Winter Driving in Iceland

winter tires reykjavík

How best do you prepare for winter driving in Iceland? What type of vehicle is best to deal with the frosty conditions? Read on to make yourself aware of how best to drive in the cold season during your vacation in Iceland. 

Operating a vehicle during Iceland’s winter comes with significant challenges that visitors need to be aware of. 

In this season, the country becomes coated in snow. Its roadways are covered with sheet-ice. The winds and darkness add a dramatic, and sometimes oppressive ambience that takes even the most worldly travellers by surprise.

Still, millions of foreign visitors are eager to explore this country between September and March. And not only the areas around the well-kept capital city, Reykjavík.

The scenic South Coast, the favourite Golden Circle sightseeing route, the awe-inspiring North, and even the remote Eastfjords are all there and available for those willing to brave the elements.

Visitors at Gullfoss waterfall
Photo: Golli. Gullfoss waterfall in the wintertime.

But without any railways, there are only a handful of options when it comes to reaching these places. 

One choice might be entrusting your journey to an experienced driver. This is best done by taking part in one of the many single or multi-day tours available. In these cases, you will travel by coach, minivan or Super Jeep. For the North specifically, another option might be taking a domestic flight from Reykjavík Airport. 

However, most vacationers prefer to set their own schedule, making renting a car the most attractive choice. Nevertheless, during the winter season, having a solid understanding of what driving in Iceland entails is essential to ensure confidence on the roads.

Let’s look at some handy tips and tricks to make sure your winter driving in Iceland remains safe and enjoyable. 

How to drive safely in the Icelandic winter

Aerial view of Reykjavík city traffic during winter
Photo: Golli. Aerial view of Reykjavík city traffic during winter

When driving in Iceland during the winter, a comparison can be made to travelling by light speed in Star Wars. Nothing but darkness and passing snowflakes can be seen through the windscreen. It’s all too easy to picture yourself sitting behind the console of the Millennium Falcon, looking upon a billion stars as they flash and fly by.

This might sound exciting – and indeed, it is – but this lack of visibility can cause a lot of drivers to become stressed. Some even panic at the wheel. 

In such circumstances, it is important to remain calm. Given the lack of daylight hours, drive slowly and carefully, wherever in the country you may be. 

Should you find yourself in truly inhospitable conditions – where even recognising the road in front of you is difficult – it can be helpful to run your wheels over the centre-line so as to feel the difference in texture. 

That’s right – in dire circumstances, driving by touch might actually be a necessity! (Don’t ever let anyone say that winter is not challenging for motorists.) 

Choosing the right vehicle 

Renting a car can be a great way to get around Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík traffic

When planning your holiday, pay special attention to the type of vehicle you choose. 

If you are staying in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, you will have more freedom given the fact that the roads there are cleared often. This means that renting a smaller, cheaper car remains a possibility. However, the tinier the car, the lower ground clearance it has. Be warned. Lower ground clearance risks the vehicle becoming stuck in the snow. 

If you are hoping to travel further afield, then you will require a vehicle capable of handling increased snowfall and powerful winds. A larger, heavier vehicle with good ground clearance is far more appropriate. Particularly one that is capable of four-wheel drive. 

Whatever the case, it is crucial that your car is fitted with studded winter tyres. This should be the default, as at this time of year, winter tyres are required by law. However, many, many vehicles are rented out each year in Iceland. It is always advisable to make certain your car is kitted out correctly.   

Check the road conditions 

Cars trapped on the road
Photo: From archives

Before setting out, it is always advised that travellers keep up-to-date with the state of the roads on which they’ll be driving. Weather conditions can change extremely quickly in Iceland, meaning that one moment a road may be open, only to be closed down and inaccessible the next. 

Thankfully, there are a number of handy apps that will help you to best plan your journey, and be aware of any disruptions, before setting out. These include:

Safe Travel 

This helpful application will tell you the exact condition of a road, whether it be clear, slippery, snowy, or closed down. Make sure to know exactly what each colour means as you check the app, and take special notice of any safety updates regarding different areas of the country. 

Veður 

This is the go-to weather app in Iceland, providing you with a 10-day forecast that informs you of the temperature, visibility, and precipitation levels. Downloading it will give you a great leg-up when it comes to winter driving in Iceland. 

These apps are available on both Google Play and the Apple Store. 

