Sandstorms in Iceland are common within certain periods of the year. This is important to know if you will drive in Iceland as you must be prepared and protect your vehicle against the damages these phenomena may cause.
Iceland is a phenomenal place to explore; its natural wonders are in abundance. The island offers a brilliant road trip opportunity, particularly with the ring road (Route 1) that encircles the coast, giving access to the whole island. But it’s worth noting that Iceland is known for its extremes of weather. We are prone to large amounts of snow, cold temperatures, and strong winds; all things that can hinder travel plans. If you are traveling to Iceland, know that there is the possibility of sandstorms occurring.
With all of the volcanic ash spread throughout Iceland, there is a lot of loose material that can be picked up by wind. The wind is generally not so strong in the summer, but in winter, spring and fall, wind speeds can be fairly high. In areas where there have been many eruptions in the past, this can lead to sandstorms. These are most common on the south coast but can occur sporadically in the north part of Iceland. February, March and April are the most at risk months, where the snow has mostly melted and not enough vegetation has grown to hold sand and ash in place.
The west, where Reykjavík is located, is mostly sandstorm free. But we do experience strong wind in the capital, and recently all roads out of Reykjavík were closed for a day, until a particularly severe storm passed. If you come to Iceland at any time other than the summer, the chances are high you’ll run into at least some strong wind during your time here. So, for the best chance to avoid sandstorms, take your Iceland road trip in the summer. Of course, you can travel around Iceland whenever you want, but if caught in a sandstorm you run the risk of damaging your vehicle and driving in potentially dangerous conditions.
If you drive in a sandstorm, your car is going to be pounded by small pieces of rock and ash traveling at high speeds. This can lead to sand damage, a costly expense that most general insurance doesn’t cover. Paint can be scratched and even lights and windows can be smashed. If you do want to be covered for sand damage, both Reykjavík Cars and other Car rental companies in Iceland offer Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP). This lowers the excess on the claim so you’re a little better protected. The car rental companies advise this particularly for those that are travelling along the south coast in the spring. However, your best bet is to try and avoid damage altogether and to do that you must pay attention to weather forecasts.
The Iceland Meteorological Office is the best place to check weather forecasts and wind speeds and to find out about road closures. You can also study aurora forecasts on their website to aid in your search for the northern lights. The website is in English and provides extensive information. They will release warnings if extreme weather is expected, and it is wise to listen to these warnings. If the Met Office says that strong winds, a sandstorm or a storm of any kind is likely, postpone your trip and stay indoors. If you are already on the road and a sandstorm hits you, the first rule is to drive slowly. Your visibility will be obscured and so driving slowly will help you avoid hitting anything. Get to the nearest town, or if you can’t do that, find somewhere you can safely shelter next to, such as a wall or a building. Wait out the storm and when it has passed, check your car for any damage. In the case of sandstorms, rain is actually your friend; the wet ground will minimize the amount of loose material that the wind will pick up.
When traveling anywhere around Iceland, a good rule to follow is A.B.C; Always Bring Coats. Last summer I made the mistake of taking only a light jacket with me for a hike, and the temperature dropped quickly when the wind picked up. Have warm, waterproof clothing handy in your car for when you want to explore places on foot. Be aware of hazards on the road, such as sheep. Sometimes they wander across highways, so keep a lookout for them. In the winter months the roads can become very icy, so make sure your rental car has winter tires fitted and drive carefully. Have some de-icer spray and a scraper in your car in case your windows need to be cleared.
It’s worth being aware that some roads in Iceland are not accessible all year round or in all vehicles. The roads that lead to the highlands, the F roads, have restrictions on them to ensure the safety of travelers and locals alike. You can read about F roads in my other article here.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.