Driving Iceland’s Ring Road: All You Need to Know
In this travel guide, I share tips and recommendations on how to drive the Iceland Ring Road to help you make the most of your time on the road trip and see as much of Iceland as possible.
Marooned just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a Nordic island nation that’s just a hop away from mainland Europe and North America – and yet so wild, rugged and pristine.
Volcanically and geologically active, it is a land of extremities. Its coastlines are fringed with ragged fjords, its interior is speckled with lava fields, bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers, active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers. Intense, dramatic and colossal: this country is strikingly beautiful and packed with an endless list of natural attractions.
There’s no better way to explore Iceland than by driving the Ring Road, a.k.a. Route 1, that circles the entire island. Spanning 828 miles (1332 km), this route is one of world’s top road trips and it will show you the best of the island. Weave your way through rolling hills where Icelandic horses roam, past jagged cliffs with gushing waterfalls, and snake alongside sapphire blue rivers. Every turn of the road reveals new landscapes that will keep the entire journey exciting.
We recently drove the entire Ring Road, with our two-year-old daughter, in mid-July. It was our second trip to Iceland, but our first time driving the Ring Road and it made us fall head over heels for this country once again.
READ MORE: MY ICELAND RING ROAD ITINERARY
Planning An Iceland Ring Road Trip
To start planning your road trip, I’d recommend picking a few highlights and then loosely planning your journey around them. It’s best to map out your stops ahead of time, taking into consideration driving times and breaks for meals. There is so much to see along the Ring Road that you won’t be driving more than 2 hours without stopping for a waterfall or two.
There will always be fun surprises along the way, so avoid rushing through anywhere. You might have to cut out certain sights because road conditions vary during different times of the year. If you have your heart set on seeing a particular area, be sure you can get there during the time you are visiting.
If you’re not keen on planning the road trip yourself, simply book a self-driving trip through Bookmundi. There are plenty of Iceland tours that provide you with the perfect road trip itinerary, as well accommodation and activities along the way, so all you need to do is show up and start driving!
Driving in Iceland
Renting a car is undoubtedly the best way to explore Iceland’s Ring Road. There are bus tours that ply the route, but having your own wheels lets you travel independently, at your own pace. You’ll enjoy the freedom and flexibility of stopping whenever and wherever you want.
It’s also really easy to drive in Iceland, as roads are clearly marked and sign posts are easy to follow (even though they are in Icelandic). The country is practically designed for road trips: roads are well-paved, and there are regular rest stops and gas stations for refuelling. I recommend getting a local SIM card or using data roaming to have access to GPS and other travel info (like campsite addresses etc).
Note that off-road driving is strictly forbidden in Iceland. If the road does not have a number, do not drive on it even if there are tire tracks. It will damage nature for decades and you’ll get a serious fine. The Icelandic Transport Authority has made a video about dangers while driving in Iceland. For those interested in learning more, check out www.drive.is.
The Challenges of Driving in Iceland
One thing to note, you will need to be confident driving a stick shift. Most camper vans or cars in Iceland have the manual transmission, so make sure you are comfortable driving one before arriving. If you haven’t driven one in a while, practice at home before you go.
There are two potential hazards you need to be aware of when driving in Iceland: sheep and strong wind. In fall and summer, sheep are allowed to roam free (they are only kept in fenced areas in winter), and may sometimes dash across the road unexpectedly. Always be on the alert for suicidal sheep!
As for the wind, the staff at SAD cars gave us a warning about the strong winds in Iceland. They even showed us pictures of car doors that were damaged from the wind. Always make sure to hold the car door when it’s opened. The wind can easily blow it right open and bend the frame.
Another thing that we noticed many tourists doing while driving in Iceland: stopping randomly for photo ops without considering the consequences. There are plenty of parking spots and rest stops along the Ring Road, so please don’t be that idiot who stops in the middle of the road.
How to Rent a Vehicle in Iceland
We rented a camper van from SAD cars and absolutely got hooked to van life. Having a camper van allowed us to explore the back roads and sleep in spectacular settings, while saving money on accommodation and food (that’s at least $100/night). We also had the flexibility to just pull over and cook or sleep whenever we wanted. I loved how self-sustaining we were with the camper van as we had everything we needed (from food to bed).
Our camper van was a brand new, 2016 model Dacia Dokker with custom built interiors. The van was small yet comfortable, and easy to drive around. The size was perfect for us — you really don’t want to be driving big and bulky motor homes on the narrow mountain roads in Iceland. Our camper wasn’t suitable for driving on F-roads in the highlands of Iceland, but we found it perfect for navigating the Ring Road and all other gravel roads we were on.
Despite its small size, our camper was equipped with all we needed, including a mattress (that doubled as a seating area and a bed), a portable gas stove, dishes, cutlery, pot, pan and water container. The camper also had stand alone heaters which are connected to the diesel fuel tank. We didn’t have a cooler/refrigerator but the nights in Iceland are pretty cold, which help with keeping things like yogurt cool. There were also curtains in the campers to help with Iceland’s midnight sun.
