15 Tips for Exploring Iceland’s Amazing Ring Road
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon located on the Ring Road in Southeast Iceland. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
The window to drive all 828 miles of Iceland’s stunning Route 1, also known as the Ring Road, is short — May through September. It’s an adventure that requires some forethought. Surprisingly, when I began prepping for my recent journey around this rugged North Atlantic island there wasn’t much practical advice available online. Many visitors seem to focus solely on preparing for Iceland’s constantly changing weather. While it is important to consider wardrobe issues, I discovered through trial and error that there’s a lot more to keep in mind when tackling Iceland’s often inaccessible landscape that’s made up of everything from soot-black lava fields to ice-blue glacial lakes.
Here’s the advice I wish I had received before embarking on my Ring Road adventure.
1. Always be prepared.
Who says dressing for the weather has to mean lots of fleece and high-tech fabric? (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
Let’s get a popular topic out of the way: weather. Even in summer, temperatures are all over the place. I sometimes switched from a winter jacket to short sleeves in the course of hours. Bring lots of layers — many Ring Roaders seem to prefer rugged, all-weather gear. That’s not my style. So, if you’re like me, just plan to wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable in a wide variety of conditions.
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2. Pay attention.
Obviously, Iceland is a land of extremes (volcanoes, floods, earthquakes), so locals don’t really feel the need to sensationalize reports of environmental phenomena, and official warnings are always issued for good reason. Don’t play hero and ignore reports because Mother Nature will win, and you will lose.
3. Get your bearings.
The view of Reykjavik from atop Hallgrímskirkja. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
Many flights from the U.S. arrive in Reykjavik early in the day. Rather than hitting the road right away, stay overnight and explore this vibrant capital’s restaurants, bars, and shops. Begin by heading to the top of the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church for a bird’s-eye view of the city and end with a nightcap at one of the popular pubs around town.
4. Do your homework.
The tourist center in Reykjavik has tons of handy maps, lodging listings, and other resources. Booklets covering each region are especially helpful for deciding which major sites to see, and they’re a lot less cumbersome than flipping through travel guides. Make use of the friendly staffers who are more than happy to address any questions or concerns you may have.
5. Stock up.
Restaurants are expensive in Iceland (a typical meal for two can easily run well over $100), and pit stops in the wilderness are few and far between. While in Reykjavik, take the opportunity to buy bottled water, snacks and other supplies for the trip at affordable grocery stores like Bonus.
6. Become goal-oriented.
Sometimes the locals aren’t able to provide the best directions. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
Route 1 is the only way to circumnavigate much of Iceland. Despite the fact there’s one major road, GPS is useful for directions to more remote sites or for a general time estimate to the next far-flung destination. Get a unit when picking up your car rental or bring one from home. Just don’t make the same mistake I did and forget to check if your GPS includes more than maps of the United States and Mexico.
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7. Stay connected.
I often relied on Internet access to find last-minute lodging options and look up major points of interest. Fine, I used it to check Facebook and post lots and lots of photos on Instagram, too. Arrange a plan with your carrier before leaving home, or buy a SIM card in Iceland. I got one gigabyte of data and 30 minutes of call time for around $30 at a store in Reykjavik’s biggest mall.
8. Plug in.
Surreal landscapes are a dime a dozen in Iceland, so be ready to pay the price by snapping hundreds of photos. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
I often found myself scrambling to charge camera batteries wherever I could find a plug. It’s wise to buy an extra camera battery and don’t forget to bring the proper adaptor. Also plenty of memory cards are key because this trip is one continuous photo opp.
9. Cash or credit?
Don’t bother withdrawing Icelandic króna because credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere in Iceland. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a single Icelandic bill or coin, even in the most remote parts of the country. Contact your bank and alert them you will be traveling abroad, and bring an extra card or two in case something goes wrong.
10. Take cover.
Long summer days very slowly turn into short nights in Iceland. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
In summer months, it doesn’t get dark until around midnight and dawn comes quite early. I happened to save the sleep mask from my flight, but it’s a good idea to come prepared if you require complete darkness to fall — and stay — asleep.
11. Take comfort.
I packed my pillow and down comforter on a whim, and they couldn’t have come in handier, especially when I decided it was easier to camp out in my vehicle rather than search for a guesthouse in which to hunker down for the evening. My lesson learned? The point of traveling Route 1 is to spend hours upon hours driving and ogling the views out the window, so bring anything you might need to make the experience more comfortable.
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12. Go au natural.
Speaking of sleeping in the car, I like to travel with a flexible schedule, so one of my biggest worries before leaving was knowing when and where to reserve a room. It turns out camping during warmer months is a simple — and extremely cheap — lodging alternative. Bring a tent and sleeping bag to take advantage of the sites located all along Route 1.
13. Protect yourself.
Waterfalls in Iceland are just as much a threat as the occasional downpour. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
The further along you get on the Ring Road the more you realize that a poncho is a must-have accessory. It’s much easier to throw one on than to rely on an umbrella for protection from the occasional rain shower or mist-spewing waterfall.
14. Take a break.
Few gas stations along the Ring Road means there aren’t many opportunities for proper bathroom breaks. In other words, get comfortable with going in the great outdoors.
15. Meet the locals.
This arctic fox was one of the cuter locals I met in the eastern part of Iceland. (Photo: Aaron Rasmussen)
Almost everyone in Iceland speaks English, so mixing with the locals can be quite easy. I met some residents in Reykjavik’s many pubs and even arranged a visit to an Icelandic artist’s studio to check out her work. The highlight of my trip was when I got to hang out with an especially friendly fox, Mickey, who called my hotel in Eskifjordur home.
Aaron Rasmussen is a Brooklyn-based writer who recently spent a week exploring Iceland. He’s already busy planning his next trip back.
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