17 Things To Know Before Driving In Iceland (Plus Car Rental Tips) • Expert Vagabond
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Ready for an epic road trip driving in Iceland? Renting a car is the best way to experience this beautiful country. But there are a few things you should know before you start your adventure.
So you’ve embraced your inner Leif Erikson, and you’re finally planning a trip to Iceland! Welcome to the club.
Road tripping around Iceland’s Ring Road, and the Golden Circle, are some of my favorite travel adventures to date (after 8 years and 50+ countries!)
Iceland will always have a special place in my heart.
Renting a car and driving Iceland on your own is the best way to experience this stunning and diverse country, as it truly gives you the freedom to stop at each and every waterfall, volcano, hot-spring, and glacier along the way.
Here are some important tips for driving in Iceland, so you’re ready to hit the road and start exploring the land of fire and ice.
Useful Tips For Driving In Iceland
Should You Rent A Car In Iceland?
Hey, if you’re a fan of bus tours, by all means go book one. It’s a wonderful way to see a country if you don’t have a lot of time. No planning, no driving, just sit back and let someone else do all the work.
But if you’re like me, you prefer the adventure and challenge of independent travel. True exploration, with no set schedule or timetable. The freedom to stop anywhere interesting you find along the way.
Maybe you want to capture an epic waterfall sunrise photo at 6am without 100 other tourists around. Maybe you want to drive off the beaten path, excited with anticipation of what you’ll discover around the next bend.
If that’s the kind of traveler you are, then renting a car and self-driving around Iceland is the way to go!
Where To Rent Your Car
Renting a car from Keflavík International Airport is the most obvious choice, however you can also rent them in Reykjavik later if you plan to spend a few days in the city first.
The airport is about 40 minutes away from Reykjavik city.
During my three weeks traveling in Iceland, I rented an SUV for two weeks, and a campervan for one week.
RentalCars.com searches all the big car rental companies and finds the best price. This is probably the easiest way to rent a car or truck in Iceland.
Happy Campers rents fully-equipped campervans with a bed, kitchen, space heater, and everything you’d need for your road trip. It was an awesome way to see the country!
Iceland’s Different Road Types
With the variety of landforms and terrain in Iceland, you’ve got to think about the type of trip you want to have. Do you want to carve your way across the Icelandic highlands like a Nordic explorer? Or do you plan on having a more relaxed and comfortable drive around the island?
This will determine the roads you’ll encounter and the vehicle you’ll need.
Ring Road & Golden Circle (Paved)
You can see some of Iceland’s most popular destinations driving around the Ring Road (Route 1). This mostly paved road runs a giant circle around the outer rim of the island and through many towns, including the capital of Reykjavik.
There are some remote sections with gravel, but a 2-wheel-drive vehicle will still get the job done. Speed limits average 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph) on these roads.
You can choose a 2WD vehicle for the Golden Circle, too. This short route is a great day trip from Reykjavik if you’re short on time (like during a layover).
Adventurous F-Roads (Gravel)
Did you know that 54% of Icelanders believe in elves or the possibility they exist? If you want to search for them, you’ll find them near the F-roads.
These special designated dirt and gravel mountain roads wind through Iceland’s rugged interior highlands. It is strongly advised that people travel in groups of 2 or more cars for safety should a breakdown occur, just like remote jeep trails in the United States.
The rocky, muddy conditions are more treacherous than other gravel roads. You can travel for miles without seeing any other cars.
Iceland’s F-roads require a 4-wheel-drive rental car. They also require your full attention. Some F-Roads can get quite rough, with glacial river crossings.
USEFUL TIP: F-Road doesn’t mean off-road. Driving completely off marked roads in Iceland is illegal and can damage your rental and the environment.
Local Access H-Roads (Gravel)
These are dirt roads that often lead to farms and private homes off the main paved roads in Iceland. They are better maintained than the F-Roads, don’t require a 4X4 in the summer, but aren’t plowed as frequently as paved roads in the winter time.
What Kind Of Vehicle Do You Need?
If you can’t drive manual stick shifts, double check that you’re actually renting an automatic vehicle, because most rental cars in Iceland are manual.