All of the above were included in the price of the rental, which was 95 euros/night. The only additional cost was hiring a car seat for Kaleya, which was only 5 euros a day; and bedding for two people for 75 euros. The bedding included a bed sheet, two duvets and two pillows. We could have also brought our own sleeping bags to avoid that cost, but the bedding was really comfortable.
Here’s a peek inside our camper van and a glimpse of our van life in Iceland:
How to Get Insurance for the Road Trip
In Iceland, all car rentals include the obligatory Third Party Liability Insurance (TPL) under Icelandic law – this covers third party damage or loss in an accident.
I highly recommend getting travel insurance as well as it covers personal loss, theft, and medical on top of damages that may incur on your camper van or vehicle in Iceland. With the harsh conditions and extreme weather, your camper can easily suffer from damages.
I personally have an annual travel insurance plan from Travel Guard and have used them for many years now. Even if you’re not a frequent traveler, it’s advisable to get travel insurance just for your trip to Iceland to make sure your losses will be covered in case of mishaps.
What to See Along the Iceland Ring Road
Read a detailed breakdown of my 7-day Ring Road itinerary. There’s SO much to see along the Iceland Ring Road that you will find yourself stopping every hour or so to see a waterfall, hike in a volcanic lava field or admire glaciers.
Here are some of the highlights of the Iceland Ring Road that you shouldn’t miss:
- Geysers at Haukadalur — Watch water sprouting into the sky at this original spot where the word ‘geyser’ was coined.
- Gulfoss — If you only have the time to visit one waterfall, make it this one.
- Svínafellsjökull Glacier — This is one of the many glacier tongues found in southern Iceland, but it’s the most accessible and biggest one.
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon — Watch chunks of glacier ice floating on the lagoon, backdropped by snow-peaked mountains.
- Whale Watching in Akureyri — Look out for humpback whales in one of the world’s best places to see whales.
- Myvatn Nature Baths — The natural geothermal baths of Iceland are world famous, but they’re also quite pricey. This one is a cheaper than Blue Lagoon and also less crowded.
READ MORE: MY ICELAND RING ROAD ITINERARY
When is the Best Time to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road
Summer (June to August) is the best season to travel Iceland mainly for the weather. In summer, temperatures rise to a balmy 50-60°F (10-15°C) and the midnight sun promises 24 hours of daylight from the beginning of June to end of July. The weather also isn’t as unpredictable as it is in fall and most roads are passable.
This also means that it’s the busiest period for tourism. I was really surprised to see crowds and heavy traffic, especially around the popular areas like the Golden Circle. When we visited in fall 2011, there weren’t even half as many tourists and in fact it still felt like a under-explored country. Iceland has become a hugely popular tourist destinations in recent years, and the island is struggling to keep up with the drastic increase in tourism.
I would actually recommend traveling Iceland in fall (September and October) for the lower prices and less crowd. Winter (November to February) can get extremely cold, but it is also the best time to see the Northern Lights. It is usually fairly easy to spot the Aurora Borealis in Iceland, even in downtown Reykjavik. Temperatures dip to -4°F (-20°C) so be sure to dress appropriately.
The weather can change quickly in Iceland, regardless of when you visit. A sunny morning can easily turn into a whiteout blizzard. You can easily experience four seasons in one day. Check the website vegagerdin.is or download its app for real-time road conditions.
How Much Time to Drive the Ring Road
Keep in mind that you’ll need a minimum of 7 days to drive the Ring Road in Iceland. There is SO much to see along the way, from spectacular waterfalls to glaciers, lakes and canyons, that anything less than seven days would be too much of a rush. While the entire road is 828 miles (1332km) long, we ended up driving just under 1250 miles (2000km) in total as we took a few detours to see certain sights. Weather can also be unpredictable on the island, especially in fall or winter, as sudden snowstorms are common and can make some roads impassable.
We managed to drive the whole route in six days (with a day for Reykjavik), since we drove till 8-10pm on some days. We didn’t mind though, as we had lazy mornings and late starts. The midnight sun in summer also gave us a lot more daylight hours to drive. That said, we didn’t feel like we were in a rush at all — we made regular stops (mainly to see sights and for Kaleya to stretch out), never driving more than 2 hours each time.
One week was enough to see most of the sights on the Ring Road, but I would have preferred 10 days to have shorter driving days. There are also many cool adventure activities you can do along the way, which we skipped this time round as Kaleya wouldn’t be able to do most of that. We’ve done many of those activities on our previous trip, including diving in Silfra, ice-climbing on Sólheimajökull Glacier, and white-water rafting.
If you want to do the activities while driving the Ring Road, you’ll need a lot more time (at least two weeks). Most activities take an entire day and need to be booked in advance, especially in summer which is peak season.
Where to Stay Along the Ring Road
When driving the Ring Road, I recommend staying at Icelandic summerhouses, as they’re usually spacious, beautiful and more affordable than hotels. We stayed at a few on our previous trip to Iceland and really enjoyed the space. Many of these cottages have spectacular settings and are fully equipped with kitchens and even jacuzzi. The best place to book accommodation in summerhouses is on Bungalo.
