Updated: Sep 23
Taking a road trip around the uniquely beautiful island of Iceland is a wonderful experience. Immense landscapes and sight after incredible sight greet you at every turn. You really don’t have to drive far in Iceland before the landscape yields yet another stunning waterfall, volcano, or glacier. This reasonably compact scale combined with the wide-open spaces is one of the appeals of traveling around Iceland by road. Renting a car or hiring a camper van or motorhome are all popular ways to explore. The freedom of the open road and the flexibility and affordability that driving brings make it a great travel option.
There are of course a few things to bear in mind if you do decide to rent a campervan for a road trip. Driving in Iceland can be quite challenging at times. Getting behind the wheel in the land of fire and ice will likely be quite different from what you’re used to. Gravel roads in Iceland are the norm and the weather can really kick in at times. There are plus sides too. You certainly won’t be sitting in traffic for hours. The roads in Iceland are pretty quiet in general. Let’s look in more detail at the driving challenges you could face.
Iceland road driving and its challenges
One of the main challenges of driving in Iceland is the wild weather. High winds, driving rain, and think snow and ice can all make an appearance. All of them make navigating the roads much more tricky. Of course, the weather in Iceland depends very much on the season that you visit. The summer months are much more settled. But it is still not unheard of for a storm to blow in. The weather up next to the Arctic Circle really is that unpredictable.
Another potential driving challenge is the road surfaces. Although there are a fair amount of paved roads in Iceland there are quite a few gravel roads and tracks too.
Driving on gravel roads and how to tackle them
If driving anywhere outside of Reykjavik then you are sure to come across at least a few stretches of gravel road. Many of these gravel tracks will be short stretches leading up to the parking lots of Iceland’s beauty spots. These are easy enough to negotiate. You simply need to go slowly and carefully and watch out for other vehicles passing.
However, there are many much longer stretches of gravel roads in North Iceland and on the highland roads. If you drive the Ring Road and the Diamond Circle you will encounter them. And you could well be driving for several hours on gravel depending on where you are headed. This is when it can get tempting to put your foot down a little and increase your speed.
And therein lies the problem. It is on these remote gravel roads without anyone else around that drivers might succumb to temptation and speed. Or it could be simply that the attention wanders and you forget after a while that you need to drive slowly.
A good way to tackle this problem is to plan ahead. When you plan your driving route for the day take note of how much of it will be on gravel roads. You will then need to schedule more time for your trip. As driving on gravel takes a little more attention and patience make sure to factor in plenty of stops. Take proper breaks and find places to visit on route to break up the journey. You should also be really aware of the daylight hours and the weather conditions. Ideally, you don’t want to have to drive on gravel in the dark. Not a pleasant experience and you’ll be missing the views too!
The Speed limit in Iceland
The speed limit in Iceland varies depending on the road surface you are driving on. The speeds listed below are the absolute maximum you can drive if the conditions are perfect. If there are any adverse weather conditions or you are driving at twilight you should go more slowly. The speed limit in Iceland is very strictly enforced. And the fines are hefty too. You could pay upwards of $500 US depending on the situation.
- In towns and cities the speed limit is 50km/h or 30mph
- On long stretches of rural gravel roads the speed limit is 80km/h or 49mph (unless otherwise stated so look out for signage!)
- The general rural paved roads speed limit is 90km/h or 55mph
What to do if you skid on gravel
It is really easy to lose traction and skid on gravel. This is especially true if you are driving at speed. To play it safe you should take it slowly and be really cautious when approaching other cars. You also need to watch out on steep hills and corners. If you do end up skidding then stay calm. Try not to jam on the brakes harder or swing the steering wheel suddenly. The technique instead is to press in the clutch and gently turn the wheel in the direction you are skidding. If you have driven on ice then it is similar. Turn into the slide and then regain control.
Other things to watch out for
There are several drives around the country that will take you on roads that change abruptly from asphalt to gravel. These will always be well signposted but it is good to keep it in mind. The Icelandic Road Administration maintains all of the signage across the country. There is one really useful mobile travel app for all things related to roads in Iceland. The Iceland Road Guide App. Amongst other things it helps you to familiarise yourself with the different road signs, you might come across.
For anyone planning to drive in Iceland whether in rental cars or campers you will need to consider insurance coverage. As you can imagine gravel roads can wreak havoc on paintwork. There are insurance packages catered to this along with things like volcanic ash and dust. For more on this visit our article on Iceland insurance advice. Don’t let the potential hazards put you off though. As long as you visit with an awareness of the road conditions you are sure to have an amazing trip.