4x4 Rental Guide to the Icelandic Highlands

Emily Draper
(Updated: )
9 min read

The Icelandic Highlands forms a large part of the Land and Fire and Ice. It is even the main inspiration for the country's nickname. Yet, few know about this remote region, and even fewer have explored it. The truth is, the Highlands are hard to reach, but those who make it are rewarded with the most incredible landscapes Iceland has to offer. And Iceland is not shy of incredible landscapes.

Since the Highlands form the majority of Iceland's interior, they are a big part of the country's identity. Therefore, anyone that travels to Iceland cannot truly know it without delving into the Highlands' volcanic, icy, and mountainous depths. In order to do so, however, there are some things you must know.

Image of a mountain in the Icelandic Highlands. Best reached by a good 4x4.
Icelandic highlands

In this article, we paint a vivid picture, not only of the Icelandic Highlands' visceral beauty, but also of the experiences you can expect to have there on a 4x4 car rental, and the preparations you should expect to make before going. Guaranteed you'll be putting the Highlands at the top of your Iceland itinerary once you do.

Having covered everything from the best routes to take to the best Iceland cars to hire for the trip, you'll be able to explore this untrodden land with confidence and assurance. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we will begin by sharing a little more about what the Icelandic Highlands are. Until now, they were Iceland's best-kept secret.

Summary

  • The Icelandic Highlands are a mountainous plateau that cover much of Iceland's interior and most can only be reached by a 4x4.
  • They are characterized by lava fields, rocky mountains, dry brown earth, and volcanic ash, as well as glaciers, crater lakes, and rivers
  • The region is difficult to access, with only unpaved F-roads leading there, and is only open to travelers between June and September
  • The Highlands offer a range of activities such as hiking, climbing, mountaineering, hot spring bathing, and driving through the rugged landscape
  • Landmarks in the Highlands include the Hvannadalshnúkur Mountain, the Vatnajökull Glacier, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, Dettifoss waterfall, and Landmannalaugar hot springs
  • To fully experience the Highlands, it is recommended to hire a 4x4 vehicle, bring proper clothing and equipment, and be prepared for potential challenges such as river crossings.

What are the Icelandic Highlands?

Image of a stunning view of a lake near a mountain in the highlands of Iceland
Stunning lake view of a mountain in Iceland

  • The Icelandic Highlands is a mountainous plateau 400-500 metres above sea level that covers the majority of Iceland's interior.

  • Formed by ancient volcanic activity, the Highlands is essentially a sparse volcanic desert unable to sustain life, human or otherwise.

  • In each direction, there's nothing but lava fields, rocky mountains, dry brown earth, and volcanic ash interrupted by crater lakes, glaciers, and rivers. On paper, this barren land sounds like an unappealing place to visit but in reality, it's one of the most fascinating landscapes on Earth with so much to see and do.

  • Many tourists in Iceland stick to the coastal attractions like Reynisfjara Beach and Diamond Bay rather than venturing into the isolating interior. This is not because the coastal sights are more impressive than the Highlands, but simply because they are more accessible.

  • The Highlands' attractions have restricted access along unpaved roads called F-roads (mountain roads) that most aren't daring enough to drive on. Since these roads are only open between June and September at the latest, the opportunities to explore the Highlands are reduced even further. But those who are both brave and determined enough to explore the Icelandic Highlands will be greatly rewarded by the beauty and brilliance of its nature.

  • To reach the highlands it is imperative that you have a 4x4 vehicle so that you can pedal through any terrain. We offer many varieties of Iceland 4x4 rentals and always make sure to offer you the best prices available.

Why visit the Icelandic Highlands?

Image of the highlands of Iceland
Highlands of Iceland

  1. Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice, a name that is most truly embodied by the Icelandic Highlands region. And since the Highlands makes up the majority of this island nation, you haven't seen the real Iceland without exploring it.
  2. Its lifeless horizons might not seem like the most obvious direction to take on your trip, but it can be equally if not more rewarding than the Icelandic coast and lowlands.
  3. From the palm-tingling tip of the 2000-metre-tall Hvannadalshnúkur Mountain to the intimidatingly expansive 8,300 km² Vatnajökull Glacier, the Icelandic Highlands promises astronomical adventure.
  4. You can climb the mountain; cross the glacier; stand at the mouth of the active Eyjafjallajökull volcano; see Dettifoss, Europe's most powerful waterfall cascade beneath you; and go bathing in the Landmannalaugar natural hot springs. And of course, there's a scenic hike to embark on from every direction.
  5. However, hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and hot spring bathing is only half of the fun to be had in the Highlands. The other half of the fun is had simply by driving through it. The unpaved F-roads promise a driving experience that's just as thrilling as off-roading. While some roads are fairly forgiving, others challenge you with narrow passages, rivers, steep inclines, loose terrain, and sand dunes often compromised by harsh elements like rain, snow, and ice. None of this would be possible ? or legal for that matter ? without a 4x4.

