Practical Tips for Driving Iceland’s Ring Road in the Winter
Driving around Iceland in winter is a surreal and amazing experience, yet an occasionally challenging one that you need to be properly prepared for. Slippery roads and snow storms are normality, yet so are expansive snowy vistas that will imprint themselves on your brain forever, even more than the theme song of Barney. If the country wasn’t so overwhelmingly beautiful I’d probably just advise you to avoid winter altogether, but unfortunately for you and your wallet, the adverse winter conditions are exactly what create the adventure and splendour we all travel to find.
The Ring Road, or Route 1, is the major 1339 kilometre long highway that encircles Iceland. It passes through never-ending stunning scenery and circumventing it is about as ambitious as you can be during the winter months because the interior mountain roads are likely to be impassable. This must-do route, despite being a “major highway”, includes numerous blind curves and crests, one-lane bridges, gravel sections and some perilous cliff edges, however the biggest concern in winter is simply the weather. After completing the route last January, a very n-ice drive, we decided to put together a list of things to be aware of before you go, and go you should! (Despite what I might have said here….)
Have a 4×4 vehicle – Icelandic roads are icy in the winter.
To make a serious and SAFE attempt at driving around Iceland in the winter you need a four-wheel drive vehicle. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible without one, just that you’re putting yourself at risk, particularly if you’re inexperienced on winter roads. The roads will be icy and slippery and we personally saw too many 2-wheel-drive cars that had slid off the road to feel comfortable in one (no really, it was a game to tally them up…) Maybe it’s not a life or death situation to plough your car into roadside snow pile, but Iceland doesn’t seem very fond of crash barriers on perilous cliff roads either…You decide.
Make sure your car has studded winter tyres to grip the slippery roads.
After pulling into the car park at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon I stepped out of the car. Under normal circumstances stepping out of the car is not the kind of detail that needs to be provided in a blog post. It’s kind of like breathing in that it’s so obvious it doesn’t deserve the word count, or a bit like using the toilet in that it’s a detail people just don’t want to know about. In this particular case however, getting out of the car required some serious ice skating ability just to avoid landing flat on my face, and therefore is worthy of some attention.
When the temperature hovers around 0°C the result is car parks that can be more aptly described as glaciers, covered in a thin, slippery film of water. Getting out of the car sincerely shocked me because the car handled so well on the road that I underestimated how icy the road really was. While I would love to brag that it was my driving skills*, the real reason the car handled so well is because it was equipped with studded winter tyres. They’re lifesavers! If I could somehow have them on my feet then I would.
*Also Jarrad was driving. Slightly misleading…
Note: It’s actually a legal requirement to have winter (but not necessarily studded) tyres between the 1st of November and the 14th of April. Keep in mind that exact dates vary from year to year. Many rental car agencies guarantee studded winter tyres during the winter. Choose one of them. We went with Blue Car Rental.
Drive slower than the speed limit.
The maximum speed limit on Icelandic roads is 90 km/h on sealed roads and 80 km/h if you’re on an unsealed road. Many young hooligan travellers will find this limit a little slow, yet we only managed to safely reach it on a grand total of maybe 20% of our journey. 90 km/h is too fast for driving on an ice sheet! Admittedly, our sensible speed did mean that approximately 80% of cars overtook us (including in the middle of blizzards when visibility was less than a metre), but I assume they all skidded off the road somewhere before reaching their final destinations, probably in a really dramatic, dangerous and fiery way while thinking of how they shouldn’t have dangerously overtaken that girl back there. My psychologist said I should stop wishing bad things upon people whom I disagree with… but she’s not reading this.
Know the road conditions before you set out.
The website vegagerdin.is is an incredibly useful resource that allows you to check the current road conditions before you drive. It displays a colour-coded map with the road conditions and driving difficulty of the roads, shows the location of current blizzards and storms, and provides webcam views of selected roads across the country.
Keep in mind that if you come from a milder climate (like us) then when the map says ‘spots of ice’ what it often means is ‘driving on a glacier’ and when it says ‘difficult driving’ it means ‘suicide’. The pictures below are an attempt to show roughly what each colour code equates to in real life. Additionally, when this map says something is impassable, it truly means impassable. Don’t ignore the road closure signs; retrieving your bogged car from a closed road is a costly ordeal.
The Ring Road itself CAN be impassable.
Winter weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable and despite how regularly it is cleared, even the Ring Road can become impassable. Unfortunately on our trip the section between Mývatn almost the entire way to Egilsstaðir was temporarily closed. While it was only blocked overnight, had it of continued snowing the situation could have been much worse. The lesson here is to stay flexible in your travel plans.
Another important thing to note is that the section of the Ring Road just south of Egilsstaðir actually passes through mountainous terrain and is normally impassable as well. Follow the coast south instead (it’s not a huge detour and is scenic) and you will end up re-intersecting the Ring Road.
