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. 

Season Guide: Travelling and Driving in Iceland During Summer

A car driving in the Icelandic countryside.

Whether you‘ll be cycling, driving, or using public transport, travelling in Iceland, even during summertime, might differ from what you‘re used to. Road conditions, hilly landscape, unpredictable weather, and a limited public transport schedule are all part of that. To help you out, here is our summer guide to travelling and driving in Iceland.

Cycling in Iceland 

If you want to cycle in Iceland, summer offers the best conditions in terms of both weather and road conditions. Within cities and towns, people bike on sidewalks or bike lanes. Icelandic roads are not made with bicycles in mind, which means that when travelling outside towns and cities, you‘ll mostly have to cycle on the side of the road alongside driving cars. If this is your chosen way of travelling across the country, you must be highly aware of your surroundings. Cycling off-road/off-track is strictly prohibited. 

Plan ahead when opting for public transport

Public transport tends to run smoothly in Iceland during the summer, as weather and bad road conditions are far less likely to cause delays or cancellations. The main cause of delays during the summer is traffic, which is at its peak on Fridays and Sundays. Many public transport routes run less frequently during the summer, so make sure to check the schedule.

Driving around Iceland: Cities, towns and the countryside

There are three main types of roads in Iceland: asphalt, gravel, and mountain roads. During summer, a regular car with summer tires will do fine on both asphalt and most gravel roads. The main thing to remember is to slow down when going from asphalt to gravel so as not to lose control of the car. When meeting cars from the opposite direction, take it slow and stay as far to the right as possible, as gravel roads are often narrow. On all roads, beware that rapidly changing weather can quickly change driving conditions, and watch out for sheep crossing the road. 

Driving in the Highland 

Should you venture into the Highland or other mountain roads, you‘ll need a 4×4 jeep. Campervans and regular cars are NOT equipped for these roads. Be mindful that some mountain roads don‘t open until late in the summer. Vegagerðin has a live map of general road conditions, which roads require mountain vehicles, and which roads are open/closed.

Icelandic driving regulations

Driving regulations in Iceland might be different to what you‘re used to. For your own safety and that of others, please familiarise yourself with them. Here are the top rules to remember:

  • In Iceland, cars drive on the right side of the road and priority is given to the right. 
  • In double roundabouts, the traffic on the inner lane has priority over the outer lane.
  • The general speed limit is 30-50 km/hour in populated areas, 80 or 90 km/hour on rural paved areas, and 80 km/hour on rural gravel roads. Some roads may not be suitable for the legal maximum speed, in which case you might spot a sign like this, with a suggestive maximum speed:
  • All passengers must wear seatbelts, and children must have appropriate safety equipment. Car seats for children can usually be added when renting a car. 
  • Headlights are required to be on day and night.
  • Driving off road is strictly forbidden and can result in a very high fine.
  • It‘s illegal to drive after consuming ANY AMOUNT of alcohol or drugs.

For a comprehensive list of road signs, check out this guide.

Iceland 101: All the Basic Facts You Need to Know

Akureyri sign post.

Planning a trip to Iceland? Here are some interesting facts and essential information to read before you arrive.

How big is Iceland, and who lives there?

The surface area of Iceland is 103,001 square kilometres [39,769 square miles], and the total population is just under 400,000, with most people living in and around Reykjavík. For the longest time, most people living in Iceland were natives, but in the past two decades, the foreign-born population has grown immensely and is now about 18% of the total. The language spoken is Icelandic, but most people speak English relatively well. 

The Icelandic climate

The climate in Iceland is temperate, meaning that, for the most part, swings in temperature are not huge. In fact, the most reliable thing about the weather here is the cool temperatures. The lowest temperature in Reykjavík during winter is usually -10°C [14°F], and only on rare occasions does it go higher than 20°C [68°F] during summer. For other parts of the country, the average temperature is slightly lower.

In terms of other weather factors, Iceland has it all. If you’re lucky, you might even get the whole spectrum in the span of 24 hours. The weather patterns can be unpredictable, but you can expect to encounter strong winds and storms in fall and winter, along with any form of precipitation. From April and throughout August, storms are considerably less likely to occur, but rain is common. That’s not to say the sun never comes out or the wind never stops, but be prepared by bringing the right clothes!

The power of Icelandic water

Iceland is known for its exceptional quality of water, which you can drink from the tap everywhere you go. In most places, it’s even safe to drink straight from the country’s many springs and rivers. Bring your refillable bottle to avoid spending money on overly expensive bottled water. 

The vast amount of running water has also enabled us to generate significant amounts of electricity, powering the country with green energy all year round. There’s plenty of hot water going around as well, so much so that 90% of Icelandic houses are heated with geothermal energy. The energy is both cheap and renewable, which is why most Icelanders have their radiators on full blast when it’s cold.

