Before traveling to Iceland I read multiple blog posts about what to expect when driving in Iceland. These posts talked about what to do in the fierce winds and sand storms, and warned about the ever changing weather conditions.
Honestly, we didn’t experience any of that during our 9-day road trip in July. Instead we experienced intense fog, reckless tourists, and sheep. Don’t forget the gravel roads without guardrails, one-lane bridges, and long distances between gas stations.
This guide is the truth about some very real experiences you will have when driving in Iceland. I’ve also included some resources to access during your travels so you can stay safe on the road.
A common saying is, “you shouldn’t assume because you make an a** of you and me.” My assumptions about road conditions when driving in Iceland couldn’t be summed up better.
GRAVEL = DIRT
I read on blogs and the map I purchased from National Geographic that many secondary roads (not typically Route 1, Ring Road) were gravel. In my head, I read that as “not paved, but with rocks as the pavement.”
Actually, they’re dirt, with some rocks. The one exception was a very, very rocky section of route 87 between Lake Mývatn and Húsavík.
The Icelandic Transport Authority has published a guide on How to Drive in Iceland you may want to read before renting a vehicle.
As many secondary roads are gravel, pot holes are a common occurrence. In the West Fjords we met with a construction vehicle resurfacing the gravel road on the tabletop mountain.
There was kilometers and miles of dense fog. The likelihood of you experiencing dense fog correlates with the weather conditions, but it is something you may want to be aware of that you might encounter.
You can use this web and phone app called safetravel.is to check the road conditions before you head out.
Use caution and ensure your lights are on. The dense fog is one of the main reasons our drive to see puffins at Látrabjarg Cliffs took almost two hours longer than expected.
LACK OF GUARD RAILS
This was the most unnerving. Very few roads have guard rails installed, despite the road traveling on the side of the mountain or making 180° turns Yellow reflective poles are set a few meters apart to guide you along the road.
If you encounter emergencies along the road you can use the 112 Iceland App to alert a response center. I highly recommend you down the app.
ONE LANE BRIDGES
One lane bridges are common place in Iceland, both on on secondary roads and Route 1. The driver coming opposite of you, may or may not realize what the sign below indicates.
We would use the pull off and let the approaching car drive on the bridge first. It slowed our travel down by a minute or so. But it was easier than realizing one of us needed to back up halfway down the bridge.
We witnessed a car and a truck nearly slam into one another on the bridge near Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on Route 1. Guess the car wanted to play chicken.
ROADS ARE NARROW
Unlike most roads in the United States there are not shoulders on the side of the road. On Route 1 there is not much space on either side of the lanes. The road is elevated and both sides drop off.
On many of the gravel roads, two cars cannot pass each other simultaneously. That’s why there are so many pull off spaces along the route.
Our rental agency advised us to always keep the lights on. The law states that vehicle lights must be on when using your windshield wipers.
OTHER DRIVING IN ICELAND EXPERIENCES
TOURISTS WHO PULL OFF TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD
Seriously, do not do this. I repeat, don’t do this. Every blog says not to do this. The Icelandic Road and Weather Administration advises travelers not to do it. Guide to Iceland and Iceland Travel explain why you should not do this. Car rental agencies ask you not to do it. Moral of the story? Don’t do it.
When we were driving in the West Fjords, we came around a blind curve where we couldn’t see the cars towards us. This is really common. An SUV was partially pulled over on a road where there were no shoulders. The SUV was literally stopped in out our driving lane. We almost sideswiped the SUV, since there was a car coming in the opposite direction. To top it off, the four passengers were all over the road: Two were on the opposite side taking photos; one was crossing the road; and one was standing behind the parked SUV.
There are a million and one places to take photographs. Just use your head when you pull over. Use the pull offs, indentations large enough for one or two cars to park. These pull offs are everywhere. To take a photo of that spectacular view, drive until you find a pull off and walk to the shooting location.
If you’re the driver, realize that many tourists do not prepare for driving in Iceland. Be aware of your surroundings.
TOURISTS CROSS THE ROAD WITHOUT LOOKING
I wish I was kidding. Multiple times we encountered tourists who would be on the side of the road photographing and cross to their vehicles without looking. 90kph is about 56 miles per hour. Even if you are in a small vehicle you can do a lot of damage at this speed. Again, if you are driving, be aware of your surroundings.
Sheep are all over. They lay in the road. They walk in the road. The road is theirs. Again, be aware of your surroundings, especially when driving in dense fog or coming around a curve as a group of sheep may be there. When you return home from Iceland, don’t be surprised to find yourself watching for sheep to cross the roads as you make your way to work. Or maybe that was just me. Habits die hard.
Gas stations are self-serve and are not connected to the small store or restaurant that is located beside them. Don’t assume you can go into the store to use the restroom without making a purchase. The owner will be really annoyed. They don’t own or receive profits from the gas pump.
To pump gas you will need a credit card with a 4-digit PIN to access the pump. You cannot use cash, nor can you use a credit card with a 5- or 6-digit PIN.
Fill you tank when you have the chance. There were areas where it was difficult to locate a gas station, particularly in the East and the West Fjords. You don’t want to be stranded.
RESOURCES FOR DRIVING IN ICELAND
- 112 Iceland App to alert emergency response crews of your location
- Safetravel is an accident prevention project aimed at providing travelers with education and resources for safe travel in Iceland. Includes a map and alerts for weather and road conditions.
- The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration provides planning and maintenance for roads in Iceland. There are lots of resources for travel and driving on their website.
Thanks for riding along with me on this post! I hope these pragmatic tips and experiences keep you safe while driving in Iceland.
Do you have other tips or experiences you want to share about driving in Iceland? Tell me in the comments!