Tips for Driving on Iceland's Winter Roads
Iceland: We loved you, and we plan to make a summer trip back to see more of your beautiful country in the future... but we (sometimes) hated your winter roads! There is a saying in Iceland that if you don't like the weather, to wait five minutes. It's quite often true, both in good and bad ways, but how the heck do you drive through it?
If you pay attention to Icelandic news, you'd notice that they've been having quite the winter this year. And, of course in true Brinkmann fashion, we decided this was the year to go! What luck we have! There have been stories of tourists getting stuck on glaciers in horrid weather situations (though their rescue team apparently brought a camera crew...), tourists cars being pelted with rocks and filling with snow, and even an Icelandic man's roof blowing off (and please note it was taking Iceland's Dominoes pizza an entire 100 minutes to deliver... way beyond their 30 minute guarantee...HORRID, we know.)
Even with all this, we absolutely adored Iceland. As Canadians, one would think we would be prepared to deal with the winter driving situation. We thought we were. We do live in the Southernmost part of Canada, but we still get snowfall rates much higher than that of Iceland (usually). In fact, we left home with nearly three feet of snow still on the ground. But there's a funny thing about Iceland. It's not snow that's the problem. It's the wind. Unless you've been in a hurricane or a tornado, you probably haven't experienced wind quite like this. It causes crazy blowing snow, and lots of ice. Like skating rinks on the road. Ice pretty much freaks all of us North Americans out, and we felt a bit like genuine tourists while driving on it.
Have we freaked you out yet? Hopefully not. We're just trying to be as honest as possible, because the lack of that is probably what causes folks to let their gaurd down. Don't let the weather/roads deter you from seeing Iceland in the winter. It is absolutely stunning and worth the extra bit of caution it takes to handle being a tourist in Iceland's winter season. The Golden Circle Tour and Northern Lights are out-of-this-world in the winter. Seriously- it's worth it.
Here are some tips to help get you through managing Iceland's winter roads:
Plan extra time. We were in Iceland for 10 days, and this allowed us to see most everything we had hoped to in those days. That's not saying 10 days is enough to see all of Iceland, because it's not. You could probably spend months there and not see everything possible! That's one reason we love it so much. There is so much to see and do! Extra time in the winter is especially important though, because there may be hours (or even a day or two) that you can't really travel. And we're serious. If Iceland's weather warnings say don't travel, don't do it. You just have to be flexible in the winter.
Only drive in the winter if you are totally comfortable with it. You could get lucky and have many perfectly clear/above freezing days in the middle of winter. It happens. But you may not get lucky. The weather is frankly unpredictable. If you are from an area where a couple centimeters or an inch of snow grinds everything to a halt, and you stay inside hiding from the "snow of death" those days... then we'd probably not recommend you attempt driving in Iceland in the winter. There are buses to and from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik and tons of tour companies from Reykjavik to see the sites. A quick Google search of "Tours from Reykjavik" yields many results. We do recommend taking self-drive tours if you are good with driving in winter conditions, but nothing is worth risking your safety (and everyone else on the road!).
If you rent (hire) a car, pick it up right at the airport. This is true for summer too- it will save you in bus fares and you can start your adventure right away.
If renting (hiring), get a Four Wheel Drive (4WD) or All Wheel Drive (AWD), all terrain vehicle. It's worth the extra expense as we found ours really handled the icy roads better.
Look at these tires on these tourist vans... we'd never seen anything like it!
Understand that the wind is unlike anything you've ever probably experienced. We had mentally prepared ourselves for some intense wind, but it's hard to imagine wind that actually stops your forward momentum. No joke, I (Laura) couldn't walk forward, nor open my car door, on one day. It can sometimes get upwards of 20 m/s which equates to about 72 km/h steady wind (gusts can be well beyond that). It's definitely something that makes Iceland interesting and unique, but you have to be prepared for it. On a totally random side thought, wouldn't it be awesome for the airport to have a wind tunnel simulator that allows you to feel what the wind can be like at different levels? Iceland's been struggling a bit to find a way to get tourists to understand the extreme weather- so just an idea... maybe we should patent that! ;)
As we mentioned above, understand that some wet pavement + cold air + wind= ice. We're not talking patchy ice, we're talking skating rink ice in some spots. Locals tend to fly over this, but be cautious of course, it's ICE!
Be Prepared for blowing snow, even when the weather isn't predicting it and the roads are listed as open. Look what we experienced when a road was just listed as "slippery." Ummmm understatement much?!
Notice that (what we assume to be) local flying by? Yeah... Side note: I (Laura) am recording from the passengers seat... never record while driving unless it's hands free, otherwise you put yourself in danger and can get a hefty fine.
Even though sometimes they underestimate/overestimate conditions, pay close attention to the Icelandic weather and road conditions, but also use your own common sense. There are some handy apps from Iceland you can download to assist with this.
If the road says it's impassable, it's impassable. Don't pass go. Don't collect $200. This is not an underestimation.
If you don't want to use expensive out-of-country cell phone data, Iceland has the ability to rent mobile wi-fi service. We did this through our rental car service and used it constantly. It's a good idea as well in the event of an emergency.
Get all the insurance for your vehicle. Remember the rocks story?
Download the 112 app in the event of an emergency. It connects you to Iceland's emergency services/rescue teams.
Familiarize yourself with the rules of roundabouts. They are all over the place in Iceland, and especially Reykjavik.
Need to know more about Iceland's road signs? Download the app.
Turn on your headlights. It's the law. We had an American brand vehicle and the headlights didn't auto turn on like ours do in Canada. It took a couple of people flashing their headlights at us to figure out what they were talking about.
Watch for roads that indicate you require snow tires/chains if you don't have them. Don't even attempt it if you don't have them!
Be careful especially on the mountain-pass on Highway 1 between Reykjavik and Selfoss. It's the area we were in the video above. It was pretty treacherous everytime we were on it, so we suggest just always being careful there.
To save on costs, locate hotels that have on-site parking. We didn't find this to be a problem at all. If you're looking to book a hotel, we always suggest using Agoda.
Here's a random life fact for you that may be useful in the future. If you have a newer car that has the keyless ignition system, and suddenly the car stops mid-drive, and says "key not detected," it's probably because the battery in the key is dead. This isn't a very fun thing to have happen to you in the middle of rural Iceland when you're trying to beat a storm. Trust us. So, car rental companies take note! Put an extra battery in the glove compartment!!!
Enjoy the ride and you can say you survived Iceland's winter roads!!
Gregory and Laura Brinkmann are travel, lifestyle and wedding photographers based out of Ontario, Canada who adore traveling. Please follow this blog for more tips, ideas, and advice... and sometimes just some silliness.