The Icelandic currency

Iceland is one of the world’s smallest countries with its own currency: The Icelandic Króna, ISK. Businesses do not accept cash from other countries, but most accept card payments if you don’t want to carry cash. You could almost call that the Icelandic way, as many Icelanders pay solely with their cards, phones or smartwatches. 

Weather warnings and road conditions 

One of the most incredible things about Iceland is its marvellous nature, and we highly recommend exploring it. Whether it’s a trip to the Highland, a short hike, or a tour of one of our glaciers, be sure to bring all the essentials, such as good walking shoes, food, and fluids, as well as warm layers of clothing that you can take off or put on according to the situation. Circumstances, especially the weather, might not be what you’re used to. If travelling outside the capital area, check for weather warnings at the Icelandic Met Office, and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (vegagerðin) for road conditions.

Medical assistance for tourists in Iceland

You can seek medical attention at the nearest health care centre (heilsugæsla). You can also call 1700, a 24/7 medical advice line, or use the Heilsuvera online chat, open 8am-10pm. In case of emergencies, the number to call is 112. Those with the European Health Insurance Card will be charged the same fee as persons insured in Iceland, but necessary documents must be presented. Others will be charged in full. 

Difficult Road Conditions Expected in Capital Area on New Year’s Eve

snow shovelling

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has issued a weather alert for South and Southeast Iceland for tomorrow, New Year’s Eve. Difficult conditions may lead to road closures.

“Finish your errands today” Meteorologist recommends

On its Twitter page this morning, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA) issued a weather alert for New Year’s Eve (Gamlársdagur in Icelandic, literally Old Year’s Day).

“Expect difficult road conditions and even some road closures on New Year’s Eve in South and Southeast Iceland.” IRCA also notes that road conditions may be spoiled on the night before New Year’s Day (which is the time that many Icelanders make their way back home following celebrations with relatives).

In an interview with Fréttablaðið this morning, meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson warned that travel could prove difficult in many places in the capital region and in South Iceland.

“It looks as if roads will be impassable in the capital region and Suðurnes as early as Saturday morning. Snowfall will be heaviest in South Iceland and in the lowlands of South Iceland. There will also be a lot of snow east of Strandir and east of Vík, which will fall during the middle of the day,” Einar stated, adding that he predicts that parts of the Ring Road will become impassable.

“There is greater uncertainty in the west of the country, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and in Borgarfjörður, for example. It will also snow there, but there will be less snow.”

Einar added the caveat that everything could change as far as the weather forecast was concerned although he recommended people finish their errands today (before New Year’s Eve): “It remains uncertain that people will be able to get between places tomorrow,” Einar observed. “Both between different parts of the country and also within towns and neighbourhoods. This applies primarily to the capital region, Suðurnes, and South Iceland.”

Flooding, Damage, and Traffic Accidents in Yesterday’s Extreme Weather

Extreme weather that hit the Reykjavík capital area yesterday caused water damage and accidents across the region. Reykjavík area firefighting crews were called out 12 times to pump floodwater out of buildings caused by heavy rainfall. A water pumping station in the municipality of Kópavogur broke down, likely due to the weather.

As of the time of writing, crews are still working on repairing the water pump in Kópavogur. Residents may experience low water pressure or even a complete lack of water due to the pump failure. Crews are also reviewing what went wrong last night in order to prevent such failures from occurring in the future.

Search and rescue teams were called out to Þrengslavegur (Route 39) in Southwest Iceland shortly before noon yesterday due to a bus that had veered off the road. Crews assisted the 40 passengers that had been on the bus, as well as other drivers in the area who had been impacted by the weather. Vehicles also experienced trouble on nearby Hellisheiði, a section of Route 1 that is often treacherous in bad weather due to its high elevation.

No Travel Weather Today

Orange and yellow weather warnings are in effect across the country today. High winds and rain are in the forecast through to Monday evening in the capital region and much of the North, West and South. A yellow warning will remain in effect in the East until Tuesday morning, according to Vedur.is.

With winds reaching 28 metres per second in some regions and 40 metres per second in the mountains, road conditions are slippery, and many mountain passes are unsafe to traverse or closed entirely.

Elín Björk Jónasdóttir, a meteorologist with the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told RÚV there is increased risk of mudslides in the South and Southeast, where the rain is expected to be heaviest.

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration reports that many roads outside of the capital area are closed, or the conditions are slippery. Travellers can keep an eye on current road conditions on Road.is.

Pilot Program Could Increase Access to Westfjords Over Winter

There will be increased snow plowing on Strandavegur, a coastal road that runs through the Westfjords municipality of Árneshreppur, from January to March. Per a press release issued by the government on Thursday, snow will be removed twice a week, weather conditions permitting. This pilot project is a collaboration between the Icelandic Regional Development Institute, the Westfjords Regional Development Office, and the municipality itself, and is part of the Fragile Settlements initiative, which aims to strengthen select rural communities throughout the country.

