During the colder months in Iceland, the country turns into a real winter wonderland with its thick blanket of snow and glistening ice. But driving in Iceland during the winter months can be quite challenging. That's especially true if you’re not used to icy road conditions, and you don’t know how to drive in snow.
In this article, we delve into why this is so challenging, how to drive in the snow and ice, and we give helpful snow driving tips for various vehicles.
The Main Challenges of Driving in Snow
These are some of the challenges you might be faced with in snowy conditions:
Snow Becomes Ice
The snow falls and then slowly melts. But in a place as cold as Iceland in the winter months, any melted snow quickly turns into ice. It really is not strange to find roads or parking lots covered in such a thin sheet of ice that it would 100% be possible to skate on.
So, if you can go skating on the road, and your car have low quality winter tires, it doesn’t stand much of a chance. No matter how great your driving skills are.
Sudden Road Closures
This challenge is not so much a safety one than a planning one – especially if you have limited time on the island. Here, there's a popular saying: “you can experience all four seasons in a day”. Throwing some snow into the mix and finding yourself at a dead-end midst a road trip shouldn’t be a big surprise.
Giving Yourself Sufficient Time
A trip that might’ve taken you just a couple of hours back home, can end up taking an entire day when having to maneuver roads with snow and ice. The best way to drive in snow is carefully careful, which can be quite time-consuming.
This requires meticulous planning when it comes to creating Iceland trip itineraries during the winter time. With only a few hours of daylight to play around with, it becomes even more important, so you don’t find yourself stuck in the snow and the dark.
A Winter Wonderland Distraction
A landscape covered in a blanket of snow, glistening half-frozen waterfalls tumbling over majestic mountain cliffs… let’s be honest, it’s hard not to stare. But this has actually landed quite a few people in trouble.
Keeping your eyes on the road when it’s covered in snow and sleek is essential. It is also illegal to park on the side of the road and DIY your own “road less traveled” off the road. Remain focused, stay on the designated roads, park in designated parking spots. And, of course, enjoy all Iceland has to offer stress-free and safely.
How to Drive Safely in Snow
Here are a few general things to remember when it comes to safe driving in the snow, irrespective of the vehicle you drive. Whether you’re still on page one of “driving in snow for beginners” or this is an entirely new adventure, these will be useful for you.
How to Drive Safely in the Snow With Any Vehicle
Wear comfortable shoes with a good grip. This is not the time to show off your stiletto driving skills.
Be gentle with the gas pedal. Accelerate slowly, use low revs and try to switch up to a higher gear faster. Also, keep a steady and slow pace throughout. If you’re wondering exactly how fast to drive in snow, it is recommended to stay within the range of 45-50 km/h.
Sometimes starting your car in the cold Iceland weather can be tricky. Once you’ve got the engine going, don’t start your journey in first gear, but second gear. Some of the newer vehicle models have a winter mode function that you can select. Both these options will reduce wheel slip.
Increase the safety distance between yourself and the car ahead of you by at least 10x.
Turn your fog lights on when you start struggling to see what is less than 100m in front of you.
It may seem logical to drive in the tracks of the vehicles that went before you, right? But snow that’s been compressed by another car’s tires is actually more icy than the fresh batch you’re nervous to drive through. If you’re wondering how much snow is safe to drive in, a good rule of thumb to follow is to give any snow that’s more than 10 cm thick a skip.
How to Drive Uphill in Snow
Make sure that there are no other cars ahead of you before taking on the uphill. You don’t want to suddenly have to stop halfway to the top.
Ensure that you are in the right gear before heading up the hill, suddenly having to change it midway can be problematic.
Keep a steady pace. This is not the time to suddenly speed up to get over that hill. You’ll only end up slipping and sliding down it.
How to Drive Downhill in Snow
You must already have reduced your speed before the hill.
Change to a low gear.
Once again, be mindful of the safety gap between yourself and others. The ideal would be to wait for any other vehicles to have cleared the downhill before you take your turn.
How to Drive an Automatic in Snow
Avoid suddenly accelerating or braking – this will only lead to slipping.
As one can’t manually change up the gears as soon as possible in an automatic vehicle, drivers are advised to pay special attention. Do keep control over the wheels not to slip. Some automatic vehicles do have a function that allows drivers to change up to a higher gear, specifically for snowy conditions. So, double-check whether you might have that functionality.
How to Use 4-Wheel Drive in Snow
A 4-wheel drive vehicle doesn’t magically protect you against the dangers of snow and doesn’t improve general traction. All it ensures is that you have the power on all four wheels, so you can have all four tires trying to get you through and out of snowy situations.
