Safe Driving on Gravel Roads in Iceland
Updated: Aug 31
You thirst for adventure and Iceland is your chosen destination! You’ve landed in Reykjavik, picked up your rental car, are heading out on Iceland’s Ring Road. The idea of leaving behind the noise of the cities for the wide-open landscapes of Iceland thrills you to your bones.
Drives around Iceland will have you facing different weather conditions and also road conditions. Driving on gravel roads isn't as easy as driving on those paved roads you are used to. The highways allow you to set your cruise control and relax in comfort, gravel roads require a steady hand and a lot more attention for the less experienced traveler.
As you head out, you may want to check in quickly with the Icelandic road administration for a quick update on anything that may affect your trip. With your travel route planned and the latest information, here are a few road tips to reduce the risks.
1. Gravel road speed limits in Iceland
Remember you’re on vacation, so slow down a bit as speed can often be the critical factor in dealing with unstable road surfaces. Your first priority when shifting from paved to gravel roads should be to adjust your speed. Slow down as much as possible, and give yourself a chance to assess whether the gravel is loose or hard packed. Once you feel comfortable with the road conditions, you can accelerate slowly to the recommended speed limits, which is 80km/h max. Keep in mind that you'll still need to reduce your speed again whenever you approach any hills and curves.
Even if you rent a recreational vehicle designed for rough terrain, understand that it will handle differently on gravel roads than on paved ones. Gravel often shifts unpredictably, and as a result, any sudden changes in your speed and direction could lead to sliding, skidding and rollovers.
2. Follow the path most chosen
When you drive on gravel roads, watch for the paths that others have travelled before you. You can usually trust in the tracks of previous cars and trucks for the safest, most reliable paths. As car after car and truck after truck travels the road, the tires will eventually redistribute the gravel and create a hard-packed groove you can follow. If you only see one set of tire tracks in the center of the road, stay on those tracks as much as possible.
When you see an oncoming driver, slow down, pull as far to the side of the road as you can and then return to the established tracks once you've passed the other car. When following another vehicle, give yourself a minimum of a six-second or longer gap between you and the other vehicle. This reduces the danger from a cloud of dust obscuring vision or flying rocks damaging headlights and windshields. Always Increase this distance when road or weather conditions are less than perfect or anything reduces your visibility.
Be very cautious when overtaking on gravel roads. Often there are no road markings to indicate whether the stretch of the road is safe to overtake and you may not be aware of other roads joining the main road you are on. Only overtake on a long stretch of straight road where visibility is clear and the vehicle ahead is aware of your presence.
3. Avoiding damages while driving on Iceland gravel roads
A vehicle can become difficult to handle in heavy gravel and may skid. If you drive slowly, problems can be avoided so you should not really worry about it. We will still provide some tips and tricks for any unexpected situation. If you begin to skid, remain calm. Never hit the brakes. Take your foot off the gas or brake, look where you want to go and steer in that direction. Resume driving at a lower speed.
The big difference between sealed roads and gravel roads is traction. Less traction means less control. There is much less traction on gravel roads. Gravel is a loose surface and your wheels have a greater tendency to slip affecting the control of the vehicle. This means that safe cornering speeds are reduced, and braking distances are increased.
It is important to drive “smoothly”. Making smaller adjustments to both speed and steering will help reduce unexpected events. Turning the steering wheel sharply while at speed is never advised. Doing so can cause you to have the wheels facing one direction while your vehicle continues in the direction before you turned.
Watch your speed, maintain your focus on steering, keep both hands on the steering wheel and avoiding sudden movements will have you more safely enjoying your Iceland Ring Road travels on any gravel section.
On unpaved roads, the maximum speed is 80 km/h but then again, that is the maximum. Your speed must match the road circumstances at all time, so if you need to slow down and drive at a much slower speed, do so. Safety always comes first.
4. How to make an emergency stop on gravel roads
Even if your follow all of the above, you may still find yourself facing an incident where you need to make an emergency stop. It is most important to remain calm and keep both hands on the wheel so you are in control of the vehicle. Do not fight the vehicle!
If your vehicle does begin to skid, don’t hit the brakes. Take your foot off the accelerator, stay calm, keep your wheels pointed in the direction you want to go and let the vehicle naturally slow down. A common mistake that may cause accidents on gravel roads is over-correction. Accidents occur when the driver tries to correct the movement of the car, over corrects and then losing control.
To straighten up your vehicle when it is sliding sideways, steer out of the slide. This means keeping your wheels pointed in the direction you want to go. If there is no oncoming traffic, don't be afraid to use the entire width of the road to recover. It's often easier to slide gently over to the wrong side of the road than to stay only on your side of the road. Remember, don't make any sudden, sharp moves.
Accidents on gravel roads in Iceland are not too common as most travelers use their common sense and follow the speed limits. Driving at a lower speed will also prevent gravels from being projected and therefore damaging your windshield or the body of the vehicle. Your car rental company in Iceland surely offers gravel protection insurance, be sure to check it out.
What kind of vehicle do I need on gravel roads? - 4X4 Vehicles in Iceland
If you plan on venturing away from the main roads a rental car that has 4-wheel drive is the safest option. A four-wheel-drive vehicle lessens the effects of oversteer and understeer that become apparent in rear-wheel or front-wheel drive.
Always drive within the limits of your ability and experience. If unsure, your best bet is to slow down, remember, you are on vacation! Do not assume that you know how to drive on all road surfaces. Be a safe driver, be a cautious driver and you will have an awesome vacation driving on Iceland’s Ring Road and beyond.