What to Expect on a Winter Trip to Iceland

What to Expect on a Winter Trip to Iceland

17.02.2020 | Kaelene Spence

If you are planning a winter trip to Iceland you probably already know it will be cold and dark, there may be some snow, and if you are lucky some Northern Lights. You already know to pack your warmest clothes, and are dreaming of getting a picture of yourself in front of a snow covered waterfall. And you may or may not have heard about the epic winter storms Iceland gets hit with from time to time and know to be prepared for some possible changes to your travel plans.

But what can you really expect from a winter trip to Iceland?

Skógafoss in South Iceland

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.

What is the winter weather really like in Iceland?

The winter season in Iceland is from late October to late April. But when it comes to weather in Iceland be prepared for anything, we have seen our fair share of snowstorms in May and no snow until January. You just never know with the Icelandic weather, which brings us to our most important fact to know about the winter weather in Iceland;

It is very unpredictable.

Since the weather is so unpredictable it makes it very important for travelers to have zero expectations of what the weather will be like, and to be prepared to be flexible with your plans. You need to be prepared for anything and everything, but that is part of the Icelandic adventure!

Downtown Reykjavik in Winter

How cold is it?

This may come as a surprise to you, but the temperature in Iceland during the winter is not as cold as you would expect. In fact, the average temperature during the winter months rarely dips below 0 °Celsius. Furthermore, when the temperature does dip around freezing Iceland is a dry cold climate making it doable to keep warm if you dress appropriately.

The wind chill though, that is a different story. If the wind is blowing (which it normally is) it can feel much colder than below freezing, so be prepared for that crisp breeze to hit your face and keep your ears and hands covered.

Will there be snow?

While there quite possibly could be snow if you visit Iceland in the winter it is not a guarantee as it is just as likely to rain during the winter. If you are staying in Reykjavik, it is unpredictable if there will be snow as temperatures hover around 0 °Celsius. If you are coming to Iceland to have a snowy adventure we recommend scheduling your trip during high winter from December to February when the chances of snow are greater, or plan on heading to the northern regions of Iceland which most often have snow during the winter months.

Are the Northern Light out every night?

If you have “see the Northern Lights” on your bucket list a winter trip to Iceland is a good way to hopefully be able to cross that item off your list. But, seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is not a sure thing. In order for the Northern Lights to be visible to the human eye there does need to be a clear evening sky so it is not a guarantee you will see the Northern Lights if you come during the winter months. To help increase the chances that you will get to see the Northern Lights on your winter trip to Iceland we recommend booking a tour where you will have guides on the search for the best locations to see the lights and increase your chances of witnessing them for yourself.

Northern Lights over Faxafloi Bay

How many hours of daylight will there be?

We won’t lie to you, winter in Iceland can be very, very dark. Starting in mid November and lasting until late January, the sun will start to rise between 10:00-11:00 am, and set between 3:00-4:00 pm. This doesn’t give you much daylight hours to get out and explore the Icelandic countryside, so you have to make sure to make good use of the daylight while it is here. And while the hours might not be long, the lighting during the winter months is absolutely stunning. Imagine the “golden hour” for the entire day!

For a better idea of what type of daylight hours to expect when traveling to Iceland during the winter months here is an overview.

October 15th            
Sunrise: 8:15               Sunset: 18:10                        Daylight = 10 hrs

November 15th       
Sunrise: 9:55               Sunset: 16:28                        Daylight = 6.5 hrs

December 15th         
Sunrise: 11:15             Sunset: 15:30                        Daylight = 4.25 hrs

January 15th           
Sunrise: 10:56             Sunset: 16:18                        Daylight = 5.5 hrs 

February 15th          
Sunrise: 9:24               Sunset: 18:00                        Daylight = 8.5 hrs

March 15th               
Sunrise: 7:45               Sunset:19:30                         Daylight = 11.75 hrs

Winter sunrise over Hvergerdi, South Iceland

What type of driving conditions can you expect in the winter?

Driving in Iceland during the winter is not something to mess around with. You may think you are a pro at driving in winter conditions but Iceland has weather that can quickly become very dangerous. It is therefore of the utmost importance that you pay close attention to the weather, and follow all weather warnings even if you think you can handle driving in winter conditions. If you are uncomfortable driving in winter conditions (i.e. snow storms, strong winds, icy roads) it might be a good idea to look into joining a tour versus driving on your own, your safety is the most important.

If you are comfortable driving in winter conditions here are a few tips to keep in mind before you hit the road.

South Iceland, near Vik

Check the weather and road conditions, and check them again and again!

Before heading off for a road trip, no matter how long or short the drive is, always check the weather conditions and 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, even the last few minutes before you head off, so you can plan accordingly.

Two great resources to use when checking the weather conditions in Iceland are:

  • safe.is - Not only does this website shows you the road conditions all over the country but you can also enter in the route you plan on taking to see the conditions of the roads in that area.
  • vedur.is – This is the weather forecast website, all weather warnings will be shown here in English. It is a very good resource to check before making road trip plans.

Pay close attention to the road signs

While you are driving outside of the city you will likely come across weather and road condition signs on the side of the road. Pay attention to these signs as they have important information! Two important words to look out for on these signs are:

  • 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.
  • Lokað - this means the road ahead is closed and will remain closed until the weather conditions have cleared up. If you come across this sign while traveling around Iceland find a safe place to stop while you wait out the storm. Search for gas stations or nearby guest houses if you’re stuck.

