I kind of remember 2016 being year of Iceland – blogs on Iceland was popping up every time I was searching on new endeavors, beautiful photos on the scenery, the Iceland Ring Road drive, and this got us to begin planning for the Iceland road trip! A flight to the Europe with 14+ hours of flight and high cost – naturally it would make more sense to lengthen our trip to maximise our flight tickets. So we threw in 3 weeks of holiday, London, and Switzerland as well.
We planned a year ahead – starting from 2016 to begin watching flights and finally we got our flight tickets, and began our lengthy plan for more than a year before the trip began! I held out most of my work leave for the year so to take a 3 weeks worth of holiday off in Nov-December. I was really craving for a holiday throughout and constantly sighing and reflecting about life due to that!
A lot of hard work also went into getting my driving license from late 2016 to April 2017. Just lucky enough to pass on my first try and way in time for the dreaded-tough-weather-driving-in-Iceland in the November XD. It seriously wasn’t for the fainted-hearted the moment you google on driving in Iceland during winter seasons. On TripAdvisor too.
At one point, I had too many plans and too many accommodations to choose from depending on how I predict my trip+weather would turn out – it was a hard decision should we self-drive or not? My sis, however, was swift and steady. Chop chop, she sealed our decision and we booked our rental car – no more backing out!
Then I showed her some youtube videos on winter driving in Iceland 😏
There were so many (free!) experiences on a Iceland road trip which one would totally missed out in a tour. I was really reluctant to join a tour. Like…
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck Site
Trekking 4km to the plane wreck site, and 4km back to your car.
Hiking up the canyon against the freezing wind…
Dwarf Crags Dverghamrar
Having the entire Dwarf Crags to yourself…! This is slightly further south-west where most tour would skip through to either straight east-ward to the Jokulsarlon region within the day to beat the short daylight hours.
Lots of Personal and Memorable Experiences
Can’t miss out personal experiences like:
– Going into shopping marts and taking our time to browse through the local food (Skyr! Butter! Some weird crackers!). And then forgetting our grocery at the accommodation
– Driving through “tough” weather. To be honest, we were lucky – no snowstorm, no crazy wind, just heavy drizzling rain.
– Finding random locations to do aurora at night. Definitely you need a car to drive out to darker regions that were not polluted by lights. But we were very fail at our aurora hunts. 🙁
– Topping up petrol at an unsheltered kiosk 😀 Against the rain and wind xD
– Checking into really unique accommodations! And fixing our own meals. I am generally ok with having sandwich most of the trips. But we had some awesome food by my chef-of-a-sis. I can still think about the chips in salad, grilled mushroom, and chicken wings overload XD
I am not going to say that “it is safe to drive in winter”, and “there is nothing to fear”. But doing your homework to anticipate the risk and to be decisive enough to maintain on the safe-side is more than crucial if going on the winter drive in Iceland. Meaning killing your itinerary if bad weather ensues, or driving at slower speed than the speed limit. I was prepared to do that. My Iceland road trip was planned using a speed of 50km/h.
I am already starting to miss the road trip there, I should try to start writing up soon! Its been like 2 years since my trip there and I fear my memories of all the fun times will start to float off soon :(!
Only obtained my driving license back in April 2017, and since then I had negligible driving experience. November that year, we had planned an Iceland road trip. Yes – Iceland winter driving road trip!
Plans to Driving in Iceland
Honestly, after reading through TripAdvisor I almost freaked out about the idea of winter driving in Iceland. Planning the itinerary for the known unforeseeable conditions was really hard. At one time, I had up to 3 different plans:
Go with tour
Self drive (initial plan to drive full Ring Road)
Self drive with back up days
I had to plan my accommodations as well and with the dilemma of deciding to drive or not to drive, we had to make a decision – should we go with a tour or do a self-drive. So I spoke to sis who hadn’t read a single thing on TripAdvisor nor seen the winter driving videos on youtube yet.
