10 Ways Iceland Can Kill You

By Rick Steves
One slip at the edge of a gorgeous Icelandic waterfall could be fatal. (photo: David C. Hoerlein)
Námafjall geothermal field
Iceland's thermal features are fascinating — but beware that testing the waters can result in severe burns. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Gazing into a volcanic crater lake, leaping across a tectonic fissure in the earth's crust, descending into the magma chamber of an extinct volcano…Iceland is filled with unforgettable experiences. This beautiful country is packed with tourist-attracting natural wonders: waterfalls, glaciers, rivers, fjords, cliffs, thermal springs, and geysers.

Though magnificent, this landscape can threaten your survival. Several times a year, Icelanders are captivated by a full-scale land and helicopter search for travelers sucked out to sea by a wave, separated from their snowmobile tour group, or lost in the wilderness. If you visit, keep the following risks in mind.

1. Wind: The signature feature of Icelandic weather is wind. Icelanders have a higher standard for what qualifies as "windy." If you think it's windy, it's just a mild breeze to them. If they say it's windy, it's probably a genuine storm. Even in summer, you'll likely encounter winds that are uncomfortable or dangerous to walk or drive in. Once, while I stood on a rock to snap a photo, a freakish gust nearly blew me into the sea. Always check the forecast at the Icelandic weather service. If it's windy and icy at the same time, take extra care. Car rental agencies offer insurance supplements for "wind damage and sandstorms."

2. Slips and falls: In winter, Reykjavik's sidewalks generally aren't cleared or salted, and are very slippery and icy. Falls are common. Paths in the countryside ice over, too. Cautious travelers visiting between December and February should pack a pair of ice cleats to strap over their shoes.

3. Exposure and getting lost: When traveling in less inhabited parts of the country, be prepared for the unexpected. Your car could break down or run out of gas, or you could take a wrong turn. Travel with extra clothing (even summer days can turn cold and windy, especially at higher elevations) and keep your phone charged (bring a portable charger; reception is good all around the Ring Road). Carry a paper map as a backup. Before heading into wilderness areas, upload your itinerary to SafeTravel.is.

4. Sneaker waves: Iceland's south coast has some very dangerous beaches with strong waves that regularly pull unsuspecting tourists out to sea. Those breathtaking black-sand beaches can suddenly become dangerous. Obey all signs, and stay much farther from the water than you think is necessary.

5. Trail hazards: There are very few ropes, guardrails, or warning signs in Iceland — but if you see any, take them seriously. Step carefully, and watch out for loose stones, crevices, and sharp lava rocks.

6. Scalding thermal water: The water in Iceland's geothermally active areas can be boiling hot, and the danger is often unmarked. Every year or two a tourist falls in and gets severely burned, typically in a less-visited geothermal area without fences or walkways.

7. Avalanches: Icelanders have taken this danger more seriously since 1995, when two avalanches in the Westfjords killed 34 people. Wintertime travelers may encounter avalanche warnings in any settled area close to a steep mountain slope.

8. Volcanoes: On average, a volcano erupts in Iceland every four years. Some eruptions can be viewed from a safe distance, but others melt glaciers, let loose streams of boiling lava, give off poisonous gases, or spew ash and boulders that will damage you or your car. Volcanic eruptions and their consequences can and regularly do interfere with travel plans. The Icelandic weather service posts regular updates on eruptions (and earthquakes).

9. Winter driving: I don't recommend driving outside Reykjavik and the airport area at all during the winter months (roughly November through March). In Reykjavik, city streets are cleared fairly well after storms, and the road to/from the airport is also usually kept in decent shape year-round. Outside the city, though, roads can be a sheet of ice for weeks at a time, especially at higher elevations.

10. Scenic driving distractions: Since many roads in Iceland have narrow to nonexistent shoulders, it's tempting to stop in the middle of what seems like a deserted road to take a photo. Don't. Even if it means missing a great shot, find a spot where you can pull over safely. Iceland is great about providing generous pullouts at the best viewpoints — use them when you're tempted to look away from the road. (And be vigilant for the possibility that other tourists may suddenly stop in the road for photos.)

To encourage safe travel, Iceland operates the SafeTravel.is website and app with detailed advice and up-to-the-minute alerts. There's also a national emergency number with help in English: 112.

Don't let this list scare you. Iceland is a small land that packs in a lot of experiences — and there are things you can do there that you can't do anywhere else (at least, not easily). Get out and explore, but travel smart.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe (www.ricksteves.com). Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.