Driving in Iceland--What to Know--(bc there's lots of weird stuff to pay attention to!)
Driving is the same as any country who drives on the right-hand side of the road. What is wildly different are the many and varied unusual circumstances you need to be vigilant for when behind the wheel in Iceland. Let's go through them....
Our Car from ISAK
Before coming to Iceland, we had watched Down to Earth with Zac Efron and Darin Olien. This is a great video introduction to the Iceland personality and can give you some inspiration for what to do on your trip. It did me. These two went to Iceland and in one scene I saw them driving in this very cool Land Rover with a snorkel (above). I screenshot it from my tv, enlarged the side logo and found ISAK 4x4 car rental. Nicest people, like all the Icelanders. It was such an adventure to drive this car. The word ISAK in Icelandic translates to 'ice driving'. It's a great car for the off-roads, the F Roads and river fording. Maybe not THE totally best car for driving the entire Ring Road...but we did it anyway and laughed and laughed and had so much fun as a result of the car itself. it absolutely added to our Iceland adventure.
1) Beep-Beep, Sheep-Sheep 🚗
May and June are lamb season in Iceland. All the ewes have their babies...usually TWO. In the first few weeks, lambs are kept inside the farmer's fence.
After June, it's fair game! Take a look here.
They have this really wonderful thing they do in Iceland: the farmers open their gates and all summer long, sheep and lambs are let to run and graze free anywhere in the entire country! They live a wildly independent life. (I'll tell you how they come home at the end of this section. For now, let's talk about how this affects driving in Iceland.
Sheep often find their way outside the fences even before their farmers open the gate. You are warned when you rent a car in Iceland to WATCH 😳 for the sheep and their lambs. They cross the roads everywhere, just wandering to their next destination.
They are susceptible to horn honking (unlike the baby seagulls...read further down) so if you see a lamp near the side of your road...give them a beep beep. The little lambs will scurry. This is a real threat. Anytime we saw a farm with sheep, our whole car got on alert to keep our eyes peeled to warn of sheep thinking about crossing the road.
If you get unlucky enough to hit one, call 112. Farmers are insured for this type of thing. All sheep have ear tags marked for the farmer who owns them. If you can't call, you definitely should stop at the nearest farm to tell the farmer there and he will handle it. Dead sheep need to be collected to prevent more accidents and to reimburse the owner.
Everyone in Iceland knows the story of Muslim tourists in 2017, who thought the sheep were wild and killed one for Ramadan. That's a different story. They were fined considerably.
Sheep Round Up in the Fall
Come September, the country rallies as do many tourists for the Fettir (festival) to gather the sheep. They are chased down by horseback, sheep dogs and on foot, into pizza shaped sorting ring (corrals) where lambs are identified by their ear marks and sorted into their pizza slices and returned to the owner farmer. A couple weeks later there is a second, smaller gathering. Then a third really small one where farmers still missing their sheep go out looking.
Just watch for the 🐑🐑🐑
Photo: Iceland Air
This is really sad to share, but you will want to be aware.
In Iceland, when seagulls are born, the babies are really big. They are easily mistaken for being adult birds. Except, they can't fly one iota. In nature, seagulls are born inland, then the babies go in the water and allow the water to float them downstream effortlessly to the sea and some point afterwards, out there, they learn to fly.
Tragedy happens when a couple unfortunate circumstances collide.
A. Baby seagulls mistake highways and roads for rivers, so they go out there and sit, waiting for the 'river' to take them to the sea.
B. Tourists mistake baby seagulls for adult birds who can fly. Thus, they assume when their car gets closet the bird will fly off at the last minute. With the babies, this doesn't happen. 😢 sad emoji
You know what happens next.
3) Wind 💨
Wind in Iceland is no joke.
When we picked up our rental car, we got quite the safety speech, no small part of it was about being careful about wind. It frankly made me wonder if we'd made a grave mistake renting a car. Here is that speech in a nutshell. Pay attention!
-park facing the wind so your car doors open into it
-hold your car door with TWO hands when you open it so the wind doesn't take it off
Our car rental agency already had 8 vehicles returned with ripped off doors Here is a video showing how hard it can be to control your doors in Iceland's strong wind. And here is another one. Worth watching to demonstrate just how real this concern is. It was an eye-opener for us Californians!
