With so much to explore in Iceland, driving is going to be a major part of your trip. That’s why it’s helpful to know what a day in the life of Iceland driving looks like before finding out for yourself.
The country’s roads have developed rapidly over the last decade, but in many areas, they are still unpaved. There are other hazards to be aware of on Iceland’s roads which is another reason to familiarize yourself before arriving.
How can you drive responsibly in Iceland? Here are some tips to keep yourself and everyone else safe on the roads while on your adventure. But first things first - in order to kick start this journey, you’ll need a car. Book yours at Reykjavík Cars.
What is it Like Driving in Iceland?
You may come across some things here that you are not familiar with on your home-country drives. For instance, single-lane bridges, animals on the road, and narrow highways are all a regular part of driving in Iceland. On the other hand, there are fewer cars on the road once you leave the Capital Region.
The laws that are commonplace in essentially every country also apply here. This includes wearing your seatbelt, not consuming alcohol before driving, and following all signage. There are, however, other laws that are specific to Iceland and are helpful to learn before renting a vehicle. Let’s take a look at local laws and safety tips for driving responsibly in Iceland. Firstly, a breakdown of the different speed limits.
On paved, rural highways, the speed limit is 90 km (56 miles) per hour. This drops to 80 km (50 miles) per hour on gravel roads, and 50 km (31 miles) per hour in urban areas. In some areas of towns and cities, there is a limit of 30 km (19 miles) per hour.
Keep in mind that in the later part of each year, from around October to December, daylight hours are few. This means you’ll mostly be driving in darkness if you choose to visit in the winter. While this might have its own mystical appeal, it does mean limited visibility.
Contrary to this, the sun will barely set in the summer months so it will be cool coasting for you and your entire travel squad long into the evening. Just remember to bring your sunglasses! Also, since your body might sometimes be tricked into thinking it isn’t tired, keep the time in mind when night-driving in summer.
Driving ‘Do Nots’ in Iceland
- Do not stop on the side of the road. Iceland’s main highway, Route 1 (or the Ring Road), is only two lanes wide and doesn’t have a continuous lay-by. It can be tempting to stop on the side of the road when you want to take a picture, but please wait until you come to a designated rest stop; there are plenty to choose from along the route.
- Do not drive fast in icy conditions. Between October and April, Iceland is prone to low temperatures and heavy snowfall. The speed limit is not a target, as it’s best to drive slower than you would normally in winter. Ice is not always visible and many accidents are caused by tourists who are not accustomed to driving on slippery roads. We recommend renting an economy car in Iceland only during the summer months and opt for a 4WD vehicle like our affordable Dacia Duster in winter to have a better grip on the road.
- Do not drive off-road. Off-roading can be tempting when you rent a Suzuki Jimny in Iceland or another similar fun-to-drive 4WD vehicle. However, in an effort to protect the country's fragile wildlife, driving off-road was made illegal by the Icelandic Government. For example, the moss that covers the country’s lava fields is extremely delicate and takes decades to grow back if damaged. This rule isn’t just with wildlife in mind, as it also considers tourists. After all, it wouldn't be too good for your car to drive on jagged lava rocks.
- Do not drink any alcohol before driving. Iceland has much stricter alcohol blood content laws than many other countries, with a 0.05% limit. To put that into perspective, one pint of beer puts you over the limit. If caught, the fines are not minor - police really do hold a zero-tolerance policy on this here
- Do not drive if a weather warning has been issued. The Land of Fire and Ice occasionally has extreme weather patterns, particularly in winter. Strong wind and heavy storms can occur spontaneously, making driving anywhere risky. If a warning is issued, change your plans and stay indoors. Check Verdur.is for weather updates to stay constantly in the loop.
Driving ‘Dos’ in Iceland
- Do be aware of sheep on the road. Now, this might be something you’re not used to hearing every day! In the spring and summer time, there are more than two sheep for every resident of Iceland. This amounts to around 800,000 sheep, and they occasionally venture onto roads. If you come across some, approach slowly and don’t honk your horn; they will pass in time.
- Do keep your headlights on at all times. In Iceland it is the law that no matter the weather or season, your headlights must always remain switched on. This can be a difficult habit to pick up, especially during the summer, but the law exists for a reason. As mentioned, the weather here can famously change in one instance, so you want to be prepared.
- Do approach single-lane bridges slowly. Along the Ring Road, particularly the south coast section, there are many single-lane bridges crossing rivers and ravines. There are signs warning you of your approach, so lower your speed in preparation for stopping. Give way to the other side if they reach the bridge first.
- Do stick to the speed limits. It can be tempting to put your foot down when there’s an open road ahead and no cars in sight. The Ring Road, however, has many blind spots due its undulating shape. With many turns and hills, the next car may be much closer than you think. In addition, the above-mentioned sheep could be anywhere.
- Do have a suitable vehicle for F-roads. F-roads are the unpaved gravel roads that lead into the highlands, the interior of the country. Due to their remote nature, janky paths and river crossings are often involved, and not every vehicle is up for the challenge. If you want to tackle this daring drive, you will have to book a 4x4 rental in Iceland or will not be legally allowed to drive on F-roads.
The Positives of Driving in Iceland
Up until this point there has been a lot of talk surrounding risks and hazards. But driving in Iceland isn’t all rules and regulations! Let’s talk about some positive aspects. Iceland has some of the most incredible natural scenery in the world, as most of the country is still uninhabited. This means that driving provides a wonderful break from the endless traffic in huge urban areas you may be used to.
Although parts of the country are still underdeveloped in terms of their road system, the Ring Road provides great access. Many of the most popular and note-worthy stops are only a turn and a short drive off Route 1. In many cases, you can see the sites you want to visit from the road before you even reach them.
With the cleanest air in the world, Iceland is the best place to roll down your window while driving. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see far in every direction, as glorious glaciers and volcanoes reveal themselves to your naked traveler's eye. This makes the driving part of a road trip one of the highlights, and not just a way to get from point A to point B.
Because the Ring Road sticks close to the coastline for most of its route, you’ll have almost constant ocean views. And we think everyone can agree that seeing the sea in its full expanse never gets old. Since Iceland’s tall buildings are predominantly found in the Capital Region, you’ll have an unencumbered view once you leave the area.
Another great fact is that, outside of downtown Reykjavík, you won’t have much problem finding parking even with one of those spacious 9-passengers van rentals. Even free parking is easy to come by in most towns and villages across the country. Fun fact: the town of Húsavík, where the Eurovision movie is based, has no paid parking at all.
So, now you know how to drive responsibly in Iceland! Follow these basic tips and the local laws and relax as you embark on the road trip of a lifetime. Before booking your rental, think about what kind of Icelandic experience you want to have. Then, reach out to us for our advice on which vehicle would best suit the trip you have planned.
Once you’ve sorted your itinerary, reserve your rental car in Iceland to guarantee yourself transport for the duration of your adventure. If you want, you can drive your rental all the way from the doors of the airport and back!