When planing a trip around Iceland, you will encounter the name “The Ring road” often. So what is the Ring road then? It’s Iceland’s “highway”, the main road that goes around Iceland except the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula! It is 1,332 km/ (828 miles) and in theory, could be driven in 20 hours. It does not pass any of the beautiful fjords of East Iceland and the drive north from Reykjavik to the north side of the island is pretty uneventful except for a few exceptional beautiful road chapters. Most part of the Ring road is paved but keeping the roads in Iceland in shape requires continuous work so if you are closing in on a road chapter where road work is taking place, slow down considerably and pass the workers very slowly.
The Ring road has a few names like route:1, highway 1 or road nr:1. The Icelanders call it Hringvegurinn which literally means the Ring road. It’s also called Þjóðvegurinn, the national road.
The biggest question when driving the Ring road is: Should one drive it clockwise or anti clockwise? There is no right or wrong answer here. It all depends on what you want to see the most, how you want to experience it. There is one factor one should have in consideration before driving off and that is the weather. Get the latest forecast and base your decision on that. If there is rain on the south side, go north and the opposite. If the whole of Iceland is sunny, toss a coin!
Read more: A beginner’s guide to Iceland
Our roads are usually more narrow than what our guests are often used to and there are no shoulders to speak of really. That means lower speeds and more careful driving. We also have a lot of single lane bridges. When approaching a single lane bridge, you will see the traffic sign you see here on your right, before you reach the bridge. Look ahead and see if you see any oncoming traffic. If nobody else is seen, drive cautiously over the bridge.
If other cars are approaching the bridge from the other side, the rule is, the car closest to the bridge have the right of passage. Well before the bridge entrance, you will have enough space to stop on your right hand side, to give enough space for the oncoming traffic to pass you safely after they have driven over the bridge. When you have stopped securely on your right hand side, you may even blink with your headlights to show the car on the other side that it’s safe to pass the bridge. Too many accidents happens at single lane bridges when people blindly drive over them without considering possible oncoming traffic.
When driving on the Ring road or coming close to a single lane bridge, remember we do not have shoulders like bigger roads abroad. They are not wide and they can be very soft too so make sure when you stop that you don’t drive too far to your right. That applies especially when approaching curves. Again, there has been too many accidents when cars come in too fast and they hit the soft shoulder and rolls over. All of these problems can easily be avoided by only driving as fast as the road and driving experience allows.
There are not many single lane tunnels along the Ring road but you will find them in the east and the Westfjords. Before entering a single lane tunnel, there will be clear signs before you enter the tunnel.
One direction will always have right of passage while the traffic in the other direction have to yield in special shoulders that you’ll find with regular intervalls. The traffic sign to the right here shows you what side needs to yield for oncoming traffic. If the arrow on the right side is white, the oncoming traffic has to yield for you. But as always, drive with caution and be aware of what oncoming traffic is doing.
Another road feature that is quite common in Iceland but maybe not so in other countries. It’s what the Icelanders call Blindhæð. They are more common on smaller roads than on the Ring road. A blind rise is a “bump”, a slight hill that restricts your visibility ahead, meaning you will not see if there is oncoming traffic on the other side of the hill, the rise of the road, requiring you to slow down and making sure you can react to anything on the other side of the rise.
At times the rise is divided with a traffic sign to separate the two lanes. As always, only drive carefully and make sure you are not driving faster than the road, visibility and your experience allows.
When driving the Ring road off season, one have to prepare for delays in the form of mountain passes might be icy or even snowed in. It’s important to always be on top of the weather in Iceland, especially off season when it can change so fast, making mountain roads impassable within an hour. If it is snowing while on your Iceland trip, it’s a good idea to let the hotel know where you are heading, what route you are taking and when you are expecting to arrive at your new destination.
The mountain passes along the Ring road can be a bit rough at times but as usual, drive with care and you will not have any problems at all.
Icelandic sheep roam around the country free during the summer. You will find them grazing just about anywhere or licking salt off the roads. Sheep are unpredictable animals and are not the sharpest tool in the shed. When you see sheep along or on the road, slow down. Don’t expect them to just run away from you. They can come jumping out from nowhere so be prepared to hit the breaks if that is the case. If you do collide with a sheep, you are responsible and might be forced to pay for the loss to the owner.
The horses in Iceland doesn’t enjoy the same freedom as the sheep but can pose a problem on the road. Horse owners and riders sometimes ride in a big team but it’s rare to see them on the Ring road but it happens. Show the horses respect and slow down, almost to a halt, when you pass big teams of horses. They easily scare and might cause injuries to themselves, the riders and cause damages to your rental car.
One type of behavior that has increased tremendously is tourists (and Icelanders at times) stopping in the middle of the road. To stop wherever can put so many others in danger and in fact, in 2016, we had a fatal accident that was due to stopping “in the middle of the road”. The video below shows the chaos such behavior can cause. Please choose your stops wisely and consider other drivers.
Big thanks to Unnar Már Sigurbjörnsson who let us use his video.
There are no tolls in Iceland, except for ferry rides and the one exception, the big tunnel just north of Reykjavik called Hvalfjarðargönginn. The tunnel is part of the Ring road but by driving around the fjord Hvalfjörður, you can skip the tunnel. Either choice is a good choice. The tunnel is an engineering marvel and the ride around the fjord is stunning.
Expect speed cameras all around the country. When you are getting close to a speed camera, you will see this sign (to the left) before passing one. You won’t see any signs when the police are out measuring the speed. Fines for speeding are pretty high and add to that, the new driving conditions, sheep, single lane bridges etc, it is much more prudent and safe to keep the speed limits and just enjoy the holiday.
When you plan your Iceland trip, do your research to get the most out of your vacation. Feel free to ask our staff any questions you might have. The Ring road is a beautiful journey but don’t pass on any of the many fantastic sites that doesn’t lie along the road, like Snæfellsnes peninsula, the Westfjords and the many wonderful fjords of East Iceland. Whatever you do, enjoy the trip in a safe manner!
Have a great trip!! #GoIceland