Tips on How to Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland

Fords are certainly the biggest challenge for the off-road driver. Failure to ford a river can have fatal consequences for both man and the vehicle.

Not all rivers are the same. Especially in Iceland, off-road drivers have to distinguish between normal rivers and glacier rivers. Glacial rivers are easy to identify by their milky coloring.

Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Tips on How to Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Mad Digi

Often their bottom is difficult or impossible to see and their depth cannot be estimated. What every driver should also know: Due to meltwater, glacier rivers can have varying water levels throughout the day. They usually carry less water in the morning, so it is best to cross glacier rivers in the morning.

Rivers Change From Year To Year And From Day To Day

Rivers that were easy to navigate on your last vacation may look very different next summer. The weather has a great influence on depth and flow velocity, especially of glacial rivers.

A tip to always be up to date: In the highlands, the huts offer a good opportunity to exchange information about the route with other travelers and to ask the hut wardens or a local ranger about the condition of the planned route.

Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Tips on How to Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Mad Digi

The Vehicle Must Be Properly Prepared

Rangers not only have a good eye for the condition of the terrain, but also for the capabilities of the vehicles. Some rivers can only be crossed with “big jeeps”, which in Iceland means the monstrously equipped four-wheelers.

However, most rivers can also be navigated with “smaller”, appropriately equipped, four-wheel-drive vehicles. However, a snorkel must not be missing, as well as the sealing of the remaining air intake to the engine. Fuse boxes as well as engine control units, if any, should be protected from entering the water.

The engine control unit can either be relocated to higher ground, packed in waterproof boxes, or at least protected with a moisture-proofing spray such as Wetprotect. Other key questions are: Are the fuel tank vent, axle vents, and exhaust hose of the parking heater high enough.

Always Check The Conditions On-Site

Even if the vehicle is well prepared and the driver is fully informed about the road situation, the car should never be driven through a river without an on-site check. Before fording, it is imperative to get out and get an overview first.

Where do I go in, where do I go out? Rivers change their course and tire tracks can be misleading. After the initial brief assessment, it’s down to the nitty-gritty: checking the depth and texture of the ground.

A simple way to assess the situation is to throw a rock into the water. If no impact is heard, the river could be dangerously deep.

If an impact is audible, the depth can be guessed from the sound with a little experience. In the end, however, only those who formed the river first are on the safe side. Many rivers in Iceland require waders because of their depth. As a rough rule of thumb, if I don’t dare to ford a river, I shouldn’t go through it.

Go With The Waders

Of course, caution is required when wading rivers, because waders are not without danger. If the current of the river is too strong, it is easy to lose the ground under your feet.

Air can now collect in the waders and, in the worst case, the explorer will float in the water with his legs up. In this case, it is advisable to have a knife handy with which the waders can be cut. This should have been practiced once or twice on land beforehand.

The Crossing

Once you’ve got an idea of the depth, current, and bottom of the river, engage the four-wheel-drive if necessary – the reduction and locks and drive slightly downstream in second gear in an arc through the river.

Very important: While fording, please do not stop or change gear under any circumstances, but drive slowly but briskly so as not to be overtaken by your own bow wave.

Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Tips on How to Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Mad Digi

Alone Is Possible, In Pairs Is Better

If possible, tours of this type should not be done alone. A second vehicle, with a recovery harness or winch, provides additional safety in case the river crossing goes unplanned. A single vehicle with a winch, could not do anything in Iceland due to a lack of trees. Those traveling alone should wait at Ford until another vehicle passes.

In the event that a car gets stuck in the river despite all safety measures, do not turn off the engine to prevent water from entering through the exhaust. Open windows and doors quickly to prevent the vehicle from floating up and drifting away. And hope for rescue unless there is another vehicle with you.

Master These Tips Before Starting

In Iceland, the rivers are generally safer to ford than they would be in other places. With almost no vegetation on our lava fields, there is nothing but ash and gravel by the rivers.

In some cases, however, it might be a good idea not to ford at all because of hidden deep holes or strong currents. 100% of the responsibility lies with the driver not to ford a river he/she feels is too dangerous to cross.

Below you’ll see a few tips on how to ford a river in Iceland:

  • First of all, always have enough gear in your car that might come in handy during a situation like this! Nothing worse than getting stuck and then have to walk back a long way on a highway.
  • A shovel, if you want to be able to dig your car out from the gravel and ash by the rivers. This is especially important if it starts raining which can cause fast-rising water levels in any river within minutes.
  • A tow rope or chain might come in handy when you need to pull someone out of the river.
  • A spare tire might be a lifesaver when you’re stuck in the gravel by the rivers and there’s no cellphone reception to call for help.
  • If you have an extra canister of gas, it’s always safer to bring that along. You never know what happens and it is better to have too much gas than to run out on the way back from where you are.
  • A flashlight is important when arriving late in the evening or if it gets extremely foggy by the rivers at night.
  • It might be a good idea to carry an ice scraper, just in case your car windows get smashed by gravel by the rivers and the water gets in.
  • A map of Iceland and some knowledge of how to read it is always a good idea! It might come in handy if you encounter a problem where there is no cell phone signal or someone needs to be called for help.
  • Always have your cellphone fully charged just in case, even though there isn’t cell phone service by most rivers in Iceland.

Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Tips on How to Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland, Mad Digi

Main Takeaways – Ford Rivers Properly In Iceland

In the Icelandic highlands, bridges are rare or non-existent, so a river crossing is necessary for many places. Crossing rivers can be extremely dangerous in Iceland, where several fatal accidents have occurred.

Especially glacier rivers are an unpredictable force of nature that every driver should face with the utmost respect. No one should drive into a river without thinking. Safety must be the first priority. Some people have already turned around at the one or other ford, which is not a disgrace.

When there are rivers in Iceland, it is important to know how to ford them. It’s best not to try unless you have a sturdy vehicle that can take on the water! I hope this guide helps make your trip across the country easier than ever before.

Thanks for reading and stay warm


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