Driving in Iceland - The Ultimate Guide to Drive in Iceland
Iceland is a country that’s seemingly made for road trips. Towns are few and far between, separated by gargantuan landscapes, glinting glaciers, and vast expanses of volcanic sands. This is a country that demands you get outside of the capital and explore even just a little bit, best done by driving in Iceland.
Here’s everything you need to know about car rentals in Iceland and driving in the country.
Do I Need a Car to See Iceland?
While it’s not entirely necessary but having a car in Iceland is one of the best ways to explore the country. If you’re on a short city break in Reykjavik, having a car to escape into the countryside will be a lovely way to make the best use of your time.
If you’re staying for a longer trip, then a rental car is necessary – driving in Iceland gives you the freedom to explore at your own will. With the Icelandic Ring Road circling the entire country, Iceland is the perfect country for a road trip, letting you conveniently see most of the famous sights, from the waterfall Skogafoss to the volcanic Mývatn Lake.
Choosing the Right Rental Car
If you’re planning on renting a car in Iceland, then there are two main things to take into consideration when looking at the different types of vehicles: the roads you’re planning to take and the kind of weather conditions you can expect.
If you’re travelling in the summer, that means that in general, the weather conditions will be good for driving, so you need to worry less about the weather and more about how much space you’ll need. Go Car Rental Iceland has a range of vehicles to choose from, with everything from zippy little cars for shooting about Reykjavik to larger vans for group road trips across the country.
Do I Need a 4WD Rental Car in Iceland?
If you’re feeling adventurous, then a 4WD car rental in Iceland will allow you to travel on the F-Roads. These are the rough tracks that crisscross the Highlands, traversing some of Iceland’s most stunning – and powerful – landscapes.
If this sounds like the kind of thing you’re after, then you’ll need to start looking at our 4WD options. Legally, these are the only types of vehicles allowed on the F-Roads, many of which require river crossings that regular vehicles can’t handle.
It’s also important to note that the Icelandic F-Roads are only open in the warmer months, usually from around mid-June until the end of August. You can check up on the openings at the official website of Vegagerðin, also known as the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.
The Road Conditions in Iceland
Aside from the F-Roads in the central highlands, the main route that you’ll take to explore the country is Route 1, also known as the Ring Road. Circling the entire country, no matter how many detours you make, you’ll always come back to the ring road while driving in Iceland.
In general, the conditions of the ring road are very good, and the entire route is paved now (formerly there used to be long stretches of gravel road). Many of the most popular detours off the ring road are also paved, but if you venture into the more remote areas of the country (e.g., The Westfjords, or the far northeast corner of Iceland), then you can expect to run into some gravel roads.
The road conditions in Reykjavik are OK, although the city does suffer from some bad potholes and grooves in the road along the busier streets. During rush hour there’s a bit of traffic as well, but once you’ve escaped the city, the roads won’t be busy at all.
Iceland’s Ring Road
You’ve likely already heard so much about Iceland’s Ring Road. This is a famous part of the country, as much an attraction as the waterfalls, glaciers, and hot springs it delivers you to.
The idea of the Ring Road comes mainly from Iceland’s landscapes. The central Highlands plateau is inhospitable for most of the year, so the main roads around the country of course were built around the outskirts of the country, on the lower coastal plains near the coast.
There’s one lane heading in either direction, taking in Iceland’s spectacular scenery. For those planning a road trip with a car rental in Iceland, this will be an integral part of your journey. It stretches for roughly 1,328km (825 miles) and gives easy access to a lot of the sights you’ll want to see in Iceland.
What is the Speed Limit in Iceland?
While driving in Iceland, be extra cautious about your speed. In Iceland, there are speed cameras set up around the country (mostly around the Reykjavik area) just waiting to catch drivers over the limit and give them hefty fines.
The maximum speed allowed on Icelandic roads is 90 km/h (60 mph) and 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel roads.
If you do go through any tunnels while driving in Iceland, the speed limit drops down to 70km/h (43 mph).
In the City, the speed limit drops down from 50 km/h (30 mph) to 15 km/h (9 mph).
Iceland also has lower advisory speed limits, which are indicated by rectangular blue signs with white letters. They are mainly used in trouble spots on rural highways such as when approaching a sharp corner or a single-lane bridge
Are There Toll Roads in Iceland?
The most famous toll road in Iceland is no longer operational, as the cost of its construction has been paid off. We’re of course talking about the tunnel north of Reykjavik underneath Hvalfjörður, which is now completely free.
That leaves only one toll road in Iceland, and it’s in North Iceland on the ring road east of Akureyri. A new tunnel here called Vaðlaheiðargöng cuts through a mountain, shaving off around 30 minutes of travel time. The toll for rental cars here is 1500 ISK, which can be paid via the tunnel’s website. There is a 6-hour window with which to pay the toll for your car rental in Iceland.
Driving Hazards in Iceland
Iceland is a unique country, with lots of fantastic landscapes. But as an isolated island in the North Atlantic, with volcanic energy brooding underground, and inhospitable expanses of sub-arctic desert and glacial runoff, driving in Iceland comes with a few hazards that are unique to the country.
