Winter Camping in Iceland
Winter traveling or camping in Iceland can seem a little scary, especially if you’re not sure what to expect. In fact, one of the most common questions we get during off-season looks something like this: “Is it safe to drive and camp in Iceland in [insert your winter month here]?” But armed with a little bit of local knowledge (found in this post), you can experience a unique side of Iceland while saving some money by traveling during the off-season.
With the help from the experts at Cintamani, Icelandic Mountain Guides, and Safetravel, we will dive into some of the most important things to keep in mind when traveling in Iceland during winter. Here’s a quick overview of what this post will cover (use the green "Jump Sections" button to navigate to different chapters):
1. Why Iceland in winter
The most obvious question is “Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?” The short answer is “Yes”, even though there are definite pros and cons. When I asked Happy Campers Facebook followers, I was actually surprised to see that about 60% of people preferred to travel in Iceland during winter. Here is what a couple of the voters had to say about it:
“Winter! The weather was absolutely fine! Less tourists plus the landscape looks even more dramatic with dark skies” - Polly Bussel
“Anne and I have visited Iceland 3 times now, April 2016, June 2016 (when we got married in Akranes) and February 2017 during the second highest recorded level of snowfall! Summer was fantastic, the midnight sun, access to almost everywhere and the variety of beautiful colours! Winter was amazing also, deep white snow, the adventure of driving in difficult conditions and of course the northern lights! I wouldn't say winter is better than summer or vice versa, it all depends on what you want out of your visit to the land of fire and ice!”
Overall, people said that they really liked traveling during winter, although many specified that they liked the fall (September, October) and Spring (April, May) best. During those months, you can enjoy some of the benefits of both winter and summer.
Iceland is expensive. It’s so expensive that you’ll find dozens of articles about how to save money while in Iceland, like this one from Nomadic Matt. According to a recent report by the Icelandic Tourism Board, food expense and the general high prices were #4 and #6 respectively on the list of things travelers liked the least about their Iceland experience. The good thing about traveling in Iceland during winter is that your wallet won’t suffer nearly as much, as most companies will offer discounted prices. We at Happy Campers, for example, offer our vans for 30% off during the winter months.
Shorter lines, smaller crowds, and more space and quiet to enjoy all the beauty Iceland has to offer. The majority of travelers visit Iceland during the warmer summer months, so traveling in Iceland would allow you to keep Iceland all to yourself.
However, people seem to be waking up to the benefits of winter traveling in Iceland, as we saw a greater increase in the number of visitors during winter compared to summer last year. Winter is unlikely to ever catch up with summer in terms of the number of travelers overall, but the gap is closing.
The friggin’ northern lights, man. What else needs to be said? The northern lights are one of the most amazing natural phenomena in the world. I get goosebumps every time I see them (and I’ve seen them many times) and sometimes even when I just think about seeing them. If you experience a good northern lights showing while you’re in Iceland, that alone will make the trip to Iceland in winter worth it.
Winter tours, activities, and holidays
The theme song for this chapter is “Do you want to build a snowman” from the Frozen movie. There are a lot of awesome activities you can do during the wintertime in Iceland. See chapter 6 for some good examples and inspiration.
There are also a lot of great winter events and holidays worth experiencing. Christmas, Christmas markets, Reykjavik Lights Festival, and New Year's Eve, to name a few. My favorite holiday, New Years Eve, probably wouldn’t be my favorite holiday if I wasn’t Icelandic. New Year’s Eve in Iceland is one of a kind and hard to describe in words. It’s a little like when you see the northern lights - you get this feeling of awe and feel like you’re a part of something greater than yourself. Also, it’s fun to blow things up.
Iceland looks very different in the winter and in many ways more amazing. Everything is more dramatic and the unique “golden hour” lighting casts a new light on Icelandic landscapes, literally. The golden hour(s) is when the sun doesn’t rise far above the horizon all day, so you will get this “golden” daylight (when it’s not overcast, which it is a lot).
The glaciers, waterfalls, black beaches, and a lot of different attractions look even more majestic and magnificent during winter. Again, this is difficult to describe so hopefully these photos will do a better job:
Geothermal Hot Springs
Being outside in a bathing suit in the middle of Icelandic winter doesn’t seem like a good idea at first. But trust me on this one - soaking in a hot geothermal pool during winter is one of the most relaxing things I can imagine. Just like a thick down duvet feels better during a cold winter night than on a hot summer night, the same is true for Icelandic hot springs. Not to mention that you won’t have to sit on somebody’s lap because of how crowded it is during the summer.
Whether you’re looking to experience the Blue Lagoon, Myvatn Nature Baths, a local Reykjavik swimming pool, or a remote geothermal hot spring, I think it will be a more memorable experience during winter
Iceland can be quite pretty in the winter, with Christmas lights in the city, a fresh layer of snow on the roofs, and the smell of hot lamb stew coming from kitchen windows. There’s just something so charming about Iceland in the winter.
When I asked Iceland Mountain Guides about the benefits of traveling in Iceland during winter, they had this to say:
“There are many benefits to traveling in Iceland during the winter. The normally vibrantly colored landscape that people have seen in the summer will be covered in a blanket of snow. It is truly a winter wonderland.”
This is the only pro that is also a con. Believe it or not, the darkness has become a major tourist attraction in Iceland. People who have lived in cities their entire lives have never experienced true darkness, so they come to Iceland for just that. I have traveled to many different countries in my life, but only in Iceland do I remember opening my eyes and not being able to tell a difference from when they were closed. Thank god/Odin for electricity, fire, and geothermal heat.
Iceland can be cold, windy, cloudy, rainy/snowy, and very unpredictable during winter. If anything is consistent, it’s going to be precipitation, wind, and lack of sunlight. Read the next chapter on safety for some good tips on how to deal with the Icelandic weather during winter.
Driving past an upside-down waterfall during my last Iceland roadtrip
Driving in Iceland can be a challenge and sometimes downright impossible due to roads being difficult or closed.
No highlands access
Even if you have a 4x4, you won’t have much access to the Icelandic highlands via F-roads. There are some super jeep tours you could book, however (see chapter 6).
Even though it’s not all negative, having such little daylight to explore can be a challenge during the winter.
There is always a slight chance of your itinerary being messed up because of a cancelled tour. The weather is very unpredictable, so one of the biggest consequence of that is this possibility of your booked tours being cancelled.
When talking to Icelandic Mountain Guides, they touched on this point:
“The weather in Iceland is unpredictable and even though winter weather can include lots of wind, snow and ice, most tours run as scheduled. Yes, there are times when tours must be cancelled because of a storm, but that just comes with the experience of being in Iceland. It is good to keep in mind that your tour can be cancelled “
You can’t overstate how important it is to be well prepared while in Iceland - especially if this is your first Iceland trip. “But Thor, I read that Iceland is actually the safest country in the world, so why are you making such a big deal out of this?”. Sure, Iceland might have extremely low crime rates, but make no mistake, Icelandic nature is not as kind as the Icelandic people.
- 112 - Iceland's official emergency number.
- Vedur.is - The best source of up-to-date weather conditions. Memorize the URL or get their app on the Google Play Store or Apple App Store and check daily.
- Safetravel.is - This is an accident prevention project funded by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue and is the single best website for resources related to travel safety in Iceland.
- Road.is - Best up-to-date information on road conditions
- Vegasja - Live webcams from roads all over Iceland
- 1777 - The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration Information Phone Number is 1777 (If you're having issues, use +354 522 1100). It gives you information about road conditions and lines are open from 06:30 - 22 during winter.
- 112 Iceland App - Allows you to easily send your location and notify Iceland's emergency services with a single tap.
- Siminn SIM Cards - As mentioned below, make sure you have a phone that works on the Icelandic network. This is an incredibly important safety issue.
- Gas Station Map from TripCreator
- Gasvaktin - Use your location to find the nearest gas station and see where the cheapest gas is.
- Locals - One of the most underutilized resource in Iceland. Talk to locals, including people working for a business you're dealing with, about your travel plans, the weather, road conditions, etc. If they say your plan is a bad idea, it probably is.
- Common Sense - Another underutilized resource. If your phone GPS tells you to turn onto a closed road, something in the back of your head is hopefully saying “Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t do that”. That’s your common sense speaking and you should always listen.
Paying attention to weather conditions is key to traveling safely in Iceland during winter. Us Icelanders have a few centuries of practice on how to deal with the weather and we're actually surprised if the weather stays the same for more than 10 minutes. Snow storms in June, wind ripping off your car door, upside-down waterfalls - we've seen it all. But for the average traveler, here is a crash course in Icelandic weather that will bring you up to speed.
- Cold season: November 8th - April 4th
- Avg. temperature (high): 38°F/3°C
- Coldest month: January (36°F/2°C)
- Wind: Avg. speed of 12 miles/hour
- Windiest month: January (Avg. 16 miles/hour)
- Cloud cover: Overcast or mostly cloudy 57% of the time
- Cloudiest month: January (78% cloudy)
- Rain: 42% avg. chance of precipitation
- Rainiest month: February (55% avg. chance of precipitation)
- Snow: Avg. of 0.5-1 inches
- Snowiest month: January (5-10 inches)
- Shortest day: December 21st - 4 hours and 7 minutes
The best and worst of Icelandic winter weather in the same photo
It’s actually not that cold (but it’s still very cold)
Iceland benefits from the warm Gulf Stream currents, so the temperatures around the coastline are usually not as cold as the country’s name might suggest. However, don’t be fooled when you look at the weather forecast. -5° easily feels like -15° when it’s combined with the Icelandic wind. Even though Reykjavik sees an average temperature of approx. 38°F/3°C, these temperatures start declining significantly when you travel inland. So if you’re planning to travel into the highlands, expect these averages to be much lower.
