Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Iceland is an excellent country for a road trip. It boasts so many spectacular natural wonders spread across a relatively small area. This means that you never have to spend too long behind the wheel. Pretty soon you’ll be pulling over to admire another glacier, volcano, or thundering waterfall. Iceland also has a famously small population so the roads never get too heavy with traffic. Believe us when we say that rush hour in Reykjavik is nothing like rush hour in most other capital cities.
That’s not to say that Iceland’s roads don’t come with their own set of challenges though. Driving in Iceland has its ups and its downs. Some of the road surfaces can be tricky and the weather conditions also play a big part. In this article, we will cover essential safety tips and insights into the rules of the road. Read on to find out all about the realities of a road trip and how to drive safely in Iceland.
So, what are the roads like in Iceland?
There is quite a mixture of roads in Iceland with various different surfaces. The famous Iceland Ring Road that loops right around the country is a paved and mainly two-lane highway. It is kept in excellent condition as it is the main route around the country. Other well-used routes around the main settlements and busy southern tourist sights are also paved roads.
In the more remote areas, you will find many gravel-surfaced roads. If you are driving in North Iceland you are much more likely to come across a gravel road or two. And if you head into the highlands all of the F-Roads will be gravel surfaced. For the highland roads, you will only be able to drive them in 4 x 4 campers or rental cars.
To navigate them safely you simply need to take your time and not drive too fast. It is possible for tires to slip on gravel in a similar way to ice. If this happens then stay calm turn into the slide and gently hold onto the wheel. Avoid sudden braking or swinging the wheel sharply. All such dramas can be easily avoided by taking things slow and steady though.
Another good reason to take things easy on gravel roads is the potential it has to chip paintwork. There is in fact a special insurance add-on that you can purchase to cover chipped paintwork. It is well worth considering if you plan on hitting the highlands.
Do the roads get very busy?
As mentioned the population of Iceland is quite tiny. There are only around 330,00 permanent residents on the island. Having said that it is a pretty popular place to visit and especially so in summer. At this time of year, there can be a lot of visitors. Many of these visitors will be hitting the road just like you. They could be hiring motorhomes and campervans or renting a car. This means that there will be quite a few novices Iceland drivers on the road. Bear in mind that many of these drivers will be in unfamiliar vehicles, driving unfamiliar roads. Some of them may not be used to driving on the right. They may also be distracted by map reading or simply by the incredible scenery that they are driving through. Keep in mind all of these possibilities and drive patiently and with care.
Another factor that affects the roads in the summer months is tour buses. This is mainly the case in South Iceland and along the southern portion of the Ring Road. At this time of year, day-trippers head out of Reykjavik on tour buses large and small. They generally visit the Golden Circle and travel along the South Coast as far as the Vatnajökull National Park. This means that the south of the country can get a little more traffic-heavy in summer.
What is the speed limit in Iceland?
An important way to stay safe when driving in Iceland is to always stick to the speed limit. The speed limit for the different roads in Iceland is always the maximum that you should drive if conditions are good. If there are adverse conditions due to weather, light, or other road users then you should adjust your speed accordingly.
Paved roads in rural areas 90 km /h
Gravel or dirt roads 80 km /h
Paved roads in populated areas 50 km /h
Speed limits are taken very seriously in Iceland and the fines are considerable. Any driver speeding will be fined on a sliding scale depending on how far over the limit they were driving. Fines can stretch to $600 US dollars and beyond. Quite a sting!
Other rules of the roads
Cars in Iceland drive on the right-hand side of the road. This is helpful for most European and US drivers. UK drivers should take extra care. Another important law is that there is zero tolerance for driving under the influence of alcohol. So if you would like a drink definitely make sure that you don’t need to drive anywhere afterward. The fines are also very hefty if you are apprehended.
One last thing is to pay close attention to the road signs. We mentioned earlier that you must have a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive on certain roads in Iceland. This will always be made completely clear by large road signs at the side of the road. Likewise, you will always be forewarned if a road surface is changing from paved to gravel. Other warning signs could be if there is a stretch of single-lane road approaching. This often happens when there is a bridge coming up. So do keep your eyes out for road signs as you cruise. There are some very useful mobile travel apps to help on this front.
Driving off-road in Iceland
Driving off-road is strictly forbidden in Iceland. This is for the very important reason of protecting the delicate flora of Iceland. The fragile mosses and grasses in Iceland have a hard time taking root. They are very easily damaged and take a long time to recover. So cars, bikes, and boots should all be used with care. For this same reason, you should not pull in and park off-road either. Wild camping or parking in undesignated areas is irresponsible.
On another note pulling in at the side of the road is frowned upon. This time for safety reasons. The roads in Iceland are generally quite narrow. So parking a motorhome or camper on the verge causes a potentially dangerous obstruction. The main reason people are tempted to stop is that they have spotted an unmissable photo opportunity. But we promise that there are loads of pull-in areas for just this reason. If you drive on just a little further you will find one.
The weather in Iceland and driving safety
One of the biggest factors when it comes to road conditions is the weather in Iceland. If you travel to Iceland at any time of year you could endure a storm or two. But this is far more likely outside of the high season and especially so in winter. Icelandic road conditions in winter are a big consideration. Taking a road trip at this time of year is perfectly safe. You just need to adjust your routes and timings to suit the conditions. Shorter trips in South Iceland are your best bet. There are many incredible sights to see and plenty of opportunities for seeing the Northern Lights.
The roads in the south are much more frequently used. This means that they are kept clear and ice-free most of the time. The area is also much more populated so help won’t be far away if needed.
The rule of thumb for driving a campervan in winter is to be very vigilant in checking the weather forecast. The weather can change quite quickly but there are some excellent meteorologists in Iceland. If you keep an eye on the forecasts you’ll generally know what’s coming your way. If a storm does blow in then there can be very high winds and extremely poor visibility. This is the time to stay put in your camper or plan a town or city visit into your itinerary.
Other Icelandic road safety tips
On any road trip in Iceland, it is wise to come prepared with a mobile phone and spare battery. In the unlikely event that you need to call search and rescue then you will be covered. You should also make sure that you have plenty of fuel in your tank. Bring a credit card for self-service pumps and stay topped up. Likewise, keep a stash of snacks and water with you in your camper in case you need to park up and wait for a storm to pass.
You should also check your tires before embarking on any long drives. Especially if you have been driving on rough roads that can easily damage tires. Better to do a tire change with plenty of space and assistance rather than on the side of the road.