What to Expect on a Winter Trip to Iceland

What to Expect on a Winter Trip to Iceland

01.02.2023 | Kaelene Spence

You already know all of the pros and cons of a winter trip to Iceland, but what can you REALLY expect from a winter trip to Iceland? What are the hard facts about traveling to the Arctic this time of the year? 

Things like…

How cold will it really be? Should you pack your entire winter wardrobe or are you doomed to be freezing the entire time? How are you going to get from waterfall to waterfall on the winter roads? And will you even be able to see anything with the limited daylight you keep hearing about? 

To help you feel prepared and ready to fully enjoy your winter adventure to Iceland we have rounded up some of our favorite winter travel tips that will answer some of those questions.  We are giving all the insider tips on things like what to really pack, what are the driving conditions actually like, and how to fit in travel and activities with only a few hours of daylight. 

This post will break it all down so you will feel better prepared for your winter trip and you can fully enjoy all the charms of the winter season in Iceland!

A beautiful crisp winter day in Iceland
What a beautiful winter day in Iceland

What to Actually Pack  

One thing that can really make or break a winter experience in Iceland is the type of clothing you pack. This may sound a bit dramatic, but trust us, nothing is going to be a bigger downer on your winter wonderland adventure than spending the time shivering and dealing with frozen fingers and toes. At the same time, you don’t want to go to the other extreme and pack every fluffy warm layer in your closet.

The thought of packing for a winter trip to Iceland sometimes causes some stress around what to actually bring, and we get it, unless you are from somewhere with an arctic-like climate, how are you to know what to actually wear? A good simple guideline of Icelandic winter fashion to keep in mind while packing, more clothes do not necessarily mean more warmth. Instead, it is all about choosing your layers wisely and picking the items that provide the most warmth and comfort.

We have put together a list of items to help you be better prepared for a winter trip to Iceland. From what to expect in the weather to the type of driving conditions, what clothing items to pack and activities to enjoy, this guide will have you fully prepared so that you can enjoy all the charms of the winter season in Iceland.

Skógafoss Waterfall in winter
Skógafoss Waterfall in icy armour

To keep your luggage light and your body toasty warm, here are a few of the layers you want to make sure you have options for in your suitcase so you can face even the coldest of winter days.

  • Base Layer - while not every day or adventure will need it, having a base layer in your bag will be something you will thank yourself for when you do pull them on, especially if you have a long day of playing in the snow or chasing snowy landscapes. This layer does not require much, just one pair of thermal or wool long pants and a top will be all you need to make sure you stay comfortable and warm as you explore.
  • Middle Layer - when reaching for your sweaters and long sleeve shirts take a moment to consider the material they are made of. A cotton shirt/sweater is always a cozy choice, but not exactly the warmest one. Get the most out of each layer and have some sweaters or long sleeves that are made of wool, fleece, or even cashmere. These materials will keep you warm, are breathable, and won’t require you to layer three sweaters to achieve the same type of warmth. Fewer layers mean more room in your suitcase for souvenirs, and more comfortable for you, a win-win. 
  • The Outer Layer - the layer that tends to take up the most room in your bag, but is also one of the most important, is the crucial outer layer - the winter jacket. When deciding which jacket to bring, the goal is to have one that is warm, waterproof, and windproof. It's a bonus if you have one that is long and goes close to your knees, the more of you covered the warmer you will be. But, if you do not have a winter jacket that would be a good fit, even a ski jacket that is water and windproof can be doable with the right layers underneath. Bonus tip, wear your jacket on the airplane (use it as a blanket!) to save space in your suitcase. 

  • Shoes - figuring out what type of shoes to pack for Iceland can sometimes feel as complicated as trying to pronounce some of our famous sights (Jökulsárlón anyone?). If you already own a good pair of winter or snow boots they will likely be your go-to shoe during your trip. At the same time, if you don’t already own a pair we aren’t going to tell you to rush out and buy some, you don’t want to be breaking in a new pair of boots while trying to explore Iceland. Winter boots or not, you will want to be sure you have a pair of sturdy waterproof shoes, whether that be boots or a different type of outdoor walking shoe.

Bra on a fence in Iceland

A frozen bra on a fence

Now that we have the basic layers noted down, let's finish off your packing list with a few additional items that are not a complete must, but will make your winter adventures much more enjoyable.

