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Using a GPS in Iceland

Icelanders have been having fun recently laughing at tourists who are misled by their GPS devices. One guy drove 5 hours up to Siglufjörður instead of 45 minutes to Reykjavik. (We are happy to hear that while he was there, he visited the excellent Herring Era MuseumWe really liked it too!)

Last month, a tourist was invited to a family BBQ when their GPS led them astray. And then there was the time … well, let’s just let I Heart Reykjavik tell it.

We relied on Google Maps almost exclusively for our journeys around Iceland. We have gotten slightly lost, but nowhere near enough to become famous. Here are some of our experiences and recommendations.

Using Iceland maps offline

Some mapping programs can be used offline. Maps.me, Here maps, and Navmii are three programs that can easily download the entire map of Iceland to use offline.

Google Maps can also download portions of the map for offline use, though it is a much more cumbersome process. After you install the Google Maps app, search for a spot in Iceland; Reykjavik for example. Click on the word Reykjavik at the bottom of the screen, and it will bring up an information page:

reykjavik-info-google-maps

Click the Download option on the right hand side, and you can zoom in or out to select the area you wish to download:

 

download-google-maps

You’ll have to divide the country into multiple sections, and you won’t be sure you got them all. And you won’t have any idea how much data it will use. But these offline areas will be stored for 30 days, so you can download them before you leave for Iceland.

Google Maps in Iceland

Other mapping programs have a better process for getting offline data. But Maps.me charges money if you want to add navigation, and Here maps had some trouble finding some less popular points of interest when I tried it.

We’ve been using Google Maps, and we tried it mostly without downloading the maps. With Google Maps, there have been a couple of times where we lose data (not Google’s fault, of course), and we stop getting directions. But these have been few and far between, especially when we were using Siminn data.

No, we’re not off-roading!

A more persistent issue, especially in East Iceland, has been Google Maps thinking we are ever so slightly off of the road. When this happens, the mapping program won’t prompt you to make a turn. You’ll need to pay attention and make turns to stay right next to the blue line.

gps-off-small

Should we go to Reykholt, or Reykholt?

There are lots of towns with the same name in Iceland. The one that actually caused us some confusion were the two Reykholts:

I could fill this post with other pairs– Vik to Vik, Hof to Hof, Grimsey Island to Grimsey Island (seriously), and on and on. One more, just for fun:

In general, if you ask to go to Húsavík, Google Maps will take you to the correct one. (In this case, that’s the one further to the north and west, an excellent choice for Whale Watching in Iceland.) But if you see a town labeled on the map, make sure you verify that have the right place!

F roads in Iceland

We covered F roads in much more detail. But the quick summary is this: F roads are mountain passes that are only open for a couple of months in the summer, and only to 4 wheel drive vehicles. But Google Maps doesn’t know this. Suppose you wanted to go to Sönghellir  (the Cave of Song) in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Perhaps you read an article about Sönghellir, and wanted to hear the echoes of this “singing cave” for yourself. But the road to Sönghellir  is actually F570, not 570. This is an F road, and you can’t drive on it except with a 4 wheel drive vehicle in the middle of summer.

But Google Maps will tell you to head on F570 without any warning. So you’ll need to look carefully at the directions to make sure the roads are open and you have the right vehicle for them.

Guessing at Icelandic landmarks

Google Maps doesn’t like to say it can’t find a destination you entered. For example, when you type in “Snæfellsjökull visitors center”, it will take you to Hotel Hellnar. But when you arrive at Hotel Hellnar, the sign on their door will convince you that you´re not the first person to be led astray by your mapping program:

hotel-hellnar-small

(Note that it looks as though this particular example may have been fixed.)


I’m picking on Google Maps in this post (and on Iceland a little, with its multiple city pairs that share a name.) For the most part, we had no issues using Google Maps to navigate. Once you’re aware of these issues, and learn not to blindly trust your GPS directions, you should have very few problems navigating the country.

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Using a GPS in Iceland was last modified: September 29th, 2016 by Eric