With one of the lowest crime rates in the world (less than two murders per year reported since 2011), a network of extremely well-maintained roads, a free safety app, up-to-the-minute safety warnings/road conditions available online any time and a reputation as one of the world’s most pro-feminism societies, Iceland is the perfect destination for female and South African adventure travellers.
As a South African, I think of myself as a very safety-conscious traveller. Never walk alone at night, keep your belongings close at all times, don’t get into cars with strangers – these safety precautions are ingrained within my psyche. But driving on the wrong side of the road, in snowy and icy conditions, in the Arctic – that’s my idea of living dangerously.
Here’s my Guide to Staying Safe in Iceland
Before you go
1. Make sure you have excellent travel insurance
Certain banks will cover cancelled flights if you book with your credit card, but make sure you know what is and isn’t covered. We teamed up with Europ Assistance for this trip, who will make sure you’re covered for any and every emergency.
2. Download the 112 Iceland App
This is the official app for Iceland’s emergency service and can be used to call for help by pressing the red “Emergency” button. Your location will be sent by text message to the 112 response center (even if your phone shows no signal). There’s also a green “Check In” button, which will notify emergency services of your location, so if something does happen they have information to work with. Only the 5 last locations are stored and they recommend you use the service (don’t worry, you’re not disturbing anyone – the info gets stored in a computer for use in case of an emergency).
3. Book a 4×4
We booked a Subaru Forester with Geysir car rental, which ended up being a great decision. All rentals are fitted with snow tyres in the winter, but you need to be aware that driving offroad is illegal in Iceland. We passed several small cars along that way that were either stuck in the snow, pulled over next to the road, or unable to navigate up steep icy roads. The extra cost is well worth the peace of mind.
4. Follow SafeTravel on Social Media
They post regular updates with storm and avalanche warnings, as well as road closures.
5. Leave your travel plan with ICE-SAR
If you’re really worried, or heading somewhere really remote, ICE-SAR offers the option to leave your travel plans with them, in case something should happen on your trip.
While you’re there
6. Check the roads before you travel
Weather conditions change very, very regularly and roads are often closed. Avoid getting stuck or driving hundreds of kilometres out of your way by checking the www.road.is site before you set off each morning. The best way to get information about road conditions and the weather on the road system is to call the English answering machine with road information on 1778. You could also ask your hotel desk to check your route for you.
7. Drive confidently, but very slowly and carefully
Have you ever driven in the snow or on ice before? If you’re South African, you probably haven’t. It really is very different and it’s easy to panic when you hit a patch of ice. Make sure you keep telling yourself to remain calm, don’t panic and whatever you do, don’t swing the wheel. Just keep your hands tightly on the steering wheel, keep your foot off the brake pedal, lift your other foot off the petrol and wait for the ice to pass. If you see a patch of ice ahead, don’t hit the brakes, and rather lift your foot off the petrol.
8. Use your credit card
People are always contacting me to ask about carrying cash, converting forex and daily budgets when travelling. I find that it’s always easiest to use my credit card. I’ll normally draw the equivalent of about R1500 cash at an ATM at the airport for small purchases, then use my credit card for almost everything else on the trip. (Just make sure you clear your card for international travel with your bank, so they don’t block it when it gets swiped 9000 kms from your hometown)
9. Use an actual GPS
We heard from several sources that renting a GPS is far more reliable than using Google Maps in Iceland, and this turned out to be true, when twice Google Maps “couldn’t find a route” while we were up North. Iceland safety services recommend having a compass with you too, but I have no idea how to use one anyway, so we didn’t bother.
10. Don’t act crazy
If you have plans to take a dip in the Arctic, or scale a glacier, don’t be crazy and attempt to do this without the proper equipment or a qualified guide. Similarly, when you see a sign that says “Do Not Cross” with a clear barrier keeping you from getting too close to the edge of a cliff that plummets into the freezing ocean, obey.
Of course, you should never assume that any destination is 100% safe and leave your natural instincts on the plane. Whether you’re travelling by yourself or with friends, it’s always important to stay aware of your surroundings, make sure you have cash on you, keep your cellphone charged and maintain control of your wits.
* This post was sponsored by Europ Assistance, who helped make this dream trip a reality.