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.
Travel tips for Iceland in winter by car
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.
Winter driving conditions: what to know for Iceland in winter
Iceland Road Trip Winter Tip: Do not drive on F-Roads and Plan for a tour through the Highlands
If you’re planning on driving in Iceland in winter and renting a “normal” 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 will struggle with these roads in winter. F-Roads are reserved for off-road vehicles and are typically made of gravel. F-roads are typically roads going over mountains and/or through valleys [with rivers]. 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, but there are even F-roads that car rentals are banned from. 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. If you end up going on a F-road with an unsuitable car, 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.
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 (as far as I know) yourself. 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.
Coming soon: New Years Eve in Reykjavik & our complete itinerary for our Iceland winter road trip.
Karen and Jacob. American expats from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... We are moving to Paris!
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