Let’s travel to Iceland in winter! What a brilliant idea! Except…
If Iceland is anything, it’s extreme, and winter is when Iceland is probably at it’s MOST extreme. If you’re not prepared for it then you might not be able to enjoy your trip as much as you might have. And who goes to Iceland and says they didn’t like it?! Just mention Iceland and someone will tell you it’s their dream destination. And yes, it’s bucket-list worthy, but Iceland in winter is no lighthearted affair!
I’ve been to Iceland in winter twice, and the conditions on both my trips were very different. That’s the thing about Iceland, it’s well known as one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it’s also one of the most inherently changeable. It’s a relatively small island in the North Atlantic Ocean after all!
Iceland deserves its fame and all the accolades it receives, and you might be thinking, “not another travel blogger writing about Iceland” but if I didn’t genuinely wish I had known all of this before I went to Iceland in winter, I wouldn’t be wasting my time writing it! Knowing these tips for winter in Iceland will make your trip all the better, and you’ll get to avoid the stress that we experienced!
Driving in Iceland in winter is no cake walk
I’m making this number one because, in my opinion, it’s the most important consideration in deciding to travel to Iceland during the winter months. Let’s be clear. Driving in Iceland in winter is downright scary, especially if you’re not used to the conditions, but honestly, even if you are. Extreme, remember? That means snow and ice on the road, direct drops into the frozen water on either side, insanely strong winds buffeting your car around along with a whole lot of loose snow so you can’t even SEE the road… need I go on?
Only you will know what sort of conditions you’re happy driving in. We hired a small hatchback assuming the roads would be clear because my first trip to Iceland in October it was. Except for this time, it was a few weeks further into winter and the roads were actual ice. This and the strong winds meant that journeys took us much longer than we expected, we saw less than we wanted, and we were stressed out by it all.
If you’re not happy driving in these conditions then don’t, there are many Iceland winter tours that will allow you to experience Iceland without putting yourself at risk. That’s how it can really influence your trip. Because if it’s your dream to drive the Ring Road then winter may not be the right time to go unless you’re confident in driving in this kind of weather, or you choose the very beginning or very end of winter (Sept/Oct and March/April). Our road trip in Iceland in November was amazing and we don’t regret it but do wish we had booked a 4×4 and allowed more time to reach different locations; you don’t drive fast on ice!
Make sure you check the road conditions before you set out each day, so you know what to expect!
Daylight hours are slim
One of the pros and cons of Iceland in winter is the light. During the winter months in Iceland daylight is somewhat of a rarity. For example, it’s only light in November from 10 am – 4 pm and in December it drops to as little as 5 daylight hours. On the one hand, this means more time to potentially see the Northern Lights, YAY! On the other, it means you can’t fit as much into your day as you could if you visited Iceland in summer. You’ll need to plan carefully because the lack of daylight in combination with the longer travel times due to road conditions means you won’t be able to see as much each day.
However, you can also take advantage of the low light if you’re into photography. There are no worries about glare like in summer, the sunrise and sunset times can provide some magical moments for your memories and your photos. Visit somewhere such as the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon at sunrise and you’ll understand how light can be a pro!
An Iceland itinerary is crucial
There’s so much to do in such a relatively small country that planning an Iceland itinerary is really important, otherwise you’ll be wasting crucial time when you’re on there. In winter some attractions are closed, on roads that are closed, or just plain harder to get to in general. Your gut reaction will be to try and do everything, mine certainly was, but be realistic. Allow yourself time to reach each place safely. Make sure you are able to get the photo you want rather than the one you have to rush. We learnt to make the most of a few places rather than rush around many, and it really paid off in the short time we had there.
We often book flights before we plan what we want to see, but if you’re travelling in winter for one week or less you’ll soon see that an Iceland winter itinerary that includes the whole Ring Road, the Golden Circle, and Snæfellsnes Peninsula is unrealistic. Plan to see just one or two of these, and maybe just to Jökulsárlón on the Ring Road!
