Driving the highlands in Iceland
With the addition of our 4×4 camper van rental, it is now possible to explore the highlands in Iceland. With that option, a whole new side of Iceland is open for exploration of the Icelandic interior. A trip not possible in our more established camper vans. 4×4 is a must for anyone renting a camper here and wanting to to go well off the beaten path, driving F-roads and enjoying the great expanse the highlands have to offer.
But with the increased freedom comes an increased responsibility too. There are many factors to take into consideration to make your trip as safe and comfortable as possible.
Click on the map to get a PDF file with the latest information
Test yourself: Take our Iceland Quiz!
Nobody really lives up in the highlands. There are people who work up there, road workers, reservoirs builders, people doing maintenance on the power grid and service centers for tourism but those are very few of and they are very far between. There are no gas stations up there except for in the peripheral of the highlands. In the middle, there is no place where one can seek immediate help in times of need. But the desolation is something to embrace, to be in really wild nature where there is nothing but you and endless beauty.
As wild, majestic and wonderful as the highlands are, we really want to keep it that way. Driving off road is strictly forbidden, for all cars and trucks. Being caught driving off road can result in very hefty fines. Because it’s so harsh up there, the little growth you’ll find there has taken decades to grow and a car tire can kill the plant and not to mention, tire tracks might been seen for decades to come so, leave the highlands as you find it. Majestic and unspoiled. The same goes with any trash (which one should never throw in the nature, wherever you are in the world), it takes ages for any trash to decompose due to the average low temperatures.
As fun and adventurous it looks to ford rivers, there is one thing one has to keep in mind. There are no insurances that covers damages to the car like flooding the engine, water destroying electronics, the cost of the rescue etc caused by crossing a river.
In the highlands there are quite a few spots requiring river crossing. Many of these are not deeper than you can walk over them in your slippers. Others are raging rivers with hidden depths and currents, requiring special knowledge and experience to cross in super jeeps designed to do just that.
If you find yourself in front of a river and you take it upon yourself to cross (remember no insurances covers any possible damage), you have to be smart about it. The one thing you do NOT do is to take chances for that may cost you dearly. If you are insecure of what is in front of you, wait for others to join you (if there are others driving that stretch of road you are on) and let more experienced drivers show you the way, if there is a way over. Tell tale signs are tire tracks on both sides of the river. You might see where cars enter the river and where they exit but have in mind that the tracks might have been caused only by super jeeps and not ordinary 4×4’s. If the water is crystal clear, you see much better what’s ahead.
Take off your shoes and wade the river to see what’s ahead (it will be cold). Cold feet is a cheap price to pay for a safe passage. If you are unsure in any way, turn around and find another road. If you are sure the river is no more than ankle deep and you are going to ford the river, make sure your car is in 4×4 mode before entering. When crossing, keep your crawl speed in a low gear, do not break, do not change gear, stop to look around, just drive over in a steady pace. Start where others have entered and drive out of the river where you see, if you see signs of others have done it before you. When safely on the other side, don’t stop the engine to have a look around. Let the engine run if you do stop, just to make sure any intruding water may evaporate from the engine heat. The decision to ford a river, do not take it lightly and remember, you are all on your own with that.
Cellphone coverage in the highlands
The maps below shows the cellphone coverage from the two biggest phone companies in Iceland. The gray areas (the light blue on the map to the left) shows where there are no coverage at all.
With this knowledge, one has to have that in mind before venturing across a river for if you find yourself in deep trouble, rescue might be far away. To minimize the risk of being stranded for a long time, plan your route, do your research before crossing the highlands. When you you have your plan, stick to the plan and let people know of your plan. Let the hotel you are leaving know your route and if possible, the hotel you are aiming for know your ETA. The most valuable help you can get is to let the guys at Safe Travel have your travel plan. On their front page, you just have to fill in your information with dates, route, times and such. When you have done that, you have added invaluable security to your trip. You should also download their 112 app (911) for added security.
If you have an accident, a breakdown and no cellphone coverage at all, have in mind that if you don’t have coverage, the search and rescue people have cellphone receiver mounted on helicopters so they can still find you easily if you have filled in your travel plans and you have your cellphone on. Here is what the SafeTravel people say about the app:
More or less all roads in the highlands are marked F-roads. An F-road can be anything from a smooth, unpaved road to washboard gravel to seriously rocky roads with parts washed away and deep pot holes everywhere. F-roads are not opened all year around either. The chart to the left gives you an idea when the different F-roads opens up but to get the latest information, call road.is at +354-522-1100.
