Iceland is one of those countries that are almost impossible to explore without a car. Driving in Iceland, however, can be quite challenging. If your bucket list includes the more distant corners of Iceland, you should be prepared for the Icelandic extreme weather conditions and a challenging road experience! In order to reach the more remote areas, you will have to go off the beaten paths and enter unpaved, difficult routes. Keep reading to find out everything about gravel roads in Iceland!
Driving conditions in Iceland
When visiting Iceland by car there are several aspects you will need to be aware of:
- The hardness of the climate
- Long distances between populated areas
- Rapid changes in weather conditions
- Different types of roads in Iceland
From spring to autumn, weather variability has almost no effect on road conditions. The real and serious danger, however, is the wind. You should not underestimate it. Strong winds in Iceland are frequent and in many places, due to the lack of large trees and bushes, it is hard to see and assess its strength.
Always check the weather forecast before you hit the road. When it shows warnings of strong winds, postpone your drive until the weather conditions have improved. You should always have a plan B for your itinerary, in case it becomes impossible for you to drive to a specific place.
The challenges that winter brings
Driving in Iceland in winter becomes much trickier. Most of the mountain roads are closed and only paved and easily passable roads remain open. Even driving on the well-accessible Ring Road needs a lot of caution due to the ice and snow you can encounter.
The interior roads called F-roads are not accessible during autumn/winter due to severe weather conditions. Heavy rain, wind, and snow make the roads very difficult to drive on. Only experienced drivers dare to take on such a challenge and only in 4x4 vehicles with high suspensions, like Super Jeeps.
Iceland Road Types
The Icelandic road network between major cities is well-developed. However, you need to be aware of the different types of roads you can encounter during your journey. The most well-known road in Iceland is the Ring Road. However, if you want to visit some of Iceland's hidden treasures, you will need to go down rough and tough roads.
Many roads in Iceland are unpaved, often narrow, and that includes the bridges you find along the way. If you decide to explore Iceland by car, we advise extreme caution. Iceland's gravel roads have unpaved surfaces, typically with loose stones and rocks. They can quickly become impassable, especially after heavy rains. Some parts of the gravel roads may be closed if it becomes too unsafe to use them.
4x4 vehicles are a must in these cases! Luckily, there's a wide range of 4WD rental options you can choose from. If you are worried about the overall cost of your trip, renting a Dacia Duster could be a good way to explore the Highlands without spending too much. Note that this model is currently available only with manual gears, so if you prefer automatic cars, a good alternative can be our Subaru Forester, or the Toyota Land Cruiser if you are traveling with a large group.
Driving on gravel roads in Iceland requires some preparation beforehand. First of all, you need to know where the gravel roads are in Iceland and recognize them. You should be familiar with the road signs and be prepared for the unique driving conditions. There is one sign in particular that you should pay attention to. It is 'malbik endar', which informs you that the road is changing from pavement to gravel.
Some roads leading through the central part of the country, called the Highlands of Iceland, are only open during the summer. You'll be allowed to access those roads only if you rented a 4WD vehicle. You can easily distinguish them from other roads, as they all begin with the letter F (e.g. F35).
Be aware that you may encounter rivers on some of these roads and the rental car insurance does not cover any damage caused while crossing a river.
Off-road driving in Iceland
Nothing makes a true traveler happier than untouched trails and places not yet discovered by hundreds of tourists. If you are one of them, you are in luck because Iceland has many hidden gems waiting to be discovered and the only way to get to them is by leaving the conventional roads. How to do that though, knowing that off-road driving in Iceland is forbidden?
Off-road driving is strictly forbidden due to concern for the environment. Deviating from designated routes leads to increased soil erosion, which has a very negative effect on the vegetation and can take decades to be restored. Therefore, off-road in Iceland is not so much off-road as it is driving on unpaved, gravel roads.
Gravel Roads in Iceland
Speed limits on gravel roads in Iceland
The speed limit on gravel roads in Iceland is 80 km/h. However, it does not mean you should strictly stick to that speed. Some parts of the roads are almost impassable, making it necessary for you to slow down and sometimes even stop when passing another car. Adapting your speed to the road and weather conditions is very important.
Most collisions in Iceland occur when driving on gravel roads and are mainly due to excessive speed. This is the reason why you should take your foot off the gas and gently pull off the main road. You should also not forget about the high fines for speeding in Iceland.
Safety tips for driving on gravel roads in Iceland
Before heading off-road in Iceland, remember to familiarize yourself with the current state of the roads, as it is common for many of the gravel roads to be off-limits. If you are planning to go to the central part of Iceland, remember that those roads remain closed until mid-July. Keep it in mind when you plan your itinerary in Iceland! We have prepared a bunch of safety tips for you when driving on gravel roads in Iceland. Follow them and you will be ready for your off-road driving adventure:
- Check the weather forecast and any alerts before hitting the road - any announcements of changes in weather or road closures should be taken seriously
- Keep your lights on, even during the day - it is required by law
- Follow the traffic law and speed limits - not only to avoid speeding tickets but for your own safety and the safety of others
- Do not enter closed roads - even though road conditions may seem good to you, do not enter them
- Do not cross any rivers - especially if you have never done it before
- Slow down or stop when passing other cars on gravel roads
- Keep a full gas tank - gas stations in Iceland can be located really far from each other
Ready, set, go. Hit the road, Jack!
Driving on gravel roads in Iceland is different from most other countries in the world. It will be easier for those who already have some previous experience driving in similar regions. Even experienced drivers might find driving on gravel roads in Iceland to be challenging. However, if you obey the traffic rules and strictly follow the instructions of the road services, you will be able to fully enjoy it!
Remember, that a recipe for a successful off-road trip is a lot of humility, rationality and appropriate route preparation. Feel free to come back and reread this article if you want to refresh your memory on best practices for off-roading in Iceland! Now, what are you waiting for? Book your 4x4 rental, grab a map and hit the gravel!