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My recent travels spanned from New Zealand to the UK and involved me renting three cars in three different countries. One country was in the middle of summer; the others were in the depths of winter. Two countries drive on the left side of the road; one thought it would be different and drive on the right. Only one really concerned me though…and that was Norway.
Growing up in Texas, I didn’t exactly get a lot of experience with winter driving. If there was ever even the threat of ice or snow, the entire city of Houston would shut down. Brisbane doesn’t even get that cold; I think if it ever snowed here, there wouldn’t be any people alive left to see it.
So, when I agreed to rent a car and drive through Norway’s Lofoten Islands in the middle of winter, I questioned for months whether it was the right decision. I knew that, as photographers, my friend Ben and I would need to have our own transportation. I also knew that all cars in Norway are required to be fitted with winter tyres. It still didn’t calm my nerves, which became increasingly frayed as the trip got closer.
Surprisingly, for the first four days of our trip, I found the driving to be easy and not particularly out of the ordinary. Sure, we landed in a heavy snowstorm. Sure, the “loss of traction control” light occasionally popped up on the dashboard just before I felt the car start to slip around the road. But all in all, it felt like I’d made a mountain out of a molehill. I was safe and comfortable and I had the wheels to get us to every photo stop that we could ever dream of.
All of that went out the window on our last morning, when we were packing up and preparing for the 3.5hr drive from Ramberg (near the end of the islands) back to Evenes Airport on the mainland. I knew as soon as I woke up that it was going to be a miserable day, since it was snowing heavily, and more forebodingly, horizontally.
What followed were seven hours of the most harrowing driving I’ve ever experienced (think walls of snow falling off the fjords and blowing across the road…constantly). When we finally reached the airport — everyone still alive and the car in one piece — I wasn’t sure whether to breath a sigh of relief, cry, or fall asleep in the nearest corner. I think the attendant at the petrol station nearest the airport realised this when she told me that the station couldn’t take my credit card because their internet was down. Sensing my impending mental breakdown, she gave me my quarter-tank of fuel for free. (Thank you.)
My driver’s ed course, given in the great state of Texas, only required 7 hours of driving time before I was issued a license. I was on the road for roughly the same amount of time on January 13th, 2015. I learned significantly more important lessons about driving this time around. I hope you don’t have to use any of these if you choose to drive in the Arctic Circle in winter, but I’d rather tell you now than make you learn them yourself!
About 20 minutes into our drive from hell, we spotted a couple standing on the side of the road next to a clearly-running car. Curious why they would even consider standing outside on a day like this one, we stopped. I tried to talk to them but failed; either they didn’t speak English or the gale-force winds stopped them from hearing me properly.
Reluctantly, I pulled away…but only after two other cars pulled over to help. (Note: I felt incredibly guilty leaving, but if I couldn’t communicate with them and I couldn’t actually offer any help, I felt like I’d just be in the way.)
As I was pulling back onto the road, I spotted the reason they were stopped. There was a second car in their group…and it was IN THE FJORD. They must have tried to pull over and missed the actual road — something very easy to do when grass and other loose vegetation are covered in thick snow and look like the road itself. Their headlights were pointing straight up in the air and the back of the car was doing its best impression of a boat as the wind-whipped waves crashed into it.
If the Norwegians were driving into the fjord, what chance did I have?!
Lesson learned: don’t pull off the road unless you’re absolutely certain you’re still on bitumen. I tended to use bus stops or driveways as pulloffs because there were other clear landmarks to tell me it was ok and that I wouldn’t be going for a swim.
If it’s below freezing, snowing, and you think you may have to use your windscreen wipers at some point, just leave them on.
At one point, we hit one of very few stretches where I didn’t need them so I turned them off out of habit. When I tried to turn them back on shortly thereafter, the snow had frozen into lovely little icicles all along the wiper blade. Running these over my windscreen seemed to drastically increase how quickly it froze, meaning I quickly ended up with only a tiny sliver of glass that I could actually see out of. When the snow was already doing its best to blind me, I didn’t really appreciate this.
It wasn’t particularly enjoyable for Ben having to jump out of the car and pry blocks of ice off the wipers as snow flew into his eyes at 75km/h either.
