How to cross rivers – 2023 guide

River crossings are the main challenge of Icelandic F-roads. If it wasn’t for them, 95% of F-roads would be easy to pass. However, they do exist and create a significant obstacle. Improper river crossing may cause huge and expensive damages to your car. In extreme situations, even your life may be at stakes. That being said – prepare thoroughly for your river crossings!

With river crossings, it all comes to HOW, WHERE and WITH WHAT.

By HOW I mean general rules for a safe river fording. It’s essential to adhere to them, no matter how big your car is.

By WHERE I mean where are you crossing. What is the type of river? How big is it? What is the season? How much did it rain recently?

By WITH WHAT I mean the type of vehicle you are operating. Generally said, the bigger the better – but it’s more complicated.

Afraid of crossing the river or driving the difficult terrain or difficult weather, but still want to go? Isak 4×4 can help you with their Convoy driver or sit-in guide.

How to safely cross Icelandic rivers? (HOW)

  1. Make a plan. Do you have a proper car? What types of rivers are in your way? Are you equipped sufficiently? Think before.
  2. Check the road conditions. If they say impassable, don’t even try it yourself. Isak 4×4 can help you with their Convoy driver or sit-in guide. If they say passable, read further. What does it mean passable, impassable and no winter service? Here is the explanation of Icelandic road states.
  3. Examine the river.
    • So you arrived at the river. If you can see with your eyes that it’s a small river or even just a pond, you may usually proceed with passing. What’s a small river? Read below in “WHERE“.
    • If you can’t assess the depth with your eyes, find out physically. Go into the river. How are you supposed to do that in ice-cold water? Get inspired by how we’ve done it.
    • Alternatively, wait for someone else (ideally with a similar car) to pass.
  4. Compare the river to your car. The essential thing is, whether your air intake is high enough above water level. But that’s not the only thing. See below in “WITH WHAT“.
  5. Stay inside yellow markers. Those mark the area allowed for crossing (and usually also shallowest). They are situated on the borders of a passable area.
  6. Go for the shallowest part.
    • If it’s a medium-sized or even a bigger river, it’s really important to cross it through the shallowest part. This is usually NOT the exact middle of the river crossing, but rather its sides.
    • This is usually NOT where the river is calm – that’s typically the deep part. Better find a part where you can see the stream of river running into pebbles and cross on that pebbles.
  7. Turn 4×4 mode on.
  8. Drive slowly.
    • First, max second gear, around 10kph to create a little “wave” around your car. Ride that wave.
    • If you drive too quickly, water will splash into your engine and your car may be dead. See below in “WITH WHAT“.
  9. Don’t stop. Don’t switch gears. If you do, you may not get the car going again. Don’t get scared by your car shaking inside the river, just go steady.
  10. Down the stream. If it’s possible, go with the stream, not against it. This will lower chances the water will get into your engine.

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What types of river crossings are in Iceland? (WHERE)

The basic categorisation can be made according to the depth of the river crossing.

  1. PONDS
    • Up to 20cm / 8inch.
    • If the depth of a river crossing is this shallow, you don’t have to bother much about crossing at all. It’s doable with any car, even with a 2wd one.
  2. SMALL
    • 20 to 40cm / 8-16inch.
    • Here some ground clearance of your car starts to make sense. I consider 40cm to be still a small river but it’s already a non-trivial crossing. If you do it wrong, you may end up like this.
    • 40 to 70cm / 16 to 28inch.
    • This is already some decent river crossing. You will probably not get drowned but you may waste your car easily.
    • It’s still a manageable crossing though, even for beginners! You just have to adhere to river crossing rules strictly and drive a proper car.
    • Examples: F208 south, F235, F224, F910 
  4. BIG
    • More than 70cm / 28inch.
    • I would avoid these at all costs if I was a river crossing beginner. Not only may you waste your car, but you could also get yourself seriously injured, if not killed.
    • You need to have a combination of a) proper car, b) adhering to river crossing rules and c) experience
    • Examples: F233, F249, sometimes F26, F88, F210 

The depth of the river is the single most important factor when it comes to a river crossing. There are of course several other aspects influencing your fording:

  • Has it rained heavily for a few days? Add some centimetres on top of your expected river depth.
  • Is it just early summer? Glacial rivers will have substantially more water compared to the late summer.
  • What is the riverbed like? Is it stony or muddy? If it’s muddy, it will be harder for you to ford.

What car do I need to cross rivers? (WITH WHAT)

Ok now you know HOW to cross and WHERE will you be crossing. It’s time to get to WITH WHAT. A right car is essential. But how are you supposed to know what car is the right one? Of course, we are talking only about 4wd/4×4 now:

  1. The bigger the ground clearance (and wheels), the better. Because of several reasons. Firstly, your air intake will be higher (see below). Secondly, the chances you will get stuck in a river are lower. Thirdly, the chances, you will damage your undercarriage are lower.
  2. The higher the air intake, the better. Study this one carefully. The main risk with river crossings is flooding your engine with water (then the engine usually becomes dead). This happens once the water reaches an air intake of your car. The water level should be AT LEAST 10cm/4inch below your air intake!
  3. The stronger engine, the better. Inside rivers, some additional horsepower may only help. BUT – use your horsepower on lowest/2nd lowest gear only when crossing the rivers!
  4. Snorkel is a plus. If your car has a snorkel installed, it basically deals with point number 2. It adds considerable height to your air intake. It’s not everything, though. You may have a snorkel, but with the too-low ground clearance, you could still get stuck in a bigger river.

Read our car choosing guide.

When there are only PONDS in your way, you may basically choose any car.

When there are SMALL RIVERS in your way, ideally choose any SUV or 4wd car.

When there are already MEDIUM RIVERS in your way, choose your car wisely and better opt for at least a medium-sized SUV.

When there are BIG RIVERS in your way, either avoid them at all or if you really want to, then choose the super-jeep.

We also offer you FREE discount codes for several Icelandic car rental companies.

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Posted by epiciceland


It’ll be my first time traveling to Iceland in early September and I cannot tell you what a help your site has been! I do plan on getting a 4×4 for small and medium river crossings, but wanted to ask your opinion about the road(s) leading to Thorsmork. From all I’ve read online so far it seems like you either have to rent a super-jeep or go with a guide (way too expensive)… is there any other way?? There are quite a few hikes there I wanted to check out so I would be staying overnight as close to the trailheads as possible. Thanks in advance for any advice!


Hi Galina, thank you very much for your words, they give us the energy to continue with the site 🙂
We wrote a detailed article about getting to Thorsmork here:
Yes, you need at minimum a Land Cruiser to get there, sometimes even bigger car. But, you may still take the bus- and walk from Basar hut or Langidalur to all the hikes you want to do. You may also camp/rent an accommodation in this area. So you can definitely go on your own without guide and without car – by bus. It just takes more time and some planning.

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