Driving in Iceland is nothing like I ever experienced before, especially in winter. If you plan your winter road trip in Iceland, it is good to keep a few things in mind before you set out. If you avoid these 10 common mistakes, your scenic drive in Iceland in winter will be an enjoyable experience instead of a dangerous and anxious endeavor.
Buckle up, take in my tips and have a safe trip to Iceland this winter!
10 Mistakes To Avoid On Your Iceland Winter Road Trip
I was not sponsored or paid to write this. I paid for the whole trip in full myself and all opinions, and experiences are my own. Some of these rules also apply for summer road trips in Iceland, but as I visited after Christmas, I focus on Iceland winter driving in December and January.
This post contains affiliate links. If you follow my link and decide to book something, I’ll earn a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you.
1. Plan too much in your Iceland Winter Road Trip
Overplanning is never a good idea but in the case of driving in Iceland in winter, it can be dangerous.
People easily underestimate the distances in Iceland, especially during winter times. Don’t plan an 8-hour drive in the winter in Iceland to get from point A to point B.
If everything is covered in snow, it can be exhausting to drive for such an extended period of time.
And although it looks like Iceland is not that big, and I can imagine you want to see the whole country in one visit, this is a bad idea in the winter months like December and January.
In 9 days, we drove over 1900 km (1180 miles) and in hindsight this was maybe even too much. I wanted to see more, but I’m glad we didn’t go any further.
2. Book the first car rental service you see
It is always difficult to find a good deal on car rental fees, but you can save some serious money with just looking around a bit and not settle for the first quote you get.
In Iceland, car rental prices vary per month of the year and seasonality. In winter, different types of cars are more popular than others.
It really pays up to compare car rental prices between companies. Check how easy pick-up and drop-off is and what you get included in the car rental prices.
Compare extras like navigation and internet services. Some car rental companies offer discount cards for gas.
In my experience, the major global car rental companies are nearly 50% more expensive than the local car rental companies. But even between them, the difference for a 9-day car rental period in December can add up to hundreds of Euros.
Compare your car rental prices for Keflavik Airport here.
3. Book a cheaper car, without winter tires or 4WD
Whenever I book a rental car, I always opt for the smallest model. Because they are cheaper, easy to navigate around cobble-stoned European cities and widely available.
This just doesn’t apply for driving around Iceland in winter. Yes, a smaller car will be cheaper but it is really not safe. The smallest cars don’t have ABS, traction control and winter tires or even spikes. You really need a robust, safe car to drive in Iceland in winter.
Iceland is one of the roughest countries I recently visited and conditions in winter are really harsh. You need a car that you can rely on, not be blown off the road, and feel safe in!
So don’t opt for the cheaper options, but do rent the 4WD car for your winter road trip in Iceland.
4. Disregard daylight hours in winter in Iceland
I hear you think: yes, yes, I know by now. Winter in Iceland is dark and cold. So what?
Well, big what! Until you experience it, it is hard to imagine those dark Iceland winter days. But it can be really dark and gloomy during the day, even when the sun is up!
In December and January, the sunrise usually was around 10 or 10.30 am. The sun set was around 4 pm.
But until 11.30 am and after 3 pm, it was dark and gloomy outside. Depending on the weather, we didn’t see the sun the whole day. If it rains or is very overcast, it could well be night as it is dark out.
If the sun is out, the difference is immense and driving is a lot more challenging.
And yes, of course, you have headlights. But if you can’t see the landscape when you’re driving, what is the point of taking a road trip?
And when it snows when it is dark outside, you soon get very tired from looking at the snowflakes in your headlights.
After our first day of arrival and driving in the pitch black evening of Iceland’s winter, we soon concluded that we should not drive after the sunset. A couple of times, we headed out around 9 am, when the sun was not yet up, which was doable.
But we never drove after 5pm, when the sun was completely set and it was dark outside.
As this is completely opposite to any road trip I’ve ever taken, it was quite an adjustment. So make sure to research daylight hours in Iceland and adjust your Iceland road trip accordingly.
