Travel Guide Iceland - Page 2

2. Iceland's infrastructure - cities, roads and traffic

When I first heard about Iceland, I thought this is a small island next to Greenland which you can easily circle in one day. I was totally wrong. Iceland is huge, it's an area of about 100.000 km² which is almost the same size as Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg together but with only 1% of their population.

I guess most of you will know that Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. Reykjavik has a population of about 120.000, whereas Iceland has about 320.000 inhabitants, so nearly 40% of all inhabitants live in this city in the south west. The second biggest city is Akureyri, a town in the north with about 18.000 inhabitants. The remaining cities, which should better be called villages, are way smaller. 

To get around Iceland there's the major ring route #1 (Þjóðvegir) which starts and ends in Reykjavik and is 1.339km long. Most of this ring route is tarmaced and there's normally no need for having a 4x4 car. Next to the ring route there are a lot of smaller roads, most of them being gravel roads, including the highland roads (starting with an F) which are only open during summer as they are simply impassable due to snow and heavy weather outside of summer. Additionally you are only allowed to pass F-Roads with a 4x4 car.  

The ring route #1 circling Iceland

Most of the traffic is on ring route #1, and a little bit on the roads going to major tourist attractions like the Golden Circle. But this doesn't mean that there's a lot of traffic on #1, in fact there are never any traffic jams. If you leave #1, traffic is even lighter and it's not surprising when you don't see any cars for 20-30 minutes. During the night there are hardly any cars at all. 

As soon as you leave #1, the tarmaced roads normally end very quickly and you are entering gravel roads. Speed limit on gravel roads is 80 km/h, whereas on tarmaced roads it's 90 km/h. When I've been to Iceland the first time, I hardly drove quicker than 40 km/h on gravel roads as the car got bouncy a lot and there can be quite big holes in the street. Additionally I was worried about my equipment. At the end of my vacation I thought 80 is still not enough as I got used to the road conditions. But it is important that you stay within the speed limit, not only because of big holes in the street but because of passing animals like sheep or horses. They appear out of nowhere, and if you are too fast there's no way to stop in time.

Traffic is never an issue in Iceland, it is more the weather and road conditions. Some gravel roads I wouldn't even call gravel roads anymore as gravel turns out to be little rocks. Then there always can be some ice, snow, water and heavy wind on the street which needs you to drive very carefully. A 90 km distance on a tarmaced road normally takes you longer than 1 hour to get there, sometimes just due to the fact that Iceland is beautiful and you have to stop every 5 km.

Every road in Iceland is supervised, and a lot of parts have a web cam so you can inform yourself about the road conditions. There's a web site I strongly recommend you to visit several times a day. It gets updated every 10 minutes with the latest news on weather and road conditions: (with a link to the road and weather conditions). The rental car company gives you this advice as well when you get your car. Here's an example of how such a card looks like. 

Example map of road and weather conditions of Iceland

You can see the legend on the bottom left. Red roads are impassable, and as I tend to never trust road maps I wanted to make the experience by myself if this really means impassable - trust them, it does. The road I tested to find some puffins was marked as impassable, and it turned out that the road I wanted to use was covered by 3 meters of snow. No way to get through there. 

You should definitely rely on these maps, they are not prepared by people who see snow once in two years but who are confronted with snow almost every day. They know when a road is accessible or not. Additionally, not all roads get cleared on a daily basis, normally only the ring route #1 is kept free of ice and snow. 

Another interesting number on these maps is that you can see the number of cars passing a certain point on the road. When I stored this card it was about 1 pm local time, meaning these are the numbers for traffic since 13 hours. The ring route is pretty frequented (2k cars in the west), but if you go east the number of cars reduces a lot to about 200. And there are roads which have 3-5 cars crossing a road a day. Not very helpful if you have an accident or a broken wheel.

That's how streets can look like in Iceland (iPhone shot)

Apart from the ring route a lot of roads only consist of one lane so you need to drive to the edge and wait that the other car passes. As Icelandic cars tend to be big space on these roads is limited. I once entered a tunnel in the North of Iceland of a length of 10 km which was only one lane. If contraflow is coming you have to stop in small dents next to the road and let them pass. That's a fun experience! 

Traffic rules are pretty easy in Iceland, if there's no sign it's your right of way, only if you don't have right of way there will be a sign. On bridges you will often see the sign "einbreid bru", telling you that only one car can pass the bridge as the lane is too tight for 2 cars. The car which is closest to the bridge passes first.

A typical Icelandic car (iPhone shot)

I spent a lot of time managing a map where all fuel stations are marked so that I will never run out of fuel. If you are on the ring route, there's no need to do this as there are a lot of fuel stations. Many of them need to be operated by credit card, there's no shop attached to it where you have to pay, so you will need a credit card with a PIN. When you leave the ring route fuel stations are rare, but I never experienced any issues. There are only two sections where there was no fuel station for about 200 km, one in the east, the other one on the way to Isafjördur in Snaefellsnes. 

A navigational system in Iceland is normally not needed. If you have taken the wrong road you will notice very quickly and just can turn around. However I used Google Maps as my main navigator, network coverage in Iceland is excellent (apart from the highlands) and you normally always have internet connection. It's not that expensive either, and if you really want to save some money buy yourself an Icelandic SIM card, you could do this in the plane as well (if operated by Icelandair).

Today Internet is hardly not needed as Google Maps has an offline functionality allowing offline navigation as well. You just need to make sure that you have downloaded the map before you start. 

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