Driving in Iceland tips and advice

Driving in Iceland

How to Stay Safe on Iceland's Roads

Driving in Iceland is often very different to driving in other countries. As we discovered on our road trip through the Westfjords, Iceland is blessed with some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring scenery on earth. 

Yet Iceland’s unique geography and climate can sometimes make driving incredibly tricky. The time of year and the part of Iceland you visit can also have a serious impact on driving conditions, which can often change in an instant. 

Here are our top suggestions on what you should look out for when driving in Iceland.

Icelandic Roads Come in Many Forms

If you’re heading out on a road trip around Iceland you’ll spend a fair amount of time on Iceland’s most famous road, Route 1. 

Route 1 circles the island of Iceland, and almost all of is a two lane road. The road narrows to a single lane with a right of way given in one direction at bridges and some tunnels.

Much of the road network in rural areas of Iceland has been upgraded from unpaved gravel roads to asphalt, making them a much safer and smoother drive. 

However, there are some sections of Route 1 in eastern Iceland that are still a gravel track. The speed limit on the asphalt roads is in rural areas is 90km an hour. In urban areas it is 50km an hour.

Gravel road in rural Iceland - Driving in Iceland
An unsealed gravel road in rural Iceland

Many of the roads in rural Iceland are yet to be relaid and long sections are still pretty awful gravel tracks. 

The speed limit on gravel roads is 80km an hour, though in some parts the condition of the road is so bad this might seem reckless. The gravel roads are rife with huge potholes and are an incredibly bumpy ride.

Many of these unpaved roads bend around steep inclines and declines across mountains with occasional sheer drops to one side. Taking them at anything less than a crawl might seem suicidal. 

However, many of the Icelanders seem to live without fear and take the unpaved roads at speed, which often sends chunks of loose stone flying in all directions.

A gravel road in Iceland, something to look out for whilst driving in Iceland
Torrential rain pours onto and a winding gravel road on the mountain's edge - Route 60 in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Avoid F-Roads Unless You're in a 4x4

F roads are the most extreme form of Iceland’s gravel tracks and can only be used by 4×4 vehicles. If you’re renting any car other than a 4×4 it will state in the conditions of your lease that you are not allowed to drive on any F roads.

If you plan to go to some of the more remote parts of the country that can only be reached by F roads, such as the Iceland Highlands you will need to hire a 4×4.

Look Out for Blindhaeds

Blindhaeds are the blind summits at the tip of a road that rises on an incline, reaching a high point before dipping back down on the other side. 

The danger with blindhaeds is that you’re unable to see if anything is coming towards you in the other direction on the opposite side of the road. 

Mostly found on quieter rural roads it’s quite rare that you’ll ever meet anything at the tip but take care just in case. Blindhaeds are always signposted well in advance before you reach them.

Two road signs in Iceland - Driving in Iceland

The Icelandic Weather Can Make Things Interesting

The conditions for driving in Iceland are often dictated by the weather. During the winter whole sections of the road network are closed and many others are also closed for long periods of the year. 

The IRCA’s site has up to date screenshots taken from a whole host of webcams located all over the country so that you can see the condition of stretches of certain roads before you travel. 

During the rest of the year Iceland’s weather can still turn dramatically without notice. Sudden rain and winds can make driving conditions difficult, especially at higher altitudes. 

If the weather suddenly takes a turn for the worst slow down and drive at a speed that you’re comfortable with. You might also want to think about what to wear in Iceland so that the elements don’t get the better of you.

Petrol Stations are Pretty Common Throughout Iceland

Iceland is very good at petrol stations, and you will never be that far from a chance to fill up no matter where you are. If you’ve got under half a tank it might be worth filling up whenever you spot a petrol station though, just to be on the safe side. 

In the most rural parts of Iceland, or outside of regular opening hours you’ll have to pay by card at the pump (instructions on how to do this are given in English as it’s not as straight forward as it sounds).

To use the petrol pumps you will have to insert your card into the payment machine before you can put petrol in the car. The machine will ask for a maximum amount that you’re prepared to pay. 

Whatever amount you choose will be taken from your card. If the amount of petrol you put into the tank comes to less than the maximum amount that you stipulated you will be reimbursed the difference, though this can take a few days to be re-credited to your card. 

The larger petrol stations are also a good place to stock up on supplies and often serve basic but very good hot food – much better than you’d expect from a petrol station. (We can highly recommend the lamb soup at the N1 gas station at Blönduós which was fantastic.)

A typical view from the car whilst driving in Iceland

Get Insurance

When hiring a car, make sure you get the right insurance cover and waiver deals just to be on the safe side. Though a lot of upgrades to many roads have been carried out in recent years the gravel tracks can cause some damage to the car.

As mentioned above, no matter how cautiously you might take these roads the locals know them better than the back of their hands and are happy to take them at quite a speed. 

Chunks of rock and stone can clatter against the side of the car each time they fly past, so you might want to consider adding a waiver policy when hiring a car.

GPS, Phone Signal and Maps

We always had a decent phone signal even in the most remote parts of the Westfjords but some places were better than others. If you’re relying on your phone for GPS I’d recommend downloading the Maps.me app which works offline. 

Download the Iceland map in the app before you go and take a phone charger cable with you in the car as the app does eats up battery life very quickly.

If you want to be extra cautious you could go old school and buy an actual map – we took this map as back up just in case and it came in very handy whenever we needed to plan the next day’s trip as it was a lot easier to do with the whole region laid out in front of you rather than fiddling around with an app on a phone.

Pay Attention to Official Advice

Finally, familiarise yourself with the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration’s website. Any travel warnings in place or road closures will be clearly stated here. They also have very good advice on driving in Iceland, especially this PDF which is essential reading.

Driving in Iceland is a wonderful experience and one that can easily be enjoyed as long as the right precautions are taken. Iceland’s scenery is unbelievably mesmerising, and it’s the kind of place that stays with you long after you’ve returned home.

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