How to Drive in the Icelandic Highlands

The highlands of Iceland contain some of the most awe-inspiring nature on offer in the whole country, but there are essential driving rules and precautions to take whilst exploring the area.

The highlands are the beating heart of the country – literally. It’s here where the raw and untamed energy found across Iceland is at its most powerful, shaping the landscapes in a fierce display of nature, the tectonic plates tearing apart to create a place like nowhere else on Earth. One of the largest unpopulated areas in Europe, the desolate landscapes have long drawn comparisons with the moon, but you’ll also find vast nature reserves, awesome mountains, and budding geothermal areas across the vast expanse. The isolation is what many come here to experience, and there are no services across the entire area so you’re truly on your own, which means you must be prepared. But for those who are, the rewards are truly great.

Read about Andri's 3 day trekking experience in the little-explored Kerlingarfjöll Mountains here.

The northern lights over Thorsmork nature reservePhoto: Unsplash.com.

The F-Roads

Traversing the spectacular highlands are the Icelandic F-Roads, rough mountain tracks that vary in quality, are closed for most of the year, and disappear into rivers at many different points. The rough nature of these roads means that 4x4s are the only vehicles suitable to drive on them - any other kind of car would more than likely result in paying for large damage and rescue costs. During the winter, the only possible way to travel on these roads is with a super jeep, so your only option is a guided tour.

When the summer eventually does roll around and the last of the winter snows have melted, the road conditions are tested and opened for public use. However, there are still the glacial rivers that run across the highlands to contend with; the F-Roads don’t have any bridges that cross these rivers, meaning that successfully travelling through the highlands will involve doing river crossings. When checking whether or not the roads are open (www.road.is), it’s also important to know that these rivers can run deeper than usual if there has been some heavy rains or warmer weather; if this is the case, travellers have no choice but to turn back.

If a self-drive is starting to sound too intimidating,Reykjavik Excursions run a number of bus routes throughout the highlands during the summer months. You can check their schedule and destinations on their website.

Signs in the highlandsPhoto: Unsplash.com.

Exhilarating River Crossings

For most, river crossings will be a new adventure. It can be scary, but successfully crossing a river in your 4x4 can be the highlight of any trip. It’s important to note that no insurance companies will cover water damage, so take note of the following safety precautions before diving in to avoid ruining your trip.

Always get out and check the depth of the river. The golden rule is if you can’t walk across, then you probably shouldn’t drive across. If the water is running above your knees, it’s time to turn back. Study the entrance and exit and look out for any large boulders in the river bed that need to be avoided. If it’s clear and you’re feeling confident, it’s time to cross.Rivers should be entered slowly but steadily, always in a low gear. Angle the nose of the car slightly downstream and drive across. Again, slow but steady is the name of the game – if water is splashing on the windscreen, the car is going too quickly.

Here you can read a handy article that goes into more detail on crossing rivers.

4x4s crossing a river in the highlandsPhoto: Pixabay.com.

A Volatile Environment

Weather in Iceland is unpredictable, and precautions must always be taken when travelling around the country. For the highlands this is even more important, as it’s here where the weather can change quickly to become downright dangerous in a matter of moments. Always keep tabs on the weather forecast with the Icelandic Meterological Office.

Off-road driving is illegal in the whole of Iceland, as the environment is so unique and fragile. The highlands aren’t any exception to this rule; heavy fines await those who stray off the tracks, even though they mightn’t look much like a road in the first place.
With no services, it’s essential to take all the water, food, and petrol that is necessary for your planned time in the highlands - there are limited places to buy food and no petrol stations. Always leave your plans at www.safetravel.is as well as an added precaution.

It's time to get planning. Here are Nina's Top 5 Places to Visit in the Icelandic Highlands.