After recently completing a roadtrip around Iceland’s ring road in winter, I just had to share how I did it and what my itinerary looked like.
Before setting off on this adventure with Susan, I was scared. Real scared. Mainly about how winter conditions in Iceland affect the roads, your ability to travel around and what you can see and do. In the end, I needed have been worried because it is definitely possible to travel around Iceland in a rental car in winter. I hired a small two wheel drive Toyota and it was fine. I used Holiday Autos who were cheap and awesome.
Also read my other posts about Hiring a Car in Iceland: Practicalities & How to Get a Cheap One and Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide.
Weather and Road Conditions on Iceland’s Ring Road
The first thing you do after picking up your rental car (I will write an article specifically about renting a car in Iceland later) is to check weather and road conditions are there are a few fantastic website which help you to do this.
The first and most important website is one which shows you road conditions throughout the island – http://www.road.is
Road conditions change quickly in Iceland and a sudden snowstorm can really put a dent in your plans. I was particularly worried about seeing lots of roads coloured blue on this website. The website labels these roads as “slippery”. Needless to say, I found even blue roads quite drivable despite the road being entirely covered in ice for over 100km at a stretch. For some reason, it just didn’t feel slippery and I was doing speeds of between 60 & 80 km/h while locals were doing in excess of 100km/h. Take a look at the conditions:
This green. Clear and open road with absolutely no obstacles. Go as fast as you like.
This is yellow. A bit of snow on the side of the road an very occasionally a patch of ice on the road, but off the driving line.
This is blue. Usually the road is fully covered in ice, but it’s not too slippery. Just check by jamming your brakes on at low speed to see what happens. If no skidding, you’re right to go!
The next website to visit often is http://vegasja.vegagerdin.is/eng/ – this awesome website shows two really important things. How many cars have passed that section of road in the past 10 minutes and since midnight and gives you live cameras from around the island’s road network. Some of the roads, particularly between Egilsstaðir and Myvatn are iced over for long periods of time and the camera view from here looks like antarctica. Wait till you get there — it feels exactly the same! But not scary, honest.
The last source of info I recommend is the Iceland weather Bureau’s app – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ve-ur/id673177417 – I found this app to be really excellent at predicting things like wind speed and general weather conditions. Wind speed is really important to ensure a safe trip around the island as anything about about 15m/s is quite strong.
Now, cars in Iceland must be fitted with winter tyres in winter, so your rental car will be too. These winter tires look like normal tyres, but have metal studs in them which really help grip ice. I rarely slid except when in a couple of icy car parks.
How many days do I need to drive Iceland’s Ring Road?
It depends, but I think in ideal weather you could rush around it in 5 days and still have a good time (including the Golden Circle). But a more realistic timeframe is 6 days like we did. If the weather is bad, 6 days won’t be enough, so just pray for good weather like we had!
I got a great deal from Holiday Autos. Only €20 per day! Check the price of rentals on Holiday Autos.
Petrol stations are scattered around the island and you won’t have any problems finding one. The price of petrol was around €1.20 per litre. I spent 16,660 ISK (€120) for my entire trip around the island. The car used less than 5L/100km.
Groceries stores are in every town, big and small. The problem is that prices vary greatly between towns. I found Reykjavik to be the cheapest place to stock up on groceries.
Accommodation in Iceland is expensive and many people choose to stay in youth hostels. We only stayed in one of these and it was the worst place we stayed in, but still OK for a night. The farm stays are the best places to stay, although some are really expensive. A hot tip is to only book your accommodation on the day you plan to arrive at it because weather conditions aren’t always favourable. Of course, the opposite is true in Summer when accommodation is at a premium and you might miss out if you don’t book ahead.
The northern lights are in the sky every night. It’s just that most nights in winter are cloudy so you don’t see them. Check the website — http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ — for the latest cloud cover forecast and stay awake after 10:30pm to see them!
Day 1 – Golden Circle
We set off to visit the sites on the Golden Circle early in the morning before the sun rose (I will write a more detailed post about this later). It’s Iceland’s most popular route and most people do this on tour buses. So in order to beat the tour buses, set off early to get to Thingvelir at opening time – 0900. From there, head to the geysers and Gullfoss, an amazingly powerful waterfall.
We were going great for time, so we decided to try and head to Vik for the night. On the way we checked out Urridafoss, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss — all which were worth the visit.
We stayed at a farm stay called Guesthouse Vellir — really fantastic rooms, clean and massive shared bathrooms and an all-you-can-eat breakfast which included waffles, cold meats, cheese, cereal, juice, tea and coffee. So good. Price: €79. Check the current price on Agoda.
Day 2 – Vik to Djúpivogur
Guesthouse Vellir was a great place to start the day’s exploration as it is really close to Dyrholaey lookout and the rock arch. Unfortunately, the road up to the lighthouse and viewing platform at Dyrholaey lookout was closed due to snow, so we were only able to go to a nearby lookout just up the road. But that lookout alone was worth it. Simply magnificent.
Black Sand Beach
Next stop was the basalt rocks and black sand beach just before Vik. You really see the power of the ocean when you visit this beach and one unfortunate soul lost their life just a week before we were there.
From Vik, we made a beeline for Jökulsárlón and to be honest, there’s not much between Vik and Jökulsárlón except for a few rivers and photo ops.
