Iceland in winter – all you need to know about self-drive tour + 7 days itinerary

Iceland is my most favorite place on Earth. Well, right after Norway, where we live. For a long time, it was a long time dream destination for me until in 2014, the dream came true. I had a chance to spend 3 wonderful weeks hitchhiking with some friends around the whole island.

Camping in Iceland
Summer camping in Iceland, 2014

If I wasn’t in love with Iceland before I definitely fell in love with it then. I came back in summer 2016 when we hitchhiked and hiked in the Western fjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula with my friend Daniel. And when I discovered some very cheap flight tickets from Oslo to Keflavik the third journey was set. This time it was all about exploring Iceland in winter.

Mt Kirkufjell on Snæfellsness peninsula
Mt Kirkufjell on Snæfellsness peninsula, summer 2016

So the week before Xmas, we packed our camping gear, booked a car and headed to Iceland. A lot of our friends and family thought that we are crazy to go to Iceland in winter (and especially to go camping). But after we came back and showed them some pictures of Iceland in winter they showered us with questions about the car rentals, driving conditions, camping conditions etc.

Therefore we have decided to sum it all up in one article that contains all the information you need to know about a self-drive tour in Iceland in winter and our 7 days itinerary.

Why should you travel to Iceland in winter

What kind of weather can you expect in Iceland in winter

Where to rent a cheap car and how to stay safe on Icelandic roads in the winter

How to stay safe on Icelandic roads in the winter

How to find cheap accommodation in Iceland

Where and when can you  see the northern lights and how to photograph them

How to dress accordingly to weather in Iceland and what to pack

What kind of activities can you do in Iceland in winter

Self-drive tour vs guided trips

What to visit in Iceland in winter + our 7 days itinerary around the Golden Circle and along the South Coast


Why should you travel to Iceland in winter

Most of the people I know do not like winter and they dream about holidays where they can lay on a white sandy beach and enjoy temperatures above 25 degrees. If anyone tried to sell you on a vacation in the dead of winter to a place that’s dark about 20 hours a day, and probably won’t reach above freezing temperatures the whole time you’re there, you’d probably think it was a joke.

So, why should you prioritize Iceland in winter over white beaches somewhere in the Carribean? I can think of several reasons: frozen waterfalls, snowy landscapes, magnificent ice caves, glacier walks and snowmobile drives and northern lights. If you just got a travel bug and you are already checking flights to the “Land of Ice and Fire”, then there are some more positives of visiting Iceland in winter.

  • cheaper prices of car rentals (might be half the price of renting a car in the high season)
  • cheaper prices for accommodation (it is not overbooked and it is also half price compared to summer time)
  • fewer tourists (even though Iceland is a very popular destination even in winter)
Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in winter
Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in winter

What kind of weather can you expect in Iceland in winter

You might be surprised that it is not so cold in Iceland in winter. Despite the fact that Reykjavik lies at a latitude of 64 degrees north, the average winter temperatures are around 0 degrees. It might feel much colder though given the wind chill and also it would be colder in the north part of the island and inland. We were camping close to the Reykjadalur valley in the second half of December and the night temperatures dropped down to minus 15 degrees.

Also, do not expect tons of snow around Reykjavik and on the south coast in the winter time. The snow is usually only a few centimeters thick. If there is one word that perfectly describes the Icelandic weather (and not just in winter) then it is the word UNPREDICTABLE.

Get ready for the possibility of experiencing sunshine, snowfall, storm, hail, rain, sleet, and blizzard. During one day. Just like the Norwegians say that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes, the Icelanders say that if you do not like the weather, wait for 5 minutes. It will get worse 🙂

Hiking in Iceland in winter
Hiking in Iceland in winter

Amount of daylight

Another thing that you need to take in consideration while visiting Iceland in winter is the amount of daylight. In December, during the winter solstice, there would be light only for 4 hours a day! It means that it gets light around 11 am and it is getting dark again around 14:30 pm. It gets much better in the second half of March though. Then the sunrise is around 7:30 AM and sunset at 8 PM.

If you want to plan your vacation in Iceland in winter with regards to daylight hours, then go at the end of February or beginning of March. You will still have a chance to see northern lights or visit famous blue ice caves, but you will have much more hours of daylight to explore many more attractions Iceland has to offer. Here you can check the times of sunrises and sunsets in Iceland throughout the whole year.