Driving 50km on the Ring road will take you maybe 45 minutes. Driving 50km on an F-road can take you the better part of a day, depending on the state of the road and not to forget the weather.
As you might know already, the weather in Iceland can change in an instant but in the highlands, much more so. When planning a trip over the highlands, you do not only need to have latest information about the roads you will be driving, you also need to know what kind of weather might be expected. If heavy rain is expected, some roads might get flushed due to runoffs. Some places where you planned to ford a river might be a torrential river running way too deep and hard for any vehicle to pass. You also have to keep in mind if heavy rain in other areas will affect the depth of rivers where you are planning to cross.
There is one main route most people choose when driving across the highlands. Kjalvegur is the name of it. Its number is F35. Kjölur is a plateau in the highlands, roughly defined as the area between the glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull at an altitude of about 600–700 metres. Kjalvegur cuts through this area. It’s also a very historic route for it is mentioned in the old Icelandic sagas where it was used during summer to connect the different areas in the north and south.
Kjalvegur, F35 is the road that continues north from Gullfoss. From Gullfoss to the junction north of Blöndulón it’s 168 km (104 miles). Roughly one third into the trip going north, one can make a slight detour to an oasis, the geothermal area Hveravellir, one of the very few places in the highlands where you can take a load off, take a shower, swim in the hot springs, go for a hike, even eat and camp too but there is no gas station there. There is even a horse rental up there. When arriving on the north side, you will either come down close to Blöndós or Vamahlíð, depending on which route you choose after the reservoir Blöndulón.
Sprengisandsleið – F26
This F-road goes between the glaciers Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull. It’s a very very scenic road but unfortunately, it’s totally impassable for any vehicles than super jeeps and the huge tour buses that drives from Landmannalaugar to Mývatn every second day during high season.
The highlands is a very dry area when it’s not raining of course. So you need to prepare yourself for a lot of dust during the driest periods. If or when you meet other cars up there, slow down more than usual for both cars are ripping up dust and not to mention stones. Very dusty roads can be very slippery and under the dust, knife sharp stones waiting to rip your tires to shreds so drive slowly and keep your eyes on the roads at all times.
Sand & dust storms do happen up there and they can be very thick. To be covered for any damages by sand, ash and gravel, you need to have purchased the sand and ash protection (SAAP) insurance or the premium (PiP) to lower your self risk. Without it, you might end up paying the full cost for damages. This is not a sales pitch. The highlands is absolutely stunning but it can also wreak havoc on your car, the paint job and the underbody. It should also be noted that no insurance covers (goes for all camper & car rental companies here) damages to the underbody which one has to keep in mind when driving rougher parts of any F-roads. The same goes with tires so do drive with extra care up there.
Camping in the highlands
Spending nights up in the highlands (which can only be done during summer) is a thrilling experience for many reasons. Just by entering the highlands, you have already left the big crowds behind you so you will have all the solitude you want with views over vast expanses. As mentioned before, all driving off road is strictly forbidden but there will be plenty of gorgeous places where you can camp for the night but the same rules applies as when camping anywhere outside a designated camping site. You may not camp on private grounds which are fenced in. Not many of those up there. When parking your 4×4 camper, make sure you pose no danger at all for any other possible vehicles. There can be very violent winds up there so take extra care when opening the doors and only one at at time if there is strong winds present. Try to find a place where there is some protection for the winds.
When you need to “do your business”, dig a hole and fill the hole when you are done. All trash needs to be disposed of in garbage bins. In areas where inhabitants are scattered over a wide expanse, you might come across trash containers where you can safely dispose of your trash. If you don’t pass one while driving down, dispose the trash in the next village or rest stop (if there are garbage bins there).
You can drink any clear water you see. It will be very clean as long as there is no milky coloring in it. The milky colors means that it is melting water from a glacier and you should never drink that.
Driving in the highlands is a very exclusive trip where one can experience the inhabited Iceland but remember to plan, do research, fill in your details with Safe travel before going on a journey and keep to your plan, for your own safety. You don’t want to get stuck up there for days on end but you don’t want a search and rescue party go looking for you unnecessarily. If possible, travel with one or two other cars. Driving there require extra attention to roads and weather and never take any chances. Don’t leave any track of your stay in the highlands but foremost, be ready to have your mind blown by eternal beauty, vast landscapes in Europe’s biggest wild, inhabited area.
Happy Camping! #WohoCamper
Iceland Travel Guides
If you like what you see, please subscribe to our YouTube channel!