For those on a budget, camping can be a great way to save money, have some flexibility, and sleep in spectacular settings. However, there has been a huge increase in tourists camping in recent years and locals are really unhappy about the waste and human excretion left behind by tourists. The Icelandic government thus changed the law in November 2015, making it illegal to camp in most parts of Iceland, other than at a proper campsite.
You can find all campsites in Iceland here: click to see the summer campsites and the year-round campsites on an interactive map (click on ‘List’ to see details of each campsite). Parking at these campsites usually costs 2000 -3500 ISK ($20 – 35) per vehicle per night. The campsites in Iceland tend to be well equipped with 24-hour WC and showers, electrical outlets, free WiFi, nice dining and cooking areas and even BBQ spots.
We found the campsites to be rather expensive and instead spent our nights at rest stops and car parks without any ‘no camping’ signs. To make sure we didn’t leave anything behind, we parked at rest stops that had portable toilets and garbage bins. If we did wild camp, we would always make sure to dispose our garbage later. For more information on where to camp, read these guidelines from the Icelandic authorities.
Where to Eat Along Iceland’s Ring Road
Food is expensive in Iceland: even at a gas station cafe, a burger costs around $10 and a soup is around the same price. If you’re looking for a proper fish or lamb meal in a nice restaurant, expect to fork out at least $30. A cup of coffee usually costs at least $5 and a hot dog would be around $5 as well.
On the Ring Road, restaurants aren’t so easy to come by outside of towns. You’ll find hot dogs, soups and pre-made sandwiches in gas stations. But beyond that, there’s a lot to choose from. To save money, we bought yogurt and fruit from the supermarket, and cooked our own pasta and grilled sausages.
I recommend stocking up on groceries in Reykjavik before you leave for your road trip. There are a few supermarket chains in Iceland: Kronan, Netto and Bónus (with a giant cartoon pig as its logo) which is the cheapest. Once you leave southern Iceland, it might be hard to find big supermarket chains until you reach Egilsstaðir in the east. There will be small grocery stores and mini-marts around, but their prices are usually higher.
Where to Refuel Along Iceland’s Ring Road
There’s no shortage of gas stations along the Ring Road. Fill up whenever you can, especially in winter, as you never know when you’ll find the next gas station.
All of the stations we went to accepted foreign credit cards, and you usually pay straight at the pump without having to go inside the station. We had a discount tag for Orkan from SAD cars so we tend to use them exclusively. We pumped at N1 once, but their automatic credit card machine charged me more than the price we had to pay. The manager explained that the extra fee would be returned eventually by my bank, but that this was a common problem that all N1 stations had with foreign cards. He advised to make your payment inside the gas station when using a foreign card.
Gas is pricey in Iceland at $2 USD per liter ($7.50 per gallon). It cost around $70 for a full tank of gas and we pumped around five times. In total, we spent around US$350 on gas for the Ring Road trip.
What to Pack for the Road Trip
The smaller your camper or vehicle is, the less you will want to pack. Obviously warm gear is essential. If you can’t see yourself using it daily, you probably don’t need. My mantra has always been: Less is more.
As we were traveling on a small camper, we had to stick with the essentials to make sure we weren’t crowding ourselves in. You won’t be needing clean clothes for every day of the trip since it’s usually too cold to change out in the open, plus you’re camping.
For photography enthusiasts, be sure to consider the amount of photography or video gear you plan to bring, especially if you’re traveling in a normal vehicle and not a camper van. If you’re traveling in fall or winter, make sure you bring a tripod to capture the Northern Lights.
On this 7-day trip in Iceland, we traveled with our Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 32 wheeled suitcase, our Vanguard baby hiking carrier, Kaleya’s small foldable stroller and my Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW camera pack. On hindsight, we didn’t need the stroller as Kaleya was usually walking on her own or sitting in the hiking backpack.
Thankfully they all fit into the back seat of our small Dacia Dokka. Space was pretty tight though and we had to move our gear around to set up the bed every night, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly.
How to Keep Yourself Clean on the Road Trip
So where do you take showers since you’re camping in Iceland?
There are actually plenty of public swimming pools in Iceland, almost in every town, where you can take a shower and have a dip in the heated pools for anything between 600 to 900 ISK ($5.60 – 8.65). We visited quite a few, since they were all great for kids.
Arguably the most beautiful one was the Hofsós pool, Sundlaugin á Hofsósi, designed by the same architect responsible for the famous Blue Lagoon. Check this website to find all the public swimming pools in Iceland.
There are also a few geothermal hot pots and hot springs (which we missed) dotted all around Iceland that are free to use and found in nature. Check out this site for a full list. These hot tubs and pools have been a tradition in Iceland since the Viking age. They are still super popular with locals and seem to be hangout spots where they socialize.
You can also shower at the campsites if they’re open. The prices run about the same and you’ll need coins (you pay for how long you use it). Don’t forget to bring your towel on the trip! Swimming pools and campsites rent towels for around 600 – 800 ISK, the same price as the entrance ticket.
READ MORE: A TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO ICELAND
I hope these tips will help you plan the perfect trip on the Iceland Ring Road! Let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll be more than happy to add extra info to this post.
Source: Wild Junket