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How to Drive Safely on Icy Roads in Iceland 

    Updated: 28th January 2024

    Iceland’s enchanting landscapes are a wonder to behold, especially during the winter months when the country is cloaked in a blanket of snow. However, this beauty comes with its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to driving. Roads slick with ice can turn a scenic drive into a slippery and dangerous ordeal. From preparing your vehicle to handling unexpected slides, we’ve got you covered with practical tips and advice for the frosty roads of Iceland.

    Icy road, Iceland
    Credit: Domenico Convertini

    Understanding Road Conditions in Iceland

    Iceland’s road conditions are as diverse as its landscapes. In winter, which can extend from October to April, the roads are often covered with snow and ice, presenting unique challenges to drivers. The weather can change rapidly, with clear roads quickly becoming slippery and hazardous.

    Driving in Iceland is not just about dealing with snow; ice on the roads is a more subtle but equally dangerous threat. Black ice, almost invisible, can catch drivers off guard, leading to loss of vehicle control. The coastal areas might have milder weather but can still surprise you with icy patches. In contrast, the highlands and inland regions experience more severe and prolonged icy conditions.

    Being aware of these varied conditions is crucial for your safety. The Icelandic Meteorological Office provides regular weather updates, and offers real-time information on road conditions. These resources are invaluable for planning your travel routes and times, ensuring you’re as prepared as possible for what lies ahead on the road.

    Preparing Your Vehicle for Icy Conditions 

    Before embarking on your Icelandic road trip, it’s essential to ensure your vehicle is well-equipped to handle icy conditions. This preparation can make a significant difference in your safety and driving experience.

    Firstly, check your tires. In Iceland, it’s mandatory to have winter tires from November to mid-April. These tires are designed to provide better traction on ice and snow. Ensure they are properly inflated and have adequate tread depth. Also, consider carrying a set of snow chains, especially if you plan to explore more remote areas.

    Next, inspect your brakes, lights, and battery. The cold can affect your car’s battery performance, and well-functioning brakes are critical on icy roads. Ensure all lights are working correctly for maximum visibility during shorter daylight hours.

    Keep your windshield clear. Use antifreeze in your washer fluid to prevent it from freezing and ensure your wipers are in good condition. Always carry a scraper and brush to remove ice and snow from your car before driving.

    Lastly, pack an emergency kit. Include items like blankets, a flashlight, snacks, water, and a first-aid kit. This kit can be a lifesaver if you get stranded or face unexpected delays.

    Essential Driving Skills on Ice

    Driving on ice requires skill, patience, and a good understanding of your vehicle’s capabilities. Here are some key tips to help you navigate icy roads safely:

    • Maintain Control and Safe Speeds: On ice, everything takes longer – braking, turning, and accelerating. Drive slowly and steadily to maintain control. The key is to make gentle maneuvers. Sudden turns or brakes can cause your car to slide.
    • Safe Distance from Other Vehicles: Keep a significantly greater distance from the vehicle in front of you than you would on dry roads. A good rule of thumb is to maintain at least a 6-second distance. This extra space gives you more time to react and stop if needed.
    • Braking Techniques on Ice: If your vehicle has anti-lock brakes (ABS), press the brake firmly and hold it. The ABS will pump the brakes for you, allowing you to maintain steering control. If you don’t have ABS, gently pump the brakes to avoid locking them up.

    Remember, icy patches can be deceptive, often looking like wet pavement. Approach bridges, overpasses, and shaded areas with caution, as these spots freeze first and remain icy longer than other parts of the road.

    When driving uphill, avoid stopping if possible, as it can be challenging to get moving again on an icy slope. When going downhill, use a low gear to allow engine braking to help control your speed.

    What to Do If Your Car Slides on Ice

    Sliding on ice is a common and often frightening experience, but knowing how to respond can help you regain control quickly and safely. The key is to stay calm and follow these steps:

    Recognizing the Type of Slide:

    Front-wheel Slide: This occurs when the front tires lose traction, and the car begins to go straight despite turning the steering wheel.

    Rear-wheel Slide: Also known as fishtailing, this happens when the rear tires lose grip, causing the back of the car to swing out.

    Correcting a Front-Wheel Slide:

    • Ease off the accelerator and avoid braking abruptly.
    • Steer gently in the direction you want to go. As the tires regain traction, the car will start to respond to your steering.

    Correcting a Rear-Wheel Slide:

    • Again, ease off the accelerator and avoid hitting the brakes hard.
    • Steer in the direction of the slide (i.e., if the rear is sliding right, steer right). This action helps realign the vehicle’s direction.

    In both scenarios, once your vehicle starts to straighten, gently steer back in the desired direction. Overcorrection is a common mistake that can lead to a spin. Make smooth, slight adjustments.

    Additional Safety Tips 

    Navigating Iceland’s icy roads safely goes beyond just knowing how to drive on ice. Here are some extra tips to enhance your safety:

    Navigating Icy Hills and Sharp Turns

    • When approaching a hill, gain some momentum on the flat road before you start ascending. Avoid powering up the hill, as this can cause your wheels to spin.
    • When going downhill, reduce your speed and use a low gear to allow engine braking to control your descent.
    • For sharp turns, slow down before you reach the curve. Braking on ice while turning can lead to a slide.

    Technology and Driver Aids

    Modern vehicles often come with safety features like anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC), and traction control. Familiarize yourself with these technologies in your rental car, as they can significantly aid in maintaining control on icy roads. However, don’t rely solely on these systems. Good driving habits are equally important.

    When to Pull Over

    If you encounter a severe storm or conditions that seem too challenging, it’s wise to pull over and wait it out. Choose a safe spot away from the traffic and turn on your hazard lights.

    Legal Requirements and Emergency Procedures

    Understanding and adhering to Iceland’s legal requirements for winter driving is essential for both your safety and compliance with local laws. Winter tires are mandatory from November to April, and headlights must be on at all times, day and night.

    In case of an accident or emergency, it’s important to know the basics:

    • Call 112, Iceland’s emergency number, for immediate assistance.
    • Stay with your vehicle if you are stranded. It’s easier for rescuers to locate a vehicle than a person on foot in harsh weather.
    • Use hazard lights and emergency markers to increase visibility.

    Iceland respects the safety of its residents and visitors, so following these guidelines is taken seriously. Being informed about these requirements and procedures ensures you’re not just a tourist, but a responsible participant in Iceland’s driving community.


    Driving on Iceland’s icy roads can be challenging, but with the right preparation and knowledge, it can also be a safe and remarkable experience. Remember, the key to conquering these icy terrains lies in driving cautiously, being well-prepared, and understanding how to react in slippery situations. By following the advice outlined in this guide, you’ll not only ensure your safety but also enhance your enjoyment of Iceland’s stunning winter landscapes. Embrace the adventure that awaits on Iceland’s frost-kissed roads, and drive safely!

    Ready to hit the road? Check out our 7 day Iceland ring road itinerary!

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