Want to take a trip to Iceland in winter but don’t know where to start? From safety advice and packing essentials to budget tips and nice to know information – here are my 18 essential Iceland winter tips.
Raw and scenic landscapes transformed into idyllic winter wonderlands and illuminated by the Northern Light – this was pretty much how I envisioned Iceland in winter.
We went to Iceland in January, my mum and I, and were instantly attracted by the wild and untouched nature and the northern country’s otherworldly natural beauty. Painted mountains, frozen waterfalls, striking geysers and endless landscapes covered in thick layers of snow – in many ways my envision turned out to be true.
We spent 10 days looping around the country pealing off onto detours that struck our curiosity and blew our minds. It’s easily one of the most scenic places I’ve been to. But travelling in Iceland in winter does require a little preparation, and there were small things here and there I wish I had known ahead of time, which is why I share my 18 essential Iceland winter tips with you here.
18 tips for travelling Iceland in winter
1/ Even in winter Iceland is a prime road trip destination
Despite its beauty, the first thought that comes to mind when seeing photos of Iceland in winter is that it looks rough and wild and not very easy to travel through. The whole country might be covered in snow and you imagine how icy the roads may be.
Even though the weather plays a role, driving in Iceland in winter is possible and the best way to get around whatsoever. The paved Ring Road that follows the coast along the country is the nerve that connects most of Iceland, and it’s well-maintained and taken care of throughout the year.
Except for the so-called f-roads, smaller roads can also be explored in winter as long as you drive a 4×4 and use your common sense. If a road isn’t suitable for winter driving, it will be closed.
2/ Take the weather and road conditions seriously
The weather in Iceland is very unpredictable. In winter you will most likely experience white wonderlands with snow, ice and freezing temperatures mixed with equal parts of grey skies, snow storms and sunny moments.
The everchanging weather makes driving a little tricky. Icy spots, drifting snow and poor views are some of the challenges you probably have to deal with on the road sooner or later. While it might be difficult to take your eyes from the amazing sceneries, focusing on the drive and driving according to the weather and road conditions are essential if you don’t want to find yourself in the ditch or what is worse.
3/ Only drive a 4×4 in winter
Renting a 4×4 in Iceland is always a good idea as it gives you permission to drive on whichever road you want, but in winter I would venture to say it’s a necessity. Spending a little extra on a quality 4×4 with studded tires is money well spent. You will probably face countless situations where the extra wheel power and stability are highly appreciated.
4/ Some roads will be closed
All over Iceland but especially in the highlands, some roads are closed in winter. The highland roads (f-roads) that require a 4×4 to navigate through bad road surfaces and rivers are simply too dangerous to drive in the cold and dark months, and the centre of Iceland is more or less inaccessible this time of year.
Icelanders are hardy people and won’t close roads unless it’s totally necessary. So for your own safety, you really should respect it.
5/ Don’t try to see it all
From the vibrant capital and the rugged sceneries in the west to the remote villages and the dramatic coastlines in the east. From the bubbly grounds and volcanic craters in the north to the many glaciers and waterfalls in the south. Despite its lack of size, Iceland has plenty of interesting attractions and incredible sceneries. But don’t try to see it all.
Driving in Iceland is slow. Not because of heavy traffic, but because you will be eager to stop every few kilometres to soak in the surroundings and take a photo or two. By packing too much into your itinerary, you run the risk of spending too much time in the car rushing from one place to the other.
It’s a good idea to have a rough itinerary, but be realistic when you make it and be prepared to change it along the way.
6/ Be adventurous but not stupid
With its many epic attractions and incredible landscapes, Iceland is an adventure-seekers dream destination. It’s one of the most picturesque countries in the world, and you are easily being mesmerised and captivated by its rugged beauty. Resisting exploring a little further is difficult but nonetheless important as potentially dangerous situations lurk around every corner.
Being adventurous is totally fine, but in a country with tall mountains, steep cliffs, freezing oceans, boiling hot pots and gusting winds, you need to take your safety precautions. Adding temperatures way below zero degrees, metres of snow and icy surfaces, it’s even more important in winter.
7/ Take advantage of the bright hours
With its location in the North Atlantic Ocean not far from the Arctic Circle, Iceland enjoys countless days with midnight sun in summer and very limited daylight in winter. Around winter solstice only four hours separate sunrise and sunset. It’s not pitch black in the early and late hours of the day though. Due to Iceland’s northern latitude, dawn and dusk last surprisingly long.
Especially if you travel to Iceland close to winter solstice, it’s a good idea to plan your trip according to the bright hours and utilize the daylight properly.
8/ Pack warm and practical clothes
Due to the North Atlantic Current, the Icelandic winter weather is milder than you might expect. Nonetheless, it can get really cold with temperatures way below zero degrees and gusting winds, making it feel even colder.
There is only one way to cope with the cold unless you want to stay inside; pack warm and practical clothes. I don’t think I would ever say this, but don’t pack light for a winter trip to Iceland. Instead, bring several layers, so you are prepared for every occasion and bring a good winter jacket and solid waterproof boots.