Reykjanes peninsula in Winter

Rent a 4×4 vehicle

While it is possible to drive in Iceland during the winter without a 4×4 vehicle, renting a 4×4 is a safer “just in case” option. The roads can be very icy during the winter so it is better to be well prepared. It is legally required that vehicles be equipped with winter studded tires from November to April, make sure your rental car company guarantees winter tires on the vehicle before you rent.

Give yourself extra time and be flexible

When you are traveling to a new place you want to try and cram in as much as possible. This is understandable, you didn’t travel all this way for nothing. However, the Icelandic weather is one situation where it is best to have an open schedule that allows plenty of time for driving each day. However long Google Maps tells you it will take to reach the next waterfall, add a bit of extra time to it and drive slower than you normally would.

Lastly, be prepared to cancel or change plans at the last minute. You never know when a terrible storm may hit and you will need to stop driving for the day. It is a good idea to know of a few accommodations in the area you will be traveling in case you need to stay somewhere overnight to wait out a storm.

Download the 112 app

This app is the Icelandic Emergency App and can be extremely helpful in case of a situation in which you need help. The app allows you to send out your exact GPS location so rescue teams can easily find you if you are ever in a dangerous situation.

South Iceland in Winter

What type of clothing do you need for a winter trip to Iceland?

A common saying in Iceland, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment”. You might roll your eyes at this statement when you are shivering in the Icelandic wind, but trust us having the proper clothing will make your trip much more enjoyable no matter how cold it is. You won’t want to miss out on exploring Iceland because you didn’t pack warm enough clothing!

Here are a few important items to make sure is in your suitcase as they will be key in keeping you warm:

  1. Waterproof Winter Parka / Outer Layer – The thicker and longer the better, the more of your body it covers the warmer it will keep you. If your jacket is bulky and takes too much space in your suitcase wear it with you on the airplane and use it as a blanket.
  2. Mid Layers – Sweaters, lightweight jackets, or long sleeve shirts made of wool or fleece will be key in keeping your body heat in, so layer up with them! Icelanders swear by their wool to keep them nice and warm on the coldest winter days. Get an Icelandic wool sweater while on your trip and keep nice and warm while also scoring a great souvenir.

Helgufoss waterfall

  1.  Under Layers – Long johns or wool underwear can be a lifesaver when it comes to keeping warm against the freezing wind. Even a pair of leggings underneath your pants can help keep you warm against the chilly air, just make sure your under layers aren’t too bulky so that you can still move around with ease.
  2. Accessories – Gloves, hat and wool socks are some items you won’t want to forget! Keeping you hands, feet and head warm is a top priority, especially when the Icelandic wind is blowing like crazy.
  3. Winter Boots and/or Sturdy Shoes – While you don’t need to go out and buy a pair of winter boots if you don’t already own some you will want to bring with you a pair of shoes that will keep you sturdy when walking across uneven ground with snow and ice. You don’t want to worry about slipping while you are out exploring.
  4. LAYERS – When in doubt, add an extra layer. Layers are key in the winter, you can always take layers off if you get too warm, but it is better to be too warm than too cold.

Icelandic knitted wool mittens

What type of activities can you do in the winter?

With the limited daylight and unpredictable weather it can be tricky to know what exactly you should plan to do on your Iceland winter escape. While you might have to move some plans around if an unexpected storm arrives there is still plenty of fun to be had in the winter months.

A few ideas for activities you can do on a winter trip to Iceland are:

Check out one of the winter festivals

While winter may be long this does not mean Icelanders stay bundled up inside for all of those months. In fact, it seems like almost every weekend in the winter there is some type of festival to check out! Checking out a local festival is a great way to experience the local culture while traveling.

A few festivals in the winter in Iceland are:

  • Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival: An annual event held in February that celebrates both the winter world and the growing light after the long months of darkness. The festival runs over four days and includes light installations all over the city, a museum night where many museums in Reykjavik are free of charge, and a pool night where pools in the city open to all with light installations, live music and more. You can find more information about the festival

  • Food and Fun Festival: This festival brings some of the best International chefs to Iceland where they collaborate with restaurants to create unique dishes using only Icelandic ingredients. The restaurants then use this menu for a week, and at the end of the week there is an event at Harpa where you can sample many of the International chefs creations. A deliciously fun event to check out if you in Iceland when the festival is happening.
  • Iceland Winter Games: If you are an outdoor winter sport enthusiast this festival is for you. Held in the north of Iceland in the town of Akureyri, Iceland Winter Games has a variety of winter sports competitions in a beautiful landscape.

Relax in a hot spring or local pool

There is nothing more magical than sitting in relaxing warm water with snow dancing down onto your nose. Whether it be in a local swimming pool or a hot spring, this is a winter time must. An added bonus, the Northern Lights may even make an appearance if you go for an evening dip.

Join a winter tour

While you may not be able to experience long days of exploring under the midnight sun, there are plenty of fun activities to do in Iceland in the winter months. Dog sledding, exploring an ice cave, snowmobiling on a glacier, the winter fun is endless! For more winter tour ideas check out all of the options we at Hey Iceland offer here.

Sometimes braving the colder temperatures is worth it, and visiting Iceland in the winter is definitely one of those times. Time to bust out the winter gear and head over to Iceland! For more inspiration for your winter trip to Iceland check out our blog post about why to visit Iceland in the winter.

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