A trip to Iceland in winter – things you should know before you go!
While in the past Iceland seemed to be some sort of mission impossible during the winter, it nowadays is quite common to travel to Iceland in winter time. In fact, it has become much easier. Hotels often open their rooms for tourists 365 days a year, tourist attractions are open and / or more accessible and the main road network is well maintained. The Icelanders already knew that tourism is a gold mine, but it seems that they have turned it into a sport to make Iceland attractive to tourists in the winter. Think of the many Northern Lights tours that are available, but also excursions such as Into the Glacier and the glacier walk on Solheimajökull can now be done in the winter.
Even though I have been to Iceland three times before in the winter, it was now the first time I rented a car rental car myself and was able to discover Iceland on my own and in complete freedom. My previous winter visits to Iceland were due to the fact that I worked for a company specialized in trips to Iceland for 10 years. So this time it was a vacation and I found the winter road trip in Iceland that we made a special experience.
Yet Iceland is a destination where you have to be genuinely alert and use your common sense at all times. It is certainly not a destination for travelers who think they are above nature. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out this blog with my special experiences with other tourists in Iceland.
That said, I think that Iceland in winter is truly a very special destination and for many probably a once in a lifetime experience. There are just a few things that you should take into consideration when you head to Iceland in the winter. I list them below for you!
Mother Nature rules. Always!
If there is one place on earth where Mother Nature makes her own rules, it is in Iceland. The Icelandic landscape is always in motion and the Icelanders are always alert for the next volcanic eruption, a hurricane or other forms of natural disasters. In Iceland you can literally experience four seasons in one day, even in the summer. Nowhere in the world I have seen the weather change so incredibly quickly as in Iceland. In addition, when Mother Nature makes herself heard, this is often with immense power. Roads are closed every once in a while, the rain and snow are notorious because they often approach you horizontally and the waves at the beaches on the Icelandic south coast are often so gigantic that tourists are at times swept away by them.
The Icelandic weather cannot be predicted, but if the forecast is bad, you’d better prepare yourself and act accordingly. On the day that David and I went to Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón it was sunny in the morning, but it turned out that a storm was heading for the South Coast in the evening. Because of this we had to drive back on time to our overnight address in Hveragerði. Due to this, we were unfortunately unable to make stops at some tourist highlights, but the other option was to get stuck as the road would be closed for a while.
Always keep an eye on the news, especially in the winter. At many gas stations and often at the reception of your accommodation, they have the most up-to-date information regarding the weather and the road. Also bookmark the website with weather forecasts – on this site you will find everything that has to do with Icelandic weather and it’s in English!
If you think you can play with Mother Nature and her powers, visit the films that are being shown in the Volcano House in Reykjavík, about a number of recent volcanic eruptions. After seeing these films you have changed your mind. I promise!
The Icelandic cold is different
Before we left for Iceland, it seemed as if we were not going to be experience a significant cold. The predictions indicated about 5-10 degrees Celcius, which is quite warm by Icelandic standards for winter. Once I arrived in Iceland I was very happy with my fat Fjällräven Singi Parka that I had received for this trip to test. I had almost forgotten how cold and strong the Icelandic wind can be. Although it has been above freezing all week, there have been times when I was terribly cold because the wind … More tips on how to stay warm in Iceland in winter can be read here and you’ll find an Iceland in winter packing list here.
Not all roads are open
When you are planning an Iceland road trip in the winter, keep in mind that many roads are closed. This applies to all unpaved highland routes, but also paved roads can be closed off just like that. The Icelandic interior is only accessible with a super jeep and under supervision and therefore not with your rental car. You will find clear deposits everywhere with reports that the road is closed and that you continue to drive at your own risk. So don’t!
The Icelandic ring road (1) is normally accessible all year round, as well as the roads to popular sights such as the Golden Circle but also those to the Blue Lagoon, Jökulsárlón and the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Nevertheless, it makes sense to plan your route a bit more flexible and to leave spare for the possibility to chage your plans at the very last minute.
