Iceland’s Ring Road was made for road trips. The country’s principal highway circumnavigates the entire island and passes by many of the major sights. Traveling the Ring Road in Iceland is one of the best ways to see the country. First timers (and even repeat travelers) need to know a few things before they hit the road. Here are some of the best Ring Road trip tips and Iceland driving information to ensure a safe, enjoyable, memorable journey.
First and foremost, let’s orient ourselves with just how long Iceland’s Ring Road is and how long it takes to drive around it. Iceland’s main motorway is 1,332 km (828 miles) long and is mostly a two-lane paved road with a single carriageway in each direction. Driving Iceland’s Ring Road non-stop would take you around 16-20 hours to complete. This assumes that weather works in your favor. And of course, since the weather is completely unpredictable and changeable, that’s not much of a guarantee.
Ring Road Trip Tip #1: Remember that it’s not a race to the finish line.
Driving the Ring Road in Iceland in Iceland is about the journey, not the destination. The point to not to complete the circle as quickly as possible, but rather to stop for photos, take in the breathtaking landscapes, and maybe even hike a glacier or two along the way.
If you’re renting a camper, another thing to know about the Ring Road is how fast you can drive. The speed limit in Iceland depends on the type of road you’re driving on and how close you are to populated areas. When driving in rural areas on a paved surface, the speed limit is 90 km/h (56 mph). It lowers to 80 km/h (50 mph) on unpaved surfaces. When driving through populated areas the speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph).
Ring Road Trip Tip #2: Give yourself time and follow the speed limit.
Just because you can go a certain speed doesn’t mean you need to at all times. If circumstances (like a snowstorm) warrant slowing down, then by all means, do it. Allow yourself extra time to arrive in case those inevitable inconveniences pop up.
Road conditions here and even the types of roads might be something new for you. There are a few to be aware of that require you to either slow down, pull to the right, or cede the way for oncoming vehicles. Becoming familiar with these special signs on Icelandic roads will give you a boost for driving safety.
Ring Road Trip Tip #3: Learn the basic road signs in Iceland.
Einbreið Brú is a single-lane bridge, Einbreid Göng is a single-lane tunnel, Málbik Endar means the paved road will suddenly change to gravel, and signs with a sheep silhouette means you’ve likely got four-legged friends coming up. Blindhaed are blind hills (where you can't see oncoming traffic) and Slysasvaedi means an area is prone to accidents.
If you decide to take a detour and explore the Highlands with a 4x4 for a few days, there are some other Icelandic road signs to be familiar with. í“brúadar ír is a river crossing with no bridge, and Seinfarinn Vegur or Torleidi means you will be encountering extremely difficult terrain.
Road conditions and weather conditions in Iceland can give you lots of surprises while driving. We’ve got paved surfaces suddenly changing to gravel, slick or wintery conditions, and even animals blocking the road. Not to mention the breathtaking scenery or the beautiful Northern Lights, which can be very distracting. In addition to following the speed limit, here are some more safety tips.
Ring Road Trip Tip #4: Watch out for the sheep.
Of the most typical road hazards in Iceland, sheep are probably the one that tourists expect the least. Wait, those adorable little guys who graze peacefully on the roadside and that we use to make traditional Lopapeysa wool sweaters? Yes, the very same ones. They are lurking at the roadside waiting for cars visiting Iceland to pass by.
Icelandic sheep are not only cute, but they are notorious for being a nuisance to drivers (or perhaps drivers are a nuisance to the sheep). Not only do our wooly little buddies frequently block the road, they sometimes dart out into oncoming traffic, causing accidents. It’s not really their fault though; the sound of a loud motor frightens them, and when they get scared, they run. Do yourself (and the sheep) a favor and slow down when you see them. Approach with caution and everyone should escape the encounter unscathed.
Ring Road Trip Tip #5: In general, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the road.
This sounds like something very obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people get distracted while driving. Our country is famous for its scenery and natural beauty, but don’t get caught up. When you see some gorgeous waterfall, stunning valley, or basalt cliffs, stop the car to get out and take pictures. Just make sure you’re not blocking the road.
And as an added tip, if it’s windy, hold on to the door with both hands. Many drivers have been shocked to see the doors of their camper rental blown backwards or taken clear off from the force of the wind.
Ring Road Trip Tip #6 Tip: Check the weather forecast several times a day
This is another thing that surprises people. But it’s one that could save your life. Weather conditions in Iceland change rapidly, and the last thing you want is to get caught in a storm. If you are driving between cities or towns, consult the Iceland Meteorological Office website to see anticipated precipitation and windiness for the zone you’ll be traveling through.