Icelandic Weather is Unpredictable
Don’t just rely on your eyes. Even though the weather looks great right now, you might be hit with a snow storm in 10 minutes. On the flip-side, the weather forecast is just a forecast. The Icelandic weather forecast is notorious for being inaccurate because, well, the weather is also unpredictable for the weather man. So no matter the forecast and current weather, prepare for the worst.
Iceland is windy
Like, really, really windy. Don’t underestimate the wind and always be aware that a gust could throw you off-balance. You should be extra careful if you’re driving a tall car (like our Happy 3 and Happy 3 EX vans), as the wind can be even less forgiving to those cars. The wind is usually the strongest by the sides of mountains and strong and sudden gusts of wind are not uncommon.
Always park your car into the wind when possible and hold on to your car door with both hands when getting in and out of the car. It doesn’t help that winters are the windiest time of the year in Iceland, with average wind speeds of about 12 miles/hour.
Days are short
Our shortest day (December 21st) is only about 4 hours long, so make sure that you make the most of the little daylight you get. Don’t get caught in unfamiliar and difficult situations when it’s pitch black outside. Put a little effort into planning (see chapter 4) each day to make sure that you hit your top attractions while you still have some light.
But no matter how well you plan, you will ultimately spend a lot of waking hours in darkness. So make sure you are prepared for that and consider bringing a good LED light/headlamp with you (Chapter 2.d)
Hello sun. Oh, leaving already?
The Icelandic weather is a part of the Iceland experience
Chances are if you have or are considering traveling to Iceland during winter, you’re not looking for a warm and comfortable beach vacation. Well, I hope not. Don’t expect the Icelandic weather to be considerate of your travel plans and always be your best friend. Just like life, you’ll experience highs and lows. You will experience the most amazing moments when the wind dies down and the northern lights light up the clear sky and reflect in a glacier lagoon. You see plenty of moments like that on Instagram. But you will also experience heavy winds blowing freezing rain in your face while you battle to close your car door, not sure if you still have all of your fingers. But one thing is certain - it will be an overall experience you won’t forget.
Kristie enjoying the sunset during our winter roadtrip around Snæfellsnes
c. Winter Driving
Staying safe on the road is another crucial part of traveling in Iceland during winter. In fact, in a recent report by the Icelandic Tourism Board, travelers named road conditions as the #1 thing they would like to be improved in Iceland.
Before diving into some tips about driving in Iceland, let’s consider the option of not driving in Iceland at all. If you have little or no experience with winter driving, driving abroad, or just don’t have much confidence driving in difficult conditions in general, driving in Iceland might not be worth it. There are plenty of awesome winter tours that allow you to see the best of Iceland without having to do any driving. But if driving is your thing (which it is for me - I love the freedom and flexibility), then read on.
Check road conditions daily
Before getting on the road each day, spend some time on Road.is and make sure your planned route is in good condition. You can also watch live feeds from roads all over Iceland here. If you read the weather section above, you know that the weather can be incredibly unpredictable, so even though a route looked good yesterday, it might be impassable today. If you have a mobile data or a campervan with WiFi (like ours), this shouldn’t be an issue. If not, you could stop by one of many N1 gas stations, which offer free WiFi. Many of them also have the SafeTravel information screen on display, so make sure to check that out.
The 4x4 question
“Is a 4x4 car necessary?”. I’ve heard this question a lot and and the answer depends on who you ask. In my experience, it’s actually not always necessary. If you take the appropriate precautions, use common sense, and always show caution, you don’t necessarily need a 4x4 car. First of all, a 4x4 car is most useful in heavy snow, and if you’re in a situation where a 4x4 is absolutely necessary, you’re probably in a situation you should’ve avoided in the first place. Second, it might not sound intuitive, but I think that some people become overconfident when driving a 4x4 vehicle and drive less carefully, which defeats the purpose of getting a 4x4. Finally, the ring road is usually easier to handle than most other roads in Iceland and is usually plowed quickly if it ever becomes impassable. So if you’re only planning on driving the ring road, a regular 2x4 car should be just fine in most cases.
Having said that, driving a 4x4 is always a better option if all else is equal. If you are just as prepared and cautious as you would’ve been in a normal car, then driving a 4x4 is always better.
Rent the right car/van
No matter if you go with a 4x4 or a regular car, make sure you get a car that can handle the Icelandic winter and is from a respectable rental company. Ask your rental company if they have a tracking system in the car (so they can locate you in case of an emergency), if they offer any breakdown assistance, and if your car will have winter tires. Also ask them about any additional resources and advice they might have about driving in Iceland during winter.
Also make sure that you understand your car insurance options really well. There is a significantly higher chance of you getting in a car accident during winter in Iceland, so make sure you give this some thought.
Follow the signs
If you come across a road that is clearly marked as closed/impassable, don’t take that road. It’s common sense, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who think those signs are just suggestions.
Familiarize yourself with Icelandic road signs and actually look out for them while you’re on the road. If road conditions are less than perfect, the most important thing is to take your time. You’re on vacation, so there’s no need to rush when you’re driving.
Choose your parking spot wisely
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you park your car. First, if it’s really windy, make sure that you park into the wind, so the wind doesn’t rip off your door. Second, if you’re parking for the night, make sure you’ll be able to safely drive off in the morning in case there is heavy rain or snow throughout the night. Finally, don’t stop by the side of the road. This has become a bit of a problem, especially when the northern lights are out. People don’t want to miss the chance for a good photograph, so they will stop by the side of the road or, even worse, in the middle of the road.
Don’t just rely on technology
Having a GPS and using the 112 app to give your location is a really good idea. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about technology, it’s that it will fail when you need it most. Keep a physical map in your car, talk to locals, and let somebody you know about your travel plans.
Know your gas stations
“Will I be able to easily find gas stations in Iceland?”. The short answer is yes. Although it’s always good to be aware of how long it’ll be until you reach the next gas station, the rule of thumb is that there will be plenty of gas stations if you’re driving along the ring road. The map below shows exactly where to find a gas station and it actually includes current prices as well:
D. Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE SAR)
When worst comes to worst, fortunately Icelanders and Iceland travelers can rely on ICE-SAR. I reached out to Jónas at ICE-SAR, who specializes in accident prevention, and asked him a few questions about the organization and safety.
Jónas explained to me that “ICE-SAR is an umbrella organization under which all Icelandic search and rescue teams operate. We are entirely made up of volunteers. Safetravel is a collaboration between ICE-SAR, the Iceland Travel Industry Association, and the government, where the goal is to provide travelers with necessary information for their trip to Iceland. On the Safetravel website you will find a lot of practical information, such as a map of Iceland, information about road conditions, weather, and more.”
ICE-SAR and the countless rescue teams and volunteers that belong to that organization get a lot of respect from us locals. That shouldn’t be a surprise, considering their unbelievably unselfish work that has resulted in saving hundreds of lives all over the country.
When asking Jónas about some of the most common mistakes travelers make when it comes to safety, he says that “it’s that people overestimate their abilities or underestimate the severity of their situation.” Indeed, people often underestimate the unforgiving Icelandic nature and think that their preparation and safety cautions they used in other countries will also suffice in Iceland. That is usually not the case.
“We are running the Safetravel project for a good reason. People should constantly monitor conditions of follow our recommendations if they are to leave Iceland with good memories” Jónas adds.
But if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself in a dangerous situation, Jónas says that “You should call 112 immediately. Remember to never leave your car [or current location], even if you are finding the wait to be really long”.
Finally, Jónas suggests that people should take advantage of the 1777 number to get information about weather and road conditions if they don’t have access to WiFi. Stopping at gas stations and looking for the Safetravel information screen is also highly recommend as mentioned earlier.
E. Other Safety Tips
Glaciers - We’ve lost many hikers that have fallen into a rift in a glacier. The rifts are often covered with snow or thin ice and breaks when people unknowingly step on them. (See next tip about using guides)
Beaches - Don’t underestimate the power of the Icelandic sea. Many travelers have been injured or died when strong ocean waves hit a beach and bring them out to sea.
Cliffs - Please use common sense when you’re near a big cliff. Remember the strong Icelandic winds and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Caves - Some caves close during the wintertime while others are not regulated at all. Follow signs and use a guide when exploring caves (see next tip).
Rivers - Just like the ocean, Icelandic glacier rivers can be very different from the rivers you know. Do not cross a river, in a vehicle or otherwise, unless you know exactly what you’re doing. Even then, show extreme caution.
Use a guide
Unless you are an incredibly experienced explorer and/or know Iceland like the back of your hand, consider using professional guides. This is especially important if you’re considering walking on glaciers, exploring caves, or doing something similarly risky. Icelandic nature can be harsh and unpredictable, so the best way to minimize risk is to trust the advice of people who know the area and have done it hundreds of times before.
Buy a SIM Card
Make sure that you have a phone that works on the Icelandic network. I highly recommend the SIM cards from Siminn, as they have the most extensive network in Iceland. This is not only for convenience, but more importantly an important safety issue.
