Your Guide To Driving In Iceland

Learn About Roads, Weather Challenges And Driving Laws In Iceland

|November 11, 2020
Vita has hiked glaciers in Alaska, climbed fourteeners in Colorado and is all about sharing her stories and promoting responsible tourism. These days she is often wandering the streets of Vilnius with a film camera in her hand or reading.

Empty roads that stretch as far as the eye can see, the freedom to stop and explore whenever you wish, traveling abroad accompanied only by your family and friends... A road trip in Iceland sounds magical, doesn’t it?


While there is no arguing with that, driving in Iceland presents certain challenges few anticipate in advance. On top of Iceland’s strict driving laws and regulations you need to learn about before you start your trip, there is a lot more to driving safely in Iceland. 

Read this guide to learn about Iceland’s driving laws and types of roads, weather and road conditions to look out for, rental car tips and much more! 

Tip: Bookmark this page. You might want to refresh your knowledge right before you hit the road! 

Tips for Renting a Car in Iceland

The main roads in Iceland are smooth, well-maintained and perfectly safe to drive on. But if you’re looking to venture out into more rural areas, here is some advice that will come in handy when renting a car in Iceland: 

  • Consider a four-wheel drive vehicle. The weather gets harsh and the driving conditions get rough, so during the winter renting a 4x4 car in Iceland is the only reasonable option. If you’re traveling in the summer and are staying mostly on the Ring Road, then you have more room for flexibilityThat being said, a four-wheel drive is still very much advised.  
  • Get good insurance. On top of regular insurance, buying a gravel protection package in Iceland is a must. The roads are covered with small rocks and no rental company will let a cracked windshield slide. The bottom line is, car insurance is not the most highly anticipated expense, but don’t cut corners here. Some good news is that there’s no need to worry about theft insurance since Iceland is the safest country in the world! 
  • Check mileage limits. If you wish to explore the country, you’ll have to put in quite a few hours on the road every day. That means you should check for any hidden mileage limits because they might cost you a fortune. 
  • Get GPS. Unless you have a working SIM card with enough data and have no plans to go off the beaten path, GPS is a must when exploring Iceland. The country is vast yet not densely inhabited, thus some parts might get poor 4G coverage. Getting lost in the middle of nowhere is no fun! 
  • Rent your car in advance. Trust me, you’re not alone in thinking that exploring Iceland by car seems like an awesome adventure. The peak seasons, especially the summer months, see a huge influx of tourists, so last-minute car rentals aren’t usually an option. Don’t risk it and make your bookings way ahead of time! 

Driving in Iceland: The Basics

Before we get into the details, let’s look over some basic facts that are a must-know for anyone looking to take a road trip in Iceland. All of these points will be covered in more detail later on so stay tuned! 

  • Iceland has five main road types. The primary roads are always in top condition and can be driven on with pretty much any vehicle. F-roads, on the other hand, stretch across the highlands and are difficult to maintain. For the most part they can only be accessed during the summer and only using a 4x4 vehicle. 
  • Weather can be a huge threat to drivers. Iceland is notorious for its storms and ever-changing weather conditions. Icy roads, strong side winds and snowstorms can present challenges few drivers have encountered in the past. You have to check weather forecasts and stay alert! 
  • Iceland has strict driving laws and huge fines. Speed limits are very much present and driving under the influence is a strict no-go. Plus, although the roads might seem empty at times, common sense applies. So no stopping in the middle of the road for pictures! 
  • Animals should be taken into consideration. There are few places in the world where herds of sheep can wander out into the road, but Iceland is one of them! Drive with caution and behave appropriately if you see wild or domestic animals blocking the road or grazing nearby. 
  • Gas stations and rest stops are sparse. If you have less than half a tank and see a gas station, stop to refill! 

Now let’s look into each of these points in more detail, shall we? 

Types of Roads in Iceland

As mentioned, the Icelandic roads can be divided into five main categories. 

Primary roads

The primary roads are any driver’s dream come true. They are smooth and well-maintained even during the harshest of winters. They also connect Iceland’s biggest cities and provide convenient access to many landmarks, urban areas and airports in Iceland. One of the more notable examples is the Ring Road, which encircles the country and connects most of its inhabited areas. 

Fun fact: Because Iceland has incredible geothermal power resources, some primary roads are heated! 

Highland roads

The highlands have their own roads. Primary highland roads connect areas, such as glaciers and mountains, in the interior of the island. You can recognize you’re about to enter one if the letter F precedes the road number. Although they provide access to some important natural monuments, they are difficult to maintain and thus the road conditions are less than stellar. 

The remaining highland roads have the same marking sign but are even less used as they run across mountains and moors. Both types of highland roads are very likely to be closed during the winter months and should only be driven on using 4x4 vehicle, regardless of the season. 

Other roads

Iceland has two more types of roads you might encounter if you try to go off the beaten path. Secondary roads connect primary roads with populated areas and natural attractions that are close to the main road. You won’t be able to venture far into the country’s interior on a secondary road and because the access isn’t so limited, their condition is usually reasonably good. 

Local access roads will take you from the primary or secondary road to a churcha public building, a farm or other type of privately owned property and similar places. Their maintenance is usually the responsibility of whoever owns or runs the property, so their conditions vary drastically. 

Once more, cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get gravel insurance if you’re planning to drive on anything but a primary road in Iceland!

Road Signs in Iceland

There is really nothing exceptional about road signs in Iceland that does not apply to the rest of Europe. 

