If you are considering coming to Iceland, or even if you have already arrived, there is a good chance you may also want to rent a car. Great idea! But you may be asking yourself: what is driving in Iceland like? Well, we thought we would lay out the basics and give some helpful tips before you hop on the road.
Let’s start with the very basics. Yes, we drive on the right side of the road here. Distances and the speed limit are measured in kilometres, so thankfully for those coming from places that inexplicably don’t use the metric system (looking at you, USA), you just have to watch the speedometer without doing calculations in your head. But just in case, 1 mile is approximately 1.6 kilometres.
The lights of your vehicle must always be on while driving, not just at night.
There are three different types of roads in Iceland. The most common is paved roads. All of Reykjavík and the capital area are paved. As of 2019, the entire route 1, the highway commonly known as the Ring Road that circles the whole island, is also paved.
Outside the city, you may come across gravel or dirt roads. You will need to check with the rental company if your vehicle is capable of traversing these because the loose gravel can be difficult for smaller cars and can also potentially cause damage to the vehicle.
Then there are the F roads. Some may hesitate to even call these roads. But these are mountain roads, sometimes made up of very loose rocks. You can only drive on these with a 4×4. Many of these roads can be found in the Iceland highlands and are closed most of the year. So if you are looking to be more adventurous, make sure you rent the right kind of car at the right time of year!
Driving in Iceland Dos and Don’ts
Do use common sense: You need a valid license from your home country in order to rent a vehicle. So we are counting on you to understand basic traffic rules and etiquette. It might be worth familiarizing yourself with some of the traffic signs before getting on the road. Drive the speed limit and follow all sign instructions. If you are worried you won’t understand them, we have a helpful guide!
Don’t drive off-road: We are honestly tired of saying this, but please, please never drive off the roads. The nature in Iceland is extremely fragile, and a vehicle can cause long-term and sometimes irreparable damage. The penalties for driving off-road are also pretty steep!
Do check for sheep: Yes, that is right – check for sheep! Our woolly friends can be found all over the countryside, but they still haven’t quite managed to understand our road system. They have a tendency to graze along the roadside and even to take a walk in the middle of the lane. Sometimes, mothers end up on one side while their lambs are on the other. Please stay alert and be patient.
Don’t stop just anywhere: The reason you are driving in Iceland is most likely to see the nature. As awe-inspiring as it can be, it is extremely dangerous to stop on the road to take a photograph. There are typically viewpoints with small lots around some of the more incredible natural wonders. With hills, mountains, and curves, it is best to pull off in these designated spots rather than pull off to the side of the road – other drivers may not see you until it’s too late!
Do respect the signs: If you find a sign that says a road is closed – it is closed for a reason! Earthquakes, avalanches, and snowstorms occur frequently in Iceland, which may cause roads to become impassable. And, while most Icelanders are thrilled to share their beloved sights with you, some of them are not so happy to see cars in their driveways. Look for no trespassing or private property signs when approaching farms and respect the fact that people live in these beautiful locations.
Don’t use your phone: These days, many people use their phones as GPS. If you are lost or need to check directions, give this duty to one of the passengers with you. If you’re driving alone, find an appropriate place to stop before looking at your phone.
The most challenging aspect of driving in Iceland is the weather. Throughout much of the year, the skies are overcast, and it is windy and rainy. More importantly, the weather can change more quickly than you realize. The rain can turn to sleet and snow in a matter of minutes. A sunny day can become snowy before long.
As we approach winter, roads can be snowy, icy or even impassable. This is why it is essential to always check the weather and websites like road.is and safetravel.is (there is also a safetravel app!) which have up-to-date weather reports, road closures, and other alerts you want to know before going on a trip.
We also recommend packing extra water, blankets, food, and clothing in the car – particularly if you are travelling to a remote place in Iceland. There can be huge distances between towns and villages, so you want to be prepared for anything.
If you are driving somewhere by yourself, make sure to tell someone else – hotel workers, fellow tourists, or even rent a Personal Location Beacon (PLB).
Travelling during the winter can be risky and challenging, so we recommend booking a tour instead of driving!
Roundabouts, Bridges and Tunnels
We love our roundabouts in Iceland. Not only are they proven to decrease traffic accidents but you also get a neat little garden and sometimes a statue in the middle! But driving into one can be intimidating for tourists. We can help!
The concept is simple: you enter the roundabout and use your turn signals to signify when you exiting.
The most important thing to remember is that the inside lane has the right-of-way. So, if you are a bit nervous about driving in a roundabout, it is always best to get into the left lane when approaching one. Use your right turn signal to let everyone know when you are exiting the roundabout.
If you are on the outside (right) lane, you must be alert and watch for the turn signals of vehicles on your left. If you see that someone is exiting from the inside lane, you must yield and let them out. While driving in this lane, it is imperative to also use your left turn signal to let other drivers know that you are staying in the roundabout, then use your right turn signal when you are exiting.
USE YOUR TURN SIGNALS!
Another thing some tourists have issues with is the single-lane bridges in the countryside when vehicles are approaching from the other side. The rule of thumb is whoever gets there first goes first. The other vehicle must wait until its turn. If in doubt, you can flash your lights to signify to the other driver to proceed first. The same rule applies to single-lane tunnels.
After reading this, you should be all set to hit the road! Just remember to use common sense, be respectful, and obey traffic rules and signs.