12.03.2012

How to drive on F roads in the highlands of Iceland

Some tips for drivers headed for the rugged and beautiful highlands in Iceland. Make sure you enjoy the scenery without floating down a powerful river or getting stuck in the middle of nowhere! :)
 

(Note: This blog was updated November 2012 with an updated table about opening times of mountain roads).
 
  
Photos by SanMarkoTravel.com and Brynjar Smári respectively.
 
 
Before I start talking about driving on mountain roads, let me first tell you a little bit about the highlands of Iceland. If you have not been there, you have a lot to experience! The rugged beauty and the powerful peace and quiet up there is a brilliant battery charger. The landscape consists of one or more of the following: white glaciers, black sands, green mountain tops, rock formations of different varieties, blue or brown rivers, colorful hot springs, small waterfalls, big waterfalls and black volcanoes to name a few. Sometimes you go whole days without seeing a single person and other times it is like being in downtown Reykjavik on a lovely Saturday.
 
Lake Álftavatn ahead   
Photos by Pixie and Helga Davids respectively.
 
Some facts about the highlands from Wikipedia; they are situated in the middle of the country, above 400 – 500 meters over the sea. They are mostly uninhabitable. Many glaciers are in the highlands such as Vatnajokull glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe. Most of Iceland’s active volcanoes are also situated in the highlands. Sounds amazing….and kinda scary right? :)
 
The mountain roads in the highlands are called F-roads and are indicated with an F in front of the number of the road on maps. They are usually narrow gravel roads with no bridges over rivers. The F-roads are only open during the summer and some of them open as late as early July. You will need a 4x4 car to drive on these roads.
 

 Opening of mountain roads brochure (updated table November 2016).
 
The highland summer lasts only about a month and a half. The opening of each road depends mostly on the amount of snow covering them. Roads can be very wet after the spring and are not opened to traffic until they dry up. When roads pass through conservation areas, they are not opened until the whole area is ready to take on the pressures of visitors even if the road itself is ready to be opened.
 
As you can see on the map, there are several F-roads. The most known roads are F35, Kjölur, F26, Sprengisandur, and F208 Fjallabaksleið Nyrðri which roughly translates as The north road behind the mountains which leads to Landmannalaugar. Kjölur and Sprengisandur used to be the main roads between the north and the south of Iceland and the people would travel on foot or horses. I think the people in the old days must have been super humans for traveling without all the nice modern equipment and clothes we have. :)
 
 
So what do you have to keep in mind when planning a trip to the highlands?
  • You have to be driving a 4x4 vehicle.
  • It is strongly advised that people travel together in 2 or more cars.
  • You should check information about the conditions of the roads before you start your journey. It is best to call 1777 or check www.road.is.
  • Make sure that the F road you plan to travel on is open for traffic.
  • Driving outside of the roads in the highlands is strictly forbidden. Actually, driving off road in Iceland is always forbidden!
  • Buying a detailed map of the route you will be travelling is much better than using the standard free map you can get at tourist information centers and gas stations. This is not necessary but can be very helpful.
  • Whenever possible, try to talk to local people about conditions in the area, such as rangers.
  • Tell somebody about your travel plans. You can for example tell the good people over at www.safetravel.is (or just the ranger you talked to before).
  • It is good to be prepared for all types of weather as the weather in the highlands can change almost with a blink of an eye.
  • Be aware that telephone signals in the highlands are not very stable and you can go for a long while without a mobile connection.
  • The emergency number in Iceland is 112. You are able to call it in the highlands, even without a mobile connection.
  • There is only one petrol station in the highlands, at Hveravellir, so make sure you fill up! :)
     
 
Photo by 4x4offroads.com.
 
There are also some things to consider when crossing the glacier rivers in Iceland. 
  • When you cross rivers, make sure that the 4 wheel drive has been engaged before going into the river. Drive very slowly and use the low range if possible. Never switch gears in the middle of the river.
  • Glacial rivers usually have less water in the mornings. During warm summer days, the flow of the river can increase a lot. Heavy rain can also increase the flow of a river substantially. Be aware that rivers can sometimes not be crossed even if the road is open and you are driving a 4x4 vehicle.
  • A good rule of thumb regarding glacier rivers is that if you would not want to wade through a river you should not drive through it. Crossing rivers can be a serious matter if people are not careful. Whenever possible, cross with someone with experience in crossing rivers.
  • Fords over rivers are usually marked and should be easy to spot. Be aware of big rocks that might be under the surface of the water. The worst place to cross is where the water is most calm because that is usually the deepest part of the river. The best way to cross is to follow the torrent diagonally down the river, that way the torrent helps the vehicle over. 
     
 
Photos by 4x4offroad.com and 4x4offroad.com respectively.
 
The Road Traffic Directorate has made a video about how to drive in Iceland. There is some information about how to drive on F-roads in it, although it is mostly a general video about driving in Iceland.
 
 
 
You can of course drive the SADcars that are suitable for F-roads driving in the highlands of Iceland. In fact we want you to enjoy it! We offer 3 groups that are suitable for F-road driving; Group N (Honda CRV 4x4 or comparable), Group P (Nissan Terrano 4x4 or comparable) and Group R (Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4 or comparable).

Please be aware that off-road driving in strictly forbidden by law in Iceland as it damages nature for decades. If the road does not have a number, do not drive on it, even if there are tire tracks. Those who drive off-road are subject to excessive fines or imprisonment of up to two years. 
 
 
If you are not up to driving yourself, there are a number of Super Jeep tours offered in Iceland. We suggest you check out our friends at Happy Days, www.happydays.is, for more information about super jeep tours.
 
Have a happy and safe journey!
Signy
 
Sources and useful information:
 

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