Driving in Iceland or any other foreign country for the first time may seem daunting. A little planning and research can go a long way.
We always begin planning our trips by mapping out a few sights and activities that sound interesting. When planning for Iceland, we quickly realized that the standard tour and public transportation options were not going to work for us. We wanted a certain amount of freedom for our foreign adventure. Opting to rent a car for the entire trip made the most sense and allowed us to hit all of the sights we wanted.
Before doing any actual research, we did have a few worries. The possibility of driving on the opposite side of the road, needing to learn a manual stick shift, and getting lost were some of our concerns. As it turns out, we didn’t need to worry about any of that! What we should have been concerned about was the erratic weather, finding a reputable car rental company in Iceland, F-roads, and speed cameras. We learned a lot in our research prior to the trip, but there were still some surprises along the Ring Road.
Basic Iceland Driving Laws:
We found most, if not all, of Iceland’s rules of the road to be logical and commonsensical. Here are a few that you need to know… or face heavy tickets and fines!
- Drive on the right side of the road, not the left
- Pass on the left, where permitted
- Drivers in the inside lane of roundabouts have the right of way
- Yield to the driver on the right at four-way intersections
- Headlights must be ON at all times
- Seatbelts are required for the driver and ALL passengers
- Young children and infants must be in car-safety seats
- Mobile phone use is not permitted while driving
- No driving after consumption of alcohol or drugs (the blood alcohol limit is .05%)
- No turning right on a red light
- Speed limits are strictly enforced using cameras
- No off-road driving… this can lead to jail time!
- Don’t pull over to the side of the road on a curve or just over a hill
If you’re from the United States or the United Kingdom, you’re used to seeing speed limits posted in miles per hour. Iceland uses the International System of Units for measurement, meaning that posted speed limits and rental car speedometers will be in kilometers per hour.
General Speed Limit Guidelines:
- Cities & Townships: 30-50 km/hour
- Gravel Roads: 80 km/hour on gravel roads (in rural areas)
- Paved Roads: 90 km/hour
Iceland Pavement Markings & Signs:
Most of the signs and road markings in Iceland are pretty straightforward, even if you don’t speak Icelandic. Broken center lines indicate where passing is allowed and stop signs still look like stop signs, but there were a few special signs that we had never encountered before:
Weather in Iceland:
One of the biggest possible hazards you’ll face in Iceland is the unpredictable weather. During our October trip to Iceland, we experienced sun, clouds, drizzles, thick fog, gale force winds, and heavy rain. We spent the majority of one day in Iceland driving from Reykjavik to Skaftafell. The wind was so strong, we worried that our little rental car was about to fly off the road (which actually happens there periodically). Visibility was extremely poor and it only got worse after dusk hit. We made it to our destination safely. However, it took much longer than expected since we couldn’t safely drive the speed limit.
On another day, we planned a small day trip to see Kirkjufell mountain. We checked the weather before we left Reykjavík and saw that there would be light rain at our destination for most of the day. When we reached Kirkjufell a few hours later, we were met with the tail end of Hurricane Nicole.
We attempted to make the most of the situation by grabbing our cameras and tripods and sprinting out into the storm, hoping to get a single decent photo. Nothing could have prepared us for the wind and rain we encountered. Not so surprisingly, we didn’t get any great shots. Jake’s pants were so drenched that he had to make the whole ride back to our apartment in a towel.
Although checking the weather prior to heading out didn’t help us on that particular day, I still highly recommend doing so. A great weather website recommended to us by one of our hosts was http://en.vedur.is.
When we arrived in Iceland and met up with the Icelandic employee from the car rental company, his parting words before handing over the keys were “Do not kill sheep.” In our research before the trip, we read in many places that you need to watch out for animals on the roads. After a few days of driving through farmland, we thought that all of this stuff about animals in the road must be an exaggeration. We saw many sheep, horses, and cows safe and sound behind fences. We stopped to take pictures of sheep and found the sheep to be… well, sheepish. They turned their backs and ran away time and time again.
About halfway through our trip, all the way over on the eastern coast of Iceland, we started to understand the warnings. We started seeing lone sheep and horses near the road, without a building in sight. There were even a few sheep on the edges of the road. We asked our ice cave guide if he had any further insight. He explained that many accidents are caused when a lamb sees a car coming and runs across the road to catch up with their mother. His explanation was the first that really made sense to us. Just don’t kill sheep (or horses or cows).
F-Roads & 4×4’s:
You have to rent a 4×4 vehicle in order to drive on F-roads. We learned this last minute and had to change some of our self-drive travel plans. We planned to visit Landmannalaugar (the painted mountains) on our own initially. When we really mapped out our trip a few weeks prior, we realized that there isn’t a single way to drive to the painted mountains without using an F-road. We ended up booking a day tour instead, which turned out to be an adventure in itself.
Basically, F-roads are the equivalent of off-roading in Iceland (since off-roading is illegal). F-roads are indicated on maps with an F in front of the number of the road. These roads are usually narrow gravel or dirt mountain roads that allow access to the Highlands. F-roads are closed in the winter and also periodically due to poor road conditions. As well, they often cross rivers that do not have bridges. Due to the rugged nature of these roads, it’s advisable to travel in a group with more than two cars just in case one gets stuck or breaks down. The wait for help could be a long one, so bring a map!
As we rode further into the Highlands, I lost all data reception on my phone, which means turn-by-turn navigation would have been impossible. Prepare for all possible weather conditions. Pack food and water, just in case! Don’t forget to check the conditions before you go on http://www.road.is or by calling 1777.
Renting a Car in Iceland:
Many car rental companies in Iceland have a reputation for scamming tourists. Don’t let that deter you from self-driving Iceland. Read our post specifically dedicated to renting a car in Iceland to see our story and advice.
You Won’t Regret Self-Driving
For our trip, renting a car and self-driving Iceland was the best choice. We wanted the freedom to select exactly where we went and when. Self-driving also gave us the opportunity to stop along the way for good photo opportunities, snacks, and unexpected sights. It may have cost more than using tours and public transportation with the extra Krona spent on expensive gasoline and the car rental cost itself, although we never did a comparison. Keep in mind that self-driving does require a little extra planning and preparation. Overall, for our next trip to Iceland, we will definitely rent a car again… maybe even a 4×4 or a camper van!