It’s true that the majority of Iceland’s visitors arrive during the summer months, but the Iceland winter season has a lot going for it as well. A truly beautiful time to be in the country, snow covers the landscapes as golden sunset glows illuminate the sky and snowdrifts.
You’ll also find that this time period in the magical ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ is much quieter than in the high summer season. This means you’ll be able to enjoy many of the popular sights without the summer throngs. With its long, dark nights, the winter also offers many a chance to catch sight of the glorious Northern Lights.
On a more practical level, the winter season allows many to visit Iceland on a budget. Our country is notoriously pricey, but in the low season many touristic services, such as car hire, are considerably cheaper. Plus, the average winter temperatures here are not as ice cold as you might think.
So without further ado, let's delve a little deeper into the wonders and practicalities of an Icelandic winter visit. We’ll be covering the following;
· Iceland winter weather and conditions
· Things to do in Iceland in winter
· Driving in Iceland in winter
· Camping in Iceland in winter
· What to pack for a winter trip
Iceland winter weather and conditions
Winter in Iceland is a long season, lasting a solid six months. The snow often begins in earnest in October, and the country doesn’t emerge into the spring until around April. During this stretch of time, the daylight hours shift considerably.
In fact, so much so that in the height of summer, there are only about four hours of darkness. Conversely, in the depths of winter, there are approximately four hours of daylight. On a clear day, however, there is an ethereal golden sunset glow on either side of this, which is why these days are considered some of the best days of the year for landscape photography in Iceland.
Temperature-wise, the usual winter ranges from about -10 to 10 degrees Celsius. But more often than not, the average hovers around zero degrees Celsius. However, there is always the factor of wind chill to consider.
The Arctic breeze can make things feel considerably colder, which is why most locals tell travelers not to ask ‘What is the temperature today?’ but rather ‘What is the wind chill level today?’ Of course, this is where having the right winter gear is crucial.
Things to do in Iceland in winter
There are plenty of fun activities to take part in during a winter trip in Iceland. Read on to discover some of our favorites.
Hitting the slopes for some snow sports fun
Skiing and snowboarding are both popular in Iceland. As mentioned in our full guide to skiing in Iceland, the ski resorts here are not as extensive or developed as in the Alps but they are still undoubtedly worth a visit!
They are also very easily accessible from both Reykjavík and Akureyri in the north. In the winter, the slopes are floodlit to allow for even more hours of snowy fun long after the sun has disappeared into the moonlight.
Exploring icy realms on a glacier tour
Glaciers are one of Iceland’s great beauties and getting up close to them is an awe-inspiring experience. In winter, it’s possible to join a glacier hiking tour in Iceland and traverse their icy surface. If you’re a real daredevil, check out the most enthralling winter Icelandic tour of all that takes travelers inside the depths of a glacier ice cave.
Getting caught up in the Christmas spirit
Perhaps you’ve always dreamt of a white Christmas, but your home country has never been able to guarantee that blankets of snow would arrive outside your door in time for the big day. Well, you can bet your money on an Icelandic snow-filled December 25th, as Christmastime makes up a part of the country’s peak snow season.
In addition to all the snowfall your heart could desire, there’s plenty of festive cheer and a nice buzzy atmosphere wherever you turn, especially in Reykjavík.
Chasing the Northern Lights
One of the great wonders of a winter visit to Iceland is catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. These multi-colored lights dance across the night sky pretty regularly in Iceland, but it is only when the sky is pitch dark that you can see them in their full glory. So, this means that the long winter nights are perfect for Aurora spotting.
There’s plenty of ways to track down the Northern Lights, such as joining a guided tour or hiring a car for a winter road trip. If you choose the latter option, then there’s a high likelihood you’ll see them anyway since Iceland’s campsites are mostly hidden from urban lights that can spoil the show. In fact, you can even catch them from Reykjavík on occasion!
