When I started looking into the particulars of driving in Iceland, a variety of things popped up as major warnings: “the weather is changeable and could turn to snow any time!”, “watch out for driving sand and ash!”, “there are gravel roads everywhere!”, “there are, like, NO gas stations, so fuel the car when you find a place!”, and variations on a theme of ‘danger, death, and sheep on the road’.
And so I made my rental car reservation with trepidation and got onto the plane with thoughts of “What am I doing? Driving in a foreign country? What was I thinking?”
Those thoughts didn’t go away upon landing at Keflavik International and finding the shuttle from the airport to the rental office. ‘I barely slept last night. Driving a car on no sleep is a monumentally bad idea, and forget the fact that I can’t read the road signs!’
After a quick check of my Nebraska driver’s license and selecting what level of insurance I wanted, a nice Englishman in a poofy yellow coat gave me a quick rundown of the car, its features, and the GPS unit, and I became the temporary owner of a cute little black Kia Rio. Once I sorted out the sensitivity of the brakes and got on the road, I realized something: all that trepidation was for nothing. At least in the summer, driving in Iceland is not a big deal.
Weather: People like to state two things about the weather where they live. 1) “Don’t like the weather? Wait ten minutes, and it will change” 2) “We can have all four seasons in one week!” The first is true wherever you go. Weather changes throughout the day, from sun to cloud to rain and back to sun again, or variations on that theme. It’s the second one that confuses me. What do they mean by ‘all four seasons’? Does it get cold at night (winter), then rain one morning (spring), and then another day it gets hot (summer) and then cool right back down again but stays dry (fall)? Are there more drastic shifts?
See, I’m from Nebraska, where the weather is outright crazy. I’ve woken up on pleasant spring mornings, watched the temperature rise to 80+ by noon and spawn thunderstorms that dropped torrential rain, large hail, and tornadoes over regions where wildfires were burning, and then eight hours later an oncoming cold front brought a blizzard that buried us in more than a foot of snow. In May. Twice.
So when the travel blogger wrote “four seasons! one week!” I wasn’t sure what they meant by that statement. Should I prepare for snowfall? Rain? Both? Neither?
Aside from a few spots of rain here and there, though, the days were mostly clear. There was no need to worry about snow unless I planned to go off-roading in the interior mountains. As my Kia was not a 4×4 vehicle, such adventures were beyond me. The highways are well-constructed and made of some sort of material that, while noisy, help the car maintain traction when the roads are wet. As long as the windshield wipers can keep up with brief downpours, Iceland’s summer weather isn’t detrimental to driving. Overall it was pleasant, with temperatures around 55°F during the day and mostly sunny. The rainstorms I encountered were fairly short and not heavy enough to soak through my raincoat when I was out hiking.
Gravel Roads: This was the travel blogger issue that concerned me the least. I think all the teenagers in my rural town (population around 5,600) learned to drive on the gravel roads surrounding the community before we ventured onto city streets and the highways. Driving on gravel isn’t difficult. You just need to take it a little slower and keep your eyes on the road.
I only encountered three gravel roads during my travels. One on the way to Reynisfjara, a beach near Vik, the second on my way to Ólafsvík on the northern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the third in the Reykjanes Geopark. They weren’t as rocky as the gravel roads I’m used to here in Nebraska, but they were easy to traverse in spite of the hills and rain. They were all relatively short spans of gravel- about ten miles at most- and there were spots where you could pull off the road if you wanted to let other drivers pass you, were having car trouble, or just wanted to take off for a quick hike.
Gas Stations: This is where the travel bloggers were the most accurate. There aren’t gas stations at every turn, and if you’re planning to head down back roads or into remote places like Hornstrandir, make sure you have a full tank as fueling stations can be few and far between. If you are about to go somewhere and have less than 3/4 of a tank, make the first gas station you find your first stop. This is the same advice I give to tourists planning to head into Nebraska’s Sandhills, so it made sense to take my own advice and not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Aside from deciding to rent the car in the first place, the next best decision I made was to also rent a GPS unit. My sense of direction is not the best, and while there aren’t that many roads in the Icelandic countryside (and they’re all well-marked), getting around and out of Reykjavik itself would have taken far more time if I hadn’t had it.
The nice Englishman in the poofy yellow coat cued up the voice for ‘USA English (Michelle)’. It was a pleasant voice so I left it there, and because Icelandic radio leaves much to be desired (one station playing boy bands, another playing Icelandic children’s programming, and another that sounded like country-western. None of which I wanted to put up with), Michelle became my travel companion, albeit one with poor conversational skills. There were times I questioned her loyalty to me, as well, when the conversations ran something like,
Michelle: In 700 meters, turn right.
Me: Okay. I’ll do that.
Michelle: (five seconds later) Turn right
Me: I can’t do that, Michelle. There’s a cliff. I will drive off a cliff if I turn right here.
She also wanted me to take a questionable road between Arnarstapi and Ólafsvík- a gravel road right up the side of Snæfellsjökull, a stratovolcano that makes up a large portion of the Snæfellsnes Penninsula. There was a sign stating that anyone who wanted to take that road needed to have snow chains for their tires on account of the snow (the volcano is topped by a glacier, after all), elevation, and makeup of the road. I opted not to take the route that would probably have violated my car rental agreement. Michelle gave me the finger, then recalculated and provided a much gentler (albeit gravel) road to my destination.
So driving in Iceland is not the horror show that the travel bloggers indicated. It was a lot like driving around the foothills of Colorado, honestly, and while the summer weather was particularly kind, I don’t think the winter weather would phase me, either. Granted, I was driving on the main roads and highways and not venturing onto truly rough roads, but most of the things that people go to Iceland to see are close enough to the main roads that you don’t need a special vehicle to get to them.
Adventurers and experienced campers are a different story, though, and I saw a lot of big truck with big wheels meant to drive over hazardous terrain. All in all, though, the same basic rules of the road you need in the US apply to Iceland: be courteous and pay attention. And when you see a ‘sheep crossing’ sign, keep a weather eye out for the beasts. With their wandering ways and contempt for road markings and fences, the Icelandic sheep may be the greatest hazard you encounter during your drive.