-Watch these websites Road.is and SafeTravels.is and download the coordinating apps for wind speed on the roads as well as opens and closures and everything you need to know. It can change ten minutes down the road. If the wind is too strong...don't drive!! We saw photos of cars literally blown off the road rolling down the side. If you doubt me, watch this video of an RV rollover in Iceland. This video shows the wind is strong enough to just tip over a semi truck. Windy roads all have big signs posting the current wind speed....pay attention!
4) Icelandic Road Signs
Took us a little while and some google searches to figure out how to read the road signs. Iceland DOES have road conditions we've never seen anywhere else in the world.
I'm gonna save you some time
Download this pdf with the road signs and what they mean.
Parking signs interpreted here.
Watch these wind signs. A 'breezy' day in Iceland means winds are around 16-25 kmph (10 to 15 mph). The winds you want to be wary of when driving on the Ring Road are 64kmph (40mph). It's the gusts that will knock you and your car over.
If you come from a Westernized country, then most of your roads are probably paved. Don't expect that to be the case in Iceland. Roads frequently go from paved to gravel in an instant. We were warned this transition is where most tourist accidents occur. There will be road signs warning you (most of the time) about the upcoming road texture change.
6) One-Lane/One Car at a Time Bridges
This is pretty much every bridge in Iceland. I thought maybe there'd be a few but came quickly to realize that no spent the bucks to build a 2 car bridge in Iceland ever. You will be warned with this sign. Heed it. Look really far ahead to see if any other car might be speeding towards you, then venture carefully on to the bridge and get across.
I video taped one of our (many) single lane bridge crossings. You can watch it here. Since it's raining, it's particularly appropriate for crossing it in Iceland.
Get the Parka.is app. This will save you a bunch of time. It looks like this
You can set the app to pinpoint your location all around Iceland. Open the app when you need to park anywhere: Reykjavik street parking, parking garages, Akureyri, tourist destinations. For example you can say when you are at Jokulsarlon (where the icebergs float out to sea), click park there and your card will be charged the appropriate amount. In the towns, there are well-marked parking zones (P1, P2, P3 and so on). Each zone has a time limit and its own pricing. When you tell the app that your license plate is parked in P3 for example, it knows if P3 has a 2 hour time limit and notifies you when your time is up. It then allows you to add money to pay to park longer. It's absolutely brilliant. You have nothing to display on your dashboard because the app is allowing you to pay by the license plate of your car. When you pay by plate, you can drive in and out and the app takes care of the rest so you don't need to check in and out of your parking place.
When parking on the streets of Reykjavik, you will notice these metal dots in the road. These actually denote parking spaces (park between two lines of the dots) and are metal because of the extreme winter weather to keep them from wearing away every season.
8) Tunnel Toll
There are a couple of long-a** tunnels in Iceland and they are worth using. You just have to pay for them. The almost 5-mile long one in the north near Akureyri is called Valdlaheidargong Tunnel. You just drive through it then pay online here using your license plate in the rental car section. Cost is about $13 and cuts 10 miles of driving off the Ring Road route. If you forget to pay...your rental car company will be notified and be collecting it from you when you return your car to them.
We joked, since we were in Iceland in June when the sun never sets and it is literally light all night long, that the tunnel driving was the closest we came to darkness on our trip. You're in these tunnels for at least 5 minutes, so your eyes actually have to readjust to the light when you come out the other end. (Don't try the whole holding your breath and making a wish thing in these)
Enjoy the start of our dark tunnel journey by watching this video I took. My son recorded the entire 5 minutes, but who wants to watch that!?!? He tried to hold his breath and wish through the first tunnel, but when he saw the phone...he knew there was no hope of making it to the end.
9) Don't Pull off to the side of the Road--EVER!