Graph showing the amount of daylight hours in Reykjavik throughout the whole year
Graph showing the number of daylight hours in Reykjavik throughout the whole year

Where to rent a cheap car

While it is very easy to hitchhike or travel by buses in Iceland in summer, the situation gets a little bit more complicated in the winter. You can either take some of the organized tours, but they might be bit pricey. Or you can rent a car.

The best and cheapest offer I have found after a long search was to rent a car from guidetoiceland. We rented 2WD Hyundai i10 and it cost us approx 220 USD per 8 days. Just for fun, I tried to compare the price of the same car in the summer season and it was more than 500 USD. (But you can also find cheaper cars for rent  than Hyundai i10 in the summer). We were really satisfied with the services of the rental company – they picked us up at the airport and the whole process of picking up the car and returning it was extremely quick.

Driving the Ring Road around Iceland

Iceland has one main road, Route 1, that goes around the whole island. It is commonly called the Ring road. The total length of the Ring road is 1,332 kilometers (828 mi). Do not expect any highway, for almost all its length, the road is two lanes wide. It is kept open over the winter, but it might happen then some parts can be closed due to bad weather or strong winds.

Theoretically, it is possible to drive around Iceland in 15-16 hours, given that road conditions are good. If you are planning on driving around Iceland in winter (October-March), you need to be more flexible with your time and take at least 10-14 days to do the circle. On top of that, you should be ready for the possibility that the road might get closed and you will need to wait for a day or two until the conditions get better again.

Ring Road in the south coast of Iceland during winter
Ring Road on the south coast of Iceland during winter

How to stay safe on Icelandic roads in the winter

Driving in Iceland in winter is not for everyone. If you are not used to driving on snow and ice, you might want to reconsider it. Here are a few tips, that might make your winter self-drive trip easier and safer:

  • Rent a car with studded tires
  • Always check the condition of roads on road.is!!!
  • You can save your travel plan on safetravel and you should check for possible dangers, alerts and road closures there as well
  • Use common sense and adjust your driving to the road conditions. It sounds trivial, but I can not emphasize it enough!!!
  • If there is a sign saying that the road is not suitable for 2WD vehicles then it really is not. Do not attempt to drive there if you do not have 4WD. You might end up being towed and it won’t be cheap.
  • If you encounter a road that is closed, it really is closed.
  • Keep an eye on the fuel meter. The distance between gas station might be large and it won’t be funny if you can’t move your car in the middle of nowhere on a deserted road.
  • Keep a safe distance from cars in front of you. Some tourists in Iceland have this nasty habit of suddenly stopping in the middle of the road every time they see something interesting. It will be hard to break on icy roads and you might crash into them!
  • Watch out for animals in the dark
  • Always have the lights on!
  • Stay safe!

Ivar has lots of experience with winter driving from Norway, but he still said that the conditions that we experienced on Iceland were the toughest in his driving career.


How to find cheap accommodation in Iceland

Originally, we have planned that we will camp outside the whole week. Then we agreed that we will have to stay somewhere inside for a day or two to charge our camera batteries. But the Icelandic weather had another opinion about that.

We camped the first night near the hot springs in Reykjadalur valley close to Hveragerdi. However, it was really cold at night (minus 15 degrees) and they have put signs there forbidding wild camping since the last time I was there. We spent another night camping at Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon. There, we woke up in the middle of the night and we were trapped in a collapsing tent under 30cm of heavy and wet snow. We gave it one more chance and we camped close to Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. It was so windy there that Ivar had to anchor the tent with our ice axes 😀

We booked the rest of our accommodation at the last minute through booking.com. We usually use either booking or Airbnb, but as we did not want to wait for any confirmations we found it easier to use booking. The prices of the accommodation varied a lot based on the area. The cheapest price we could find was 80 dollars for a room for 2 people. We stayed in:

  • Farmhotel Efstidalur – 10 min drive to Geysir, nice wooden interiors and outside hot tube
  • Hotel Drangshlid – 5 min drive to Skogafoss waterfall, tasty breakfast included
  • Skyrhúsid Guest House – 10 min drive to Jökulsarlon Glacier lagoon, free tea, coffee, and Skyr included
  • Guesthouse 1X6 in Keflavik – 5 min drive to car rental, 10 min from the airport, amazing interior, amazing owners, amazing breakfast, amazing small outside hot pool. I can´t recommend that one enough!!!! Make sure to spend the night there if you travel to Iceland.
Hostel 6X1 in Keflavik
Hostel 6X1 in Keflavik

 

Private blue lagoon at the 6X1 hostel in Keflavik
Private blue lagoon at the 6X1 hostel in Keflavik

Where and when can you  see the northern lights

One of the main reasons why so many people travel to Iceland in winter is the possibility to see the northern lights.  Seeing the magical beauty of Aurora Borealis used to be a big dream of mine as well. Until I moved to Norway. We have northern lights quite often in Trondheim so it was not our main agenda in Iceland. Even though we have seen northern lights like so many times, it was still special to watch them while camping on Iceland. However, we have plenty of experience in hunting for northern lights so here are a few basic tips:

When is the best season to see the northern lights

You can watch northern lights in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) from August-thru-April. These are the nights with darkness in them. During the summer months of May, June, and July it is just too bright to see them. From my experience (supported by some statistic data) the best months to watch northern lights are September and March.

