What it is Like Driving on Gravel Roads in Iceland
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Taking a road trip in Iceland is a fantastically rewarding way to see the country. With its immense landscapes and incredible natural scenery there is never a dull moment. Exploring by car and camping or hiring a motorhome or camper van are all excellent ways to experience Iceland. There are many beautiful drives around the country. From the Golden Circle to the South Coast to the full Iceland Ring Road route. One of the great things about driving in Iceland is that there is so much to see. You won’t need to drive far to get to the next amazing sight and the distances in general are not huge.
It is not all plain sailing though. Driving in Iceland comes with its own set of very particular challenges. Sure the roads might not be busy with other traffic and you won’t be sitting in traffic jams for hours. But Iceland has its own list of challenging driving conditions to take note of. Before you decide to take a road trip in Iceland you should familiarise yourself with these challenges. You can then weigh up whether you feel comfortable with them or not. Even if you are a confident driver you should be aware that things are different in Iceland. You can’t just treat the roads here like you do back home. Don’t be put off though. Just come prepared. If you are patient, considerate and mindful of your surroundings all will be well. You will also be rewarded with a truly epic travel experience.
Gravel roads in Iceland
Although many of the roads in Iceland are paved in asphalt there are almost as many gravel roads. No matter where you are driving in Iceland you will almost certainly come across some gravel roads or tracks. They could just be reasonably short stretches of gravel track leading to the parking lots of the various beauty spots. However if you head to north Iceland or across the highland roads then you will encounter long stretches of gravel. This is where things can get tricky if you are not prepared.
Speed limits in Iceland
The Iceland speed limit obviously varies depending on the road surface and environment. The speed limits below are the absolute maximum speed limits for road driving on particular roads under perfect conditions. You should always use your common sense and judgment and adjust your speed depending on current road conditions.
Urban and built up areas speed limit 50km/h or 30mph
Rural paved roads speed limit 90km/h or 55mph
Rural gravel roads speed limit 80km/h or 49mph
Speeding is the most common cause of accidents in Iceland. If you are caught exceeding the speed limit you will be heavily fined. Speeding fines in Iceland are very high and you might end up paying upwards of $500 US. If safety concerns aren’t enough to put you off breaking the law then this certainly will be!
If you are renting a car or hiring a camper you should also be aware that wearing seat belts is compulsory. This applies to all passengers both in the front and the back seats. Again the fines for breaking this law on this can be pretty high.
How to drive on gravel roads
The general rule to help you stay safe on gravel roads is to drive slowly and cautiously. It is very easy for tyres to slip on loose stones and gravel and for you to lose control of the steering. If this happens it is important to remain calm. You must not slam on your breaks and jerk the steering wheel. This might be your reaction if you panic. Instead stay calm, press the clutch in and gently turn the wheel in the direction the car is pulling. If you have ever hit ice when driving then this is a similar technique. You turn into the slide. You allow the car to pass through the slide and gently guide the wheel.
This whole scenario can be avoided though if you keep your speed down. There is no rush after all. You are on a road trip for the fun of it. Not to rush through the experience.
Depending on your road trip itinerary you might well be more comfortable hiring a 4x4 camper or car. If you plan to drive on any of Iceland’s F Roads you will certainly need a four-wheel drive vehicle. Many of Iceland’s roads are strictly for 4 x 4 vehicles only and can only be driven during the summer months. The weather conditions in winter make them impassable.
Other things to watch out for
If you are travelling around Iceland by road it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the more common road signs. As well as the speed limit changes you need to understand the road signs so you know what is coming up. For example road surfaces can change from asphalt to gravel quite abruptly. There will always be plenty of warning but you will need to recognise the sign to receive that warning. When you see it you will need to slow down appropriately and carefully transition onto the gravel road.
Gravel roads are usually quite a bit narrower than paved roads too. They will generally still be two-lane but there won’t be as much space for passing. As such you need to be extra aware of any oncoming traffic. If you come to a blind corner or a blind rise then slow right down. You also need to get well over on your side of the road to allow space for any oncoming cars. These are common on Iceland’s roads and you never know what might be approaching. There could even be sheep straying onto the road as many of Iceland's roads cut across unfenced pasture. Again there will always be bright yellow and red signage to warn you of corners and blind rises in plenty of time. The Icelandic Road Administration is in charge of all upkeep and signage and they do a thorough job.
Another thing to look out for is approaching bridges. There are innumerable watercourses and wherever you drive in Iceland you are sure to cross a river or two. For most of the smaller rivers and streams there will be small single lane bridges to cross. The general rule here is that the car that gets there first crosses first. So reduce your speed as you approach and show consideration for your fellow road drivers. There are even some unbridged rivers in Iceland. Under no circumstances will rental cars insurance in Iceland cover you for a river crossing. This is the same for off road driving and in fact this is strictly prohibited. If you do come to a river crossing without a bridge you would be advised to turn back and find another route.
The weather in Iceland is another big consideration. It can change rapidly from calm to raging storms in the space of a few hours. Stay safe and plan ahead by checking the weather forecast before you set off each morning and evening.