Download the 112 Iceland App
This app could save your life it you use it correctly. It allows you to call for help by simply pressing a button. Doing so will simultaneously send your GPS coordinates to the emergency services to speed up the process. Even if you don’t have a signal, there’s a chance that the location text message goes through. It also allows you to “check in” regularly, leaving your location with the emergency service. You can (and should) do this as much as you like and they encourage people to do so for added safety.
In addition to the more obvious topics, such as clothing (see chapter below), make sure that you have all the necessary equipment. The following list of items could prove extremely useful while traveling in Iceland:
- Headlamp/good flashlight
- First aid supplies
- Waterproof matches/lighter
- Extra protein/snack bars and water
- Knife / Leatherman
- A good map of Iceland
- Phone charger / extra battery
- Personal Location Beacon (PLB) - You can rent one at 4 different locations in Iceland
For more useful resources while you’re on the road in Iceland, check out chapter 4.f: During your trip.
Leave a travel plan
Whether you leave a travel plan with a friend or submit it to safetravel.is, you should make sure that somebody knows about your plans and can react if something goes wrong.
3. How to dress
The Icelandic weather is unique, unpredictable, and unforgiving. So it should make sense that dressing for the Icelandic weather would be a little tricky. Icelanders learn this skill from a very young age - in part through trial and error and also from the wise elders (mom and dad). But not all Icelanders are experts, me included, so I decided to ask the real experts at Cintamani - one of Iceland’s top outdoors clothing company. I contacted them since they also just happen to be my personal favorite.
“It’s important to wear layers while in Iceland” says Lilja K. Birgisdóttir, my trusted Cintamani expert. She recommends thinking about these 3 important layers:
- Base layer - Warm thermal underwear such as Merino wool (top and pants)
- Middle layer - Warm fleece/wool sweater or a Primaloft jacket
- Outer layer - rain and windproof jacket/pants or a warm parka.
“Hat, gloves and water resistant shoes and voilá! You’re all set for your Iceland Adventure!” she adds. Although I haven’t thought about it consciously as much as Lilja, I couldn’t agree more about the importance of layers. You never know what the Icelandic weather will throw at you and things can change in a matter of minutes. Using layers is definitely the most effective way of dealing with that kind of weather.
Adding to the layers mentioned above, here are some of the clothing essentials for your Iceland trip:
- Warm hat - You might even bring a couple - one super warm and another lighter.
- Scarf / Buff - I use the Merino wool Buff myself, but some people prefer a balaclava for the harshest weather. Again, you might want to bring a buff/balaclava AND a light scarf, just to be prepared for anything.
- Gloves - You won’t regret investing in good gloves. You want to stay warm while also being active outside, so bringing a good pair of gloves is a must.
- Socks - Nothing beats a pair of quality wool socks. You should also consider a more engineered hiking sock if you’re planning on doing some serious hiking.
- Long Johns - Or as we call it, “föðurland” (“homeland”), is essential for a comfortable Iceland trip. Don’t go for the polyester Walmart kind. Invest in a high-quality wool base layers and you’ll thank yourself during your Iceland trip.
- Wool/fleece sweater - Icelanders love their wool sweaters. My grandmother has knitted me 2 wool sweaters and they’ve kept me warm for many years. They aren’t cheap (especially if they’re made from Icelandic wool), but a good quality wool sweater is a good investment and perfect to wear underneath your outer layer. You can also bring a good fleece sweater that will serve a similar purpose.
- Swimsuit - Some people actually forget to bring their swimsuit because, after all, they’re not going on a beach vacation. But bring your favorite swimsuit to enjoy some of the amazing geothermal pools and hot springs Iceland has to offer. Just remember that some of the more remote and untouched natural hot springs do not have changing facilities. So bring something that you can easily and quickly put on and take off.
- Warm leggings - When yoga pants aren’t warm enough and jeans aren’t comfortable enough, wear your fleece-lined leggings.
- Light jacket - Perfect outer layer when the weather is behaving or middle layer when it’s not. A jacket like this combined with a quality outer shell is a killer combo.
- Heavy winter jacket / parka - A warm and long jacket like this will be the star of your wardrobe. Again, invest in quality and enjoy it for years or decades.
- Shell / rain jacket - When the heavy parka is too warm, having a good shell or rain jacket as your outer layer is perfect. Combined with your inner and middle layers, you’ll be ready to fight the wind and rain in Iceland.
- Hiking boots - Bring a pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots. They might weigh a lot in your suitcase, but trust me, it’s worth its weight in gold while in Iceland.
- Regular boots/shoes - For when the weather is nice or when you’re walking in Reykjavik, bring a pair of comfortable and light shoes.
- Your favorite tops and bottoms - Bring your favorite jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, or whatever else you enjoy wearing the most. If you’ve got everything listed above covered, it can’t hurt to bring some everyday-clothes that you enjoy.
But just because you’re serious about warm and practical clothing doesn’t mean that you can’t be fashionable. People that live in the greater Reykjavik area tend to be very fashionable. And since roughly ⅔ of the population lives in the Reykjavik area, Icelanders are a pretty fashionable group of people in general. Think of any other cosmopolitan capital city in the Western world and you’ll have a good idea of how most Icelanders like to dress.
Companies like Cintamani know this very well. They “combine advanced technical performance with a fashion-forward sensibility and an Icelandic perspective on dressing for the weather to create stylish, dependable outerwear.” as Lilja puts it. “Use the opportunity to rock some statement parkas, have fun with it. Wear colors, especially in the wintertime. It keeps you safe and easily seen.” she adds.
Asking Lilja about some of the most common mistakes Iceland travelers make when choosing their clothing, she talks about how people don't realize "how fast the weather changes in Iceland. It can be sunny one minute and raining the next. Many travelers come unprepared thinking that they can go on outdoor adventures wearing sneakers and a hoodie. Not a good idea! You can try to toughen up, but you won’t look so tough if you are the person trying to hike up a glacier with sneakers on”. When discussing winter weather, she emphasizes the importance of the Icelanders’ favorite piece of clothing, the parka. “During wintertime it’s essential to wear a warm and comfy Parka. You’ll see most of the Icelanders wearing them.”
It’s difficult to write about how to pack for Iceland since it will mostly depend on the kind of trip you are taking. You would pack very differently depending on whether you are hitchhiking with a tent around Iceland or staying in luxury hotels. But there are still a few basic tips that apply to any situation:
- Quality of quantity - Bring quality clothing and gear that you can reuse and depend on. Do you really need 12 pairs of socks or can you reuse those amazing wool socks? Sometimes less is more.
- Backpack - Airlines usually allow a “personal item” on planes, so bring an efficiently packed backpack with you on the plane (if you can - depends on the size of your backpack). Even if you have to pack the backpack, it’s worth bringing for longer hikes and easy access to essentials when enjoying attractions and unexpected highlights in the Icelandic nature.
- Sunglasses- You heard me right. Seeing the sun during winter is a rare thing, but that low-hanging sun will make it difficult to see if you don’t have good sunglasses.
- Water bottle - Finding good quality water in Iceland is not difficult, but that doesn’t change the fact that having a water bottle with you is convenient and smart.
- Electronics - Think about what electronics you are going to be using and how you plan on charging them. Can it handle the 220V European system, do you need power inverters or adapters? Can you charge your devices in the car? Bring a camera (obviously) unless you’re happy with your phone’s photo quality. Just remember that photographing the northern lights with a camera can be very difficult and never ideal.
- Hiking aid - This depends on your comfort level, habits, and experience, but bringing hiking poles and/or crampons could be very useful for winter hiking.
- Quick-dry towel - I use this all the time when traveling around Iceland. It takes almost not space and dries very quickly. Perfect for adventures.
Got some more ideas? Please let me know in the comments so I can add it to the list!
4. Planning your winter trip
Traveling in Iceland during winter will only give you 4 to 6,5 hours of daylight per day. Considering how many awesome attractions there are out there to see, that’s not a lot of time. But with a little bit of planning, you can make sure to make the most of your Iceland winter trip.
- Google Maps - Your best friend for estimating driving times, looking up addresses, and finding new attractions.
- WOW Air
- List of airlines flying to Iceland
- List of flight comparison websites
- Inspired By Iceland
- Visit Reykjavik
Before you start your research, how about some inspiration? These are some of my go-to places for good Iceland travel content:
Auður from IheartReykjavik is by far the best Icelandic travel blogger out there. Auður is always transparent and her goal is clearly to be as helpful as possible to Iceland visitors. Check out her blog and start daydreaming.
Matt is not only a super cool guy, but he runs one of the most popular travel blogs in the world. He’s a fan of Iceland and has written a lot of good content about his adventures there.
Kiersten has been to Iceland several times and gives her unique perspective on her impressive blog.
Another celebrity travel blogger who knows what he’s talking about.
Jeannie works and lives in Iceland, so she can give you the rare perspective of a traveler and a local. She has a lot of good content and her Facebook Iceland Travel Group is super active and useful.
Natasha and Cameron are experienced Iceland travelers and have put together some excellent content, including this Iceland Guide.
The biggest travel marketplace in Iceland also has a great blog. Why? Mostly because they get locals to blog for them.
Liz has a lot of good posts about Iceland.
Another American who lives in Iceland, so she knows what she’s talking about. It doesn’t hurt that her photography is really good too.
Of course I have to throw it in there. It’s us. We have fun.
