Last year I drove from the south of France to Iceland after spending the winter in France with my fiancé. We took the ferry from Denmark, arriving in Seyðisfjörður on the east coast in beautiful sunny weather in early May. As we drove across the northeast part of Iceland it started snowing and by the time we reached our destination for the night, the weather was full-blown winter wonderland. The next day we learned that passengers in the next ferry after ours were trapped in Seyðisfjörður due to a blizzard and if we were going to make it home to Reykjavík that day we had better get a move on. We barely made it through the first mountain pass, driving super slow in a total whiteout and as we made our way through the north of Iceland, the roads were closed behind us, one by one. It was the perfect last leg of our journey, as Icelandic as any road trip can get, but it was also an eye-opening experience after all the predictable freeways in France, Germany and Denmark. I suddenly understood why tourists often get into trouble when driving in rural Iceland so here are a few pointers to keep in mind before your road trip begins.
We have a small jeep, nothing fancy, but enough to get you comfortably through relatively bad conditions. You don’t need a massive mountain jeep but having a good vehicle, and more importantly great tires, is key to driving around Iceland in the winter. Also keep in mind that gas stations can be few and far between in the rural areas so use them when you see them.
Lesson number one is to expect the unexpected. A sunny spring day in May or a beautiful autumn afternoon in September can suddenly turn into full-blown winter so keep your eye on the forecast and don’t take any chances if the conditions are iffy. If the roads are closed, there’s a good reason for it.
Route 1, commonly referred to as the Ring-Road because it circles the country, is a paved road in relatively good condition. However, it is no highway, most of it is only a single-lane each direction and the maximum speed for rural pavement is 90 km/h. This includes the long, straight stretches going through the black deserts when it’s very tempting to drive at somewhere closer to 200 km/h. Many tourists have been slapped with monstrous fines in those parts so don’t underestimate the Icelandic road police. Also, keep in mind that these speed restrictions are there for a reason and the roads are really only built for this speed. Ever so often you’ll see new speed signs for tight turns, blind hills, and single car bridges. These are especially dangerous bits of the road that require you to slow down and take extra care so just stick to the directions. Gravel roads usually have a maximum speed of 80 km/h but keep in mind that the gravel can damage your car if it’s flying everywhere and that it’s easier to lose control of a vehicle in gravel.
Whatever you do, do not stop in the middle of the road to take pictures. This is a growing problem and has caused terrible accidents in recent years. Even if the landscape is breathtaking and there’s not a car in sight, it just isn’t worth it and you’ll find a rest area to pull over safely eventually.
Keep an eye out for sheep on the road, usually a mum and her two to three silly lambs. For some reason, mum will stay on one side of the road while her lambs are on the other and when a car comes along they will usually try for a family gathering at the very last second. So slow down, keep your hand on the horn and try to get them to unite before you pass.
If you’re heading into the highland, mountains or somewhere off the beaten path, visit the Icelandic search and rescue teams’ website to leave your Travel Plan or even request Trip Monitoring. They also have very good tips for people traveling around the country.