I’ve read so many fearsome accounts on the Icelandic roads that, as soon as we left the modern area of Reykjavik and its smooth streets we braced ourselves expecting some twisted bumpy tracks.
Now, it might be because I learnt to drive on mountains and unpaved roads, but I didn’t find it too hard to drive around Iceland. Also we haven’t driven on daily basis for many years now so we can no longer consider ourselves experienced and skilled drivers. The ring road is not a proper motorway but it’s a slick ride, being unpaved only for a short section on the south-east, and the other secondary roads are even easier: they might be a bit more narrow and have some potholes more but you are likely to be there by yourself so… no pressure.
The only road we quite struggled to drive through, and we blessed our 4WD, was the 862 connecting Asbyrgi and Dettifoss, on the west side of the river. Apparently it will be paved soon but the 864 on the other side is apparently much easier.
Always check the official website for roads conditions.
Dangers of Icelandic roads
SIGNS: Eindreð Brù, Blindheað… even if you’re not that fluent in Icelandic you will soon get the meaning of the road signs, the most recurrent of which are: single-lane bridge, blind rise and gravel road, and are often combined in pairs to make your driving experience more exciting.
ANIMALS: Sheep enjoy grazing at the side of the street, and sometimes relaxing in the middle of it. They will run away as soon as you approach but their reaction can be quite unpredictable. They always travel in trios so make sure that they are all three on the same side. Birds tend to show suicidal tendencies flying a bit too close to speeding cars and, although they won’t mess it up as much as a sheep could, they might cause you to dangerously brake or steer. Keep it cool and don’t speed.
We are not ashamed to admit that we chose our car just because it was the cheapest option for a 4WD and because we found it funny to drive a car called Jimmy (technically it’s Jimny but for us it will always be Jimmy). That’s the extent of our automotive expertise.
Although very reliable on gravel road and dirt tracks, Jimmy struggled on open, paved road, especially uphill. And tarmac made it incredibly thirsty.
Unless the infamous F-roads are a feature of your travel plan I don’t think a 4WD is strictly necessary. We had it easy on the few kms of unpaved road but most of the trip was on tarmac, where I wished I had a more performing and fuel-efficient car.
Out of curiosity we checked the option of a small camper. A proper one will cost from £250 per day, while a Ford Transit like the one from Happy Campers is much cheaper, but still more expensive than the combined cost of our car and accommodation. If you didn’t book your accommodation in advance and you want maximum freedom and flexibility that could still be a good choice. However you will still have to find a solution for showering (you can use the local pools for that) and cooking, unless you want to splash out lots of money in expensive hot dogs and greasy pizzas.
Forget about Google maps: a classic paper map will never let you down even in the middle of nowhere. A handy book map was way to expensive so we opted for a folding one. I opted for a German one, just few months old: precise, reliable. It was also tear- and water- proof. No wonder they won the world cup.
However we almost drove an extra 120Km around a peninsula because the shorter cut-through was omitted, and also we would have liked to have more details in some areas.
If you’re planning a thorough exploration of the country, you’d better opt for the area-specific maps. I’ve done a little research and these maps are the most praised.
We have a pile of 20 cds for our road trips, and I obviously let it home. We had to buy a second copy of the Sigur Ròs signature album and a less than remarkable collection of Icelandic Indie music (which still was way better than the radio).
Such vast landscapes require an ethereal, dilated music reflecting the contrasting calm and violence of nature.
Post rock bands, like Mogwai or Goodspeed you! Black Emperor, are the obvious choice, and Ágætis Byrjun seems to have been tailored around a trip on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.