Iceland has an average population of 344,000, a little over a third of which lives in the island’s capital and largest city, Reykjavik.
Iceland is flush with amazing landscapes and even more amazing people. Which is why it’s a hotbed for tourism. Whether you want to explore the most popular sites or go off the map — we approve of going off the map, always, to be clear — a road trip gives you the perfect chance to fully explore Iceland. But what exactly should you know before taking to the road?
Choose Your Destinations Wisely
Every great road trip starts with a list of potential stops. The beauty of Iceland is that it’s a small country, so you can experience a ton of great ones, even on a short trip.
Do a bit of research, learn what’s out there, so you can earmark some great places.
Prepare to Drive in Unfamiliar Territory
Duh! Road trips are a great way to learn all about Iceland, but you need the right vehicle to accompany you on your journey. It’s important to choose a car you’ll feel comfortable in, as driving in Iceland can occasionally get tricky. For one thing the weather can also be quite extreme, depending on your location.
And it gets “turbulent”! What exactly do we mean by turbulent? Well, if you’re used to gliding across smoothly-paved highways, you might be in for a shock. In Iceland, you’ll encounter narrow roads, gravel roads, and one-lane bridges, and roads that feel off road more than, er, roads.
It’s wise to have the emergency numbers on hand, such as those for the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue and the Icelandic Road Administration. And your priest. (Haha, just kidding! It’s not that dangerous!)
Before your trip, become familiar with the most common road signs in Iceland, to get a better sense of the terrain and what speed limits are appropriate on differently paved roads. Many preventable accidents, just so you know, nobody’s being your mother here, occur because drivers don’t slow down when paved roads transition into gravel roads.
Monitor Your Gas Levels
Gas in Iceland is pricy, and gas stations can be hard to come by, especially in more rural areas, and let’s face it Iceland is almost entirely about the rural. Be sure to keep a relatively full tank because you don’t want to get stranded in a snowstorm with little fuel. It’s also a good idea to have some cash on hand if they don’t accept foreign credit cards. Which they might not.
So Many Rivers to Cross…
If you plan to explore the highlands in Iceland, you may cross rivers. It’s crucial that you thoroughly research the safest way to cross rivers in Iceland. This may be the most important of all Iceland road trip tips.
Before crossing a river, make sure you’re 100% confident there are no other alternate routes available. To foreigners, this may sound silly. Many of us cross rivers every day. I know I do!
However, crossing rivers in Iceland is more akin to floating a wagon across a body of water. The water depth can change from day to day or even hour to hour. Fording a car across a river is tricky enough as it is, but it’s even more challenging if you’ve never done it before and you’re in a rental car.
Be diligent about evaluating whether a river is safe to cross. A good point of reference is if the water would reach higher than your car’s fender, it’s probably too deep to cross. Be sure to read up on safe river-crossing practice even if you don’t plan on fording any bodies of water during your trip. Because you never know, right?
Make Grocery Trips!
Food in Iceland is pricey. While you’ll want to experience some of their great restaurants, you should consider the alternative of buying your own food some of the time too. Plus, it’s fun to explore foreign grocery stores. Stock up on ingredients at the grocery store. When on the road, it’s best to have something quick and easy to make, because it’s not like there’s a restaurant around every corner.
Plan Your Itinerary
Icelandic people are extremely welcoming and kind individuals. Some will invite you into their homes. However, travelers shouldn’t take that kindness for granted.
You may want to camp beneath the endless sky in the evening, but you must be certain that you aren’t camping on private property or within city borders outside of designated camping areas. Luckily, camping grounds in Iceland are very affordable, so you can enjoy the great outdoors without overstepping.
If you’re staying in hotels or using Airbnb, make sure you read any rules or requirements they have for guests. Airbnbs are a great option for road trippers, as it gives travelers a chance to really connect with the locals and learn more about their culture. But every region, remember, has their own rules and laws.
Iceland is unlike any other country. With epic scenery and incredibly friendly communities of people, it’s easy to fall in love with the country, no matter the length of your trip. A road trip is a great way to take advantage of your time and really experience the layers and nuances of this spectacular isle.