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the Northern Lights
Although Iceland is well-known as a Northern Lights destination, there is absolutely no guarantee you’ll see them. The longer you’re in Iceland the better your chances, and many people only visit for a few nights and expect to see them. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of people visiting Iceland in winter multiple times and still never seeing them! The first time I went to Iceland I saw a very faint cloud that showed up as the Aurora in my friends camera, but to the naked eye didn’t look like much. This time around we were lucky to be treated to an amazing display of Aurora in Snæfellsnes!
Treat the Northern Lights as a bonus to your Iceland trip, rather than a requirement. Of course, do your best to put yourself in a situation to see them. Although they can be viewed in Reykjavik if they’re strong, it’s better to journey outside the city where there’s less light pollution. This might mean joining a Northern Lights Tour if you don’t have a vehicle or looking up some likely locations in advance.
Everything has an app or website now and the same can almost be said for the Northern lights! There are several sites that can be used to get warnings about where and when the lights may appear that night. When I was there they were accurate one night but I never saw them the other times it said they were about. We used the Iceland Metrological Office Aurora Forecast.
Iceland in winter is a photographers dream, but be prepared
If you’ve been dreaming of Iceland then you’ve likely looked at a LOT of photos of dramatic landscapes. While many of them will show Iceland in summer and you’ll need to search for or reimagine them as covered in snow, it’s certainly true that Iceland is an amazing place to take photos. And you’re probably imagining yourself in some of the same scenarios you’ve seen others in and seen photos you want to take yourself.
But like many things about travelling Iceland in winter, you should undergo a little preparation to avoid disappointment! There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures on your phone if you have one with a fairly up to date camera, and it will yield you some great results because ultimately Iceland is stunning and amazingly picturesque.
If you plan on taking a camera that’s a little more complex, like a DSLR for example, then it is well worth spending a bit of time in advance preparing. Shooting in the snow creates a whole new set of problems and takes time to get right. The key thing is that it doesn’t necessarily matter what you shoot with, but you need to know how to use it.
A tripod is a godsend and we honestly don’t know how we would have managed without one, especially as we were experimenting with some long exposure shots and it’s crucial if you want to try your hand at capturing the Northern Lights. If you are lucky enough to see them they can literally be in the sky for minutes. In that time you need to know how to set your camera to make sure you can capture them because unless they’re really extreme a phone will struggle. We looked into the best camera settings for capturing the Northern Lights before we left and had them saved in advance to increase our chances of getting a good shot. It’s lucky we did!
Basically, you should try a wide-open aperture, a high ISO and a long shutter speed with your camera on a tripod. Use a remote or set a 2-second timer to reduce the chances of bumping it. You might need to adjust your focus to manual to focus on the stars first. From there you can make adjustments, but it can be hard when they’re moving all the time and long exposures take what feels like forever!
It really is hard to come out from behind the viewfinder as you try to get the perfect shot, but remember to look up and enjoy this stunning natural phenomenon.
Keeping your gear safe and dry can be a little tricky so make sure you can get your camera covered quickly and keep that lens clean in adverse weather.
Obviously…but how cold is Iceland really?
The thing about winter in Iceland is that it’s not colder than many other popular winter destinations, and it’s actually even warmer than some! I was colder in Berlin in winter than I ever was in Iceland, and in wintertime, it’s warmer on average than the Eastern US. You can expect the temperature to be around 0 to 4 degrees Celsius, although of course at higher altitude it can be much cooler!
The weather is extreme and unpredictable
Although it isn’t as cold as you might think in winter, that doesn’t mean the weather in Iceland isn’t extremely unpredictable. We faced everything from beautiful blue skies to complete whiteouts (while we were driving of course!) and crazy winds like nothing I’ve ever seen. The car rental company actually specifically told us to watch our doors when we open them because the winds can basically rip them off and then the car’s a write-off.
Expect that the weather will be changeable and you might need to adjust your plans a bit as you go along.
Iceland is still expensive in winter
The rumors you’ll hear when you talk about Iceland are true. It is a very expensive country. Unlike many places that have a cheaper offseason (offseason travel in Europe is my favourite!). The peak season may be from June to August, and accommodation and flights may become slightly more affordable, but overall Iceland is not the cheapest location for a holiday. Getting around Iceland can be expensive, because you’ll either need to take a tour or hire a car to get the most out of your experience and they’re not the cheapest, and even if you opt for lower end accommodation it’ll still be more expensive than many other European destinations, and you still need your own sleeping bag!