What to bring on your travels in Iceland during winter  

Photo: Alehandra13, Pixabay

In the worst case scenario, you may find your vehicle – and, consequently, yourself – trapped by the snow. Should such an incident happen, there are various items you will be grateful for having packed. 

First off, extra clothes and blankets are a must to remain warm while waiting for the Search and Rescue teams. Given the vast stretches of wilderness between different settlements in Iceland, this may be a few hours, and on particularly tempestuous days, your rescuers may find themselves busier than you realise.

Second, ensure that you have fresh water and snacks to stave off hunger in the event you find yourself trapped besides, or even on, the roadside. On that note, it is not just you that should be kept well fed – make sure your vehicle has at least half a full tank of fuel at any given time. Gas stations can be few and far between along certain routes, so it is always best to top-up your fuel whenever the opportunity arises. 

Another is an emergency kit. It might include: a first-aid kit, a spare tyre and the equipment needed to change it, a paper map, snow scrapers, shovels, a flashlight, spare batteries. While renting your car, inquire as to whether any of these essentials are included in your package. If not, ask how you might go about acquiring them before setting off. 

When driving to more remote areas, specialised items like flares, safety vests, and emergency beacons also come recommended. 

In Summary 

winter weather road snow
Photo: Golli. A snow-swept road in Iceland

While the safety concerns are certainly important to take into account when it comes to driving in the Icelandic winter, there is no need for endless worry. 

As long as you remain vigilant to changing weather patterns, you remain one step ahead. Leep up-to-date with travel warnings through looking at websites and mobile applications. Most essentially, drive slowly and cautiously. There is no reason why you cannot drive yourself from one incredible destination to the next. 

The winter is a truly magical time of year in Iceland. It is well worth renting your own vehicle so as to explore the country at your leisure. So, drive safe, and enjoy your journey. 

Hazardous Road Conditions in the North

winter tires reykjavík

Roads across Iceland are out of commission today due to harsh winter weather. Conditions are especially bad in the north and Holtavörðuheiði, a part of the Ring Road between the capital area and Akureyri, has been closed, RÚV reports.

Buses postponed or cancelled

Bus trips operated by Strætó have been postponed or cancelled this morning. Bus 57 at 10:15 from Akureyri to Reykjavík was cancelled. The bus travelling in the opposite direction at 9:00, from Mjódd in Reykjavík going north, only made it to Borgarnes.

Routes 78 and 79, between Siglufjörður and Akureyri, and Húsavík and Akureyri, respectively, have been postponed for an indefinite period. Route 59 between Borgarnes and Hólmavík has also been postponed.

Many roads out of commission

In the northeast, the road over Möðrudalsöræfi has been closed and Öxnadalsheiði road is out of commission as well. According to the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, blinding snowfall and difficult driving conditions are to be expected in many areas, especially Vatnsskarð and Þverárfjall.

The snowfall is expected to decrease tonight. However, driving conditions in Skagafjörður will get worse today and roads could be closed later on. Slippery surfaces, poor visibility and hail can be expected on roads in the area.

Hazardous Driving Conditions Expected Today in South Iceland

winter tires reykjavík

Strong westerly winds and snow showers are expected to make for hazardous driving conditions in South Iceland today; yellow weather warnings are in effect. Roads may close without much notice, and travellers are advised to stay updated on weather and road conditions.

Hazardous driving conditions

Westerly winds will blow across the country today, with speeds between 8-15 metres per second (m/s) and scattered snow showers. By noon, that wind is expected to turn into a strong gale or storm in South Iceland, peaking between 4 and 5 PM in the capital area.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office warns that these conditions, especially with brief heavy snowfalls and drifting snow, could make travelling dangerous in South Iceland; yellow weather warnings have been issued. As noted on the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration:

“The Icelandic MET office has issued a yellow weather warning today, January 31 for the western part of the country therefore many roads are on a level of uncertainty from 9 AM to 8 PM and may close at short notice. Travellers are asked to familiarise themselves with the conditions and check weather and road updates because conditions can change fast.”   

Travellers can monitor road and weather conditions by visiting the websites of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) and the Icelandic MET office.

