It’s so worth it to visit Iceland in the winter. Forget the cold and let the landscape and the light bewitch you. This planning guide will give you all the tips you need to plan your perfect winter travel in Iceland.
When I spotted a super deal on WOW Air, I told my husband that I wanted to go to Iceland. “In the winter?”, he replied. Yes dear…in the winter. He demurred and so I booked myself a solo trip. I encourage my readers to explore alternative itineraries which can mean getting off the beaten path or seeing offbeat things in popular places. In this case, it means visiting at a time when others don’t.
Visiting Iceland in winter is certainly an alternative way to see the country. So, keep reading, because if you have doubts about winter in Iceland, you will be sold by the time you read this whole post.
Go here to explore other alternative itineraries all over the globe.
Why Go to Iceland in the Winter?
Because the Harsh Landscape Will Humble You
People visit Iceland primarily for a landscape that includes spare volcanic mountains, electric blue glaciers and blunt force waterfalls. In the summer, that angular landscape is tempered by green grasses and purple lupin. However in the winter, you can see the full force of father winter bearing down on Iceland like a sharp sword. It’s just you and John Snow, north of the wall (which they filmed in Iceland bytheway). I find large, forbidding landscapes humbling and they do a far better job of triggering my sense of wonder than lush landscapes.
Because There are Fewer Visitors
The peak month to visit Iceland is August but winter visitation is lower by about 100,000 people (according to the Iceland tourism bureau). That difference should give you slightly better hotel rates, more flexibility for booking tours and more elbow room at the more popular sites. That said, Iceland’s tourism is growing at the rate of 40% per year in both the summer and winter seasons. That alone should motivate you to book now. You really need to go before it starts looking like the parking lot at Costco.
Because the Light is Amazing
Shorter days cast a moody shadow all over Iceland in the winter. Because the sun never quite gets all the way up, it performs a wobbly loop around Iceland with creeping shadows and blue hues across the landscape. I caught a slow motion sunset in Vik that painted the horizon line pink and a slow motion sunrise in Hali that lit the mountains with a nuclear morning glow.
4 Things to Do That Are Better in the Winter
I abandoned my reluctant husband and booked my solo Iceland winter trip because there are several things to do there that you just can’t do in the summer. It was go in the winter, or don’t experience them at all. And so I went.
Northern Lights in Iceland
The Aurora Borealis runs all year but you need a dark, clear sky to see it. Since the sunlight never turns off in the summer, you will be very hard pressed to see it– hence the winter travel in Iceland. The northern lights are a fickle business and even in the winter, they don’t guarantee a performance. But you certainly won’t see them if you don’t show up.
I thought that my best bet would be during my two nights out in the hinterlands. However, on the first night it snowed and on the second we had clear sky but no aurora activity. Fortunately, I had an open evening in Reykjavik and because the forecast looked promising, I went ahead and booked a night tour. I wasn’t disappointed.
I recommend that you leave flexibility in your schedule so that you can make adjustments on the fly to accommodate the fickle Aurora.
Ice Caving in Iceland
There are ice caves all over Iceland’s glaciers but in the summer they are unstable and full of water. During the winter, the glacier at Vatnajokull freezes up and stabilizes the caves enough to make them safe for visitation. The glacier (and the caves) are made of densely compressed snow. The compression squeezes out the air, creating a trick of light that makes the ice appear blue. It was seeing pictures of this bright blue ice that made me trigger my Icelandic winter trip. Well, that and a screamin’ airfare on WOW air.
Glacier Walking in Iceland
You can arrange glacier walks on Svínafellsjökull in any season but there are particular benefits to doing it in the winter. The colder temps means that the glacier is drier and easier to walk on. But the primary reason is that cracks, fissures and caves sometimes open up which are only safe for exploring in the winter.
We were fortunate enough to visit when one such cave was open. So not only was I able to see the cave at Vatnajokull, but I was able to go all Batman Begins at Svínafellsjökull as well. Frozen scenes from Batman Begins were filmed on this glacier and walking on it made me feel like a superhero.
Snorkeling in Silfra
What– snorkeling in Iceland in the winter? YES and it’s not as suicidal as it sounds. Just east of Reykjavik lies the Pingvellir National Park. One of it’s unique geological features is that it sits on a joint of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This has created a fissure that fills with pure glacial melt that has been filtered through the volcanic rock.
The snorkeling has unique geology with super clear water down 320 feet (100m). The water is a brisk 37’F (2.7’C) year round. They do suit you up with a thermal layer and dry suit so that you don’t die.
