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Road-tripping through Iceland
Embarking on an epic journey against nature in Iceland
Iceland is a land of unmistakable beauty. It’s a country that boasts majestic waterfalls, electric blue glaciers, and the dazzling Northern Lights. Chris and I wanted to discover Iceland’s glory for ourselves and decided that the best way to explore the country was on a road trip. Between getting stuck in insane blizzards and being pushed around by powerful windstorms, we learned valuable lessons about preparing for a road trip around the land of fire and ice. In the hopes of sparing you any emotional, physical, and mental damage, we have collected some tips from our epic overland adventure.
Protect yourself from sand and ash
Sand and ash are not jokes. While these sound like something you might come across in an episode of Game of Thrones, sand and ash storms in Iceland are more terrifying than King Joffrey (well, kind of). When first asked if we wanted to buy sand and ash coverage for our rental car we laughed out loud. It wasn’t until we heard horror stories from fellow visitors and Icelanders alike that we decided it would be a good investment. Thankfully, we didn’t experience any damage due to these storms. Still, we found ourselves grateful for the added coverage—for example, when those gale force winds hurled sand at our car every couple of hours, it was easy to see how the paint could be stripped and damaged. Our advice: Do research to investigate the likelihood of sand and ash storms when you plan to be on the island, and spring for the extra coverage if the chances are high.
Fuel up at N1 service stations
N1 stations are the 7-Eleven stores of Iceland. With the exception of Slurpees (sniff, sniff), they have almost everything a seasoned road-tripper could desire. Gas, food, and caffeinated beverages are available at most N1s and some even offer hearty soups with unlimited slices of freshly baked bread. With Iceland’s astronomical food prices, N1 stations provide a great way to grab a hearty snack without taking a bite out of your wallet.
That said, N1 stations get sparse as you head north. Also, N1 attendants are not always on the premises to help you, so it might be beneficial to purchase a gas card to use in the case of a unoccupied station. You should be able to pick up one of these cards at any of the (attended) N1 stations you find.
Driving through storms
You never know what to expect from Iceland’s temperamental weather. One minute, you might be blinded by the blazing sun; the next minute, you could be soaked by an extreme downpour. We experienced a couple of white-out blizzards that left us not knowing which direction we were heading. If you end up in these conditions, pull over. If you can’t see any good spots to stop (as the roads are usually very narrow and elevated above the rest of the terrain), just slow down and drive at a pace that makes you comfortable. Iceland’s roads are tapered with little yellow poles that mark the edges of the pavement. If you stay between these yellow sticks, you should be able to keep all four tires on the road. (Those fluorescent beacons were the only things keeping us on the pavement 70 percent of the time. Seriously.)
Viewfinder Tip: If you need roadside help, Iceland’s emergency number is 112. The 112 Iceland app allows you to contact Icelandic emergency services, and allows them to find you (via GPS).
Volunteers are prepared to rescue you
While we hope you never need emergency assistance in Iceland, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR) is always at the ready if you encounter problems on the road. This team of volunteers is trained to assist in any accidents on land and at sea. We found ourselves in less-than-ideal weather conditions during multiple times on our road trip—at times roads were iced over, or the wind was blowing us from white line to white line. Thankfully, we did not need formal help. Others we met, however, did. At one hotel, we met a man who was stranded in a blizzard and was rescued by an ICE-SAR team. If it wasn’t for their quick response, he might have had to spend the night in freezing temperatures in his car. Throughout our experience, we were comforted in knowing that Iceland’s rescue crews were well equipped if we needed them.
Bridges and tunnels
Iceland is a land of lore; many locals told us that trolls and elves still exist around the island. Because we’re both curious, we found ourselves peeking under bridges in the hopes that we might spot one or two of them. Spoiler alert: We didn’t. That said, our road trip had us crossing numerous bridges, and most of them of the one-lane variety. We learned quickly how to navigate these crossings; in Iceland, bridge traffic operates on a first-come, first-served basis. The law states that whichever car gets to the bridge first has the right to cross. The general rules for one-lane tunnels is the same. When you go, make sure the bridge or tunnel is clear before you pass, and slow down before you approach.
What were the highlights of your favorite road trip?
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Chris and Tawny have had articles and videos published on USA TODAY TRAVEL, BBC Travel, Matador Network, as well as appeared as guest stars on TLC Asia's Fun Taiwan television series. When not on the road, you can find Chris and Tawny nestled in their home in Tacoma, Washington fueling up on coffee and cat cuddles while planning their future adventures. You can follow their travels on their blog, Instagram, and YouTube