You’ve probably heard that the best way to see Iceland for yourself is by car. This is true — at least, most of the time — but especially in the winter, it’s crucial that you prepare for the challenges as well as the perks of the Icelandic road trip.
Many roads are closed in the winter; others may close unexpectedly due to storms. Websites for weather and road conditions can help you plan. The following essentials are suggestions for how to keep yourself and your passengers comfortable, happy, and above all, safe.
Dressing for a road trip means being prepared for changing weather conditions, and long stretches of sitting still. An extra pair of woolly socks can help, for those times when even stepping out of the car means soaking your feet in icy snow.
For the driver, sunglasses are essential! The glare off the snow can be intense, and although the gleaming gold of an icy road is extremely beautiful, it’s better appreciated from behind a strong pair of shades. A fully-charged phone, in case of emergencies, is also recommended. The emergency number is 112, and the free emergency services app is available here.
Bring plenty of snacks, as well as more substantial food for meals on the road. Gas stations in Iceland often have a seating area, and will allow travellers to bring in their own food. Chocolate is vital — not only does it keep morale up, it’s easy for the navigator to break off bite-sized pieces to hand over. For short stops, kleinur (Icelandic doughnuts) are the perfect size to dunk in coffee, which is available at gas stations along the ring road. On that note, bring a sturdy travel mug as well, as a hot beverage does wonders for dispelling road fatigue. And don’t forget cold water! Bring your own bottle — it can be filled nearly anywhere, straight from the tap.
Icy winter road. Photo/Flickr
Road-trip ready. Photo: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Look for a rental car that can handle challenging conditions and unpaved roads; small cars are not ideal outside of the city. When you pick it up, along with the usual questions of insurance, fuel, and transmission, there are a couple of things to check for. A first aid kit is usually standard, though not always, and can aid your peace of mind. Ask about a snow brush, or ice scraper, that is sturdy enough to double as a blunt instrument to knock ice off the wheel wells.
One of the main problems of winter driving is the build-up of slush and snow from the road, which freezes into hard blocks of ice. It’s important to have something sturdy to knock these away, without risking scratching the paint (boots aren’t always best for this!). Most car rental agencies will also provide a road map, the value of which is hard to overstate.
Once you’ve navigated away from Reykjavík, the roads will become smaller, but markedly less busy. Signage in rural Iceland is generally good, but sparse: the sign for a town will often appear right at the turn-off to reach it. It’s possible to add a GPS to your car rental, usually in the range of 1 500 kr per day, and free apps can give you advice on weather, Icelandic pronunciation, and traffic signs. Having a good map and an up-to-date guidebook (easy to find at Eymundsson or Mal og Menning) will help you to make the turns you need, instead of having to double back. It’s also a good way to figure out what there is to see en route!
Monuments and maps abound on the ring road. Photo: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Along with a guidebook covering the practicalities of the places you plan to go, something more specific can be fun to have at hand. A Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales, by Jón R. Hjálmarsson, is an excellent companion to the many stories of elves, trolls, and the devil that crisscross the Icelandic landscape.
Provided the navigator doesn’t get car-sick, reading local stories is a great way to pass the time and get to know each area. Music is always essential, and what better time to discover some Icelandic music? Try this Spotify playlist for a start (WiFi can be added to your car rental for around 1 500 kr per day).
Regular stops are a good idea, especially after long stretches of driving in the snow. The downside of being a driver is that you can’t look wherever you like, but there are frequent pull-offs and picnic areas along the ring road. Never stop in the middle of the road — even if you don’t see anyone coming, you might not notice another car until it is too close. Especially in winter, give other cars enough room to pass, by stopping at a pull-off and ensuring your car is completely out of the way. Be careful opening doors, as well, since the wind can be fierce.
The view from the road at Mývatn. Photo: Karin Murray-Bergquist
Driving in the wintertime can be a very pleasant experience. Photo/Flickr
The last and most important thing to bring with you is time. Make sure that you will not be rushing through potentially treacherous areas, or trying to tackle unfamiliar country roads in the dark. It’s important to remember that Google Maps does not always take into account road conditions, weather, or terrain, so do not take their time estimates for granted. The weather can change in a minute, so keep an eye on the time, and give yourself the chance to slow down or take a break if you need to.
Preparing for a winter road trip doesn’t mean being afraid of driving in the snow. On the contrary, it can alleviate such anxieties by ensuring that you know what challenges you are likely to face, and how to counter them. For visitors from more temperate climates, winter driving can seem intimidating, but by making sure you have the essentials, and checking the weather and road conditions frequently, a winter road trip in Iceland can be a safe and fun experience.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.