Guide to Snow Driving in Iceland
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Iceland sits fairly high up on the world’s latitude. We have mild, short summers and long, cold winters. It doesn’t matter where you are in Iceland; as soon as October hits, you can look forward to six-plus months of a high likelihood of snow and ice. This is something Icelanders are accustomed to; the locals know how to deal with the fairly extreme weather the winter brings. They know how to plan for bad weather, to stay inside when a snowstorm hits, and how to drive on Icelandic roads. Tourists, however, may not know how to navigate the icy roads that are a regular occurrence in the winter. Here are a few tips for those of you who are planning on traveling to Iceland between October and April. Snow driving in Iceland should be taken very seriously and it’s something worth thinking about before organizing your trip.
How to Drive Safely in the Snow
The first point to be aware of is road closures. Many roads outside of the capital area can be closed for the winter period if conditions are bad. It is only really the main highways and roads within towns that are kept clear and maintained. So, if you are going to be taking trips in Iceland, make a list of roads you plan to use and check if they are open. Keep in mind that if a severe storm hits, this may also inhibit you from leaving Reykjavik. Recently, due to a storm, Reykjavik council closed all roads out of the capital for the day to ensure safety. This can obviously affect planned trips and potentially flights out of the country, so check the forecast. You don’t want to be lost in the middle of a storm while on a day trip somewhere.
Winter Tires in Iceland
Of course, there are ways to be safe while winter driving in Iceland. If you are hiring from a car rental company in Iceland, ask if the car you are hiring has winter tires fitted. The companies are aware of the need for them in winter, but it’s best to check. Winter tires are compulsory in the winter, they sure help. They have an extra level of grip that regular tires can’t hope to match. In fact, many Icelanders keep their winter tires fitted year-round. For routes like the golden circle which is driven frequently, this should be sufficient. But just in case, and if you are planning on other trips, consider studded tires. These are tires fitted with small metal studs to provide extra grip on ice. However, they are only permitted in Iceland between November 1st and April 14th, as they cause damage to roads. They can be useful when you are taking those less-traveled roads to hunt for the northern lights. Of course, the further you are from civilization the better viewing you will have if the lights do appear, but take caution. ‘Be prepared’ is a good motto to live by when snow driving in Iceland.
Additionally, (but hopefully, this doesn’t need to be said) please adhere to the speed limits. Driving slower than usual is recommended in winter conditions. Icelandic law also requires headlights to be on at all times, day or night. The law also requires the driver and all passengers to wear a seatbelt.
Tire Pressures for Snow Driving
There is a popularly held belief that it is better to slightly deflate your tires when driving in snow. However, the experts say that most of the time, this is wrong. Reducing the air pressure in your tires could make their traction even worse. It can also increase the risk of a blowout. So, keep your tires as they are and inflate them to the guidelines recommended by the manual. Some manufacturers recommend inflating winter tires a few psi more than their summer equivalents but check with your car rental company about this.
While we’re on the subject of debunking myths, let’s look at some others. Pouring boiling water on your windscreen is not the fastest way to clear it. The extreme temperature change could actually crack it. Use a good de-icer and a scraper instead. It’s also not recommended to leave your vehicle on and idle to let it warm up before you drive it. For one, it’s bad for the engine. It’s also bad for the environment, and Icelanders are very eco-aware. We have some of the cleanest air and water in the world here, and we want to keep it clean. Also, just because a road is salted that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe. You still need to be cautious, as salt doesn’t actually melt the road ice.
The key lesson to take away is to listen to the experts and to leave bigger margins than you think are safe. For example, allow more distance between your car and the one in front of you.
The Best SUV to Drive in Snow
For those who don’t know, an SUV is a sport utility vehicle; a vehicle designed for more than just cruisy driving on smooth highways. Rental companies in Iceland will have SUVs for hire, and if you feel confident enough to drive one, it may be a good move. SUVs will allow you to drive better on those roads that haven’t been cleared by snowplows. They have features such as a four-wheel-drive that will help with the snow and ice found in wintertime in Iceland. But what is the best SUV to drive in the snow?
You can’t go wrong with a Nissan X-Trail, a Mitsubishi Outlander or a Jeep Trailhawk. They are so named because they are designed to take you places city cars fear to go. They’re also all suitable for driving on Iceland’s F-roads; these are roads that access the highlands of Iceland. Four-wheel drive vehicles are mandatory for driving on these roads and in some cases, you will be required to ford small rivers. However, the F-roads are not open all year round. They will only be opened when weather conditions permit and sometimes this may only be in summer.
