Road trips are one thing, but a road trip in Iceland is something else completely. The roads are narrow, the scenery is dramatic and the weather changes on a whim. You’ll see more waterfalls than you can count and if you’re a weirdo like me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to shout “HORSIES!” and “SHEEPIES!” at every farm animal you pass. The whole country is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true. If you’re looking to embark on of the most unique journeys you’ll ever take, I’m not sure I could recommend anything else.
I spent 11 days zooming around Ring Road and have compiled a list of tips that will hopefully make your journey through this magnificent country a lot easier, and a lot more fun!
10. Don’t bother with an umbrella unless you want to look hilarious
It’s a running joke that the locals will laugh at you for using one, but they do have a good reason to. The wind in Iceland is so strong that bringing one is pretty much pointless, unless you want a broken umbrella slapping you in the face while you’re trying to walk. A good poncho or waterproof jacket is your best bet and will give you a lot more mobility. Trust me, you’re going to want both of your hands to snap photos of everything you see!
9. Grab a good pair of hiking boots
Get comfortable shoes with good traction and you’ll have a much better (and safer) time. You’ll be walking on loose gravel, slippery rocks and everything in between. The last thing you need is to twist an ankle or worse, slip and fall off a cliff – mostly because you’ll die, but also because if you’re dead you can’t enjoy the amazing scenery and that would be a pretty terrible inconvenience. I even wore boots underneath my wedding dress and don’t know how I would have survived otherwise!
Wool socks will also be a lifesaver when you find yourself trekking through rivers or snow. Keep an extra pair accessible in the car so you can change if they get too soaked. After hiking 5km in the rain to get to Hengifoss and back, putting on a fresh pair of fluffy socks was absolute heaven!
8. Stock up on bottled water even though every Icelander will tell you not to
Literally every single Icelander who saw us buying bottled water made it a point to tell us that the tap water is safe to drink. Even our Airbnb hosts looked at us like we were nuts when we brought the bottles inside of their homes. The tap water is definitely clean and delicious because it mostly comes from mountain springs, but having a good supply of bottled water is pretty essential when you’re going to be in a car for over a week (as we kept having to repeatedly explain).
The weather is unpredictable and if a road is closed, you might be stranded for a couple of hours or worse. It’s also easy to get accidentally dehydrated when you’re out walking around and enjoying the sights. We bought a couple of 50oz bottles and refilled them each night at our Airbnbs, in addition to a few small ones that we could carry with us as we hiked.
Bonus tip: If you plan to buy alcohol, do it at the duty-free shop in the airport. You won’t find it cheaper anywhere else.
7. Stop to pet the fluffy horses
Icelandic horses are basically the fluffiest most adorable animals on the planet (they also have better hair than me but that’s besides the point). They are super friendly and you’ll see about a million of them, so feel free to stop the car and give them a cuddle! Ring Road is very narrow so just make sure there is a place OFF the main road for you to park, and for the love of heck don’t be obnoxious and block people’s driveways. Stay on the other side of the fences and don’t trespass.
And remember, these are people’s pets and/or livelihood so don’t feed them snacks from your car. I saw one lady stick a bag potato chips in a horse’s face and wanted to whack her upside the head. Seriously?! Just pick some grass up off the ground and they’ll eat it from your hands. These sweet creatures aren’t hard to please.
6. If you can, invest in a nice camera
If you’ve been on Instagram for more than 5 minutes, chances are you’ve seen some pretty insane photographs of Iceland. You don’t need to up and buy a fancy DSLR, but if you’ve been considering upgrading from your phone or are an aspiring photographer, this trip would make a good excuse to at least get a decent point-and-shoot camera.
Having something waterproof is also handy if you want to take pictures inside Blue Lagoon or any of the pools/hot springs. Unfortunately my waterproof camera broke just before the trip, so I used my phone for some quick shots at BL and then ran back to the locker room to put it away. Not ideal but hey, I was there to relax and disconnect for a bit anyway. It would have been cool to have that cheesy photo with the silica mud on my face, but I think I’ll survive.
5. Take ALL of the detours!
What’s a good road trip without an unplanned detour or two? Or three…or four?
Our itinerary included hitting many of the famous landmarks on our trip, but on average we spent an extra 2-3 hours a day making unplanned stops. Iceland has a very distinct road sign that indicates an attraction, so even though we couldn’t read the accompanying Icelandic words and had no idea what it would lead us to, we always got excited when we spotted that sign off in the distance. Some took us down winding gravel roads and others were just quick stops along the highway, but whenever we saw one we knew we were in for an adventure!
4. Eat the gas station hot dogs (trust me on this)
Most people in their right mind wouldn’t touch a gas station hot dog here in the States, but in Iceland they are one of the most popular local meals and incredibly delicious – places that sell them even have a dedicated condiment bar! They are also one of the cheapest hot meals you can get on the road at about 500kr ($5) each. Our favorite was the bacon-wrapped cheese dog with crispy onions from N1. Mmmmm.
3. Use the bathroom and fill up on gas every time you stop in town
You never know when you’ll find another bathroom, so use them whenever you can. Remember what I said about the locals really, really hating tourists that use the side of the road as their toilet? Yea, that’s someone’s property you’re pooping on so don’t be that person.
And even when you think you don’t need it, the same rule applies for gas: fill up whenever you can. You can easily get sidetracked by making detours on a whim and find yourself running on fumes, so fill up at every town even if you don’t need much. It’s always better to have more than enough than to be sorry later.
2. Be on the lookout for elf dwellings, but don’t disturb them
If you see an oddly shaped, moss-covered lava rock (even more oddly shaped than the expansive fields of them you’ll pass as you drive), chances are it belongs to an elf. Considered the protectors of nature, elves are rooted very deeply in Icelandic tradition and mythology and residents will even go so far as to halt construction projects if it seems like a potential elf dwelling will be impacted.
Icelandic elves look and live like humans but are said to be distinguishable by their old-timey clothing. While they generally mind their own business, be careful not to disturb their homes or you might wind up with a mysterious case bad of luck. The moss you’ll see everywhere looks so plush and beautiful, but pulling or stepping on it will instantly kill it. So pay your respects and admire the elf dwellings from afar to avoid getting on their bad side!
1. Check the road conditions and weather OFTEN!
This is the most important tip I can possibly give you! Roads.is will be your single greatest resource and will give you real-time weather and road condition updates. Check it every few hours. Pay special attention to the wind speed and don’t drive on parts of the road that are experiencing especially high winds. The only time we ever got stuck in traffic, we had just driven past Vik after the previous night’s windstorm and emergency workers were retrieving a vehicle that had fallen a few meters (yes, meters) down a ditch.
We were told that the majority of traffic accidents in Iceland are caused by people not heeding the weather warnings, and I believe it. Getting to the next destination is not worth compromising your safety. And besides, everywhere in Iceland is beautiful so if you end up stuck in a town you weren’t planning on for a night, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
And that’s it folks! Those are my top ten tips for getting the most out of your (undoubtably) epic adventure around Ring Road.
If you’re looking for more detailed information on planning and budgeting, I have your back!
Check out my Ultimate Guide to traveling Iceland’s Ring Road:
Part 2 (coming soon!)