We recommend checking out SafeTravel.is for Iceland travel safety tips
With a car rental in Iceland, you’ll constantly be on the lookout for the weather. Is it raining, gale-force winds, sleet, snow? The weather here is a big part of travelling in the country, and whatever conditions you do run into should be enjoyed as such.
However, if there are any weather warnings out, or particularly strong winds or a storm rolling across parts of the country, driving in Iceland can get tricky and you’ll need to be very careful. You might even just have to stay put or change plans and head in another direction.
To make sure you’re always keeping on top of the weather conditions while you’ve got your car rental in Iceland, bookmark the website of the Icelandic Met Office.
Sheep on the Road
There are a whole lot of sheep in Iceland, and as soon as the weather is warm enough, farmers let them out of their pens to roam free across the countryside. You’ll see them in the most unlikely of places, from high on mountain tops to deep valleys cutting into the Highlands.
However, a lot of sheep choose instead to stay close to the road – there’s plenty for them to eat around there, so why not? What you do need to be careful about is sheep on the road, as they’ll often use them to trot around the country.
In the Spring, there are also lambs to look out for as well. If one is on the opposite side of the road to their mother, when a car comes, they will dash across the road to them instead of staying away from the road. This is one to look out for.
A big driving hazard for those with a regular car rental in Iceland are the F-Roads, although, for the most part, it’s hard to encounter them without seeking them out. If you do, however, there will be a sign that reads that beyond this point, regular vehicles aren’t allowed.
One-Lane Bridges and Tunnels
A unique trait of driving in Iceland that surprises many is the fact that there are both one-way bridges and tunnels.
The bridges are mostly in the south on the Ring Road, but there are a few others around the country. Keep an eye out for the long bridges that cross the glacial runoff areas as you get closer to Vatnajökull glacier.
One-way tunnels can also be tricky, and depending on which direction you’re coming from, you will either need to give way or have right of way. There are a handful of these tunnels on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula in North Iceland,
Icy Roads and Closed Mountain Passes
For those travelling to Iceland in the winter, there’s a lot to love. From the dancing northern lights above to the pastel hues of the short winter’s day, this is a season that completely transforms Iceland into something else.
But during this time, you can also expect some of the worst weather. Temperatures plummet, and with a lot of rain and snow across the country, roads can become quite icy – and slippery.
Another hazard are the mountain passes across the country, where the roads have no choice but to lead you over a large mountain. With the added altitude, the weather can be entirely different than just moments before – strong winds and snow can completely shut off these roads.
These closed mountain passes in Iceland are also one of the reasons behind the creation of tunnels that bore through the mountains. It makes it easier for locals to get around without having to worry about the strong conditions on a mountaintop.
Wind Ripping Off Car Doors
Yes, it does happen! We can’t stress enough how strong the wind can be in Iceland, and the last thing we want to happen is your driver-side door of the car rental being ripped off by a particularly strong gust.
Always be careful when opening your doors to hop out of your rental car, and hang on to the handles tight so the wind doesn’t catch them and fling them open at full pelt. You can also do your best to park facing into the wind, although for the most part, it’s a futile effort as it most often feels like it comes from every direction imaginable.
River Crossings (on F-roads)
Car rentals in Iceland and river crossings – there’s a long history of stranded cars in rivers, driven by those who weren’t allowed in the Highlands in the first place. As we previously mentioned, if you’re driving in Iceland with a car rental, you’re only allowed onto the F-roads with a 4WD. Highlands are where some of the most explosive landscapes reside. There’s the famous Landmannalaugar, the volcanic caldera Askja, the mountains of Kerlingarfjöll, and plenty more. But to get to most of these places, you’ll need to do a river crossing.
How to cross a river in Iceland?
A great rule to have is that if you would be unwilling to wade across the river, you should not attempt to drive across it. A good thing to keep in mind is that the water should not reach the top of the tires.
While crossing the river you should never stop, drive slowly but steadily in first gear, use the low range if that is available in your rental car and never drive against the stream.
Gas Stations in Iceland
In general, gas stations are pretty numerous around the countryside, so you can forget about running out of fuel. If you see one and you’ve got about half a tank, it might be a good idea to fill up.
A common practice at the Icelandic gas stations is if you select 'full tank', they will put a hold on your card a large amount of money, only charging the correct amount that you used a few days later. This can be inconvenient, to say the least.
The price of gas in Iceland varies but is generally expensive. You can browse the prices at the stations across the country using this handy website.
Driving in Iceland in Winter
Come winter, Iceland changes its tune, with brooding storms and fierce winds whipping across the country. Expect lots of snow, and mush once it melts a little thanks to the temperatures rising or it beginning to rain.
Driving in the winter can be hazardous, but generally doable. A 4WD car rental in Iceland during this time is a good idea, although those with experience driving in the cold and snowy conditions will feel confident with a regular vehicle. As always, pay attention to the weather and road conditions, watch out for any weather warnings on Safe Travel, and all should be well.