How to survive winter driving in Iceland?

We are at the end of yet another trip and I am writing a post about driving experience, this time in Iceland. It is becoming a tradition I guess :)

Our trips are always full and cramped with things to do and see. We are very active on our trips and we like it that way. However we do not have our itinerary planned out well in advance but we like to keep it as open as we can. Renting a car gives us a certain amount of this "indecisiveness" to the last moment. We really can not predict weather for three weeks in advance now, can we? By having a car we can move around the country faster and we can change our plans easier. Our good friend and travel blogger Tadej would say that this is the key difference between traveller and a tourist. Predictiveness and leaving just a bit for the coincidence of travel vibe to happen.

Of course, we rented a car in Iceland. If you read about our experience about renting a car in South Africa, then you know that is is almost impossible to do it without complications. Actually we have never done it smoothly. But the sooner we realised that that is just the way it is, the better we felt.

We rented Ford Fiesta and it was a great decision
The struggle started way before our trip and it was about the choice of the vehicle type. The voice of confusion was Icelandic myth of the typical tourist on the island. So, in the view of Icelanders, a typical tourist:

- has never seen or touched snow,
- has never driven a car, neither in dry conditions nor in snow
- stops by or on the road to take pictures of the landscape
- sets up a tent in the middle of the road,
- etc.

The locals really do have quite a few stories about visitors. Probably a lot of them are true and their main message is: "Do not self drive in Iceland in winter or you will die on the road!" As you can see we managed the driving just fine along with the rest 1,5 mio tourists in the year 2016. But if you opt for self driving anyways, you should definitely have 4WD!

Road in Iceland in winter. No snow, no ice, just fine!
We rented a car through Billiger Mietwagen website, but the actual rental company was PayLess. Renting a car is always tricky and this time was no exception: when picking our car the agent insisted that we do all the paperwork first and then we can see the car - parked about 500m away in the dark parking lot. After signing all the documents we went to the car and checked it by ourselves for all the scratches, dents etc. It was extremely windy and pitch dark, but we managed to find about 20 new scratch marks on the car! We had to go all the way back to the terminal to show them marked on the contract and the agent signed again everything.

So, we rented a small car - Ford Fiesta and it was just fine. Even better - it had studded winter tires! Those are tires with deep profile and with something like crampons on them. The driving was louder because of them, but we managed just fine on all kinds of roads, morning icy streets or even some snowy surfaces.

Studded tires
Our experience from Iceland: 

We are used to harsh weather situations in Slovenia: snow - as we are alpine country and strong wind in the coastal area. Something similar is happening in Iceland, only that both situations are combined. Winter storms are severe, the wind is so strong that rain falls almost horizontally and the cars are struggling to keep steady on the icy road. At those moments - it's better not to drive around! We, too, had such an experience but it was luckily just for half an hour and no ice on the road. The second thing to watch out for are Icelandic roads themselves. All the descending roads are made with these long curves that lean just a bit to the outside of the turn, not the inside as one would expect. So these poorly designed roads in combination with high speed and icy surface can be one deadly situation. We suggest you to stick to the saying: If one would not do that at home, do not do it when on vacation in Iceland.

For all of those that are used of driving on snow or ice, the conditions in Iceland are nothing new. You have nothing to worry about, go ahead, rent a Fiesta. For those of you that have not seen or driven on the snow please do not do that in Iceland for the first time. Maybe it is better for you to take a summer trip or go with a tour. Also, if you can use common sense and not stop or camp on the road is probably a safety quality to hold on to.

That being said we rented a Fiesta, small hatchback car with 2WD and did not miss a 4WD at all. The roads that we drove on were good enough for our car, the ones that lead to the inside of the country and would need a 4x4 were closed during winter times anyway. As for the storms and wind, we would be even a bigger sail to catch the wind with the massive 4x4 as we were in small hatchback. The winter of 2016-17 was warm and wet and we did not need a 4WD, but do some research before you go and decide with weather and price of the vehicle in mind ;)

Rok Hocevar


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