Tag Archives: Scandanavia

Winter Driving in Iceland

 Winter Driving in Iceland: Tips on how to navigate the roads without ending up being a search and rescue statistic, or ending up with an expensive rental car repair bill

 

Driving in Iceland in the winter can be scary for even the most seasoned winter driver. The main reason is Iceland’s furious and ferocious winds, which have been reported to blow rocks off of glaciers and cars right off of the roads. Rental cars come equipped with snow tires but very little insurance, and there are places in Iceland on the ring road with absolutely nothing around for miles.

We drove around the southern part of Iceland in March with very little snow driving experience, and made it out alive. Here is our advice:

1. Pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans. On the day we wanted to go up to see Gullfoss the snow and wind wouldn’t let up, so we played it safe and stayed in. After we got back to the US, we read a news story about 50 tourists that had to be search and rescued up there the very next day. We were glad we stayed at our cabin and had a lazy snow day instead.

winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland: Wind can cause snow to blow into the road causing very low visibility

2. The insurance is pretty much useless, but get the sand and ash protection just in case

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

3. Park on a flat surface overnight, and don’t set your parking brake

Our car rental company told us not to set the parking brake overnight, or it would freeze and break off, and we would have to pay for it.

4. Go slow and let cars pass you if you are not used to driving in the snow

It’s okay to be the slow asshole on the highway if you aren’t comfortable or sure about the road conditions. I’m sure we pissed a lot of locals off on our first day out on snow-covered roads, but they drove around us and we made it in one piece. It’s better to take it easy than to risk an accident due to overconfidence.

Winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland

5. Never slam on the brakes for any reason

Slamming on your brakes on an icy road is the best way to have your car spin out of control. If you need to slow down, take your foot off of the gas and downshift (this is where a manual shift car is a plus), and gently tap the brake.

We were driving along a snowy road in the southern part of the ring road, and I stopped the car to get out and take a picture of the white, desolate landscape. When I stepped out of the car and my foot hit the road I almost fell right on my ass. I didn’t fully realize that we were driving on a solid sheet of ice. Take caution and make slow stops.

winter driving in Iceland
Southern ring road winter wonderland: winter driving in Iceland

6. If you start to slide, don’t jerk the steering wheel

Aside from slamming on the brakes, the worst thing you can do if you start to slide is over-correct and jerk the wheel. Slow down by down-shifting and taking your foot off the gas, and keep a tight grip on the wheel to keep it as steady as you can.

7. Hold onto the car doors when getting in and out of the car

Again, the winds are the most dangerous part of driving in Iceland. They are STRONG. Strong enough to blow the door right off of your car. When getting in and out of the car, hold the door TIGHT to keep it from blowing back open. If the door comes off, you have to pay for it. Even the insurance with a $1000 deductible won’t cover it. And everything is more expensive in Iceland.

8. Never attempt driving on the F Roads in winter

Iceland blocks the F Roads (in the highlands in the middle of the country) off in the winter time, but every now and then some idiot will think his four wheel drive SUV can make it. Locals report seeing tire tracks around the blockades all the time. These people end up putting the lives of volunteer search and rescue workers at stake when they get lost or stuck. Don’t be a dumbass, just stick to the ring road. There are plenty of amazing sights to see there.

9. Bring a credit card with a chip in it for the gas pumps

Bring a credit card or debit card with a chip in it, and know your PIN number. Gas pumps won’t take American credit cards without a chip. We traveled just before the chip came out in the US, and we had to only use gas stations where we could pay inside. Some wouldn’t let us and we had to find one that did. Fortunately, in 2015 banks in the US started to put out chip cards, so hopefully this won’t be a hassle for you like it was for us.

Also, remember to fill up the tank before you attempt long stretches of road in between towns.

 

Iceland is a beautiful country. Summer is the peak visiting time, and the hotel, airfare, and lodging prices double June through September. We went in March, which is still winter in Iceland, and it was amazing. We didn’t get to see some of the things we wanted to because of the weather, but we had a great time in winter wonderland. Driving in Iceland in the winter was intimidating, but the snow tires made a big difference and we were cautious and everything went fine. If you plan on driving in Iceland in the winter, make sure you keep up to date daily on the weather report (it can change on a dime) and stay put if there is a big storm. Wind is the most dangerous factor in winter driving in Iceland, especially on the south coast. Stay safe and have a great trip!

Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland
Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland

What to Pack for a Trip to Iceland in the Winter

What to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter: Iceland has some crazy weather, and most of its attractions are outdoors. What we brought on our trip to Iceland in the winter, and what is essential to staying warm, dry, and comfortable.

 

When most people think of Iceland, they probably think of snow and Ice. Iceland does have snow and ice in the winter, and some pretty spectacular glaciers, but it is also mostly green. I did a lot of reading online and in guidebooks to figure out what to pack for a trip to Iceland in March, and I’m glad we did.

Iceland in the winter is actually not nearly as cold as you might think. It is cold, but not as cold as places like the American Midwest for example. We didn’t have to worry about having exposed skin or forty-below-zero temperatures.

Snow is a factor, but the two main things to worry about in Iceland are wind and precipitation–rain, snow, or hail. Wind is the unique factor in Iceland’s winter weather, and it can make snow, rain, or hail pretty dangerous. If you travel to Iceland in the winter, we strongly recommend keeping on top of the weather report daily on http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ and the road conditions at http://www.road.is/, especially on the southern coastal roads. Checking in with the locals before venturing out is also recommended. The wind can cause blizzard like conditions with snow that is already on the ground, making it very difficult to see. It can also blow your car right off the road, or rip the door off of your rental car (which you will have to pay for–hold tight to those doors when getting in and out of your car).

