how to road trip in iceland
The best way to explore Iceland is in my opinion by car. Ever since I came here for the first time back in November 2016, it's been my choice of transportation. Driving around Iceland with your own car gives you the freedom to explore the less traveled roads, far away from all the main attractions and tourists, and let's be honest, we all want that! This guide contains all the basic knowledge you need to have a happy road trip in Iceland along with some extra tips to make it perfect.
But before I'm giving you the holy grail of knowledge we need to go through a few but very important rules you need to follow when visiting Iceland. I might sound like an angry old man now but there's good reasons for it. The nature in Iceland is very fragile and unique and we need to treat it with respect. Breaking these rules are both illegal and can leave permanent damage on the soil. It's super simple, ready? Good! Here we go:
Leave no trace
Leave No Trace is a set of outdoor ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors. It consists of seven principles:
Plan ahead and prepare. (Planing your route will save you both time and money, gas in Iceland is not cheap.)
Travel and camp on durable surfaces. (Off road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland, read more below.)
Leave what you find.
Minimize campfire impacts. (Campfires are illegal in Iceland, and there's barely no trees anyway.)
Respect wildlife. (Especially the birds who nest from May into summer, they can be pretty aggressive...)
Be considerate of other visitors. (Don't be an obnoxious tourist. The park rangers are not big fans of people who don't follow the rules.)
Don't drive off road!
I can't stress this enough. The law is simple, you are not allowed to drive off road. if you're not sure look at the map, GPS or for signs, still not sure? Don't go! If you get caught driving off road, you can experience a hefty fine of 2000 US dollars or more. But the real downside is the damage it leaves on the very delicate nature of Iceland. Plants and flowers here live in a very harsh conditions and it takes them generations to grow and recover. I've personally seen countless off road tracks going out in the middle of nowhere and it just looks terrible, don't be an idiot! Thanks.
The weather in Iceland is no joke. Unless you're from Siberia you might be surprised by how windy, rainy, snowy, sunny, haily and foggy it can get... In an hour... "If you don't like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes". It might sound extreme, but it's true. You can get soaked in minutes, the wind can literally blow your car off the road if it's icy and it's not hard to get stuck in the snow during the winter season.
There's two very helpful sites that you should check daily. It's the weather information and the road information. Here you'll find everything you need to keep track of the weather, areas to avoid and which roads are open or not. All year around roads can suddenly close if there's a storm approaching, there's even storms so bad they flood parts of the main road. It's not unusual that flights get cancelled or that you get stuck somewhere. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
Ok enough with the rules and lectures, let's start with the fun part! The secret to a successful road trip (in Iceland) is a combination of a lot of things. I'll go through them with you and explain why.
A comfortable car with enough space, that will take you from A to B safely while being fun to drive is key. You will most likely fly to Iceland so a rental car is what you will need. You can of course take the ferry from Denmark to Iceland and bring your own car, but I won't go into that. Renting a car in Iceland isn't exactly the cheapest thing to do. You can see most of the country with a simple 2WD car, but I recommend renting a 4 wheel drive. You will encounter gravel roads, wet and muddy roads and sometimes even snowy and icy conditions. You will be safer in a 4WD here, trust me. There's a few things you might want to consider when choosing your car:
Pick an insurance bundle if you're not a millionaire. The wind can blow your doors off, ash and gravel can damage the paint job and sharp rocks can easily puncture your tires. I've seen tourists damage their cars so bad they had to pay for a whole new car... Yepp.
Don't forget your credit card and don't be too young. The majority of rental companies here require that you have a credit card for your booking and you need to be over 20-23 to even be allowed to rent it.
Choose a car that's big enough for your entourage. Your luggage might not take up too much space when you have it all packed nice and neatly, but once you start digging for that rain jacket in the bottom of your bag and got snacks spread all over you want that extra space.
The bigger cars drink gas like Irish men drink beer (no offence Irish people, I love you). So you might want to pick a car that's not too thirsty if your budget is tight. The best thing is of course to split the gas cost between your friends, the more the merrier (and cheaper).
Make sure your car has tires with studs if you're driving during the winter. This can make the difference between life and death, seriously.
Do you want a camper? Renting a portable house can be amazing to experience Iceland to the fullest and it's a very popular choice during the warmer months.
Do you need to rent a GPS and portable internet? If you don't have internet on your phone I recommend you to either buy a SIM card or go for the Wifi. Internet will help you navigate, keep track of the weather and I know you want to upload those Iceland selfies instantly.
Be sure to have important phone numbers ready, including your rental company, roadside assistance and emergency numbers.
Don't lock yourself out of the car, bring an extra key if possible. Don't even ask why.
No one is fun to be around when they're hungry, You need to eat if you're going on adventures! There's not a ton of food places outside of Reykjavik so I recommend to bring a camping kitchen with you and stack up on food before you leave the city from one of the cheaper grocery stores (Kronan, Bonus or Hagkaup). If you're a lazy bastard like me, you can always get some snacks at the gas stations but buying real food will save you thousands (of ISK)!
