Iceland, with its otherworldly landscapes, dramatic scenery, and a diverse range of natural wonders, is a dream destination for adventurers and nature enthusiasts. To truly experience the magic of this North Atlantic island, self-drive tours have become a popular choice for travelers.
Whether you opt for a car rental or a motorhome, road trips in Iceland offer the freedom to explore at your own pace, allowing you to immerse yourself in the stunning beauty and unique culture of this remote paradise. In this guide, we’ll delve into the essentials of road trips in Iceland, including vehicle options, tips, and a suggested itinerary.
Choosing Your Itinerary
Iceland’s itineraries can be categorized into three main groups.
The Classic Circle Itineraries (based on the Ring Road)
The Ring Road (Road 1) encircles the entire island, serving as Iceland’s main and essentially only artery. It passes through iconic Icelandic landmarks such as the Golden Circle, the southern coast with its famous waterfalls, Lake Mývatn in the north, and more. As the road is well-maintained and open year-round, these itineraries are available throughout the year.
To fully circle the island (about 1400 km), allocate at least 5 days, considering the arrival and departure days. We recommend at least 7 days for a comprehensive tour and 9 days if you plan to drive no more than 200-250 km per day. For a more extended trip, consider adding areas like Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Westman Islands, or the Western Fjords, which are off the Ring Road. Another option is to spend extra nights in specific areas, such as the southern coast for activities like snowmobiling or horseback riding.
For a comprehensive Iceland tour that includes Snæfellsnes, aim for 10 days, 11 days to include Westman Islands, and at least 2 weeks if you want to explore the Western Fjords.
Important Notes about the Ring Road:
- Mostly one lane in each direction, the road is rarely congested, even in the summer.
- While open year-round, it’s crucial to check road conditions, as the Ring Road can temporarily close, even for a few hours.
- Fuel stations are available along the route, but the distance between them can exceed 100 km, so refuel when you see a station, even if your tank isn’t nearly empty.
- Most towns in Iceland are located adjacent to the Ring Road, with hotels and restaurants in proximity.
- Driving on Route 1 is toll-free, except for a tunnel east of Akureyri, but you can bypass it to avoid the fee.
- Excellent cellular reception is available along the entire Ring Road, and the road is well-marked and controlled.
Check these two classic circular itineraries
The South and West itineraries
The routes in this category, unlike those circling the entire island, focus solely on the southwest region of Iceland. This area essentially surrounds the capital, Reykjavik, offering travelers nearly every natural phenomenon and activity Iceland has to offer. Here, you can find the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the southern coastline, and even the glacial lagoons in the eastern part.
Who is suitable for Southwest trips?
Due to its proximity to Reykjavik, Southwest Iceland trips allow travelers to enjoy the best of the island even with limited time. It’s easy to create delightful itineraries for 3, 4, or 5 days to savor the highlights of Iceland.
For those who prefer less hotel hopping each evening (common in island-circling tours), a Southwest journey can be an excellent solution, with two or three consecutive nights in the same hotel, depending on the planned route. For 3 to 5-day trips, staying in Reykjavik alone (a star tour) is also an option.
For those visiting Iceland in winter, focusing on the southwest improves the chances of better weather or, more accurately, milder weather compared to the north and western fjords. The availability of restaurants and hotels in the south is significantly greater than in other parts of the island during winter when some restaurants close early, and many hotels shut down, which becomes a notable and meaningful factor, especially for travelers with children.
The itineraries in this category also follow most of the time the Ring Road.
Check these two Southwest Itineraries
Highlands Inclusive Itineraries
Iceland’s central mountainous region hides some of the island’s most pristine and unique reserves. The scenery in the Highlands differs from that along the Ring Road, with more mountains and less greenery, yet it offers breathtaking views with colorful mountains, natural hot springs, carved canyons, and more.
The network of roads that traverses this vast region is marked with an F, each with its own number. Highland roads are unpaved, and some even cross rivers, requiring a 4×4 vehicle. These roads are accessible only during the summer months, typically opening from mid-June and closing in early September. Each road opens and closes on different dates based on weather conditions, and authorities in Iceland keep the public informed about their status.
As there are no hotels in the Highlands, day trips are common, with visitors returning to the Ring Road on the same day unless opting for camping in tents or cabins in designated parking areas within the reserves.