One of the best ways to get you inspired and pumped about your Iceland trip. Accounts and hashtags worth checking out:
@happycampers_, @icelandair, @wheniniceland, @igers_iceland, @iheartreykjavik, @icelandic_explorer, @benjaminhardman, @joe_shutter, @sigvicious, @everydayiceland, @visitwestfjords
#happyiceland, #mystopover, #ig_iceland, #tinyiceland, #exploreiceland, #icelandexplored, #icelandsecret, #icelandtrip, #inspiredbyiceland, #icelandtravel, #visiticeland, #lostiniceland, #igersiceland, #icelandicnature, #absolute_iceland, #everydayiceland, #bestoficeland
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There are a LOT of flight comparison- and booking websites that you can choose from. I would highly recommend Dohop. Not only did I work there for a while, but it has several things going for it. First, it’s been voted the World’s Leading Flight Comparison Website three times. Second, it’s the only Icelandic website, focusing on flights to and from Iceland. Finally, its “self-connect” technology allows you to save a lot of money by connecting flights from different airlines when possible. But hey, if you want to check out some of the other websites, you could start with this excellent list.
As far as airlines go, I can only share my personal experience. I have flown to and from Iceland probably well over 50 times using Icelandair, WOW air, and Delta. Even though it’s just a personal preference, let me just say that I only fly with Icelandair now.
D. Travel Companies
Chances are that you want to book some of your activities ahead of time. Whether you’re looking to rent a car, book an ice cave tour, or make a dinner reservation, it might seem daunting trying to decide which companies deserve your business. Here are a few of my go-to resources and some thoughts on how to find that perfect company.
General resources and advice
- Vakinn - the official quality and environmental system for Icelandic Tourism. See if the business is one of their list of 108 certified companies here.
- Inspired By Iceland - It’s Icelandic tourism’s official marketing campaign. Their website contains a list of trusted companies in the travel industry. If you can’t find your company on this list, you might want to ask some more questions.
- Visit Reykjavik - The official marketing office for Reykjavik and surrounding municipalities. Check out their “What to do” section for a useful list of trusted companies
- TripCreator - An Icelandic company that offers a cool tool that allows you to create your own trip. TripCreator is not available to the public but you can access it through both Icelandair and Pink Iceland.
- TripHobo has a great trip planner that you can check out. They offer a simple and intuitive way to plan your trip in Iceland from A-Z.
- Bookmundi, based in Denmark, is a global travel booking portal where you can pretty easily book day tours and multiday tours in +120 countries, including Iceland. They offer both private tours, group tours as well as customized tours, so if that's your thing, you can check out their Iceland tours.
Icelandic tourism has been booming over the past few years and I’ve seen tens and even hundreds of new companies enter the market over that period. Happy Campers, for example, was the first camper van rental opening in 2009, but today there are at least 20 campervan rentals in this small country. Whatever the industry, businesses can range from being one guy with a jeep and a website to a well established company with 300+ employees. How can you know the difference?
Check the above resources - And see if the company you’re looking at is on one of these lists.
Read (and count) reviews - A company with a rating below ⅘ should be avoided and don’t just check the rating. Make sure there are at least 20+ reviews of this company on the web. Look out for reviews about winter experiences in particular. Here are some good places to look for honest reviews:
- Bloggers (Remember that bloggers might be sponsored. If it’s a good blogger that you trust, they should at least tell you if they are sponsored and give an honest review regardless). Here is an example review post by Auður from Iheartreykjavik.net. We offered her a free rental in return for her very honest opinion.
Study their website - Does it look professional and up-to-date? How much information can you find there about winter traveling? Here are some things to check for:
- Check the age of the website here. Is it younger than 3 years old?
- Is the overall website design professional?
- Do they have a legitimate address listed in the footer?
- Is there an easy way to contact them (contact form)
- Do they have a business phone number listed prominently? Go to Ja.is and type in their number. If anything but a business name comes up, it’s simply somebody’s cell phone number and that’s not a good sign.
- Check their website on your phone. Is it mobile responsive?
- Do they use photos from actual customers/products or stock images?
The Happy Campers website (you're browsing it now - trippy)
Stalk them on social media - Any legitimate business will be approachable on social media and create and share some good content. Do they have more than 1,000 followers? Do they share good content and are people engaging with their content? Do they seem authentic? Are they active during the winter months?
Contact them and ask - Email them (or call). One, you can ask them directly how much experience they have and how long they have been in business. Two, you will get a good sense of how professional they are. If they respond to your email promptly, professionally, and honestly, it’s good evidence of a legitimate company.
Transportation and Accommodation
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is how you are planning on getting around Iceland and how you want to spend your nights. As far as transportation goes, here are your options:
For accommodation, you have these options:
- Book regular hotels
- Use cheaper accommodation options
- Airbnb or similar
- Bring a tent (and lots of good gear, because you’ll need it)
- Rent a campervan
Now you need to choose a combination of these transportation and accommodation options. If you decide to go with options 1 or 2, following the general advice in this post is all you need to worry about. After all, finding, booking, and timing your entire trip around hotel bookings can be difficult enough.
However, if you decide to go with options 3 or 4, there are some additional things to keep in mind. You should also take a closer look at Chapter 5 below.
Renting a campervan in winter
Renting a campervan will kill two birds with one stone and simplify this entire planning process a lot. So I would highly recommend this option, but since I work for Happy Campers, of course I’m biased. But if you happen to agree with me, keep this in mind:
- Make sure that the company is actually open. Some companies (like Happy Campers) close during the harshest winter months in order to be responsible.
- Do they offer 4x4 vans? If you are traveling in December or January, renting a 4x4 might be the safer bet.
- Does the van have a heater? Some companies don’t offer a heater, which would be impossible during the wintertime.
- Do they offer additional warm beddings for free or for rent? Consider renting extra sleeping bags and make sure you’ll have enough bedding.
- Does the van have winter tires (studded)?
Renting a camper can be the perfect way to find the northern lights
Using a tent
I could write a whole separate post on the experience of traveling in a tent in Iceland during winter. If you are reading this post, chances are that you are not planning on doing this. This option should only be considered by the most experienced trekkers and they would know just as much or more about the subject than me anyway.
All I would say is that you should take extreme cautionary measure if you go this route. With the right equipment, planning, and experience, this can be done but people have died doing this and I don’t recommend it. If you are seriously considering this option, you might want to talk to ICE-SAR directly with your questions (skrifstofa “at” landsbjorg.is)
The good thing about traveling during the low-season is that no matter which combination of accommodation and lodging you choose, you should get a nicely discounted price.
Instead of doing your own research, another option is to rely on a reputable travel agency to book your winter trip in Iceland. This can be a very good option for some people as it can have some real benefits. To simplify, which answer to this question describes you better?
What kind of traveler are you?:
- I like finding bargains, being independent, knowing my options, making choices based on my own preferences, being prepared, talking to locals directly, and I’m comfortable using online websites and tools.
- I like things to be easy, value my time, easily get overwhelmed by many options, get very anxious about making mistakes, enjoy a personal touch from an expert, am less worried about finding the best deal, and am not comfortable/don’t enjoy using online websites and tools.
If answer B describes you better, you might want to consider booking through a travel agent. As of today, there are 332 registered travel agencies operating in Iceland. You can see the full list here. Here is a list of a few companies that have been around for a while and that I would trust (followed by their online rating):
Icelandic travel agencies:
- Hey Iceland - 4.6/5
- Extreme Iceland - 4.7/5
- Iceland Travel - 4.5/5
- Nordic Visitor - 4.9/5
- Pink Iceland - 4.8/5
- Esja Travel - 4.8/5
- Midgard adventure - 5/5
- Eskimos - 5/5
- Ísafold travel - 4.6/5
- Iceland Tours - 4.7/5
Non-Icelandic travel agencies:
If you’ve had a really good experience with a different travel agency, please let me know and I’ll add it to the list.
In general, it’s been reported that travel agencies in Iceland have been suffering a bit as people are moving towards independent travel planning.
Marketplaces and Comparison Websites
Websites that aggregate and present available tours and accommodation all over Iceland are called travel comparison websites or travel marketplaces. You’ll find a lot of these websites out there, since their business model is quite attractive. They take the usual 15% commission like any other travel agency, but unlike travel agencies, they do not offer much in terms of extra service to the customer. These website can be incredibly useful to compare prices and weigh different options but in my opinion, you should avoid booking through these middlemen for a couple of reasons:
- Some of them don’t have the latest information on pricing and availability. Booking directly with the company or having a travel agent do that work for you is always a safer bet in my opinion.
- Avoiding them will save the company you’re booking with 10-20%, so you are supporting the people who are actually providing you with the service instead of the middleman. It doesn’t cost you anything, but personally, it just makes me feel better about my purchase.
- In some cases, these aggregators will not require you give as much information about yourself as needed to complete the booking. This might result in additional communications or extra time spent at the office when you’re in Iceland.
But like I said, these websites can be extremely useful and I wouldn’t judge anybody who books through them. Here are the ones I know of and could recommend:
Guide to Iceland
The largest marketplace for travel services in Iceland and a great place to start your search.
The official marketing office of the greater Reykjavik area. Not only do they list trustworthy companies on their website, but they also allow you to book with them directly.
Just like Visit Reykjavik, this is an official marketing initiative. They have a lot of useful information and also offer an easy way to book through their website.
