Travelling Iceland by car is the best way to get around if you plan to get around at all. If you want to explore at your leisure in this hostile landscape, it's important to do it safely.
While bus companies serve the country quite well, the whole point of visiting Iceland is to explore nature.
Driving in Iceland is not that much more complicated than anywhere else, you need to use common sense and follow the rules.
The F208 track near Landmannalaugar
Iceland only has as many roads as its small population needs, and aside the ring road (number 1) that goes around the country, most are unpaved. Most unpaved roads can still be handled by a conventional vehicle, but this is a variable so plan ahead when leaving road number 1.
The maximum speed limit is 90 km/h on road number 1. Generally, the speed limit rules are as follows:
While unpaved roads are limited to 80 km/h, don't expect to be driving at this speed. On some Icelandic off-road trails you'll can barely go faster than 30 km/h without risking damage to the vehicle.
If you plan to break off from the main road, you must not forget to check the vehicle fuel level, as unlike in most of Europe the distances between villages (where gas stations are usually located) are sometimes huge, inland towards the center of the island in particular.
Also, you'll need to refuel much more frequently than your usual city car since a 4x4 vehicle navigating off-road trails will guzzle a vast amount of fuel.
The most cautious travelers even bring a full jerrycan of gas just in case.
Road number 1, the ring road that follows the Iceland coastline
A few things to keep in mind about driving in Iceland
Also, keep in mind that in Iceland, drivers never think in terms of distance but rather in terms of travel time: It takes 20 minutes to drive 30 km on road number 1, but over an hour and 15 minutes to cover the same distance on the F910 trail that leads to Askja.
Last but not least, here are the essential contacts you need to keep handy:
Generally speaking, it's hard to get lost in Iceland as there are simply not that many roads. A good road map or GPS is nevertheless essential to get around without having to read Icelandic road signs, as you have likely noticed the language is rather unpenetrable to foreigners.
Overall, the roads are narrow, sometimes very narrow, and you often have to give way to vehicles coming from the opposite direction.
There are three main types of roads in Iceland:
Of course, there are paved and fairly well-maintained roads near any cities, and on the main thoroughfares such as the famous number 1 road. But off the beaten track, the conditions are variable.
Indeed, some roads are sandy and it is strongly recommended to drive slowly, under 50 km/h, as traction is greatly reduced and braking distances can become dangerous.
Other than sand and dirt, some tracks are ribbed, like driving on interminable panels of corrugated tin, which will shake everyone up in the cabin and once again reduce traction.
And last but not least are the the off-road trails, infamously represented on maps by an “F”. These are reserved for 4x4 vehicles for obvious reasons: very rough road conditions and deep ford crossings that would drown a city car.
And beware the other most common road hazard in Iceland: sheep! There are plenty and this is their territory and sometimes you'll just have to wait for them to vacate the roads, so be nice...
Do not hesitate to ask your hosts or gas station staff for advice to find out if the fords you plan to cross are too deep for your vehicle. Many drivers will wait before a ford for another vehicle to come by so they can cross together in the event of a problem, while some even get out and walk into the water barefoot to feel out the optimal route.
When it comes to the actual crossing process, 4-wheel drive transmission is simple to use. Shift to 4WD and slowly enter the water (slow enough to avoid building inertia). Describe a slight arc by first moving upstream and before curving downstream to the exit point.
Keep a constant pace and adjust the acceleration as you go. You want to avoid going so fast that water rushes over the hood into the windscreen, but not so slow as to flood the engine. Ideally, learn by example and watch a few vehicles navigate a ford before you try it yourself.
Rain will of course make any road conditions considerably worse, so if the weather turns against you be sure to consult the road.is website to find out if a trail is clear at any given moment. This site also gives up-to-date information to find out if a trail is open or not.
In fact, many trails are closed in winter and reopen from mid-May to mid-July. The table above lists the average opening date for a given trail.
Most inland trails are completely closed until mid-June or even early July. These are in fact considered dead-ends due to mud flow in the summer period that freezes over in winter, and require road maintenance before the trail is officially open.
When reopened, these remain reserved for 4x4 vehicles. As open/close dates change from year to year, check the www.road.is website regularly.
The F910 track leading to Askja
This is often the central question that visitors puzzle over before going to Iceland. In many ways, your vehicle type will determine where you can go and what you can see. Obviously, the most versatile rental will be the 4x4 to get around in winter or in summer if you're going off-road and off the beaten track.
There's no way to predict road conditions but if it snows at all (and this is Iceland), a 4x4 will get you out of tricky situations that would cripple a conventional vehicle.
In summer, it all depends on what you plan to see. If you want to drive around road number 1 and a few adjacent roads, a conventional vehicle will be just fine. For the most part, dirt roads are easily handled by conventional vehicles.
But as soon as you move away from these roads you will inevitably find yourself on an “F” trail and if you are not in a 4x4, you're in trouble. So 4WD cars are the best bet to stay safe, with a flexible itinerary, and traveling in total comfort.
Just be sure to check with your rental company that the vehicle is sufficiently insured in the event of a problem on an off-road trail, as this is not the case for all rental companies. From time to time on these types of tracks you'll have to cross fords. Needless to say that attempting this with a traditional non-4x4 vehicle will leave you stranded or floating downstream.
Of course, 4x4 rentals are more expensive than standard cars, but the investment really makes sense in Iceland when you improvise your itinerary even a little bit. Access to 4x4 trails is indicated by signs, which are explained in the following article.
The ford of Landmannalaugar
There are many rental companies in Iceland, especially local ones. Some like Blue Car Rental have a very good reputation and better value for money than others. You have to do the math and consider all expenses: insurance (some do not include them), the condition of the car (some rental companies offer fairly old vehicles), and making sure there is a vehicle pick-up point at the airport.
Blue Car Rental offers the advantage of including all insurance packages (excluding SAAP), vehicles in good condition, and a fair price compared to others.
A great option for researching offers is aggregator platforms to compare prices from one company to the next. The Guide To Iceland booking site offers this exact comparison service, and their database covers all local rental companies.
In addition to standard Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance, which is often included in the rental price, there are optional insurances. Not all of them are essential but protection against sand/ash winds may be worth the investment in some regions such as the south near Vik.
You can choose from 4 types of vehicles:
Small cars are ideal for a single person or a couple without children as long as they don't want to go off-road, as this won't break the budget.
SUVs and 4x4s are the preferred vehicles in Iceland, especially in winter, as this type of vehicle will open up the majority of fords and F trails.
So-called luxury cars are more comfortable, upscale vehicles, with optional 4x4 drive to adapt to every budget.
Finally, campers and vans are expensive but since you save all that money on separate accommodation, it can be a great deal!