Ok, be a little afraid. I was certainly very worried that I was going to end up with a frustrated Norwegian on my tail, but that didn’t stop me from stopping in the middle of the road when my visibility suddenly shrunk down to the point that I could barely see the tip of the car bonnet.
This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. Prior to seeing the car in the fjord, it had already happened at least five times. A wall of snow would hit us, and I would let go of the accelerator and ease onto the brake, trying not to skid but trying to make sure I stopped before the road made any sudden turns.
The worst time for this was when my windscreen froze, a wall of snow appeared, a semi (18 wheeler) truck was on my tail, and I was in a T-intersection with a car waiting to turn into my lane. I had no idea where I was driving so I stopped. Everyone stopped with me and no one angrily honked. If I can make it through that situation, you’ll survive too.
Plus, I figured it was better to have a slow-moving collision (we were barely going more than 30km/h at the time anyway) than to drive into the fjord. At least the car would have been usable afterwards.
The light in the Arctic Circle is not what you’re used to. In winter, you’re likely to have much shorter days than usual (if the sun even comes up at all). The days were about 2 hours long when we were there, with two hours of bluish twilight on either side of this. Since our drive took about 7 hours, we started in darkness and finished in darkness…but at least most of the hours in between were at least vaguely light.
If you have rough weather coming up (which you can check on yr.no), try to plan your driving so you do it during daylight hours too. Visibility during winter storms is terrible in daylight; unsurprisingly, it gets even worse once the light fades completely and you have to rely on your headlights, which often spend their time simply lighting up the snow all around you.
Even if you haven’t looked up the exact sunrise and sunset times, if you aim to centre your drive around noon you’ll get the best light possible. Plus, if the clouds happen to part and let in some precious sunlight, at least you’ll be out and about to see it!
I think the biggest problem we had the whole day was the fact that my flight was leaving at 6pm, meaning I really wanted to be at the airport by 4.30pm (although given the airport’s size, 5.30pm might have worked too). That meant we had a hard deadline that forced us to drive in the awful conditions.
When the attendant at a petrol station (a different station from the one mentioned above) jovially tells you, “Oh, Ramberg is the WORST for driving in these conditions. Be careful though, the weather is getting much worse this afternoon so if you don’t have to drive, don’t,” you don’t want to have to smile and nod while secretly thinking, “Holy mother of God, what the hell have I gotten myself into?” Instead, you want to be able to smile and think, “I can’t wait for that sauna I have lined up for this afternoon — good thing I’m getting the hell off the roads.”
While we would have been forced to drive anyway if we’d all had early morning flights, we could have taken more rest stops (since we certainly weren’t making photo stops) and we would have felt comfortable pulling over and letting some of the particularly nasty bands of snow pass. Essentially, while I feel like I handled the situation and tried to minimise the risks, it would have been nice not to have a flight hanging over my head.
I can’t truly put words to how important it was to have people in the car with me. I’m not sure if I would have made it to the airport otherwise. I think I might have ended up at a bus stop with my head in my hands wondering why I had gone there at all.
My friends were great at keeping up a running conversation that (mostly) didn’t have to do with the conditions I was driving through. While I pointed out at the beginning that I wouldn’t be talking very much, it was good to have something else to engage my mind rather than just stress about the situation at hand. We got quite a bit of good planning done despite, or maybe because of, the fact that I only replied monosyllabically.
Because they were there, I had to keep my emotions in check as well. I know how I would feel as a passenger in that situation if the driver was freaking out — essentially, I’d be freaking out too. So, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t yell, scream, or cry…and I was the better for it. It was already hard enough to see the road without tears fogging up my vision too.
Plus, I have to admit that it was really nice to have Ben jumping out of the car and dealing with cleaning the windscreen!
Hopefully this hasn’t scared you off the idea of driving in the Arctic completely. Like I mentioned above, the vast majority of my trip was easily drivable even with little winter driving experience. However, given the nature of coastal Norway in winter, bad weather is bound to happen at some point, so hopefully these tips make a difference and help you safely reach your destination, which will ideally have a sauna ready to calm your rattled nerves!
Do you rent cars while travelling? If so, what’s the scariest experience you’ve had while driving in a foreign country?