  • Accessories: the accessories are extra important when it comes to your winter adventure. Everything from wool socks, a scarf, a hat or ear muffs, and thick winter gloves will be a game changer in keeping you nice and comfortable while out in the chilly Icelandic air. So don’t forget to pack a pair of each into your luggage. 
  • Waterproof pants - hopefully, your jacket is already waterproof so your top half is protected if the weather takes a rainy or snowy turn. But having a pair of waterproof pants that you can pull on over your other layers will be a lifesaver if you do find yourself out on a snowy day. The best part about this layer is it is lightweight so you can toss it into your bag without adding extra bulk to your suitcase. 
  • Crampons - this traction device can be attached to whatever footwear you are wearing and will become your new favorite winter gear item! Feel comfortable and confident as you walk across icy pathways and sidewalks with a pair of these under your feet. A small item to add to your bag with a big impact. 

Keep these above tips in mind as you pack your bags and you will be all set for a stress-free packing experience and a warm and comfortable time in Iceland! 

What Winter Driving Conditions are Really Like 

Since you have decided to visit Iceland in the winter months you are fully prepared for the winter weather conditions, but are you ready to drive in those conditions? What can you really expect when it comes to driving during the winter in Iceland? The short answer, driving in Iceland during the winter months is not a thing to mess around with. The weather can quickly turn into a snowstorm, the winds can blow cars off the road, and the icy roads can create some very dangerous situations. If you have never driven in winter conditions before, we strongly recommend not trying to do so in Iceland. Instead, opt for tours and excursions where transportation is provided, we promise you will still get to have an incredible experience, but your safety is the top priority. 

Snow on road, please drive dsafely
Extra care is needed when driving in Iceland in winter

Now for a bit of a longer answer. If you feel confident with your winter driving experience and skills and are ready to take on the Icelandic roads here are just a few things to keep in mind regarding what to expect with winter driving in Iceland. 

  • The conditions can change quickly: No matter how long you plan on driving, always check the weather report here and the road cams. The weather in each region in Iceland can vary greatly, and change quite quickly, so it is best to check the conditions frequently and plan ahead by checking the forecast for the area you are planning on driving to as well. 

  • Make sure you have winter tires or a 4x4 vehicle: While not needed for those driving short distances from the city if you are planning on doing a decent amount of driving around the country it is a good idea to rent a 4x4 vehicle. Also, it is legally required that vehicles be equipped with winter studded tires from November to April, so make sure your rental car company guarantees winter tires on the vehicle before you rent.

  • Keep a look out for the road signs Lokað or Óveður: We have a full guide on the different road signs in Iceland to pay attention to, but these two signs, in particular, are very important when it comes to winter driving. If you see the word Óveður, this means storm and the road conditions ahead are very bad. If you see this sign, we strongly recommend turning around and avoiding driving further if possible. If you see the word

    Lokað, this means the road ahead is closed and will remain closed until the weather conditions have cleared up, so find a safe place such as a gas station or nearby guesthouse to stop while you wait out the storm.

  • Give yourself extra time and always have a backup plan: One of the biggest differences between summer and winter travel in Iceland is the amount you can pack in for each day. With the endless daylight in the summer you can really cram a non-stop schedule in, but in the winter the opposite is true, instead, you want to be sure to not cram too much into your schedule. Allow plenty of time for driving each day, drive slower than you normally would, and keep in mind a backup plan. You never know when a terrible storm may hit and you will need to stop driving for the day. 

  • Download the 112 App: The Icelandic Emergency App is always a good thing to have downloaded on your phone while in Iceland just in case you need help. This app will allow you to send your exact GPS location so the rescue teams can find you if you find yourself stuck on the side of the road from a storm. 

Iceland in winter
Iceland is stunningly beautiful in winter

How Much Daylight Will There Be? 

You’ve likely heard that while the Icelandic summers have neverending daylight, the winter months are stuck with darkness, and while this holds some truth it's not completely accurate. While it is true that the days will be much darker than in the summer months it won’t be dark the entire time. Only the shortest days of the year have just a few hours of daylight which occurs around the winter solstice in December. But by the end of January the days are already up to almost 7 hours of beautiful daylight, so if the number of daylight hours is a concern for you you can easily pick a different time of the winter season.

To help give you a good idea of how many daylight hours there will be during the time you plan to visit Iceland check out the chart below. We have put together the number of daylight hours in each month from October to April so you can narrow down what winter season month would be a better fit for you!

Winter daylight hours in Iceland
Winter daylight hours in Iceland

How to Make the Most of Limited Daylight

If you are considering making a trip during the months that may not have the most daylight hours (November - January) we have plenty of tips to ensure you can make the most of your trip during that time of the year. Some people may be a bit intimidated by the darker days, but the light the winter skies cast over the landscape is pretty magical. Imagine the “golden hour” for the entire day! This breathtaking lighting makes those few limited hours of sunlight worth it. 