The father of all accommodation comparison websites. It currently has over 1,700 properties listed in Iceland, so if you’re looking for options, well, there you go.
This is the Booking.com of car rentals but won’t include all of the smaller local car rentals that might offer better deals. Regardless, it’s a great place to start your car rental research.
If you’re looking for cottages in Iceland, this is a good place to start
Hopefully you’ve heard of TripAdvisor before, because it’s a fantastic source of information. Spend some time on their discussion forums, but they also offer a good search engine to find tours and accommodation in Iceland.
Another option similar to TripAdvisor.
They offer more than just flights. You can use their website to find car rentals and hotels (they use Booking.com for hotels and Rentalcars.com for cars). More impressively, they also allow you to put together your own “vacation package” based on your travel dates.
A simple-to-use website that lets you compare tours available in Iceland.
Another tour aggregator with a straightforward search engine.
Here are some of my favorite winter tour operators and other travel companies in Iceland that should offer a great winter experience:
- Happy Campers (duhh, that's me)
- IheartReykjavik.net (Auður)
- Arctic Adventures
- Extreme Iceland
- Trek Iceland
- Glacier guides
- Dive Silfra
- Arctic Rafting
- Viking Rafting
- Scuba Iceland
- Glacier Lagoon Iceland
- Arctic Sea Tours
- Icelandic Mountain Guides
- Iceland Rovers
- Reykjavik Sightseeing
- Into the Glacier
- Arctic Trucks Experience
- Pólar Hestar
- Secret Lagoon
- Wake Up Reykjavik
- LAVA Centre
- Summit Adventure Guides
- Cheap Jeep
- Hotel Holt
- Elding Whale Watching (I highly recommend Gentle Giants in Husavik also, but they close for 3 months during the winter)
For ideas about things to do in Iceland, make sure to check out chapter 6 below.
E. Planning your route
When planning your route, there are 3 approaches.
- Business first - Decide which companies you want to do business with and then plan your route and attractions accordingly
- Route first - Plan your route and then figure out which companies to do business with and which attractions are along the route.
- Attractions first - Decide which attractions you want to see and then plan your route, activities, and hotels around that.
I definitely recommend option 3, since those attractions are the main reason why you’re in Iceland in the first place. Considering the popularity (and limited options of alternatives) of the Icelandic “ring road”, most people end up going with a mix of options 2 and 3, i.e. plan on seeing a few select attractions along the ring road. Regardless of your approach, here are some tips on how to plan your route in Iceland during winter.
Route planning tools
There are a few good route planning tools out there, but being a huge Google fan, I always rely on Google Maps. If you want to look at some alternatives, here are some options:
There are many route planning tools out there and hopefully you’ll find some of them useful. They’re just a bit too complicated for my taste and I don’t have as much confidence in their database as I have in Google’s.
Using Google Maps
Once you’ve decided on activities, attractions, and length of your trip, it’s time to start playing around on Google Maps. Plug in your hotels, campsites, attractions, and tour operators’ address to get a good sense of driving times and distances.
Go to Your Maps, click “Get Started”, and click the large “+” button to create a new map. Name your map and layer and start building your route. After looking up a destination, simply click “add to map” to save it to your map. Under the search bar, you will also see other options such as the “add directions” tool, where you can easily add driving directions to your map. This is my favorite way to slowly start building an itinerary for my trip and make sure that I stay on schedule.
Make sure to add a good amount of time to however long Google Maps estimates it will take you to drive somewhere in Iceland. When you’re driving in Iceland during winter, you should be taking your time and expect some slow driving in difficult conditions.
Making the most of limited daylight
As we mentioned above in our chapter about safety and the weather, you will have very limited daylight in Iceland. Make sure that you think about that when you are planning your route. Don’t schedule driving through beautiful lava fields early in the morning or late at night, as you won’t be able to see them. This can also be a safety issue. You don’t want to struggle to find a campsite in a crazy snowstorm when it’s completely dark.
In general, consider to schedule the following during the dark hours:
- Preparation (such as getting ready for the day setting up for the night)
- Restaurants, coffee shops, etc. (grab a quick meal during the day, spend some time dining during the morning and/or in the evening)
- Northern lights hunting/watching
- Partying / nightlife
- Purposeful driving (i.e. not for sightseeing)
- Shows (concerts, theater, etc.)
- Cultural events / Holidays (Reykjavik Light Festival, New Years Eve, etc.)
- Exploring cultural buildings (Harpa, Hallgrimskirkja, Perlan, etc.)
- Simming (in some cases. It really depends on the swimming pool or hot spring. You might want to hike to a remote natural hot spring during daylight, for example, but enjoying a local swimming pool in Iceland is very enjoyable during nighttime)
And consider the following when you have daylight:
- Driving scenic roads
- Experience your must-see attractions
- Go on activity tours
- Swimming (in some cases)
- Anything else you’re really looking forward to doing in Iceland
D. During your trip
Just because you’re now in Iceland and on the road doesn’t mean that your planning is now done. You want to make sure that you keep planning your days for two main reasons:
- You want to stick with your plan to make the most of your trip and avoid unnecessary hassle (this is especially true if you don’t have a campervan)
- It’s a safety issue (See Chapter 1)
Here are the most important things to plan for while you’re on the road:
- What’s the weather like today? Does it alter my itinerary?
- How are the road conditions today? Does it alter my itinerary?
- How has my plan been going so far? Is today’s itinerary realistic?
- What routes are we taking today?
- Any difficult roads or gravel roads?
- What kind of signs should I be looking out for on this route?
- Any attractions on this route that I hadn’t thought about before, just in case we have extra time?
These are some useful resources for when you’re on the road. Some of these resources were listed under the safety chapter, while others are new:
- Vedur.is - Most recent weather updates.
- Road.is - Most recent road conditions
- Vegasja - Live webcams of roads around Iceland
- Lonely Planet Country Guide - Lots of useful information about Iceland
- Lonely Planet Guide App - Similar to the country guide, except in an app
- What, where, and how in Iceland by Arni Tryggvason (This book is included in all Happy Campers vans)
- Iceland Road Guide - A complete road and reference guide that comes with an app
- Áning - Everything about accommodations in Iceland
- Iceland Touring Map - A good map made by Vegahandbókin, the same people that make the Iceland Road Guide.
- International Photographer Map - A tearproof and waterproof map of Iceland for photographers
- Iceland National Geographic Adventure Map
- 4G WiFi from Trawire - to stay connected on the road (Some campervan rentals like Happy Campers offer their own WiFi)
Other ideas? Let me know in the comments.
5. Winter campsites in Iceland
There are literally hundreds of campsites all over Iceland. Compared some other countries, finding and staying in a campsite is incredibly easy in Iceland. Just find the closest campsite, arrive when you want, and either pay when you get there or next morning. You don’t have to book in advance and I have never heard of a campsite being full. With that being said, there are a few important tips you should know before camping around Iceland in the wintertime.
- Winter Campsites in Iceland Map
- Tjalda.is - For more information about campsites in Iceland
- Hot Pot Iceland - Shows all swimming pools and hot springs in Iceland
B. All year campsites in Iceland
Even though there are hundreds of campsites in Iceland, most of them are only open over the summer months. This can make choosing a campsite rather confusing, as there doesn’t seem to be a single reliable source of campsite information out there. Well, that’s why I created my own. Below is a map that shows campsites that are guaranteed to be open all year. You might find other maps showing winter campsites in Iceland but keep in mind that many of them are very outdated. I go over this map every year and add/remove campsites.
If you book a van with Happy Campers, you get this map, plus a map with all other summer campsites both in digital and physical form. With 26 campsites to choose from during winter, it still gives you plenty of options to choose from when you plan your trip.
All year campsites in Iceland:
- Garðskagi Campsite
- Garður Íþróttamiðstöð
- Reykjavík/Laugardalur Campsite
- Selfoss Campsite
- Úthlíð Campsite
- Hellishólar Campsite
- Skógar Campsite
- Skaftafell Campsite
- Egilsstaðir Campsite
- Végarður Campsite
- Vogar / Myvatn Campsite
- Lífsmótun (Hjalli) by Laugar
- Akureyri / Hamrar Campsite
- Dalvík / Skeið
- Glaðheimar / Blönduós
- Þingvellir National Park Campsite
- Búðardalur Campground
- Þingeyri Campsite
- Hotel Fljótshlíð
- Skjóð Campgrounds
- Möðrudalur Camping
Note that there is no completely accurate resource that contains information about all campsites in Iceland. So don't be surprised if you find another resource that lists different information.
We have to call each campsite individually to make sure that we have the most recent information and in some cases we don’t get responses or discover a lot of changes since last season. Some of these campsites are not the well-established businesses you’ll find when you visit campsites in the U.S. or other parts of Europe. Tourism in Iceland is very new and growing very fast, accompanied by many growing pains, and you’ll see evidence of that when you stay at some of these campsites.
All year campsite amenities
As I touched on above, even though these campsites are officially open, don’t expect the same amenities you would find in other countries or even at the same campsite during the summertime. The services vary vastly, from a simple patch of grass (or snow) where you’re legally allowed to camp overnight, to campsites with a service shed, running water, and showers. The rule of thumb is that you should not expect facilities to be operating during the wintertime.