The type of vehicle you’ll need depends largely on the season, weather conditions, and road type.
Two Wheel Drive
All 2WD rental cars in Iceland are equipped with studded tires during the winter season to help with traction on ice too.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? – Renting a small car in Iceland is going to cost between $40 – $100 USD per day (4200 ISK to 10,600 ISK) depending on the model/season.
Four Wheel Drive
The affordable 4×4 Suzuki Jimny, or a more expensive Land Rover is perfect for Iceland’s rugged F-Roads. If you plan to explore Iceland’s back roads at any point, you’ll want one of these four-wheel drive bad boys.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? – Renting a 4X4 SUV in Iceland is going to cost between $100 – $250 USD per day (10,600 ISK – 26,500 ISK). A fancy Land Rover or Super Jeep will set you back $400+ per day.
Transportation? Check. Accommodation? Check. Home-cooked meals? Fire up the grill, baby! This is the way to attack a serious Icelandic road trip in comfort. Plus, you’ll avoid spending cash on Iceland’s notoriously expensive accommodation and restaurant meals. More money = more fuel = more adventures.
Campervans come in both 2WD and 4WD varieties, which is especially important for driving Iceland in the winter.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? – Renting a campervan in Iceland is going to cost between $140 – $250 USD per day (14,800 ISK to 26,500 ISK) depending on the model/season.
Car Rental Insurance In Iceland
Driving in Iceland can result in some pretty harsh conditions that many people aren’t prepared for — so I always recommend getting the extra car insurance options available to you.
Collision Damage Waiver
Car rental companies typically offer various levels of a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), which isn’t exactly insurance. Instead, it means the rental company won’t charge you over a predetermined limit if you drop off the rental car with damage.
But this limit still tends to be upwards of $1750 for the basic CDW, and companies in Iceland are more likely to inspect every inch of your vehicle.
The basic CDW comes free with every rental. With most companies, an additional daily fee (about $10 and up) allows you to upgrade to Super CDW (SCDW), Grand CDW, and even Premium CDW. This lowers the amount you’ll be liable for in the end should damage occur to the vehicle.
These higher-level CDWs usually come with added protection like:
Gravel Protection – Gravel roads abound in Iceland. There’s a risk of other drivers spraying rocks at your vehicle as they drive by, so it makes sense to grab this one for a few extra bucks a day.
Sandstorm & Ash Protection – Yup, you read that correctly! High winds can blast your car with volcanic ash and sand, causing extensive damage to the rental vehicle.
Ice Protection – Ice. Land. It’s in the name! Get this add-on, especially if you’re traveling in the winter. Sliding off icy roads is a common occurrence in Iceland.
River Crossing Insurance – Read the terms carefully. If it only covers water up to half of the wheel-well, you’re not protected for deeper crossings (which you’ll find plenty of on F-roads).
You’ll also want to check if the rental company sets a mileage limit. Always try to get the unlimited milage option!
Watch Out For Animals!
There are 3 types of large animals that may cross your path while driving in Iceland, and crashing into them will definitely ruin your trip.
Iceland has a lot of sheep. In the summer, they’re allowed to roam free through the countryside, often walking across the road.
Beautiful and funny Icelandic horses can sometimes be moved from one pasture to another via roadways too.
If you’re driving in the remote North East of Iceland, you may see some wild reindeer in the winter. Reindeer were brought over from Norway in the 18th century, but were never domesticated.
Remember to slow down and pass any animals near the road very carefully.
Iceland’s Speed Cameras
You won’t see too many police cars on the roads driving around Iceland. However Iceland does enforce its speed limit with camera traps.
These nondescript boxes on the side of the road record your speed and take a photo if you’re driving over the limit, resulting in a steep fine.
The speed limit in Iceland is 90km/h (55mph) on paved roads, 80km/h (50mph) per hour on dirt roads, and 50km/h (30mph) per hour in cities.
Also note that seatbelts are mandatory in Iceland, and just good common sense anyway.