Jökulsárlón itself is an interesting place to see icebergs, seals and icebergs stuck on the beach. There honestly isn’t that much to see or do here, so you don’t have spend too much time hanging around. Free toilets at the cafe in the carpark.
From Jökulsárlón, most people turn around and head back to Reykjavik which means the roads clear up a lot as you travel east. Hofn is a popular stopping point after Jökulsárlón, but the weather was so good that we decided to keep going to Djúpivogur and I’m glad we did because that night we saw the northern lights.
In Djúpivogur we stayed in a fantastic private cabin for the price of a hostel — they upgraded us for free. Not only that, the lady at the front desk was so so lovely. Price: €63. Check current price on Booking.com.
Day 3 -Djúpivogur to Mývatn
Day 3 was another stunning day with hardly a cloud in the sky. Given that Egilsstaðir was so close, we decided to try and make it all the way to Mývatn which we did with ease as the road was much faster to drive on than I had expected despite being one massive ice sheet.
The drive from Djúpivogur heads through a massive tunnel at one point and then over another mountain covered in snow as you descend into Egilsstaðir. I was shitting myself at this point and the locals must have thought I was an old grandpa driving so slow. Anyway, the views were amazing.
The Mountain Road
We stopped in Egilsstaðir for petrol (a pretty big town) and kept driving towards Mývatn. It’s here that the road in winter is often poor because of cold temperatures and high altitude. It was -8ºC as we went over the mountains, but it’s often a lot colder than that. The road condition was pretty good despite being covered in ice for about 100km. All the fresh snow had been ploughed away and the ice was packed hard, but still rough enough to get grip on. I did between 60 & 80km/h, but I was overtaken by big trucks and a fast sports car. People were doing way over 100km/h at times. It wasn’t slippery, but I was cautious anyway.
Hverir Geothermal Area
Just before Mývatn is the Hverir geothermal area. For me, it wasn’t a big deal as I’ve seen lots of this sort of stuff in New Zealand and Indonesia already, but those who haven’t seen this sort of stuff before, it’s definitely going to be interested. Steam vents expelling hot gas, hot mud pools… you know… volcanic stuff. One point to note was that the access road was covered in snow and it was deep. We still got through though as did other 2WD cars.
That night we slept at Vogahraun Guesthouse which also has a pizza joint. Pizzas are expensive, but delicious. A really complete breakfast was included. Price: €90. Check current price on Agoda.
Day 4 – Mývatn to Blonduos
Mývatn Nature Baths
We came to Mývatn because I really wanted to try the hot springs here and I am so glad we made it. We arrived at opening time, 12 midday, paid our 3,500 ISK (€25), had our mandatory naked shower and hopped in the pool. We were first in! Let’s just say that it was absolutely freezing outside and perfectly warm in side the pool. So cold outside in fact that the temperature gauge read -6ºC. After an hour or so of splashing around here, we set our sights on Akureyri via Godafoss.
There’s not a whole lot to see and do in Akureyri itself and some people even make a detour before getting here up to Husavik to do whale watching. We took a look at the church here as it’s supposed to be the little sister of Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. Umm… A bit of a disappointment to be honest. Don’t be afraid to skip it.
We ended up in Blonduos where we got a massive 2 bedroom cabin with hot tub. It was -8ºC outside at this stage, so even though I set the hot tub temperature to 42ºC, it was only luke warm by the time it had filled up. -8ºC combined with wind and wet, naked skin is a disaster. My hair was already frozen and I ran straight from the hot tub into a hot shower in the cabin — a truly Icelandic experience. To cap it all off, the northern lights fired up again. Price: 10,000 ISK (€70). Check current price on Agoda.
Day 5 – Blonduos to Borgarnes
Because we were making such good time on our roadtrip, we decided to take a few detours today. The first was to head out along the peninsula to Hvitserkur. The road was a dirt road, but you wouldn’t know it because it was covered in ice. Temperature outside was -11ºC.
The next detour was the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We had intended to go right to the end of the peninsula, but it was just taking too long and we didn’t have enough time. So we got to the small town of Stykkishólmur, took a few photos and cut across the peninsula. That meant we missed out on some good sightseeing opportunities further down the peninsula, but you can’t do it all.
We arrived at the Borgarnes Hostel with enough time to head to the supermarket and cook some dinner. The hostel itself was just OK, but it was cheap. Price: €47. Check current price on Agoda.
Day 6 – Borgarnes to Airport
We had planned on this day to visit the Blue Lagoon, but we didn’t realise you had to book in advance. Not only that, the price is €40 which I think is a bit much. Not sure whether it was a good idea to skip it or not, but in the end we had no choice. We didn’t book. So we instead headed back to Reykjavik to get something to eat, to have another couple of coffees at the awesome Reykjavik Roasters and see Perlan.
At this stage it was time to take the hire car back to the airport and wait for our flight out of Iceland. All my fears about circumnavigating Iceland in winter were unfounded. Of course, the great weather really made our trip much fast and much safer. No one knows what the weather is going to be like when you visit, so you have to play every day by ear.
- Don’t book your accommodation until the day you are planning to arrive. You just might not make it.
- I relied on Booking.com and Agoda.com for my bookings and both worked well.
- Buy a sim card in Reykjavik before you hit the road so you can check road and weather conditions in advance.
- You don’t need a four wheel drive.
- Test your brakes every now and then at slow speeds when on the ice to get a feel of how slippery it is.