In general, the sign might be a bit more Scandinavian-looking than many travelers are used to. And do note that all text is in Icelandic, so make sure to refresh your memory on the meaning of symbols used in road signs! 

Driving in Iceland and Weather Conditions

Surprise, surprise. The country with “ice” in its name sometimes serves up some challenging road conditions! 

All jokes aside, the weather is to be taken extra seriously when driving in Iceland. Here is what you always need to check for and keep in mind: 

Wind

Parts of Iceland get extremely windy. During stormy days you can encounter gusts of wind as strong as 70 mph (32 m/s)!  

If such intense winds catch you by surprise, you can end up on the side of the road in a blink of an eye. And that’s the better scenario. 

If you’re driving around Iceland, always check the weather forecast before you hit the road the next day. If you see a storm coming, by all means, postpone your trip and spend an extra day in whatever small and cozy town you’re in! 

If you do get caught in a situation where you need to drive on windy roads, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Slow down 
  • Firmly hold the wheel with both hands 
  • Keep your distance from other vehicles, especially tall ones 
  • Hold your door firmly if you have to open it because a gust of wind might easily rip it out of your hand and do damage to the vehicle 

Icy roads

While the primary roads are well maintained, the ever-changing Icelandic weather ensures that driving during the winter is challenging.  

The roads get cleaned very regularly, but with cold winter weather and heavy precipitation, patches of ice form in no time. What is worse, they can be hiding under a thin layer of snow and catch you by surprise. 

If that happens, don’t panic and try to hold the wheel as firmly as possiblto avoid driving off the road. 

Snowstorms and heavy rain

In Iceland, anything can catch you by surprise! While most of us are comfortable driving in rain and snow, in Iceland that can be taken to a whole new level. 

There is no hard rule here, but if you at any point feel like you are uncomfortable driving because the rain is too heavy, pull over (don’t stop in the middle of the road though!) and try to wait it out.  

Traffic Laws, Speed Limits and Fines in Iceland

First things first – speed limits. While the roads might seem deserted, especially outside the parameters of the city, speeding in Iceland is illegal and highly frowned upon. Plus, there are traffic enforcement cameras to keep everything in order. 

Generally, these are the speed limits in Iceland (remember that everything is in kilometers), but do keep an eye out for signs: 

  • 30-50 km/h (19-31 mph) in cities and inhabited areas 
  • 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel roads 
  • 90 km/h (56 mph) on paved roads outside the city 

Remember, you can drive as fast as the sign indicatesbut you don’t have to. If you’re caught in a heavy blizzard, heavy winds or anything else that might obstruct visibility or interfere with smooth driving, pick a speed you’re comfortable with or stop altogether 

Main driving rules and laws in Iceland

  • You have to drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Your national driver’s license is recognized in Iceland if you come from Europe or North America. For citizens of other countries, it is best to contact the Icelandic embassy in advance to check. 
  • All passengers must wear seatbelts. 
  • Driving off-road is strictly forbidden. 
  • The headlights must be on at all times. 
  • Driving under the influence is strictly forbidden. The legal limit is 0.02% or roughly half a beer.
  • Using phones or other devices while driving is illegal. 
  • Common sense applies! 

Fines in Iceland

Breaking the rules in Iceland is costly, so it’s better to avoid doing that. Here is what you’re looking at if you misbehave: 

  • Speeding –  5,000 to 70,000 ISK  (36 USD to 509 USD) 
  • Driving under the influence –  70,000 ISK (509 USD) and up and a suspended driver’s license 
  • Parking fines – starting at 4,500 ISK (33 USD) but can easily reach 10,000 ISK (73 USD) or even 20,000 ISK (145 USD) if not paid on time. 

You can find a more detailed breakdown of speeding and parking fines in Iceland on this page. But the bottom line is you need to familiarize yourself with driving rules beforehand because breaking them might easily break the bank. 

Animals and Driving in Iceland

A herd of sheep mindlessly grazing and blocking the road isn’t something  you typically think about when you are driving, is it? 

Well, in Iceland, it’s not all that uncommon for domestic animals to roam freely during the warm seasons. Even if they’re not blocking the road, the wise thing to do is slow down. Scared sheep are not known as rational decision-makers, and angry rams can do serious damage to your precious rental. 

If the sheep are on the road, your best bet is to slowly inch forward while honking.  

Sounds frustrating, we know, but just take a look at how cute they are and you’ll realize that this is one of the most adorable road blocks you’ll ever encounter. 

Similar rules apply to horses and other domestic or wild animals. Drive past them with caution to make sure both you and the animals stay safe and sound. 

Gas Stations in Iceland

If you’re used to seeing gas stations on every corner, think twice when passing one in Iceland. In Reykjavik, getting gas will not be an issue, but the minute you venture out into rural areas, gas stations are sparse. And running out of gas in a foreign country isn’t the most pleasant experience. 

To avoid running out of gas in Iceland:

  • Always stop and refill your tank if it’s half-empty 
  • Bring an extra canister of gas with you and keep it in the trunk 
  • Keep in mind that few gas stations are open 24/7 

While many gas stations will have automats that operate after closing hours – where you can get gas with a credit card – you must have a PIN number set up on your card. In Iceland, many gas stations don’t accept cards without a PIN, so take care of that before you leave for your trip!  

 

Other than that, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. We’ve done a fair share of road trips in IcelandDriving there gives a sense of freedom beyond comparisonIf you have similar memories to share, please do so! 

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