Milder weather tomorrow, storm on Friday

Tomorrow, warmer air will approach Iceland, bringing milder weather. There will be a southwesterly wind at 8-15 m/s with some light showers or snow showers, but generally, it will be dry, especially in the northeast. Temperatures in the afternoon will be between 0 to 6°C.

By midnight tomorrow, rain or sleet is expected in many parts of the country. On Friday, a strong southwest gale or storm is predicted. The weather will get colder with heavy snow showers in the southern and western parts of the country.

Drivers Snowed in on Ring Road Overnight

Nearly a hundred and fifty people had to be rescued by ICE-SAR yesterday after their vehicles got snowed in on the Ring Road around the Eyjafjöll mountains and Jökulsá á Sólheimasandi glacial river in South and Southeast Iceland on Thursday night, RÚV reports.

The trouble started around 5pm on Thursday, when police in South Iceland were notified that a car had gotten stuck in the snow on the bridge over Jökulsá á Sólheimasandi glacial river, blocking all other traffic. By the time police arrived, many other vehicles had queued on either side of the bridge while heavy snow continued to fall. In the end, ICE-SAR had to transport passengers from 45 vehicles to temporary overnight accommodations, either at a hotel in Skógar or a shelter that the Red Cross opened in Heimaland.

Weather conditions and visibility were so bad on the Ring Road around the village of Hella that drivers who had gotten stranded in the area had to wait until close to 10pm for help to arrive. Some ICE-SAR rescue vehicles broke down in the snow on the way, while others had to see to other tasks before they could proceed to the stranded drivers. The weather finally began to clear around 1am and passengers were then transported to shelters.

All told, 38 people were taken to a hotel in Skógar, 100 were taken to the Red Cross shelter in Heimaland, and four people chose to stay in their own cars overnight.

Those who had stayed in the hotel or temporary shelter were driven back to their vehicles the next day. A snowmobile had been used to clear snow away from their cars and the roadway, but the road itself remained closed until Friday afternoon as conditions were still too dangerous for driving.

Car Rental Company Introduces Driving Safety Test for Tourists

A pilot program at a Reykjavík car rental is asking tourists to take an informational driving test before leaving with their vehicle. RÚV reports that the test is intended to prepare visitors for Icelandic road conditions and thereby increase safety for all drivers. Although the test is not mandatory, people involved with the pilot hope that it may be made so for all tourists renting cars in Iceland as early as this fall.

The driving test is being offered to tourists renting cars from a single Hertz location on Flugvallavegur road in Reykjavík. (Implementing the pilot at the Keflavík airport would have simply been too difficult given the number of tourists renting cars there.) Although it’s intended to be educational, the driving test is designed in such a way as to hopefully be fun for the takers. It’s composed of ten questions related to the biggest dangers that drivers may encounter when driving in Iceland. These are taken from a database of 73 possible questions and can be changed according to the season, when driving conditions change. The wrong answers to each question are notably absurd, making the right answer is more than obvious.

The test is the brainchild of Ingi Heiðar Bergþórsson, Hertz’s Director of Services and Human Resources, and is being administered in collaboration with the Sjóvá insurance company and ICE-SAR, under the aegis of the Safe Travel program. Ingi Heiðar said that although the pilot test isn’t mandatory, 80% of the tourists who rent from the Flugvallavegur location opt to take it and, in many cases, are thankful for the information it provides. He explained that information placards with much of the same information included on the driving test have been placed on the steering wheels in rental cars for years, but many tourists do not take the time to read these before driving. He took inspiration for the test from similar ones that are administered in New Zealand, where tourists are sometimes even offered discounts on their rental or insurance costs if they take an educational driving test before setting out.

Since the test began being administered in May, Ingi Heiðar says that damage to cars rented at the Flugvallvegur location has gone down, although it’s not possible to say if this is a direct result of the test.

Ingi Heiðar hopes that tests like the one he’s designed will be soon made mandatory as part of the regulations on car rentals in Iceland.

Male Drivers More Likely to Cause Serious Traffic Accidents

traffic accident Iceland

Men are significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviour while driving and have been at fault in 14 of 15 serious traffic accidents that took place in Iceland last year. The data comes from the Icelandic Transport Authority’s annual accident report, which also shows a record high number of tourist deaths in driving-related accidents in 2018. RÚV reported first.

