Please keep in mind, this is not a complete off-road driving bible! This post shall (hopefully) just help you avoid the biggest mistakes when leaving safe tarmac roads. I don’t want to scare you but raise awareness. In general, using your brain when driving offroad should keep you out of the worst troubles already. Also listening to gut feeling will help.
For reaching a good photo spot in Iceland sometimes you might want to leave the main road behind, first hitting a gravel road, then an F-road (difficult and only for 4×4 cars), and eventually ending up on challenging little tracks branching off even the F-roads. But always do it the legal way, on track!
On F-roads you will already start to experience tricky parts like long and deep river crossings, deep sand, steep rocky mountain descents which can be dangerous if not knowing how to drive off-road properly. I always wonder not more people renting a 4×4 die on Iceland’s highland roads simply due to over-estimating the capabilities of their car and themselves. With increasing tourism recovering cars stuck is kind of a daily task for the rangers already.
Which Car to Rent
Which brand and model to rent depends on your travel plans. As soon as entering the highlands a capable car should be chosen, not simply any 4×4. Passenger cars, even 4×4, are not allowed in the highlands for a good reason. This is Jeep kind of territory. You will need:
- good ground clearance
- offroad capable tires
- special suspension
- high air intake of the engine
That means, a Subaru Forester, a Renault Duster, a Suzuki Swift and all others in this category are not highland capable – unless you want to get stuck for sure and change tires three times during your trip. Fording a river I wouldn’t recommend with those anyway. They are built for a comfortable drive and for showing off. Not more.
The Suzuki Jimny is the absolute minimum needed. It’s a pretty capable car (with a good off-road driver in control). But always keep in mind, this is a minimum. Deep rivers are not its terrain, as well as very rocky tracks or deep sand.
The off-road classics are classics for a reason. They are good and built for this special task. In Iceland you will see Ford F-Series to be popular with locals, Nissan Patrol, as well as Toyota Hilux and Toyota Landcruiser. Also plenty of Land Rovers can be seen in the highlands; the Defender to be the most capable in their series. But even those sometimes cannot pass a deep river, especially in summer time and after strong rainfall!
Believe me, I have seen so many misplaced cars on highland roads in Iceland. Most of them broken, or drowned, or with flat tires. Even if in the rental terms F-road driving is allowed the car might just not make it. You don’t need the balloon tires some Icelanders mount. But make sure not to save on the rental car if you want to drive deep into the highlands.
Legal “Offroad Driving”
Please don’t take the term “offroad” literally in Iceland. Too many people already have carved ugly new tracks into lava sand – lasting for decades. It destroys nature, it doesn’t look good, and in case anybody wants to shoot a picture there later he will have to deal with those tracks. I had to give up on several great shots for this reason already. On top it costs you a kidney (up to several thousand Euro) fine if discovered! And you will have to clean up and remove your tracks again with the rangers watching you.
Don’t be one of those ruthless drivers, please. No photo in the world can justify destroying nature. Iceland has beautiful tracks to drive legally which will allow you to have an off-road driving experience of any level – up to passages you will turn around because of being afraid to drive. At least I did from time to time with my Land Rover Defender.
An offroad capable car is not made for destroying nature. Drive very passively and always try to harm nature as little as possible. If you have to turn around on a very narrow track, try to move forward and backward within the given track even if it takes 20 times until having changed directions. Nature does not recover easily in harsh Icelandic weather conditions.
If you experience approaching traffic on a small track, try to harm nature as little as possible. Just leave the track slightly with two wheels only, stop and wait for the other car to pass carefully. If you both drive while passing you will both create long new tracks destroying fragile nature.
Always Be in Control of the Car
When exploring the highlands of Iceland you will quickly end up on tracks even worse than in an off-road driving park. A few general tips might help you bring your rental car back safely or prevent you from literally accidentally killing yourself. Iceland’s roads can be very, very dangerous.
First: All the rules you know from driving on roads you can forget right away. Offroad driving is totally different. All the tips can be summarized in one top heading:
Never lose control over your car offroads. Never ever, not even for a single second. Make sure to never start sliding in a curve, or in an ascend, or worst: in a slippy descent. Without offroad experience you won’t be able to regain control over your car. With experience you might be lucky, but that’s not granted.
It’s a slogan from off road tutoring but it is true since ever, forever: Drive off road as slowly as possible and as fast as necessary. And don’t care about drivers behind you if you don’t feel safe going faster. It’s their problem! Offroad driving is not about being extremely cool when driving fast. It is about getting your car and yourself through the mess with as little damage as possible. Also your cameras and lenses will be happy to take less impacts.
As a general rule try to drive with the accelerator pedal in any situation. The breaks and especially the clutch are your enemy offroad! Hitting the clutch at the wrong moment can kill you! Driving with the accelerator pedal means choosing the right gear BEFORE driving into a new road situation.
Preparing the Car
Before heading out into the beautiful wild of the highlands make sure to have your car in best possible condition. Depending on the route and the weather for days nobody might be able to help you if things go wrong. In the highlands the mobile connection is good in general but some areas are not covered at all.
