Driving in Iceland - Road Safety & Rules

19. September 2014 —
Part of the ring road in Iceland seen from above on a fall day.

Whether you bring your own car or you rent a car once you are here, driving in Iceland is quite an experience; it’s a sequence of mesmerizing vistas of a country that blends fire with ice. Tours are available, but some prefer the freedom of driving themselves through the panorama of glaciers, volcanoes, and towering cliffs, and choosing how much time you want to spend in a particular location viewing the glaciers, volcanoes, and towering cliffs.

Car rental in Iceland is not cheap, but you can find competitive rates if you spend some time and explore online. Once you’ve made the decision to drive yourself, and have found a rental company that meets your budget, the next thing you should do is plan your trip. Though driving through Iceland is an exciting and rewarding venture, it can also be hazardous.

An Icelandic sheep with it's lamb in close to an Icelandic Road. A common sight in Iceland.
Audrey

The road system of Iceland totals roughly 13000 km (8078 mi), but only 5000 km (3106 mi) of which is paved. The majority of the Icelandic roadways are loose gravel, and take you through mountainous terrain, with steep ascents and descents. Before you go, make sure the road you want to travel is OPEN at the time of your visit. Many roads, because of weather, close in the autumn and do not reopen until mid-summer, sometimes as late as July if the winter was particularly bad. The Icelandic Road Authority is your best bet. You could be visiting during summer, when all roads would be open, but know that Iceland’s weather changes often and abruptly.

The hazards are many: Icelandic roads are often built up on a 2 cm (0.06 ft) bank. Adding some snow into the mix means that if you accidentally slide down or lose control of the car, the chances of getting back up again are pretty slim. Add strong winds, patches of ice in winter and the sand that is often carried by the high winds, and you begin to see how driven in Iceland can be a little complicated.

A secondary but signposted road through a lava field.

Use caution as your guide. Though Iceland is a country of spectacular, almost surreal, sites and landscapes, many roads take you through the middle of nowhere. Make sure you have plenty of gas, and a healthy spare tire, nicely pumped up. Though most of the gravels are quite solid, you will encounter some with jutting rocks and jagged potholes, and many with washboard surfaces.

As a general rule, the speed limit in towns/urban areas is 50 km/h (31 mph), and 90 km/h (55 mph). Speed limits are lowest in populated areas where people are more likely to be walking around. Many of the gravel and mountain roads (called F-roads) narrow to one lane, and wind around blind curves and up blind rises. 

Many roads, many stretches of Iceland’s main “Ring Road” also cross one-lane bridges. It’s hard to tell who’s coming at you head-on, so it’s prudent to keep the pedal from the metal. As for the legalities of driving in Iceland, you must have a driver’s license, you must wear a seat belt at all times, and you must stay on designated roads. Off-roading is illegal in Iceland, because the landscape is fragile, and can take decades to recover from the ruts made by a tire. You will be met with heavy fines if you drive off-road and if you are seen, you will surely be reported.

Ring road in Iceland near Vantajökull National Park seen on a summers evening.

If you get in a bind, your cell phone will most likely help you find a knight in shining armor. Cell coverage in Iceland is top-notch on the Ring Road, but coverage is patchy in the highlands. For North American travelers, make sure your cell phone provider offers international service. The emergency number in Iceland is 112.

Driving in Iceland is not like driving in other countries. It can be tricky, but it can also make traveling to Iceland one of the most memorable events of your life.

Just watch out for the sheep.

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration maintains a web site with thorough, up-to-the-minute weather and road reports.

Icelandic Mountain Guides offer a great selection of day & overnight tours in Iceland.

Need some more information about driving in Iceland? Here’s a link to a blog post that provides driving distances between Iceland's major attractions.

About the Author

IMG Staff Writer

An anonymous but well informed member of our team that enjoys sharing their knowledge of Iceland & Greenland’s stunning nature.

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