While summer is peak travel season, the number of tourists coming to Iceland in the winter continues to grow steadily. Year after year, more people opt for Iceland winter travel to not only save money but to experience another side of the island. The country magically transforms into a stunning winter wonderland, with snow blanketing every surface and waterfalls frozen in suspended animation. Not only do our famous landscapes and natural attractions look completely different, the list of things to do in Iceland in winter changes as well. From glacier cavern exploration to the enchanting Northern Lights, Iceland in winter is practically another country.
We’ll show you why renting a car and taking a winter trip to Iceland should be on everyone’s bucket list. Grab something warm to drink and get out your scarf and chunky knit sweater; we’ve got the essential guide to Iceland in the winter. We’ll cover weather, what to pack and wear, winter driving safety tips, activities and things to do, and more. This is one of the best times of year to visit Iceland, so let’s start planning that road trip.
When is Winter in Iceland?
Winter can be a relative term, especially when it comes to how close to or far away from the North Pole you are. Because Iceland lies at such a northern latitude, our winter months start slightly earlier and end later than in most places. Most people probably define winter season as a time when it’s cold and there might be some snow on the ground. For us, that period starts around November and goes through March. But the snowy season extends through April, so Iceland winter is considered November through March or April.
Why You Should Visit Iceland in Winter
To start with, many people visit Iceland in winter or the off-season because they want to save money. You’ll find discounts on everything from hotels and other accommodation to rental cars and day tours. Second, the country completely changes in winter. It’s like having a totally different vacation from the one you experienced in the summer. I always say you should come here at least twice to really get the full picture.
How Cold Does it Get in Iceland in Winter?
Iceland in December is not as harsh as some might think. Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream ocean current, we have a microclimate surrounding our sub-Arctic island. Reykjavik winter is similar to other Northern European capitals. I’ve also heard it’s not as bad as places like New York City and Chicago.
Average Highs and Lows in Reykjavik
November High 41 ºF (5 ºC) | November Low 32 ºF (0 ºC)
December High 39 ºF (4 ºC) | December Low 30 ºF (-1 ºC)
January High 37 ºF (3 ºC) | January Low 27 º F (-3 ºC)
February High 36 ºF (2 ºC) | February Low 28 ºF (-2 ºC)
March High 36 ºC (2 ºC) | March Low 28 ºF (-2 ºC)
A Note About Daylight Hours During Iceland's Winter
If you’re thinking about visiting Iceland in December or January there’s one thing I want to point out. While the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holiday season (Jól in Icelandic) are a magical time of year, the things to do in Iceland in December are limited by daylight hours. As we approach the winter solstice on December 22nd, we get as little as four hours of sunshine a day. The scope things to do in Iceland in January and December are reduced to what you can fit in during those precious hours of light. If you’re planning a visit to þingvellir National Park, for example, leave plenty of driving time to arrive and to get back.
Comprehensive Packing List For Iceland Winter Travel
Anyone who decides to visit Iceland in winter needs to be aware of the four-layer rule. Whenever you step outside, you should always be wearing a base layer (thermal underwear from Merino wool or similar), a mid-layer (fleece or more wool), an insulating layer (parka or winter jacket), and a shell layer (your windproof, waterproof outer layer). Some of these items can be expensive, especially if they are from high-quality companies like The North Face or Columbia. Try to borrow from friends and family as clothing is the one area you should not skimp out on for your trip.
Remember, we’re aiming for practicality and comfort rather than style and you need to dress properly. The elements are harsh and unforgiving; you’ll need solid protection to stay warm and dry.
This is a full list of items to include in your suitcase or backpack:
Thermal underwear (tops and bottoms) from materials like merino wool
Fleece-lined leggings. You’ll need this insulation to stay toasty.
Ski pants or snow pants. You need waterproof pants which are preferably windproof to keep wind and moisture out. We don’t want you getting chilled to the bone.
Waterproof winter boots. These can make or break your trip; we all know there’s nothing worse than having cold, wet feet.
A balaclava to keep your neck warm and face protected.
A quality winter jacket. A waterproof shell with man-made materials for insulation is best as down tends to deflate if it gets damp.
Wool beanie. Keep your head warm is paramount and wool is one of the warmest materials out there.
Waterproof gloves to keep your hands warm and dry.
