Driving in Iceland is one of the most rewarding ways to see this unique country. By following Route 1, the country’s principal intercity road, you can visit most of the major tourist attractions while also seeing the country’s awesome fjords, volcanoes and glaciers along the way.
The country is vast yet sparsely populated, and the driving conditions are very different to the UK. Before you get behind the wheel in Iceland, it’s worth knowing what you can expect from driving in the ‘land of ice and fire.’
Outside the main cities, most of the roads in Iceland are a mix of tarmac and gravel, with smaller rural tracks. There are no multi-lane motorways in Iceland – you’ll find little more than two-lane roads, or single-lane tracks once you get off the main arteries.
Iceland only has a population of around 330,000, so you’ll often be the only car for miles around. However, watch out for other vehicles, especially at night or in wintery conditions.
Iceland’s primary roads connect villages with over 100 inhabitants, and are the link between the country’s suburbs and metropolitan areas.
These are another kind of primary road, but one that crosses Iceland’s highlands. They are usually rocky and narrow, and many are not paved. Due to severe weather, primary highland roads are generally not accessible in winter.
These roads are normally found outside urban areas. They tend to connect primary roads or highland roads to one another, and they also connect to smaller villages (with under 100 inhabitants), plus some tourist destinations.
These connect primary roads to farms, schools, churches and areas with summer houses.
This is another kind of road which crosses the highlands and moors. They’re usually narrow gravel tracks, and many cross rivers which are not bridged.
Another kind of highland road, F roads are often found in remote areas. They are closed in winter, and even in summer you are only allowed to drive on them in a 4x4.
Off-road driving is totally prohibited in Iceland, due to the country’s limited soil and flora, which means any damage caused by tyres could be long-lasting.
When driving in Iceland, you’ll almost certainly want to hire a 4x4, as this will allow you to navigate some of the rougher roads. You should watch out for customs and idiosyncrasies such as:
Iceland’s driving rules aren’t too dissimilar from the UK’s. The alcohol limit is lower, however: it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% or above. Also, you are not allowed to drive while talking on a mobile phone.
Iceland drives on the right-hand side of the road. Your car hire will be set up for right-hand driving, with the steering wheel on the left side of the car.
By and large, Iceland’s roads favour pedestrians and animals over motor vehicles. Drive slowly in cities, and in rural areas you’ll just have to wait if sheep or other animals are crossing the road.
At roundabouts, those already in the roundabout have the right of way, and at four-way intersections, the right of way goes to the driver on the right.
At bridges and tunnels which are single lane, the person who arrived first has right of way, although there’s no rule if you arrive at the same time – just be polite and use your judgement.
Iceland’s speed limits are measured in kilometres per hour. The top speed is 50 km/h in urban areas, 80 km/h on gravel roads and 90 km/h on tarmac. That said, these top speeds are for optimal conditions – when it’s rainy, snowy or dark, you should drive with caution.
Iceland’s weather can change fast, so in winter, it’s wise to use studded winter tyres – and pack an ice scraper if you’re staying overnight. Visit the Icelandic road information website for more information.
Whatever the time of day, you must always drive with your headlights on. The weather changes fast in Iceland, and fog can make roads dangerous in the middle of the day.
Outside the cities, especially, Iceland has very different driving conditions to the UK. The weather is far more unpredictable, and the highlands become treacherous in poor weather.
In winter, the biggest hazard is snow and ice on the road. It’s sensible to bring studded tyre tracks, and watch out for black ice. Use your judgement and drive carefully in poor conditions.
In summer, you may well want to drive in the highlands, where many roads cross rivers without bridges. You shouldn’t speed through rivers, but shift into first or second gear, and drive confidently.
For any emergencies call 112. For other problems, get in touch with your car hire firm.
Many tourists follow Route 1, which is effectively a ring road around the country, but Iceland isn’t as small as you might think. Plan your route in advance and give yourself enough time to enjoy the journey.
Iceland has wonderful natural scenery, and it’s always tempting to stop driving to take photos. This is fine, but be certain there’s no traffic coming either way before you get out, or go to a designated area for photo-ops.
For additional tips on driving in Iceland, the following websites can provide additional information.
Make sure you’re insured for the kind of trip you want to take in Iceland. Costs for recovery in remote parts of the country can be high, so ensure that you have breakdown cover. Taking out a car hire insurance policy for your holiday in Iceland is a sensible precaution.