- Check all engine liquids to be filled up properly
- Check the fill of screen wash water
- Pack recovery gear giving others a chance to get you out if stuck
- For traveling the highlands think of deflating the tires by about 10 to 20 percent (depending on car and tires). The downside is an increasing risk of getting your tires sliced by sharp lava stones. Keep in mind that the side walls of your tires are the least protected part. Therefore be sure to know what you are doing when deflating the tires! Make sure to have a plan how and where to get the tire pressure up again when hitting tarmac again.
- When heading to the highlands pack an extra amount of water and food. You are going to cross a huge desert and in worst conditions it can take several days to reach out to you. Be prepared to survive until SAR arrives.
- Plan your safety by leaving your travel plans with “www.travel.is” and by downloading the app “Iceland 112”. For another layer of safety check my blog post about backing up for safe travels in Iceland’s highlands.
- Fuel your car before going offroad and if crossing the highlands consider backing up with enough extra fuel. Highland roads can increase the fuel consumption of your jeep by up to 50 percent.
General Rules Driving Off-Road
Use the clutch only in safe terrain and only for changing gear. Using the clutch in the wrong moment offroad can get your car out of control immediately. Worst case was a fatal accident!
Try to use the breaks as little as possible and only touch them extremely gently. Hitting the breaks too strong can quickly get your car out of control. In the wrong place it’s a safe bet not to need your return flight ticket anymore.
Engage technical helpers like 4×4 and differential lock (if your car provides) before getting stuck. Once stuck it’s often too late and you will need to call help for recovery. In simple words: the helpers are thought for keeping your car going not for getting you out of a mess.
At steep descents take the direct line down to prevent the car from flipping over sidewards. Never hit the clutch in a strong descent! Opt for a small gear before driving into the descent and let the engine break slow down the car, reducing the risk of sliding due to use of the breaks. Read this paragraph again and again and again – until you are sure you will never use the clutch in a steep or slippy descent. Choosing the right gear before entering a descent means having approached it slow enough for having time to react. Remember, it’s not about speed.
Before driving into a steep ascent take a second to decide. In case of slippy underground you will need a bit of speed and momentum. In case of underground with grip like rocks the opposite is king, going up very slowly. Engage 4×4, lock the differentials if possible, choose a reduced low gear (Low 2 or Low 1) if your car allows, and let the car climb slowly. If you discover not to make it to the top just hit the breaks and kill the engine. NOT hit the clutch instead!!! When standing still and safe keep the break pressed, slowly hit the clutch, and change to reverse gear. Let the clutch go again. Now start the engine and let the engine break take you back down safely. Think you start to get a feel how difficult and dangerous offroad driving can be.
Take ditches diagonal and bumps straight on. Otherwise you risk to get stuck much faster than you might think. Do both slowly to not break the car. Just one wheel loosing ground contact, starting spinning, will stop your car from moving – even a 4×4. With a central differential lock engaged things are a bit better but you run into the same problem when one wheel of each axle loses ground contact. Did you know it is so easy to get stuck?
In Iceland with my tires I usually lower the tire air pressure by approximately 10 percent. If I know to have a safe track without sharp-edged lava rock I go down 15 percent. But if doing so keep side effects in mind. Also you should have a good plan how to quickly re-inflate the tires when back to tarmac. Not every gas station provides air.
Let’s have a look at some special situations which might challenge you when driving to good photo spots in Iceland, especially on highland tracks.
Crossing rivers (fording):
One and the same river in Iceland can vary in depth from a few centimeters to one and a half meters deep just within few hours. Having crossed a river easily in the morning does not mean you can still safely cross it in the evening. In the morning some rivers tend to be less deep than in the evening when fed by melting glacier water.
First: Keep your photo gear in a high position in the car and make sure it does not get wet if by mistake you slip into deeper water when crossing a river.
Second: Drive through rivers slowly. Very slowly! Well, you don’t want to stall the engine. But I’ve seen many people damage their cars unnecessarily just because of getting excited or afraid and hitting the accelerator pedal. Again: Drive slowly, always being in control if hitting a rock under water unexpectedly.
As a general rule rivers tend to be shallower at the widest place and deeper in the narrow places. Watch the water: Rippling water usually means shallow, quietly flowing parts tend to be deep. Very often when fording in Iceland you will already see kind of a circular pond at the place of crossing. Usually driving a half circle bow on the side where the water exits this “pond” is the smoothest path to cross. Busses mostly drive more or less straight on digging deep tracks into the underground which can make you end up drowning with a jeep.
- Activate 4×4 and if you have a differential lock engage it just for being on the safe side.
- Know where the air intake of your car is!!! Just a tiny sip of water going into the air intake of the engine will leave you back with buying a new car. No joke!
- Wade through the river by foot first for checking the depth of the water. If the river seems too deep for getting the air intake of the engine safely better detour, even if 100km. Anything is better than drowning the engine. Your car is never insured when crossing rivers.