5. Think you can go off-road
If you’re wise, you’ve booked a 4WD car rental for Iceland. This ensures a safe trip and stable wheels to drive around Iceland in winter. This doesn’t mean you’re allowed to go off road and find your own trail though.
First of all: going off-road in winter in Iceland is illegal. Mainly because the ground can be covered and it is not visible where you’re actually driving.
Secondly, it is dangerous. Because of the above mentioned reason but also because you don’t know your way around Iceland. The weather and the landscape can turn on you in the blink of an eye. You can put yourself and others at risk and damage the environment by going (literally) off the paved track.
Driving in Iceland in winter is still challenging enough, even on the paved and marked roads, so don’t worry, there will be plenty of adventure left!
6. Take the scenic route inland instead of the main route
This was a big mistake. I looked at the map and I saw a line going from our current location to our stop for the night. It seemed more scenic than following the main ring road (no 1 around Reykjavik). In kilometers, the main road would be must further and google maps said it would each take just as long.
What could go wrong??
Right, nearly everything went wrong. It turned out, the route I picked consisted of single track back country roads. Without any signage, no villages and alternatives.
What the map didn’t show was that the route went through some pretty high mountains which made it impossible to pass in the thick blanket of snow. As we were driving and hit a road closure (the road wasn’t really closed it was just a warning that it might be closed but we decided it probably meant it was closed), we had to reroute quite far back again to get to the ring road.
In the end, we spent 3 hours driving through this area and ended up 20 km further on Road 1 to Reykjavik.
So we learned a valuable lesson. Winter driving in Iceland is not to explore any back country. If you need to get from A to B, just take the main route.
7. Ignore traffic information on the app or radio
Due to the ever-changing weather conditions in Iceland, the Icelandic people have quite a good system to distribute road condition information. You can always follow news on the radio while driving but it is best to have the website at hand and check accurate weather conditions.
In the app, It shows with colored lines what the condition of certain roads will be. Icy roads are a common thing, but snowy roads where the snowplow has been, is a different option. You can zoom in regionally and really check any smaller road and see quite detailed information. For example snow plow expected to clear the roads after 12.
Also, check with local authorities about the conditions. We stayed in private rental apartments and most times, we didn’t see the owners and just interacted with them online. But on one of the last days, we noticed the weather turned for the worst. As we arrived at the tomato greenhouse for lunch, they provided detailed information about road closure to Reykjavik and the duration of detours due to heavy stormy December weather.
8. Forget to dress appropriate for Iceland’s winter
Usually, when I go on a road trip, I try to dress in comfortable clothes. You sit in the car for hours on end. A car has its own microclimate with AC or heating, so you don’t necessarily have to dress for the outside weather. Usually, I just throw a jacket on the backseat. Maybe I have a scarf with me in my bag in the trunk of the truck.
You’ll soon learn that this is not the way to go if you’re driving in Iceland in winter. Obviously, you want to stop somewhere to take in the views and take some pictures of yourself with a glacier or frozen waterfall or those cute Icelandic horses.
But the Iceland January storms will soon hit you in the face if you do that. I learned the hard way, but after my first freezing failed attempt, I learned to dress-up before leaving the car.
So, take it from me: glove up, hat on, scarf in place, jacket on and zipped up (very important as will be near impossible to zip your coat with gloves on in a windstorm). Also, don’t forget to zip up any pockets of your pants or sweater or something, as the wind blows right through.
If you have crampons, adjust them in the car, get your walking poles ready and get your camera out before dismounting the vehicle.
As lovely as Iceland is, being outside in a storm, out in the open fields, should be limited as much as possible. We did some really quick picture pit stops when the wind was blowing so fiercely!
9. Park on the roadside or outside designated car parking areas
Awhhh, those Icelandic horses are soooo cute. And they are all over Iceland, standing together in the fields. As soon as you approach the fence, they come hurrying over, as they know you’ll probably have a snack.
But where do you park? Well, you just don’t!
You can’t just stop on the road (yes, people did that) or just aside from the road whenever you feel like it!
