Iceland’s Ring Road is typically regarded as one of the best road trips in the world. The circular route around the country takes travelers on a journey past stunning, varied landscapes, and the drive itself is at least half the fun.
But, planning a road trip along National Road 1 can be daunting. So we’re here to help.
When to road-trip
First and foremost, decide when you want to visit.
The late spring and summer months feature more daylight — almost 24 hours of it, in fact. Thanks to the phenomenon known as Midnight Sun, as well as the country’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t actually ever set during the month of June. For road-trippers, this means you’ll have ample time to be on the road. The summer season will also have better (read: less snowy) weather, so the roads will be less dangerous.
But the one advantage of traveling during the winter is the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. While the days may be shorter, and your opportunity for daytime driving may be significantly diminished, you’ll be more likely to witness the Aurora Borealis if you head out of Reykjavík.
How long to road-trip
The easy answer is: as long as possible. Attempting to circle the entire Ring Road in a short amount of time will only lead to stressful days and missed opportunities. It’s best to take anywhere from five to 14 days to complete the circular route, depending on how many hours per day you want to drive. Anything less than five days, and your entire trip will be cramped.
If you only have a short amount of time for your road trip, stick to one region in particular or plan day trips from Reykjavík. The southern region of Iceland is a great location to visit for a few days, or you can also choose from trips to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the Golden Circle, or Þingvellir National Park.
Planning Your Route
If you’re looking to complete the entire loop, it’s easiest to go counterclockwise from Reykjavík (or the airport). Starting in the southern part of the country is the best introduction to an epic road trip — the south is relatively easy to navigate, the weather is less intense, and the region is jam-packed with sights to see. It’s the perfect starting point, before you complete the circle and continue on to the more difficult routes in the northern region and Westfjords.
Be sure to make a list of natural landmarks, towns, and other sites you want to see along the way, then note approximately what day you plan to stop at each. It also helps to prioritize which attractions you most want to see, in case you find yourself strapped for time and have to make adjustments along the way. Keep in mind that every additional stop will add more time to your road trip. Every turn down an unmarked road, every glacier hike, and every photography pit stop will add up — so be sure to pad your itinerary with extra time for spontaneous adventures.
Tips for road-tripping
Make your travel plans in advance and book your rental car before you land in Iceland. When doing so, you’ll have to choose between an automatic and manual vehicle. Manuals will be cheaper per day, but if you’re not comfortable driving a stick-shift, Iceland probably isn’t the best place to learn. The roads are fairly empty, but that can be a problem. If you run into any issues, you’ll be less likely to find help on the road. Because of this, it’s better to stick with what you’re most comfortable driving.
When you pick up your car, make sure to pay attention to the rental agents. They’ll give you a complete rundown of where you can and can’t drive your car, and what your insurance will cover in terms of damages and accidents. Not all cars are allowed off-road, so make note of your situation before you head out.
The weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable. In the course of a single day, you can experience sun, rain, snow, winds, and overcast skies. So, be prepared — pack layered clothing, and if you’re having trouble operating your vehicle, take a break.
While on the road, there are a few key things to remember. You will come across one-lane bridges along your route — don’t panic. If you’re not sure whose turn it is to cross, just play it safe and let the other driver go first. You’ll also be tempted to pull over approximately every 10 minutes to take photos of the changing view. While this is encouraged, make sure to pull all the way off the road before getting out of your car. And keep a wary eye out for sheep. They tend to wander across the road whenever they feel like it.
The single best rule for driving in Iceland? When you see a gas station, take advantage of it. It’s better to have a full tank than be worried about making it to the next pump. Gas stations are also the best (and usually only) places to stock up on snacks, take restroom breaks, and grab meals. Both Icelanders and visitors eat meals in gas stations regularly, so there’s no reason to be hesitant about it!
Also, keep a refillable water bottle with you in the car. You never know when you’ll get thirsty and happen across a stream or river with pure, delicious water straight from one of Iceland’s many glaciers.
With so many hours in the car, you’re going to want a lot of good audio entertainment as well. Be sure to download audiobooks or podcasts while you have WiFi, because service is generally sparse in the middle of nowhere, Iceland. For Iceland-specific recommendations, see what we suggest watching, listening to, and reading. Or, to build your own custom playlist using the suggestions of Passion Passport community members and staff, scroll through our Layover series.
If you’re still looking for more advice, check out our other Iceland guides to help plan your trip: What to do in Iceland, What to see in Iceland, A 7-Day Ring Road Itinerary, A Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, and the Best Instagram Spots in Iceland.
Header image by Norris Niman.