Renting a car and driving around Iceland’s Ring Road is the trip of a lifetime for many. And while this ultimate road trip can conjure up images of freedom and adventure (and rightfully so!), there are also more practical concerns to take into account. Driving in Iceland is quite different than anything you may have experienced before. Harsh elements, continually changing road and weather conditions, and unexpecting things cropping up all have an impact on your journey. Driving safely in Iceland is paramount, so I’d like to discuss some of the hazards facing you and provide a few tips.
Guide to Driving in Iceland and Staying Safe
With the popularity of Iceland self-drive tours, many visitors come to our small Nordic island with the intent of seeing everything by car. Because Iceland driving is different than anywhere else, they may not be prepared for some of the unique challenges they face. I often get asked what side of the road does Iceland drive on or what’s the speed limit. We’ll cover these important questions and discuss Iceland driving laws so that you can have a safe, fun, unforgettable journey.
Iceland Driving Laws and Road Safety
Iceland driving laws might be a little different than what you’re used to. For example, you need to keep headlights turned on at all times when driving in Iceland, regardless of the weather. This includes warm, sunny days without a cloud in the sky. Iceland’s laws when it comes to alcohol prohibit driving under the influence in any way, shape or form. That means that if you’ve had just one beer or a sip of wine, you’re not allowed to get behind the wheel. It’s not like in some countries where there’s a blood alcohol limit they test for. If you’ve had any alcoholic drinks or if there’s alcohol on your breath, you’ll be fined.
In addition to drinking, driving off-road is also not permitted. Icelandic nature is fragile, so to protect it, we don’t allow people to drive off of marked pathways. If you get caught, you’ll receive a fine.
The Iceland driving side is on the right and we overtake on the left. You’d be surprised how many people pull over to stop and take pictures but don’t realize that they’re blocking the road. As a safety tip, please be sure to only stop in a designated parking area or if you are fully off of the road.
The Speed Limit in Iceland
The speed limit also varies depending on the road surface and what’s around you. The official speed limit in Iceland for paved roads in rural areas is 90 km (56 mph). Unpaved stretches of the Ring Road and other gravel roads in rural areas are 80 km/h (50 mph). When driving in populated areas, you’ll need to slow down to 30-50 km/h (19-31 mph).
Driving Iceland’s Ring Road: How Long Does it Take?
Remember, just because you can go the maximum speed limit outlined above, doesn’t mean that you have to. Weather conditions or road conditions might warrant you needing to slow down. There’s no need to rush around the island.
If you’re wondering how long to drive around Iceland, it can vary depending on several factors. If we assume the weather cooperates (a big assumption) I would estimate 16-20 hours. Then, of course, you have to add in time for rest stops, meals, time spent driving around places like Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and overnight stays at hotels and campsites.
Iceland Road Conditions and Driving
Iceland roads come in two types: paved and unpaved. Most of the Ring Road is paved and there are only a few sections that are unpaved. Iceland’s Highlands, which are open in the summer, have F-roads (mountain roads) that are unpaved gravel roads. Road conditions on these types of roads are more difficult than regular roads in Iceland. By law, they require a 4x4 vehicle so you can have extra control over your car or SUV.
Road conditions in Iceland vary wildly depending on the season. Summer is usually the best time of year to visit because of the weather, but we’ve also had snowstorms in June. You never know what to expect. Winter brings rain, sleet, snow, hail, slush, and black ice, which can make things extremely risky.
Safe Driving in Iceland in Winter
One of the more dangerous times to drive Iceland is wintertime. Your rental company will provide you with a vehicle with studded snow tires, but you also need to be responsible. Go slowly in snowy or icy conditions. Checking the weather forecast frequently (multiple times a day) could save your life. Weather conditions in Iceland change rapidly, so it’s important to know if your drive from Reykjavik to Vik is going to be derailed by an unexpected snowstorm.
Hopefully, you can avoid these types of treacherous situations by being smart and safe. If you do find yourself caught in a blizzard, it’s best to delay your travel plans. Take shelter in the nearest town, village, or campsite or pull over to the side of the road until the storm has passed. Search and rescue will come looking for you as soon as it’s safe.
It’s a good idea to leave your travel plan with the Icelandic authorities via the SafeTravel.is driving safety website. You can also check road closures and get more driving safety tips at the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website, road.is.
Driving Hazards in Iceland
One thing I recommend to you is to watch the Driving with Elfis safety videos that are posted on YouTube. They talk about the different dangers posed to drivers in Iceland and some are unexpected. One is sheep; the dart out into road when they get startled by the sound of approaching motors. Another are the gravel surfaces that appear suddenly after you’ve been driving on a paved road. If you don’t slow down and approach these gravel roads with caution, you could lose control of your vehicle.
Becoming distracted and trying to take pictures or admiring the landscapes is something that gets drivers into trouble as well. Stay focused with your eyes forward. If you need to take pictures, stop the car somewhere out of the way and walk around.
You may also encounter a single-lane bridge or a single-lane tunnel on your journey. In this case, the person closest to the bridge or tunnel has the right of way, and you should let them pass. Blind hills and blind curves (where you can’t see what’s coming) are another thing to watch out for. As you approach these potentially problematic crossings, slow down and pull as far to the right as possible.
Lastly, if you’re driving in Iceland’s Highlands, you may come across some unbridged rivers. Be very careful if you can’t see how deep the river is. Try to cross at the shallowest part possible in order to avoid damage to a waterlogged engine. Rental insurance does not cover the cost of water damage, so cross at your own peril.
Driving Safely in Iceland
With these tips and guidelines, you’ll be able to have a safe journey to Iceland. Road trips are the best way to see the country, and driving safely in Iceland is the key to make sure you have the best time possible. Take your time, stay alert, enjoy your surroundings, and soak up one of the most beautiful countries in the world.