One of the greatest adventures in Iceland has long been to embark on a road trip around the Ring Road. Iceland’s Ring Road, or Route 1 as it’s officially known, circles around the island for 1,339 kilometers (832 miles) and connects many of the best attractions in 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 Route 1 is paved, but there are some portions on Iceland’s rugged east coast that are gravel. Driving Iceland’s Ring Road is really an adventure best suited for a trip anytime between March and November, but it’s definitely possible to do if you’re visiting Iceland in the winter.
In Iceland in winter, icy road conditions and high winds blasting across the plains are typical and can make winter driving in Iceland hazardous. We’re 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 scary moments now, so we compiled these tips for driving Iceland’s Ring Road to help you stay safe while having the adventure of a lifetime. Most apply no matter what time of the year you decide to go on this Icelandic adventure, though it’s best to take some extra precautions when driving in Iceland in winter.
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 easily 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 go on an Iceland winter road trip. 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 in a pinch.
There’s a saying in Iceland that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. Iceland weather in winter is actually pretty mild for the island’s latitude. It’s mostly the temperature that really causes Iceland road conditions to become hazardous. The south lowlands have an average temperature of average around 0°C (32°F) in winter and it’s not uncommon to get snow and rain in the same day. With the Iceland temperature in winter hovering right around freezing, icy roads are common and exacerbated by the windy conditions Iceland is known for.
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.
We’ve driven the Ring Road several times and it’s either been in a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Dacia Duster. We didn’t opt for 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. You only have to worry about needing studded tires if you visit Iceland in winter.
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. Either purchase an Iceland SIM card or rent a portable wifi device to make sure you have service.
Iceland has an excellent cellular network spread across the entire island, but public wifi is almost non-existent once you’re outside of major cities like Reykjavik and Akureyri. A desolate Icelandic road where you might not see another soul for hours is not the place where you don’t have a cell phone to call for help if you need it.
Iceland also has an emergency alert system that sends out text messages, even to pay-as-you-go SIM card numbers. When we were in Iceland during the 2014–2015 eruption of Bárðarbunga, we received a very important emergency alert about poisonous sulfur gasses in an area of East Iceland we were traveling in and that we needed to stay inside until further notice.
Going off the grid and disconnecting sounds idyllic, but it isn’t always smart. Especially when traveling to Iceland in the winter. Do yourself a favor and either rent a portable wifi device for your trip or stop in to Reykjavik to purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card before setting out around Iceland’s Ring Road.
4. Bookmark the Vegagerdin.is website.
No matter what time of the year you’re visiting, Iceland road closures happen. All Icelanders religiously keep track of Iceland road conditions on the Vegagerdin website. Vegagerdin is updated in real time and we always keep careful watch on what is going on with the road conditions throughout our entire trip. Road conditions can change quickly and we met several sections that were impassible, even with checking before we set out for the day.
Note that what Icelanders consider to be “slippery” or “spots of ice” may really mean sheet of ice by your own standards. Iceland winter driving is likely different than what you’re used to, even if you come from an place where you’ve mastered driving in snow. I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania, which is often in the news every winter as record setters for the biggest snow accumulation and snowiest place in the US. Tim is from Chicago. Driving in Iceland in January is just different – trust us.
5. Download the 112 Iceland app.
No matter what time of year you’re traveling in Iceland, the 112 Iceland is a smart app to download. 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. It works regardless of whether you’re driving or hiking Iceland in winter. ICE-SAR, the association of search and rescue in Iceland, would much rather you check in periodically and never need them than for you to have an accident and have to waste valuable time just trying to track your location.
6. Have a paper Iceland road map.
We usually bring our Garmin with European maps with us on road trips since it saves a few dollars per day on a rental. Or you can also rent a GPS from the car rental company for a couple of dollars per day if you don’t want the hassle of toting a GPS along with you.
But paper Iceland road maps come in handy, too. We can’t really remember how we used to function without a GPS, but a GPS can also be notorious for leading you down roads you really pause to wonder if they are truly roads. We use paper Iceland often to check if a road is a mountain road, because it will likely be impassible during times like driving in Iceland in December. Iceland road maps are also really helpful for navigating back-up routes.
7. 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. There’s a lot more gas stations in Iceland’s more remote parts these days than when we lived in Iceland back in 2011. But there are still stretches where gas stations are few and far between, so be sure to top up the tank when you spot them.
