Iceland, with its otherworldly landscapes and enchanting natural wonders, is a mesmerizing destination that captivates visitors throughout the year. While many flock to this Nordic paradise during the summer months, there’s a unique and magical side to Iceland that reveals itself in the winter. From dancing Northern Lights to snowy landscapes, here are some tips to make the most of your winter journey to Iceland, based on our experiences in the great white North.
Pack Smart: Dressing in Layers
Iceland’s winter temperatures can be chilly, with average highs hovering around freezing. Layering is key, so bring thermal undergarments, a waterproof outer layer, and insulated, waterproof boots. Don’t forget accessories like gloves, a hat, and a scarf to shield against the biting wind. We can’t stress the importance of keeping your skin covered, the wind can be absolutely brutal, and if you aren’t prepared you could be very uncomfortable.
This is a breakdown of our clothing kit:
Ski Jacket: 3 in 1 and wind/waterproof
Merino wool base layers
1-2 button-up collared shirts for dinner
As this was our first trip to Iceland and our first time at the Arctic Circle in the winter, there were a few changes and additions we would have made to our kit. First, we would have brought a pair of goggles or snow glasses for the wind, blowing snow, and reflections from the sun. Especially when chasing the Northern Lights in the dark, a pair of clear goggles would have been exceptionally helpful. Second, just as you must dress in layers, layers of gloves became needed in this environment. I recommend wearing a glove liner to keep your hands warm and a waterproof glove to protect from wind and moisture. Lastly, we brought traction devices for our boots and we ultimately didn’t need them. Iceland is highly regulated and the icy trails were closed before we could hike them. Your mileage may vary, but I would likely leave them at home next time.
Daylight Matters: Plan Your Days Around the Light
Iceland experiences short days during the winter, with only 3-5 hours of daylight in most southern areas. Plan your activities accordingly, making the most of the limited sunlight. Consider exploring popular sites during the day and saving the evenings for Northern Lights hunting or cozying up in local cafes.
We tried to plan hikes and sightseeing of waterfalls and natural wonders for the daytime and do our driving, eating out, and lounging in the mornings and evenings when there was no sunlight. Think of the things that you want to SEE as daylight experiences and things you simply want to DO as nighttime experiences. Because we got snowed in by the 2022 blizzard that shut down the entire country, we got to experience some lounging and relaxing in the sunlight simply because we couldn’t go anywhere.
Northern Lights Spectacle: Best Practices for Viewing
The winter months offer prime conditions for witnessing the mesmerizing Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. Head away from city lights for the best visibility, and keep an eye on the Aurora forecast. If you aren’t comfortable trekking out into the night, consider a guided tour for a knowledgeable perspective on this breathtaking natural display.
We saw the Northern Lights every night that we were away from the city in late December. We earned our Borealis experience because the island was experiencing a winter storm for most of our trip and every evening had high winds and falling snow. Nevertheless, we got to stand beneath the glow of the Northern Lights for hours. And honestly, that was the primary reason for our visit.
We used a host of mobile apps to track the conditions of the lights including Aurora Alerts and Aurora Forecast. In conjunction with weather apps for cloudiness, temperature, and wind speed, these apps were very helpful in knowing where to look and when. Also, renting an AirBnb with panoramic windows helped a lot!
Hot Springs Bliss: Soak in Geothermal Delight
Iceland is renowned for its geothermal hot springs, and winter is the perfect time to indulge. Relax in the iconic Blue Lagoon or seek out lesser-known, more secluded hot springs like the Secret Lagoon or Laugarvatn Fontana. The contrast between the warmth of the water and the crisp winter air is a truly unforgettable experience. We opted for the lesser-known hot springs as you can experience 2-3 springs for the cost of the Blue Lagoon.
The Secret Lagoon was a fantastic “natural feeling” spring with a rock bottom and beautiful scenery around. The facilities were nice and clean and the cost was hard to beat at $24 per adult. The second spring that we visited was Laugarvatn Fontana Hot Spring. Fontana provided a spa experience that was elegant and polished. The springs were manicured and ornate and the lunch was delicious. They even bake bread on a nearby beach by burying it in the sand near the geothermal source. They then served the bread the next day in the cafe and it was delicious.
Weather Watch: Be Flexible with Your Itinerary
Iceland’s winter weather can be unpredictable, with sudden snowstorms and icy conditions. Stay flexible with your plans and be prepared to adjust your itinerary based on the weather forecast. Safety should always be a priority, so check road conditions and travel advisories regularly. We experienced a 50-year storm while in Iceland in December of 2022.
Nearly the entire road network was shut down because the roads were simply covered in ice. We were in Reykjavik when the storm hit, but our AirBnb had another guest replacing us and most of the hotels had already booked up due to travel delays at the airport. We attempted to drive out of town to our next Airbnb but were encouraged by an Icelandic search and rescue team to not try the road to Selfoss. We grabbed a last-minute flat rental in downtown Reykjavik and managed to make the most of our situation by grabbing fish and chips and cold beer at Reykjavik Chips. With Rachael’s gluten allergy, she indulged in a massive milkshake and a tall container of fries.
