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.
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.
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.
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!