Do I need a 4WD / AWD / 4X4 car in Iceland?

“Colors of Water” by Ulrich Latzenhofer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A surprising number of tourists get themselves into trouble while driving in Iceland. They blindly follow their GPS to destinations 6 hours the wrong direction. Or they follow their outdated GPS onto closed and dangerous roads. Or they cause accidents by stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. (Remember that in Iceland, hazard lights are for hazards!)

Hundreds of tourists are rescued every year by ICE-SAR, a group of volunteer responders.

I’m not telling you all of this to dissuade you from driving in Iceland. You just need to use some common sense. No matter what kind of car you rent, you shouldn’t think you can drive to any location any time of year.

Suppose you are in Vik, in south Iceland. And you read about a really cool hike up to the top of Sveinstindur. (The picture at the top of this post is along the route to Sveinstindur.) So you look on Google Maps and find out that it’s only about a 2 hour drive:

Looks pretty easy. Take Route 1 (Ring Road) to 208, which turns into F208. Turn right on F235, and you’re there!

I think this is what gets people into trouble. Google Maps doesn’t tell you about those F roads.

F208 doesn’t open until around mid-June. Or maybe the end of June– it depends on the weather. And these F roads aren’t really roads- maybe you would call them tracks? Here is a beautiful picture of F210:

Iceland” by Moyan Brenn is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Some F roads have a river crossing, or many river crossings:

Jeep Crossing River” by Mr Hicks46 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Suffice it to say that you can’t just bring up Google Maps and decide you want to drive on an F road today. You need to have the right vehicle for it, and be there during the right time of year. And know that the road is actually open.

Let’s get back on topic: What kind of vehicle should you rent? The first question is whether you plan to drive on F roads. If you aren’t visiting in the summer (mid June through mid September or so) then you aren’t driving on F roads. If you’d like to have some adventures on mountain roads, then yes, you need a robust 4 wheel drive vehicle.

To be clear, there are tons of amazing things for families with kids, or anyone, to see and do in Iceland without venturing onto an F road. Even roads that are not F roads offer plenty of adventure. Many are gravel. Some wind along cliffs right next to the ocean. Some have one lane tunnels where traffic going one direction has to yield to oncoming cars in occasional pull-off areas. Avoiding F roads may mean you miss out on some of the interior highlands, but it doesn’t mean you miss out on Iceland. In general, I recommend you ignore F roads in your travel planning, though I’m sure some people disagree.

If you are skipping the F roads, do you need 4 wheel drive? In the summer, probably not. In the winter … probably not? I’m going to sound like a father lecturing his kid here, but what you need more than 4 wheel drive is common sense.

4 wheel drive (or all wheel drive) means that power is applied to all 4 wheels. So if you are stopped on ice or snow, you are more likely to have a wheel with enough traction to get you started again. BUT ALL CARS HAVE 4 WHEEL BRAKING. Let me say that again, or rather copy it from someone else:

All motor vehicles need traction for safe steering – 4WD/AWD does not provide extra traction for steering.

All cars need traction for safe braking – 4WD/AWD does not provide extra traction for braking.

Roads in Iceland in the winter can be bad. will show you what conditions are in any part of Iceland. Here is the map for the whole country right now (February 11, 2016):

2016 2 11

Source. (That ink will bring you to the latest conditions. And you can click to see more detail on a particular area. It’s a good link to bookmark!)

We can play a game of “spot the green roads”. You’ll see some around Reykjavik, and then a few more up in the Westfjords. (Did I miss any?) If you’re driving in winter, you’re going to see some slippery conditions, or some spots of ice. And you may need to alter your travel plans if you see some of those other colors, representing difficult road conditions or an impassable road. (Note that if Icelanders call a road impassable, it’s impassable. Turn around.)

These conditions are typical for winter travel– this is not the result of a recent storm or extreme weather. You’ll see very few green roads in the winter. And once you get moving, 4 wheel drive doesn’t help all that much.

What helps much more are snow tires. When I absolutely had to get my wife to the hospital in the middle of the blizzard (for our last baby!) I had a choice of 2 cars: A 4 wheel drive SUV with all season tires, or a 2 wheel drive minivan with snow tires. I chose the minivan. When you are driving on snow or ice, tires that grip the road are the most important thing. For most winter driving situations, I think it is fine to choose a 2 wheel drive car with snow tires from a reputable car rental company. We recommend Blue Car rental, who provide studded snow tires on all cars in the winter.

One more thought. I’ve noticed that a lot of people recommend a 4 wheel drive car when they really mean “an SUV or another car with higher clearance and better suspension.” You may be more comfortable on gravel roads in a car like this, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be 4 wheel drive. If someone recommends a 4 wheel drive car, ask for clarification. Do they really think you need it for snow and ice, or just for clearance?

Whatever kind of vehicle you choose, what helps most of all is common sense. Check every day. Drive carefully, and be willing to change your plans if the conditions aren’t good.

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Do I need a 4WD / AWD / 4X4 car in Iceland? was last modified: March 16th, 2017 by Eric