Be Prepared For Extreme Weather
Weather can get severe in Iceland from time to time, especially in the winter. So severe, that 70mph wind gusts have been known to blow open car doors backwards, bending the hinges or ripping them off completely!
To prevent wind damage try to park your car facing the wind, pushing the door closed, not open. Crack your window first, and stick your hand out to test wind strength, then slowly open the door with two hands.
Don’t assume you can handle driving through an Icelandic snow storm just because you grew up in New England, because the weather can be VERY different here.
Weather changes quickly in Iceland, and a sunny morning can easily turn into a snowstorm later that day. Iceland has a fantastic website to check real-time road conditions called Road.is. They even have a handy smartphone app.
Gas Stations & Fuel Advice
Gas stations in Iceland are scarce once you get further away from the cities, but spread out across the island. Be sure to fuel up before setting out, and re-fuel often — try not to let it fall below half a tank.
You’ll find plenty of gas stations on the Ring Road until you reach the more remote Eastern and Northern parts of the country, where they start to thin out. Fill up more frequently out there.
Iceland is a remote island, without a lot of people/cars. At about $2 USD per liter ($7.50 USD per gallon), gas for your road trip is going to be expensive. Diesel isn’t much better right now, so check the prices and plan accordingly.
USEFUL TIP: If you’re up in the highland’s driving Iceland’s F-roads, it’s wise to bring a spare gas can.
Do You Need GPS?
Many car rental companies in Iceland will try to up-sell you a GPS device for your road trip. However this is not needed if you have international cell service, or pick up a local SIM card at the airport or in Reykjavik before you embark on your journey.
Maybe bring along a dashboard or windshield smartphone holder so you can use the GPS maps hands-free while driving.
Along with Google Maps, I’d also recommend downloading the Gaia GPS Hiking App, which will help you get around Iceland’s backcountry hiking trails, even if you don’t have cell service. Here’s a handy guide for using it.
Don’t Stop In The Middle Of The Road!
Many of Iceland’s roads lack breakdown lanes, or have small ones. However because the scenery in Iceland is so spectacular, tourists are constantly stopping on the edge of the road to take photos.
Don’t do this! It’s not safe, and you might cause an accident.
If you really have to get that amazing photo, keep driving until you find a proper turn-off, park, and walk back to that perfect spot. Even if it takes you an extra 10 minutes.
That photo opportunity can wait a little, it’s simply not worth the danger of stopping in the middle of the road when there’s traffic passing by. Please be respectful of everyone else driving in Iceland.
Pack Proper Gear For Iceland
Even though Iceland is becoming a very popular tourist destination, parts of it are still pretty remote. Between large towns, you could be driving for a while before you’ll find regular civilization.
With this in mind, it’s wise to pack extra food, snacks, and water for your road trip. I’d also make sure you have proper clothing for cold weather and stormy conditions, warm and waterproof layers. Sturdy shoes or hiking boots too.
A first aid kit is always a great idea, here’s the one I travel with on my frequent adventures around the world. You never know when it will come in handy.
Car Camping Restrictions
So, you’ve packed a tent in your car, or you’re driving a camper van. You assume it’s legal to camp anywhere you please on this beautiful island. But should you? Can you legally camp anywhere in Iceland?
According to the Environment Agency of Iceland (EAI):
“Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on uncultivated ground for a single night, unless the landowner has posted a notice to the contrary. However, campers should always use designated campsites where they do exist. Do not camp close to farms without permission. If a group of more than three tents is involved, these campers must seek permission from the landowner before setting up camp outside marked campsite areas.
It is illegal to spent the night in tent trailers, tent campers, caravans, camper van or similar outside organised campsites or urban areas unless the land owner or rightholder has given their permission.”
There are also protected areas in Iceland where you definitely may NOT camp. For a complete list of protected locations and descriptions of when to ask permission, visit the camping rules page.
Please use a designated campsite when it’s available. With more than three tents or driving a campervan, ask permission of the landowner. Avoid protected areas.
If you do choose to camp outside designated areas, please follow the rules above, and leave no trace of your presence behind — so Iceland stays beautiful for locals and future travelers.
