Winter has steadily been growing as a popular season to visit Iceland. Tourists will find lower prices on just about everything. Car rental, accommodation, tours, and anything else you can imagine are up to 50% off. With all of these spectacular travel deals in an expensive country (plus the appearance of the Northern Lights), it’s easy to see why the months of November through March could be among the best time of year to visit Iceland. That being said, traveling in Iceland in winter presents its own unique set of challenges (and I don’t just mean black ice or snowy roads). The majority of people who come to our fair shores rent a car or an RV and take some sort of road trip around all or part of the Ring Road. Driving in Iceland is different than anywhere else, even places with a colder climate like Canada or other Scandinavian countries. So what should you expect and how should you prepare?
Driving in Iceland in Winter – There’s a Storm A-Comin’
Weather warnings are going to be your best friend when traveling in Iceland. It’s a small, stormy island and the winter storms here are no joke. Actually, the storms at any time of year here are no joke. And it’s not just your average run-of-the-mill winter snowstorm I’m talking about (which you shouldn’t be driving in any way). Iceland has also been blessed with hailstorms, sandstorms, and even ash storms. This potpourri of dangerous weather conditions can crop up at any time. Be prepared by heeding the warnings of the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration. They will keep you up-to-date with storm advisories, weather warnings, and notifications of road closures due to inclement weather on their website.
Weather (and therefore driving conditions) in Iceland can change very quickly. If you’ve decided to drive in a mild storm and see conditions worsening, head back whenever possible. Or better yet, don’t get caught in it all. You’ll be able to see what’s coming based on weather forecasts. Also, listen to the locals! It’s our island and we know it better than you do. When someone tells you not to travel, please take their advice. It’s better to wait a few days while you hang back in the comfort and safety of wherever you choose to stay than to venture out into a dangerous storm that’s brewing. Let the snowplows do their job and then head out on your merry way.
Iceland – Land of Fire, Ice, and Lots of Wind
Would you believe me if I told you that Iceland has experienced winds as strong as a Category 4 hurricane? Because it’s absolutely true. Back in 2015 a weather event classified as a “no travel” storm moved through South Iceland. News reports say that winds reached speeds up to 141 mph (226 km/h).
The aftermath of flipped, frozen and rear-ended vehicles due to the storm and low visibility in and around Vík was devastating. Rescue services had to send for more than 30 people, most of whom were tourists. Whether they were trying to make it back to Reykjavik in time to catch their flight (they missed it) or just thought the storm wouldn’t get that bad, these unfortunate visitors learned the hard way that it’s quite easy to get blown off the road or welded to the highway with ice during bad weather or a severe storm.
Even if you’re not driving in hurricane-strength winds, be very careful. You may not be used to maneuvering a vehicle in high winds. You’ll be struggling with the steering wheel and doing your best just to stay on the road when the winds kick up. Check the wind speed forecasts before you set out and carefully watch the electronic boards that show wind speed an temperature. Pull over if things start taking a turn for the worse, windwise or weatherwise. And most importantly, take the weather warnings seriously. They are there to protect you.
Close Your Doors, Please!
I have another essential tip for you. Don’t ever leave your doors ajar, not even for a moment. A strong, unexpected gust can come up quickly, bend your door backward, and dent it. Or worse, blow it off completely. You’ll be stuck paying for the damage to your car rental for something that could have very easily been avoided. If you have to get out of your car in high winds, do so using both hands.
Where You Can and Can’t Go
F-Roads are closed in the winter, so keep that in mind when planning your trip. It’s wonderful to view the Northern Lights during the colder months, but if you’re hoping to visit Iceland’s Highlands, unfortunately, that’s not an option. Any and all mountain roads (F-Roads from “fjall” or “mountain” in Icelandic) that lead inland will not be accessible. This is done for safety as everything around you is either melting, freezing, or both. That being said, there is plenty to see and do staying off of Iceland’s F-roads (most of the country’s sights are located close to the Ring Road). As an added bonus, you don’t need to rent a 4×4 vehicle which is mandatory on mountain roads.
Winter Driving in Iceland – Gravel Roads and Speed Limits
This goes without saying, but pay attention to the speed limit. And just because a sign says you can go 80 mph (129 kph) doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Iceland has a lot of gravel roads and unpaved roads (including along more remote stretches of the Ring Road). Things can change suddenly, and drivers without experience on these types of roads could run into trouble lose control of their car. Be smart, be safe, and slow down. You also need to keep your headlights on while driving, day or night.
Driving in Iceland in Winter
Winter is one of the best times to visit Iceland for a multitude of reasons. I hope I haven’t scared you too much with all of this talk of crazy snowstorms and gale force winds. Most people who come in the offseason love their time here. At the same time, it’s important to be prepared just in case you do encounter some bad weather or a winter storm. And speaking of storms, be sure to look for a vehicle rental that offers Sand and Ash Protection and Gravel Protection. While many people opt out of insurance on their car rentals, if you are driving in Iceland in winter, this could be a huge mistake. It’s best to protect yourself against unexpected elements with the right types of insurance. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Iceland is special.
With all of that in mind, I guess the best advice I can give about winter driving in Iceland is just to listen and use common sense. Listen to the forecast to see if there’s an upcoming storm you should know about. Listen to the locals when they tell you not drive. And listen to yourself if the conditions around you are worsening and the little voice in your head tells you “maybe it’s time to head back”. Have a great time, think about all that money you’re saving by going during the low season, and drive safely.
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