Treat an SUV with the respect it deserves; they are powerful vehicles with a lot of capability. Do not assume that because you have a big 4x4 vehicle you will be safe no matter what. Before undertaking snow driving in Iceland, consider what vehicles you are accustomed to driving and whether you feel able to handle a bigger car. For one thing, the bigger they are, the more difficult they are to park.
Other Tips for Navigating Iceland in Winter
Coach drivers in Iceland have an inside joke going between them. If they pass a vehicle trapped in a ditch on the side of the road, it is almost definitely a tourist. Locals have had the importance of road safety drummed into them since they were young. They know that driving on snow and ice is not a joke. They ensure that their cars are properly equipped and that they are paying attention; to not do either could be fatal. So, it is not surprising that it is a cause of frustration for them that some visitors to Iceland do not respect the winter.
First of all, it is best to avoid stopping on the side of the road. If the visibility is poor and you are on a single-lane road, this could lead to some major problems. Wait for a lay-by or other safe place to stop. On a side note, being a foot passenger on the sidewalk can also be treacherous. The temperature fluctuates frequently in Reykjavik and so a downpour of rain can quickly freeze. I have personally almost broken my arm from slipping on some unexpected ice. So, wear decent footwear and take care.
Icelandic roads are great in Reykjavik, but once you leave the capital the scene changes. You won’t see the straight, multi-lane highways you may be familiar with. Stretches of windy, single-lane roads are common. So, consider the potential risks if you want to overtake that person driving slow in front of you. They’re driving slow for a reason, and if the roads are icy, perhaps you should too. Pay attention to road closures and diversions; it isn’t worth the risk to disobey them and your insurance won’t cover you if you need assistance. On that note, check your rental car insurance details carefully; be aware of what and where you are covered for.
Planning Your Trips in Iceland
If you are coming to Iceland for a holiday of a week or two, naturally you’ll want to squeeze in as much as you can. It’s great to plan for this, but nature may not always allow you to follow through. Some situations may arise that render a certain trip impossible or at least inadvisable. Reykjavik Council will issue weather warnings and advisory notices prior to and at the onset of a storm. These notices are not to be ignored. The weather can turn quickly and you may find yourself stuck somewhere with no visibility and no one to help you. In fact, the city council can and do either advise or order local businesses to close until the storm passes. On these occasions, it’s best to stay indoors and have a Netflix and chill evening.
There are some wonderful hikes to complete that are not far from Reykjavik, such as Mount Esja. Esja is only a 40-minute journey from the city, but if there is a storm coming, it is inadvisable to drive even this short distance. A good rule to follow is if in doubt, don’t do it. If you are going to do it, keep in mind that in wintry conditions, journeys will take longer than normal. Accommodate the need to drive slower, stop more frequently and generally take more care.
Another point to make regards to gas stations (petrol stations). Closing times vary from 20:00 to 23:30, but many have automated machines. Some stations have no attendants at all, only a fully automated pump. Fill your tank before embarking on a long journey because once you leave the capital, gas stations are much less common.
Remember to brake and accelerate slowly and gently, so that you don’t end up sliding off the road. It’s best not to overtake a snowplow because what’s in front of the snowplow is uncleared snow. You’d be better off waiting behind the snowplow so you have a clear road. Remember that black ice is essentially invisible, so whilst the road may look clear it may not be. I have a friend that tipped his car in Reykjavik because he didn’t notice some black ice and slid up a bank. He was fine but the car was totaled and it could have been a lot worse for him.
Other ways to stay safe in snow and ice in Iceland
And while we’re talking about driving safely in winter, let’s talk about other ways to stay safe in snow and ice. As I mentioned before, shoes with a good grip help prevent slipping over. Those heels might look great on you, but they’ll be worse than useless against black ice.
And in the winter in Iceland, always dress warmly or have warm clothing with you if you’re driving. If the worst-case scenario happens and you are trapped in your vehicle whilst waiting out a snowstorm, you’ll want to keep warm. The clothing should be waterproof (including the shoes) and having a first layer of tight-fitting thermals makes a huge difference. When you are undertaking physical activity, like hiking, it is easy to think that you’re going to be warm because you’ll be moving. So, no jacket needed, right? But what about when you stop for a rest? What if it starts raining or snowing? The forecast may look clear and sunny, but it’s best to always prepare for the worst. We have a saying in Iceland: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. It can change that fast. Take care when driving in the snow in Iceland.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.