Giving advice about traveling in Iceland is sometimes difficult because the advice you give depends completely on who you are giving it to. For example, if someone from LA or Southern Spain asks me about the weather in Iceland their perspective is very different from someone that is born and raised in North Norway or somewhere in Canada where it can go down to -40°C in winter. To the person from LA our summer whether is probably cold whereas the person from Canada can’t believe that it doesn’t often go below -10°C in winter in Reykjavík and only packs their light winter clothes.
The question about what kind of car you need for your visit to Iceland is similar. The answer depends on what you are used to, where you are going and when. It’s usually more expensive to hire a 4WD and then not all 4×4 are created equal. It doesn’t matter how powerful the four wheel drive is, you can’t cross Krossá river in a Skoda Oktavia Station for example.
Question: Do I need a 4×4 car to travel around Iceland?
The boyfriend and I own an old Citroen C5 and since we bought it a few years ago we have driven all over Iceland in it in all kinds of conditions. We have good winter tires but it’s not 4×4 so I guess the short answer is: no, you don’t need a four wheel drive to travel around Iceland.
However, there are some exceptions and a few things to consider.
First of all, a lot of the Icelandic highlands are only accessible in 4×4 jeeps (4WD on its own is not necessarily enough) and you can get huge fines if you drive a normal rental car into these areas. The highland roads are usually marked as F roads but Kjölur, which is not an F road, is also included. So if you plan to visit any of those areas or drive on F-marked roads you definitely need a four wheel drive. If you want to visit places like Þórsmörk then a normal jeep might not even be enough because you have to cross a few unbridged rivers to get there.
In the summer you can drive the whole ring road without a 4×4. Most of it is paved and most of the places the normal visitor goes to does not require a 4WD.
In the winter, if you are traveling to areas where there can be a lot of snow, a 4×4 can be helpful. This mostly applies to the North, the Westfjords and the East. Most of the roads close to Reykjavík however are well maintained (like the Golden Circle, South Shore and Snæfellsnes Peninsula) and they only close when the weather is extra bad. When it is bad like that you shouldn’t be driving there no matter what kind of car you have. If you don’t have any experience with driving in snow then maybe you will feel more comfortable knowing that you are driving a 4WD, just in case.
Then the unpredictable Icelandic weather always plays a role as well. You might visit us in the height of winter and you won’t see as much as a single snowflake the whole time you are here. Or it might start snowing in July like it did in the highlands this year. So there’s no way to tell whether there will be snow when you visit or not.
Having said all that, the prices for four wheel drives are considerably lower in the winter than in summer and often the difference in price is not that huge. The 4WD are also a little bit bigger, and therefore more comfortable, so if you want a little bit more comfort they are also a good choice.
Whatever you do, just remember that the conditions here can be completely different from what you are used to. It’s important to rent cars in good condition that have good tires and such.
Then when in doubt about driving in Iceland, just ask Elfis.