Top tips for driving in Iceland
Updated: May 24, 2019
Dreaming of hitting the open road on a self-drive motorhome tour of Iceland? Having the freedom to dictate your own itinerary, and change it at the last minute, is invaluable, but travelling by camper in Iceland comes with its own set of considerations. The pay off is well worth it, but here are a few hints and tips to keep in mind when deciding whether camper rental in Iceland is right for you, and for preparing yourself for the big adventure.
What type of camper should I hire?
There are two types of camper rentals in Iceland and which one you choose depends on where you want to travel and the time of year you decide to visit Iceland. If you visit in summer and want to take a grand tour of the main sites, including driving Iceland’s famous Ring Road, then a two-wheel drive motorhome or camper will be perfect for your needs. If however you plan on a winter holiday to Iceland, and/or want to tackle some of the mountain roads or the gravel/dirt road sections, then you definitely need to hire a four-wheel drive camper van. Road conditions in Iceland in winter can get pretty tricky, so you’ll need to take it slow and be a fairly confident driver.
When should I travel?
The best time of year for exploring Iceland by campervan is of course the summer. Extra daylight hours and much better driving conditions than in winter make it all the more appealing. Also, note that Iceland’s excellent campsites are all open in the summer months, whereas in winter many will close their gates. It is perfectly possible to explore Iceland by campervan in winter though, and you’ll have the benefit of quieter roads and many opportunities to stargaze and spot the Northern Lights. Winter trips are probably best planned around a smaller area, avoiding longer expeditions like the full circle on Iceland’s Ring Road. If you are new to driving a large vehicle, it would probably be wise to visit in summer and avoid the added pressure of navigating the winter weather.
The rules of rv rentals in Iceland
The rules around renting campers, or indeed cars, in Iceland are pretty similar to those in most of Europe and the US. You will need a valid driver’s licence, which includes a photo ID. In most cases you will need to have held your license for over two years and be over 20. Drivers under 25 will likely be charged extra for cover. Something to bear in mind for younger drivers.
The highway code
Next up, the basics – in Iceland vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road and overtake on the left. Speed limits are written in km per hour and are 90 km on paved roads, 80 km for dirt or gravel roads and 30-50 km in towns and cities. Speed cameras are in operation, including in all tunnels (usually with a 70 km speed limit).
Gravel roads in Iceland
There are quite a few stretches of gravel road in Iceland, including a small portion of the Ring Road in the East of the country. Most are fine to tackle in a two wheel-drive vehicle, but some can be somewhat rough. The roughest are known as ‘F’ roads and are found in the highlands – these roads are mostly closed in winter, but when they are passable, they can only be driven by a 4x4 camper or car. It is highly advisable to abide by the rules, both for safety’s sake, and to avoid any costly mishaps. You won’t be covered by your rental insurance if you need recovery from a road that you are not supposed to be driving. Don’t worry though, there will be clear signage letting you know if you can or can’t drive there.
Drinking and driving in Iceland
Drinking and driving is never a good idea, but in Iceland the limit is lower than in Europe or the US at 0.05% (with a plan to potentially reduce this to 0.02%). The fines are high and strictly enforced and it is very easy to reach the limit with just a half pint of beer. It is definitely best to crack open a beer or bottle of wine once you’ve safely reached your camp ground for the night.
Can I drive off-road in Iceland?
If you hire a pumped up SUV, jeep or 4x4 rv in Iceland, it can feel very tempting to put your new wheels to the test and head off-road. However, as tempting as it may be this is strictly forbidden. Iceland’s rugged terrain is actually very sensitive, with slow-growing and fragile plant life. To protect the flora and fauna of the country all drivers must stick to marked roads, and the same goes for parking – only designated areas in tarmac, gravel or dirt can be used. But never fear adrenalin junkies, many of the marked gravel and dirt roads will feel quite exciting enough to drive. Some people are confused about this rule when they see so many 4x4 jeeps on the road, but the reason for them is exactly that – winter driving on many of Iceland’s roads demands it. Snowy passes, ice and river crossings are the norm for some residents.
Vehicle insurance in Iceland
If you’re planning on hitting the road in Iceland it’s important to read the small print on your vehicle hire and consider the level of cover you go for. You don’t want a big credit card bill if you’re unlucky, but at the same time you don’t want to buy unnecessary cover. A summer trip around Reykjavik should be reasonably risk-free, but of course there are no guarantees. If you’re planning on driving gravel or dirt roads, then you should definitely get extra cover for gravel damage to paintwork – you’ll almost certainly incur a chip or two. Another possible option is sand/ash damage cover, advisable if you drive in the south of Iceland, where strong winds blowing sand and ash can quickly damage the paintwork. One important point to note is about river crossings. Even a 4x4 rental can’t be insured for river crossings, so if you head into the waters you do so at your own risk. Something to consider when planning your route. Obviously, if you head off-road or drive on closed roads or ones not suitable for your vehicle, then you won’t be covered.
Keep the motor running
Filling the tank in Iceland is straightforward, there are plenty of gas stations around in the more populated areas and using them is straightforward with instructions in English and Icelandic. In more remote areas you may come across an unmanned petrol station. For these you will need to pay by credit card, so make sure you have a valid one with you. Again instructions in English and Icelandic make the process simple – usually you just need to look out for a British or American flag on-screen to press and the language will switch.