Driving in Iceland

Driving, and drivers

From the moment we were beyond Borgarnes, we found Icelanders to be brave drivers. Very brave. They’re also very polite. They *would* sometimes overtake at 90, on sheet ice. Or hare past us at three times our speed, in a literal white out / black road, with foot high snow drifts and precipices on either side. But they never did so aggressively. They always hung back at a decent, respectable, “stopping distance” distance, and I’m not sure either of us ever felt pushed. 

They’re also very experienced in local conditions. On the one hand, we found asking our hosts about patches of road that’d wobbled between blue, white, black and red to be invaluable. On the other hand, in future we might factor in an “Icelander factor” – ie. listen to them completely, then add in 17% additional hesitancy / caution, to account for our own inexperience. 

I just wouldn’t get in a car in shoulder season with anyone who was… keen on the accelerator, prone to panic… or whose driving in the uk had ever given me cause for concern. A and I are both purposeful, but cautious. We got through black, pink, and blizzarded mountain passes, but with extreme caution. And found some of them deeply nasty experiences. I’d heartily advise that anyone who’s looking at a black road or snowstorm seriously considers how they’d feel about axle-deep snow drifts in a total white-out, AND to be willing to stop if it just became too much. Iceland 112 (Android, iOS) on that front, is an app that gave me occasional reassurance: worst case scenario, sit it out, and wait for the cavalry to come (?!).

Car

We hired a Jimny. Advice soon encouraged us to speak to our rental company, blue car rentals, about whether or not it was up to the ring road. High centre of balance, suboptimal for sketchy roads, etc. Blue – very, very kindly – upgraded us to a Dacia Duster. 
 
I used the car’s 4wd lock on many less pleasant stretches of road. It drove like a Trojan, and got through some properly rough spots. It still struggled with snow drifts, and heavy wet snowfalls. 
 
In future, in shoulder season, I would not want to be driving anything with *less* grunt, traction, or grippability anywhere beyond Varmahlid. 

Colour-coded road conditions 

Vegagardin is a stonking site, updated with current road conditions on a very regular basis – sometimes every hour or couple of hours. Over the course of 8 days, we saw portions of the country closed off and reopened multiple times, sometimes on the same day. We couldn’t complete our planned tour of the ring, because the road to Egilstadir was suddenly closed. On our last day, the road from the South to Reykjavik was closed for much of the day.  
 
Vegargedin is grade-A indispensible but, for long journeys, *needs* to be read in conjunction with the weather forecast. We were kinda aware on day 8 that added hours in swimming pools meant added blizzards on mountain passes. Our decision to wait may not be one we repeat in future.  
 
To our cautious, UK eyes, the colour codings were more art than science. Green could have patches of ice (which is apparently yellow). Yellow could have miles-long stretches of solid ice – (blue, in principle) the north-facing roads around fjords, for example. Blue roads could contain (lots of) fresh snow (white). 
 
Still, they seemed to represent a loose approximation of appropriate levels of adrenaline and / or terror. We were most worried in pink (pretty darned sketchy), black (very very sketchy), and sudden changes of road conditions (blizzard). We might avoid pink and black in future, even if locals said they were fine!
 
You may, of course, feel differently!

Petrol

We thought filling up would be a fruity challenge. It wasn’t. There were automated card-taking petrol stations at amazingly regular intervals, and in tiny one-horse towns. During our visit, diesel cost as much as uk unleaded – 244ISK, with 180-190 to the gbp. 

GPS

We couldn’t find tomtom maps of Iceland in the uk. So hired one – a Garmin, for 11,000ISK for 8 or 9 days, from blue car rental. Erm. It provided reassurance in finding hotels, and in Reykjavik. But we were basically driving Route 1: “Turn out of hotel, drive 98km, turn left into driveway of next hotel.” And most of out detours were pretty blooming obvious to anyone with even the flimsiest of map reading skills. “It’s the first right after 100km, clearly labeled 62,” for example. 
 
If you’ve got a device with mobile internet (Everything Everywhere / EE provided me with EU-tariffed internet) then that – for our needs – would have been more than ample. Particularly as 3G reception is bizarrely widespread (perhaps 2 or 3 small spots without reception on our drive), and we had a USB battery pack with 5-6 full phone charges. 
 
An addendum – in my opinion, a device with mobile internet is a necessity. Because otherwise there’s no easy way to check vegargedin, or to know if roads ahead are open / opening / suddenly closed. 

Tyres…?

Our Duster came with winter tyres. 
 
They were amazing on sheet ice / compacted ice, the standard Icelandic road surface. We’re cautious drivers, 60kph felt solid and safe (and we regularly tested our brakes / stopping distances). 
 
They were sketchy in wet snow – and horrible in deep wet snow, in pink / black (and even white) conditions. Think loosely directional skiing, with added precipices, and grossly distended braking distances. 
 
Snow trouble may be unavoidable, but we definitely noticed that a very, very large proportion of locals – even in temperate Reykjavik – had studded tyres. If we were going anywhere at all fruity in future, we’d be asking about them. 

Ice: a driver’s best friend

This is a slightly wry take on ice, but reflects our experience of the unexpected. 
 
A, my wife, is a thoroughly experienced Alpine driver. She’s always been learnt that fresh snow is safe, ice is a danger. 
 
We kinda found the reverse. Wet snow at any depth felt like an unpredictable nightmare – uncontrolled, rapidly changing in height and consistency, slooshy, given to aquaplaning. Powder snow drifts can build up very, very quickly in high wind conditions, and hit the tyres like a layer of powdered water. We were sat next to a couple on our last night who’d been on a two-coach coach party. One of the coaches had come off the road, in wet snow conditions. And the only time we saw a car getting stuck was when a couple had attempted to *create a shortcut* to the Hverfjall ascent along fresh snow, on a *footpath*, in a rental 4*4. They were towed to freedom by a vexed-looking local and his monster truck. 
 
Contrastingly, packed down snow / ice constituted the entire road surface e.g. between Varmahlid and Myvatn. Both of us came to feel quite comfortable driving on it at c.60kph on flat / straight stretches (and were regularly overtaken by Icelanders hitting 90). 
 
A qualifier: we only drove from about 9 o’clock on. And please take this as a suggestion to drive more cautiously in wet snow, rather than less cautiously on ice! I wouldn’t get into an Icelandic car with anyone whose caution / sensibleness I didn’t trust 400% behind the wheel. We were warned about black ice, too – which I don’t think we encountered, and which may represent a danger not touched upon here…

Yesterday’s worst nightmare proved tomorrow’s elusive dream…

Yeah, so, your experience may vary, or we may have arrived in a complicated week! Every day, we encountered road conditions that we thought were bad. Every next day we encountered conditions that were worse. 
 
This was great, as we kinda had time to familiarise ourselves with different baselines of “normal.” Still, icelandic driving conditions came as a progressive series of shocks to our system when juxtaposed with Yorkshire. I’m glad we only attempted a black run on the last day. Even then, it felt deeply hairy. Perhaps we’d get used to it with time, but I’m glad our danger senses weren’t entirely deactivated. I think we may have turned back if we’d attempted it on day one. 

Reykjavik driving is not Iceland driving!

In our limited experience!
 
Icelanders were lovely, for 1,600km of our driving. The other 100km were the 50 to and from Reykjavik, where drivers’  pushiness and boisterousness seemed to be inversely proportion to the number of km left to town. 
 
We also lingered behind one driver – at 4am on Sunday morning – whose spectacular veering across every lane and the hard shoulder suggested truly spectacular drunkenness. Veering considered, overtaking seemed unwise.

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