This post provides some details about driving in beautiful Iceland. It's not difficult, but if you aren't paying attention, there are lots of places where a moment of lapse of concentration can ruin your vacation (at best) or cost you your life (at worst).
For our month-long trip to Iceland, we rented a camper van and determined our own routes. Linda did all of the driving because I have wandering eyes in beautiful places, and taking your eyes off the road in Iceland can kill you.
We knew many of the basics of driving in Iceland like you drive on the right side of the road and the driver is in the left seat of the vehicle just like the United States.
We also knew that 2WD rental vehicles are not allowed on the more rugged, remote "F" roads (roads with an "F" in front of their number) which is why we got an AWD van. And we knew that there are dangerous river crossings.
Much of the rest of what we are about to tell you, we learned on the fly. Some of it is very important, some of it is just good to know, some of it is fun, and some of it is just common sense.
The Regions of Iceland
Iceland is divided into eight regions as shown in the map below.
For tourism purposes the Northwestern and Northeastern regions are often combined into one Northern region making seven regions and then an eighth region called the Highlands is added.
The Highlands region actually has no distinct boundaries and overlaps many of the designated regions. It is made up of many areas of land with elevations of 400 meters (1,300 feet) or higher, mostly in the central interior of the country.
The most crowded parts of Iceland are around Reykjavik where it's easy to take a day tour. The famed (and, in my opinion, highly over-rated) Golden Circle in the western section of the Southern Region is also a very popular one or two day route.
The Blue Lagoon in the Southern Peninsula (Reykjanes) is one of Iceland's most famous tourist attractions, and lots of people visit there on their way to or from the airport if they are in Iceland for a short stay.
And the Southern coast along the Ring Road is visited by hordes of tourists.
The West Fjords, most of the Highlands, and the far northeast are the least visited. We loved the West Fjords and the areas of the Highlands we visited, but we didn't get to the remote northeast corner.
The Ring Road
If planning a trip to Iceland, you will hear a lot about the Ring Road, Highway 1. The Icelandic name is "Þjóðvegur" so you may see that on your GPS or Google Maps, but it is mostly signed simply as Road 1. It's indicated by the red line on the map below.
The Ring Road is the paved road that circles much of the country and is the primary thoroughfare for most of Iceland's tourists. It's 1,332k or 828 miles. However, note that this road has been re-routed a couple of times recently, and it is subject to change.
From the map of the Ring Road, you can see it doesn't go into the West Fjords, it passes through a small part of West Iceland, it passes by much of North Iceland (especially the far northeast), and it doesn't go into the Highlands.
However, there are a lot of beautiful attractions within a short drive of the Ring Road. But, if you want to see Iceland with fewer people in your photographs, get as far away from the Ring Road (and Reykjavik) as you can.
Intersections - Stoplights, Stop Signs, Yield Signs & Roundabouts
Note that once you get away from Reykjavik and the Capital Region, you will find very few stoplights, and relatively few stop signs.
When you do encounter stoplights, you may notice that not only do they go from green to yellow to red, but they also go red to yellow to green giving you advance notice of when the light is changing to green.
Most rural intersections had yield signs rather than stop signs (which are just like U.S. stop signs). Linda loved these since there was very little traffic and little need to make a complete stop.
Iceland is also big on roundabouts. Most roundabouts outside of Reykjavik are one lane, but in and around Reykjavik, you will find two-lane roundabouts, and one thing many tourists don't realize is the inside lane has the right of way, which is different than many other countries. Vehicles in the inside lane can take any exit and the outside lane vehicles are required to let them. See diagram below.
Fortunately, I had picked up on that little tidbit before we drove in Reykjavik after picking up our van and then returning it.
Common Road Signs
Another thing that was different was that signs showing how far to certain destinations listed them top to bottom with the farthest at the top and the closest at the bottom.
That's the opposite way of how we do it in the States where we list the closest town at the top, but we got used to reading these from the bottom up.
I want to say here that Iceland is very well signed. A good road map and a GPS are helpful to give you advance warning of turns, but there is good signage in even the most rural areas of the island.
Here is a link that has the best images and descriptions of Iceland road signs that I have found - Iceland Road Signs. Pay particular attention to the Service Signs at the bottom of that web page as they indicate the signs for bathrooms ("WC"), places of interest, and many more that will help you.
We'll discuss a few of road signs below.
There are one-lane bridges all over the country, even on the major roads. You become quite familiar with the one-lane bridge sign.
It's the honor system as to who has the right of way in crossing. Generally, those giving way would flash their lights to let you know they were waiting for you to cross.
Now, something we had never encountered before were one-lane tunnels. That's right, one-lane tunnels. And they tended to be a few kilometers long.
In recent years, Iceland has blasted tunnels through some of their mountains to shorten access routes to rural areas, and a few of these are one-lane. We freaked out a little when we entered our first one, but there is a system.
One side of the tunnel has periodic cut-outs or pull-offs where there is an emergency phone. When the vehicles in the lanes on that side of the tunnel see lights from oncoming traffic, they pull off into these cubby holes to wait for the vehicles in the other lane which don't have anywhere to go and have the right-of-way by default.
