3 things I recently learned about traveling in in winter

Last weekend the boyfriend and I left town to explore the south coast for a couple of days including Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. We didn’t have the best weather and basically our whole weekend was turned upside down because of it. It didn’t make much difference to us because we are prepared for such things but it got me think about all the first time visitors that don’t know what they are getting themselves into when they book a trip to Iceland in winter. Don’t get me wrong, Iceland in winter can be spectacular and I would always recommend it but it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Below you will find three things I learned about traveling in Iceland in winter from our trip. Don’t get discouraged reading this though, just look at this as a preparation for your trip. Your wonderful winter trip around magical Iceland.

The weather conditions

Winter weather

The driving conditions as we left town on Friday – this is less than half an hour away from Reykjavík

I am born and raised here in Iceland so the ever changing weather is actually one of the few constants in my life and I don’t get fazed by hail or 50 meters a second wind. Because of this I may sometimes not understand the challenges that our weather presents to visitors that are not used to it. As a result I may also have cursorily put too much emphasis on people renting their own cars here on the blog, dismissing perfectly nice bus tours like something that should be avoided like the plague, without giving you a fair warning about what you’re about to get yourself into.

As the boyfriend and I were driving over Hellisheiði in a blind snowstorm the other day it occurred to me that we probably react differently to situations like that. By we I mean you, travelers visiting Iceland, and I the local. When the boyfriend and I are hit by a snowstorm on a mountain somewhere I find it uncomfortable but I don’t panic. I know from experience that the storm will pass and that we know how to drive in these conditions. I also know that we have brand new snow tires under our car and that we put a lot of thought into choosing them. So I’m mostly calm.

Someone who has never driven in such conditions might however have a completely different reaction and simply panic. When you are scared you take rash decisions that can be dangerous both to yourself and others around you. This, I imagine, is how people find themselves outside of the road in a jam or stopped in the middle of the road without their hazard lights making it impossible for approaching cars to see them.

Although most of the time you’ll be fine driving around Iceland in winter we sometimes have winters like this year where it feels like every week we have a storm warning somewhere with closing of roads to match.

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So before you decide how you are going to travel around Iceland consider this:

  1. If you are not used to driving in extreme winter conditions and you don’t feel like you can handle a snowstorm or ice on the roads: Don’t rent a car!
  2. If you do decided that winter conditions are nothing to worry about do yourself a favor and rent from a reputable company where you can be sure the tires are good and the cars are in good condition. I know it’s tempting to save some krónur on renting cheaper cars but don’t compromise your safety.
  3. Before you head out always check the weather conditions and road conditions. Pay special attentions to warnings that are displayed at the top of the weather website.
  4. Listen to local advice! If we tell you something is a bad idea it’s probably because it IS a bad idea!
  5. If you encounter a road that is closed, it really is closed. Also, don’t trust your GPS over common sense, they’ve been known to give bad advice because they can’t factor in the different seasons and weather conditions. If there is a sign, a road block or a chain you have no business being there on your small rental car.
  6. Consider investing in a local SIM card. If something happens to you it’s much easier to help you if you can actually call for help. You can of course also use your foreign number but if the charges are really high on them it might be worth it to invest in a local card which are relatively cheap. It can also be good to have access to the weather and road condition websites on the go and data is cheaper on a local SIM.

 

Equipment (you know, clothes and stuff)

Vík

Although I’ve covered this topic extensively with posts about what to wear in Iceland, including packing lists and what not, I still want to mention this yet again. Although we exploit this arctic connection a bit too much (hello tourist shops and polar bears) Iceland is still on the edge of the arctic and the weather can be all kinds of crazy. Iceland is not as cold as New York City or Montreal in winter but the weather gods more than make up for it with strong winds, precipitation with more names than I can count that can all happen within the same hour and the infamous sideways rain. So the right gear is of the essence.

I’m not going to talk about bringing layers again, because if you haven’t figured that out yet there’s not a lot I can do to help you at this point, but during my recent escapades out of the city I realized that I had totally forgot to mention an essential thing to bring for your winter adventure in Iceland: spikes or springs for your shoes.