Use the campsites to park the van or set up your tent for the night, but take advantage of the many geothermal pools located all over Iceland (they don’t close during winter). You will find one in every little town your drive through and most of them offer nice dressing room facilities with hot showers and bathrooms. Hot Pot Iceland is an awesome resource for finding a good swimming pool or geothermal hot spring on your route.
A modest campsite in Djúpivogur during my last road trip
New camping regulations
New camping regulations took effect in November of 2015. Since then, it has become illegal to spend the night in a camper outside organized campsites, unless you get permission from the landowner. To be more specific:
“Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on uncultivated ground for a single night, unless the landowner has posted a notice to the contrary. However, campers should always use designated campsites where they do exist. Do not camp close to farms without permission. If a group of more than three tents is involved, these campers must seek permission from the landowner before setting up camp outside marked campsite areas.”
With millions of tourists traveling to Iceland each year, this law was passed to protect our nature and respect landowners all over rural Iceland. For the normal camper, this should not be a big issue as there are plenty of excellent campsites all over the country. As a true Happy Camper, please respect Iceland’s nature, customs, and laws.
6. What to do in Iceland in winter
Iceland in winter gives you the opportunity to see a different side of Iceland and do things that might not be possible during the summer. People are much more likely to do tours during winter, and for a good reason. For this chapter, I relied on input from the experts at Iceland Mountain Guides, who have a lot of experience with winter activities in Iceland.
When I asked them about what people could do in Iceland in winter, they explained that “the cold, crisp air is refreshing and with the right clothing you can enjoy so many activities. Hiking, skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowshoeing, walking on a glacier, ice climbing, ice caves and bathing in hot springs are just a few of activities that many people that live and visit Iceland take part in. The days might be short but you can pack in a lot of adventure. Also, long nights allow for ample opportunities to possibly see the Northern Lights.”
The most popular activities by season
With the help and inspiration from Iceland Mountain Guides, I put together this list of top activities, attractions, and events you can experience in Iceland during winter:
A. Northern Lights
The northern lights are the #1 reason people travel to Iceland in winter. Experiencing the northern lights is something you won’t forget easily and I haven’t met anybody who’s thought that seeing the northern lights was disappointing.
How to find the northern lights
You’re in Iceland during winter, which is a great start. Find out when the sun sets and what time of day is the darkest here. Click on today’s day to see a graph that shows you that information. On December 21st, for example, sunset is at 3:29 PM and sunrise at 11:22 AM, with the darkest time of day being between 12:30-2:30 AM. This would be the best time to look for the aurora, even though you should probably start looking well before then, as it will already be quite dark.
Check out cloud cover and aurora activity here. Move the slider to “00” of the night you’re planning on seeing the aurora and look at the map. The white parts of the country indicate clear skies but cloudier skies are indicated with an increasingly dark shade of green.
In the top right corner, you will find an aurora scale from 0 to 9. If the scale is showing 0-2, there will be little chances of any aurora activity that night. However, if it’s 3 or above, it should be worth looking for the aurora. I have been using this tool for years and this is how I’ve learned to interpret the scale:
- 0-1: Not worth looking
- 2: Chances of faint northern lights. I usually don’t bother looking.
- 3: Probably at least some faint northern lights and possibly some stronger activity.
- 4: I’m excited. There’s a pretty good chance of strong activity.
- 5: I’m definitely not missing this. I’m expecting a good show tonight.
- 6-9: Holy cow, I’m cancelling my plans tomorrow, grabbing all my camera gear, and spending all night outside and/or in my van.
The highest I’ve ever seen on this scale is 6, but I’m not always looking. I should mention that this scale is no guarantee. I have been very disappointed before when I saw a 4 on the scale, but there was no activity. It can happen. Also, make sure to check the website minutes before you head out to look for the northern lights (and even during, if possible). Sometimes they update the website very late. I remember when they updated a “5” to a “0” at 5 PM one night, so I had been excited all morning for nothing. Bummer, but that’s how it is.
Check out my other post on my favorite places to see the northern lights in Iceland, if you’re interested.
Northern lights tours
These are the most popular tours in winter by far. There are a lot of good companies that specialize in northern lights tours, and I’ve heard good things from people who have gone. Here are some highly rated tours you could check out:
- Compare tours with Guide to Iceland (comparison website)
- Compare tours with Nordic Visitor (Travel Agency)
- Aurora tours with Extreme Iceland
- Reykjavik Excursion Bus Tour
- Glacier Wonderland and Northern Lights with Into the Glacier
- Reykjavik Northern Lights Cruise with Elding
- Northern Lights & Stars with Reykjavik Sightseeing
- 2 Day South Coast, Glacier Hike and Northern Lights with Glacier Guides
- Iceland Northern Lights and Lobster Jeep Tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides
However, before you jump ahead and book one of these tours, let’s go over the pros and cons of going on an aurora tour:
- You don’t have to drive
- You might meet some interesting people
- You might go to a cool place you wouldn’t have found on your own (like a glacier or a boat)
- You might get a very good and useful guide that can add to your experience
- It’s more expensive than renting a car for 24 hours. The northern lights are free and by booking a tour, you’re simply paying a premium for a ride out of the city (to avoid light pollution) and back.
- It will be crowded. Don’t expect a quiet moment by yourself or significant other.
- You lose flexibility and independence. What if you want to watch the northern lights for another hour? What if you want to see them or photograph them is a different location?
- You have limited space. This is especially true if you have camera gear. You’ll also be limited in how much extra clothing, camping chairs, etc. you can bring to make your experience more enjoyable.
You can weigh these pros and cons and make your own decision, but personally I would not go on a northern lights tour. I enjoy the flexibility and independence too much and I’m comfortable driving myself. More importantly, I think that the peace, quiet, and stillness is a huge part of the whole northern lights experience and I don’t want to miss that. Imagine any other significant moment in your life (marriage, childbirth, proposal, etc.). Now imagine that moment with a bunch of strangers talking, checking their phones, and making “oooohh” and “ahhh” sounds. Now choose which version of that memory you prefer.
Of course I’m a little biased and I understand that this is just a personal preference. Like I said, weigh the pros and cons and check out the tours above if you think a tour would be more up your alley.
If you’d like another local’s opinion on this exact question, check out IheartReykjavik’s northern lights tour post.
Photographing the northern lights
This topic deserves a blog post in itself, but we’ll have to make due with just a few select tips. As an amateur photographer, I know a thing or two about photographing the northern lights. The most important thing when shooting the northern lights, believe it or not, is to dress well (See chapter 3).If you're freezing cold, you won't have the patience to get the perfect shot. Here are other tips for those wanting to shoot the northern lights. This mostly applies to DSLR cameras but can also be applied to other cameras and even camera phones that offer advanced features (Although I don’t recommend trying to photograph the northern lights on your phone).
- Shoot in RAW format or highest possible resolution.
- Shoot in manual mode
- Use a wide-angle lens. Most cheaper non-DSLR cameras have a wide-angle lens. I use my 10-22mm Canon Lens, but anything below 20mm is recommended.
- Use a remote trigger if possible. You can also consider using the timer setting on your camera to minimize movement and blurry images.
- Set LCD screen brightness to low
- Bring a travel chair. It will make your more patient, which is super important.
- Bring a snack for the same reason.
- Bring a lens with a large aperture if possible (f/4 or bigger, i.e. a number lower than 4)
- Set your ISO to 1600 and then make adjustments based on first test shots
- Don't forget about composition. I know you're excited to start shooting the northern lights, but take a few extra minutes to think about the composition during your setup.
- Experiment with shutter speed. I usually shoot at between 10 to 25 seconds. Start at 20 seconds and then adjust. If you have a super fast lens (f2 maximum aperture or better), you might want to start with 6-10 seconds. You shouldn’t go over 30 seconds as you’ll start to see some star trailing and other unnatural blurry effects.
- Remove the filter from your lens
- Pre-focus your lens (and then set it to Manual focus mode). Try not to set the focus to infinite, as that won’t give you perfect focus in my experience (although people have different options on this). You might have to set your autofocus to a single focus point or use the Live View mode on your camera to focus on the brightest point in the sky, such as a start, the moon, or the northern lights themselves.
- Test exposure, consult histogram.
- Have at least 2 batteries and 2 memory cards
- Use a sturdy tripod
- Check the aurora forecasts
- Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens
Check out these helpful resources for more info about photographing the northern lights.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights video by John E. Marriott
Northern Lights Photography – The Definitive Guide by Dave Morrow
B. Top winter activities
If you like adventure, you’ll like Iceland in the winter. From simple hikes to winter surfing in the Atlantic ocean, there’s something for you. Here is a list of the top winter activities in Iceland:
Northern lights hunting
Not a huge surprise, considering the previous chapter. What’s the big deal? Imagine how cool it would be to be in these pictures. Then multiply that feeling by 100.
You’ve probably seen plenty of amazing photos of people exploring the hauntingly blue ice caves in Iceland. Iceland has a lot of amazing ice caves, although not all of them are blue. Check out Guide to Iceland’s Ultimate Guide to Ice Caves in Iceland for everything you need to know about ice caves.
Just to be clear, the blue caves you see in photos are glacier ice caves, i.e. completely made up of ice. These caves are constantly being formed and change every day. These caves are generally only accessible in the wintertime (November - March) and there is no guarantee that they will be found each winter. Do not go into these caves without a professional guide and I unlike northern lights tours, I actually highly recommend booking a tour with a respectable operator to experience these caves. Auður from IheartReykjavik wrote a good article on ice caves here and I also enjoyed ExpertVagabond’s post on his experience here.