Tip: if you only do the south coast, then I advise you to do this from Hveragerði or Hella. You can see all the sights in one go, unless you want to do things that take a little more time, such as the DC3 plane wreck or a glacier walk on Sólheimajökull. Yet it happens occasionally that people get stuck along the south coast for example because of the weather and if you have to be back in time in Reykjavík to catch your flight, this is not exactly ideal. Preferably book overnight stays that you can cancel without penalties so that you can make changes to your itinerary where necessary.
itinerary for 6 days South coast Iceland in winter
Our program consisted of 5 nights in Hveragerði and 1 night in Keflavík near the airport. From Hveragerði we did the following things:
Day 1. Arrival and drive via Seltún to Hveragerði
Day 2. Visit Golden Circle (Geysir, Gullfoss, Þingvellir)
Day 3. Visit Secret Lagoon and Rekjavík
Day 4. Hiking in Reykjadalur
Day 5. South coast incl. Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón
Day 6. Reykjavík and Lava Tour aanes Peninsula
Day 7. Flight home
You can read more about my Iceland in winter itinerary in the next blog!
Rent your car with care!
For this trip I was doubting whether I would really need a 4WD car, also because it is no less than twice as expensive as regular 2WD rental cars in Iceland. Eventually I got the opportunity to rent a car through Sunny Cars and we opted for the normal car, the second smallest. In the winter on Iceland, rental cars are fitted with winter tires with spikes, which means that a 4WD is not really necessary, unless you have meters of snow, but you can of course never predict this in advance. My Icelandic friend Birna indicated that it is seldom necessary to have a 4WD in the winter and that people with experience in winter conditions can normally just go on a regular rental car.
In addition, we had the idea that, when snow packs were expected, we could always ask for an upgrade on the spot. There are really huge loads of rental cars in Iceland due to the summer season being insanely busy, so there’s a good chance they still have a 4WD available.
If you don’t want to drive your own vehicle, then check out these Iceland tours which can basically take you anywhere in Iceland
Ice Ice Baby!
As mentioned, we did not have snow during our trip, but there was still snow left in some places. Black sand is scattered at most tourist attractions to take away the ice, but not everywhere. This made it treacherously slippery to walk in some places and sometimes we had to shuffle little by little. Also during our hike in Reykjadalur we regularly had to cross an ice field. Tip: take rubber crampons with you!
Also read: the best things to buy in Iceland!
There is no such thing as a Northern Lights guarantee
This may sound a bit odd, but my friend Birna works at Safe Travel Iceland and is asked daily “when the Northern Lights will show …”. Somewhat people still expect that there’s some kind of guarantee that you’ll see the Northern Lights when you’re in Iceland in winter. I didn’t see any Northern Lights this time and only very vague during my previous travels, but that was partly because I was in the city at the time and so there was too much light pollution. Although we slept in Hveragerði this time and almost in the middle of nowhere, we have not seen Northern Lights. It was bad luck as it was cloudy all the time and my advice would be to consider the Northern Lights as a nice bonus during your winter trip in Iceland – certainly not as a standard or you’ll end up disappointed. In case you want to go on a hunt, make sure to sign up for a Northern Lights Tour!
Finally: be safe!
I can’t say it often enough, but be careful in Iceland. Do not throw plastic cups into the geysers, stay on the marked trails, act like a responsible person who respects nature and use common sense at all times should the weather or other circumstances change rapidly. Iceland is a very unique travel destination and it would be nice if the next generation after us could also enjoy this beauty the way we do.
Conclusion and disclaimer
Hopefully you found this article about Iceland in the winter useful and helped you plan your journey to Iceland. We were offered our rental car in exchange for our honest review. In addition, you will find some affiliate links in this article. If you place an order via one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost for your. Thank you for reading and enjoy your winter trip to Iceland!