- Even if the air intake is high a strong current can take over your car. Worst case in deep water the car starts to float and the current then takes it downstream. Many people died like that already.
- Before crossing check the underground in the river for big obstacles like rocks. Make sure your ground clearance allows for driving over the rocks (often not more than 20cm even with a good offroad jeep). If just one rock is too big you will be stuck and/or damage your car.
- Take a deep breath, especially with your first rivers, and concentrate not to get either excited or scared. You won’t react better then.
- Drive through the water slowly but with constant speed, usually first gear. If your car allows for gear reduction choose second low for having more control and power.
- In case of sandy underground make sure not to get stuck by driving slightly faster. Slightly, not full speed!
- In case of very rocky underground let the car slowly take one rock after another. Driving too fast you might bump a rock damaging the bottom of your car, worst case calling 112 for getting you out again.
- After leaving the water engage the foot break. When wet it will be much less effective.
If in doubt at a water crossing wait for another car to pass first. Look for the path they take and estimate whether your car will be able to take the depth of the water. Ask locals about the conditions, they will know whether your car can make the crossing or not. Believe them! With a second vehicle in a convoy you might be able to recover one jeep getting stuck. But keep in mind, you won’t be able to recover a car with water in the air intake. It’s gone towards car’s heaven forever.
Slippy Roads and Gravel Descents
Make sure to never start sliding when hitting the brakes on gravel. Never loose control over your car.
Try not to use the clutch in a slippy descent. Result will be that your car speeds up dramatically which you will try to correct with hitting the brakes. In the end you’ll most probably start sliding, not having any grip for steering or slowing down. Worst case you end up in the bottom of a canyon much faster than you’d ever hope to reach it. No good idea.
The proper technique is to engage the right gear BEFORE descending and let the engine break work for you. If you don’t hit the brakes in a slippy decent you had opted for the right gear. If you need to use the foot break do it very gently and step by step to maximize the chance of keeping control over your car.
Rocky parts of a road
Drive over the obstacles slowly instead of going around. Whenever one of your tires leaves the track you harm the environment unnecessarily. It is our driver’s responsibility to know about the capabilities of our cars and not to destroy nature “just in case”.
In a car with differential lock engage it when when facing large obstacles and deep pots to drive over. Otherwise one wheel spinning can stop your car from moving.
plan your path before entering a difficult passage. Step out of the car and have a look how to drive the following tricky meters. Doesn’t look cool? Guess how cool it looks if you get stuck and have to ask a more skilled offroad driver to please recover your car. You are wasting not only your time but also his.
Also check for your ground clearance. Hitting a rock can easily slice your tank or other essential parts in the bottom of the car.
Keep in mind that lava stone is extremely sharp edged. A sharp stone in the wrong place can easily slice your tires. The side wall is the most vulnerable part of your tire, therefore driving over a sharp stone carefully often is the better option than trying to avoid it.
Puddles on the road
Usually drive straight through the puddles instead of trying to avoid them by navigating around. Most probably you will get stuck in the mud around! It’s one of the main reasons the rangers have to recover cars in the highlands. But make sure the puddle is not too deep and also has no Rocks in it damaging your car.
On top you will damage the environment unnecessarily.
Driving in deep sand is fun but difficult. You will need sufficient speed to keep up momentum not to get stuck. Sufficient speed means you are at risk of losing control over the car in curves or when hitting a big rock in the sand.
Deflating the tires by up to 50 percent will decrease the risk of getting stuck. In Iceland fearing sharp-edged rocks I never lowered the pressure more than 15 percent.
Driving on washboard surface for hours is not just tiring but also getting on your nerves (especially when having the health of your car and cameras in mind). There are two techniques of driving those roads.
Either you drive very slowly giving the shocks a chance to take bump by bump. Having time and on very short washboard surface roads this might work.
But if you have to drive hundreds of kilometers on such a road you will have to speed up. Then speed up significantly, like 60-80 km/h. At a certain point you will feel your car flying over the bumps making the ride much more comfortable for you and the vehicle – and your photo gear. But take care, flying over the road means you loose contact and grip which is dangerous in curves and when slowing down again! Next to a canyon for example I would always opt for the slow technique!
Reducing the tire pressure by 10-15% will help you get more grip and have a far more comfortable ride. Keep in mind how and where to get tire pressure up again when hitting tarmac.
Some Beautiful Roads
- F946 Branching off Bakkagerdi in the Eastfjords, challenging steep downslopes can make it dangerous ride for offroad-beginners, breathtaking mountain landscapes
- F910 Especially the parts near Askja to either side, not a difficult drive, but a great variety of desert nature
- Track road Dyngjufall route “behind” Askia to Myvatn lake for driving a really challenging but fun track. Just Jeeps with high ground clearance and experienced off road drivers!
- F210 Beautiful Landscapes
- Connection F261 to F210 For the real off road feel (though on track!), extremely challenging to drive, very good off-road driving skills required