Visiting Iceland: Driving

[This is part of a series of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.]

Initially, we considered driving the entire circumference of Iceland, which is possible in a week.  There is one highway around Iceland and it’s a two-lane.  Depending on the weather, not all of it is passable so we decided that we would stick to areas the west side of the country.  A couple of things to note:

  • The Icelanders don’t want a bunch of yo-yos driving around their country and they perceive tourists to be part of the problem.  They have excellent information to prepare for a driving trip, including an English version of their road status maps from their meteorological office and a guide on driving in the country;
  • You can’t assume that your understanding of a road’s designation matches reality.  We considered using a gravel service road about a half kilometer long to reach the Haifoss waterfall, thinking it would be rough but relatively flat.  In fact, it was heavily rutted and could only be passed by a truck with a lot of clearance.  This was hard to discern from our paper map and Google Maps data is pretty basic (here’s their perception of the location), so you may not know if a particular route is useable in advance.
  • If you stick to the paved roads, you do not need a monster truck.  There are paved roads to most, but not all, interesting sites.  We stuck to paved roads but even then had to occasionally hazard gravel.  There are insurance options that cover sand and gravel available from your rental car agency – get them.  Iceland has applied the minimum amount of asphalt to their country and, if you’re not driving on it, you may drive through it.  We ran into sand storms in the south that can cause damage otherwise not covered by your own or the rental car’s default comprehensive policies.

    Black basalt sand storm obscures road west from Jokulsarlon to Vik in Oraefasveit.
    Black basalt sand storm obscures road west from Jokulsarlon to Vik in Oraefasveit. The sand avoided the middle of the bridge but the ends were extremely grim.
  • Icelanders expect you to not be an idiot.  In North America, a sharp turn on a road with a sharp drop off to the side might have guard rails and other warning signs.  Our experience in Iceland suggested that guard rails are only used when absolutely necessary.  Warnings signs are used but sometimes the only notice you’ll get is a recommended lower speed (blue background).  I found the recommendations to be advisable to follow!  No molly-coddling on Icelandic highways.

Gas is mostly self-serve and not always tied to the building providing the service.  For example, there is an N1 gas pump in Vik that is available 24 hours a day but the store closes during the evening.  [Updateyou can now look at a map of all gas stations in Iceland]  You can pay at the pump with either a credit card or, in some cases, with a pre-paid card from the service.  My credit card wouldn’t work at the pump, so I purchased a pre-paid N1 card (Innkort) to fill the car.  While gas is very expensive, it’s a small country and, on balance, it was nice to have the flexibility to go where we wanted.

The driving guide we used – the Iceland Road Atlas – was helpful but more importantly, a real curiosity.  We picked up a used copy that had no fold out map.  You should be able to buy them at gas stations or from your rental company, so no need to get one in advance.  Each page of the atlas has a small map with details of the things on that page.  Think of a Baedekers crossed with a road map. We learned about the only Icelandic woman to start a war, and another who was the only one to be born in a cave!  Fascinating stuff!  But snippets relating to the sagas are sprinkled throughout and can make a drive more interesting, like why a lava field is named after a pair of berserker warriors.

A panorama including the road, facing north to Vatnajokull between Vik and Skaftafell. The road was often so empty we could have stopped in our lane to get out and take photos.
A panorama including the road, facing north to Vatnajokull between Vik and Skaftafell. The road was often so empty we could have stopped in our lane to get out and take photos.

Since Iceland is a round country with one main highway, this type of atlas works out fine.  It’s rare that the single strip map on the page won’t incorporate all of the possible roads you’ll need to drive on.  It was a bit frustrating how frequently the scale changed, and the map lines weren’t consistent; thickness of the road did not help to know if it was paved or not.  Mostly you can assume you’re on a 2 lane road and that you’re getting more rustic as you go from Highway 1 to a two-digit road or a three-digit road.  But there was little noticeable difference driving on 54 through Grundarfjordur, 574 through Olafsvik, or returning to the 1 at Borgarnes.  I wouldn’t let the road’s number dissuade you from using it.

All in all, Iceland is an incredibly easy country to drive around.  Driving is on the same side as North America, most intersections outside of Reykjavik seem to be traffic circles, and drivers seem pretty easy going.  Once we were about an hour away from the capital, we were often the only car on the road .

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