A 4-wheel drive might get and keep you moving, but it won’t do anything to help you stop when you’ve slid. So, as with any other vehicle, you need to take the necessary precautions.
If this is the first time that you will be driving a 4x4 vehicle, also dive into some of the most frequently asked questions about 4x4 rentals in Iceland. It'll help you get acquainted with the vehicle before hitting the road.
How to Drive in Snow with 2-Wheel Drive
Because the power on all four wheels makes it easier to move through the snow, it’s always recommended that you rather go for a 4-wheel drive during winter. But, if you’ve already got a small sedan in Iceland, you simply need to follow all the tips already mentioned in this article. You’ll be well on your way to driving through the snow safely in a 2-wheel drive.
Below you’ll find more advice in terms of which 2-wheel drive you’re dealing with.
How to Drive in Snow with Front-Wheel Drive
Cars with front-wheel drive are very fuel-efficient. It just so happens that they are also the best 2-wheel drive to have in snowy and icy conditions.
Fluidity is key when it comes to front-wheel drive. You don’t want to stop unnecessarily, and you want to stay away from any jerky movements – this can all cause you to slide.
If you do find yourself slipping, don’t overcorrect it by over steering to the other side. Do not panic, go with it and slowly try turning back the opposite way.
Try to avoid thick snow. As you don’t have the power on all four wheels to push you through like with a 4x4 vehicle, you’ll be pushing the boundaries of becoming stuck.
One of the most important things to know about how to drive in snow with FWD is that it will dictate where you place your chains. On an FWD, you will put the chains on the front wheels.
How to Drive RWD in the Snow
As we mentioned earlier, your first choice of vehicle in the snow would be a 4x4, then a front-wheel drive, so driving an RWD is not highly recommended. This is because there is no weight over the driving wheels. Front wheels have the engine, giving the tires some form of traction, but not an RWD. So, if this is the vehicle you’re left with, the first thing you want to do is get some weight in that trunk.
You’ll need to pay more attention to turning. This is because your driving wheels (rear wheels) can actually push you into a spin when turning the wheel during acceleration. So, keep a steady pace and take your turns slowly and carefully without pushing on the gas too much.
How to Drive in Snow with AWD
An AWD vehicle is a debate that will probably never be settled, as it has many pros and cons. But the first thing you need to know is that an AWD without snow tires doesn’t mean much. So, that’s the first thing you want to check.
AWD vehicles can help you drive through unplowed roads, accelerate on slick surfaces and help you get out of snowed-in spots. Yet, it doesn’t do you any favors when turning or braking. In this case, it has actually been proven that a normal 2-wheel drive with all-season tires works better than an AWD vehicle.
Tips for Driving in the Snow
Now, that you have all the in-depth know-how about how to drive in the snow using various types of vehicles and modes, here are a few basic Iceland winter tips to make your drive even easier:
Remember how we mentioned the fickle weather of Iceland? Well, there’s a pretty easy way to stay in the know and avoid potentially dangerous situations or disruptions to your journey. Simply keep a close eye on the Iceland weather forecast and the Iceland road condition sites.
It’s important to be flexible with your plans. Despite your best efforts, the weather might throw a spanner in the works. Make your plans in such a way that a little disruption doesn’t completely topple the entire apple cart.
Pack extra snacks and water in the car. If you should ever get stuck somewhere on the road, it might take some time for help to reach you, so this way you’ll at least be stocked up for your snowy “stake-out”.
Wear your sunglasses – they are an absolute lifesaver when it comes to the glare of the sun off icy and white, snowy surfaces.
The weather is not actually made equal, and you’ll find little microclimates everywhere. For example, certain places are constantly in the shade. Places like bridges are notorious for being the first to freeze and the last to thaw. So, stay alert, ask the advice of locals in the area, and don’t get caught unaware.
You will need to have a proper chat with your rental agency when renting a vehicle during the winter months. Not only to ensure that you stay on the right side of any potential insurance claims, but about some basic winter car necessities.
Some agencies include things such as snow scrapers and shovels, but they are few and far between. Most end up having to purchase their own. Tire chains, crampons, etc. are also not always a given and can be rented at an additional cost.
Knowing How to Drive in Snow Means Nothing if Not Implemented
Knowledge might be power, but it’s one thing to be equipped with the knowledge and another to actually implement it. Those who don’t follow the helpful advice and tips for driving in Iceland often end up in dangerous situations. Consequently, in trouble with the insurance companies.
That’s why you must have a proper chat with your rental agency when renting a car in Iceland. As long as you adhere to the tips and advice given, driving in the snow turns into a breeze. You can then enjoy the winter wonderland escape and the best winter vacation that Iceland has to offer.