“Just go for it”
So we signed up a car rental and we were booked. So, few months after, I showed her some driving videos on youtube in winter condition. Her turn to freak out.
We were lucky, ended our trip with smoothly and didn’t end up in any bad shape. So here are some stories on our drive – hoped it could be some help (or laughter) for anyone else.
First one to take the wheel on the left side
Iceland was left hand driving – different from Singapore which was right hand drive. And particular for us, we had too little experience with a car, and even attempting to drive it in imaginable scary winter conditions. So that day when our rental company guy came to pick us up, and hand over the car to us – I remember this sis of mine egging me on to take the wheel first. So, I brazenly took up the challenge – and drove us for the first lap.
Down many months later after the trip, I thought of it and asked sis why did she not take the wheel at first and asked me to drive first after all I was even more novice than a novice.
Sis: “I wanted to observe how to drive on the right side first.”
Someone who had more skills prefer to watch a novice drive
Fogging and misting on car windshield
In cold weather, when the inside of the car is all warm up and toasty, your windshield can get frosty and the misting/fogging can happen. When that happened, the driver loses visibility. Right on the first day and and first hour of driving – that happened. A small amount of misting began and I dismissed it, thinking it would fade off by itself. But that patch gradually grew bigger and became more and more opaque. So I did what I did – I panicked. I was the one driving.
Perhaps I lost my wits at that moment, I could have pulled to the road shoulders, and then investigate this – but I continued driving all the while shouting to my sis to quickly google a solution! So, she did just that, and our first initial solution was to tune the air-con so we are on the match with the temperature outside.
Of course, once you get to the car manual, you will find a function to demist the front windshield and the rear window. (Usually those are the 2 round buttons, one for the front one for the back, so just activate them both by pressing it and a loud windy sound should go on)
😀 stay cool, don’t panic. And read the manual.
Brake after overtaking
Frankly, my sis did overtaking well enough, so sometimes I slacked off and did not watch out for her. I was surfing Instagram at the passenger seat and with a side glance I was aware that shes trying to overtake a vehicle. Ok, back to my surfing. Suddenly, a huge drag, and in a short span of time and the car was suddenly swinging in a manner that was out of control.
That had never happened before and we were all lost in the panic moment – a split second and everything happened dangerously and I really don’t recall how did we managed to get back to control of the vehicle.
So what happened was – she overtook a vehicle, signaled to change lane, and changed successfully – but perhaps a misjudgment – she decided to brake (maybe hard?) and it went haywire from then on. We lost control of the vehicle for a while, and it was really dangerous – we could have went off the road and the vehicle we overtook may end up running into us.
Moral of the story – don’t brake rashly after overtaking (unless really necessary). Let engine brake takes its own course.
Dozing with eyes wide opened
Daylight went out early in Iceland winter. And at then, sis was again at the wheels without daylights. We were approaching a speed limit area and a speed camera thing was flashing at us and will be telling us what speed we were going at. I spoke out “70km/hr” but I didn’t hear a respond. I thought she got it. We were still flying at 90km/h.
In all the panic mode as we were reaching the speed estimation sign really soon enough I exclaimed to her “70KM/HR!!”.
At then, I realised, she might have been sleeping while driving with eyes opened.
This was a possible state if you were feeling fatigue and driving in such condition was really unfamiliar to you. Outside of city area, there are no street lights and everything out there in the big nature felt like a lullaby.
The thing about roundabouts is that they bigger they are, the more confusing they become. Especially you are looking out for a specific exit that is obstructed from your view with a garden of greens in the center!
The record spins we took at the same roundabout due to misjudgment – 3 rounds 😀
Into the wrong lane
We were back in Reykjavik and driving in city was really very stressful. This one time, we were making a left turn at the intersection and so my sis said “turn left”, and I did just that.
Except that I turned into the wrong lane.
