Picture this: solo female American traveler ventures into the Icelandic wilderness on a cold winter day in February. Sun is shining, camera in hand, it’s going to be a great adventure.
She checks the road conditions before she leaves, slippery with spots of ice…no problem! High winds…meh, it’s Iceland. After a strongly advised and kindly worded lecture from her loving husband to drive slowly and be very careful, she heads West.
What was she driving you ask? A small non-4wd car…think Toyota Prius size.
Well did the car at least have winter tires? No!
By now I’m sure you’re wondering if this girl is me, right? Noooo, of course not! Surely by now I have been warned by enough people that the weather in Iceland is extremely unpredictable and it’s important to be extra careful at all times! I would never put my life in danger just to experience the Icelandic nature!
Okay wait, what about that big monster truck you bought specifically for navigating the Icelandic terrain…didn’t you take that? Heck no! I can’t drive that thing, it’s literally the size of a tractor.
And why didn’t your loving husband go with you on this adventure? He was going to, but he caught the omega cold 5000 that I had last weekend!
Let’s rewind. Remember I told you I grew up in Wisconsin?
Trust me, I am not a rookie when it comes to winter driving. I’ve driven a small car my whole life, and I’ve never even heard of winter tires until I moved to Iceland. I’ve seen my fair share of blizzards, there have been times where it took twice as long to drive somewhere, and I’ve had whole school days canceled because of the weather.
But I have NEVER experienced roads like this.
The whole day leading up to this disastrous event the roads were completely different. I was cruising along at normal speed, the sun was shining, and I was stopping frequently for photo ops. Everything was good!
All of a sudden, things changed REAL fast. I rounded the corner of the peninsula and the roads became pure.black.ice. The wind was coming from the mountain so hard that there were times I felt like I was going to blow off the road. If I drove over 30 km/hr (that’s 18mph!) the car would start fishtailing. I was driving in the middle of the road and sometimes on the left side just to avoid going in the ditch.
Side note, there are not a lot of guardrails in Iceland. And most of the road around this peninsula is two lanes between the mountain face and a steep cliff into a lava field.
It took me an hour to drive what should have been 20 minutes. I realized my hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel so hard, and then it was starting to get dark and I was feeling very tired.
(Can I also just say in my defense that I was not the ONLY one driving in Snæfellsnes that day! I was one of three cars during this crazy ice situation and everyone was driving just as slowly as me! I also passed a car on it’s side in the ditch, so no, I’m not exaggerating the severity of these roads.)
I had every intention of driving home that evening, but the slow driving set me back significantly. I thought to myself the combination of black ice, extreme wind, and darkness sounded like a terribly stressful drive back to Reykjavik.
Thankfully, I happened to be near the only hotel in the area, so I stopped in to ask about the updated road conditions. I told the lady at the desk about my car situation and that I was extremely nervous about driving. She was so nice and so helpful, but when she looked at me with a combination of “oh you poor girl/what are you thinking” I knew it was bad.
She checked the road conditions and told me that at this rate it would be at least two hours to get to the next biggest town where the roads start to clear up. It would be at least another hour after that to make it home. She said if I was used to driving on Icelandic roads my whole life I would be ok, but she didn’t seem encouraging about me driving in a small car alone in the darkness.
I agreed. I decided to spend the night rather than risk driving back.
After all is said and done, I’m so glad I chose to stay overnight. I was so exhausted I was sleeping by 10pm. The roads were still icy the next morning, and it still took me longer than usual to drive home, but I was much more confident in the daylight!
- Pay attention to the road conditions. www.road.is is a great site for checking conditions. The report is posted starting at 7am and is updated frequently.
- Make sure your vehicle is maintained, full of gas, and has proper tires. A 4wd is not required for travel on the main roads, but after this weekend I would definitely recommend it!
- Worst case scenario: be prepared with warm attire, food and water. You never know if you will have to stay somewhere unexpectedly!
A caution from the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website:
“Conditions for driving in Iceland in wintertime can be very difficult especially for drivers not used to them. Not all of the 13.000 km that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration controls get serviced at winter. A bit over 5.000 km get winter service. A large portion of the road system is also closed, impassable. Drivers need to take extra care on snowy and slippery roads.”
Happy (and safe!) planning,