8. Speaking of gas stations, never leave the rental car counter without verifying what type of fuel the car takes first.
One time arriving late at night, we met the representative from SADCars once we landed. It’s a rental car company in Iceland we’ve rented with more than once 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.
9. Maximize daylight hours.
Days are as short as just 6 hours of daylight in Iceland in the 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.
You don’t have to plan every waking second of your trip, but at the very least have a rough itinerary when visiting Iceland in winter. Don’t try to pack too much in and travel shorter distances so that you still have time to sight see, but avoid driving in the dark as much as possible.
10. Watch for reindeer on Iceland’s East Coast.
Reindeer roam Iceland’s East Coast, the only place in Iceland where they’re found. During the summer it’s unlikely to encounter any reindeer along the Ring Road since they go up in to the highlands to graze. But when traveling to Iceland in winter, it’s important to keep an eye out for them. The reindeer come back down from the highlands during the winter months in search for the more access lichen in the lowlands.
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 the East Coast side of the island.
11. Bring toilet paper.
Remember tip #8 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.
12. Have a back-up plan.
It’s important to have a back-up plan, especially if you plan to travel to Iceland in winter. Order an Iceland road map online before your trip and spend some time studying your route. Realistically create an itinerary, budgeting driving time and the amount of time you plan to spend stopping at each attraction. Note down some extra hotels and accommodations along your route just in case you can’t make it to the hotel you booked. And even keep some provisions in the car like some snacks (don’t leave drinks in the car for long periods if you can avoid it so that they don’t freeze) just in case you’re forced in to some unplanned Iceland winter camping along the side of the road.
Thankfully, we were able to reach each of our planned Iceland Ring Road accommodations throughout our trip. We met two girls that were not as lucky. Iceland winter weather changes quickly and our sunny afternoon at Jökulsárlón quickly turned in to a full blown snow storm.
The two girls were not driving a 4WD, which is essential for Iceland winter driving if you plan to drive anywhere outside of Reykjavik. The road and weather conditions became bad enough that they just 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. They were really lucky that Icelanders are so kind and understanding. The owners of the family-run farm worked out a deal with them, and they both heaved huge sighs of relief as they sat down next to us for a much needed hot dinner.
The weather changes so quickly in Iceland. Even high winds will shut down some of Iceland’s most traversed stretches of road, like the time we had to wait out some wind just to make it from the airport in Keflavik to Reykjavik. 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. Never travel without access to some emergency funds, like tucking away that credit card you never actually use and hope you never need to use. Be prepared with appropriate clothing, plenty of snacks and water in case you need to spend the night on the side of the road.
13. Know how to change a tire.
We have yet to visit Iceland and not get a flat tire. No, really. Five trips plus some time living there has added up to more flat tires than in our more than 20 years of being licensed drivers. 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.
14. Just book some Iceland tours in winter.
Even though we drove the Ring Road in winter, we still booked some tours to give us a break from being the ones always navigating the Iceland winter conditions. Sometimes it’s just nice to sit back, relax and let a local do the driving. Plus, tours in vehicles like Super Jeeps can get to places that are otherwise inaccessible.
Some of the best Iceland tours in winter that we recommend and have done:
- Sólheimajökull Glacier Ice Climbing: get picked up from Reykjavik and drive south to Sólheimajökull glacier with stops at Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls along the way. Once at Sólheimajökull glacier, you’ll be able to try out ice climbing. Absolutely no prior experience is necessary.
- Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike: if ice climbing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, try the glacier hike on Sólheimajökull. All the blue ice and looking out to the black beaches fringing the Atlantic is truly spectacular.
- Golden Circle Day Trip with Snowmobiling: you don’t really have to worry about driving the Golden Circle Iceland in winter, since this is one of the most traversed areas in all of Iceland. But if you want to go snowmobiling up on Langjökull glacier, you actually can’t reach the base camp on a self-drive Golden Circle trip. Extra experiences like this make booking a Golden Circle tour worth it.
- Silfra Snorkeling Between the Continents: the water temperature at Silfra stays consistently just above freezing year round and we did this tour on one of the coldest winter days. It’s kind of extra magical when the world around you is snowy and frozen.
- Northern Lights by Super Jeep: a big draw to travel Iceland in winter is the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Head out in a Super Jeep and get far away from the light pollution of Reykjavik.
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SADCars provided us with a Toyota Landcruiser for our Iceland adventure in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own. This article contains affiliate links. When you shop on Amazon or book on Viator through our affiliate sites, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.