You can find gas for your kitchen at most gas stations these days and there's fresh water everywhere. Nothing beats ice cold glacier water straight from a stream after a long and sweaty hike. If you're planing on trying some local favorites there's sheep balls, horse shit smoked meat and dried fish that smells like... someone hasn't showered since 2017. But don't be afraid, Reykjavik is packed with amazing food and I've listed some of my favorites in my Iceland map that I will talk about a little bit more further down.
Everyone needs their beauty sleep and there's few places where you will sleep as good as here in Iceland. There's plenty of options around the island to choose from:
Sleeping in the car. Now this might sound extremely uncomfortable but if you do it right it can be both great and cheap. You can of course rent a camper but if you want a proper 4WD they might not have that option. If you own some camping gear (a inflatable mattress and sleeping bag) you can fold the backseats of most cars and create a perfect bed that usually fits two people (or three if you're feeling very cozy). Just make sure to have one window a little bit open to keep the condensation out. If you're lucky enough you might fall asleep to the northern lights dancing outside.
Camping. If you're bringing a tent you can find camp sites spread across the island. Make sure to bring good pegs...
AirBnB. One of the best inventions of the 21st century? You'll find tons of cozy cabins that the locals will rent out for travelers as yourself. Just make sure to book beforehand if you're not a gambler, they'll get booked up fast.
Hostels & Hotels. Not a big fan of sleeping outside? No worries, you'll find hostels, hotels and guesthouses almost everywhere along the ring road. Two of my personal favorites are Midgard Base Camp and Öxl Guesthouse (not sponsored, promise.)
Now that we got the basics covered I'll deep dive into the little details that make the real difference. These are small things that will change the way you do road trips forever, not an understatement!
Download Splitwise. Just do it, now, this app will change your life. Splitwise will help you split the costs between your friends in a very easy and understandable way. And the best thing? it's free! All you need to do is create an account and then add your friends to your road trip group, I can't even remember how my life was before I started using this app.
Have a look at my Iceland map. Wait, is this too good to be true? Yes maybe... I've created a map of Iceland with the most famous spots along the ring road. I've also included gas stations, grocery stores, favorite restaurants and even a penis museum! This map will save you hours of research and make your planing a whole lotta easier. You're welcome!
Bring an actual map. One of my favorite things to do is to go through maps, you'll find much more details and potential locations to visit. It's quite a thrill to find an epic spot by navigating a real map.
Make a plan, take your time and don't rush it. You can drive the ring road either clockwise or counter clockwise, the choice is yours. You can use my map and plan a route, just don't rush it, in my experience you should embrace the magic moments when you get them. The next place will wait for you tomorrow. Have a plan, but know when to break it.
Create the perfect road trip playlist. Most cars have Bluetooth and AUX so connecting your phone to the car is not a biggy, a good soundtrack for your adventure is a must. Don't forget to save your playlists for offline mode before you head out into the unknown.
Bring sunglasses, a power bank, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (speaking from own experience), reusable bottles, car chargers (for phones, cameras etc.), headlamps and comfortable driving shoes. The list can be made very long but these are some of my favorites.
Clean the car everytime you stop at a gas station. Simple but effective rule that will keep everyone happy.
Fill the car up while you have the chance. "Ehhh I just do it later". No, do it now and you won't risk a nervous breakdown when you're driving on the last drops in the fuel tank with a mile to the next gas station.
Keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see while being out on your road trip. If you're lucky enough you can spot eagles, reindeers or even the arctic fox. Just keep your attention on the road if you're driving and don't make a panic break right on the road if you see something, if you want to park do it in a parking spot.
If you've been reading a lot about driving in Iceland you might have stumbled across something called F-roads. So what is a F-road? To begin with, I'm not sure what the F stands for... Fatal? Formidable? Funky? All I know is that these roads are the most sketchy roads I've ever driven on and they require a 4WD (by law), good driving skills and knowledge about conditions and weather. The F-roads are all marked with a F as the first letter, for example F208, F226, F35... You get the idea.
Don't approach a F-road if you don't know what you're doing. There can be river crossings, large rocks, sand and places where the road is so bad it's not even a road anymore. There's been plenty of times where I have encountered people in the wrong car in the wrong place. Still feel excited about trying one? Do your research, check their conditions and make sure to follow the rules and laws here. These roads are usually only open during the summer months (June-September) because of heavy rain, melting water and snow. But if you're careful and do it right these roads might lead you to an adventure of a lifetime!
A road trip in Iceland will be an amazing experience if you do it right. Whatever your budget is or your requirements for a real adventure there's something for everyone, just follow these rules and guidelines and you will be both safe and have a great time! Want to share your best road trip tips? Write a comment below and share your knowledge!