Iceland’s Ring Road or Route 1 runs around the island for 1,339 kilometers (832 miles) and connects the most populous parts of Iceland. For most of its length, it is two lanes but some portions of the road are still the original 1940s country roads, and contain hazards such as blind curves and blind hills, one lane bridges, and narrow passes. Most of it is paved, but there are some portions on Iceland’s rugged east coast that are gravel. In winter, icy road conditions and high winds blasting across the plains can make driving it hazardous. Take it from two people that have driven Iceland’s Ring Road more than once, and one of those times in the dead of winter. We’ve had a few “oh-shit” moments now, so we compiled these tips for driving Iceland’s Ring Road. And most apply no matter what time of the year you decide to go on this Icelandic adventure.
1. Don’t drive Iceland’s Ring Road in winter.
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road in winter is not for the faint of heart. In Iceland the weather can change in the blink of an eye. Roads can become impassible and distances that Google Maps say are 5 hours become 10 hours.
We have to do our due diligence to try to deter you, but if you’re anything like us, you’ve landed here because you already made up your mind to drive it anyway. And it is possible, just with a bit more planning than driving Iceland’s Ring Road in summer when you can comfortably car camp just about anywhere.
2. Rent a 4 wheel drive vehicle and, if it’s an option, spring for studded tires. Studded tires help driving on the slippery, and often ice covered roads.
SADCars provided us with a Toyota Landcruiser for our winter Ring Road adventure. We didn’t have studded tires, but there were certainly sections of winding, ice covered roads (did I mention that they really don’t like guard rails in Iceland?) on which we were commenting that studded tires would have been really helpful to have.
We’ve also driven the Ring Road at other times of the year and you’re going to want a 4WD regardless of whether it’s winter or not. There are loads of places to explore, but insurance won’t cover you when you decide to take a car on F roads and the contract stated it wasn’t suitable for that. If there’s one thing you splurge on when visiting Iceland, let it be a 4WD rental.
3. Bookmark the Vegagerdin.is website.
Vegagerdin is updated in real time and we kept careful watch on what was going on with the road conditions throughout our entire trip. Road conditions can change quickly and we met several sections that were impassible.
Note that what Icelanders consider to be “slippery” or “spots of ice” may really mean sheet of ice by your standards.
4. Download the 112 Iceland app.
The 112 Iceland app sends a signal with your coordinates to Iceland’s search and fire rescue. Simply download the app, fill in your name and an emergency contact, and save. You can even periodically check in through the app to create a trail of breadcrumbs just in case something does go wrong. Get the 112 Iceland app for Android and for iPhone.
5. Have a paper map.
We brought our Garmin Nuvi with European maps with us. Or you can also rent a GPS from SADCars for €10 per day. But our paper Iceland map came in handy several times to check if a road was a mountain road, which was likely impassible, and to navigate back-up routes.
6. Fill up when you see a gas station.
Many gas stations are self service and a credit card is required. Be sure you have at least two credit cards just in case your bank denies the charge. And also be sure to know your PIN, which is required to use credit cards at the self service gas stations. Gas stations are also few and far between, so be sure to top up the tank when you spot them.
You can also use this handy map of all the gas stations in Iceland to help plan ahead.
7. Speaking of gas stations, never leave the rental car counter without verifying what type of fuel the car takes first.
We met the representative from SADCars once we landed, a rental car company in Iceland we’ve rented with on more than one occasion in Iceland, got all the paperwork squared away and went on our way. About one mile from the rental place, we stopped to fill up and get a few groceries to stock our apartment.
I was blissfully filling my basket with Skyr when Tim came in and said: “We’ve got a problem.”
I thought he was going to tell me that the machine wasn’t accepting our debit or credit cards. No, this was a much bigger problem. Our Toyota Land Cruiser took diesel and we had just filled it up with around $100 of gasoline.
We didn’t ask what type of fuel the Land Cruiser took at SADCars and we missed it on the gas cap in our haste to get out of the sideways sleet. It wasn’t until Tim was screwing the gas cap back on that he noticed it said the car was diesel.
Luckily, SADCars has emergency roadside assistance available 24/7 and one easy phone call (boy did I feel stupid explaining why I needed emergency roadside assistance just 20 minutes after picking up our rental) and help was on the way. We didn’t have to wait long and a tow truck showed up to tow our Land Cruiser to a nearby garage where the gasoline could be drained.
After draining all the gasoline from the Land Cruiser, the garage towed us back to the nearest gas station, made sure we filled up with diesel this time and waited to see that everything was in running order before sending us on our way.
$100 of gasoline down the drain (literally) and a $150 tow later, we had no one to blame but ourselves. We should have made sure we asked what type of fuel the Land Cruiser ran on. At least we did the smart thing and didn’t try to drive it anywhere; the lesson could have been a much more expensive one.
8. Maximize daylight hours.
Days are as short as 6 hours of light in winter. The road conditions can already be dangerous when it’s light out. Navigating icy roads in the middle of nowhere in pitch black conditions can be really stressful.
9. Watch for reindeer on Iceland’s east coast.
Reindeer roam Iceland’s east coast and it’s important to keep an eye out for them. Reindeer ran across the road twice right in front of us. One second sooner and we would have had dinner, and probably some injuries since the roads were iciest on this side of the island.
10. Bring toilet paper.
Remember tip #4 about how sparse the gas stations are in some areas? And the self service gas stations are literally a tank and a credit card machine. It’s almost certain that you will need to pee on the side of the road at some point. And believe me, I can hold my bladder with the best of them.
11. Have a back-up plan.
Thankfully, we were able to reach each of our planned destinations on our route. We met two girls that were not as lucky. Weather changes quickly in Iceland and our sunny afternoon at Jökulsárlón quickly turned to heavy snowfall.
The two girls were not driving a 4WD and the conditions became bad enough that they couldn’t make it any further. Unfortunately, they had not planned for stops and didn’t have enough money for a room and dinner at Hali Country Hotel. Fortunately for them, the owners of the family run farm were kind and worked out a deal with them.
The weather changes quickly and it’s entirely possible that if conditions become bad enough, you may not be able to make it to your destination or an alternate guest house or hotel at all. Be prepared with plenty of snacks and water in case you need to spend the night on the side of the road.
12. Know how to change a tire.
We have yet to visit Iceland and not get a flat tire. The basalt rocks can slice through tires just as easily as if they were a knife, so you definitely want to be in the company of someone that knows how to change a tire.
Also, be sure to check that you have a spare tire in your rental and that it is in good condition before you leave the rental car place.
Thank you to SADCars for providing us with a Toyota Landcruiser for our Iceland adventure. All opinions and decisions to drive Iceland’s Ring Road in winter are entirely our own.