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When we decided to visit Iceland in winter, my friends told me that I was crazy. Who wants to visit a country with the word ice inside its name in the middle of winter? For me, visiting Iceland in December was about experiencing the natural beauty of Iceland’s wintery landscape and doing all the adventurous winter sports possible.
This post will contain twenty tips for things to know before you travel to Iceland in winter. I’ve included a mix of tips for those interested in doing a road trip as well as those planning day trips from Reykjavik.
Iceland in winter is magical, but still expensive
Visiting popular places in the off season is a great way to save money, however Iceland is expensive year-round and our trip was far from cheap. To be fair, we were able to save quite a bit on the guesthouses that we stayed at along the way, on our winter gear by minimizing what we bought and buying secondhand, and on food.
That said, we splurged on the experiences. My favorite experiences were chasing down the Game of Thrones locations, glacier hiking, visiting a hot spring, celebrating New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik, and snorkeling in Silfra.
You’ll have limited daylight, so plan your days carefully
I traveled to Iceland in December, when there’s only about 5 hours of daylight. You’ll generally have day light between 11am and 3pm, so plan your days carefully do what you want to do during this time. You don’t need to drive yourself as there are plenty of great day trips from Reykjavik that include transportation.
Although our trip generally resulted in us driving in the darkness for a few hours each day, I loved that we’d see the sunrise every single day as well as the sunset, however it left us limited time. That means that your schedule will need to be carefully thought out or you’ll need to think about which tours you’re planning on taking.
There are still crowds in Iceland in winter
…I know. I was sure that we wouldn’t encounter many tourists, however I visited close to Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a popular time for people taking vacations. As a result, many of the big attractions near the Golden Circle had a lot of tour buses as well as tourists. If you’re not with a group, it’s good to remember that most tour buses only stop off for twenty minutes, so you can get a photo without people if you wait.
As we got further away from Reykjavik, there were few crowds. Quite a bit, we’d end up almost instantly bonding with the fellow tourists also driving all of Ring Road in winter.
Almost everything is closed around Christmas
The roughest part of our Iceland road trip right around Christmas was the fact that most of the supermarkets outside of Reykjavik were closed for Icelandic Christmas. Although I already accounted for the actual day of Christmas, I didn’t realize that so many things would be closed starting on December 23rd. At one point in our trip, we met several people who told us stories about how they lived off hot dogs alone for three days.
If you’ll be visiting Iceland around Christmas, be sure to make reservations for restaurants as not that many are open–and the ones that are open fill up rapidly. This is especially true in Reykjavik. Along the road, we found a few open gas stations, but we generally had to stick to soup and granola bars during this period.
You might not see the Northern Lights… and getting the photo is harder than you realize
Yeah, I didn’t see them actually. Many people don’t realize that you must have the right conditions to see the Northern Lights and be at the right location. There needs to be a lack of clouds (and snow storms), solar winds, and little light pollution.
To be honest, the only place that we visited where there was enough light pollution to cause concern was Reykjavik, but the rest of our accommodation was remote enough that in theory, we should have seen the Northern Lights. However, we didn’t luck out as there were serious blizzards around the time that I visited.
Many of the Northern Lights tours will bring you to multiple locations based on the night’s forecast although you can check the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office to check the conditions for the Northern Lights each night. I hope that you are lucky enough to see them!
When you see the perfect image of the Northern Lights, you might not realize that you need quite a bit of gear, including a DSLR and a tripod. There are many good free tutorials on how to shoot the Northern Lights online.
New Year’s Eve in Iceland is amazing
I’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve in many places, including Russia, Amsterdam, and NYC. I still consider New Year’s Eve in Iceland to be one of my favorite celebrations. Just be sure to book your hotel in Reykjavik as far in advance as possible as they fill up and the rates skyrocket as you get closer to December.
Make sure your hotels are booked first
WOW and Icelandair have both increased the number of flights through Iceland, however the number of hotels is still limited. We stayed a lot by staying at guesthouses rather than traditional hotels. Before planning your trip in detail, figure out the hotels first and ensure that your hotel reservations are refundable in case you need to shift your plans later. It will save you a lot of money if you book your hotels earlier, rather than later.
Don’t eat puffins and whales
This is a basic one, however majority of the minke whales that are caught in the waters surrounding Iceland are consumed by tourists. The whaling industry has been condemned all around the world for its practices. I write this as a non-vegetarian, but if you care about animals and/or responsible travel, don’t eat whale meat. It is rarely consumed by Icelanders and only passed off to tourists as traditional.
Although puffins aren’t endangered, their existence is threatened by global climate change and scientists are concerned about their colonies off Iceland. It’s actually not possible to visit the puffin colonies in winter as they migrate, however don’t eat a puffin for the sake of it. It’s rarely consumed by Icelanders at this point and honestly, they’re adorable.
Take advantage of duty-free, especially for alcohol
Iceland is expensive. There’s no getting around the fact that alcohol is sold at state stores around the country with a considerable mark-up for taxes.
The cheapest way to purchase alcohol or beer is to purchase it as soon as you land in Iceland as the duty-free alcohol comes at a significant discount. We ended up purchasing about two packs of beer as well as a bottle of liquor that we shared with new friends, which was more than enough for two weeks.
Dress properly and wear proper shoes
I was a bit shocked how many tourists that I saw in December taking photos near the edge of Iceland’s waterfalls in heels while standing on ice. Although heels look fantastic, they’re not practical on ice. Similarly, I’d recommend dressing warmly as the wind chill can be crippling and even for my glacier hiking excursions, two girls showed up in heels and ripped jeans with no change of clothes.
