“Hringvegur.” “Þjóðvegur.” “Route 1.”
Each of these names refers to the same 1332 kilometer stretch of asphalt and gravel winding its way in a lazy circle around Iceland. Most know it simply as the Ring Road.
Though its fame and popularity grow each year, a road trip on the Ring Road is still the ultimate way to experience as much of Iceland’s raw beauty as you can at your own pace. Sure, a guide can explain what makes geysers erupt or why all the beaches have black sand, but no bus driver will pull off the road every 10 minutes to let you gawk at and photograph the newest scenery. Nor will any tour drive you through the most remote regions of the island least touched by society, like the East Fjords or the highlands of the north. Only getting behind the wheel yourself will enable you to immerse yourself in Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes, its black beaches and waterfalls, and its peaks and fjords.
But it won’t be easy. You’ll be jockeying with other tourists for the best photo angles one day and aching to see a fellow traveler the next. You’ll cross a lifetime of one-lane bridges in a span of just days. You’ll struggle to find accommodations priced so you can also afford to eat. The road will just wear you down.
But if you want to have the adventure of a lifetime, it’s all worth it. There’s no better place and no better way. Here’s how to do it.
BEFORE YOU GO
RENTING A CAR
If you’re going to drive the Ring Road, you’ll need a car; that much is non-negotiable. But you do have options. In the summer when road conditions are good, just about any car will be suitable for the journey, and your cheapest option will be a subcompact. These tiny things are cheap to rent (under $500 for a week-long rental) and very fuel efficient. Here are a few technicalities:
- In order to rent a car in Iceland, you must be 20 years old and have held a valid driver’s license for over a year. The minimum age for many companies is 21.
- Like in the United States, you will need a credit (not debit) card in the main driver’s name.
- For any car rental, make sure you have insurance. If your insurance does not cover you abroad, buy insurance. This trip is long and hard on vehicles. In short, just get the insurance.
- Most cars in Iceland are manual transmission. Renting an automatic will probably be more expensive. (Get a friend to teach you to drive manual; it will save you a lot of money!)
DRIVING IN ICELAND
The vast majority of Route 1 is a paved, undivided highway with one lane traveling in each direction. Lanes are added near Reykjavík and in some larger towns. Most of the road has little or no shoulder, but there are frequent pull-offs where you can get out, stretch, and take pictures. One section of the Ring Road in East Iceland, and many of the roads branching off of Route 1, are gravel.
- Like in the United States, cars drive on the right side of the road in Iceland.
- The speed limit is 90 kph (about 56 mph) on paved roads and 80 kph (about 50 mph) on gravel roads.
- Your headlights must be on at all times and seatbelts are mandatory in all seats.
- Most towns have gas stations, but these can be few and far between, especially in the eastern region. A good rule of thumb is to refuel whenever your tank drops below half-full, but be warned: gas is expensive in Iceland—around $7 per gallon.
The nice thing about driving on the Ring Road is that it’s tough to get too lost; it’s just one road! Okay, it’s not quite that simple. While many stops are directly off Route 1, you will need to take other roads to get to some areas of the country. To avoid using international data (expensive) or renting a GPS (not worth it), the following strategy with Google Maps is usually plenty effective:
- Decide on your start/end points for the next day and star them in Google Maps.
- Star all the sights you might want to visit between those two points. Seriously, star everything!
- Google Maps will allow you download entire portions of maps for offline use. Download the area covering your two endpoints and the entire section of road in between. Most of Iceland is pretty empty, so downloads are generally a reasonable size.
- Most waterfalls, mountains, and other attractions are already labeled by name in Google Maps. If not, the coordinates can be looked up online and plugged in.
This is probably the piece of your trip that requires the most planning, and you have two basic options:
There are designated campsites all over Iceland, allowing almost unlimited customization of your route. Campsites charge fees, but for 18900 kr the Camping Card (www.campingcard.is) gives you access to over 40 of these sites. If you don’t want to lug your own gear all the way to Iceland, many companies in Reykjavík rent out tents, sleeping bags, and other supplies.
This is doable, but requires serious preparation to be cost-effective. True hostels are somewhat rare on the road, and the ones that exist aren’t cheap. Failing hostels, Airbnb can be a good option, but be sure to book early.
Eating out in Iceland is expensive, and, on the road, it’s no different. To save money, it’s a good idea to stock up on food in Reykjavík at Bónus or a similar discount store, as groceries are more expensive outside the city. If you’re camping, it’s not a bad idea to bring or rent a camp stove.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a country called “Iceland” is cold. Summer temperatures often sit in the 50s during the day and can drop to the low 40s at night. If you plan on camping, thermal layers and a sleeping bag are a must. Rain is fairly frequent, and wind is almost constant outside Reykjavík, so a raincoat or light shell is a good idea, even if just to break the wind. A sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes is also necessary.
Driving the Ring Road is possible in five days, but only if you want to spend (even more) hours a day in the car, driving past beautiful sights you wish you could stop at. A week is more reasonable, allowing you to pull over and take photos when you want to, throw in a spontaneous extra stop or hike, and retain some semblance of sanity.
BRING A FRIEND!
A solo trip of the Ring Road can be incredibly rewarding. It can also drive you insane. Going with a friend allows you to split up the driving, have some much-needed human contact during the loneliest times, and split the cost of the car, tent, campsite, and so on more effectively. Plus, Icelandic radio is great (if spotty in places), and you wouldn’t want to have to sing along by yourself!