Roadtripping in Iceland
I don’t know about you, but I’m all crazy about Iceland. The little insular state up north was my home for five months a couple of years ago, and ever since I’ve been dreaming of my return. Maybe this desire seems familiar to you, and maybe 2014 should be the year in which we make our dreams come true! Just recently I stumbled upon this post by my favourite Icelandic travel blogger, in which she takes a stand on the discussion of whether people should have to pay to see Iceland’s natural beauty or not. Private landowners of the Geysir area plan to charge all visitors admission in order to see some of Iceland’s highlights. Another idea on the table is the installment of a so-called “nature pass”, similar to the national park passes in the US or Canada. Whether or not these plans will be realized is another matter, but it looks like we only have little time left to marvel at some of the breathtaking Icelandic landscape for free.
The best thing about Iceland is that it is so small, that even if you only have a short week to spend you can see many of nature’s most impressive places: glaciers, geysirs, waterfalls, lava fields, fjords and islands – all within short distance from Reykjavik. Many attractions are easily accessible with guided tours or even by public transport. But if you have more time at hand and want to explore Iceland individually, I would advise you to get a rental car and follow the only highway around the island with a couple of detours. It’s roadtrip time!
A roadtrip always requires some well-thought-out preparation, especially when you go for the isolated corners of Iceland. Here are a couple of things to consider:
Pick a Car
Which rental car you should choose depends on your planned itinerary, the season you travel in and not at least your budget.
When I did my road trip in early April, the North and East coast were still covered under plenty of snow and the dirt roads criss-crossing the central highlands remained shut for winter. Hence my tour was limited to paved roads, namely the so-called Ring Road or Route 1. As I had to keep my budget as low as possible I settled on a practical compact car, and even though it didn’t come with 4-wheel-drive it performed really well on the snow-covered roads in the North. In winter conditions this kind of car is absolutely sufficient and you are better off spending your money on other things along the way.
This all changes in summer when the highlands are accessible and you plan to go off the paved tracks. If you can, invest in a proper all terrain vehicle to be able to leave the coast and drive inland for new adventures.
Either way you should make sure to get a good insurance deal. As gravel is common even on paved roads, your policy should cover the entire vehicle. Sounds logical? Well, many car rental companies don’t include things like the rood, tyres, front shield or under-floor automatically – and the latter two are especially sensitive to damage caused by gravel thrown up by cars ahead of you.
Driving in Iceland
Hopefully this shouldn’t be an issue – Icelandic cars and traffic rules are basically the same as everywhere else. However, there are some things road trippers should consider:
- Always stick to the road – for several reasons. First, obviously you don’t want to destroy the fragile nature of this magical place. Second, you don’t want the magical place to destroy you. Iceland is popular for its hot springs for a reason. If you drive off-road (by the way, the same counts for hiking off-path) you run the risk of hitting underground rivers or boiling hot springs and geysirs. This would be unpleasant for all involved parties. But even little adventures can get you into trouble. I stopped right next to the road for my lunchbreak and when I was done eating, I wanted to turn the car around and drive on. Instead of backing up I thought I could just drive a little circle to get back to the road, and ended up with my front wheel stuck in deep mud. Luckily Icelanders are friendly fellas and it didn’t take long for a couple to stop and drag my car out of the mud with their big pick-up truck. I had learnt my lesson.
- In that sense, always stop for someone who seems to need your help. You could be the only vehicle driving by in hours – especially in winter.
- Always fill up if you pass a petrol station – it could be the last one for quite a long while. Again I learnt my lesson the hard way and barely made it to the little village of Vík. To my fortune the last kilometres went downhill! There are signs along the highway giving information about upcoming petrol stations and up-to-date road maps should indicate them as well.
- Do only as much as makes sense. If you only have a couple of days, limit yourself to a certain area – rushing through would be a waste. In winter time 3 weeks is plenty to follow the Ring Road in a paced manner, in summer I would plan more time, as there is more to do and see.
- Allow some time for adventurous detours. In the East Fjords leave Route 1 and take Route 96 and 92 to drive along the stormy sea and reach the old fisher’s village Fjarđabyggd. Close by Route 931 leads around lake Lagarfljót where Iceland’s only forest is located. My favourite detour was just north of Reykjavik. Instead of taking the tunnel connecting Akranes with the capital I drove along Route 47 and had the beautiful fjord Hvalfjörđur more or less for myself.
Along the Road
I can’t mention it enough – pay great attention to your petrol tank and the location of petrol stations. Often they also run a small kiosk and make a great spot for lunch breaks. Most serve the same variety of quick snacks and small meals – definitely try the traditional pylsur (sausages).
Another important thing to keep in mind is stocking up on food supplies. Depending on the location, self-catering might be the only option and small shops in touristy spots tend to charge horrendous prices for basic supplies. There are plenty of supermarkets around the island, especially in greater Reykjavik, Selfoss, Egilstađir, Akureyri, Stykkisholmur, Borganes and Akranes. Bónus is a very common supermarket chain with good offers and great variety of food – look out for their logo, a pink pig.
Road trippers around Iceland can choose from a variety of accommodation models. In summer camping is very popular, especially as wild camping is generally permitted in most areas. For a little more comfort check out Icelandic Farm Holidays, which is a network of Icelandic guest-houses, hotels and farmers, offering accommodation in different categories and price ranges. While I had to make sure which hosts would operate in winter, summer guests are better off booking ahead!
Iceland’s major attractions, like Geysir, the glacier lake Jökulsárlón or the thermal bath Blue Lagoon are mentioned in every guidebook. And to be honest, there is no reason why not. I haven’t heard of any „tourist traps“ in Iceland. Even the most touristy places are worth the visit! However, if you look for some secret spots check out the Mývatn Nature Baths in the north instead of the touristy Blue Lagoon; or take a a day or two to explore the peninsulas Reykjanes or Snaefellsnes.
As the weather can be quite unpredictable, you should be prepared for any change of condition – so bring plenty of warm and waterproof clothes. But don’t make the mistake to leave your bathing suit at home, just because you are reaching out for the far North. A visit to a thermal bath, a local swimming pool or a tucked away natural hot spring are on top of the must-do list in Iceland!
As service stations and restaurants are sparse over wide stretches of Route 1, a thermos flask filled with hot tea or coffee can make or break your day. And finally, in order to attract a free-roaming ponies’ attention, you should always have a bag of apples and carrots handy – just in case!
There is no question, road tripping is the best way to explore Iceland – no matter if you make it all the way around or just head our of Reykjavik for a couple of days. With these tips in mind there is nothing in the way of getting onto the road and just drive! For more Icelandic highlights see Katja’s post here or one of mine on hiking in Hveragerđi.