Check out these ice caving tours:
- Ice cave tours with Arctic Adventures
- Ice cave tours with Extreme Iceland
- Crystal Ice Cave tour with Glacier Guides
- Ice cave tours with Arctic Guides
- Ice cave tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides
- Glacier hike and ice cave tours with Trek Iceland
- Ice Cave Adventure with Glacier Adventure
Hiking and climbing glaciers sounds pretty awesome - and crazy. But don’t worry, even if you’re a total beginner, you should be able to find a glacier hike tour for you. Like most people, Kiersten had never used an ice ax before, and she had a great experience regardless.
Check out these glacier hike tours:
- Glacier hiking tours with Arctic Adventures
- Glacier hike tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides
- Glacier hiking tours with Extreme Iceland
- Glacier tours with Glacier Guides
- Glacier hike and ice cave tours with Trek Iceland
- 2-3 hour glacier hikes with Arcanum Glacier Tours
- Vatnajokull glacier walk with Glacier Adventure
Using a snowmobile can be an awesome way to explore the glaciers of Iceland. Icelanders know a thing or two about snowmobiles and have been using them for decades to travel over heaths and glaciers. The glaciers in Iceland offer some of the highest peaks in the country so you’ll be guaranteed to get beautiful 360° views of Icelandic nature.
Note: Glaciers can be very dangerous as they can have hidden cracks and moulins, so never explore them without a knowledgeable guide.
- Snowmobile tours with Arctic Adventures
- Snowmobile tours with Extreme Iceland
- Snowmobile and South Coast with Arcanum
- Snowmobile Tours with Mountaineers of Iceland
- Snowmobile and ice cave tour combo by Into the Glacier
- Snowmobile tours with Snowmobile.is
Super jeep tours
Let’s face it - some of the most beautiful places in Iceland can be difficult to reach. On top of that, not all travelers have a lot of experience driving in the difficult Icelandic conditions. That’s why booking a super jeep tour can be your perfect solution. No matter the destination or “theme” of the tour, it can be a unique way to see some of the more remote places of the country. Just like with any other tour, make sure to read the reviews and research the destination before committing to a particular tour.
- Super Jeep and Glacier Explore to the Hidden Valley with Glacier Adventure
- Super Jeep Tours with Arctic Adventures
- Super Jeep Tours with Extreme Iceland
- Super Jeep Tour with Into the Glacier
- Super Jeep Tours with Mountaineers of Iceland
- Super Jeep tours with Iceland Rovers
Diving / snorkeling
My coworker, Lea, has actually tried this recently herself and you can read all about it here:
Lea's post pretty much sums up my own thoughts on diving and snorkeling in Iceland, so I’ll leave it at that.
- Diving and snorkeling tours with Scuba Iceland
- Diving tours with Arctic Adventures
- Snorkeling tours with Arctic Adventures
- Diving and snorkeling with Dive.is
- Diving and snorkeling with Dive Silfra
- Diving tours with Extreme Iceland
Skiing / snowboarding
Being raised by a part-time ski instructor and a grandfather who ran the most popular ski area in the country (Bláfjöll), I’m a bit biased towards skiing and snowboarding in Iceland. Unfortunately, Iceland is significantly warmer now compared to when I was a young boy, so we don’t have as many opportunities to hit the slopes. But when you get the chance and the weather allows, there’s nothing more energizing for the soul than to spend a day in the Icelandic mountains with the occasional hot chocolate break.
One possible benefit of skiing/snowboarding in Iceland is that you don’t have to book a tour like with most other activities. Also, renting equipment is never an issue if you don’t want to travel with your own.
Here are some of the most popular ski areas in Iceland:
- Hlidarfjall Ski Area (Akureyri)
- Blafjoll & Skaftafell ski resorts
- Skiing in North Iceland
- Guide To Iceland’s Skiing and snowboarding in Iceland
Hiking / Trail running
There are a lot of amazing trails in Iceland and many of them are perfectly suited for winter. There are plenty of tour operators that offer really good hiking tours but if you’re planning on hiking on your own, don’t underestimate the importance of preparation and safety (see Chapter 2). Make sure that you’ve researched the trail, leave a travel plan, and follow all other basic safety tips mentioned in the safety chapter above.
Personally, I like hiking in the Úlfarsfell, Thingvellir and Thorsmork areas. They are all in or relatively close to Reykjavik and offer unbeatable landscapes and easy trails that are perfectly suited for the snow and short winter days. If you climb Úlsfarsfell (Wolf Mountain), which is very easy, you will also get a really nice view of the city.
- Hiking tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides
- Hiking tours with Arctic Adventures
- Hiking tours with Extreme Iceland
- Reykjavik walking tour with IheartReykjavik
- 10 things you should know before going hiking in Iceland
- Hiking in Iceland winter wonderland
Kristie on top of Ulfarsfell mountain in January with Reykjavik in the background
Dog sledding is not a traditional Icelandic sport or a way of traveling like in some other countries. However, there are a couple of companies that specialize in dog sledding tours and they have becoming increasingly popular lately. After all, Iceland is very well suited for dog sledding. Saying that this would be a unique experience would be an understatement.
Yes, you read that right. Like dog sledding, surfing has increased in popularity over the past few years. It’s the perfect, albeit extreme, way for a surfer to get to know the country in an intimate way. It’s also just a very unique experience that will take you out of your comfort zone and create memories for a lifetime. Arctic Surfers are the only company that specializes in surfing tours in Iceland but they definitely know what they are doing, judging by their reviews and past experience (because no, I have not tried this myself...yet.)
C. Top winter attractions
Iceland has a lot of popular attractions and I won’t attempt to list all of them in this post. But there are a few attractions that are worth mentioning specifically for winter travelers. These attractions are either easier to enjoy, more unique, or I just happen to personally like them more during the winter months.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Even though this is an amazing attraction during the summertime, there’s something special about Jökulsárlón in the winter. First, the glacier lagoon looks more dramatic and even prettier when surrounded by snow and under the golden winter sunlight. Second, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Iceland, so you will find a LOT of people there during the high-season. My favorite part of Jökulsárlón is the quiet, ethereal, and desolate atmosphere you can experience there. If you can hear the icebergs break, that’s a huge bonus. It’s much easier to experience this at Jökulsárlón during the off-season when the parking lots are not completely packed with tour buses.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir is beautiful no matter the season. But when you have limited daylight to work with and are looking for unique landscapes close to the city during winter, Thingvellir is even more attractive. Thingvellir highlights the “winter wonderland” benefits I mentioned at the beginning of this post (Chapter 1.a). Unlike many attractions around Iceland, Thingvellir is just as amazing during the winter months - just different. Enjoy a quiet and relaxing day surrounded by some of the most amazing landscapes Iceland has to offer.
Gullfoss & Geysir
The south and southwest parts of Iceland are really convenient to explore during wintertime in general. When you have limited daylight and difficult conditions, it’s nice not having to travel too far from the international airport. I already mentioned Thingvellir, but I must add Gullfoss and Geysir to this list to complete the Golden Circle.
Also, just like Jökulsárlón, people visit Gullfoss and Geysir by the bus loads in the summer. Expect some lines, having to wiggle through crowds, and having the nature sounds interrupted by loud talking and smartphone notifications during high-season. When you’re at Geysir, for example (you’ll actually be looking for the geyser “Strokkur”, but that’s a different story), you’ll want to be up close and personal to experience the powerful geyser. Having to fight for a spot around the geyser takes just a little bit away from the experience in my opinion. You’ll avoid all of this when you visit Gullfoss and Geysir in the wintertime.
Experiencing the Golden Circle under the golden hours of sunlight during wintertime also feels appropriate.
Instead of trying to describe the beauty of Snæfellsnes peninsula in winter here, hop over to my previous post when I actually explored the peninsula with my wife Kristie:
Winter Road Trip in Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Long story short, it was an unforgettable trip that highlighted all the reasons why I love to travel around Iceland in the winter.
I put Reykjanes on this list for many of the same reasons I chose Snæfellsnes; it’s close to Reykjavik, has a lot of attractions in a small area, and makes for a perfect easy road trip surrounded by beautiful Icelandic nature. To read about my experience exploring Reykjanes peninsula in November, check out my other blog post:
Blue Lagoon (Your favorite geothermal pool)
Even though the Blue Lagoon is technically a part of Reykjanes peninsula, I thought it deserved its own mention. I would actually take my recommendation beyond the Blue Lagoon and say that I think any geothermal pool is especially amazing during winter.
Like I mentioned in Chapter 1.a when talking about pros of traveling during winter, soaking in a hot geothermal pool is especially wonderful when everything is freezing around you. Just like hot chocolate tastes a little bit better on a cold winter night, visiting any of Iceland’s geothermal pools will be that much nice in the winter.
Myvatn is one of the most popular areas to visit in the north for a good reason. I personally enjoy the area a bit more during the summer, although you’ll have the benefit of not having to worry about those annoying gnats (Mývatn translates to “Gnat Lake”). But there is one exception: Dimmuborgir.
Dimmuborgir is a huge lava field in the Myvatn area that offers a really unique and dramatic landscape. It’s said to be the official home of the Yule Lads, but that’s not exactly why I love this area in the winter. Dimmuborgir directly translates into “dark castles” which stems from the hollow lava pillars that are large enough to house people.
