Are you planning a trip to Iceland in the wintertime? That is great. Iceland in winter is gorgeous and you will not regret it! I moved to Iceland some years ago and I know that the icy roads in Iceland can be treacherous, and yes, the weather can change without notice. But winter road trips are still worth it!
In order to show you that it is possible to drive in Iceland in the winter months, I have gathered all the necessary information and key safety tips
Prepare your notebook and a pen, and let’s dive into this complete guide so you can have a very smooth winter driving trip in Iceland as possible. First things first, it is important to learn the basics you should know before a winter driving trip to Iceland. The following points really need to be in your mind all the time:
1. The days are WAY shorter in the winter
In Iceland, we consider October to April to be the winter months. However, November to March are definitely more “extreme” winter months.
December and January are the darkest months and this is measured by the number of daylight hours per day (I will give you examples per month down below). These are also the most difficult months for winter driving due to frequent storms, slippery roads, and very short daylight hours.
When you are planning your winter driving in Iceland, it is important to know the daylight hours you have so you can plan your itinerary accordingly. This is actually something that people usually don’t remember about but this can actually change everything in your road trip to Iceland.
Here are the sunrise and sunset hours for various months of the year:
- 1st of November, sunrise – 9:10 am, sunset – 5:10 pm
- December 21st, sunrise – 11:20 am, sunset – 3:30 pm (shortest day of the year)
- 31st of January, sunrise – 10:10 am, sunset – 5:10 pm
- 28th of February, sunrise – 8:40 am, sunset – 6:40 pm
- 31st of March, sunrise – 6:50 am, sunset – 8:20 pm
See the difference between the winter months in Iceland? If you are considering a winter trip to Iceland in the darkest months, do not forget to plan your itinerary this way so that you are not out and about in complete darkness – you will not see many natural wonders, also driving in the dark sucks!
Now, when it comes to the weather conditions, in Iceland the weather can change very quickly.
We usually say “if the weather is bad, wait for 5 minutes”. And it is SO true. Sometimes it is just a matter of waiting a bit and the weather improves (or NOT!).
The average temperature in the winter months is around 4C (39F). However, it can feel much colder when there is a strong wind from the North. The lowest I felt was -15 Celsius (-13 F). If you now wonder what to wear, check my packing list for winter.
Winter months in Iceland are usually stormy, with poor visibility and slippery roads. But do not worry, lots of people still visit Iceland even in the winter, and you will be fine too, just make sure you are using all my tips below!
2. The best type of car + winter tires
Driving around Iceland is the most common and easy mode of transportation, no matter the season. However, when planning a trip in winter, you need to be careful when it comes to deciding what type of car you should rent.
PRO TIP: If you are a bit lost on how to rent a car in Iceland, you can read the 8 things you should know before you go.
The most recommended type of car for driving in Iceland during winter is a 4×4 car. These are the most popular models that you will see people driving all over the country in the winter:
- Luxury: Land Rover
- Mid-range: Toyota RAV4
- Budget: Dacia Duster
The rates differ from the type of car and the month, but you can always get a good general idea on the prices by checking your dates here.
Again, when choosing a rental car for your winter driving in Iceland, make sure it is a 4WD (four-wheel drive). Also, if you do not know how to drive a stick, make sure to choose an automatic transmission car to make your life easier (most of the cars are automatic nowadays in any way, but still).
It is also very important to have good insurance, ideally one with full coverage. With full coverage, you don’t have to leave any deposit when picking up the car and it will help you feel more relaxed in general.
Most Icelandic car rental agencies give you the option to purchase insurance in their online form, BUT I recommend doing the following:
- Check if your personal vehicle insurance covers car rentals. Some do and that would save you a lot of money;
- Check if your credit card covers overseas car insurance (you can call the bank directly if you are not sure). Make sure to read the fine print too!;
- If you do need to buy insurance, here is my good tip for you – use Bonzah or Allianz. These two are third-party insurance providers with MUCH better rates than buying it at the car rental desk – it starts from 3 USD per day instead of 27€ that we paid. NOTE: Make sure the insured person is the one in the rental contract and you need to buy the insurance BEFORE you start driving, and you are good to go!
Now, what about tires? Don’t worry! Everyone in Iceland who owns a car has to change for winter studded tires in October and rental car companies are no exception. Car rentals usually don’t have studded tires (as they are more expensive) but they do have specific winter tires with larger gaps for better braking and cornering.
3. Hold your door when going out from the car
Yes, the wind can be verrrry strong (sometimes more than 25 m/s or 90 km/h) in Iceland that it actually can break your car doors!
It wouldn’t be the first time this happens and, for sure, will not be the last but at least you can’t say you were not informed.
PRO TIP: always park the car in the same direction that the wind gusts blow. If this is not possible, hold the door tight while opening it. If you are parked against the wind gusts, you will definitely feel like the car door is slipping through your hands.
NOTE: broken car doors are actually not covered by any insurance in most cases, no matter how good and expensive the insurance is.
