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

Thingvellir National Park in the winter

  • Plan ahead. Winter or summer, tourism in Iceland is booming. More Americans are expected to visit Iceland in 2017 than there are Icelandic people. 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! Even though there are 16 new hotels being built around Iceland, inventory is limited now, especially for family rooms so BOOK EARLY! (Have I stressed that enough?)
  • Be flexible. 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. Iceland Travel offers tons of different tours so if one won’t work, perhaps another will.Riding ATVs in Iceland
  • 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 outer rim. 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.)Driving in Iceland in 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 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 tips for visiting Iceland in the winter -- Iceland is very different in the winter and it is important to be prepared. These tips give you what you need to know about Iceland in winter.
  • Layer up. 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.Iceland in the winter -- what to wear
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