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. 

Common Questions About Iceland

The Icelandic flag

Where is Iceland?

Iceland is an island located in the North Atlantic Ocean. It sits directly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and comprises two major tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American. Coupled with the volcanic hotspot underneath the island, this results in frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

How big is Iceland, and how many people live there? 

In terms of area, Iceland is about 103,000 square kilometres [39,769 square miles]. In population numbers, Iceland is the size of an average European city, with around 400.000 inhabitants. Most of those live in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, or the surrounding area. 

How Do I Get to Iceland?

There are two ways to travel to Iceland. You can fly with one of the numerous airlines that fly there or you can sail with M/S Norröna, a ferry that offers weekly fares from Denmark to the east of Iceland. Additionally, numerous cruise ships offer trips to and around the island. 

Is Iceland Expensive?

For most people, Iceland will be more expensive than their home country. The cost of living is high, and there are some things in particular, such as alcohol, eating out, and planned tours, that are very expensive. The good news is that there are also many free attractions to enjoy! If you‘re here on a budget, skip the planned tours and just head out on your own. Couple that with an Airbnb, where you can cook your own meals, and you‘ll save yourself considerable amounts.  

Do people tip in Iceland? 

It‘s not the custom in Iceland to tip. Some restaurants and coffee shops have jars for tipping, but as customer service wages in Iceland are good, this is not something you should feel obligated to do.

Is Iceland cold? 

Judging by the name, one might think Iceland is extremely cold and covered in snow all year round. This is not the case at all! Over the year, temperatures usually fluctuate between -10 °C [14 °F] and 20 °C [68 °F], with the coldest month being January and the warmest July. Storms, often accompanied by snow or rain, are frequent from September to March. Wind and precipitation are less common during summer, and if you‘re lucky, you might even catch some excellent sunny, warm weather days.

Is Iceland safe? 

Yes, it is. In fact, for 14 years in a row, Iceland has been ranked number one on the Global Peace Index

Are Icelanders LGBTQ+ Friendly?

Iceland is considered among the most LGBTQ+ friendly countries to visit, and the Icelandic people are usually very open and accepting towards LGBTQ+ communities. Reykjavík Pride, a week-long annual celebration held in August, attracts tens of thousands of people. 

What is the best time of year to visit Iceland?

Well, it depends on your preferences. Do you crave bright and magical summer nights or the cosy darkness of winter? Would you like a chance to encounter a blizzard and see the northern lights, or do you wish to experience the extraordinary Highland, spot some whales and visit remote fjords? In Iceland, each season has something unique to offer!

 

Risk Assessment to Be Conducted at Reynisfjara

The dangerous Reynisfjara beach will see a risk assessment conducted by the government. Reynisfjara is a popular travel destination nearby Vík in South Iceland. It has an immensely strong undertow, and waves that creep quickly upon travellers, threatening to snatch travellers out to sea. The risk evaluation will focus on both the strong tide as well as rockfall in the area. If the changes go through, the police will have the option to close the beach on dangerous days. A warning mast is also to be placed at the beach.

Three traveller deaths

Reynisfjara has claimed three lives since 2007, with many more close calls. The area is clearly marked with warning signs, and tour guides place great emphasis on safety in the area. This week, a number of travellers were swept into the water. The tide has also pinned travellers down in a small cave in the area.

Minister of Tourism, Industry and Innovation Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir leads the project, which will be performed by the police in South Iceland. The police intend to work alongside the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, The Icelandic Met Office and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

“It’s unacceptable that there’s a risk of a massive accident in one of the most popular tourist locations in the country, without the necessary arrangements in place. Certain improvements have been made, but the responsibility for the case is complicated as well as the fact that travellers often ignore warnings, putting themselves at great risk. This is why we recommend that a risk evaluation be performed and, based on that, the police can close the area when needed, which should in all likelihood not be more than five to seven days per year,” said Minister Þórdís Kolbrún.

Possible closures

The closures on the beach would prevent further accidents. It is expected that they would take place in extreme weather, with a strong tide, between November to March. A wave prediction system, as well as an alert system, will be placed in Reynisfjara, which has been in the works since 2017. The Icelandic Tourist Board sanctioned the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration to install the systems. The system is already available at the Icelandic Met Office’s website, and the information can be found on the Safe Travel websites. The project will be completed with the construction of a mast on the beach which will flash a warning light at times of danger. A permit from all of the landowners in the area, which number around 250 in total, is needed for the mast.

The beach is considered one of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world, with clear black sand, basalt columns, and the view of the Reynisdrangar rock formation. The beach is a two and half hour drive away from Reykjavík. The sneaker waves in the area pose a danger to travellers, who are advised to stand at least 30 metres away from the waves.

Visit www.safetravel.is for further information regarding travel safety, as well as www.road.is for the newest updates on road conditions.