Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country and is perfect for a road trip. The country’s Ring Road offers the perfect means of circumnavigating the island. Whether you’re traveling by car, campervan or motorhome rental, all you need is four wheels and your GPS to experience some of Iceland’s most spectacular outdoor attractions. But just how big is Iceland and how long does it take to drive around the Ring Road? The simple answer is, it depends. At 1,332 km (828 miles), there’s always the standard calculation (distance divided by speed equals time). But there are more factors at play here, not to mention that the speed of the Ring Road changes. The sections with gravel, though they are few and far between, take longer than the paved parts of the highway. It’s better to think of the answer as more of a range.
Driving Around Iceland: Let’s Talk Ballpark
Ok, so to figure out approximately how long it takes to drive around Iceland, let’s do a couple of things. First, we can estimate using the speed limit and the distance. The speed limit on Iceland’s Ring Road is 90 km/h (60 mph) maximum when driving on paved roads outside of cities and towns. When traveling in populated areas, the speed limit is 30-50 km/h (18-31 mph). And when driving on unpaved roads, you can only go up to 80 km/h (50 mph). While most of your time will be spent on paved highway, a fact of travel in Iceland is that roads are not always paved. You will also be passing through different villages, so the 90 km/h (60 mph) estimate is a little too high when you take that into account. Let’s round things to driving 80 km/h (50 mph) around the Ring Road’s 1,332 kilometers (828 miles) and you have a guesstimate of 16.5 hours to drive around the whole country.
Next, let’s consult Google Maps for a second opinion. According to the apps for maps and directions, it takes just under 17 hours to drive around the island. This assumes no stops and no traffic and seems like a pretty realistic estimate. But that’s not the whole story. What are some other factors to consider when calculating how long it will take to drive around the island?
Driving Around Iceland: Storms, Snow, Sheep, and Sunday Drivers
You’ve probably heard people say that driving in Iceland is different. They are absolutely right. The unpredictable weather and road conditions are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s entirely possible that you’ll have nothing but clear skies and perfect driving conditions during your whole trip. It’s also entirely possible that you could get caught in a windstorm that forces you to pull over for an hour or two until it passes. Or maybe you find yourself in the midst of a sudden downfall of snow. Before you know what’s happening, you’ve slowed to crawl and have low visibility or a whiteout. I always like to add 15 minutes per hour of estimated driving time when traveling in Iceland in the winter.
And what about sheep blocking the roadway? Remember, our happy little critter roam free here. You might just find yourself waiting for a farmer to cross the road with his 1,000-strong flock. There will also be other drivers to contend with, as you will likely not have the road to yourself. This is especially true during summer’s high season. Lots of cars on the road mean more chances for a delay. Don’t stress; just go with the flow and maybe you’ve even become one of those Sunday drivers.
With the Ring Road as the country’s main artery, everyone is using it, not just tourists on holiday or sheep on patrol. You might find yourself stuck behind a slow-moving freight truck carrying precious fruits and vegetables to the closest Bónus supermarket. This will naturally slow you down, so don’t assume you’ll be able to drive the speed limit the whole time. There are also traffics jams as you leave and enter the main towns and tourist attractions.
A Note About Driving Faster Than the Speed Limit
On an interesting (and crucial) side note, let’s talk about speeding. Now, obviously, I don’t recommend speeding. Just for pure safety’s sake, it’s important to follow the speed limits and obey all safety rules and regulations. They really are there for your own good. But if you think you know more than Icelanders about driving in Iceland and insist on speeding, here something else to chew on.
Many places around the world, Iceland included, employ speed cameras along with radar. These handy dandy little devices capture the license plate number of any vehicles that pass by in a hurry. It records the information of the infraction an issues tickets. Not only that, but many times people are charged automatically and payment is made from their bank account, debit card, or credit card. So just because the police didn’t come charging after you with sirens blaring, doesn’t mean you didn’t get caught. And before you think “well, I just won’t pay it”, don’t think you’re so special. The car rental companies can and will charge you for breaking the law and speeding. One of the cardinal rules of travel is never assume that things are similar to how things are done in your country.
So why not just make things easier for all parties involved (including your wallet) and obey the speed limit. Otherwise, you might find yourself staring at a fine that could pay for another plane ticket to Iceland.
How Long Does it Take to Drive Around Iceland?
If you’re looking for the short answer, it takes a minimum of 16-17 hours to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road (assuming perfect conditions). But as we know, few things in things life are perfect, so maybe a nice round number is 20 hours. And of course, you’re not going to drive straight through! Making a 20-hour trip Iceland isn’t the point of your vacation! Of course you’ll take detours and stop along the way at places like Skógafoss or Diamond Beach. You’ll also visit places that are not part of the Ring Road, like the Diamond Circle or Snaefellsnes peninsula. Remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination. Iceland is an incredible place to see, so enjoy it and soak it up.