An itinerary in Iceland that includes the Highlands would resemble any other tour with additional relevant days in the central region.
Recommended destinations in the Highlands
Landmannalaugar: A geothermal wonder known for its vibrant rhyolite mountains and hot springs. Hikers frequent the area for its striking landscapes, including the colorful Laugahraun lava field. The region is part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, offering a unique and picturesque destination for nature enthusiasts.
Thorsmork: Nestled between glaciers and mountains in Iceland, is a breathtaking nature reserve known for its lush valleys and vibrant landscapes. Renowned for its challenging hiking trails, this remote wilderness offers a unique blend of rugged terrain and serene beauty. The region’s name, “Thorsmork,” translates to “Thor’s Woods,” paying homage to the Norse god of thunder.
Askja: A volcanic caldera in the Icelandic highlands, captivates with its otherworldly landscapes. Surrounded by desolate plains, its Viti crater holds a geothermal lake with striking azure waters. This remote location, marked by lunar-like features, provides an immersive experience into Iceland’s geological wonders.
Kerlingarfjoll (F35): Accessible via the F35 Highland Route, showcases Iceland’s geothermal wonders amidst colorful rhyolite mountains. Hot springs and steaming vents dot the area, creating a surreal landscape for hikers and nature enthusiasts. The F35 road offers an adventurous journey, leading to this unique destination in the heart of Iceland’s central highlands.
Check these two Highlands included itineraries
‘Take Me to Iceland’ app, with just two or three clicks, will suggest the best itineraries based on the exact parameters specified earlier. You can choose the route that suits you best and with an additional click, receive a complete travel itinerary. All routes in the app have been crafted by Iceland’s most experienced experts with years of expertise in the field.
Choosing Your Vehicle: Car Rental or Motorhome?
Another decision to make when planning a self-drive tour in Iceland is whether to opt for a traditional car rental or go all-in with a motorhome. Each choice offers a distinct set of advantages and drawbacks, so it’s essential to choose the one that aligns with your travel style and priorities.
Flexibility: Car rental provides the flexibility to navigate Iceland’s well-maintained road network, from paved highways to the more challenging F-roads, which are primarily accessible during the summer months. This option allows you to explore both popular and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Budget-Friendly: Car rentals are often more budget-friendly than motorhomes, offering a wide range of vehicle sizes and options to accommodate different group sizes and budgets.
Enjoy the advantages of 4WD: As mentioned before, a 4WD vehicle will allow you to reach magical nature reserves located in the center of Iceland (also known as the HIGHLANDS).
Accommodations: With car rentals, you’ll typically need to book accommodations in advance, such as hotels, guesthouses, or campsites, providing an opportunity to experience Iceland’s local hospitality.
All-in-One Travel: Motorhomes are essentially a home on wheels, providing both transportation and accommodations. They are equipped with kitchens, sleeping quarters, and bathrooms, offering a self-sufficient travel experience.
Remote Locations: With a motorhome, you can access more remote locations and camp in the midst of Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes. This option is perfect for those who crave seclusion and proximity to nature.
Convenience: Motorhomes provide convenience with facilities readily available onboard, saving time on meal preparation.
The fusion of a motorhome and a 4WD private car gives birth to the popular CAMPERVAN 4WD in Iceland. Essentially, it allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds—exploring F-roads while having the convenience of sleeping in the vehicle. However, 4WD campervans also come with their drawbacks.
These vehicles, like the modified Mitsubishi Pajero or Toyota Hilux, are essentially 4×4 cars transformed to accommodate sleeping arrangements. Yet, they lack a fully equipped kitchen for meal preparation, and amenities such as a shower and restroom are not part of the package. To put it gently, 4WD campervans do make the journey a bit more rugged!
While they provide the flexibility to navigate off-road terrains, it’s crucial to acknowledge the trade-offs. The absence of a proper kitchenette and bathroom facilities means you’ll need to adapt to a more basic camping lifestyle. So, if you’re up for a unique adventure and don’t mind sacrificing some comforts, the 4WD campervan might be the perfect choice for your Icelandic exploration.
Consider your budget, group size, and personal preferences when selecting between a car rental and a motorhome. If you’re planning a summer trip and intend to explore the highlands or remote areas, a four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle is advisable.