[intense_video video_type=”youtube” video_url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLEzn1xxNQA”]

What Time of Night?

The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods or perhaps not at all. However, the peak hours are between 11 pm and 2 am, however, anytime it’s dark there is hope. We’ve seen the northern lights as early as 6 pm. Active periods are typically about 30 minutes long and occur every two hours if the activity is high.

High solar activity

One of the most important factors to influence if you have a chance to see northern lights or not is the solar activity that is described by Kp index. The number can be from 0-9. The higher the number, the larger in size and/or strength the Aurora, if all factors are in alignment. The number basically says how far south would you be able to see the northern lights. While in Trondheim you need an activity around 4 – 5, in Iceland you can watch it with Kp 2-3.

0-2: Low, almost no, activity. Anything you see may appear as pale as a cloud.

2-3: Moderate, but with good chances to catch the  Northern Lights. This is the most usual forecast. Go out!

4-6: Yeeeey! A big solar storm is coming, don’t miss your chance to catch some amazing Aurora displays!

7-9: Highly unusual, maybe your friends and relatives at home will see the Northern Lights, too!

Kp index aurora map

Cloudless sky

A simple rule: No clear sky = No northern lights.  Look at the stars. If you see that the night sky is clear and starry, your chances of seeing Aurora are pretty good.

Darkness

Obviously, you need dark sky in order to be able to see northern lights. However, this shouldn’t be a problem up in Iceland in winter. If the solar activity is high, you will be able to see the northern lights even in Reykjavik. But if the activity is low, you should head for some spot without any light pollution. Also, try to avoid the nights with full moon.

Useful web pages for hunting the northern lights

There is a lot of pages where you can watch the solar activity and aurora forecast. For the northern lights in Iceland, I prefer vedur.is. There you have a very nice map that shows you the Kp index on the right side. You can also find the times when the sun sets and the moon rises etc.  You can also switch the map to show you the low and middle clouds coverage and search for a blank spot there.
Another useful site is aurora-service.eu, where you can see the short-term forecast. We also like to double check the hour-by-hour weather forecast on yr.no.
Northern lights forecast from the vedur.is webpage
Example of northern lights forecast from the vedur.is webpage

How to photograph the northern lights

While I was taking pictures of our lighted tent with dancing Aurora in the surrounding a car pulled into the parking place next to us. It was an Argentinian couple and they asked me if I know something about northern lights. I showed them the lights dancing in the sky and I suggested that if they switch off the lights then they might be able to see it better. They did not even bother getting out of the car until I took my camera out of my tripod and showed them a picture with a bright green sky. Lots of tourists come with expectations of a colorful show in the sky, but it is usually not like that.

Northern lights that we photographed while camping in Iceland in winter
Northern lights that we photographed while camping in Iceland in winter

Unfortunately, human eyes can’t see the relatively “faint” colors of the aurora at night. So if you have never seen northern lights before, it might be difficult to distinguish vague auroras from the clouds. Especially if the solar activity is low. If you want to be sure,  take a picture – if it colors green, you know it’s aurora. Northern lights will always look better in pictures than in reality, but don’t get discouraged. Look at it this way: if you see it in pictures, it means that it’s active and it can become more active any minute. It might be worth waiting outside just a bit longer.

The difference between aurora as human eye can see it, as camera captures it and after photoshoping
The difference between Aurora as human eye can see it, a camera captures it and after using photoshop

What equipment and what settings do you need

For taking great pictures of northern lights you will need:

  • A steady tripod
  • A camera that allows you manual settings
  • Remote shutter (can be substituted by using self-timer)

There is no perfect recipe for capturing the northern lights because, as in any situation, your exposure will largely depend on the light. However, that being said, try setting your camera in full manual mode.

