Self-Driving in Iceland

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An ‘All You Need to Know’ Guide

Being in a foreign country for the very first time can be a bit overwhelming especially when you have not traveled abroad before and the country into consideration is Iceland which is very scarcely populated. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places on the face of Earth, a place which combines the best of every season and will bring you face to face with literally every possible geographical formation on earth from mountains to glaciers, volcanoes, rivers, seas, oceans, black sab beaches, lava fields, geothermal points, hot springs, and stagnant temperature diving sites. A heaven for the free-minded adventurous spirits in the world, Iceland is the perfect place to get yourself that adrenaline kick you are always looking for. And what’s better to jump-start it than a self-driving tour around the country.

Self-driving is a popular activity among tourists that visit Iceland. Touring the country on a well-guided tour with a designated driver and a tour bus is a lot of fun for sure but the kind of thrill you get in driving yourself on the different kinds of terrains in Iceland. Self-driving is sure a fun and thrilling activity to get done within Iceland but it comes with its own set of rules and regulations which one needs to follow. Driving a strange country can be challenging on its own, add a few glaciers, snow-clad roads, and volcanoes – you will get the driving guide of Iceland.

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Eystrahorn mountain in East Iceland, self driving in east Iceland

Is it Safe to Drive in Iceland?

Unless you have not touched a steering wheel in over a decade, you should be fine if you decide to drive in Iceland. While winter season comes with a few challenges of its own, summers a very mellow and a person with even average driving skills should be able to drive with ease assuming that you will be 100% attentive and careful at all times which any driver should be.

While you will hear a lot of tourists say that renting a car is not the only and necessary way to tour around the country, you can be sure of one thing – it is one of the most exciting and cost-effective ways to tour around the country. The decision of “should I be renting a vehicle for self-driving in Iceland or not?” should be made after considering a few factors. #1 Are you comfortable with driving with snow? #2 Can you or your fellow tourists handle GPS and other forms of navigation well enough? #3 Can you fend for yourself and find snack carts, restaurants, gas stations, and other essentials stops on your own? If yes, then there should be no problem for you to face on your self-driving tour as long as you follow the rules and plan for the road.

Self-driving is not only safe, but it also gives you complete freedom of exploration, making your plans for the day, visiting the lesser-known but marvelous sites and bring in insights about local culture and traditions as you will get to interact with a lot of people.

winter Self Driving road trip in Iceland

Winters or Summer – Solving Driving Dilemma

Driving in winters can be a bit tough for drivers who do not have extensive experience in driving in the snow while summer tends to be a bit more forgiving. Winters can be harsh in Iceland and you need to have a good understanding of all the tips and tricks required to control a situation that you may face if the blizzard hits. Driving in snow can be tricky so pick winter season for your self-driving tour only if you are completely confident in your skills as a driver who can drive flawlessly in snow and have tackled situations like stuck tires,  or creating traction using kitty litter, sand, branches, and floor mats. So, if you are confident in your skills and ready for an adventurous ride, both seasons are great to go, and if you are an easy and smooth driver then the summer season should be your choice.

Kinds of Vehicles

  • 2-Wheel or 2×2 Vehicles: only 2 wheels out of the four are powered by the engine. Suitable for travels around the Ring Road of Iceland, but you will not be able to go into the Highlans or drive on all the gravel roads. 
  • Campervans
  • Four-Wheel or 4×4 Drives: mainly the SUVs and similar bigger cars where all four wheels are powered by the engine. Suitable for multi-day tours and going to the Highlands of Iceland. If you have a 4×4 car you will be able to drive all the roads in Iceland. 

