In some ways, traveling far and wide has had its disadvantages. For one, it’s made me completely delusional.
These days, instead of researching all the places or situations that could potentially be dangerous, an “oh it’ll be fine!” comes out of my mouth before giving it a second thought. This is further solidified if I’ve seen many other people do such an activity or travel to that specific location. “If they can do it, I can do it!” is probably one of my best and most neurotic recent qualities.
“Pssh, I can totally walk 200km on a whim and not get blisters.” “Oh of course backpacking Brazil solo will be a breeze.” And in this case, “Rent a car in Iceland? Who cares if it’s winter…everyone does it!”
I then find myself in such situations wondering, “What the HELL was I thinking?”
Case in point, my rental car experience in Iceland. So here are the five steps you need to know so you can also put your life in danger while driving around this remote Arctic island. Take notes people!
As they say, ignorance is bliss!
1. Have no winter driving experience
My train of thought probably went like this: “The best way to see Iceland is by renting a car. I love road trips. Snow tires exist for a reason.”
That all led me to rent a car for three days forgetting that 1.) I was visiting the country alone and 2.) I had never driven in snow before.
Coincidentally, when I reached Iceland in early December, snow had already arrived in the form of a hurricane. This dumped a few feet of the white stuff over what is usually mossy, volcanic landscape. It then snowed each day while I was there but only for a couple of hours. This was enough to keep the scenery blindingly white and turn a step off the sidewalk into a short free fall.
The roads looked clear though, and I consistently saw them being plowed. As long as I went slow, I figured this was nothing I couldn’t handle, right?
2. Invite someone you meet on Tinder to come along
I had been on the island for a few days before it was time to start thinking about my mini-road trip. And within those first few days, I had acquired my own personal local tour guide (let’s call him Björn) via the infamous Tinder app. I also was starting to take note of how quickly weather in Iceland can change.
I was faced with a predicament. Do I embark on a mini-road trip independently with the hope driving will be a breeze, or do I invite someone who I met only a few days prior (and could possibly be a serial killer) along for the ride?
I obviously opted for the more rational option.
When “Björn” happily accepted my invitation and even told me he’d show me the way to the black sand beach, I was extremely pleased. Company for the 2 hour drive! My own personal human GPS! Someone to show me how to navigate a snowy path! Woo!
Unfortunately, my father didn’t see things in the same light. While Skyping, he immediately urged me to pick up some pepper spray. I obliged, but we were both unaware of one minor detail at the time—pepper spray is illegal in Iceland. Opps, sorry Dad!
3. Embark on trip even when a snow storm is approaching
The morning of the mini-road trip, my adopted guide and I went to go pick up the car. It was 9am, but still dark when we got there. The man behind the desk looked at us suspiciously and had a few questions.
“Have you guys checked the weather report?” Um, no. “Do you know a storm is approaching the southern part of the island this evening?” Um….no, we didn’t know that either.
It was a tough decision, but my new buddy Björn and I discussed the situation for a whole 5 minutes before deciding to still go for it. We would continue to monitor the weather and make sure to turn around well before the storm reached the area. Björn also had a family friend whose house we could stay at in case the weather made a turn for the worse.
We got in the car, I put the keys in the ignition and looked at him, “Okay, where to?”
4. Have no idea how to control an out-of-control vehicle
As I drove through the Icelandic countryside, we passed the largest expanses of snow I’d ever seen in my life Fuzzy Icelandic ponies huddled together on the side of the road and remote churches stood isolated in the distance. In a country as sparsely populated as Iceland, you drive through a lot of uninhabited scenery. Every day I had another one of those, “I can’t believe I’m here” moments. It’s just that beautiful.
We took a few stops for coffee and photo ops, but eventually made it to the turn off for the Black Sand Beach. While there, the strong winds created more adventure than leisure, but we tried to stay as long as we could to enjoy the views and take photos. Soon after, it was time to get to the next town for gas. We needed to be turning around as soon as possible, but the risk of hitting empty was about as pertinent as avoiding the storm.
I was really too enamored with the views to really care though. “Rush” and “storm” were no longer words in my vocabulary. Regardless, overprotective Björn forced me back into the car.
As I took an overpass through two snow covered mountains, I suddenly felt a loss of control on the wheel. Before I even knew what was happening, my co-pilot blurted, “Wait are we slid- ….?”
Yup, we were sliding and as much as I turned the wheel it didn’t matter. “WHAT DO I DOOO?” I yelled as the car took on a mind of its own.
I headed straight off the road and plummeted us into a deep snow-filled ditch.
Once we had landed, luckily free of any injuries, an endless handful of “OH MY GOD!”s and “I’M SO SORRY!”s came out of my mouth at rapid speed. I guess I was speaking enough for the both of us, and the ‘winner for best tinder date of all time‘ exited the car quietly and started digging.
While he was busy acting like it was ‘just another day in Iceland’, I hesitantly asked if I could take a picture.
*Cue, every blogger’s dream response*– “Oh yeah, sure. Of course.”
Within 5 minutes he wasn’t the only person digging our car out of the snow. Three other cars had seen us and were all ready to start pushing. While this kind of helpful and caring behavior may be normal in Iceland, I was overwhelmed. I wanted to hug them all and take them to the pub for a drink!
“Okay, let’s go! We’ve still got to get petrol before the storm,” Björn said. “Oh yes, right.”
5. Go over a mountain pass in said snow storm
After filling up the car, we quickly turned around and braced ourselves for the couple hour drive back to Reykjavik. It was a long haul but we kept the conversation flowing, whether it revolved around the existence of parallel universes or the tribulations of our ex-partners (as you do on a second date).
In complete darkness and about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, we started to ascend over a pass. Without warning, the wind started blowing violently, creating a blinding tunnel of constant swirling snow. It was dizzying and I had no idea what to keep my eyes on. I could barely see one meter in front of the car, let alone the side of the road.
Almost hyperventilating and wanting to stop the vehicle, I couldn’t see anywhere to pull off. I had no idea where the road ended and where a cliff possibly begun. I carried on slowly while tears welled up in my eyes and my body was on the brink of a full-blown panic attack.
If this wasn’t a memorable first impression, I’m not sure what is!
“It’ll be fine! Just keep your eyes on the reflective middle divider,” the ever-calm Björn assured me.
That strategy worked great until all reflective road markings disappeared. At that point I was sure that any minute I’d be navigating the car off a cliff without even knowing, creating the most tragic Tinder date in all of history.
Thankfully my outbursts of anxiety, tears of fear and sweaty palms only lasted another 5-10 minutes before a huge tour bus passed by.
“Just follow the bus the whole way back! They know how to drive in this!” Björn assured me.
At that point I released my death grip on the wheel, started to breathe normally and thanked the universe for group tourism. We arrived back in Reykjavik and ended the night by eating a frozen pizza and some pick-and-mix Haribo sour candy and licorice. There were no complaints by me, I was just happy to be alive.
Oh yeah, that, and the fact it was all we could afford after the amount of Icelandic krona we’d spent on gas.
Now while I do love to give my travel advice, clearly I don’t recommend for you to follow in my specific footsteps above. Of course, I trusted my gut in each of the situations, and had a really good feeling about “Björn” and what I was getting into. Regardless, I had paid for 3G and minutes on my phone so I knew that if anything bad did happen, I’d be able to make a phone call for help. I also always make sure to have travel insurance, just in case. If you want more information on traveling to Iceland in winter, I’ve spelled it out all right here. Also, if you do happen to be in the country alone and want to rent a car, SADcars had a great quality of vehicles. Just make sure you check the road conditions, and if you aren’t experienced, don’t take on the roads alone.