Dramatic gender divide in 2018 accidents

According to Gunnar Geir Gunnarsson, the Transport Authority’s Head of Safety and Promotion division, the gender divide in traffic accidents is not usually so dramatic. As a rule, men make up two-thirds of drivers, and there’s usually a similar proportion of men involved in minor traffic accidents and incidents.

“But when we examine serious accidents, then we can see that men are the drivers in the vast majority of them,” explained Gunnar. “Generally, there’s either risky behavior or some kind of recklessness that they haven’t thought all the way through. Especially with fatal accidents, there is often drunk driving, speeding. Drug use in some instances,” he concluded.

Young victims, private vehicles

There were 15 fatal traffic accidents in Iceland in 2018, which led to 18 total deaths. Of these, 12 victims were men and six were women or girls. Eleven of the victims were 36 years old or younger. Nine of the victims were Icelanders, six were foreign tourists, and three were foreign nationals living in Iceland. One fatality was related to a drunk driving incident. Twelve of the victims were driving in passenger cars, four in delivery trucks, one on a tour bus, and one on an ATV.

Young drivers are often involved in traffic accidents, mostly due to their inexperience, Gunnar explained. There has been the most dramatic increase in traffic accidents among this demographic of late. Fatal traffic accidents have also been on the rise among tourists, which Gunnar credits, at least in part, to unfamiliar driving conditions in Iceland.

“…Six people died in traffic incidents last year—there have never been more in a single year. But the trouble they get into is more about a lack of knowledge about Icelandic conditions. It’s not many of them who are under the influence of alcohol, rather that they drive too fast on icy or gravel roads—something like that.”

Fewer accidents in 2019

While driving-related deaths spiked in 2018, the first three months of 2019 showed no fatal traffic accidents at all in the country. Experts say better driver education and higher rates of seatbelt use are among the factors working together to reduce accident mortality in Iceland.

Icy Road Warning Throughout Country

Snowstorm Iceland

Travelers should expect ice on all main roads in the capital area as well as on roads throughout the country, RÚV reports.

According to a forecast from the Icelandic Met Office, while snow storms are expected around most of the country this weekend, the Northeast should enjoy clear skies for the next few days, although it will get steadily colder. South and East Iceland can expect high winds and snow or sleet today, as well as rain along the coasts. Northwest Iceland will likely avoid precipitation for most of the weekend.

South and East Iceland will get warmer tomorrow, allowing for a thaw in those regions. However, a northeasterly wind on Sunday, will bring more snow and sleet, and the temperature will drop again. This will lead to roads icing over in this region.

In the West and Southwest, there will be a snowstorm tonight and considerable snow cover come tomorrow morning. West Iceland will also get a lot of snow, and road conditions will be icy. There will be considerable ice throughout the Westfjords, as well as intermittent snowstorms. North, Northeast, and East Iceland will have widespread ice. All main roads in the capital area are expected to be icy all weekend.

The icy road warning is an especially important one for drivers to heed given that icy driving conditions lead to a serious accident on the south coast only yesterday.

Drivers are reminded to check up-to-date weather conditions (in English) on the Icelandic Met Office website (here) and road conditions on the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website (here). Safe Travel Iceland is also a valuable resource (in English, German, French, Chinese, and Icelandic) for safe driving and traveling tips, as well as important alerts.

Northern Lights Driving Causes Danger

Travellers seeking northern lights can cause considerable danger on roads, according to Aftenposten. Icelandic police authorities have warned travellers of the danger. Travellers come from all over the world to witness the northern lights in wintertime Iceland.

Northern Lights tourism comes with its fair share of traffic problems. According to the Icelandic police, many travellers lack experience driving in winter conditions. “The weather in Iceland changes every five minutes and road conditions alike,” said Jóhannes Sigfússon, police inspector at Akureyri. “A dry road can become icy and slippery in a matter of minutes.”

Nighttime is the most dangerous, as tired drivers not used to the conditions look upwards in search of the northern lights. Eighteen people lost their lives in traffic accidents last year, and half of those were of foreign origin.

Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten’s coverage states that travellers often seek dangerous mountain roads and that many a northern lights trip ends in disaster. It also states that travellers often drive in the middle of the two-lane ring road when seeking out the northern lights. The road may twist and turn at a moment’s notice, and a driver that’s not fully alert might end up crashing.

Travellers are advised to use www.road.is for information about road conditions and weather. It is the official road information website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.