One of the best ways to see all the amazing scenery we have to offer here in Iceland is to hire a vehicle and head out onto the Icelandic road network for an adventure. It is worth remembering that driving conditions in Iceland can be extremely challenging both in terms of the changeable weather and with regards to the roads themselves. This article is designed to provide you with information on how you can stay safe when driving in Iceland.
1. Check the weather before you set out each day and regularly during the day
The Icelandic Met Office website is the best source of information for the weather. You should bookmark this website on your phone, laptop and tablet and become used to checking it as part of your daily routine when in Iceland.
Website: Icelandic Met Office (English)
Weather warnings, particularly for high winds, rain and snow, are common during the autumn, winter and early spring. If there is a weather warning out for your area of travel on a particular day, please pay attention to the advice on the page. If travel is not advised, don't risk it! There have been incidents where the wind has been strong enough to shatter car windows. Also keep in mind that conditions in Iceland change quickly! Regularly checking out this site during the day will help you avoid any nasty surprises.
You can also use this site to check for the Aurora forecast as well as information on earthquakes currently happening around the country.
2. Check the road conditions before you set out each day and regularly during the day
Another website to have stored when you travel here is www.road.is. This is the most up-to-date source of information on driving conditions on all the roads in Iceland, including the highland and non-paved roads.
The Iceland map on the homepage is split into the different regions. To check the conditions where you will be travelling on a particularly day just click that part of the map. You will then be taken to a detailed road map of that area which is colour coded - the codes are explained below the map. Definitely don't drive anywhere marked as red! Many of the roads also have webcams. You will see little boxes of information including temperature, wind speed and wind gust (with the little arrow next to it - red arrow is strong gusts). Clicking this box will take you to a page for that road itself. If it has webcams you can check these out to see what the roads look like. This has helped me on a number of occasions in the winter, after heavy snowfall, in being able to plan my journeys to avoid the roads that are in the worst condition.
3. Consider registering your travel plans with Safetravel.is
This is a website with lots of useful information on travelling safely around the country, not just on the roads. On the front page you can register your Travel Plan with the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. This lets them know where you will be - you can even turn on Trip Monitoring with them for extra safety.
They offer an app for iOS and Android which allows you to call the emergency services by pressing a big Red Button, direct from the app. You can also check in your location on the app with the services so that if anything happens they have more information to work with - the last 5 locations are stored and they are happy for you to use it! As they say on their site, you are not disturbing anyone!
There is a lot of other information on this site including useful driving tip videos and information on everything from camping to kayaking. I would highly recommend having a read through this website before you arrive in Iceland or before you set out on your big adventure. It's a great resource.
4. Please don't drive where you are not supposed to
This may sound like obvious advice but there are a lot of tempting side tracks leading off to mysterious looking places. These could be simple farm roads where the worst thing that could happen is the farmer wonders who is driving up to see him/her. Worst case you can end up on a poorly marked track that is not maintained or suitable for the vehicle you have. Even some of the main roads during difficult weather conditions can become extremely difficult to drive on so these smaller tracks and roads are just not worth risking unless you are with an experienced guide.
Similarly, please please PLEASE, don't drive off a road onto areas like beaches or fields, even if you see tracks of other vehicles leading that way. A lot of damage can be done to the wildlife that can take a lifetime to repair. Whilst it may be tempting to have some fun, or drive closer to get that all important photograph, please consider parking somewhere instead and taking a walk. Which leads to...
5. Please don't stop to take photographs on the roads
I know, it's tempting. You round a bend in the road and suddenly the scenery opens up into something spectacular and you just have to take a photograph. Whether you are on Route 1 or a smaller side road, please do not stop your car on the road, or even with part of the car on the road, to get out and take a photograph. I cannot stress how dangerous this is.
Whilst the roads here may seem quiet compared to other countries, there is now much more traffic than there used to be. Sure, as a kid in the 80's here we would be guaranteed not to see another car on Route 1 sometimes for up to an hour. I'll admit back then it was possible to stop and take photos and even have a picnic.
But times have changed! What may seem like a quiet road, with plenty of time to stop for a photo, may suddenly be filled with tour buses or cargo lorries, all of which will have to slow or even stop if you are blocking the roads even a bit. You may wonder what the big deal is with this but unfortunately people have been killed recently when stopping to just take a photo.
I highly recommend finding a safe stopping place, of which we have MANY, a bit further on and pulling off the roads entirely. I mean giving yourself lots of space! Then feel free to pop out and grab that shot.
I would say that this perhaps is the piece of advice I hope you take the most seriously as it is becoming a problem.
I hope this post has been useful. Being prepared for travel on the roads in Iceland is essential and will ensure you have both a safe and enjoyable trip. What I recommend in this article takes all of 5 minutes here and there during the day and will minimise your chances of getting into difficulties.
If you do have problems, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue are there to help. Please do keep in mind that they are a volunteer organisation and rely solely on donations. So when they are called out to rescue someone who hasn't checked the road conditions, and found themselves stuck in a snow drift, they are often coming to help voluntarily. They are often risking their own safety in these situations. Therefore please consider giving a small donation to the organisation as part of your trip to Iceland. I know they would be extremely grateful.