Gkaciers

I call my springs my old lady springs because I feel like a senior citizen putting them on but no matter how much I make fun of them it doesn’t change the fact that they are super helpful and necessary even at times. I don’t use them much here in the city but last weekend during our drive to Jökulsárlón there were quite a few places that we simply couldn’t visit because of ice. I had mine with me but the boyfriend doesn’t have any so hiking to the beautiful Svartifoss waterfall for example was simply out of the question. I’m not saying everyone will need them all the time but it’s at least good to keep them in mind if the conditions call for them. You can also buy them here in Reykjavík if you would rather assess the situation before you make a purchase.

Also: waterproof pants.

 

Being spontaneous and booking things as you go

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When I started this blog I wrote a post about how you could still travel in winter without making any reservations and let the mood and the winds decide where you would head next. It seems like this has changed.

People have been asking me a lot about ice cave tours in Iceland so I thought it would be a good idea for the boyfriend and I to try one out so I could share my findings with you. Well, the ice cave tours I found are basically booked out for the whole month of February so there was no way they could fit us in. To make a long story short we didn’t see any ice caves.

We also stayed at Vík hostel for the weekend and they were almost fully booked both nights. I remember a time where February was dead for many of the hostels so this was somewhat surprising to me. I didn’t contact other accommodation options in Vík to check the booking status there and maybe this is just because hostels tend to be the cheapest option available but it’s still something worth considering.

Fjallsárlón

Finally, I wasn’t even sure whether it would be viable for me to do my tours all year round but I’ve had quite a few days this winter where everything is fully booked. Next weekend for example is completely booked out. In February! I would never have guessed this.

So what does this mean? If there’s anything you absolutely have to do while in Iceland where you know the availability is limited (like my tour *wink wink*) think about booking it in advance. And if you plan on going on an ice cave tour: book far in advance!

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33 thoughts on “3 things I recently learned about traveling in in winter”

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post! I will remember it when I will go back to Iceland, because I will, and it will be in winter!

    I’m from Montreal… and so far we’re having a very cold winter, with several days of -30 degrees. As much as I found it odd to wear jeans and long sleeves sweaters and rain coat in July, as I was in Iceland last summer, I think it will be refreshing to experience a less cold winter in your majestic country! Looking forward to it.

    I also wanted to thank you for this post http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2012/04/ellidaardalur-a-somewhat-unknown-local-gem-in-reykjavik/ because we spent a day there last summer, and we really enjoyed it!

  2. Lynda says:

    the only two tours we booked for our trip last week were your tour and the ice caves and we booked those about a month in advance. And we were very happy with our rental car. We just took our time driving and enjoyed it!

  3. Hann says:

    Another very important point for visitors worth mentioning :

    BE CAREFUL WHEN OPENING CAR DOORS!!!!

    The wind can be very, very strong here. Cars should always be parked against the wind (if you’re not sure, you can check by lowering your window). If you open the door while the wind is coming from the back, there’s a very good chance the door will be smashed backwards or even ripped off.

    Doors are NOT covered by any of the insurances offered when you rent a car, and one can easily cost 2000 dollars.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Good point – see, another thing I didn’t think of because you just sort of know these things when you live here 🙂

  4. Franziska says:

    I just returned from a beautiful week in Iceland. We were near Akureyri and I was a little bit afraid of the road conditions but it was very easy to drive, easier as sometimes in winter in Switzerland, even the snow blowings on the way to Myvatn weren’t as bad as I thought. Well, we had a good car anyway and sure, if you not used to drive in snow, don’t do it. At the last day we “stranded” at Akureyri Airport because the flight was canceled due to the weather and I shortly was thinking about driving the way to Reykjavik, but as you mentioned, I listened to the to the local advices and didn’t drive, which was obvisously a good thing.
    Anyway, to see Iceland in winter after beeing there last summer was a great experience!

    Thanks for all your advices in your wonderful blog!
    Franziska

  5. danielle says:

    yes, we are visiting soon and i said i will check the weather to decide if we’ll rent a car (thru your blog) but given how winter has been so far, i think it will be a no. ive driven in may, and all round the ring road in august, but i ddint want to commit to driving when we booked the trip. we visited in november and i would have been fine then……… apart from the last day when the first storm of the season rolled in and i would have shit my pants driving back to the airport. i would really like the freedom of hiring a car, but would like clean underwear also!

  6. Whitney says:

    i was in the south of Iceland from 1 Feb-9 Feb on a photo workshop trip, and our guide also remarked several times about how much more crowded winter is getting. Our Vik guesthouse as well as our lodging by the lagoon were nearly full. We did an ice cave tour (highly recommend!) and it was clear that our guide was good friends with the cave guide, and that he booked well in advance. He said he has to book summer accommodations 1.5 years out to get the locations and dates he needs for groups of 8.