Know the Roads

  • Paved Roads: The main roads of Iceland are also known as paved roads such as The Ring Road (Route 1). Most paved roads are constructed outside of residential areas and are denoted with a route number for identification. Any 2×2 and 4×4 vehicles can be used to drive along these roads and the speeding limits are also more generous than other types of roads around the country. Paved roads are constructed to connect almost all prime location of the country.
  • F-Roads for Adventures: F-roads are also called gravel roads in Iceland. They can be found in the interiors of highlands and mountains. Adventure F-roads require a 4×4 vehicle by rule to travel and it is advised to travel in a group or pair to keep the help near in case of emergencies as these roads can often be muddy and rocky.
  • Local Access H-Roads: These are the simple dirt roads that usually leads you to farms in the country from the paved roads. The maintenance is good and you can travel in a 2×2 on these roads as well.
Self Driving road trip in Iceland

What About GPS Devices?

Any everyday updated GPS that you use generally when traveling in your own country should work fine. Keeping a track of your way and route is fairly easy with both Google Maps or Apple Global Positioning System. Since most car rentals established in the country have been functioning for a long time – a time before mobile GPS systems were invented, they will upsell their GPS devices to you along with the vehicle that you rent. These devices were useful at a time but now since you will have your GPS, you won’t need them. If you are worried that you may travel to an area with bad cell service then you can simply download the route beforehand so that you do not run into any troubles because of technical glitches.

Self Driving road trip next to Mælifell volcano in the Highlands of Icelan

Road Safety and the Rules

License – International or Not?

Driving in Iceland will not require an international driving license. If you have your national driving license with you, you are good to go. Make sure that you have all the required documents with you at the time you set out in your vehicle for the road trip. Your national license is required to be in English to be valid in Iceland. If it is in any other language, make sure that you have an authentic and authorized copy which has been translated into English.

Which Side of Road is Yours?

Iceland drives on the right side of the road. So, if you are from a country where the left-side road is preferred for driving then you may be in for a surprise. It may take you a while to adjust so consider taking the vehicle out for a normal spin on safer paved roads before hitting the route of your road trip. The empty straight roads are perfect to hone your skills and offer you enough safety while driving. If you are an experienced driver, it should not a problem for you to get used to it quickly and dismiss any doubts you may have before beginning.

Fun Fact: Iceland used to be a left-lane driving country until 1968. The rules were changed because most vehicles in Iceland are imported and they have the steering wheel on the left side instead of the right. So, the government found it easier to just change the traffic laws instead of changing the whole structure of the vehicles.

Speeding Limits and Speed Cameras

Speeding may be a thrilling experience but it is never a wise choice to make. You will not only face charges, get tickets and fines but also may end up in an accident. And having an accident on a vacation is a real bummer, right? So, you need to make sure that you follow the traffic rules to the point, especially speeding rules. Here is a brief about the average speeding limit in Iceland for different areas and roads:

  • Residential Areas: 30 km/h
  • Populated Areas: 50km/h
  • Throughways: 60 km/h
  • F-Roads or Gravel Roads: 80 km/h
  • Paved Roads: 90 km/h

Note that there are several speeding cameras installed all over the country so you need to follow the limit to steer clear of the fines and accidents as well. A speeding fine, depending on the severity of the offense, can go up to hundred thousands ISK.

Driving with a Cell Phone

Using a cell phone when driving is against the traffic rules in Iceland unless you are using a hands-free device. Using your cell phone when driving is simply distracting and may have you end up in a compromising situation. It is better to let your co-passenger handle the device for looking up the route, shuffling the songs, or attending calls if you do not have a hands-free device.

Seatbelt and Passenger Seat Laws

Just like any other country, wearing your seat belt is required by law in Iceland as well and the offense of breaking this law will come down with a hefty fine. Passengers younger than 12 years are not allowed to sit in the front seat beside the driver.

Off-Road Driving

Off-road driving is completely illegal in Iceland as it can damage your rented vehicle heavily and may even end in an accident. The thing to note here is that the F-roads of Iceland, also known as the gravel roads are considered as “off-road”. It is legal to drive on them and you will keep safe from damages and fines as long as you stay within the allowed speed limit and follow all other rules.

All About the Toll

There are very few places in Iceland where you will have to pay a toll. This is usually before you enter an underground tunnel. The price of the toll is usually around $10. When you are driving north from Reykjavik you will drive under the sea through Hvalfjarðargöng Tunnels. There used to be a toll for driving through these tunnels, but in 2019 the toll stopped so now it is complete free. 