Your swimsuit. For taking a dip at the Blue Lagoon, a hot spring, hot pot, or thermal pool.
Reusable water bottle. This isn’t clothing but you will use it every single day to stay hydrated. Just fill it up from the tap.
Sunscreen. Another non-clothing item that will come in handy, especially with the sun reflecting off the bright ice and snow of a glacier during your hike.
Things To Do in Iceland in Winter
Now that you know the right clothing to wear, let’s talk about all the amazing winter activities and things to do.
Some of the best (things to do in Iceland in winter) are glacier hiking, glacier caves, ice cave tours, skiing, snowboarding, and riding snowmobiles. You’ll find tour operators running these activities all over the island. Skiing and snowboarding are popular in North Iceland, close to Akureyri and Dalvik. You’ll find snowmobiles both at Langjökull glacier along the Golden Circle route and at Vatnajökull National Park. And both Skaftafell and Vatnajökull are famous for their ice caves, glacier caves, and glacier treks.
Crampons, axes and other hiking equipment is provided, but make sure you’ve got waterproof hiking boots packed for extreme outdoor activities.
Visiting hot springs like the Reykjadalur hot river or going to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa are another option. There’s nothing quite so nice as slipping into that warm water as steam rises while surrounded by snow or ice.
The Northern Lights in Iceland: A Dazzling Wintertime Display
If you’re visiting Iceland in winter, you’ll have the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis. I say possibility because although it is Northern Lights season in Iceland, there are other factors at play. You’ll need a clear night; if it’s overcast you won’t be seeing much of anything, unfortunately. There also needs to be aurora activity, and you can check the forecast on the Iceland Meteorological Office website. Lastly, make sure you far away from inhabited areas in order to negate light pollution.
Taking a Northern Lights tour is also a great option as there are several reputable companies operating them. They know the best places to go and will sometimes offer a second shot for free if you didn’t see the Lights your first night.
Iceland’s Winter Weather
The weather in Iceland is unpredictable, regardless of which season you visit. In winter, things can turn deadly if you’re not constantly monitoring conditions outside and on the road. I always tell people to check the weather forecast several times a day, especially if they plan on driving anywhere. And if Icelanders tell you to stay off the roads, please believe us; we’re up-to-date with the weather and know what we’re talking about.
There were some really bad snow storms in South Iceland a few years ago and dozens of cars got caught in the snow. They had to wait until the storm passed for rescue vehicles to begin clearing the roads and digging people out. Driving in a storm in Iceland is always a foolish choice, more so in the winter. Sub-zero temperatures are a serious matter when you’re trapped inside a car.
Most of the passengers inside these stuck vehicles were travelers who thought they could outrun the storm. They had flights at Keflavik to catch or they simply thought it wouldn’t get that bad. Remember that it’s never worth risking your life for a flight or hotel reservation that can always be rebooked. It’s also better not to find this out the hard way when you travel to Iceland, as these tourists did.
Winter Driving Safety in Iceland
Driving during Icelandic winter can be especially hazardous due to slushy road conditions and dangers like ice, sleet, or hail. While driving safety is important at all times, you need to take extra precaution when driving in Iceland in winter. By law, your car will already have studded snow tires, which will give you added traction to the roads. Please always observe the speed limit (or go slower) and keep your headlights on at all times.
I highly recommend visiting websites like road.is and SafeTravel to read up on Icelandic road safety. SafeTravel also has a downloadable app and other tools to help you design a safe trip. You can also submit your travel plan so the rescue authorities know where to find you in the event of a storm. Many travelers also leave a GPS tracker with loved ones to help them keep tabs on you (in a good way).
Lastly, renting a 4x4 vehicle is one of the best ways to assure safe driving in Iceland in the winter. Sometimes drivers go too quickly and skid out or lose control of their car due to a patch of black ice. If for some reason this happens, it’s much easier to get a grip on things again with this type of automobile. The extra control and added weight afforded by a 4WD means that you’ll breathe easier and ultimately will be safer.
Your Ultimate Iceland in the Winter Guide
Winter is a magical time to visit Iceland. Whether you come during shoulder season or the off-season to save money or want to spend Christmas abroad, you’ll enjoy our little snow globe of an island. There are plenty of tours in Iceland that still operate or you can do a self-drive tour of places like the Diamond Circle or the Eldhraun lava field. It’s your vacation, make the most of it!