from Reykjavik can add several hours. As such, some parts can’t be reached with day tour buses from Reykjavik; only expensive multi-day tours. By driving yourself around Iceland, you can pack in far more activities with a more relaxed schedule.
Should you take a road trip in Iceland in winter?
Many people, ourselves included, wondered if we should be driving in Iceland in winter. The answer is Yes* if you’re an experienced winter driver.
DO NOT ROADTRIP IN ICELAND IN WINTER IF YOU HAVE NEVER DRIVEN ON SNOW AND ICE.
I write this as Jacob is a very experienced winter driver and he found Iceland to have some of the toughest and most nerve wracking winter driving that he’s ever done. We met Australians (who had never seen snow before!) doing Ring Road in Iceland and they slid off the road while driving on the fjords. (Luckily, they hit a snowbank and were fine, but it was a very close call.) It is stupid and dangerous to be drive Ring Road in winter if you do not know how to drive in snow and ice.
This is not the place to learn as some roads will be entirely iced over. If you’re not comfortable with driving on fjords hundreds of feet above the ocean on sheer ice, take an Iceland winter tour along the southern coast where an experienced driver can take care of the driving. It’s possible to go with a tour to the Golden circle, Thingvellir national park, and the Vatnajokull glacier. However, there are some things that can only be seen by renting a car and doing a road trip across Iceland in winter.
Driver skills we recommend having before driving in Iceland in winter….
You should be comfortable with driving in snowstorms, driving on ice (including inclined ice), driving on narrow roads, driving in low visibility, and driving on roads without guardrails.
Ice Cave in Iceland
Travel tips for Iceland in winter by car
- Having a car is helpful since many tours, including adventure tours in Iceland, charge an extra transportation fee on top of the price. You can save money by meeting them at the starting point. If you’re interested in visiting Iceland on a budget, a car allows you to save money on accommodations by staying at guesthouses further outside of towns, which can be almost half the price. It also allows you to go at your own pace (or however fast you can drive given the weather conditions).
- Beyond the major cities, many shops (including supermarkets) will have limited hours, mostly during daylight hours. The only reliable shops outside of Reykjavik will be gas stations. If you want to go to the supermarket, check the hours beforehand.
- Expect most things in Iceland will be closed around Christmas. Icelandic Christmas means that people are celebrating at home from the 23rd…onwards almost until New Years. As a result, don’t expect many restaurants outside of Reykjavik to be open during this period. We brought soup and pots to Iceland, which is how we were able to eat in Iceland on the days around Christmas. If you’re considering visiting Iceland in December, don’t miss out on New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik. Click for my post about New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik
- If you’re doing a complete road trip around Iceland without backtracking, you will spend most of your time on Ring Road.
- If you rent a car in Iceland that is “normal”, then there are certain roads you are not allowed to drive on in winter as they are in rugged terrain. This means that visiting the interior/highlands of Iceland will not be possible.
- If you’re not an experienced winter driver, a 4WD (a four wheel drive) is a good idea. You will have more control over the car, especially with ice.
- You cannot drive fast as there’s low visibility, snowstorms, and limited daylight.
- Weather in Iceland in winter can be very bad. Daylight hours are from 11:00 to 16:00 (in the latter part of December) and snow storms can reduce visibility to almost zero. Roads are frequently icy. It is not a good idea to plan long stretches of driving on any given day. Locals said they did not drive in the dark. We spent eight days going around Ring Road, and that might have been pushing ourselves a bit too much. (The only cool part: sunrises and sunsets everyday.)
- Rent an automatic, not a manual, unless you really prefer the latter. There are enough mountains that the last thing you want is to be fiddling with the gears while also navigating low visibility and poor tire traction.
- Get car insurance from the car company. When looking for rental cars in Iceland, be sure to get full coverage, which means that you don’t need to pay anything if you run into trouble. We had a minor accident involving a curb in a parking lot and sliding on ice, which scratched our bumper. In Iceland, they check the rental cars very carefully, including the bottom for scratches/gravel damage. You will be asked about sand (mostly an issue on the Southern coast) and ash insurance (due to volcanic explosions), however it’s your call on whether you want to get it. We chose not to.