Keep the Headlight Switched-On in Winters

Driving in winters can be difficult as most of the day is dark and the sun only comes out for a few hours. You need to keep the headlights of your vehicle switched on at all times – even when the sun is up as the days are still greyish and blurry in winters. Visibility should not be compromised at any moment.

Parking the Vehicle

If you see a beautiful sight or a spot or an Icelandic horse when you are driving then do not stop the vehicle right on the road to get out and take pictures. Drive further and find a safe parking spot for your vehicle. Walk back to the place if you have to because the unnecessary stopping of vehicles on the roads causes trouble for other drivers and may even end up in an accident.

jeep driving over rivers in Landmannalaugar in the highlands of Iceland

Gas – Fill Up Early, Fill Up in Advance

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when setting out on a self-driving tour is not filling up on gas in advance. While there are several gas stations lined up on every route and town you will cross but it never hurts to be prepared in the advance. There can be times when gas stations could be miles apart and you do not come across one at the time you need fuel so, filling up in advance will save time, efforts and keep you out of difficult situations.

If you are driving in winters, there is always a possibility to get stuck in a storm or a blizzard, if a situation like this occurs and you have to spend the night in your vehicle which is low on gas then it will be a huge problem. You will need gas to keep the car running for warmth so that you can come out unscathed from the situation. So, always fill gas well in advance.

winter Self Driving road trip in Iceland

Prepare for Extreme Weather Conditions

Preparing for the worst is the key when you are considering taking a 4×4 for a spin on the roads of Iceland. Keep your trunk stuffed with things that will come in handy in the time of need. Gas, snacks, foods, and plenty of water is a good start. If you have kitty litter with you as well then that will save you a great deal of time if your tire gets stuck in the snow. Small things like flashlights, a foldable shovel, first aid kit, and a gas can will prove handy. Your car rental service providers will stack the vehicles with spare tire, a basic tool kit, and other small useful items but check all the boxes before you set out.

Crossing a One-Way Lane or Bridge

There are many narrow, one-way roads and bridges in Iceland that you should be aware of. Not that it is an extremely difficult thing to cross these throughways but if you feel anxious about crossing them when there is another vehicle coming from the opposite side, just pull over for safety. Try not to cross bridges when in doubt as it is better to be safe than sorry. One-way roads are some of the top accident zones.

camper van driving in East Iceland

What to Do in Case of an Accident?

112 is your emergency call number in Iceland. It can be used to report anything ranging from road accidents to fires, thefts, other sorts of crimes, search and rescue party calls, and natural disasters. 112 helplines are available via the voice call, voice message, and even text messages.

112 Iceland App is also a good variant to have handy on your phone. You can install the app and check-in before you start your trip as it can give you information about routes and other things.

If your emergency is vehicle-related like a break-down or battery issue then you can simply call your rental agency for help. Make sure that you stay by your vehicle and not leave it stranded in the middle of nowhere. Wait for the help to arrive or ask others to pass by vehicles. F-roads are also continuously patrolled by officers and rescue teams so you can expect to get help without having to wait for a long time.

Will You Need Insurance?

Getting insurance is an option for you and the decision should be made after considering all important factors related to your trip – weather conditions, the kinds of routes you plan to travel, and potential changes that may occur on your way. If you do not get insurance and end in a situation where your vehicle incurs damage then you may have to pay a hefty fine. Different rental agencies will have a different set of rules and regulations so properly consider all the factors and discuss it with the agent as well as your family to make an informed decision. Some rental agencies also provide Collision Damage Waiver. If that meets the requirement of your trip, you can consider it as well.

Iceland is a place filled with wonders and with every step and turns you will come across something new. Make sure that you follow the rules. Respect other drivers and stay prepared for all kinds of road emergencies to make your self driving trip as smooth as it can get. Driving in Iceland among the glorious landscapes is a true bliss that you cannot experience anywhere else.

Self Driving road trip in East Iceland
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