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How to drive in Iceland in winter

You can be forgiven if at first you might read a title like this and think, “You don’t”. But though initially it might seem daunting, with the right preparations driving in Iceland outside the warmer months is straightforward and safe. Here’s what you need to know if you are wondering how to drive in Iceland in winter.


Choose a suitable vehicle

Think carefully about the type of vehicle you’ll need before renting. You might have the idea about hitting the road in a campervan or motor home, but make sure you check which campsites are open year round on this handy list (https://tjalda.is/en/camping-sites/open-all-year/) before you commit. Many international visitors prefer to opt for a 4x4, whether an estate or SUV, because the extra grip provided in slippery conditions brings peace of mind. If you’re not planning to venture far from the Reykjavik area, you could find a 2WD vehicle is sufficient for your needs.


Make sure you check it over

Whichever vehicle you rent, make sure you check it over regularly. If headlights have become dirty after a day’s sightseeing, wipe them over with a damp cloth to ensure you maximise visibility. Ensure you never run low on fuel and make sure you know where the nearest gas station is, particularly if you are heading to less populated parts of the country. Carry an emergency kit if you’re planning to travel a considerable distance from the city. It should contain at least a couple of blankets, torch, paper map, hot flask, water and some snacks, just in case.


Pay attention to the weather forecast

The weather in Iceland is known for being changeable, and that’s definitely the case in winter. You need to check weather forecasts regularly as the country’s maritime climate is a tricky one to predict. It’s a sensible idea to use the live conditions map on the Safe Travels website (https://safetravel.is/conditions) for the most up to date advice. On top of that, seek local advice from your hotel or guesthouse staff and if you’re heading out for a day excursion, let them know roughly what your plans are.


Plan for shorter daylight hours

In winter, Iceland experiences a very short day, and if you’re not comfortable driving long distances in the dark, you’ll need to factor this into your trip planning. Be mindful of this when choosing which month to go; in December you might expect four hours or so of daylight per day but by the end of February, this is more like eight or nine. If you’re planning to cover a lot of ground and want to be able to appreciate the landscape you’re driving through, choose to travel later in the winter and you’ll see more through your car windows.


Drive according to the conditions and not your itinerary

If you’re keen to push on to the next destination it can be tempting to rush, but if you encounter challenging weather conditions such as snow, ice, strong winds, heavy rain or fog, then driving quickly is potentially dangerous. Slow down to a speed that ensures you have adequate visibility and you’ll arrive later, but in one piece. Remember, it’s OK to change your plans, so be prepared to cut stops if you need to.  


Stick to major roads where you can

The country’s F roads, which criss cross the interior highlands, are closed in winter, so you won’t need to contend with their gaping potholes, steep gravel slopes or rivers to ford. Many international visitors to Iceland stick to Reykjavik and the ring road and generally speaking you’ll find roads are in good condition and maintained to ensure they stay open after snowfalls. On some of the minor roads leading off the ring road this may not happen as freuqnetly, so drive carefully and you should be fine.