    I’d also recommend a step up from the metal spirals – get micro spikes. We could walk anywhere – icy waterfall bases, steep inclines in ice caves, far icy reaches of the iceberg lagoon shores, etc. The person who only had the metal springs/spirals had a lot more limitations!

  7. Trisha Courtney says:

    I’ve just returned from a wonderful adventure in Iceland , and reading through your blog I can confirm your 100% right. I booked all my tours way back in September, I booked private tours, just the five of us in my group plus the local guide, I always sat in front with our guide because the scenery was breathtaking , but,
    One minute the sun was shinning and everything was beautiful, then boom !!! A snow storm snow blowing sidewards winds that would blow you off your feet, visibility zero, our guides were always calm and drove confidently, but we did see tourist with hired cars stopped, not parked up safely, just stopped dangerously, my advise, in winter let the locals drive you about outside of Reyjkavic, and just sit back and enjoy the ride 🙂

  8. darcy says:

    I have found your advice very useful through this site, thanks and well done! We loved our week in Iceland just returning last night. I found it fine driving around, using the road safety and weather sites, listening to advice, driving carefully, It was a little dodgy at times, but if you were carefull I thought it was fine. I loved the autonomy we had with a car and would recommend it to anyone, as long as they are sensible with it!

    1. mm Auður says:

      I’m glad to hear that you had such a good time. I think the key word here is sensible and the fact that you were comfortable with driving in these conditions.

  9. Soralund says:

    Hi Auður. I have just seen a trip advertised for March 2016. At that time of year, how possible would it be to do the usual attractions (blue lagoons, golden circle, Gullfoss) ? I don’t really want for the husband to drive a hire car in Iceland in winter. Many thanks in advance.

    1. mm Auður says:

      It’s usually possible to get there in March but then you can have storms like yesterday and then no one can get anywhere. This winter has been quite unusual with all those storms, lets hope this won’t happen again 🙂

  10. Lan says:

    Thank you for the post. Is November considered winter for Iceland?

    1. mm Auður says:

      Yes, November is winter. I would say winter is probably from November till the end of March or so, it depends on the weather how early we start talking about spring 🙂

  11. Eric says:

    Hello Auður, I plan to visit in May, and will be traveling via a camper. Wondering if you still recommend bringing spikes for my shoes? In addition, is there any other gear you would recommend(Early or mid May) beside the essential like rain jacket/pant and waterproof shoes?
    Thank you in advance! ?

    1. mm Auður says:

      I don’t think you’ll be needing spikes but here are all the things I’ve written about attire for your Iceland visit: http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/tag/what-to-wear/

  12. Britt says:

    What time of 2017would be best to visit for a northern light sighting? Feb or March? I know it can’t be predicted, but just historically speaking.

    1. mm Auður says:

      There’s no way telling – it all depends on the activity level and weather.

  13. pam says:

    I’m thinking about visiting in mid March of 2017 to see the northern lights. Is this a good time to visit to see everything else there is to see? Also, is March a good month to see the lights? I’ve heard that in December and January it can be very cloudy. What are your thoughts?

    1. mm Auður says:

      My thoughts are that it can also be very cloudy in March 🙂 But statistically speaking I’m sure there are less of them in March 🙂

      March is a good month to visit and not so great – it’s slow tourist wise so you can probably get good offers on accommodation but it’s also kind of bleh sometimes weather wise. Not quite cold enough for the whole winter wonderland thing and not spring either. Just depends what you are looking for.

      You can see the northern lights in March.

  14. Lei says:

    Thanks for the detailed sharing.

    I’d like to spend 4-6 days in early January 2017 to cover the southern part of Iceland.
    Do you think its the right time and would it be a bad idea to miss the beautiful parts at the north?

    Hopefully I get to catch the Aurora!

    1. mm Auður says:

      There’s no wrong decision here, all of these places are beautiful.

  15. Rose says:

    My grown son and I are driving the ring road in early March (so excited!! 50 days….. not that we’re counting ?). I am a seasoned black ice driver (with no studded tires) having grown up in Tasmania, and we are taking a leisurely 11 days to cover the distance, so we should have plenty of time to accommodate any extended no travel days.
    What has this winter been like so far? My primary concern is the wind, and being blown off the road ?.
    We are planning on utilising all of the brilliant weather and road apps that are available in Iceland, with a local SIM card in our phones.
    I will also be training for an ironman, so will need to run every 2 days. Do you recommend spikes to attach to trail running shoes?