It’s difficult to describe, but this landscape fits perfectly into the Icelandic winter scene and I usually stop here during the wintertime when I’m in the area.
Harpa Concert Hall
Reykjavik has a lot of interesting attractions that are fun visiting during winter. Visiting museums, for example, is a great way to stay entertained and warm during cold winter days in Reykjavik. But if I had to choose one attraction in Reykjavik that I enjoy more in the winter compared to summer, it would be Harpa Concert Hall.
The unique colors of Harpa are much more noticable and enjoyable during the darker months of winter. There are also a lot of interesting events that are held at Harpa during winter, and that offers the perfect opportunity to experience Harpa without sacrificing precious daylight.
The capital of the North, as many call it, is the home of about 18,000 people and the largest urban area in Iceland outside the capital region. The culture and atmosphere of Akureyri is quite unique and charming, and I feel like it is enhanced during the winter months. I love all the small restaurants (Love Akureyri Fish & Chips), bars, and coffee shops (Bláa Kannan is my favorite) and spending time in the City Center.
Akureyri alo has the most amazing ski area in Hlíðarfjall. My family has a small winter cabin in the area, so I might be biased, but there’s a good reason why we chose this location.
Although technically an experience, I think this deserves a spot on my list.
Enjoying and alcoholic beverage or two with good friends is always fun, no matter the season. But if you’re planning on exploring downtown Reykjavik, including bars, restaurants, and dance clubs, I prefer winter. That’s mostly because you will be spending most of your time inside warm buildings, so you don’t have to feel guilty about not enjoying the midnight sun in the summer.
I also like downtown during winter because of the “winter wonderland” factor and the fact that Icelanders try really hard to combat the darkness with various cool events, festivals, and exhibitions during the winter months. Check out the chapter below to see some of my favorite events and holidays during wintertime.
All the waterfalls
Seeing some of Iceland’s most majestic waterfalls during winter is a very unique experience. The waterfalls look very different from what they are in summer and the desolate factor is maximized.
All the museums
Like I mentioned above, visiting museums in Iceland is even better during winter. You can plan your trip so you use the limited daylight you have in winter outside, but then you can enjoy museums when it gets dark.
Although 99.9% of people should experience this attraction through a tour (hence me listing this as an activity the previous chapter) it’s technically an attraction and therefore deserves a spot on this list. Many of these ice caves are only available to experience in the winter months.
Winter events & holidays
From raving electronic music to the illumination of the Peace Tower, Iceland has a lot of interesting events and holidays during the winter months. Here are some of the most notable ones:
Mid-January to mid-February
Þorrablót is a midwinter festival that gets its name from the historical Icelandic month called Þorri, which corresponds to mid-January to mid-February. Although this event has a long history, the modern version of this festival arose out of a romantic nationalist movement in the late 19th century, where people would feast and recite poems in honor of Thor (Þórr), the well-known Norse god. The even grew in popularity over the 20th century and was heavily influenced by a restaurant that started serving a specific “Þorramatur” platter and the rest is history. Let´s just say that this was not a vegetarian restaurant and if you are a vegetarian, this festival is most likely not for you.
Today, people get together and enjoy this feast of traditional Icelandic foods, poetry readings, and more. If you want to experience Icelandic cuisine at its best and worst, you should find a way to join a Þorrablót during your stay. Haven’t you just been dying to try a sheep’s head or putrefied shark?
Winter Lights Festival
Winters in Iceland are very dark, so it’s not surprising that we try to fight that with fun and colorful events in the depths of winter. The city of Reykjavik runs the Winter Lights Festival where it puts together a cool program that is a mix of art, industry, environment, history, sports, and culture. They set up specific festival events all over the city and they are targeted towards locals and travelers alike. The best thing is that all events are completely free, so it’s the perfect way to brighten up a dark winter day in Reykjavik.
Icelandic Beer Festival
Did you know that beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989? No joke. So there’s no wonder why Icelanders celebrate their beer freedom with a 4-day festival in Reykjavik that feature some of the best beers the country has to offer. There are a few foreign beers that sneak in there but who cares when you’re surrounded by awesome beer and good food? The festival is held at the popular Kex Hostel near downtown Reykjavik and guests can taste beers and chat with the people behind those amazing brews.
Food and Fun Festival
February 28 - March 4
World-class chefs and from Europe and North America team up with some of the most renowned Reykjavik restaurants to cook up amazing meals using only Icelandic ingredients. This famous and prestigious festival will be held for the 17th time in 2018 and you will find a lot of foodies all around the city enjoying the vibrant and friendly atmosphere of the festival.
Reykjavik Folk Festival
This is a 3-day folk music festival that, like the Beer Festival, is held at Kex Hostel. All sorts of artist showcase their talents at this festival and it’s a great opportunity to catch a glimpse at some of the older Icelandic music styles.
The name says it all - it’s a 4-day festival that celebrates all aspects of local design, although it features some international designers as well. They set up over 100 events and exhibitions set up by over 400 talented designers.
Sónar Reykjavik is a relatively new music festival where the impressive Harpa Concert Hall is turned into a raving nightclub full of electronica, hip hop, and other popular genres of music. Major Lazer, Skrillex, Fatboy Slim, James Blake, and a lot of other amazing artists have all played at this festival in the past.
Reykjavik Fashion Festival
Reykjavik Fashion Festival (RFF) celebrates and promotes Icelandic fashion and music. During this 4-day event, the most talented and unique fashion designers in Iceland showcase their talents and present their latest clothing lines. Guess who was featured there last year? Cintamani, of course (see Chapter 3).
Reykjavik International Film Festival
September 27 - October 7
Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) is a well-established 11-day film festival that offers people to enjoy the best of international filmmaking. You can watch films, attend workshops and exhibitions, and interact with filmmakers. The festival focuses on a wide variety of dramas and non-fiction films from over 40 countires. The main prize is the Golden Puffin, which is way more adorable than the Oscar statue.
Imagine Peace Tower illumination
The Imagine Peace Tower is a piece of artwork that symbolizes John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s continuing campaign for world peace and was officially unveiled on October 9th, 2007, on Lennon’s 67th birthday. It’s incredibly fitting to see it light up the skies of one of the most peaceful countries in the world. Personally, I have been able to see the light right outside my parents’ window since 2007 and it has become a part of our treasured environment.
This is unquestionably Iceland’s biggest music festival and will be held for the 20th time in 2018. It started out a tiny festival in an airport hangar at the Reykjavik Airport but it has come a long way since then. The festival features amazing artists and even more unique venues. You can expect to find some world-famous artists as well as discover some really talented unknown artists. Some people describe the music played at the festival as the “best music you’ve never heard”.
The festival is hosted both in Reykjavik and Akureyri and for 4 full days people can enjoy the best that Iceland’s nightlife, music, cuisine, and nature has to offer.
Starting around December 3rd to the 25th, Reykjavik turns into a winter wonderland full of Christmas spirit. The festivities symbolically start with the lighting of the Oslo Christmas tree at Austurvöllur, which has been a tradition for many decades. People love doing their Christmas shopping at the Laugarvegur shopping street and there are plenty of Christmas related events, such as the Christmas program at Árbær Open Air Museum, which captures the Christmas spirit of Reykjavik in the early 20th century.
Families in Iceland will celebrate on Christmas Eve, not the 25th. They will go to church, enjoy a Christmas meal, and spend the rest of the night to open presents and munching on Christmas cookies. The 25th is then usually spent meeting with extended family or to be lazy, eating leftovers and enjoying new gifts.
New Year’s Eve
My personal favorite event of the year. It’s hard to describe the feeling of New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik and as I’ve already mentioned, it’s quite similar to what it feels like to see the northern lights. This is the biggest party night of the year for Icelanders and I’m pretty sure no other nation blows up more fireworks per capita. People meet their neighbors at the local “brenna” (“burning”), which is basically the biggest bonfire you will ever see and starts at 8:30 PM. After the brenna, people go back home and watch the most watched television show of the year (watched by 90%+ of the population), a comedy called “Áramótaskaup” (New Year’s Comedy), where some of the most talented Icelandic comedians make fun of various events that happened throughout the year. For an Icelander it’s a lot of fun - for foreigners, not so much. My American wife Kristie usually reads a book or takes a nap during the show. Finally after the show, around 11 PM, the skies becomes lit up with fireworks until it reaches its climax at midnight, when people say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new with lots of champagne, hugs, and kisses.
Midnight from my parents' balcony
7. Conclusion: Should I do it?
If you are looking for a unique experience and are not afraid of leaving your comfort zone, then the answer is absolutely yes. You might have to do some research, be well prepared, be flexible as the unpredictable weather alters your plans, and make the most of the limited daylight you have. If you’re up for that, then you should absolutely travel to Iceland during winter.
The most important thing is that you manage your own expectations and keep them realistic. A tour might get cancelled, a campsite might be closed, and the weather might ruin the view so it looks nothing like that photo you saw on Instagram. That’s Iceland in winter. If you think that would ruin your whole experience, then Iceland in winter might not be for you.
But if you are well prepared and follow the advice I mentioned in this post, you can expect to have an amazing adventure that you won’t forget. Many travelers I’ve talked to tell me that they form a unique bond with the country and find themselves visiting again and again.
There is no good without a little bad, just like there is no rainbow without a little rain. And you can expect to see a lot of rainbows in Iceland.