What’s the weather like in Iceland in winter?

Reykjavík in Winter

… and other questions you might have about travelling in Iceland in winter

Iceland has a bad reputation when it comes to winter. Sure, the name of the country doesn’t help (and no I’m not going to follow up with the story of those confused vikings and Greenland) but winter in Iceland is really not that bad. It’s not as cold as Minnesota, for example, and not as dark as Tromsø. That doesn’t mean that Iceland is some tropical paradise though.

So what’s the weather really like?

There doesn't have to be snow for Iceland to be amazingly beautiful in Winter.

There doesn’t have to be snow for Iceland to be amazingly beautiful in Winter.

If there’s one word that best describes the Icelandic weather experience it would be unpredictable. What that means is that we can’t really tell you what the weather will be like because we just don’t know. For example, last year we had a lot of storms in the late autumn and beginning of winter but this year we’ve only had a couple. The year before last year we had a LOT of snow but last year it didn’t snow quite as much. Often it rains a lot in September and October but this year we experienced an unusually warm and sunny autumn and I hardly remember any rain at all.

Then of course there’s the issue of different weather in different parts of the country. Today we had a cold but rather nice day here in Reykjavík while one of my classmates couldn’t make it too school because she’s been trapped in Ísafjörður for three days due to bad weather. The summer in Reykjavík was one of the worst in recorded history while the folks in the East Fjords were prancing around in their bikinis in 20+°C. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

In any case, this website should become your best friend during your stay in Iceland. It has more useful information than I do on this subject.

Errr… that was helpful (not). How should I dress for winter in Iceland then?

Öskjuhlíð

I’ve actually written a whole post about just that but to summarize and save you the click: Dress in layers! On top of schizophrenic weather we also enjoy very cheap hot water that heats our houses and we’re not afraid to use it.  So once you have put on enough clothes to stay warm outside, and you pop in for coffee somewhere, you are going to boil unless you can get the clothes easily off again. Just think of yourself as an onion, peeling off layer by layer until you become comfortable. I don’t have an analogy for putting on the layers again though.

If you are traveling outside of the city I suggest good hiking shoes, woolen socks, long johns and some hats and mittens. I never leave the city limits without these.

If I’m going out of the city, will I need a 4WD?

Strokkur geyser in winter

Under normal circumstances all you really need is a normal car on good tires, something you shouldn’t have to worry about if you are dealing with a respectable car rental agency. If you are dealing with a less respectable car rental place, I’d really check the tires before you head off. Most of you are only visiting places where there’s plenty of traffic and the road administration tries to make sure to keep those roads open and passable for all cars.

If there’s a lot of snow a 4WD might come in handy. I especially remember one time when I was in Ísafjörður in Easter once in a little Volkswagen Polo and got stuck in a snow binge because my travel companions and I took the wrong turn. I had not read a helpful post like this one back then and was wearing a short skirt and sneakers. In the end we had to be rescued by a big ‘ol jeep that happened to pass by and we were lucky that it did. I bet a 4WD would have been useful in that situation but it was completely self-inflicted – we should have looked at a map.

Before you head out in the Icelandic country side you should always check the Icelandic Road Administration website for information about road conditions. If you are not sure, ask a local.

Is it dark all the time?

No, not ALL the time. Actually I’m so used to it that I don’t really notice how dark it is until it starts getting bright again. But you definitely have to take limited daylight into consideration when you plan your travels. Unless you like your photos black

Will I be able to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavík?

The first Northern Lights I catch "on film" this winter

The first Northern Lights I catch “on film” this winter and the University of Iceland

I also wrote a post about this, as it happens, (I’m always one step ahead you, imaginary person asking these questions) and I’m working on another. The short answer is yes you can but there are many deciding factors in whether or not you’ll be successful. What’s more, none of these factors is something we control. It’s like the whales, they are wild creatures and you can’t place in an order for them to show up when you happen to go on a whale watching tour. 3-4 days before you come to Iceland you can check the Aurora forecast and that will give a small indication whether or not it’s likely you will see them. The rest you’ll have to leave up to faith.

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5 thoughts on “What’s the weather like in Iceland in winter?”

  1. Sam Holmes says:

    Great post! I came to Iceland in Feb 2010, just before the volcanic eruption. It was cold, about -6, but not snowy at all. In fact Britain had all the snow when we were in Iceland! It just shows how gulf streams can make it unpredictable. Love the Aurora photo. I can’t wait to come back to Iceland, hopefully at Easter

  2. Elinor says:

    Thank you so much for this advices, it’s very timely, as my boyfriend and I are going to be traveling in Iceland for, four weeks in December! You website is full of awesome information and I can’t wait to see it all!

  3. Another useful post – thank you! I just missed some good aurora – I saw all the pictures and tweets about the amazing displays like two days after I got back home from Reykjavik. And I did experience both sun and snow, and I totally agree about the layers thing being a necessity. I’d love to go back to Iceland in the dead of winter! 🙂

  4. Kara Brandt says:

    WOW! The Northern Light and the immaculate white snow is a stunner to me. Such a wonderful sight to see. Is it snowing hard in Iceland this month? I really hope I can visit Iceland. Very beautiful country.

  5. Miquel says:

    I really now that about the weather, I stayed in Akureyry and temperature was about 25ºC but the next year, I was in same place same day and same hour and temperarure was about 5ºc so yes, the best solution is “onion’s solution” dress in layers!!

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