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A country as breathtaking as Iceland is perhaps best viewed in your own time, at your own pace. The vast array of natural wonders and stunning scenery has meant that self-drive tours are becoming increasingly popular, and more bold, adventurous tourists are devising their own itineraries every year. What many would be self-drivers don't realise though, is that driving conditions in Iceland are for the most part, fairly challenging, and that the rugged landscape poses difficulties that many tourists haven't faced before. Here is some useful information if you're planning on driving during your stay.
Whilst the Icelandic highway system is extensive and easily navigated, a large number of the roads are little more than gravel tracks. The most used road, Highway no. 1, winds around the circumference of the country, and is best used for getting from one side to the other quickly. Being Iceland's most important road, it is open throughout the year, although the extreme conditions can sometimes lead to temporary and partial closures during the winter months. The majority of main roads are tarmacked, but as you stray into the wilderness the tracks become progressively more rugged, and should be navigated with care.
The winter snow means that the condition of many smaller roads deteriorates each year, and you will find gravel tracks in various conditions. Potholes and washboard surfaces are common, so prepare for a potentially bumpy ride! Having said this, most roads are perfectly drivable, and, providing you are careful, very safe. A good tip is to watch out when passing oncoming vehicles – the loose surface means that it's easy for small stones and rocks to kick up and scratch a window or paint job!
Iceland's driving laws may be different to those from your home country, so be sure to take the following on board…
Depending on your location, specific warning signs may indicate danger, or some kind of hazard ahead. These could be anything from sharp bends to a river crossing o an upcoming steep incline. In general though, separate signs encouraging you to reduce speed are uncommon, and it is expected that drivers use a little common sense and choose a safe speed according to the conditions. Generally, the speed limit in towns and cities is 50 km/h, 80 km/h on gravel roads in the wilderness and 90 km/h on the paved highways.
For safety reasons, motorists are obliged by law to keep headlights at all times. Sharp bends and blind corners are common, as well as the fact that winter brings with in an almost permanent darkness. As in the most countries, all passengers are required by law to wear a seat belt, whilst driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as using a mobile phone whilst driving, are also forbidden.
The fragile, delicate nature of Iceland's wildlife means that driving off-road, outside of official tracks, is not permitted. Much of the country's volcanic landscape has been formed over millions of years, and driving carelessly through vegetation will cause catastrophic damage Please, respect our nature and drive with care.
The majority of roads within Iceland's interior have a loose gravel surface, whilst many are narrow, as well as being raised from ground level to prevent weather related closures. Where the roads are narrow, be sure to slow down when passing oncoming traffic, and take great care when near the road's edge, as both the wind and the unstable surface can lead to accidents. Many tracks and bridges are only wide enough to be passable for one vehicle at a time, so slow down, and be sure to account for the extra time needed to negotiate these parts in your itinerary.
Many mountain and interior roads are impassable until at least the end of June, due to snow blocks and muddy conditions. Once they are open, most are still only suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles. It's recommended that when taking on an interior road, two or more cars should travel together, just in case a little assistance is needed. You can follow road conditions at the Icelandic road and coastal administration. It is also advised that you leave your travel plan at Safetravel.is.
As well as having the right car for the job, it's important to prepare for the ever changing weather conditions- especially in winter. Snow, strong winds, icy roads and darkness are ever present in the winter months, and can make simple journeys a whole lot more complicated. Follow the weather in Iceland on the website of the Icelandic meteorological office. Have a safe and unforgettable journey. We hope you enjoy Iceland!