    Many thanks ?

    1. mm Auður says:

      Winter so far has been really windy. Not a lot of snow but a lot of wind and rain.

    2. Danielle says:

      wow you are hardcore – can i hire you to drive me around Iceland in winter? 😀

  16. Melissa says:

    where does one buy metal spikes?

    1. mm Auður says:

      You can sometimes find them in Bonus or at a shoemaker.

      Or, you know, Amazon

  17. Jen and Norbert Lieser says:

    Hello Audur I just discovered your blog and enjoyed reading it. We are visiting Iceland in January 2018 from approx 3rd to 9th. Have not booked anything as yet but planning to do so this weekend.
    We are from Australia and have never driven in snow but my husband is from Germany so he is used to driving on the “other side” of the road!
    I was thinking of booking day trips, we want to do the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon and the usual touristy stuff, do you think we waste too much time with the tours eg. Some tours through Viator are pretty much one tour per day and we want to see as much as possible in the short time we are there but as it is early January I am concerned about the weather.
    Would love your expert advice

    1. mm Ásta - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Hi Jen and Norbert,

      Some of the tours can be done as combo tours, so you don’t get dropped off back at your accommodation but get taken to the next tour or activity. This is often a good use of time, and is often less expensive as well. Maybe that would help? Keep in mind that the daylight hours are pretty short in Iceland in January though! If you need help with planning tours etc., just be in touch at hello at iheartreykjavik.net and we can try to help you out.

      1. Belgis says:

        Hi!
        I tried to do what’s in the last post on going to hello at Iheartreykjavik but I couldn’t do it. I’m from Puerto Rico (Caribbean) and we are going through the 27 of December to the 3rd of January. We were planing to rent a car but now I’m not that sure. We were planing to to this:
        Day 1: Reykjavik
        Day 2: drive to The thinvellir national park- geyser and finally gulfuss
        Day 3: waterfall/ Vik
        Day 4:glacier lagoon and Ice caves (stay there again)
        Day 5: drive back to Reikiavik
        Day 6: blue lagoon
        Day 7: peninsula
        What do you think?
        If renting a car isn’t the best way, how could we do this?
        Thanks in advance

        1. mm Ásta - I Heart Reykjavík says:

          Hi,

          Your plan sounds fine, as long as the weather and the road conditions are OK. By day 7, I don’t know if you are referring to the Reykjanes peninsula, or Snæfellsnes peninsula, but keep in mind that it is good to have a buffer day at the end of your trip, with ending close to Reykjavík or the international airport, so that you don’t miss your flight if the weather gods are not cooperating. If you prefer not to do the drive yourself, and it depends entirely on the weather if that is easy or not, you can do excursions to get to places. You could for example check out these itineraries: http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2016/08/how-to-spend-5-days-in-iceland-in-fall-or-winter-solo-without-breaking-the-bank/ and http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2016/11/seven-days-in-winter-in-iceland-for-adventure-lovers-that-dont-want-to-rent-a-car/

          I hope this helps!

  18. Amichai Kinsberg says:

    Hi Asta,
    This is Amichai.
    My wife, my 1 year old daughter and myself were in Iceland for 8 days in July 2015. We did the Glymur waterfall hike, Reykanes, Golden Circle and Southern Iceland up to Stafefell Cottages (34km west of Hofn). We fell in love with Iceland!. We were in Iceland again in July 2016 but that was only overnight for travelling to and from the Faroe Islands. We are strongly considering returning to Iceland in January 2018; it would be me with my wife, my daughter who will be 3.5 years old and my yet to be born son; (my wife is pregnant and due beginning of September). I am from Brooklyn, New York so use to cold weather / snow / ice. That being said, I think it would make my wife more comfortable if we hired a private guide either for a few days or the whole time. I think it would probably be better with a private guide, since we could cover more ground during the short winter days. Are you available for private hire in January 2018? If not, is there anyone that you could recommend?
    Thanks!,
    Amichai

    1. mm Ásta - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Hi Amichai,

      Great to hear that you have enjoyed Iceland on your visits, and are planning another trip! If you send us an email to hello [at] iheartreykjavik.net, with details on places you would like to visit and exact time and dates, we look into what we can suggest for you.

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