What To Expect Driving In Lapland In Winter (Finland, Norway, Sweden)
I’ve always been terrified of driving on snow and ice. So as I was planning my epic Arctic Circle adventure last February, I waffled quite a bit on visiting the extra-awesome places in Lapland that I wanted and renting a car vs. going with the more boring options like Rovaniemi group tours.
Obviously, if you know anything about me, you know I chose the former—I always want extra-awesome! But I did a lot of research beforehand about the winter driving conditions, and ended up being pleasantly surprised by how easy driving in Lapland in winter was. So let’s talk about it in detail!
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This post is specific to winter driving in Finnish Lapland, but I feel confident in saying that if you’re visiting Lapland or the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Norway, etc., the same information would be totally valid. These Scandinavian countries really know how to do this winter driving thing!
Do I need a car in Lapland?
The short answer for most people is yes. Now, if you’re only doing a group tour where all your transport is provided, or are staying in the Rovaniemi city center, you can maybe get by without one. But I’d argue you’re missing the point of visiting Lapland during winter in that case.
This area is not one where I’d rely on public transport or taxis (taxis are technically available but very expensive and it’s a spread-out area). We flew into Ivalo from Helsinki, and drove all around the Ivalo, Inari, Saariselka, etc. area. It’s super easy to get around—WITH a rental car.
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Renting a car in Lapland
I booked this particular trip through Booking.com (since I’d booked my housing there, so had a discount), but they actually are powered by Rentalcars.com. I always check Rentalcars.com, AutoEurope, and DiscoverCars to compare choices and costs. I will say that DiscoverCars is a bit more often the winner of options and budget for me in Europe, with Rentalcars often doing pretty well too.
I think we ended up with Avis, and I have no complaints. Renting in Ivalo was super easy, it’s a tiny airport. We walked up to the rental car counter and a few minutes later had our keys. Then we walked out front and our car was right there (we returned it after hours, and just dropped the keys at the counter).
One number to know in Finland is 112. That’s the emergency services number, whether for a car accident or other issue.
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One of the best things about driving in Lapland in winter is that, legally, all cars (including rentals) have to have winter tires on them between December and March. They don’t use chains, but rather a kind of nubbly, extra-grippy tire that better navigates snow and ice. I’ll talk more about what they’re like below.
A couple other car care tips that are critical in very cold temps. You should warm up the engine for a bit if the car has been sitting for hours (and get the ice or snow off the vehicle).
A good rule of thumb is, if the temperature is around freezing, warm up the engine for 10 minutes. If it’s way below that, consider double that. I’ll be honest and say we rarely did more than 10 minutes just because we were in a hurry.
And…DO NOT POUR HOT WATER ON YOUR WINDSHIELD TO CLEAR ICE! This is a one-way ticket to destruction.
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Tips for driving in Lapland in winter
You can expect to experience a few types of road conditions during the winter. Overall, though the roads will most likely be snowy or even icy, they’re quite well-maintained and very drivable.
One thing to be aware of—it is the law in Finland that you always have your headlights on, no matter the time of day.
So below you can see what most of the main roads and highways looked like. They were well-plowed, with clear tracks for your tires. Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the road isn’t still a little slick. Don’t speed and avoid (if at all possible) any sudden brakes or swerves.
Your special winter tires are awesome and give you more grip. They’re not MAGIC though. To be safe, I recommend driving as though you don’t think you have special tires on…cautiously. But it gave me major peace of mind to know that the tires were there to help me out.
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The other main road conditions I ran into was complete snow pack. And back home this would panic me, but here in Lapland it was totally manageable. First, there weren’t huge hills or anything. But the snow pack and plowing technique, plus the winter tires, remove the slipping an sliding.
Still, I went even more slowly and cautiously on these types of roads—usually, I found this on side roads or more remote ones that led to some of our tours or hotels. Or, within our hotel resort (or the grocery stores) the parking lots and entrance roads looked like this.
Basically though, I didn’t run into any issues or scary moments.
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Is winter driving in Lapland safe? Honestly, that’s a hard question to answer because so much of that depends on YOU (and to some extent, other drivers, animals, or the conditions). I felt very safe driving in Lapland in winter, as the roads were well-maintained. Just be cautious in your speed, as well as the speed of your turns, accelerating, and braking.
One thing you always need to watch out for is black ice. In the pic below you can see how the tire tracks *look* totally clear. But usually that’s not going to be completely true, especially at night. They may melt a bit in direct sunlight, but at night will freeze and be dangerous if you hit them wrong. Just be safe and don’t go too fast!
We mostly tried not to be driving in the dark, at least whenever possible. That’s just a personal preference, but I didn’t find nighttime driving to be difficult here.
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One other thing you need to be very aware of when driving in Lapland in winter (or, frankly, any time of year) is to watch for animals crossing the road, particularly reindeer and elk!
You’ll see signs reminding you pretty frequently, but it goes without saying that animals don’t always cross by the sign 🙂 Just like if you were in an area with deer or something similar, it’s quite common for reindeer or elk to be in the road or running across it. And trust me, your car loses that battle.
Unless there’s a car close in front of you or coming toward you, I strongly recommend using your “brights” (bright headlights) at night, to give you a better chance of seeing animals in time. We only had a reindeer run in front of us once, and thankfully with plenty of warning.
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Hopefully what I’ve shared about winter driving in Finnish Lapland has been super helpful and you now feel confident booking that rental car and exploring this amazing area yourself!
Other driving & rental car tips that may be helpful:
- What To Expect When Renting A Car & Driving In Naxos, Greece
- A Detailed Guide To Renting A Car & Driving In Ireland
- Tips For Driving In Costa Rica & Adobe Rental Car Review
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