Icelandic roads are small. The sides of the road are covered in ice and snow in winter, so you don’t know where you’re parking.
It could be that you’re driving into a ditch and get stuck. But it could also be that you’re damaging precious Iceland moss and the soil with all her microorganisms.
And also, you cause a dangerous situation for any traffic coming up behind you or is ahead of you.
The roads in Iceland have enough parking space when there are points of interest near you. Just look at your map, they are never far away. They are well maintained and safe to stop, park, and take in nature from there.
Also at the many natural sights in Iceland, there is plenty of free (or paid) parking space. Don’t be a douche and just pay the few Islandic krona to park your car. Even when the main parking areas are full, there are always alternative P2 or even P3 to park.
10. Continue driving against better judgement
My most important tip for driving in Iceland in winter is to use your intuition. If something feels not right: it probably isn’t right. In case the road looks slippery, it is probably very slippery.
If the sign says the road might be closed further ahead, it probably means it will be closed and it is best to turn around or find an alternative route.
In case you feel you’re going fast enough in a snow blizzard, then chances are: you’re going too fast already. Don’t let any oncoming traffic rush you into driving faster than you’d like.
If the weather is too tricky, like harsh winds blowing you all over the road or rain reducing visibility, then just pull over (at designated areas!) and wait for it to pass or die down. Or when it intensifies, but then it is always better to stop driving.
I don’t want to scare you, because Iceland is lovely and perfectly manageable for a winter road trip, but you have to be aware of the road conditions and the weather at all times! If your attention slips or you’ll behave like at home, you might end up in a ditch or cause an accident. We saw quite a few accidents along our 1.900 km drive in Iceland this winter, so accidents do happen. Don’t be in one!
What you should do to enjoy your Iceland winter driving trip?
If you’ve read the above 10 things you should not do on your Iceland winter road trip, you also see the things you should do.
To make things a bit easier, I list the absolute must-do’s for a successful Iceland winter trip below:
- Program the emergency numbers for Iceland on your phone. The main number is 112
- Get travel insurance. Wherever you go, this is always a good idea!
- Get car insurance with your car rental. Don’t skimp on the full coverage car insurance. Rocks easily find your car and cause a dent and even if you drive carefully, others might not. Find the best car rental deals for Iceland here.
- Take precautions. Take enough water in your car with you. Bring an emergency tank of gas if you head out into rural areas. Bring a heat blanket in case you get stranded. Have reflective warning signs with you. Have the emergency kit at hand as well as a flashlight.
- Ask if the car rental company supplies an ice scraper and snow brush and if not, get some.
- Book your accommodation ahead. We visited Iceland after Christmas and during New Year’s and not all accommodations were open and some were fully booked. I was happy to have booked all our stays in advance, so we didn’t have to go search for a place to stay after dark. I always use booking.com as they have a wide range of accommodation in every budget and I can select the ones where I don’t have to pay in advance.
- Expect the best but prepare for the worst. Especially during the winter in Iceland, the weather can really turn for the worst in a matter of minutes.
- Enjoy lovely Iceland! It is truly unique and one of a kind. It has a special kind of beauty, specifically in winter.
Driving in Iceland in Winter
During our 9 days in Iceland, we drove over 1.900 km (1180 miles) and didn’t get to see the whole island. We had heavy snow, pastel colored sunsets, harsh rain, grey days and bright days. We had weather with a mild breeze and stormy weather where I could barely stand outside as I’d be literally blown away.
On some occasions, I was sweating in my warm winter gear and one day, that even the thickest coat and best winter gear would have me freezing in a matter of 30 minutes.
Looking back, Iceland was nothing like I ever imagined. Nature is cruel and harsh but also shows unimaginable beauty. We had very little daylight hours but made the most of what we did have. Driving through Iceland in winter felt like a privilege and a sneak peek under a winter blanket. I highly recommend visiting Iceland in winter if you want an unique experience but you have to be careful and take care of yourself when driving in Iceland in December or January.
I hope these mistakes to avoid will help you prepare for your Iceland winter road trip and you can enjoy it to the fullest.
If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below!