- You will probably rent your car in Keflavik, near the airport. Any car rental in Iceland will include pick-up from the airport.
- The decision to take a road trip through Iceland this time of year is not to be taken lightly. Make sure you have experience driving in winter conditions and are up for some stress at times. That being said, look at it as an adventure. The experience is very rewarding.
- Iceland is not densely populated. You will travel for long periods with seeing any signs of human life. There is an emergency rescue service that can be called, but it may take some time to reach you. As such, plan you meals, refueling, etc. wisely beforehand.
- Plan your Iceland road trip route before you go as gas stations can be far apart. The last thing you want: to be stranded in below freezing temperatures with no gas.
- If you’re staying at guesthouses, add at least an extra hour to your arrival time as you will drive slower than your GPS/Google estimates and accidents can cripple Ring Road (and your progress getting there).
- Don’t drive too long. Try to space out your trip (or just stop off along the way) at a gas station for coffee. (Be sure to try the dried fish as a snack although it will make the car smell fishy.)
- Have a killer driving soundtrack that will keep you awake while driving in the dark. We actually decided to make two playlists, one only by Icelandic bands and a second consisting solely of the Game of Thrones soundtracks. The plan to listen to Sigur Rós the entire time fell apart after we listened to all the available albums multiple times. We ended up listening to Game of Thrones on repeat in between finding the entrance to Jon Snow’s love cave and exploring the filming locations of Iceland from Game of Thrones.
- Getting lost is harder than you expect as you’re mostly driving one road, but bring a GPS and/or download your maps offline map [such as Google Maps]. Keep in mind that some roads may be closed in the winter, but may appear open on the map. One of my best Iceland tips: Check with guesthouses/hotels if they have a recommended route as some GPS routes are not possible in winter.
- Book your accommodations ahead. There’s not that many choices once you’re in more rural parts of Iceland and guesthouses may not have availability if you wait until the last minute.
Driving in Iceland: Roads in Iceland
If you rent a car in Keflavik (which you probably will), you may think that the road from Keflavik to Reykjavik is indicative of Icelandic roads. It is not. That road has many lanes, proper shoulders, dividers, etc. but it also connects two of the largest centers of activity in Iceland: the international airport and the capital. Otherwise, here is what to expect from typical Icelandic roads, including the Golden Circle and Ring Road.
- Driving in Reykjavik and driving near Reykjavik is totally different than driving in the rest of Iceland.
- The Icelandic roads are almost exclusively two lanes: one in each direction. In addition these lanes are often narrow, making passing opposing travel difficult at times. This is especially true in icy weather.
- While the roads typically have two lanes, there are many bridges along Ring Road, and they typically have one lane. Generally only one car should be on a bridge at a time. When approaching a bridge, stop and check to see if someone is already crossing it in the opposing direction. Also, don’t stop too close the the bridge to allow room for opposing traffic to get around you. Many accidents occur on bridges, so use caution.
- Sometimes two cars approach opposite ends of the bridge at the same time. Then some haggling is done between the two cars by flashing their headlights at each other.
- Much of Ring Road is elevated above a glacial plane. There are no proper shoulders on the road, just a steep drop to the plain below (often not more than a couple of meters). So pulling over is best done onto side roads–and waiting a while.
- There are rarely guard rails along the road. Driving in Iceland in winter can be stressful in icy conditions as the road is often elevated with ice on the road. If you slide off the road, it is unlikely you will be able to drive back onto the road and you will need to call for assistance. It is important to have a phone plan with calling as you may have to call emergency services as well as accommodations to give them your updated arrival time due to delays.
- Ring Road passes through and over many fjords. At these places, the roads are very high up. From the the road, you can look down to the Atlantic Ocean. Even here, there may not be guard rails.
Winter driving conditions: what to know for Iceland in winter
- As previously mentioned, daylight hours for Iceland in December are from 11:00 to 16:00. You shouldn’t drive more than three to four hours in the dark. As such, making sure you have time to enjoy activities in the daylight means that you will have difficulty traveling long distances on any given day. Plan to make lots of shorter trips each day. The most that we did in one day was six hours (planned) with stopping off, but it took much longer that we intended for it to take.
