People planning trips to Iceland should put some serious thought into deciding whether or not to rent a 4WD, 4×4, or AWD vehicle for driving in Iceland. Being a fairly significant increase in cost from a standard, compact 2WD vehicle, you want to make sure you’re not paying for something you don’t need, but you also don’t want to find yourself held back on your trip as a result of not having 4WD. This article should help you to decide if renting a 4WD car is worth it for your trip to Iceland.
Where are you trying to go during your trip to Iceland?
Are you a person who likes to go off the beaten path? Someone who wants to explore the hard to reach attractions and travel along rough gravel roads? If so, you’ll probably find value in having a 4WD vehicle. This is dependent on the season, as discussed below, but if you’re thinking you’ll be driving along remote F-roads in the highlands, a 4WD car will be helpful even in the summer.
However, if you have limited time on your trip you just need to get yourself around “The Golden Circle”, travel along the Ring Road, or down to the most popular attractions on the South Coast, a 2WD vehicle will be completely fine, even if the weather isn’t the best.
I’ve included at the end of this post some key attractions and how accessible they are, so you can decide whether or not the places you want to go will need a 4WD vehicle.
When are you traveling to Iceland?
Traveling to Iceland in July is completely different than visiting in January, or even March. If you’re traveling in the summer, and don’t think you’ll be driving along the super remote gravel roads, a 2WD car is most definitely all you’ll need. Nearly all of the main attractions in Iceland, even the ones with gravel roads, are easily accessible with 2WD cars in the summer. Again, check out my list of attractions at the end of this post to see which ones warrant a 4WD vehicle.
If you’re traveling from November to March, snow and ice become a real concern, but don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you need a 4WD vehicle.
First of all, let’s get one common myth about 4 wheel drive vehicles out of the way. Four wheel drive cars are not “safer” in the snow. 4 wheel drive helps with going, but it does not help with stopping. People in 4WD vehicles often charge through the snow, thinking they’re “safe” because their car has AWD or 4WD. This is a dangerous misconception, and it’s often why you’ll see fancy SUVs upside down in a cold snowy ditch.
When I was in Iceland in March, we saw about 25 different people in Land Rovers and big SUVs with 4WD and AWD stuck on muddy, snowy roads because they thought they could make it through. Since cell service isn’t much of a thing outside of the main villages and cities in Iceland, these people were stuck in the cold for hours, praying someone would come by to help tow them out. Guess how many 2WD cars we saw stuck? Zero. Because these people were smart enough to know it wasn’t worth trying to push their car through snow/mud/ice they didn’t think they could make it through. So maybe stop for a moment to consider this: “If a 2WD car can’t make it where I’m trying to go, is a 4WD car going to get me there, or is it just going to get me further into trouble?” It’s a tricky question and depends entirely on the situation, but just remember to ask yourself that question when you find yourself staring at a suspicious mud puddle, 3 hours from the nearest town and without cell service, trying to decide whether or not to test your 4WD rental car.
As far as safety is concerned, you should be worrying much more about whether or not your vehicle has tires suitable for the conditions you’ll be driving in. If you’re driving in Iceland when snow and ice is a concern, you should absolutely have studded snow tires, and a vehicle with traction and/or stability control. These things will have a much larger impact on your safety while driving in inclement weather than 4WD or AWD will.
At the end of the day, safety is primarily the result of your driving style, and no matter what vehicle you’re in you need to drive at speeds appropriate for the conditions, and make smart decisions when you encounter poor road conditions.
What’s your budget for visiting Iceland?
It will help to be honest with yourself here. Will you be more upset paying a few hundred more for a 4WD vehicle, or not being able to get somewhere you wanted to go because you didn’t have 4WD? Believe me, I know this is a tough thing to decide. Our Iceland trip in March was done on a broke college student budget, to the point that we ate Ramen noodles, rice, and oatmeal almost exclusively for 10 days to save money. However, we knew we wanted to be able to get to any place that we possibly could, so we decided to get a 4WD Dacia Duster with studded snow tires. In the end, we were very happy with our decision because it gave us the opportunity to see a few places where the F-roads were just barely melted enough to be traveled with 4WD, but with a 2WD car, we would have had to turn around.
I think if you’ve set aside a good amount of money for a nice vacation after working for the last X amount of weeks straight and would consider yourself a more adventurous traveler, 4WD is a worthwhile investment for your trip. If you’re doing Iceland on a super-budget and will be OK missing out on a few small things here and there if they’re on the other side of a big muddy rut in the road, I’d say save the money and get a cheap 2WD car.
So let’s take those questions and combine them into a decision matrix of sorts.
Super Adventurous: I want to get to the most remote attractions possible, and I’ll be driving until road conditions force me to stop.
Adventurous: I want to see the off the beaten path attractions, but I’m not going to risk getting stranded.
Standard Traveler: I’ll be happy seeing the most popular attractions in Iceland, I’m not going to risk driving in any mud/snow.
Summer: No chance of snow/ice, maybe some mud if there’s a lot of rain.
Spring/Fall: Chance of snow/ice, mud and potholes are likely.
Winter: Snow, Ice
$: I chose Iceland specifically because of how cheap the plane tickets were. This is a budget trip.
$$$: I’ve got some money to spend on this vacation, and I’d prefer to spend more if there’s a chance I may need 4WD.
|Pick a Column/Row||Super Adventurous||Adventurous||Standard Traveler|
In general, I think that decision matrix is fairly accurate, but here’s a few other things to consider.
Are you going to Iceland at the beginning of Fall, or end of Spring?
Obviously, this is going to vary year to year, but early fall and late spring may be closer to Summer conditions than they are to winter. There’s that chance, though, that there’s a blizzard in April, so you never know.
Are you going to be traveling to the Northern parts of Iceland during Fall, Winter, or Spring?
The Northern portion of Iceland is much more remote and less maintained as compared to the South. This doesn’t affect the majority of travelers because most of Iceland’s most popular attractions are along the South coast just off the Ring Road, which is fairly well maintained even in the Winter.
Are any of the attractions you have picked out to visit on F-roads?
The vast majority of attractions on the South Coast are literally right along the Ring Road, and are generally very accessible. If none of the places you’ve picked out to visit require F-road travel, I would just save yourself some money and get a 2WD car.
Finally, here’s a list of some key attractions and my opinion on how accessible they are. The format is “Attraction” :”When 4WD is Needed”
Attraction: When 4WD is Needed
- Golden Circle: Winter Storm
- Blue Lagoon: Winter Storm
- Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon: Winter Storm
- Skogafoss: Winter Storm
- Seljalandsfoss: Winter Storm
- Svartifoss: Winter Storm
- Skaftafell National Park: Winter Storm
- Kerið: Winter Storm
- Kirkjufell: Winter Storm
- Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon: Fall/Spring/Winter
- DC-3 Plane: Always a good idea, it’s a 2 mile drive on sand, though it can probably be done in 2WD in good conditions.
- Dyrhólaey: Fall/Spring/Winter