Golli

Strandavegur is an 80-km [50 mi] road that runs along the coast from Bjarnafjörður to Norðurfjörður. Much of the road runs through an area known for avalanches during the winter. Adding the fact that the road is not in terribly good shape, this generally means that authorities are frequently unable to remove snow on Strandavegur or keep it open in the winter. Limited reception also means that it’s more dangerous for employees and travellers to use this route during difficult weather.

If successful, the pilot program could have a significant impact, allowing increased access to a region popular with travellers but largely inaccessible for much of the year. The Westfjords are, perhaps, on even more tourists’ bucket lists these days: in November, Lonely Planet named it one of its top ten regions to visit in 2022.

Snow removal on Strandavegur will be handled by locals and the Icelandic Road Administration, which will maintain the twice-a-week schedule provided that there is no risk of avalanche and that weather conditions will not put employees at risk. The Road Administration will finance the pilot project with an eye to determining whether it will be possible to continue winter snow clearance along the seaside road throughout the winter and if so, how it can be done in a safe manner on a long-term basis.

Weather Forecast Worsens Across Iceland

weather rain Reykjavík

The yellow weather alert issued by the Icelandic Met Office for today has been upgraded to orange in most of the country. Locals and tourists are discouraged from travelling due to gale-force winds and heavy precipitation in the form of rain or snow that will make roads treacherous. Residents are encouraged to secure outdoor furniture and belongings.

Wind gusts will reach speeds of up to 28 metres per second in South and West Iceland today as well as the Westfjords, with strong gusts expected by mountains and high buildings. Winds will reach up to 30 metres per second in the Central Highland and at least 23 metres per second in all other regions. Snow, sleet, and slippery conditions are expected on mountain roads.

Icelandic Met Office. Weather alert September 21, 2021.

In the west of the country, weather conditions will worsen until late afternoon today and will begin improving by this evening. Northeast Iceland will continue to experience extreme conditions throughout Wednesday as the low front moves eastward across the country.

Gale-Force Winds, Rain, and Snow Across Iceland Tomorrow

yellow weather warning Icelandic Met Office

While in some countries yellow leaves are a sure sign of autumn, in Iceland the same can be said of yellow weather alerts. A low front will sweep in to the country tomorrow, hitting all regions with strong or even gale-force winds. South and Southeast Iceland, as well as the Faxaflói bay area, will also experience heavy rain tomorrow, while other regions may see precipitation in the form of rain or snow.

Strong gusts of wind are expected across the country tomorrow reaching speeds of up to 25 metres per second in several regions. Gusts will be particularly strong below mountains, making travel hazardous. Precipitation will likely be in the form of snow or sleet on mountain roads.

Residents are advised to secure outdoor furniture and avoid travel if possible. Road conditions are updated regularly on road.is and weather information is available on the Icelandic Met Office website. Weather should improve by Tuesday evening in the west and Wednesday morning in the east of the country.

Storm Moves East Across Iceland

Winter storm Iceland

While weather is calming down in West Iceland, the worst storm of the year is moving eastward across the country. Conditions are yet to worsen before they improve in the Northeast, East, and Southeast regions of the country. Most major roads in those regions are closed and power outages are affecting residents in both North and East Iceland. No casualties have resulted from the storm.

Power outages

Egilsstaðir, East Iceland’s largest town, was reported to be without power around 10.00am this morning. According to Landsnet, power went out around 10.30am this morning in East Iceland between Vopnafjörður and Höfn. Wind speeds have reached 38 metres per second along the country’s east coast, and in Hamarsfjörður gusts of wind reached speeds of 50m/s.

Sauðárkrókur was left without electricity when transmission lines were damaged yesterday evening. Firefighters were working early this morning to clean the lines of ice and snow in an attempt to get them working again.

https://www.facebook.com/landsnet/photos/a.308483769485660/1028144770852886/?type=3&theater

 

Near Akureyri and Dalvík, as well as in other regions, live power lines weighed down with ice and snow are sagging dangerously close to roads.

This morning, RÚV reported that the Westfjords were not receiving power through the national transmission system and all towns in the region were running on reserve power. Outages are still occurring in less populated parts of the region, such as Árneshreppur and Gufudalssveit.

Search and rescue busy

In Suðurnes, Southwest Iceland, search and rescue teams responded to nearly 100 calls yesterday evening alone. At Ólafsvík, North Iceland, some 20 search and rescue volunteers were on duty overnight, but as the storm winds down, many have been sent home. Search and rescue officials stated that the public seems to have taken the weather alerts seriously and was overall well prepared.

On the Westman Islands, wind and flying debris caused significant property destruction. Wind speeds on Heimaey island reached 40 metres per second yesterday evening, with gusts as fast as 52m/s. As of this morning, search and rescue teams on the island had responded to 100 calls. “I don’t know what we Icelanders would do if it weren’t for search and rescue forces,” stated Westman Islands Mayor Íris Róbertsdóttir.

Though weather is improving along the country’s west coast, most road still remain impassable across the country. Readers are advised to stay updated on road conditions and weather conditions online and avoid travel.