- In addition to a general lack of sunlight, Iceland is prone to fierce snow storms. These can reduce the visibility dramatically. There are times you may not be able to see further than 3 meters ahead of you.
- Almost the entirety of Ring Road has regularly spaced reflector poles to help you know the boundaries of the road. However, it is typical to not be able to see the traffic lines in the middle of the highway. This means that passing opposing traffic should be done with extreme care.
- The roads frequently become icy. In many cases, a solid layer of ice covers the entire surface of the road. Drive slowly and remember to pump your brakes gently if you begin to slide. It is important to never panic and slam the breaks or jerk the steering wheel.
- Iceland in winter is cold due to the wind (although it’s not technically that cold outside). The wind is intense and I strongly recommend getting a face mask. Similarly, if you plan on taking a bathroom break along the road, don’t leave the doors open, which is how Jacob lost his hat (oops). We were even warned about doors blowing off.
- If you’re driving in iceland in winter, the wind is something to watch out for. Expect to fishtail (which means that your car may slide in a direction that you don’t want it to!) If you are on ice, it possible that the wind can physically push the car across the ice. However, this typically happens only if you are driving too slowly (a necessity sometimes with the low visibility). Driving between 40 to 60 kph was best for minimizing sliding and maximizing momentum so as not to be pushed around by the wind.
- Iceland maintains a website with lots of information about road conditions that is constantly updated, http://www.road.is/. This site shows how bad conditions are on any section of road, whether the road is closed, if there is an accident, if the road is being cleared, and cameras that let you physically check the road for ice, snow, etc. Consult this website as frequently as possible and plan accordingly. Many gas stations have a screen with maps for the area with live updates.
- In winter, the section of Ring Road near Egilsstadir is closed and a different road must be taken. Be aware of this and look up the appropriate route ahead of time.
Iceland Road Trip Winter Tip: Do not drive on F-Roads in WINTER. You cannot.
If you’re planning on driving in Iceland in winter and you’re renting a rental car, you will be told that you cannot drive on “F-roads”. This is a good thing in many ways as a normal 2WD and even a 4×4 will struggle with these roads in winter. F-Roads are reserved for off-road vehicles and are typically made of gravel for summer. F-roads are typically roads going over mountains and/or through valleys [with rivers] for summer. As a result, you will want to check that your GPS is not taking you on a F-road. Many F-roads are closed in winter and they are not safe to drive on as the snow can pile up, making it impossible to tell where an unsafe patch might be. It’s good to ask your car rental company for a map beforehand and to double-check if your route will pass through these areas as one of the major summer Route 1 passes over an F-road, you must re-route yourself in winter not to drive on this road as it’s blocked. If you end up going on a F-road without clearing it with your rental agency first, your insurance is invalid.
(Click for detailed information about which roads are suitable depending on your vehicle
Rental car companies in Iceland include a GPS tracker….and they will check the bottom for gravel damage, so you will not get away with it.
Glacier in Iceland
For the Icelandic highlands, you need to take a tour with a Superjeep. Although you can generally drive in the highlands in summer, most of these roads are closed in winter. The highlands comprise the majority of the interior of Iceland. We did not go there, but heard that it is spectacular. However, you cannot drive in the highlands in winter without a Superjeep.
The Icelandic Superjeep is an enormous military style jeep that has been outfitted with larger tires, more powerful engines etc. This can drive through rivers, on glaciers, and through other treacherous terrain. You cannot rent a Superjeep yourself as you need an experienced driver. Essentially, the only way to see the highlands in winter is with a tour. Superjeeps travel in pairs as some ground is not frozen enough (especially for frozen rivers) and the other SuperJeep will need to drag one out. This is a serious affair that you should not attempt in Iceland in winter without an experienced tour guide.
Would you road trip in Iceland in winter? Anything we missed or that you want to know?
Keep reading more tips about Iceland in winter. I promise that it will be practical, helpful, and real.