My boyfriend (now fiance oooh) and I just got back from ten days in Iceland. During that time, we completed the Ring Road (also know as Route 1). The road gets its name because it very literally creates a ring around the country. You can start in Reykjavik (or just outside of Keflavik if you’d like) and drive for 828 miles and end up right back where you started. Of course there are many opportunities to leave Route 1 and see other parts of Iceland, but you will most likely spend a majority of your time on “the 1″ as we liked to call it.
The dates of our trip were April 25th, 2015 to May 5th, 2015. That gave us ten full days to see everything on the map above. Unfortunately, we ran into some bad weather, blizzards in the North and high winds and sandstorms in the East, so we were unable to do many of the hikes we had planned. We also lost a day because the storms were too bad to drive through. But even with those set backs, we made it back to Reykjavik with a day and a half to spare.
Alex and I worked on a list of tips for anyone traveling the Ring Road. Some of our tips relate directly to off season, but a majority apply to peak season as well:
Rent a car - A 2WD car will get you to a majority of the sights along the Ring Road. There are quite a few unpaved sections of road in the North and West, so you will just have to drive slowly and carefully. This is the most budget-friendly option.
Rent a vehicle with 4WD - This will give you unlimited access to roads. You will be able to travel of F Roads which go up into Iceland’s highlands. However, these roads are all closed during the winter. If you are uncomfortable driving in the snow, a 4WD vehicle might be for you. We encountered some snow packed roads between Egilsstadir and Myvatn up North, but our 2WD van did just fine.
Rent a campervan or other camper-type vehicle - This was the option we chose. The cool thing about a campervan is that it acts as your car and your accommodation, so you don’t have to worry about paying for a hotel or hostel. It also gives you the freedom to stay wherever you’d like. We ended up behind schedule because of bad weather, and it was nice to not have to worry about making it to the hotel we reserved. We chose to rent our campervan from Happy Campers, and we would absolutely recommend them!
Hotel/Hostel - There are many places to stay along the Ring Road. Pretty much every little town has a guesthouse, hotel, or hostel. In off season, it’s easy to find accommodation without a prior reservation. But I suspect it is more difficult to do this during high season. We had to spend one night of our trip in a hotel between Jokulsarlon and Hofn, and it cost us about $120 USD for the night.
Campsites - There are quite a few campsites along the Ring Road. Often, we would follow a camping sign and not be able to find the campsite, or the campsite was not open yet (many do not open until mid-May or June). You can still stay overnight in a closed campground, you just won’t have access to the restrooms and showers. We paid 1000-1200 isk (about $7.60-$9.10 USD) per person for the campsites we stayed at.
WHAT TO PACK:
If you are camping, it is important to pack as light as possible. Our campervan was pretty full with our large suitcase, small suitcase, two camera bags, backpack and tripod case. It is very easy for the back of the campervan to become a disaster. Pack warm clothes, don’t forget a hat. Iceland is very windy and a hat or a jacket with a hood will make your life much more pleasant. Have a warm sleeping bag. Even with our sleeping bags and comforter, we were still cold at night. I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t have sleeping bags! And don’t forget a towel!
Bring your own - I’m going to be blunt: Food in Iceland is expensive. We planned our trip on a budget, and that meant sacrificing eating out (although we did eat out a couple times in Reykjavik). We packed our own food with us to prepare on our camp stove. We brought boxes of mac and cheese, pasta, dehydrated food from outdoor stores (they’re not very good, but all you have to do is add boiling water), as well as a variety of snacks and granola bars.
Grocery Stores - You’ll probably stop at a grocery store at some point to pick up items for meals. There are quite a few different places to buy groceries, but we found that we liked four of them the best. I should mention that these grocery stores will be nothing like what you may be used to if you live in the US. They’re much smaller, but we never had any problems finding what we wanted. Kronar is the best budget grocery store, there is one in Reykjavik and then there are others scattered around Iceland. Bonus is also a good budget grocery store. These can also be found all over Iceland. Netto is the grocery store that I saw the most. Hagkaup was the final grocery store that we went to. It kind of reminds me of a very small Super Target or Walmart. They sell food as well as clothes, makeup, toys, and medicines. I often saw Bonus stores attached to the Hagkaup. I bought the most delicious loaf of bread from the Hagkaup in Akureyri! Stores in Iceland open late and close early. Many grocery stores don’t open until 10am and were closed by 8pm. We saw a few stores that boasted being 24/7 stores. We figured this meant that they were always open, but it really means that they are open until midnight. We also found that a lot of stores were closed on Sundays.
Weather changes very quickly in Iceland. It is very important to keep an eye on road conditions because they can be dangerous, but also roads can close and reopen multiple times in a single day. We spent a lot of time on road.is checking our route. In the East, we had to take a detour because Route 1 was closed. We learned to take our time. If the weather was bad, we either pulled off and waited for it to pass, drove slowly or took a detour.
We rented a GPS with our campervan and I am so glad we did! The GPS helped us find grocery stores, campsites and swimming pools. We also didn’t have to worry about using our precious phone data. The GPS also gets much better service than a cell phone, so we never had any issues with not having service. We also bought a road map of Iceland from the 10-11 at the airport. It was a bit pricey, but so worth it! We often had the GPS and the map out at the same time to find our way. There are road signs for just about everything you would want: gas stations, accommodation, swimming pools, campsites, places to ride horses, points of interest, etc. We found that sometimes the names of places on the signs were slightly different than the names we were looking for. For example, in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we were looking for Djupalonssandur but the sign said Djupalon. So you just have to pay attention to the signs.
We stopped at a few swimming pools during our trip when we didn’t stay at an open campsite and wanted to shower. The prices for the pools range from about $5-9 USD per person. Many of the pools open very early and close in the evening. I suggest getting there as close to opening as possible because they are normally less crowded then. You can find a swimming pool at every town. I’m pretty sure there are more swimming pools than gas stations in Iceland!
There is usually a gas station in the larger towns along the Ring Road. We never had a problem finding gas stations even though there were a few stretches without them. We were very careful to never let our tank get close to empty, sometimes we stopped for gas even though we had ¾ of a tank left just in case. Our road map and GPS were very helpful with finding nearby gas stations. Some of the gas stations in smaller towns did not have stores that were open, the door of the store had a phone number to call if you needed assistance.
There are a couple differences with getting gas in Iceland than in the US. The first is that diesel comes from the black handle and unleaded comes from the green handle. The second is that even if you pay with a credit card, you need a PIN number. That threw us off and we bought prepaid gas cards inside since we didn’t know our credit card PIN number. The third is that the pump will ask you to enter an amount in Krona before you can begin filling up. This is a maximum amount, so if you type in 6.000 and only need 5.500, you will only be charged for 5.500.
Finally, the reason you’re going to Iceland - to see the waterfalls, black sand beaches, geysers and lava fields. Well, so does everyone else. And many of these people are going to travel on a tour bus (particularly in the South, in Myvatn and in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula). You’re doing the Ring Road on your own, meaning you make your own schedule. I suggest waking up early and getting to these popular sites early, before the other tourists and before the tourist buses arrive. We were often on the road by 7am and this allowed us to have waterfalls all to ourselves. Alex’s favorite part of the trip was the morning we had Skogafoss all to ourselves. Traveling in off season will also help with this because there are fewer tourists in general.