‘Take Me There Iceland’ app offers an exclusive discount with Lotus, a local car rental company. Users can enjoy a special 10% off, and what makes Lotus unique is its water damage coverage—the only one of its kind in Iceland. Opt for the Platinum insurance package for comprehensive coverage with a self-risk/participation of 0 ISK. Easily access the app to collect your coupon and avail yourself of this exclusive offer from Lotus.
Elevate Your Icelandic Journey with Outdoor Activities!
Enhance your Iceland road trip by incorporating thrilling and unique outdoor activities that are sure to elevate your overall travel experience. With a wide variety to choose from, there’s something for everyone. Whether it’s guided activities like the renowned whale-watching excursions departing from multiple locations in Iceland, snowmobile tours, cave explorations, or kayaking amid glacial lagoons, the options are endless.
Most of these activities are concentrated in the southwestern part of the island, making it convenient for travelers who may not cover the entire country to still enjoy a diverse range of experiences.
Here are a few pointers for booking these activities:
Don’t overload your daily itinerary. Remember, the ultimate goal is to witness Iceland’s breathtaking nature, and activities should complement, not dominate, your exploration. It’s advisable not to cram more than two substantial activities in a day, allowing time to appreciate the surroundings.
If you’re visiting during the summer months, ensure to book activities in advance. Popular ones are likely to sell out quickly, and purchasing tickets on the spot might not be an option due to high demand.
Plan strategically! Activities like whale-watching, snowmobiling, or glacier hiking are offered at various locations in Iceland, each with its unique charm and pricing. Compare and choose locations that align with your itinerary, ensuring a secure and reputable booking.
Here is our list of highly recommended activities in Iceland
For an effortless planning experience, explore our curated list of recommended activities using the ‘Take Me There Iceland’ app. It provides daily suggestions tailored to the time of day, allowing you to swiftly and securely make reservations for your chosen adventure!
Some recommended apps Iceland road trip:
TAKE ME THERE ICELAND – Let’s be candid – we might not be entirely impartial, but we genuinely stand by the fact that TAKE ME THERE ICELAND isn’t just one of the best apps for independent travelers in Iceland; it’s the sole app dedicated to crafting a truly personalized and comprehensive itinerary that empowers you to navigate your Icelandic adventure seamlessly.
SafeTravel – Iceland’s weather and road conditions can be quite different from what you’re accustomed to, presenting a unique set of challenges for drivers. To stay well-informed and make safe travel decisions, we recommend using the SafeTravel app. With this app, you can easily access real-time road condition updates and stay updated on weather conditions crucial for your journey.
My Aurora – Discover the Northern Lights like never before with ‘My Aurora Forecast,’ the ultimate app for witnessing this breathtaking natural phenomenon. Featuring a sleek and immersive dark design, this app caters to both curious tourists and seasoned aurora enthusiasts. It equips you with the essential information you desire, whether it’s the precise likelihood of witnessing the mesmerizing aurora borealis or in-depth insights into solar winds and high-resolution sun imagery.
Top Tips for Your Road Trip Adventure in Iceland
Plan Ahead: Create a detailed itinerary, including the places you want to visit and the activities you’d like to experience. While it’s essential to remain flexible, having a plan ensures you don’t miss any must-see attractions.
Driving Conditions: Familiarize yourself with Icelandic road conditions, weather, and safety guidelines. Weather can change rapidly, so be prepared for various scenarios.
Pack Smart: Dress in layers to prepare for Iceland’s ever-changing weather. Don’t forget waterproof clothing, a good pair of hiking boots, and a quality map.
Respect Nature: Iceland’s landscapes are fragile. Stay on designated paths and respect local guidelines to protect the environment. Leave no trace of your visit.
Campsite and Accommodation Regulations: If you opt for a motorhome, understand the rules and regulations for camping and parking, which can be quite strict in Iceland. Utilize designated campsites and adhere to their guidelines.
Gas Stations and Supplies: Gas stations in remote areas can be sparse. Fill up your tank when you have the opportunity and stock up on food and supplies when you’re near larger towns.
Emergency Numbers: Save important emergency numbers in your phone, including those for road assistance and local authorities.
Travel Insurance: Ensure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers potential mishaps such as vehicle breakdowns, medical emergencies, or trip cancellations.