Pull-offs, both in the tunnels and along many of Iceland's narrow roads, are marked with this blue sign. I don't know what the "M" stands for, but the sign indicates a place to pull over and let others around.
However, it also means it's a temporary pull over spot - you aren't allowed to park in these areas to get out and explore or take photos.
The roads outside of the Capital Region are all two-lane roads OR narrower. Many of the rural unpaved roads are not wide enough for two cars to pass, thus the need for the pull-offs marked with the big "M" above.
On the two-lane roads there are passing and no-passing zones. One thing we noticed and liked was that locals would turn on their right turn signal which indicated they were going to get over as far as they could so you could pass.
This was both polite and a great indicator that they were paying attention and expected you to go around them. Most tourists didn't do this, but a few picked up on the courtesy.
Certainly, it's a good practice to turn on your left turn signal as a sign you are preparing to pass to alert both the vehicle in front of you and those behind you that you intend to pass.
There is such scenic beauty - mountains, waterfalls, rainbows, glaciers, etc. - many drivers are gawking and you have to be prepared to pass on both paved and unpaved roads, or you will never get anywhere. Just do so carefully.
Iceland roads have little or no shoulders, and a simple mistake causing you to get off the road in many areas would mean you will be flying off a cliff or tumbling down a very large hill. Guard rails are very rare.
Even sections of the famed Ring Road were quite dangerous for the easily distracted. This was my biggest concern and the primary reason I didn't drive. We highly recommend having the person most able to focus on the road do all the driving.
Drivers distracted by scenery, cell phones, texting, or anything else can easily drive off the road, and in many, many places everyone in the vehicle can be severely injured or killed.
It's one of the many ways you can die in Iceland. One quote I read says "Iceland ain't Disneyland", and exercise of care and caution is necessary all across the country.
Also, free range sheep are everywhere, and they are often grazing right beside the road or standing in the road. Always be prepared for sheep.
Outside of the towns and villages, the standard speed limit is 90k/hr (56 mph) on paved roads and 80k/hr (50 mph) on unpaved roads. Certainly, not all unpaved roads were created equally, and 50 mph on some of them was just crazy.
Of course, going into "built up areas", your speed had to be lower - usually 50k/hr (31 mph) or less. And many towns and villages had electronic monitoring with signs giving you a smiley face if you were under the speed limit or a frowny face if you were over.
Unpaved Roads & "F" Roads
Many major points of interest can be accessed on paved roads that run off the Ring Road, but many more lovely spots can be accessed if you are willing to get off the paved roads and explore.
Most of the unpaved roads that are not "F" roads are really good roads, but there are exceptions. There are some non-"F" roads that require or highly recommend 4WD. You just need to know the limits of your rental vehicle and your rental contract.
Only 4WD vehicles are covered by rental insurance when taken on "F" roads, and a few of the "F" roads are so gnarly that only high clearance Jeeps are allowed. Below is a map of the "F" roads, and you can see most of them are in the Central Highlands.
Also, NO insurance on any rental vehicle covers damage resulting from unbridged river crossings (sign on right) which are mostly found on the "F" roads.
All river crossings are at your own risk, and many are quite dangerous.
During our time in Iceland, a U.S. woman on her honeymoon was killed when she and her husband attempted to cross a river in the Highlands. Their car was swept down river. They both got out of the car, but she was unable to safely get to shore and was carried in the torrent 650 meters (2,100 feet) downriver.
This happened just a few days before we crossed the same river on a Super Jeep Tour.
Conditions can change rapidly, and the ability to cross a river one day may change the next day or even the same day. River crossings should not be taken lightly, and if there are any doubts at all, turn around.
With that said, other than river crossings, we really didn't see much that made 4WD necessary, but having high clearance was definitely a good thing, and we would still recommend 4WD or AWD if you really want to explore Iceland and get off the pavement, even if you don't intend to do the "F" roads.
We certainly enjoyed getting off the paved roads to visit places where fewer people go, and this sign indicating the paved road was ending became quite familiar.
Interestingly, on the gravel roads, sometimes there were random sections that were paved. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why this was the case.
This was another sign we saw quite often on the gravel roads. This "blind hill" sign prepares you for oncoming traffic you won't see until the last second.
It's really not difficult to get around Iceland. Though most of the signs are in Icelandic, you can figure out most of the rules if you have some common sense. And, hopefully, we've covered a good deal of other peculiarities to be aware of.
I want to leave you with these final thoughts:
1) If you want to get away from the crowds, get as far from the Ring Road and Reykjavik as you can,
2) If you are going to be in Iceland for a week or more and are going to be exploring on your own, I'd recommend splurging on 4WD or AWD and the highest clearance vehicle you can rent,
3) Be extra careful and keep focused on the road while driving (I know it's hard not to get distracted, but a split second mistake can have devastating effects),
4) Before you cross any river, make sure you know exactly what you are doing - get advice from locals, watch others cross, and be willing to turn around if you have doubts.
5) Stay attuned to the weather and periodically check Iceland's SafeTravel website for current conditions, warnings, and alerts.
Enjoy Iceland - it's fantastic!!
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