Updated: Aug 29
In summer, the roads and trails of Iceland’s mountainous interior open to traffic. The roads, known as F-roads, are a far cry from the smooth paved surface of the ring road and those that radiate out from major cities like Reykjavik and Akureyri. Having a graveled surface doesn’t make an Icelandic road an F road. As well, these rough roads cross challenging terrain, making maintenance hard and extreme potholes very common indeed. And that’s not all – some F-roads, like F208, also require drivers to tackle river crossings, which requires skill and often nerves of steel. Let’s see how crossing rivers in Iceland with a camper works!
Driving on an F-road in Iceland
It isn’t the same as going for a drive off-road
Driving off-road is illegal in Iceland. For travelers, the problem is that where you might drive off-road in your own country, it could be considerably less tricky than driving on one of Iceland’s F-roads! So while you won’t be breaking the Icelandic traffic law if you can drive one of the F-roads, you might be forced to turn back if conditions become too difficult.
What’s crucial to your safety and that of the passengers in the vehicle with you is that you know your limitations, and you don’t take chances on any road in Iceland. There’s no place for bravado on the country’s highland roads and no shame in admitting defeat.
If you do wish to attempt the F-roads, then choose your car rental or campervan very carefully. Driving cars is one thing, a motorhome or campervan is another. Not all vehicles are suitable, so make sure the insurance covers you. If you’re browsing our campervans, know that you're going to need a 4x4 no matter what. Pick a Dacia Duster 4x4 with roof tent, Subaru 4x4 Forester with a tent, or a VW Transporter 4x4. These vehicles are able to cope with much of what the F-roads throw at them, but that might not include water crossings in all scenarios.
How do you tackle a river crossing?
One of the greatest challenges for visitors tackling the F-roads is fording rivers. Even experienced drivers can come unstuck. Just because you have crossed a river before doesn’t mean you can cross the same river safely another time. Each crossing should be approached as an entirely new situation, with water levels carefully gauged before you even think about entering the water. Rivers and their courses change constantly. Maps should be used with caution, as they provide only a rough guide to which roads cross rivers. Unless the map clearly shows a bridge, the first thing you need to do is stop.
In addition, you need to be aware that any damage that’s done to the underside of the vehicle or its engine will not be covered under the terms of your insurance or the vehicle’s warranty. Imagine how much it would cost to replace the vehicle, and you’ve got some kind of idea of the amount it would cost you if you make a mistake, misjudge the crossing and ruin the car or van. Cross a stream or a river and you do so at your own risk, so be responsible. Getting stranded and requiring the assistance of ICE-SAR to rescue you might put others in danger too.
Try to figure out with the help of maps or local knowledge – or both – what kind of river it is that you are trying to cross. If it’s a glacial river, then it’s likely to be at its highest level in late spring or summer, as that will probably be when temperatures have risen sufficiently for the ice to melt. Rivers that originate in the spring will be more consistent and the flow of water won’t alter as much with the seasons. Finally, water levels of rivers that flow after heavy rain can change fast and freeze when temperatures plummet, requiring extra caution.
How to cross a river in Iceland?
See if you can spot any tire tracks entering and exiting the river. This won’t guarantee the crossing is safe, but it might indicate that a driver has crossed at that point before. It’s sensible to wait if unsure and see if another car arrives; discuss whether a crossing is achievable together. If there are other drivers about, attempt to ford the river together. This has the advantage that if one driver has a problem, the other might be able to come to their aid.
Know that the narrowest part of the river isn’t the safest. It might be tempting to choose the shortest gap to cross a river in Iceland, but water flows more quickly through a narrower gap, so wide and shallow beats deep and narrow. Judge the depth of the water and any large obstacles that are in it, or might be hidden underneath the surface. In that respect, calm water isn’t always safe. Even very shallow water can be dangerous, particularly if you enter it too quickly. Wade in; if the water’s likely to reach above your knees, it’s likely to be higher than your tires and thus not safe for your rental camper in Iceland.
If you think it’s going to be too dangerous to wade in, then it’s definitely too dangerous to drive across. If you do opt to make river crossings, make sure you’re in four-wheel drive mode and don’t drive too fast – water will enter the air intake. As a rule, select a low gear that will improve traction and enable you to crawl across at a steady pace; aim for a walking pace. You need to avoid spinning the wheels or changing gear. Never drive upstream, as this will make it much harder to gain traction and will also increase the chance of water getting up over the bonnet and into the air intake. Point the front of the car slightly downstream and aim to cross the river at a slight angle which will help cope with the effect of the current.
Concentrate. Don’t stop partway across if you start to sink into the soft surface of the river bed. Watch out for hazards such as semi-submerged rocks and steer gently. Before you begin to cross, have an idea in your head as to where you expect to exit the water; make a plan B beforehand in case that proves impossible.
Finally, to round off our tips about how to ford a river, and most important of all: if you are in any doubt about road conditions, don’t cross. Turn back and abandon the crossing – one for another time, perhaps, or a super jeep tour?