Now that I have visited Iceland in both summer and winter, I definitely have some thoughts on which I liked better. And while Iceland is a rugged and gorgeous place whether it is draped in snow or a shining green jewel, the experiences were really quite different.
The country only recognizes two seasons, summer and winter — making Iceland winter long and notoriously unpredictable. It is important to be prepared, so I’ve put together these tips for visiting Iceland in winter.
Tips for Visiting Iceland in Winter
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Winter or summer, tourism in Iceland is still strong. And while it is busier in the summer, if you don’t plan ahead you will still find it hard to get a hotel room in the winter. Lots of people want to see those Northern Lights you know!
There are many places that claim that if you “don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” but in Iceland this is particularly true. Which brings to mind another favorite quote of mine…”the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” With rapidly changing weather, you need to be flexible on your itinerary.
When we were just there in November, the plan was to go for a helicopter ride one day and snow mobile on a glacier the next. Neither of those happened. But did it ruin the trip? No. We were able to extend our super jeep tour to a full day with stops at a black sand beach.
And instead of snowmobiling because the wind was too strong, we went for an ATV tour instead. This is when it is really helpful to work with a local tour operator that can not only accommodate such changes, they can suggest appropriate substitutes. I highly recommend booking tours with Hidden Iceland (receive 10% off scheduled group tours with my promo code WE3TRAVEL.)
Driver vs self-drive?
If you are visiting in the summer and want to self-drive around Iceland I say go for it, you can get some good deals from Sixt and driving in Iceland is pretty straightforward if you stick to the Ring Road.
However, driving in the winter can be a different story. Roads close frequently and it is not unusual to experience white out conditions and I didn’t notice any salt or sand trucks out and about.
If you aren’t experienced with driving in the snow, you might want to consider booking some private transfers and tours, or hiring a car and driver (I recommend IceLimo.) And definitely don’t even think about visiting the West Fjords in the winter.
Know before you go!
Since the weather can vary drastically from place to place, you really need to check for road closures and conditions before you leave your accommodations. When we were heading up to the Golden Circle on our recent visit, we could visit Thingvellir but the road up to Gulfoss was closed so we had to skip it. We also had to take an alternate route from Reykjavik to get there.
Icelanders rely on the road.is website for up-to-date information. You can also download the 112 Iceland App (112 is the emergency number in Iceland) in case you need help on the road. If you are heading off-road at all, be sure to register your plans on safetravel.is.
Surprise or not, winters in Iceland aren’t THAT cold (unless you are from a warm climate.) The average temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit in the Southern Lowlands, but gets down to about 14 degrees in the Highlands. HOWEVER, that is before the wind. You have to keep in mind that the sun isn’t exactly shining brightly and the wind can be quite bitter.
You’ll need to layer up against that wind. Start with a base layer, add a fleece and some waterproof / windproof outer layers and you are good to go. Just don’t forget a really warm hat and gloves (especially ones with touchscreen-friendly finger tips so you don’t freeze your hands off taking pictures.)
Whatever you do, don’t wear jeans, those will get wet and you’ll freeze your tush off. Oh, and you may want to skip the Blue Lagoon on a windy day — it isn’t fun to be in your bathing suit and get pelted with hail.
Don’t be afraid of the dark
The good thing about all that darkness is that you may get to see the Northern Lights. The downside is that you don’t get much daylight to sightsee. In November the sun rose around 10 am and set by 4pm. In January, it gets even shorter, with sunrise after 11 am and sunset around 3pm.
If you are going to get to see anything, you are going to have to head out in the dark. Plan on getting up and having breakfast at 8am and hitting the road around 9am so you can arrive at your destination by first light. The good news is that you will be treated to some amazing sunrises and sunsets. If you aren’t comfortable driving in the dark, that would be another reason to base out of Reykjavik and take some tours.
The cold can sap the life out of you…and your batteries. It seemed like every time I stepped outside my phone went dead, even if I had a pretty good charge. My solution, back up power packs. Turning on that charge brought my phone back to life. If only it was so easy to bring the life back to my frozen hands.
And it isn’t just phones that go dead quickly, camera batteries get used up quickly too. Make sure you bring back ups with you throughout the day and consider a weatherproof camera or a good travel camera.
In the U.S., we are so used to having sanitized tourist experiences. Our waterfalls have nice safety rails, maintenance crews are diligent about putting salt and sand on slippery ice, and we warn people that peanut butter may contain peanuts. Not so in Iceland.
First off, if there is a warning sign, it is for a good reason. Likely there was an accident that happened there so don’t blow it off, take caution. When you are walking up to the waterfalls, the mist off the falls makes it really icy.
You will be best off if you have warm, waterproof hiking boots with spikes or get some clip on crampons. Lastly, when visiting the beaches, especially those around Vík, don’t get to close to the water’s edge, especially if you turn your back to the waves. They are known to experience rogue waves that can sweep you in and rough undercurrents that can pull you out quickly. And always keep a close eye (and/or hand) on any young kids.
Think about your activities
It is easy to get excited about about all there is to do in Iceland, but not everything is available year round. So do your research in advance before booking your trip. You don’t want to be disappointed that you can’t whale watch, ATV, horseback ride, etc. because it isn’t the right season.
Don’t pin all your hopes on the Northern Lights
It was my greatest wish to see the Northern Lights when we visited in November, but alas, it was not meant to be. While I was disappointed, we still had some amazing experiences and I enjoyed every minute.
There are a few things you can keep in mind when picking your dates that may increase your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis. First, September – April is Northern Lights “season” but you will have the greatest chances in late November through March. I actually finally got lucky when I visited in late August. Who would have thought?
Since light pollution interferes with seeing the aurora, you will have a better chance of seeing them if you stay outside of the city. We loved our stay at Hotel Ranga, where not only do they have their own observatory and an astronomer that comes in on clear nights, but you can also elect to have them wake you should the aurora make an appearance.
You can also take a Northern Lights sightseeing tour, as the guides keep a close eye on the sky and can take you to the places where the aurora is most likely to make an appearance. Since we visited right after the Supermoon, we were disappointed to learn that the aurora borealis usually doesn’t appear on or near a full moon.
If you want to check the forecast for predictions, visit the Icelandic Met office website. If they do appear, you will want to be prepared. Sleep with your warm clothes at the ready. Keep your camera equipment at your fingertips. Make sure you bring a wide angle lens, tripod, a remote/shutter release (to avoid shaking your camera) and extra batteries (because of that cold.) The Visit Iceland website has some good tips for shooting the Northern Lights. If you are renting a cabin, consider leaving the camera outside set on the tripod so you are ready to go and it doesn’t fog up going from warm to cold.