There is incredible beauty to see when driving in Iceland. It can be excruciatingly distracting for the driver and incredibly tempting to want to stop where you are and take it in. Most of the roads in Iceland do not have a soft shoulder. When you've been out there for hours and seen only a few people, you could easily make the mistake of just stopping in the middle of the road. it is in in fact a common mistake made by tourists on this beautiful island. And many people get killed this way every year. It is NOT safe, regardless what you think. Drive a few more minutes ahead until you find a little pullout.
10) Gas Station Food You Can Actually Eat (it's serioulsy yummy)
I know, if you are coming to Iceland from the United States, you're just gonna skip this section in disbelief. However, hear me out.
On our first full day in the country, we hired an amazing and knowledgeable tour guide for the ENTIRE day (read that as 12 hours in the car with him) Find him here and go book him! He swore that we could eat gas station food and not get sick like it makes you in the US.
Turns out gas station food is AS good as any other place in Iceland, nothing like foul food you get on the road in the US. You will find pastries, pizza, sandwiches and more. Clean bathrooms. Clean places to sit and eat. Often a cute little touristy shop. One day, in Seydisfjordur, we bought a boule of freshly baked bread from the gas station!
Tour guides eat free EVERYwhere in Iceland. EVEN in nice restaurants when they bring you in. What a great way to reward and encourage them to do so.
We did wonder, on our first day with Arctic Mike, why he ran off to some back area of the gas station when he dropped us off to use the toilet and grab a snack. It turns out, like this sign says, that there is a separate area specifically set aside for tour guides!
Below is a little montage of some of our gas station gastronomies. My husband was always able to find fun and fresh donuts, so he was quite happy. Also, hot dogs are a thing in Iceland (they are lamb dogs instead of pork) and even the gas stations serve them.
As a post script, I was floored by the gas station interior decor! What IS this place?
11) Traffic Ligths have some fun features
First off...we got confused!
All the traffic lights run this way: red, yellow, green, yellow, red, yellow and so on.
There is a yellow light between every green and red.
Watch how it works here.
It took my posting on Instagram to learn what that meant.
The next best thing is that in the northern town of Akureyri, the red lights are in the shape of hearts! I mean...how wonderful!
How to Pump Gas
It looks the same, and honestly, it's not like it's THAT hard.
Everything thought can be a challenge when you are reading the instructions in a foreign language. We totally found this out when for days in our Airbnb in Reykjavik we failed at working the washer and dryer. We didn't get it right until we googled the symbols on the last day.
I was warned by watching videos before coming to Iceland. When I was told we needed a pin number for our credit card to use it certain places in Iceland, I called our credit card company and they told me we could just use the CVV code on the card and that would work. It didn't. The first time we pumped gas it was a fail. We actually had to borrow our son's debit card to get gas (bc we don't use debit). From Iceland, we called our credit card company again and actually had a pin code assigned and all was good from then on.
My husband explains it all here.
The Last Tidbit of Interesting
In Vik, where people often take off to trek the glaciers, we ran into some really interesting vehicles. The big giant truck-like vehicles that drive over ice, have these little air pumps so the drivers can decrease or increase the tire pressure. Lower pressure flattens the tires and give the trucks more traction when needed.
I grew up doing family driving vacations. This big Iceland trip was the first time I've done so much driving with my current nuclear family of husband and two college-aged kids. I'm not one to travel in the style of driving, staying a night, driving again. Honestly, I don't like staying only 1 night in a place. You can't unpack and it just feels to rush-rush. When I spoke to a friend who had been to Iceland recently with her son and she told me to do the Ring Road meant one-night stays...I was like "no" So I purposely planned for two extra nights beyond what she did. It was still not enough time. Eleven nights in Iceland was not enough time. You can go read my full itinerary blog and once I write it I'll try to remember to come back here and link it. I would have ideally liked at least 3 more nights to go slower and get more local. I recognize that long a vacation isn't feasible for everyone.
So what might I recommend for you? Don't try to fit everything in. My family was absolutely exhausted on some of the days which were 6 hours of driving not counting stops.
Choose a handful of places and stay long enough to unpack and use your stay as a home base for your exploration. Our best segments were the 3 nights in Reykjavik and the 3 nights in Akureryi. Do less and do it well.
Now enjoy our super cool 2015 Land Rover Defender from ISAK as it drove all over Iceland.