Why You Should Visit Iceland in Winter
I was lucky enough to return to Iceland last December, my third time on this desolately beautiful island. Iceland never disappoints, and that's the only way I know how to describe it. All the hype is real, all the social media posts are true, it's magic, it's incredible. The best money you could spend in 2017 is on a flight to Keflavík, no matter the time of year - and I'm going to tell you why.
My last two trips to Iceland were in the summers 2013 and 2016, when everything is lush and green and the weather is my favorite (typically in the 50s/60s) and the sun doesn't set until 10pm, a forever golden hour which us wedding photographers love. A few months after my last trip this summer, I booked a last minute destination wedding for Iceland for December and couldn't wait to see this tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic deep in winter, when the tourism is slow and the roads are quiet - everything I wanted in a trip to Iceland in 2016 (the hype is real but the amount of tourists visiting and cars on the roads has gotten crazy compared to how under the radar Iceland was even a few years ago).
That being said, visiting Iceland in the winter requires an intense amount of extra planning and caution (but the flights are cheaper, win!) Everyone always jokes that if you don't like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes - it's constantly changing, from sun to rain to storms in what feels like seconds. You understand how crazy this could be in winter months then as you add in icy roads, low temperatures, storms, insane winds and not as many people around to the dangerous weather mix. The most insane part of all of this is Iceland's daylight hours are cut short in the winter with only about 4 hours of (somewhat) daylight - more on that below.
Despite all of this, I somehow got my best (my only but still the best!) sister-in-law on board to come to Iceland with me, and we spent the better part of a week driving the Ring Road in winter. I wanted to share our top travel tips, advice on what to plan for and favorite parts of Iceland's winter with you.
I have to start by saying that we only saw snow a few times, so unfortuantely I can't speak much to a snowy Iceland driving experience. I was disappointed at first but in some ways it made our week so much easier to not have to deal with most of the roads being closed or getting stranded in a tiny town on the coast or other stories we read on blogs before heading across the Atlantic. One thing that did really surprise me was that the green mountains of Iceland that I love so much (if you haven't, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a must-see as he travels to Iceland) turn a stark yellow in the winter, a strange kind of beautiful that frames the island's desolate landscape so well. That might be an obvious thing to many of you, but Iceland's green mountains are so iconic to me that it was a strange kind of change, like a quiet one, but it fit Iceland's winter color palette perfectly.
It really wasn't that cold. The wind was probably our biggest enemy as we drove across the island (keep reading for rental car vehicle tips below!) especially if we were in wide-open places without our yellow mountains on one side. At times the wind was so intense that we couldn't open our 4x4 Subaru's door - and other times it was almost like you couldn't walk without falling over. And the wind was what made us feel cold, not the actual temperatures themselves.It rained or sleeted for the majority of our time there as well (don't worry, it was way more fun than it sounds!) so packing layers is essential to having a successful Iceland winter trip. We kept extra warm clothes in the back of our car and planned waterfall excursions at the very end of our days so that when we got soaked, we could drive only a few more hours to our Airbnb for the night instead of having to sit in frozen clothes all day. (Also, lots of Vitamin C to stay healthy and not get sick was huge for us!)
If you're going to take anything away from this article, take this - as you make your way through Iceland this winter, make sure you check the road conditions each day before you set out at this link and know that "spots of ice" really mean "it's really really icy here", "slippery" means "sheets of ice on the road" and if a road is marked impassable, it absolutely is impassable. Overall, the roads were mostly fine for us and they do a good job of keeping them clear during the winter.
As the week went on, I realized that if there had been snow many of the places we went would have been inaccessible - trails close right away (the path to the top of Gulfoss, shown below, is only open when there's good weather/no snow) and the hiking was hazardous enough at times without it, so maybe it was a good thing that we had little snow.
Winter daylight hours
This is the craziest part of our trip to me.
The sun rose at eleven each morning and was gone by about three-thirty or four in the afternoon. If you think about that for a second, you realize how insanely short the winter days are for the Icelandic people - and they didn't understand why anyone else would want to be in Iceland during these winter hours. Almost all of the local people we met asked why we would come to Iceland in the winter. We would laugh and say we wanted an adventure, and they would shake their heads, amused.
It was a surreal experience, for sure. We would usually be on the road by eight or nine in the morning and it would still be dark like the middle of the night. The hour before sunrise or sunset wasn't pitch black - it was like the most vivid blue hour I've ever seen, starting out very, very dark, and gradually getting lighter until the sun itself would be up. The first few days our bodies had a hard time adjusting to the time because we couldn't understand it was late morning when the sun rose or not feel like it was time for bed by four in the afternoon when the sun set. Reykjavik of course was the easiest place to fill our evenings, as there's so much more to do and so much more to see, but the smaller towns were harder. If we were in a tiny town (or not a town at all) overnight, by six or seven pm we would try and make the most of our nights by finding a place for dinner or a pub or spending time planning the next day in our warm Airbnbs' across the country.
We probably only saw the sun itself only once or twice in our week in Iceland - even when the sun is up in the winter (in our experience) it was still incredibly overcast and the sky seemed dark. Below is a portrait of Trina that I took at ten am at the Glacier Lagoon - as you can see, it's gradually getting lighter but everything is very blue and still pretty dark as sunrise would come in an hour at eleven.