The rest of our trip was affected by the weather and travel delays and it reminded us to stay flexible throughout. Stressing and frantically trying to fix things often only makes it worse. Remember during your trip to build in extra days to your schedule, consider travel insurance, and be kind to the airport staff and hotel employees.
Winter Activities: Embrace the Chill
Don’t let the cold deter you from outdoor adventures. Winter opens up unique activities like ice caving, glacier hiking, and snowmobiling. These experiences provide a chance to witness Iceland’s beauty in a completely different light, quite literally.
High temperatures while were in Iceland ranged between 20 and 31 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill was 5-15 degrees cooler than the temperature. While this is quite cold, with the proper layers we felt completely comfortable on short hikes and even the quick saunter from the locker room to the hot springs. While we did not branch out on many outdoor adventures on this trip (mostly due to the blizzard conditions for most of it), we wish we had. There are many activities that we wish we had been able to see if the roads had been open. The hikes that we did were completely rewarding and the landscape of Iceland is truly unique.
Culinary Delights: Warm Up with Icelandic Cuisine
Icelandic cuisine has a distinct winter charm, with hearty dishes like lamb stew, smoked lamb, and traditional rye bread. Embrace the local flavors and seek out cozy restaurants to warm up after a day of exploring the frosty landscapes. The city of Reykjavik has the same offerings as any other European city with a bit of a lean toward English-style food. Be prepared for a lot of fish and chips as well as some Indian options. There are numerous fine-dining establishments as well as gluten-free options. Thankfully and not surprisingly, there is not a single McDonalds in all of Iceland.
You can browse all of our favorite restaurants, coffee shops, and even an ice cream shop in our food summary blog post!
Renting a Car: Navigate Icy Roads with Confidence
If you plan on exploring beyond Reykjavik, consider renting a 4×4 vehicle. The winter conditions can make roads icy and challenging, especially in more remote areas. A reliable and well-equipped vehicle ensures a safe and enjoyable journey. An aspect of our rental care that we didn’t consider was the ground clearance.
We rented a Toyota RAV4 AWD Hybrid from BlueRentals and the entire process was extremely easy. The car was clean and plenty comfortable for our explorations, and the check-in/check-out process was pain-free. The RAV4 was plenty capable of city driving and hauling all of our items around, but where it struggled was deep snow…obviously. When the blizzard hit, the RAV4 had to be parked at the bottom of the neighborhood for a night until the roads were clear. There was no drama though, because a local helped pull us out with his diesel 4×4.
For future trips, we plan to explore the F-roads in the center of the island and we want a vehicle capable of getting us out of any sticky situations so we will likely rent a Toyota Prado (USDM Lexus GX). The added clearance and real 4×4 would have undoubtedly helped us not get stuck coming up the driveway of our rental house.
Capture the Moments: Photography Tips
Winter in Iceland transforms the landscape into a snow-covered wonderland. Capture the magic by bringing a quality camera and extra batteries. The soft winter light and snow-covered landscapes create a photographer’s dream – be ready to capture the beauty around every corner.
- Bring a tripod! Because the winter days are so short, a tripod is necessary to keep things stable in low-light conditions. Iceland is also famous for its numerous waterfalls around every corner, begging for a long exposure.
- Pack a Circular Polarizer filter. Because there is so much water in Iceland (it IS an island), the glare from the water can be quite dramatic. Using your CPL to cut down the glare is extremely helpful in saving what would likely be a blown-out photo. There are also plenty of old buildings to photograph and having a CPL to break down the glare from glass is really nice.
- Bring a lens that is WIDE and FAST! Photographers go to Iceland to shoot two things primarily, the landscapes and the Northern Lights. Both require a wide lens and the Northern Lights will be significantly easier to shoot with a lens capable of F2.8 or wider.
Local Interaction: Embrace Icelandic Hospitality
Icelandic people are known for their warmth and hospitality. Engage with locals, ask for recommendations, and immerse yourself in the rich culture of this unique island. Whether in a cozy guesthouse or a lively pub, the winter season provides ample opportunities for authentic Icelandic experiences.
Sometimes the Icelandic experiences will happen while you least suspect it. On our way back to our rental house near Laugarás, the driveway had become snow-blown and quickly proved to be more than our all-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4 could handle. The vehicle was high-centered and despite my continual digging, I was likely going to be at it all night. A local arrived in his lifted diesel Chevy Suburban and asked if I needed help. He was friendly and quite funny when he mentioned that he had been watching me for a while from his living room, he wanted me to earn the recovery before he helped me. He suggested I give it plenty of motivation and his rig yanked me out in a minute and we were able to hike the rest of the way to the house.
Visiting Iceland in the winter may present its challenges, but the rewards are well worth the effort. From the ethereal glow of the Northern Lights to the serene beauty of snow-covered landscapes, Iceland in winter is a truly magical experience that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. So, bundle up, embrace the chill, and get ready for an unforgettable Arctic adventure.