That’s not to say you can’t travel Iceland on a budget, it’s just that what that budget is, is relative! The biggest area where you can tighten the purse strings is your food and alcohol budget. A pint of lager can cost £9-10 and a main meal £20 at minimum (that’s burger and chips in town). Instead, buy food at supermarkets, take packed lunches, or try food from petrol stations. The burgers are surprisingly good. Also, don’t forget to grab some duty-free alcohol on your way in, because it’s the cheapest you’re ever going to see it, even if you take advantage of happy hours.
The trick to Iceland is to accept the cost of things and prepare yourself each day to buy as little as possible while out. Make use of bars that have happy hours and, if you’re staying at a hotel check the price of their menu, it may be the only thing for miles around to eat!
And it’s still busy in winter too
I haven’t experienced Iceland in summer, so I genuinely can’t tell you what it’s like, but as someone who has travelled a lot, I wouldn’t call Iceland quiet in the winter season. Every attraction we went to still had plenty of other people around, other than when we went to Jokulsarlon really early, but then within half an hour there were plenty more people around. There are still tour bus loads of other visitors to contend with, and we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon because it was booked it.
It was so different from my visit in 2013 when my two Icelandic friends drove me around the Golden Circle and across to Jökulsárlón, and we were the ONLY people at almost every place we stopped. Including the lagoon! So much so that when the petrol light came on and our cards wouldn’t work at the self-pump station we genuinely worried about running out of petrol and no one passing us!
Iceland in winter looks different to what you might expect
Iceland winter travel is very different to the other seasons and different to what you might be expecting. Many of the images used to showcase Iceland are summer images, with lush greens and epic vistas. The winter turns Iceland into a different looking country altogether, and even though I did some research on Iceland in winter I didn’t expect it to look like it did, with SO much snow everywhere.
Many of the pictures I’ve seen advertising or talking about winter in Iceland show a sprinkling of snow on the ground at the main attractions, and slightly heavier in some places. Of course, it depends on the year, but we went to Iceland in November and everything was completely white. I asked my Icelandic friends if this was normal, since the first time I visited it was October and there was far less snow, but they assured me come November it’s usually like this!
This isn’t a bad thing at all, but it might not be what you were thinking!
Kirkjufell is beautiful in the snow
Kirkjufell (Church Mountain in Icelandic) has become an icon if Iceland, appearing in promotional material all over the place, and cementing its reputation by featuring in Game of Thrones. It rises 463 metres and sits on an isolated peninsula in Snæfellsnes in the west of Iceland. From one side the mountain looks steep with a flat top, and from the other, it looks rounded. I’ve often seen photos of it in green and orange with the changing of the seasons, but I had never seen it completely white like it was when we visited Iceland in winter.
The Golden Circle is a great winter day trip from Reykjavik
Ok so it’s great any time of year, but in winter it can be particularly spectacular! The main attractions are Thingvellir National Park, which becomes a winter wonderland, the Geyser geothermal area where you can see water bursting high above the snow-covered landscape and Gullfoss waterfall, which can be surrounded by ice. There are also some other stops that have become more popular recently, like the Kerid Crater Lake, although if it’s frozen over it loses a bit of its dramatic appeal.
You’ll need your swimsuit for all the natural hot pools and springs
If you thought that travelling to Iceland in winter would mean leaving your bathing suit at home then you’d be very mistaken! Most people are aware of the Blue Lagoon, of course, a geothermal spa that’s one of the top attractions in Iceland. It’s a matter of personal opinion as to whether to Blue Lagoon is worth visiting. It is quite expensive and you need to book in advance, but luckily there are plenty of free natural hot springs and hot pools all over Iceland.
But don’t discount the local swimming pools as well
If you’re wondering where the locals go for their geothermal fix, there are actually a lot of manmade pools you can pay a small fee (compared to the Blue Lagoon!) to visit. I’m not going to give away my local friend’s favourite pool but a quick Google search of swimming pools should help you to find some options wherever you’re staying! They may not be natural, but many of them are still heated by geothermal waters.