I missed that road divider, and at then I was really confident that I was turning into the correct lane. In Singapore’s driving, when turning left, you turn into the immediate nearest lane. But with the that mistake I’d made, I actually drove into the furthest lane but of the opposite direction, because I really thought it was the correct lane.
After that incident, lol I was real scared about driving in cities for a short while.
Iceland Winter Driving Tips
We were lucky on our road trip, considering the worst weather we had was incessantly drizzling and foggy weather that continued for more than a day. That lowered visibility such that we had to slow down our journey considerably. Other than that was probably the icy road, but the winter tires had served us well.
You might realise, that most of the stories was actually due to unfamiliarity with the very different conditions that we were used to. And if you do want to drive overseas, you need to be prepared for the differences. Some tips here – something that might have been aplenty on the web:
Checking conditions for driving
Don’t go driving in dangerous weather condition – and don’t get caught in one. That means
Check the weather for the road/path you will be heading today. You don’t wanna get caught in snowstorm – if you were caught in one, you can’t stop until you found a shelter otherwise you will get snowed in.
Check the wind speed where you are headed. In Iceland, wind speed could run high enough to overturn a vehicle and cause damages. Wind speed going at 20m/s is the max value I would use.
If you are out driving at night (for auroras maybe?) and its your first time to ever experience driving without street light – this was precisely us:
Go slow, adapt to your night vision. My first night driving – I did just that and calmly relied on the headlights and road markers – and now I like night driving more than the day. 😀
Stay focus and awake. Sing or scream, you decide
Be alert of lights ahead or behind you.
Keep to your lane in areas where you don’t have full visibility, ie up slope or bends and turns that are obstructed by nature.
Learn how to activate/deactivate and flash your high beam – I actually only learnt this only during my Australia 2018 road drive. Deactivate high beam when you are behind someone or approaching another vehicle – don’t go blinding others – it is rude. If someone high-beamed you, flash your high-beam or brake light – hopefully they catch the hint.
If you are uncomfortable with night driving in such conditions, then plan your road drive well to maximise the daylight for driving but don’t miss your itinerary spots, after all you came so far to Iceland :D. Start slightly before sun rise, and end slightly after sun sets. Usually, you can squeeze in about 1-1.5 hours before sunrise or after sunset before total complete darkness.
Learn from videos
If you had no experience in driving such conditions or the road traffic, being prepared is better than have nothing prepared at all.
What I did was to check out Youtube videos on Iceland driving rules, and right hand driving rules. And as a Singaporean, I get really excited about roundabouts that were plenty in other countries – they have tons here! At the very least, learn the road rules, right of ways, and how to handles some of the unique roads infrastructure (eg. narrow bridge)
Specifically for winter driving if you had zero experience, check out videos on icy road condition, and how to handle a skidding vehicle.
I particularly reviewed this video a few times which was very informative for me
Check out the Roads that are not part of Ring Road
The Ring Road, or Road 1, is the main road in Iceland for driving. At time, you might have googled a shorter path to get to a spot. But they may not be the safest looking road if you are afraid of cliffs.
Bonus tip: for the really Noob ones:
Lol, those who drive frequently might scorn this. But still, I have to share:
This is a frequent view when you are driving. Gazing into the burning egg yolk!!!
Bring a pair of SUNGLASSES!
We, the noobs, didn’t think about that prior the trip and had our eyes fried throughout the day time driving. In Iceland, the sun constantly followed us and most of the time it was just right in front of us! That was way too uncomfortable to be watching the sun and the road both at the same time.
So we did something simple that was perhaps a little bit helpful…
So long we can see the road and vehicles ahead :D.
Good luck with the drive!
Other than the above tips, get enough insurance coverage, and read the car manual that comes with the rental car, and also factor in some backup days if you are anticipating tough weather conditions..
Driving in totally different condition from what you are used to can be fun. But do your homework and be prepared and constantly remind yourself not to make dumb decisions: you can stay safe!