4. Drive slooooow
No rush, we will all get there, you are on a vacation after all! Speeding in winter weather conditions is no fun but not only – it is also very expensive (fines). Please respect the maximum 90 km/h speed allowed in Road 1 (the main road that goes around Iceland) and you will be fine.
The road conditions will most likely force you to drive slowly in any way but I’m sure you will see people speeding and losing control of the car. Thus, please make sure you have a good safe distance from the car in front of you.
If you happen to have zero visibility and you do not feel confident to drive under these conditions, just wait it out – most of the time it would be 10 minutes to a few hours in any way.
5. Check these websites daily
When planning a winter driving trip in Iceland, there are three websites that you need to check frequently.
Here you will find all the information about the rules on how to drive in Iceland and here some info on Icelandic road signs.
Some of them might be similar to the ones you have in your home country. However, there are a few that will be different and they usually are in Icelandic. For example, the road sign that tells you that there will be a radar nearby is only in Icelandic and it looks like this:
Before hitting the road, always check this website. Road.is was created to tell you the info about the roads’ status (open/closed) and it is updated hourly!
We, the locals usually just use Google maps to build the route, it will take you to the right place, no worries. The only main road in Iceland is road 1 and that is the one that goes all around the island so it will be hard to get lost in any way. By the way, here is how to download them offline just in case you will lose connection. 😉
When checking this website, you can either choose to see the whole country or a specific region depending on your road trip plans for the day. In this case, you choose that region and it is given more details regarding the road number, wind speed in meters per second, and temperature there.
Vedur (“weather” in Icelandic) is a reliable weather forecast app. It is very important for you to know what the weather is and how it will look like during your trip.
As this is a forecast, and the weather in Iceland can change very quickly, I suggest checking this website often. It is especially crucial to do it in the winter because there may be a storm and you want to know about it in time!
My experience driving in Iceland in the winter
When I moved to Iceland I was definitely not used to winter driving as I am from Portugal, a Mediterranean country. I had to learn so I could drive by myself, take my family and friends on road trips etc.
I have a few situations to share with you from my personal and professional experience so you can understand better why I am writing an article on winter driving in Iceland.
Story 1: Golden Circle with zero visibility
I was one driving from Reykjavík to this cabin house in the Golden Circle with almost ZERO visibility. I could hardly see anything 2 mt away, crazy!
The trip took me a bit longer than 2 hours because I was driving 30 to 40 km/h and sometimes even slower than that. I could not see a single car in front of me and didn’t know if there were cars behind me.
Sometimes I got a bit more visibility but the truth is that after 2 hours of driving in conditions like this, I was very tired. Should you drive if the weather is like that? If you are not experienced or you are not used to driving in such conditions, I would suggest waiting it out. Otherwise, do it but slowly – better safe than sorry.
Story 2: Possible cancellations
In January my friends were on a road trip around Iceland. The plan was to do a 10-day ring road trip (classics).
Everything was going well until they received a weather alert about a strong wind in the North, near Akureyri, that’s where they were supposed to spend the next 2 nights. At that time, the guys were in Egilsstadir (~3h drive to Akureyri). Can you guess what happened?
Yep, they actually had to cancel the Northern part of the trip because … well, the weather didn’t allow for that, the road was closed too. They stayed for one more night in Egilsstadir and another 4 days in the South of Iceland where it was safe at the time.
Of course, they were sad because they did not have the chance to visit the North of Iceland, but sometimes it happens and you need to be (mentally) prepared for it and be flexible.
Frequently Asked Question about winter driving in Iceland
🚗 Is it safe to drive in Iceland during winter?
Driving in Iceland during winter can be challenging but it is NOT a mission impossible. You just need to be prepared for all the scenarios. Winter driving in Iceland can be smooth if you know what to expect and how to deal with it.
📅 Can you drive the Ring Road in Iceland in the winter?
Absolutely. You can do a road trip around Iceland in the winter but you need to remember about the daylight hours and possible weather conditions that might force you to change plans. You also might need to spend more days in Iceland. Usually, when planning a winter driving trip in Iceland, people stay around 10 days.
❄️ Can you drive in Iceland in February?
Yes! February can be a stormy month and the days are short but it is possible to drive in Iceland in February.
💫 Can you drive to the Golden Circle in winter?
Of course! Thousands of people do the Golden Circle in the winter. You need to be flexible and be prepared for possible weather changes (if it is extreme, the authorities might even temporarily close the road). Check the weather forecast on sites like road.is and vedur.is to be updated.
This is the end of this post, we have tons of other posts on Iceland here to make sure you have the time of your life in the land of Ice and Fire!
I hope this article was useful to you. To wrap up, if you will follow all the safety procedures mentioned in this post and you are an experienced driver, you are going to be just fine, do not worry! Rent a 4WD car with studded tires and have full coverage insurance for your rental car, then you are ready to face the roads.
Pack your bags, and have a great winter driving trip in Iceland!
If you have any questions about driving in Iceland in the winter or anything else about the country, just write me a comment in the comments section below!