Winter Driving In Iceland
Every year tons of unprepared tourists get stuck or slide off the road due to Iceland’s winter driving conditions. I was hit with 2 snow storms during my 3 week trip during October/November.
Part of the problem is many people don’t have any real winter driving experience, or they over-estimate their abilities.
Getting your rental car stuck in the snow or ice is a very real possibility during winter in Iceland. Do you know how to get yourself out?
- Clear snow away from your tires, using a shovel or hands and feet.
- Straighten your tires, rock the vehicle back and forth, shifting from drive to reverse.
- Create traction under your tires using dirt, sand, branches, granola, floor mats, anything you can find.
Always fill your gas tank when possible, especially in the winter. Getting stuck in a snowstorm and spending the night in your vehicle is a remote possibility. Without gas to keep it running (and warm), things get dangerous quickly.
When driving through heavy snow, try to stay inside the tire tracks. Drive slowly, and carefully move over to the edge when passing oncoming traffic.
F-Road Driving Tips
While driving Iceland’s remote & rugged F-Roads is not technically driving off-road, basically you need to think of them as exactly that.
These roads are extremely basic, and not really maintained. In the United States, they’d be called “jeep trails” or “fire roads”.
So the same kind of safety concerns apply. You are on your own out there. No gas stations, no towns, no tow trucks.
If you get a flat, get stuck in the mud, or your engine breaks down, it could be a while before someone passes by who can help.
- It’s forbidden to drive Iceland’s F-Roads without a 4X4 vehicle due to the rough conditions.
- Traveling in pairs with a second vehicle is highly recommended, in case one of you breaks down.
- F-Roads are only open during the summer months, generally June – August (or first snow). Some don’t open until July.
How To Cross A River
If you’re driving the paved Ring Road or Golden Circle, you’ll have normal bridges (although some are one-lane). However if you’re traveling to Iceland’s interior highlands on the dirt F-Roads, you may encounter a few rivers without any.
Crossing a river in a 4X4 truck requires a bit of planning. If you’ve never done it before, here are some tips.
- Know where your vehicle’s “water line” is (maximum depth). Going past it may result in damage.
- Try to cross glacial rivers early in the morning, when the flow is lower. As the day heats up, the river gets more powerful/deeper.
- Shift your vehicle into 4X4 “low” before you start to cross, not in the middle of the river.
- Drive slow and steady through the current. Don’t drive too fast or “splash” into the water (it could kill the engine).
- Drive diagonally downstream, so the current helps push you across.
- Stick to the marked crossing points, and don’t assume it’s always safe to cross. Try to watch someone else go first.
Accident & Breakdown Info
112 is the only emergency number in Iceland. This is what you’d call to report any bad accidents, fire, crime, search & rescue, or natural disasters. 112 can be reached from anywhere in Iceland, from any telephone, by voice or by SMS text message.
Another great resource is the 112 Iceland App, that lets you “check in” before going on a hike or doing anything risky, to help provide location information if something goes wrong later.
If it’s not a life-or-death emergency, like your car breaks down or you get a flat tire, then contact your rental car office for help.
If you break down and you’re not exactly sure where you are, please don’t leave your car. Stay with your vehicle until someone passes by who can help.
Iceland’s F-Roads are patrolled by search & rescue teams who check for stranded drivers on a semi-regular basis.
Have Fun Driving In Iceland!
I hope I didn’t scare you too much about driving in Iceland. It really is worth the extra effort to rent a car and drive yourself!
Regardless of which vehicle or road you choose, one thing’s for sure — renting a car in Iceland gives you the freedom to set your own path and reach stunning locations off-limits to the typical bus tourist.
It also lets you do it at your own pace and in a style that suits you. And besides, how do you expect to hunt for elves or the incredible northern lights from your hotel room in Reykjavik?
Get out there and drive around Iceland in your own rental car! ★
Bonus Video! Driving Tips For Iceland
(Click to watch Dangers On Icelandic Roads? – Driving With Elfis on YouTube)
Are you planning a road trip in Iceland? Any questions about driving or renting a car there? Drop me a message in the comments below!