One of the great things about Iceland camper rental is that you don’t have a fixed schedule. You can drive as much or as little as you want and then pull into the closest campsite. Because you don’t need to make a reservation, it’s possible to plan your Iceland Ring Road itinerary with more of a “let’s see how we go” attitude.
For example, let’s say there’s a day you want to explore Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Skógafoss waterfall, and Sólheimasandur plane wreck site. This makes sense because these sites are all close to each other and can be visited in the same day. They also all lie close to the Ring Road driving counter-clockwise between Reykjavik and Vík.
Most travelers who drive the Ring Road along the South Coast stop in Vík for an overnight stay. This tiny fishing village is perfectly located close to the Landmannalaugar hiking area, Svartifoss waterfall in Vatnakökull National Park, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach.
Ring Road Trip Tip #7: Create a general itinerary but be flexible.
Decide on the main stops, then go from there. There’s a large number of places to stay on Ring Road in Iceland and usually you won’t have a problem finding a spot at a campground for the night. It’s a good idea to have a general idea of where you want to stop and know your campsite options in the area. You can find an Iceland Ring Road map with campsites at the camping.info website.
While you can take a more cavalier approach to where you spend the night, I wouldn’t be so freewheeling with other things. Gas stations, for example, are going to be the lifeblood of your trip. There’s nothing worse than seeing the gas tank meter enter that dreaded red zone close to empty without a gas station in sight. Your anxiety will only be compounded when you see that the next closest service station is 50, 100, or 250 km away.
When you see an Iceland gas station, pull in and top up if you're unsure about the location of the next one. Even if you think it’s way too early. When you leave the major cities like Reykjavik or Akureyri, there are long stretches of open highway. It’s just you, the open road, and natural wonders like volcanoes and lava fields. If you decide to head inland to visit the nature baths close to Lake Mývatn or other parts of the Diamond Circle route, you might be hard-pressed to find a nearby gas station.
Ring Road Trip Tip #8: Plan your gas station stops in advance.
Trust me, you’ll be glad when you know you have a full tank or that one is just around the corner. Visit the websites of petrol companies like N1 and Olís to see a map of gas stations in Iceland. On another note, supermarkets are also few and far between outside of major urban centers. Icelandic gas stations fill that void and have supermarkets where you can buy food, snacks, and those famous Icelandic hot dogs.
Due to the limited time you have with full sunshine, it’s important to squeeze every ounce of daylight you can out of your day. This means not waiting until the sun is fully up to get going. Take advantage of civil twilight when deciding on what time to start driving to visit places like the Golden Circle on a day trip.
When you’re driving in Iceland close to December’s winter solstice, you’ll only be getting about four or five hours a day between sunrise and sunset. If you come in November, February, or March, it won’t be as extreme, but you’ll still have limited daylight.
Ring Road Trip Tip #9: Take advantage of the daylight in the winter.
Start driving during civil twilight so that you arrive at your destination around the time the sun comes up so as to not waste a precious moment. The same is true when you return for the day from your excursion. After the sun sets, you still have 30-60 minutes of civil twilight before it gets pitch black. If you’re not a fan of driving at night, this is a good strategy to maximize your time while staying within your comfort zone.
One of the advantages of doing a self-guided tour around the island is that you set your own itinerary. You decide where to go and how long to stay there. But something you need to be wary of is trying to fit in too many activities. If you want to go whale watching in Reykjavik and then head to Snaefellsnes peninsula in West Iceland, you might not have enough time. You’ll have enough daylight, thanks to the Midnight Sun, but you will suffer from fatigue if you spend too many hours per day behind the wheel or try to cram in too many activities.
Ring Road Trip Tip #10: Don’t think you’re invincible in the summer.
It’s better to pace yourself in order to give you and your travel companions the necessary time to enjoy places like the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Many people try to travel around Iceland’s Ring Road in 5 days and I think that’s a mistake. You could easily spend that time exploring the South Coast alone. You have to strike a balance between all of the glacier treks, hiking, visiting waterfalls while also allowing for some downtime. An Iceland Ring Road itinerary of 7 or 10 days is much more reasonable.
I hope these basics of Iceland driving will help you be better prepared. It’s good to know what to expect on an Iceland Ring Road tour, and with these useful tips, you are armed with knowledge. Have a wonderful trip to Iceland and remember: keep your eyes on the road, fill up your gas tank frequently, and watch out for those crazy Icelandic sheep!