Have backup money and food.
The obvious extension to road closures is that you need to have sufficient money to stay in alternate places along the way just in case you can’t reach your intended destination. We heard stories of people on strict budgets who were caught in similar undesirable weather conditions and ended up being forced to become taste-testing slaves to local shark fermenting Icelanders for the night just to avoid sleeping in the snow. While this isn’t at all true, it’s still not a desirable situation to be penniless in.
Have a mobile phone and get the 112 Iceland emergency app.
Mobile phones are handy for many things, but while ordering pizza and stalking your ex on Facebook are no doubt of grave importance, the real reason you need a mobile phone is in case of emergency. Download the handy 112 Iceland emergency app, available for iPhone, Android and Windows, onto your phone before you go. In an emergency you can press a big red button and the app will send out your GPS location. Very handy… if your phone is charged.
Do NOT trust Google Maps/GPS time estimates.
A logical consequence of the icy roads and slower than normal, life preserving, driving speeds is that a manageable ‘4 hour’ journey according to the Gods at Google can easily turn out to be a long 6-hour trip, which matters a lot more in the winter when you only have four or five hours of sunlight. On numerous occasions we timed how long Google told us there was only ‘five minutes remaining’ until our destination. We could be five minutes away FOR five minutes! Additionally, while travelling on a straight section of highway Google maps helpfully advised us to do a U-turn… and then immediately do another U-turn! I could get better directions from a tickle-me-Elmo doll. Suffice to say I don’t have a huge amount of faith in Google’s guidance. Always budget more time than what Google says.
Clear away snow from your car.
It sounds so blindingly obvious that you should not drive around with a car covered in snow, yet I saw plenty of people doing it. Initially I thought people were just lazy, but then I had a bit of an incident myself. Turning into a scenic lookout to wait out yet another blizzard, a car tried to overtake me exactly as I was turning left. It was a narrow miss, and was primarily due to my indicators being completely covered in snow rendering my actions completely unpredictable to other drivers. Keep your signals clear!
Beware of black ice.
Around freezing temperature ice can form as thin, translucent films over the roads that can be difficult or even impossible to see, particularly in imperfect weather conditions. Just be aware and watch your speed, and remember that a light dusting of snow may be concealing slippery ice.
Be very wary of strong winds.
When the man giving us our rental car told us to be careful opening the car door in the wind I mentally scoffed at him. That was until I felt the full fierce fury of Icelandic wind. I actually quite like my hair to appear a bit windswept because I delude myself into thinking it makes me look carefree and adventurous, but Icelandic wind went a step too far and transformed my hair into something more like a tangled nest. The ‘wind’ I’d experienced in Australia is more like pathetic imitation wind.
On a very windy day driving back from Gulfoss we were forced to stop on the road and wait as an emergency team pulled a car from a large snow pile on the road side. Literally within 30 seconds post-rescue a gigantic gust of wind perpendicular to the road caught the edge of their car and effortlessly swept them aside once more. It was like they’d just pressed re-wind on their whole experience. Our car only narrowly escaped the same fate. If you’re ever in the same situation travel extremely slowly, or better yet, avoid driving in those gale-force conditions at all.
Don’t stop your car in unsafe places.
The Ring Road isn’t any old ordinary road. Nowhere is the saying ‘the journey matters more than the destination’ truer than in Iceland, with spectacular roadside scenery slapping you in the face around every single bend, until eventually your cheeks are bright red. Unfortunately though, with great scenery comes great stupidity, with people parking their cars in all sorts of incredibly stupid and dangerous places. Respect the obvious; don’t park your car on a bendy highway just to take a picture. Believe me, I know it’s hard. I spent half my time in hell like mental anguish as perfect photograph after perfect photograph flew past brutally uncaptured by my window. Just remember that there’s more to an experience than photographing it. Maybe not much more, but definitely some.
Don’t cram in too much – Icelandic winter days are short.
Be realistic in what you can achieve in the short winter days. With only minimal daylight hours (and I mean light, not proper sun) time can really escape you. Also, if
in Iceland for a few weeks, you are bound to experience days that are so miserable you can’t leave your house. We spent a day lying under our blankets peering out the window to the view of absolutely nothing but grey miserable snowstorms. The upside is that you need snow to fall to make snowballs. Just don’t expect to be physically able to see new attractions every single day and plan accordingly.
After touching down in sunny Hawaii we mentioning to our hippy taxi driver that we were coming from a trip in Iceland. He exclaimed:
“Isn’t it actually hot in Iceland? Like, man, the name Iceland was just a trick. It’s actually much hotter than in Greenland”.
He, like many people, very much underestimates the Icelandic winter, although perhaps a little more than some. You don’t have to be like him. Just be careful, cautious and prepared and the Ring Road will reveal just how close to perfection this Earth can get.