26.02.2013

How to drive in winter in Iceland

A few useful tips and tricks

Winter in Iceland is unpredictable. You can have all types of weather in one day; brilliant sunshine, the heaviest grey rain and everything in between. The only thing you can really count on is that the day will be short. So, if you are thinking about driving in winter in Iceland, here is some information, tips and links so you can make your journey as safe as possible!
 
    
Photos by Icelandic language blog and Travel Adventures respectively. 
 
 
WINTER SEASON
Official winter season is from late October to late April. First day of winter is usually in late October but this does not mean that the weather will definitely be nice until then. We do not have to go further than 2012 to find a snowstorm in September but that is unusual. The first day of summer is in late April, this is usually wishful thinking though since it almost always snows on that day. :)
 
One thing to keep in mind when traveling in Iceland in winter is that the days are very short. During the shortest day of the year, December 21st, there is only about 3 hours of actual daylight in Akureyri and 4 hours in Reykjavík. This is important to keep in mind when planning your trip so you can see certain sites during daylight and spend the drive there in darkness. 
 
The weather is not the same in different regions of Iceland. The south is usually milder while the north and western fjords get more snow. When traveling between regions you will often have to drive through mountain passages or heaths. These are usually the most dangerous part of your way since the weather in the mountains can be much worse than down by the seaside. When you do get into heavy snow or a snowstorm try to follow the sticks on the sides of the roads, they will keep you on the road until you get to better driving conditions (you can see the sticks on the pic below). The heaths are often closed during bad weather so make sure you check the road conditions before you drive on.
 
 
 
ROAD CONDITIONS AND WEBCAMS AROUND THE COUNTRY
I suggest you check the weather and road conditions in the period leading up to AND during your trip. There are a few extremely useful sites to do this. The Icelandic Met office has an excellent site where you can see the weather forecast for different regions of the country. The Icelandic Road Administration has a road map with detailed information about the road conditions on specific roads. Furthermore, the Icelandic Road Administration has just opened a new Vegasjá website or webcam website where you can actually see the conditions on roads through webcams. Let´s see how the two sites work:
 
   
Road conditions - full map and detailed map of the South East 
 
You can see road conditions visually on a map of the whole country (picture on the left). The conditions of the roads are reflected in their color and the colors are listed in the bottom right corner. As you can see, 22 February 2013 was a good day for driving in Iceland; the roads are green on most of the ring road with spots of ice on parts in the north east. The highlands in the middle of the country are of course marked red for impassable. You can also see conditions at different parts of the country. In the pic on the right I have chosen South East and as you can see, the map provides detailed weather and traffic details.
 
      
The Vegasja webcam site - full map, detailed map and weather warning signs  
 
The Vegasjá site or Webcam site is unfortunetly only in Icelandic at the moment. It can still be very useful for all travelers as it shows the road conditions in real time in webcams that point to at least 3 different ways at each spot. Put the pointer of the mouse on the circles with the big blue numbers (the number is the number of webcams in the area). When you hover over the number, some lines with smaller circles appear and if you put your pointer over those circles the webcam appears giving you a good idea of the circumstances in the area. As on the road conditions map, you can always move in to a certain part of the country to get more detailed information. Neat right?
 
The smaller light green circles show you details about the weather. Although not visible on my still shots, they will show activity if there is heavy wind at that spot. The color around the circle represent the severity of the danger. I have translated the warnings roughly in the below table, the warnings match the colored rings in the pic on the far right. 
 
Blue circle: Wind = 15-25 meters/second (m/s). Warning 1-3 for mobile homes, campers, trailers and caravans.
Yellow circle: Wind = 26-29 m/s. Warning 1 for normal vehicles (other than mobile homes,campers, trailers and caravans) which means that drivers need to be cautious, especially on wet or slippery roads.
Red inner circle/yellow outer circle: Wind = 30-35 m/s. Warning 2 for normal vehicles which means that is hard to drive and likely that cars will be swept off the road by sidewinds.
Red circle: Wind = 36 m/s. Warning 3 for normal vehicles which is no driving weather at all.
 
You can also call 1777 for road conditions. 
 
 
SOME RULES, LAWS AND TIPS
• The emergency number in Iceland is 112.
• Whenever possible, try to talk to local people about conditions in the area, such as tourist information centers or rangers. They know a lot and are ready to help.
• Be prepared for all types of weather as the weather can change almost with a blink of an eye.
• You need to have your lights on at all times, in summer and in winter, even when it’s bright outside.
• You cannot talk, text or write e-mails on your mobile while driving. There is obviously no drinking and driving.
• Offroad driving is forbidden in Iceland. It is forbidden because it can cause irreversible damage to the nature. Please do not do it!
• When you are at a four way intersection, the rule is that the car to your right has the right of way. In many residential neighborhoods in Reykjavik there are no stop or wait signs, then the car to your right has the right of way as well.
• In roundabouts it is the car on the inside that has the right of way. I have been told this is unusual.
• You cannot turn right on a red light. Only drive when the light is green.
• Animals can be on the roads in winter as well as summer, although in winter they are more likely to be wild reindeer than domestic sheep.
 
   
Photos by Sanmarkotravel.com and AOL travel respectively.
 
 
Gas stations are all over the country, no worries. Many of the gas stations around the country are self-service so bring your debit or credit card and make sure you remember the pin number to be able to use it. You can see a comparison of fuel prices here.
 
Just a quick note about the SADcars, you should be able to do the ring road in winter in any type of our cars except if the weather is unusually bad such as a snowstorm. Our cars all have good whole year tyres and are equipped for normal winter circumstances on the ring road. However, we do recommend you rent a 4x4 car, especially if you plan on going the ring road in the dead of winter. Just send me a line to info@sadcars.com if you have any questions.
 
Have a safe trip! And make sure you stop when the Northern lights come out to mesmerize you on your travels. :)
Signy
 
 
SOURCES AND USEFUL INFORMATION
Driving in Iceland - SADcars blog
 

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