  • Focus at infinity (or slightly less, depending on the lens)
  • ISO between 800 and 3200
  • Aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6,
  • Shutter speed at between 15 seconds and 30 seconds

(I am planning to write a more detailed article about northern lights photography, so please stay tuned! 🙂 ) 


Should you book a guided northern lights tour?

A lot of independent travelers (me included) turn their noses up at guided tours. Why should I pay for a guided tour if I can watch northern lights on my own? Go wherever I want and stay there as long I want. However, I understand that you might be confused about all the different parameters you need to know and check and that it is just more convenient to book a guided tour.

My friend Hanča, who traveled with me in Asia now works as a northern lights tour guide in Tromsø. She says that they are constantly checking the weather forecast and aurora forecast and that they have several spots where they could drive based on the conditions. Therefore I would not discourage you from taking an organized tour as it might increase your chances to see the Aurora.

Price: approx 57 USD (Bus Tour from Reykjavik)


How to dress accordingly to weather in Iceland and what to pack

Coming soon, wait for it! 🙂

 


What kind of activities can you do in Iceland in winter

Snorkeling and Diving 

Go snorkeling or diving in the Silfra rift, part of Thingvallavatn lake. One of the most beautiful places in the world. Iceland is the only place on Earth Iceland gives you the unique experience of snorkeling or diving between two continents. You can’t get an experience like this anywhere else in the world!

Price: approx 148USD (Drysuit snorkeling), 163 USD (Wetsuit snorkeling), 386 USD (Diving)

[intense_video video_type=”vimeo” video_url=”https://vimeo.com/169975834″ show_badge=”0″ show_byline=”0″ show_portrait=”0″]

Caving

Iceland is filled with caves of all sizes and shapes. You can take a guided tour to 200-meters long Vatnshellir cave on Snæfellsnes peninsula. Or you can see the volcano from inside and stand in a magma chamber of the Thrihnjukagigur crater!

Price: approx 63 USD (Víðgelmir lava cave),  96 USD (Leidarendi cave)62 USD Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel

[intense_video video_type=”youtube” video_url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flBnBOUuoio”]

Northern Lights

As I mentioned before the northern lights are very unpredictable phenomena and you are never guaranteed to see them. It always depends on solar activity and cloudless sky. You can either hunt for them alone or you can join one of many guided tours. Some of them have even super big jeeps that can drive you to places that would otherwise be difficult to access.

Price: approx 57 USD (Bus Tour from Reykjavik)

Northern lights above Reykjadalur valley
Northern lights above Reykjadalur valley

Snowmobiling

It is easy to stop off for some fun in the snow if you are traveling in Iceland in winter. In Iceland, you can go snowmobiling on one of the largest glaciers in Europe. Enjoy the complete freedom as you snowmobile through nature that is untouched by man.

Price: approx 241 USD (Langjokull Glacier, 4 hours)

Ice Caves

The Blue Ice Caves in Vatnajökull Glacier are accessible only between mid-November through March. Take your time exploring and enjoy all of the different colors in the snow and ice. For a truly magical time, combine ice caving and a northern lights hunt.

Price: Approx 207 USD (departure from Jokulsarlon)

[intense_video video_type=”youtube” video_url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1DGS5NGliQ”]

Glacier Walking

To see some impressive landscape, that isn’t easily found in many other places around the world, you should definitely look into going on a glacier hiking tour! Iceland has many glaciers, the biggest ones are Vatnajökull, Langjökull, Hofsjökull, and Mýrdalsjökull. Most ice hiking tours in wintertime are offered on Sólheimajökull, which is a part of Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

Glacier walks are available year-round and are a unique Icelandic experience. Throw on your hiking shoes, strap on some ice crampons and you are ready to go! If you’re really feeling adventurous join an ice climb where you can pull yourself up the side of some of the smaller cliffs using the ice axes.

Price: approx 92 USD Solheimajokull, 96 USD Skaftafell 

[intense_video video_type=”youtube” video_url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=65&v=thSbdGxGNE0″]

Dog Sledding

If you are a lover of nature AND animals, you should consider a dog sledding tourDog sledding in Iceland is one of the most popular activities people come to do. You can witness beautiful Icelandic nature while taking an exhilarating ride that takes about an hour.

Price: approx 240USD 

Super Jeep tours

Many smaller roads are closed to normal traffic during the winter, even most 4WD cars cannot access some of the highlights. Jump in a monster truck and take a thrilling ride to our island’s most remote locations. Explore a volcano, glacier or popular attractions like the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, and South Iceland. You can even drive up to Iceland´s most (in)famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

Price: approx 164 USD (Super Jeep northern lights hunting tour), 192 USD (Combination with Blue Ice cave from Jokulsarlon), 232 USD (Combination with snowmobiling on Vatnajokull glacier), 

Super Jeep at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland
Super Jeep at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Horse riding

Price: approx 67USD (30 min), 78USD (1 hour)

Horse back riding on Iceland
Who wouldn’t want to cuddle with these adorable animals?!