How easy is it to drive on the Highland roads (aka F-roads)?

Image of a jeep 4x4 SUV Car rental from Iceland driving in the highlands of Iceland, F-Road.
Example of an F-Road in Iceland.

While the Highlands' F-roads aren't technically ?off-road' paths, they have a similar disposition. The roads are gravelled to create a distinct and proper path for vehicles to follow, but they are left to the will of nature.

This means they're sometimes compromised by snow, ice, and other weather conditions, as well as potholes, loose terrain, and most challengingly, unabridged rivers. For the unconfident driver, F-roads are a challenge you should think twice about before facing.

That being said, F-roads are open to anyone with a 4x4 and a willingness to give it a go. Besides, there may be some particularly challenging routes, but there are plenty of (fairly) manageable F-roads for the less daring drivers too (see below for the driving difficulty of the Highlands' most popular roads).

Regardless of how experienced you are with driving across tough terrain, the quality of your F-road adventure is highly dependent upon the quality of your 4x4.

Choosing the best 4x4 for your Icelandic Highlands adventure

Driving on Iceland's F-roads with a 4x4 is a legal requirement, but there is a wide range of all-wheel-drives to choose from out there, and not all of them are suited to these roads. When it comes to driving on difficult and unpredictable terrain, the performance of your 4x4 is key.

While standard 4x4s will get you a ticket onto the F-roads, they won't necessarily get you all the way across them. Particularly if you're planning on taking on the more challenging routes. That's why you need a 4x4 with power, performance, and intelligence.

Iceland car hire company Northbound selection of fully compatible F-road 4x4s offer just that.

Here are some of the factors you should consider when choosing which 4x4 to hire for your road trip:

  • Engine power
  • Torque
  • Tires and tread
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Ground clearance
  • Front and rear cameras
  • Fuel tank size (there's nowhere to fill up in the Highlands)

Northbounds selection of 4x4 vehicles is chosen with these factors in mind.

Therefore, whichever one you hire, you can feel assured it will serve you well on those tough Icelandic Highland roads. But just in case you need extra guidance, here's our list of favourite 4x4 hire cars in Iceland from Northbound:

Best 4x4 for endurance: Toyota RAV4 VX 2022 Automatic

  • 3.3L TWIN TURBO V6 engine
  • 110L fuel tank
  • 700 Nm of torque at 1600 rpm

Image of an Toyota RAV4 VX 2022 Automatic
Toyota RAV4 VX 2022 Automatic

Best small 4x4: Suzuki Jimny

  • Two-door
  • Light weight
  • Good ground clearance

Image of a Suzuki Jimny, 4x4 rental vehicle.
Suzuki Jimny - 4x4.

Best luxury 4x4: Toyota Land Cruiser VX 2022

  • Cruise control
  • Heated seating
  • Rear camera
  • Spacious
    • Fits 5 bags & 5 people

Image of a Land Cruiser, 4x4 car rental.
Land Cruiser - Large 4x4.

Most economical 4x4: Toyota RAV4 GX Hybrid

  • 131kW petrol/ 88kW electric/ 160kW combined
  • 8 inch digital display
  • 5-star ANCAP safety rating

Image of a Toyota RAV4 GX Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 GX Hybrid

Check out more of the best 4x4 hire cars in Iceland at Northbound here.

Choosing the Highlands route that is most appealing to you

Now that you have a better idea of what the Icelandic Highlands is like, how to navigate it, and what kind of 4x4 you'd like to assist you, it's time to figure out what you want to see and which routes to take. Each of the Highlands roads promises its own selection of adventures set before landscapes so beautifully surreal even Salvador Dali couldn't have imagined them.

The one(s) you choose depends on how far you want to drive, how much you want to see, and how willing you are to cross rivers in a 4x4. Luckily, the Icelandic Highlands roads vary in their accessibility and difficulty and there's something for everyone.

To learn more about the Icelandic Highlands roads and choose a route that appeals to you, read our article on F-Roads here.

Book your Iceland car hire with Northbound

The perfect Icelandic Highlands adventure isn't possible without the perfect 4x4 to drive through it. Whether you're looking for something powerful, economical, sturdy, or small, we have the perfect 4x4 for you.

Contact us here speak about our Icelandic Highland 4x4 Rentals and secure yours today. Not only do we know each of the 4x4 vehicles inside out, we are also experienced Highlands drivers keen to share their personal knowledge and experience with driving in this remote Land of Fire and Ice.


Book your 4x4 with Northbound right here!
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