And, as much as I wish we would have seen the Northern Lights, we didn't - so if you go and you see them, I want to hear everything.
The difference in the need for planning visiting Iceland in the summer versus Iceland in the winter was more extreme than I imagined. A huge pro to visiting Iceland in the winter is that everything (food, gas, lodging) is a little bit cheaper than the prime summer months. This was a win in our book. That being said, the below things are essential to planning your winter trip.
Things to note about the difference between summer and winter in Iceland - so many grocery stores, cafés, restaurants and hotels in the smaller towns along the Ring Road are closed for the entire winter season due to lack of tourism (except for crazy people like us!) This isn't the case in Reykjavik, of course - I'm talking about smaller towns like Selfoss and Hof where many tourists don't usually wander in winter months. It should be obvious that you should have your accommodations booked for a winter trip before you start your Ring Road driving, as many of the hotels and Airbnbs may or may not be open or hosting at that time - but I was surprised at the number of grocery stores and cafés that were closed for the winter season (and of course Google will tell you that they are open, so remember that as you travel). I'm typically pretty laid-back when it comes to travel anyways, so maybe it was also more extreme for me having to plan out where or what we would eat for each meal on each day of our December trip where as in the summer I could more so decide the day-of what the plan would be. We made sure to stock up on groceries to cover meals for a few days at one of Reykjavik's cheapest grocery stores, Bonus, before hitting the road. As the island gets more desolate on the east side, it's almost important to make sure you have an emergency stash of groceries and bottled water in your car as you drive just in case you were to get stranded somewhere and/or (in a much less extreme case) couldn't find dinner or groceries close to your Airbnb that night. If you're really in a pinch, most of the gas stations in Iceland sell basic sandwiches inside, but they are very expensive compared to anywhere else you might find food. And absolutely fill up with gas whenever you can - some parts of the island don't have gas stations and you need to plan accordingly!
Depending on what the weather forecast and what your plans are, choose your rental vehicle and insurance wisely. I'm never one to go all out on car insurance when I'm renting (in fact I always turn it down since my own car insurance covers rental cars) but when in Iceland this past winter, we decided to rent a 4x4 Subaru that would help us get around the island in case of bad storms and bad roads (looking back, I wouldn't say four wheel drive is always necessary, as much as car rental companies will push it on you. But, because the weather is so unpredictable, I'm glad we had it) and we choose to add on all the necessary insurance. Yes, it was painful to pay out that much for the insurance, but I read so many travel blogs before getting to KEF that told warning stories of rental cars getting damaged on the south coast by ash and sand (yes, that's a real thing!) and so we added on Budget's Ash and Sand Protection as well as the daily insurance fee. That crazy wind we talked about above? I'm so grateful that we had a 4x4 vehicle to battle the winds, even without the snow we were expecting. The peace of mind was worth it (and that's not something I say lightly, because I hate paying for insurance I don't need!)
Finally, I would make sure that you have some kind of data plan that covers you while you're in Iceland in case of emergencies. I used my iPhone to navigate us around Iceland (even though it's really just one big road, let's be real) and because I'm with Sprint, they don't ever charge me extra for using my data plan overseas (which is exactly why I have Sprint). My service was great for the most part, which was also great for peace of mind in case we got stuck somewhere far away from anywhere else. If you're really trying to save data while you're there, you can set your Google Maps to navigate to where you want to go while you're on wifi at your Airbnb or hotel, and then put it in Airplane mode and your GPS will keep moving without using additional data to get you to where you need to be.
Whatever you do, make sure you download the 112 Iceland Emergency App - an incredible safety tool that allows you to check-in with your location if weather suddenly becomes impassable or if you're feeling unsafe before calling in for help, and then if you do find yourself in an emergency, the app sends a text to an emergency response station with your GPS location. I only had to use this once on our trip, when I was driving by myself from Reykjavik to Selfoss for the wedding I was photographing early one morning and the weather turned crazy - wind and rain and sleet so strong I could barely see. I checked in with my location a few times just in case I had to call for help later, and thankfully the winds relented and I made it to my destination with no problems.
Wherever you go, I can say confidently that you'll find fairy magic in Iceland. North Iceland is desolate, beautiful and one of my favorite parts of the country - the beauty here is unmatched and still feels untouched. South Iceland will show you Vik's stunning black sand beaches and tiny colorful coastal towns that seem like fairytales with incredible seafood. If you go far enough east, you'll start seeing glaciers and signs for reindeers - like a magical Christmas wonderland with tiny fishing towns that don't seem real. Reykjavik in the west has some of the best lobster soup and adorable coffee shops (Reykjavik Roasters for the win!) that you can curl up in to stay warm and take a break from the wintry outdoors. You really can't go wrong.
Hopefully all of this information has been both informative and exciting to read as you plan your winter Iceland trip. I'm so excited for you and would love to hear some of your own adventures in the comments below - adventure calls!
If you wanted to take a look at the wedding I photographed while we were in Iceland last winter on this trip, check out Christian and Teddy's Winter Iceland wedding here! Cheers!