Winter whale watching

Price: Approx 96 USD (From Reykjavik)

Hot springs

One of the most impressive attractions in Iceland is the geothermal pools and hot springs.  Whether you want to find a secluded hidden hot spring in the highlands or visit one of the more popular photogenic hot springs near the ring road, it will be worth it. Just imagine the feeling of soaking into a hot water during Icelandic winter.  Most of the tourists usually go to the Blue Lagoon which became something like a must-do attraction on Iceland. It is for sure beautiful, but I would say bit pricey. (Not to mention that the Blue Lagoon is not a natural pool but a  direct result of the geothermal plant found right next door). There are plenty of other options where you can get a similar experience for a lower price – try the Secret Lagoon in Fludir or the Lake Myvatn Nature Baths. Or take a short hike up the Reykjadalur valley, soak in the hot river there and enjoy the view of the steamy valley!

Blue Lagoon: approx 60 USD (6100 ISK standard ticket before March 1st), It is necessary to prebook it!!!!

Secret Lagon: approx 27 USD (2800 ISK adult ticket, open 11 – 20 (October to April), 10 – 22 (Mai to September)

Myvatn Nature Baths: approx 40 USD (4200 ISK from January to April), 45 USD (4700 ISK from Mai to September)

Reykjadalur Hot Springs: FREE!!!! 

(Another article about Hot Springs in Iceland will soon follow. If you do not feel to be patient enough, check this amazing map of all the Icelandic hot springs and thermal pools.)

Reykjadalur Hot River in the Winter
The hot springs in Reykjadalur during the winter

Note: Out of these tours we have done only the Ice Caves and even though our guide was amazing, there was simply too many people. The cave was crowded and there were maybe hundred people inside. I am still puzzled about it, because other people had very positive experience. Our guide was recommending us that we should have booked a more expensive tour, that involved a bit of glacier hiking – that the cave where he takes people after the hike is far less crowded. 


Self-drive tour vs guided trips

Independent traveling without an itinerary or advanced booking is not for everyone. If you do not feel like you want to check what to see and book your accommodation by yourself then you could consider some of the self-drive tours. If you are a bit unsure about driving in Iceland in winter and you want to enjoy your holiday completely without any hassle, then get whole packages with different itineraries. Yes, they are expensive, but Iceland is not the cheapest destination. On the other hand, you will be in good hands and you can fully experience the Land of Ice and Snow and its winter wonders without stressing too much about all the organizational stuff.

Here you have some suggestions for organized self – drive multi-day tours:

And here for organized small group multi-day tours:

Blue Ice Caves in Iceland
Blue Ice Caves in Iceland

What to visit in Iceland in winter (Golden Circle and South Coast)

What you could visit in Iceland in winter will greatly depend on how much time do you have. As I have mentioned earlier the weather is unpredictable during the winter months, roads could be closed and there is a limited amount of daylight. All those factors combined together require a little bit of planning of your winter adventure in Iceland, so you can get the most out of the daytime. Due to these reasons, most tourist that are visiting Iceland in winter chooses to see attractions around the Golden Circle and on the south coast.

The roads in the south of Iceland are pretty comfortable and easy to drive even in the winter (compared to other parts of Iceland) and it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland with spectacular natural sites located just next to the road. On this route, you will see amazing waterfalls, black sand beaches with rough waves, majestic volcanoes covered by glaciers, icebergs swimming in glacier lagoons and so much more!

Check our post about what not to miss on the south coast of Iceland and Golden Circle area and our 7-day self-drive itinerary with tips for accommodation. (Sorry guys, I am not quite done with that article yet, but I promise it is coming soon!

Icebergs at the Diamond Beach close to Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Icebergs at the Diamond Beach close to Jökulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Romantic Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon can be very romantic 🙂

 


Thank you for reading this post about Iceland in winter.  If you find it useful, please share it. If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to write me! 

R. 

2 Replies to “Iceland in winter – all you need to know about self-drive tour + 7 days itinerary”

  1. Wonderful blog. A lot of useful information here. Thank you for sharing..!

  2. Superb blog, it looks like there are lot of great things to do in Reykjavik, Icelalnd. I just want to visit this place.

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