You can snorkel in Silfra throughout the year, but I argue for doing it in the winter. Imagine the shock to your body if you go from a 57’F (14’C) summer air temperature into the frigid water. But if you are standing on the platform in 20’F air temps (as I was), then going into the water is actually warmer. It’s a warped logic but it worked for me and I was able to get into the water without hyperventilating.
Check out these tours for Silfra and the northern lights:
When to Go: Iceland Winter Weather
Iceland in the winter has milder temperatures than other arctic tourist wonderlands. It sits in the path of the Gulf Stream, which brings a flow of warm air to the southern coast. This air collides with the Arctic flow, creating storms and volatile weather. However, it also means that Iceland is a bit warmer than other northern lights locations like Whitehorse Canada, Tromso Norway and Lapland Finland.
In March, Iceland has an average high of 39’F (4’C) while Whitehorse/Tromso/Lapland all average ~26’F (-3’C). I’m not saying don’t go to Lapland, after all, Santa Clause lives there! However, he lives there year-round so you can also see him in the summer, leaving you time to visit Iceland in the winter.
I’ve determined the best time to visit Iceland in winter requires the following calculus: higher temperatures + lowest chance of rain / decent number of daylight hours = early March. March has a lower chance of rain fall, ten hours of daylight and the ice caves are usually still open. The lower rainfall increases your chances of seeing northern lights and the longer daylight gives you more time to see the waterfalls and other landscape features.
That said, the weather will do what the weather does. My friend Hannah visited Iceland twice this year to see the Aurora and got skunked by bad weather both times. During my visit, the temperatures were colder than usual and I only just survived it by wearing all of my layers, complaining and fortifying myself with beer.
How to Go: Self Drive vs. Tour
The pros of a self-drive mean that you have the ultimate freedom to design your itinerary. You can go early or late to popular sites like Gullfoss and avoid the crush of tour buses. You can simply pull over at that beach because the light is heavenly. Even if you have your own car, you still need to pay for experiences like snorkeling in Silfra, glacier walking or the cave tour but you will pay about one third less.
The main cons of self-driving Iceland in the winter are the road conditions. The weather is changeable in Iceland and you need to have experience driving on icy roads. You also need to be careful about where and how you pull over for a photo pit stop. The roads outside of Reykjavik and the Golden Triangle are narrow and often windy. There have been some terrible accidents caused by tourists stopped in the middle of the road to take a picture. Don’t be that corpse.
The pros of taking a tour are that the planning is done for you. You don’t have to try to navigate Icelandic road signs and tongue twisting place names. A good guide will have a lot of information about Iceland’s history and geologic peculiarities and they will be able to answer questions on the fly.
The cons of taking any tour (not just those in Iceland) is that they are always more expensive than a DIY trip. They are often on a rigid timetable, which doesn’t leave a lot of flexibility for going off script.
For my trip, I opted for the small group tour. Since my husband didn’t want to come, I was on my own. I feel comfortable driving in snow, but for this trip, I would have wanted a co-pilot. Besides, if I had to bear the full cost of renting a car, it wasn’t that much more money to pay for the tour.
I chose the three-day south coast tour with Arctic Adventures. There were only sixteen of us and our guide was somewhat flexible with the itinerary. You can check out other multi-day tours to Iceland here:
What to Pack for Iceland in Winter
Just because Iceland isn’t as cold as where Santa lives doesn’t mean that you don’t need to bundle up. It’s not only chilly, but it can also be quite windy, snowy and/or rainy. My strategy was to pack like it was a ski trip….without the skis. Check out my ski packing list here, but then consider the following modifications:
- Wind and warm bottom layers.
Rather than heavy ski pants, I wore a combination of performance fleece sweatpants (like these from REI) and a waterproof wind shell pant (like these from Columbia). The fleece pants were comfortable for lounging in the hotel and the wind pants pack small. You could also use a combo waterproof/fleece pant like these winter hikers, but you may still want to pair them with a wind pant.
- A dual layer glove/mitten system.
Start with a thin poly prop glove. You can find gloves that have a rubberized grippy texture and a special touch screen fingertip which lets you to operate your phone. The thin material will also allow you to manipulate your camera settings more easily. Then, bring a larger glove or mitten to put over the top to further protect yourself from the cold.
- A winter hiking boot.
You’ll want the insulating layer of a winter boot rather than a regular hiking boot. You’ll also need some grip for the ice cave and the glacier hike so Uggs aren’t going to cut it. If you don’t want to invest in such specialized equipment, you may be able to rent boots from a tour provider. You can also rent boots on site at the glacier hike.
Visualize yourself as one of those intrepid arctic explorers, all bundled up and taking what the landscape throws at you. Hold onto that attitude and get planning your travel to Iceland. Use these tips to plan your trip and have a great time. If you have any questions, please comment here or find Wayfaring Views on Facebook.
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