For many tourists, driving in Iceland in the winter means snow, sleet, and high winds that blow cars off the road. May tourists have never seen snow before, let alone driven in it.
Many tourists are under the misconception that snow is the problem. Sure, driving in snow can be challenging, but the real difference in Iceland is wind. You should NEVER underestimate the wind.
Imagine the following scenario:
It is December: Average daylight hours are from 11am till about 3:30pm.
You’ve spent longer than what you’ve thought at your last tourist hotspot you decided you could not miss seeing. You’ve departed later than expected. It becomes dark. The roads are icy. You are on a narrow road and snow starts blowing in and the wind gets stronger. You didn’t check the weather before leaving.
Then, a huge gust of wind comes along, and since the roads are icy, you get blown off the road. You might end up in water, or a ditch, or even worse – over a cliff. It depends on where you are. This happens. And people unfortunately die. Average daylight in December is from about 11am till about 3:30pm. Think of that quickly: Just over 4 hours of sunlight. Are you able to drive to your destination and see the sights before returning?
Most tourists have plans they want to stick to. That doesn’t always work in winter. There are often days where it isn’t safe to drive. You will have to stay where you are and miss your next stop. Are you willing to do that? Can you stay flexible? I have seen people planning trip reports where everything is carefully laid out, from the time they wake up, eat, to going to sleep. I often want to ask these people have they scheduled time to have fun, relax and enjoy themselves, rather than trying to stick to a schedule. Where is the fun in that? It is often these types of people that get themselves into trouble because they did not look at the weather forecasts, or simply have to get to the next stop because their schedule says they need to be at a certain place at a certain time. Are you able to change your schedule at a moment’s notice? If not, come back in summer. Driving in winter in Iceland is not for you.
I know it all sounds gloomy, but the warnings are real. Tourists are unfortunately getting into accidents and dying on the road because they are not informed about the risks of driving. If you however are able to take in the warnings, and how to cope in winter situations, then by all means, do come and driving in Iceland in the winter. It can be so much fun, as long as you be careful and sensible.
I often see posts from people who state that they come from a place that has snow in the winter and that they know how to drive in the snow. That’s great, and it is important to have some experience, but remember, the problem is not so much the snow, but the wind that causes a lot of problems. Winter driving in other countries that have very low winter temperatures and snow can be very different than driving in winter in Iceland. In many other northern countries the temperatures in winter are very stable – always below freezing causing snow to just accumulate. This is not the case in Iceland, temperatures change rapidly and can change rapidly from -10°C to +10°C within a day, which means that the snow and ice undergoes a continuous cycle of melting and then freezing again. Roads are therefore often covered by slush, sometimes deep wet slush, and sometimes frozen slush with deep ruts that tyres get stuck in, so it is important to be driving the correct type of vehicle as well.
Sometimes it can be dangerous driving near certain types of maintains, where as you round a corner you can be hit by a sudden, strong gust of wind.
The Icelandic people who live there are all too aware of how the weather can change plans. Even the locals check the weather when making plans. You need to be flexible in your plans, to either leave earlier, later, or extend your stay somewhere until the weather improves. Luckily the bad weather rarely stays around for a long time, so you would be able to continue your journey as soon as the weather improves.
All the major roads have digital signs showing wind speed.
The numbers in the red on the right show the wind speed. Anything above 20 m/s means you should show caution and be prepared to turn around.
For reference, wind speeds in Iceland are displayed and reported (on roadside warning signs and on http://vedur.is) in meters per second: m/s.
1 meter per second = 3.6 km/h
1 meter per second = 2.2 mph
20 m/s is about 75 km/h or 45 mph.
If you do happen to get stuck then be careful to save fuel and keep the car ventilated. Do not keep the engine running all the time, it is better to alternate between one hour running, and then one hour off. When the engine is running you should have a ventilation crack in the window. If there is a lot of snow then make sure the exhaust is clear of snow and the lights are not buried by snow (Front and back lights), this will help if people are searching for you.
Important Important Important!!! When travelling in Iceland, especially during winter months, check the local weather conditions at least every hour. You can check the weather conditions at the following website:
Also another important website to check road conditions: http://www.road.is/
Another important website: https://safetravel.is/
This guide to driving in winter in Iceland is not to scare you away, but to make sure you understand it can be dangerous. If you make sure you keep an eye on the weather forecasts, stick to the main roads and not venture into isolated areas, you will have a wonderful time.
When driving in winter in Iceland, don’t drive fast, don’t break suddenly and don’t turn the steering wheel too sharply. If you are driving a manual transmission, use your engine to help slow you down as well, shift up a gear and let your clutch out slowly to use your engine power to start slowing you down. Jamming on your brakes suddenly could cause you to skid.
I really loved my time driving in Iceland in the winter, loved seeing all the snow and ice. If you do decide to hire a car in Iceland and drive in the winter, be safe and enjoy!