And you can snorkel and dive in Iceland in winter too
Snorkelling and diving might not sound like things you want to do in the freezing waters of Iceland, but trust me, you do! At Thingvellir on the Golden Circle route is Silfra, a crack between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that’s one of the best places to snorkel and drive in the world. The water in the Silfra fissure stays the same temperature year round, and underwater visibility is over 100 metres.
As a birthday present my husband treated me to snorkeling in the Silfra fissure, and it was incredible. We were the only people on our 2 pm tour, the last of the day in winter. Our guides loaded us up with gear (dry suits) to help protect us from the cold as much as possible, and we entered the clear water surrounded by snow. The water is so clear that the blue looks like someone turned up the saturation up, but it seriously looks like that!
Need I say more? These small horses are so cute! They’re a special breed developed in Iceland from the horses brought by Vikings over 1000 years ago, and although they’re called horses, they’re more like the size of ponies. You’ll see them quite near the roadside in many locations, and they’re pretty friendly if you want to stop and take a photo. Just be careful if it’s a busy road!
Yes, that crashed airplane in Iceland is real
But do you really want to trek 4km each way to see it? In 1973 a US Navy plane crashed on Sólheimasandur beach. Everyone survived but the wreckage was abandoned. It’s become a well-photographed attraction, but due to its popularity the road has been closed and you now need to walk to see it, along with the hoards of other people who will be doing the same. If you want to see it for yourself and it’s not blowing a gale like when we drove past the newly built parking area then of course you should go, but 100% do not expect to get photos of it with no one on it, unless you visit super early, super late, in bad weather, or use photoshop!
You should get travel insurance
It might seem extreme to get insurance for a short break, but with all the outdoor things you’ll be doing and in potentially adverse weather it’s better to be on the safe side. The few times we fell over on the ice and could have broken ourselves, or our camera gear made it worth it. You don’t know what situations you’ll find yourself in. So just do it ok!
And don’t forget the car hire insurance
On top of normal travel insurance, car hire insurance is crucial in Iceland. Sometimes it’s tempting to opt out of car insurance because you think you drive all the time and nothing happens, but Iceland isn’t exactly your normal driving situation. There’s the extreme wind that can cause damage to the car through loose gravel, windscreen chips from the same gravel, icy roads, and unfamiliar conditions. This even applies in summer!
It is possible to get car excess insurance as part of travel insurance, or in a separate policy online much cheaper than the ones offered by the hire company. The only issue with this is that some hire companies will then want a credit card hold in case something happens because effectively you would have to pay upfront then claim from the other insurance. And this hold/deposit can potentially be £2500. For example, if you chip the windscreen you will then be charged for this amount to take up yourself with your separate insurers later on.
It’s very hard to say what the best option is because if you don’t need it, it feels like wasted money and if you do you’ll never be happier to have spent it. We found car insurance online for £58 or with the company for £168 and though the second was more expensive it meant no excess and no deposit from our credit card which we might have wanted to use elsewhere. Think it through carefully.
Take the right gear
Billy Connolly once said “In Scotland, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”, and I can safely say this applies to Iceland too!
Winter weather in Iceland requires preparation (do you sense a theme to this piece?). Some visit and will say it’s mild if a bit snowy others will tell you it’s freezing and a blizzard. The truth? It can be both. Our trip was gloriously snowy with sunshine and bitingly cold with tons of cloud. We packed some good thermals and warm, waterproof coats. After that layers are your friend so you can stay in control. It’s a good idea to try and avoid jeans if it’s snowing because they stay wet. Good, waterproof boots are a must and we both chose to wear hiking boots the whole trip. While we were out and about we saw people with some very wet and very cold feet as their trainers just weren’t up to the job.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on winter gear for Iceland. Consider water resistant and warmth and look for budget options, or try second hand!
The ice part of Iceland really is epic
Iceland has 269 named glaciers and an uncountable amount of ice caves. You can only take a tour of the ice caves in winter, because of the danger of them collapsing. Basically, they change every year, and tour operators have to scope out new places to guide people all the time. Touring an ice cave is Iceland is magical, and an experience you definitely need to plan into your itinerary if you want to make it happen since the tours are so popular!