9/ Investing in crampons is a good idea
When preparing for our Iceland winter trip, I did the usual research; what to do, where to stay and what to pack etc. In many of the articles I read, they mentioned bringing crampons. My first thought was that it was a bit exaggerated, so regrettably neither my mum nor I did. Needless to say that wearing crampons could have saved us from many “Bambi on ice” moments!
10/ Grocery stores have limited opening hours during winter
The Icelandic grocery stores’ opening hours are limited in winter. In Reykjavík, you find several supermarkets, and it’s quite easy to find one that is open from 9 am to 9 pm. The more you venture from the capital though, the more limited are the opening hours and your options. In rural places, a grocery store open from 11 am to 6.30 pm isn’t unusual.
Note that nowhere in Iceland is it possible to find alcohol in supermarkets. It’s only sold in separate bottle shops.
11/ Eat locally
Despite its small size and its in some ways challenging land to grow, Iceland produces amazing food. The Nordic cuisine is twisted with old traditional ways of cooking, and the result is excellent fish and seafood, lamb, bread and dairy of high quality that you find on menus all over the country.
12/ Iceland isn’t a budget destination, but it’s possible to do it on the cheap
Iceland has a reputation for being pretty expensive, but with a little planning and some smart budgeting, it’s possible to do it on the cheap – especially in winter.
The last few years, Iceland has become incredibly popular, and the more people going there the higher are the prices. Most people visit the northern country in summer though where demand for especially accommodation is pushed to the limit. If you plan to visit Iceland in winter instead, you can save up to 70 % on hotels and hostels throughout the country.
It’s also possible to save some money on car rental in winter, but I would strongly advise you not to slack too much on this expense. Investing in a quality 4×4 can save you from many uncomfortable moments on the roads.
Food is obviously expensive if you plan to eat in restaurants every day. You can easily minimise this by buying food at the supermarket for breakfast and lunch and book accommodation with kitchen facilities so that you can cook your own dinner some nights.
Probably the easiest way to avoid breaking the bank is to plan your trips and tours yourself. Various companies make all kinds of tours, for example, Northern Light tours, ice cave tours, tours to the Golden Circle and tours to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula etc. Where some Iceland attractions can be enjoyed only on a booked tour, it’s not the case for most.
13/ Iceland is one of the best countries to see the Northern Light, but don’t expect to see it
Our main reason to visit Iceland in winter was to see the Northern Light. A few days before departure I looked at the forecast and was thrilled to see the great weather we would enjoy most days. Back then I naively thought clear skies = Northern Light. I was wrong. While as little cloud coverage as possible is one of the conditions, other factors also influence whether or not you will be able to see the colours dance on the night sky.
We were very happy with the My Aurora Forecast and Alerts app that told us exactly when and where to see the Northern Light.
14/ Don’t expect to have the most popular sights and attractions to yourself
Even though fewer people visit Iceland in winter, you shouldn’t expect to have all sights and attractions to yourself. While the northern part of the country is remote and rural and only few tourists go there in winter, the southern part might be crowded.
We found especially the Golden Circle, the waterfalls in the south and Vatnajökull Glacier including Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach well-visited in late January.
15/ The Golden Circle is touristy, but is definitely worth a visit
As you have probably read in most articles about Iceland, Þingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Park and Gullfoss waterfall, that are the three main sights along the Golden Circle, are crowded and touristy.
The attractions are easily accessible from Reykjavík and can all be seen in a single day. They aren’t popular solely because of their strategic location though. Each sight is remarkable and showcases the country’s incredible nature and unique geology in its own way, and the route is arguably the perfect place to start your Icelandic journey.
16/ The locals are very welcoming and reliable
It’s hard to find local people friendlier and more welcoming than Icelanders.
Everywhere we went we were met by a smile followed by a “halló,” and people happily took their time to chat and answer all our stupid questions. Coming from a country where it’s common for people to have difficulties socialising with strangers, this was liberating.
The Icelanders are also reliable and trustworthy, they speak English fluently and you feel safe among them. You will never find anyone trying to scam you – instead they will do everything they can to help you if you are in trouble. A few times we experienced tourists accidentally had driven into the ditch where the locals were there to help in no time.
17/ You don’t need to bring cash
From roadside restaurants and souvenir shops in the most rural areas to gas stations all over the country, you can pay with your credit or debit card. Iceland is almost a cashless society, and we found that withdrawing money wasn’t necessary at all.
18/ There is mobile coverage pretty much everywhere
In a country with more rural than populated areas, I was very surprised to see I had mobile coverage everywhere. It wasn’t always operating on 4G, but I could call or send a text from all the places we visited.
Apparently, there is nationwide coverage for calls in Iceland, while using data might be a bit trickier some places.
Hopefully I’ve made you a little excited to visit Iceland in winter! For more inspiration, check out these 10 incredible Iceland winter attractions or head to my Iceland photo diary that shows the incredible beauty of Iceland in 46 photos.
Or simply peruse my other Iceland articles.
Alternatively, if you are a fan of the Nordics, read my green city guide to Copenhagen.
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