Taking a winter road trip
Although summer is the traditional time for a road trip around Iceland, this plan is still very much doable in winter. All you need to do is keep your winter itinerary manageable. Remember that there are fewer campsites open at this time of year, but still plenty of places to park. So, if you keep it short and sweet, you’ll still have a wonderful time.
When hiring a car, we recommend sticking to South Iceland itineraries. There is plenty to see and do in the area, and the weather and road conditions are usually more favorable. Take a tour of the Golden Circle or head along the South Coast to Vik. Once there, you can visit the local black sand beaches and take a glacier tour - both unforgettable experiences that are widely recommended.
Soaking in a hot springs pool
There is nothing quite like making the dash from the changing rooms into the balmy waters of a hot spring. Soaking in all that mineral goodness and being beautifully warm under winter skies is a real treat. You might even get lucky and see swirling snowflakes or the Northern Lights above you as you float.
Driving in Iceland in winter
Driving in the snow might sound daunting if you’re not used to it, but Icelandic people do it all the time and the country is well set up for it. The roads around Reykjavík and the southern Ring Road will pretty much always be safe to drive on. They are well used and very well maintained.
If you are taking a road trip in Iceland, then it’s important to keep a sharp eye on the weather. Download an Iceland weather app to your smartphone and refer to it regularly. Stay flexible and be willing to change your plans as the weather dictates.
You should pay extra attention to the Iceland wind warnings. Those Arctic winds can get pretty fierce. And they can be especially dangerous if you’re driving a larger vehicle. You should also aim to drive during the daylight hours. So keep your journey times and winter itinerary short and sweet.
Camping in Iceland in winter
Camping in Iceland during the winter season is still very much a thing. We’re talking in-vehicle camping, of course. After all, we would venture to say that pitching a tent in the middle of freezing temps and whistling wind is not many people’s idea of fun. On the flip side, being snug and dry in your own motorhome sounds more like it.
Although there are fewer campsites open in winter, you’ll find that there are plenty for a short itinerary. Not to mention that both the vehicle rental and campsite pitches are likely to be cheaper at this time of year.
What to pack for a winter trip
Packing for a winter venture to Iceland is a very important task. Having the right gear can either make or break your trip, meaning the difference between a miserable time and a remarkable one. So, let's run through the most essential points. However, keep in mind that if you do forget something, then you can hire quite a range of kits from the many gear shops in Reykjavík.
First and foremost, you’ll want to stay as warm and dry as you can. With that being said, a decent wind and waterproof jacket are essential. Waterproof trousers are also a necessity if you want to spend time sightseeing outside, which of course will be one of the main objectives for your trip! Above all, the most important winter accessory to pack is definitely a decent pair of waterproof walking boots.
What? Did you think that was all? Hah! Make room in your suitcase, because that’s just the outer layer covered. From there on, it’s all about layering. Be sure to bring plenty of thin microfiber layers.
Cotton next to the skin will get damp as you sweat, so pack as if you were going skiing. Merino and technical winter fabrics all the way. Top it all off with a fleece layer and you’ll be good to go.
Don’t scrimp on hand and feet accessories, either. Bring plenty of decent wool socks, so you’ll have a fresh pair to enjoy each day, along with a few sets of waterproof gloves. Since both will likely get damp, you’ll need another pair to wear while the others dry out. A balaclava and a snood, as well as a wool hat, will also be great companions.
Roll up some regular clothes for hitting the bars and restaurants when you aren’t adventuring in snowy landscapes. Additionally, pack plenty of snug nightwear to keep you toasty at night.
And last but not least, do not forget your bathing suit. Believe us - plunging into a hot spring is one of the best parts of any Icelandic winter adventure!
Visiting Iceland in the winter
It’s no secret that visiting Iceland in the winter requires preparation on the travelers part. However, from the mesmerizing Northern Lights to cheap car rentals, it’s one of the most magical seasons to see the country. So, what are you waiting for? This is your sign to start planning your trip today!