Even if you plan only on sightseeing, wear shoes that are waterproof as you’re likely to be walking through some snow or along icy sidewalks in Reykjavik. I personally recommend snow boots, however if you’re mostly in Reykjavik, covered shoes with good grip should be okay as the sidewalks will be salted.
Crampons might save your life
In case you don’t know what crampons are, they’re metal attachments put on the bottom of your shoes to aid you in walking on ice as well as snow. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of ice and snow this time year in Iceland. Generally, safe sidewalks turn into slippery ice, so it’s very handy to have crampons to wear.
I saw a lot of people with crampons with just anti-skid bits, however for thicker ice, I’d recommend getting crampons that will go deeper into the ice to keep you from moving. This is especially true if you want to get close to the waterfalls as it generally is quite icy near the edge. (You don’t need professional grade crampons.) Just be careful as you can easily rip your pants, so practice walking a little before wearing them too far. My husband ripped his snow pants this way.
Don’t assume that Icelandic supermarkets are cheap / Bring your own food
My first visit to an Icelandic supermarket was a bit of a shock to say the least. We ended up having to adjust our diet quite considerably as I spent $12 USD to make a few sandwiches with a bare minimum of ingredients. It’s good to spend time looking at what’s more affordable. More cleverly, bring your own snacks with you from home. I ended up bringing a large box of granola bars and our soup supply was very helpful for bringing down the cost of food.
Bring your swimsuit and visit a hot spring or natural heated pool
Be sure to stop off at a natural hot spring or pool as it really helps you feel warm for the rest of the afternoon. I was a bit skeptical about the brief period of getting into the water, however it was brief enough that it was worth it. Getting out was easy by comparison.
The Blue Lagoon is the most famous hot spring in Iceland and
I was very relaxed after visiting Mývatn Nature Baths although I warn that you must eat ahead as you don’t want to get lightheaded. Similarly, be careful about staying in too long as your blood sugar might drop if you’re enjoying it too much.
I recommend ensuring that your bathing suit is well rinsed and put into a bag after going into a hot spring as the one that I went into had quite a bit of sulfur, which left a weird smell in my swimsuit. I ended up sealing up the bag and washing it after I got home.
Listen to the locals
This is a small point, however there is a reason why the Icelandic people have survived on this isolated island. A lot of tourists come to Iceland and assume that they know better. Especially when it comes to Icelandic wilderness, protecting the nature of Iceland, and safety in Iceland, Icelandic people know what they’re doing.
When someone warns you that something is dangerous, they’re not joking. As we were driving ourselves, we were warned not to take certain roads and/or drive at certain times as the conditions were too dangerous. (Most gas stations show a live feed of road conditions.) We ended up waiting it out, however it’s unnerving to hear the stories of people who died while on vacation in Iceland.
Don’t plan to take a road trip in Iceland in winter if you’ve never driven on snow
Iceland is stunning without question, however don’t plan to take a road trip in Iceland in winter if you’re an inexperienced winter driver. The conditions that we encountered were some of the more difficult ice/snow conditions that we heard about.
While in Northern Iceland, we met an Australian couple who told us a near-death story of going off a fjord that happened about halfway through their trip and were regretting their decision to drive. We met them around the halfway point and they were stuck needing to finish Ring Road to get home. Don’t put yourself in an impossible situation and opt to be based in Reykjavik instead. There’s plenty of great day tours from Reykjavik.
Have travel insurance and full coverage car insurance if you drive
Prior to this trip, I didn’t really believe in having travel insurance. Before you worry about me, nothing serious happened except the damage to our wallets. Simply, there’s a lot of ice and why risk it? I’m not an affliate for insurance, but it’s good to play it safe sometimes, especially if you plan on doing adventure activities (e.g. hiking). Taking our travel insurance beforehand is likely to be a fraction of the cost of anything bad that will happen.
We slid on ice and scraped the side of a isle of a gas station barrier. I took out a cheap secondary insurance policy on our car, which was the biggest mistake that I made as it meant that we had to pay 1,200 euros at the moment that we returned our car with some uncertainty on whether we’d get it back. It took months of calls, but we did manage.
Iceland isn’t that cold actually, but bring a face mask and hat
The wind chill was what got to me. When I visiting Iceland around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, it was about 32 degrees F (0 C) most days. That is really not bad, however it feels colder. When I’d pull up the weather, it generally said that it felt 10-20 degrees colder than it actually was.
A good hat with a lined inside makes a huge difference although I have to say that the best souvenir of my trip to Iceland was my face mask. I was a bit apprehensive about looking like a burglar/ninja, but it helped filter the cold air that was coming into my lungs. I just felt warmer after buying a face mask and it would have been cheaper to buy it ahead.
It takes longer to get places (double your time)
Although you might see itineraries that are much faster for summer, you must drive slower in winter. Even if you’re not driving yourself, the buses that you take need to go carefully. Due to the limited day light and the time to get around, don’t overplan your itinerary and take into account that it will take 2-3x the summer time to get places.
Many things are closed or open late
Many Icelandic people that we met along the way don’t drive when it’s dark as black ice can be a misery. Visibility and driving is harder at night. As a result, we found that a lot of shops, supermarkets, and mom-and-pop restaurants outside of Reykjavik opened later than they said that they would be open or had limited hours during winter. If you’re on a tight schedule, you can see how this might derail things, however don’t worry too much about this if you’re based in Reykjavik!
If you’re driving, be very careful on the one-lane bridges
One of the most dangerous bits of driving in Iceland are the one-lane bridges. These bridges require that both parties to stop and/or one person to finish passing before someone else can pass in the other direction. Typically people will flash their headlights to haggle over who goes first. I recommend using some caution and avoid going first as many collisions occur on these bridges.