And don’t miss the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon if you have the time
You need to set aside at least 2 days to make the journey from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón in winter, and preferably 3 if you want to do more stops along the way and spend some decent time there without driving in the dark. It’s still one of my favourite places ever, and what made me fall in love with Iceland in the first place. There’s so much to see on the drive there (or back) and unfortunately, we ran out of time to see a lot of it due to the lack of daylight hours in winter. However, being able to watch the low sunrise at the lagoon isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry. If you have even more time, consider a stop at Iceland’s OTHER glacier lagoon.
Don’t be disheartened
Iceland winter travel can be hard and if the weather is against you it can also mean you may not see what you want to. Our first day left us struggling with Iceland a bit due to a snow storm and very little visibility. Unlike other places, Iceland does make you work for the sights it has to show you so bear with it!
Luckily, we ended up driving part of the same road again, this time with clear skies we were able to take in the landscape and experience everything we’d missed, it really took our breath away. Manage your expectations and don’t go expecting stunning views around every corner, sometimes it may be a little cloudy.
Remember: The extra work is worth it
From the early starts to the stressful drives, the cold weather and the annoying layers, and even the high cost of things – there are many things to frustrate you about your trip. But all of it is very much worth it. Is it as good as everyone tells you? YES! Iceland isn’t overrated, but it does take planning and patience.
I feel like our trip was a great success now. We lucked out with several clear days and saw the elusive northern lights, but that was after I had a mini meltdown when halfway through we hadn’t seen as many of the things I had planned and wanted us to and we were super stressed out about the driving. Everyone kept telling me how great our trip looked, and it was after I relaxed and allowed us to go with the flow with whatever the country threw at us!
If you go wanting to see particular things and the northern lights for examples, you open yourself up to disappointment unless you’re planning a long trip where your chances of being them are higher. Enjoy the country and what it offers in winter, knowing your plans might need to change and you’ll have to find alternative things to do, but they might be just as good!
It really is magical
To see this beautifully rugged country in the winter months is an experience that you’ll never forget. It is truly one of my favourite places in the whole world. Yes, the weather is unreliable but if you kit yourself right then you’re ready for it. If you drive sensibly giving yourself time to get from place to place you’ll be able to see snow covered mountains, huge waterfalls, and stunning landscapes and not stress. It’s a magical place, so do what you can, and enjoy all that Iceland in winter has to offer!
Where to stay in Iceland
Accommodation in Iceland can be expensive, especially if you leave it until the last minute to book and have limited options. The places you’ll most likely be staying in winter are Reykjavik, Vik, and Hof, or near Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Snæfellsnes.
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Spend a couple of nights in Reykjavik, or use it as your base. Where you stay will depend on your budget, but everything from hostels to hotels and Airbnb are options.
Vik makes a great stop on the drive to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and by breaking the journey you’ll be able to see many more places along the way. Vik itself is a great destination, with black sand beaches and striking rock formations. Note that there are few places to stay in Vik itself, so you might need to consider the surrounding area as well.
I can HIGHLY recommend the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. It was an amazing place to stay for the night before we went to watch the sunrise at the Jökulsárlón lagoon just down the road. The rooms were beautifully done with high ceilings and large windows to try and spot the Northern Lights from. Their included breakfast was a huge, tasty buffet spread, and perfect to set us up for the day.
The peninsula has a lot of accommodation spread out across it, and it’s worth staying a night somewhere to give you more time to explore. You don’t need to be too particular since you’ll likely drive around most of it anyway, but we loved staying near Arnarstapi, and it’s where we saw the northern lights!
Planning your Iceland trip? Check out these posts:
- Without a car? Check out The Best Iceland Winter Tours: Getting Around Without a Car
- Want to have an epic experience? Read Silfra: Snorkelling Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland
- Visiting in November? Read What it’s Like Visiting Iceland in November + Top Tips For Your Trip
- Game of Thrones fan? Check out the Game of Thrones Locations in Iceland Guide + Map to Find Them
- Want to see epic scenery? Check out 21 Epic Hikes in Iceland (For All Levels!)
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