Preparation

Winter driving tips for Iceland: Snow, safety, and studded tires

Photo by Bailey Zindel on Unsplash

If you’re renting a car in Iceland in the winter, you may be worried about road and weather conditions. Most of the time you won’t have any issues at all, especially with a little preparation. Here are our tips for winter driving in Iceland.

Thanks to our friends at Blue Car Rental for many of the photos below. We rented from Blue on our Iceland trip, and recommend them. And we have a 5% discount coupon for Blue if you’d like to rent from them as well!

1. Check the big 3 travel safety sites every day. safetravel.isroad.is, and en.vedur.is

Or check them twice a day. Make this part of your morning ritual: safetravel.is, road.is, and en.vedur.is. (Pronounce vedur almost like “weather” and you’ll remember what that site is for!)

Let’s take these in order. Start with Safe Travel, where you will see major warnings. Here’s a recent one:

If something makes it to Safe Travel, it’s usually pretty serious, so pay attention. Not all of the warnings will be road or weather related, though. If you plan to be in or travel to an area mentioned here, ask around and consider changing your plans!

Next, road.is. Here you’ll get a map of road conditions that is updated at least twice a day. You can zoom in on the area where you are, but here’s the whole country:

If you haven’t looked at this before, the first thing you may notice is all of the red in the middle. Those are F roads, and they are only open in the summer, and you need a 4 wheel drive vehicle! Don’t even think about driving on them in the winter. But do read our post about F roads if you are interested.

Try to understand each of the colors in the area where you will be. Road.is provides nice definitions of what each color means. My rule of thumb is: Column 1 colors (green, orange, light blue, dark blue, white): Go ahead but drive carefully, but be prepared. Well, unless it’s green. Column 2 colors (pink, black, red, gray): Stay away. Pink doesn’t sound so bad; “Difficult driving.” But the definition is “Road surface partially or completely covered with a 10-20 cm layer of loose or lightly packed snow and/or occasional small snow drifts and road conditions unsafe for all except vehicles with four-wheel drive.”

Finally, en.vedur.is. Here you will find weather reports, but also warnings about upcoming storms that they other sites might not have yet. Here’s information about a high wind forecast that the other two sites don’t mention yet:

We’ll talk more about wind in #5 below, but don’t ignore those wind speeds! 35 m/s might not sound too bad, but 35 meters per second is 78 miles per hour! That’s a hurricane-level wind speed.

2. Watch for black ice

Above, I implied that the first column of colors at road.is was better than the second. But that doesn’t mean that everything in the first column is safe. Be very wary of dark blue- extremely slippery. That could mean black ice, a layer of clear ice on the road. Just by looking, it’s tough to tell if that’s water or ice.

3. Snow tires do help a lot. 4 wheel drive only helps a little.

I tell this story to anyone who will listen. Just before my youngest daughter was born, I had to get my wife to the hospital. There was already a few inches of snow on the ground, on our way to getting 2+ feet of snow. It was coming down quickly and the roads were bad.

I had to choose one of our two cars. One was a new 4-wheel-drive SUV. The other was an older minivan, 2 wheel drive, with brand new snow tires. I chose the minivan. (And I chose correctly!)

Snow tires make a huge difference. It doesn’t matter how good your car is– if your tires don’t have traction, you can’t drive safely. And remember that ALL cars have 4 wheel braking. See our post about 4 wheel drive in Iceland.

Studded snow tires are even better, though the advantage is limited to icy conditions. Still, studded tires perform well in any winter condition. One of the reasons we recommend Blue Car Rental is that Blue provides studded winter tires on all cars during winter (October through early May.) The studs are pieces of metal embedded in the tires:


Studded Nokian tire by Ilya Plekhanov [CC BY-SA 3.0]

4. You may not have many hours of daylight.

See our hours of daylight post for more details. But just remember that in the heart of winter, you might only have usable daylight from about 10 AM until about 5 PM. And about 3 of those 7 hours are going to be dusky. It’s easier and safer to drive during those hours of light, but of course it’s also easier to see the things you want to see during those times too! Look up when civil twilight starts and ends on the days you will be in Iceland, and consider that in your planning.

5. Be aware of the wind.

Wind in Iceland can cause all sorts of problems, some you may not expect. The wind is worst in winter– see a graph on this web site. That wind can blow snow on to the road– road.is will have a symbol in a yellow box showing areas with blowing snow. The wind can also make you really really cold– be sure to read our post about clothing to wear. (Think lots of layers!)

But that wind can also blow your car door open so that it hits another car, or so that it forces the hinge of your door past its stopping point, causing damage. Yes, this really happens. Think about parking so that the wind is coming from the front of your car, not from behind. And think about opening doors for your kids if it’s very windy; the wind may force the door right out of their hands (or yours!)

6. Leave extra time!

Don’t assume Google Maps or your GPS program will give you accurate driving times in Iceland. Google Maps doesn’t even recognize that F roads are closed in the winter. That drive your computer claims will take 2 hours could take 4 hours or more. Leave plenty of time so you don’t have to rush. Slow down, and pull over if conditions are bad, or if a crazy driver behind you wants to go faster than you do.

You may also need to leave extra time to clear off your car from snow or ice.


Other posts you may enjoy:

Planning your Iceland trip, Cell phone advice for 2018 in Iceland, Our car rental recommendation in Iceland


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Winter driving tips for Iceland: Snow, safety, and studded tires was last modified: January 3rd, 2018 by Eric