Winter sun
Winter sun

Keep reading for more tips on making the most of this time of year. 

Choose one location for a home base: In the summer months a cross-country road trip tends to be what many opt to do, and while you can certainly explore around the country in the winter months we suggest choosing one location that will be your home base for the trip. From your home base, you can choose shorter day trips based on your comfort level with winter driving. Having a home base is also perfect for those days when a storm rolls in, you can enjoy a cozy day around your one central spot versus having to worry about driving to your next location mid-storm. It's a great way not only to practice sustainable travel but also stress-free travel in the wintertime. Added bonus, less time driving means more time for exploring! 

Time Travel Around Daylight: If you are planning on getting out and exploring, and are comfortable driving in the dark, we recommend starting your day driving to the location in the darker morning hours this way once you arrive you will have plenty of time to enjoy the location in full daylight. 

Take Advantage of Civil Twilight: Never heard of the term civil twilight? Well, this time of day will become your new favorite when it comes to driving around Iceland in the winter. Civil twilight is essentially the time before sunrise and sunset, where it is not quite dark, but also not full light. In the winter months, this period of the day can be quite long making it a great time to get your driving in without having to deal with driving in complete darkness. For example, at the start of December civil twilight starts at 9:35 am and the sunrise is at 10:45 am. That gives you an extra hour and 10 minutes of lighter skies while heading to your destination of the day. Added bonus, you will get to take in the slowly rising sun over the beautiful Icelandic landscapes, it will be a memorable sunrise! 

Reykjavik in winter
The Pond in downtown Reykjavík

Spend Time in the City: Make the most of each day and choose your home base in one of the bigger towns in Iceland such as Reykjavik or Akureyri. Not only will you find plenty of light in these towns from all the charming Christmas decorations (which are actually on display for most of November-January) but you will also have activities to keep you busy in case your outdoor exploration plans get changed due to a storm. These bigger towns make for a great home base putting you within driving distance of many of the best attractions while still having the amenities and convenience of city life. 

Plan Cozy Activities: For those days when the weather is just not cooperating, or when you have an afternoon of darkness to fill, enjoy some of the winter activities that the locals enjoy to fully embrace the slower pace of life the dark winters bring. 

Here are a few cozy activity ideas:

  • Join a food walking tour. What better way to spend a chilly dark afternoon than by trying some tasty Icelandic dishes?
  • Enjoy a slow morning or afternoon in a coffee shop. Icelanders are crazy about their coffee so there will be no shortage of charming coffee shops for you to choose from. Settle in next to a window to take in the twinkling lights around town while enjoying a warm drink and pastry.
  • Soak in the pools. We can’t have a list of cozy winter activities without the famous Icelandic pool. But really, nothing is more relaxing than sitting in the warm water with steam all around and snowflakes trickling down, a magical experience indeed. 

Take in the Christmas decorations. If you will be in Iceland around the holiday season, spend some time wandering around town and enjoy all the lights brightening up the streets. If you are in Reykjavik check out this post here for some Christmas activity ideas to enjoy on a chilly winter day.

Christmas decorations in Reykjavik
Reykjavik really comes to life during Advent and Christmas

Enjoy Seeing the Sunrise and Sunset Daily: A major bonus in our opinion of traveling during the dark winter months is that you get to enjoy seeing the sunrise and sunset every day! How often do you find yourself awake for multiple days in a row to catch the sunrise? Or able to take a moment to take in the sun setting? The winter sunrise and sunsets are as slow-paced as life is during these dark months providing plenty of time for you to fully bask in their beauty.

Utilize Tour Companies: First off, if you have any hesitation about driving during the winter, or to a particular location, don’t do it. Your safety is not worth risking and with so many wonderful tours in the winter months, you won’t have to worry about missing out on any of the fun. The tour operators in Iceland are pros in dealing with the Icelandic weather and darkness, they curate the tours around the daylight hours to ensure they are maximizing the daylight at that given point of the dark season. Check out the many tour options here to give you some ideas of the range of activities you can do during a winter tour. 

A frozen waterfall in Iceland
The crystal blue waters of Brúarfoss Waterfall

Winter travel in Iceland can be the most incredible experience. You will get to enjoy some truly magical winter wonderland landscapes with half the crowds! It just requires a bit more planning and weather-watching than in the summer months, but it is worth it. So pack up your winter gear, bundle up, and get ready to enjoy an unforgettable winter adventure in the Arctic! 

Book your Iceland winter itinerary now!

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