No matter where you’re exploring in Iceland, you are bound to ride on the ring road (highway 1) at least once! It is the main highway that encircles the entire island. I spent a week driving highway 1 and here are the top 6 things I wish I would have known before arriving – plus a few of the things I knew ahead of time but are still worth mentioning!
1. It’s easy!
I read some pretty nasty stories about adverse weather on the ring road prior to my arrival, so I was feeling a little anxious about driving it. Thankfully during July when I was there, it was easy to drive! The pavement is in good condition in most areas — nicely paved and well delineated. As a speedy driver, I was thrilled to find that there were hardly any cops (the marked speed limit is 90 km) and it’s easy to go fast along the road. The only tricky part of driving the ring road is the single lane bridges, of which there are lots. Always slow down when approaching to make sure there isn’t anyone already on the bridge.
2. Very well marked routes
(but you should still download offline maps from Google)
I was really surprised by how easy it is to navigate the ring road route. Nearly all the intersections have bright yellow & blue road signs indicating the towns, roads or tourist spots that you’ll see nearby. If you’re easily entertained like me, you’ll get curious about all the different icons you’ll see on the signs. Just check out the photo below – so many icons to decipher! Although highway 1 is easy to navigate, it’s still a good idea to download an offline map of the area before you take off. I found this especially useful for finding specific spots I wanted to visit see on the blue touristic.
3. There are limited amenities
Nearly all of Icelanders live in Reykjavik, or Akureyri so when you get farther outside the cities, there will be less and less infrastructure. This is especially true in eastern Iceland. I think there was a day we drove for 4 hours without seeing a town or place to stop. You’ll really start to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere! Even along the ring road, there are pretty limited amenities. Restaurants, gas stations and cafes are sparse, so make sure you fill up on gas when you can. We also got in the habit of packing water & snacks in the car in case we got hungry or thirsty on a long stretch. If you do get stranded, keep in mind that the ring road is pretty well trafficked and Icelanders (and tourists) are in the habit of pull over to help hitchhikers or stranded visitors.
4. Pack toilet paper in your car!
Along the same lines, you never know when your next bathroom might be. As a woman, this is a big concern! I would definitely recommend packing a roll of toilet paper – just in case you need to make a roadside stop. Keep an extra plastic bag too, so you can store your used paper. Icelanders take littering really seriously and it would be quite disrespectful to leave your trash on the side of the road especially since nature is their biggest resource.
5. You’ll discover things along the way
With some many of the well-marked signs, it’s easy to discover little spots to pull off all along the ring road. There are tons of scenic overlooks, hidden waterfalls, or tiny towns. My friend Angie and I got in the habit of saying our next beautiful view was “just around the bend”. You never know what you’ll see around the next turn and it’s definitely worth leaving a few extra hours in your daily plan to accommodate for unexpected adventures.
6. Have your camera ready
As I mentioned above, your next amazing view could be just around the corner, so I got in the habit of always having my camera ready. The scenery along the ring road is truly incredible! There are waterfalls, bucolic farms, wild horses with their manes blowing the wind – it’s something out of a story book! I always kept my camera in the front of the car with me, and would be constantly snap photos and video of our journey. It’s easy to pull over and capture the perfect photo to avoid blurry car photos.
What are the things I knew ahead of time but are still worth mentioning?
Gas is expensive
Even if you’re driving an efficient vehicle like we were, filling up the tank will cost you a pretty penny. The average cost of a gallon of gas is about $7.50. When you factor this on top of the daily cost of the rental car & insurance, it all adds up pretty quickly. Definitely make sure that you account for this in your budgeting.
Beware of sheep
I had read alllllll about the sheep in Iceland. And it’s true — they are everywhere! It seemed like there were more sheep in Iceland than people! Lots of the farms & pastures are open, so the sheep roam all over. There were a few times where we had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting a sheep crossing. They get pretty close to the side of the road, so just make sure you are always vigilant about their proximity.
The full ring road route takes 19 hours total
If you just drove the 1500km/930miles ring road the whole way through, it would take about 19 hours. While we were able to do it in 7 days with an average day being 4 hours of driving, there were a few long days of driving with about 8 hours behind the wheel. We were usually driving about 120 km/hr. I think the ideal length to do the circuit would be 10 days. The main tourist track is from Reyjavik through the golden circle, or from Reyjavik to Vik (southern coast), and when you’re outside those areas, traffic really drops off so you can crank up the speed and music!