We were in Iceland for a week in March 2014, and these are the things we brought with us that we were glad we had:

1. Waterproof hiking shoes

Sturdy, warm, waterproof hiking shoes are essential for a trip to Iceland at any time of the year. Cold, wet feet will ruin any vacation, and whether it rains, snows, or you are walking through moss covered in morning dew, you’ll need waterproof shoes.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Waterproof shoes are essential for a trip to Iceland. At Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

2. Down snow coats

It isn’t guaranteed to snow, but it will be cold in the winter, and our down coats with a water resistant snow layer and warm hoods were a daily necessity. Whatever kind of coat you get, make sure it is warm, water-resistant, and can stand up to harsh cold winds. Hoods are definitely recommended.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland
At Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

3. Snow pants

We got snowed in when we stayed in our cabin in Hveragerdi, and we were glad we brought our snow pants. We stayed warm and dry while tromping through the shin-deep snow to the main farmhouse to check the weather report on their wi-fi, and we played in the snow and made a day of it. I wasn’t expecting a ton of snow when we packed and wasn’t sure if we’d need snow pants, but we were really glad we brought them.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Playing in the snow at our cabin in Hveragerdi

4. Snow boots

Lace up waterproof  hiking shoes will only stay waterproof for so long when submerged in snow. It’s a good idea to bring some snow boots as well in case you end up tromping around in the snow.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Southern ring road winter wonderland

5.  Rain coats

We had more snow than rain while we were there, but never go to Iceland without a rain coat any time of the year. Bring one loose enough to layer warm clothing under with a good hood that you can cinch up. You can spend a fortune on Gor-Tex rain gear if you want, but unless you are doing some major hiking, a decent raincoat from another reputable brand will be fine.

6. Rain pants

Sideways rain can happen at any time in Iceland. Bring rain pants, and keep them with you during excursions in case you need to throw them on over your regular pants in a hurry. Take them with you in the summer too. I found some really nice women’s rain pants at Eddie Bauer that were fitted and I could wear thin long johns underneath. I wore them most of the trip. I also had a pair of cheaper baggy rain pants I could put on over my other pants if I needed to.

7. Warm moisture-wicking hiking socks

If you plan on hiking, good moisture-wicking warm hiking socks are great. They are expensive, but you get what you pay for. Nice wool socks are good for regular days, and I got a little extra wear out of mine by putting regular socks underneath them.

8. Long underwear

I think long underwear is self explanatory. We brought some thin silk-style long underwear to wear under normal clothes, and one pair each of moisture-wicking long underwear for hiking. We didn’t do much hiking because of the weather while we were there, but if you do the moisture-wicking kind is a good purchase.

9. Leggings

I wore leggings a lot. I suppose this tip is for ladies…but they were great to pair with a sweater skirt or sweater dress or for lounging around the hotel/cabin/hostel when we were cozying up and watching the storm.

10. Nice sweaters and boots for going out

Iceland isn’t a place where you need really fancy clothes. Paddy brought a nice sweater and some nice black jeans for going out to dinner, and it seemed that the locals dressed similarly. Don’t bother with the suit and tie or swanky dress. I just wore a sweater skirt, leggings, nice black boots, and a nice sweater when we went out to dinner and felt right at home.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
A nice sweater is all you need to wear out to dinner.

11. Winter hats and gloves

Winter hats and gloves are pretty much common sense. You may want to take a pair of thin gloves and a pair of waterproof snow gloves. Paddy also got a fleece head wrap that covered all but his eyes, and he said it really helped on windy days.

what to pack for a trip to iceland in the winter
Paddy with his fleece head wrap, trying to stay warm at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

12. Bathing suits

Bathing suits? In winter? Of course. Iceland has some of the best hot springs in the world and Icelanders LOVE swimming and soaking in pools and hot springs all year round. Many of the pools are heated and outdoors in the towns, and are used in the winter as well as summer. And don’t forget the Blue Lagoon–it’s touristy but definitely a must-see attraction.

Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon

13. Cold medicine

We brought some Alka-Selzter cold and flu packets, Emergen-C, and Nyquil with us just in case, and was glad we did. I got a mild case of the sniffles. It went on for two days, and then I took a shot of Brennivin and went to bed. The next day my cold disappeared. True story.

Brennivin Iceland cure for a cold
A shot of Brennivin–cure for the common cold?

14. A detailed road map

Always travel with a map while driving around Iceland. We borrowed a really detailed one of the south west part of the country from a friend of ours who has been to Iceland multiple times. I think you can buy them in most Icelandic gas stations. Take a guidebook with you that has maps at minimum. Stay off the “F Roads” in the highlands, they are not open for driving in the winter.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
A good road map is essential.

15. Box wine

This one is optional (obviously), but wine and booze in Iceland is pretty expensive and has a high sales tax rate. We packed some decent box wine in our checked luggage and it lasted us most of the trip. A large box is usually about 4 bottles worth. Icelandic customs allow up to 3 litres of wine into the country without tax, but no one checked. Icelandic customs import regulations can be found here for spirits and cigarettes. If you want to take some Brennivin or other Icelandic spirits home, wait to buy it at the duty free store at the airport after you get through security–it is much cheaper without the hefty tax.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Drinking our box wine while snowed in at our cabin in Hveragerdi

16. Good books

Bring some good books for cozying up in the evenings or if you get snowed in somewhere. I was sure glad to have a good book with me for our snow day in Hveragerdi. It was nice to read in the cabin and watch the snow fall outside for a day.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Bring books.

That concludes our suggestions for what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter. Stay warm, be safe, and keep checking the weather report if you are traveling around the country. It’s a beautiful place to visit. Read more about our trip to Iceland here.