Iceland in winter – why is it worth going there at this time of year?
From the time perspective, I think our decision to go to Iceland during the winter was pure madness. For some inexplicable and undefined reasons, after we were in Iceland in the summer months, we decided to go back again, but this time in March. March in Iceland marks the beginning of the end of winter. Days are starting to get longer, and the snow lying there for several months is finally melting. According to statistics, it also turns out that March is one of the least busy months in Iceland, which gives hope that there will be no crowds of tourists there.
This month you can still hunt for the northern lights, visit glacier caves, or catch interesting festivals or winter activities. However, it is worth remembering that the weather in March can be difficult to predict and can change dramatically from hour to hour. A clear and sunny morning may end with a blizzard in the afternoon, or heavy rains in the morning may bring a clear sky an hour later.
Therefore, before planning a trip to Iceland in winter, it is worth remembering a few important things.
Iceland in winter – car rental
In winter, a four-wheel drive car is required, and driving is suggested only to experienced drivers. Road conditions can be difficult, with zero visibility, blizzard or a strong wind pushing cars into ditches.
It is recommended, to drive a car with four-wheel drive in winter, with winter tires with studs, which allows you to move on a slippery road. If you rent a car from a rental company, I recommend stocking it up with a car window cleaner. You may need it often, and the car window cleaner in the tank you will receive with the car will quickly run out. Also, pay attention to whether in the car you will find a brush for clearing snow from the car roof, a scraper, and even a small shovel, because it may happen that after a night in the open air, you will have to dig up the car in the parking lot. You should also be careful where you park it, as towing is usually not covered by insurance packages, and this type of service can cost you dearly.
In general, during the winter, it can be hard to plan a “rigid” travel plan because the weather can completely thwart your plans.
It is worth saving two internet pages, the first one to check the weather forecast and the second one if the roads are passable (if the roads are not closed). Yes, roads in Iceland (including Ring Road 1) can be closed for several hours or even for several days. In many cases, it is impossible to drive around them because there is no other road. There is nothing you can do about it – just wait it out!
Roads are closed, e.g. when a blizzard covers the road, an avalanche descends, or ice covers the road and turns it into an ice rink. Always pay attention to road markings, signs and information on official traffic websites.
What to buy before leaving for Iceland during winter?
Yes, when it snows – you cannot reach many places without spikes under your shoes. In many areas – (especially in Thingvellir National Park or at the waterfalls), some signs recommend wearing crampons.
I recommend using steel crampons – resistant to uneven terrain and ice under the snow. Crampons will allow you not only to reach your destination safely but also to help others. Believe me, in Iceland you can meet people wearing sneakers during winter. So, when they go for a trip in sneaker shoes, they block the road, unable to move in any direction. Either you help them to move, or the road/ stairs/ path will remain blocked. Crampons can be brought with you or purchased on-site. In Iceland, crampons are available in many places, such as souvenir shops, gas stations and even pharmacies, for very reasonable prices. In many places, you can also rent them for a few days. Solid crampons are must-haves for those who intend to climb the glacier or walk in the mountains.
You can also rent your crampons on a site; prices are starting from 990 ISK per day (approx. 6,5 Euros).
During the winter months: November – March, the average temperature is 1 degree, but the perceived temperature can be even 10 degrees lower. Although the day is already longer, between 10-13 hours, you can often not see the sun during the day because heavy rain clouds hang low over the ground. During winter in Iceland, you can face severe and prolonged rainfall, snowstorms, blizzards, strong winds and high humidity. All this requires a proper thermal layer, otherwise, you will have a hard time surviving outside. Thermal underwear – a long-sleeve T-shirt and leggings are a must if you plan any outdoor activities.
Drying wet clothes and shoes
In general, drying clothes and shoes in Iceland can be a challenge. There are clothes dryers at the campsites, so if you find one open all year round, you can dry your clothes there. In hotels or guesthouses, the situation will be different because the radiators are ridiculously small there, or require ventilation, so you must not hang anything on them. There are usually no radiators in the bathrooms, and to heat them, you must open the door to the room, which is warmer. Therefore, when you get wet, and your clothes and shoes will get wet, it will not be easy to dry them in one evening.
When it comes to clothing, it is worth having a second set so that you do not wear wet pants or socks in the morning. Regarding shoes, I recommend bringing an electric boot dryer, the same kind that skiers use. It will not be a big expense, but worth to buy it, as it can make your life much easier, provide comfort and help you stay healthy. The average price range of electric shoe dryers is 10-18 Euros.
A winter hardshell waterproof jacket
Hiking in Iceland during the winter season requires a reliable waterproof jacket. A winter hardshell waterproof jacket acts as your first line of defence in the battle against typical Icelandic elements. It must protect you from strong and freezing wind, heavy rain, and blizzards. Because you are likely to be wearing it all day, a winter waterproof needs to be durable. On top of that, it also needs to be warm, equipped with a warm hoodie, made of breathable fabrics and heavy enough to give you comfort and proper protection.
Therefore, it is worth dressing in layers because, as I wrote earlier, the weather in Iceland can change drastically in a few minutes. So, it is worth taking off or adding one layer of clothing when needed. On dry days it is worth wearing a warm and windproof jacket, and when it rains for several hours, wear warm thermal underwear with a rain jacket on top of it.
A thermos of hot tea
A thermos of hot tea may be the best thing to find in your backpack or in your car when you get wet or cold on your way back to the parking lot from some sightseeing. In many places, it is impossible to buy a cup of tea, because during winter most of them are closed. In the morning, before leaving the hotel, it is always worth making tea in a thermos. We bought a bottle of Herbapol fruit syrup (yes, I found such a juice in a supermarket in Reykjavik!) and poured it into a thermos with tea, which made the tea very warm and simply delicious!
Iceland in winter, what is worth seeing?
Seeing the northern lights is an extraordinary experience. In Iceland, the Northern Lights can only be seen from September to March. However, you must be lucky because the sky must be clear, and during the winter there are few such days only. To see the Northern Lights, it is best to take a boat trip at night, which sails to the darkest place, away from the city lights. You can also go on a night tour by coach, which takes tourists to darkened areas. We bought a boat trip from Reykjavik, and for two days in a row, the trip was cancelled, due to heavy clouds. It was not until the third night that we managed to go to the open sea and see the aurora, but taking pictures on a frosty night, on a boat swaying in the wind – was an extraordinary challenge.
It is worth planning this attraction! Even though there are not many tourists in March, there were many people on our boat. It is worth adding that in March, it was still cold outside. Therefore, the ticket includes warm overalls, which – once on board – you wear over your outer clothing. Without it, watching the aurora on a frosty night from the deck of the ship – would not be possible.
Northern Lights tours by bus can be purchased here:
Whales, dolphins, porpoises
Being able to see whales in Iceland is a breathtaking and fantastic experience, and in Iceland, this activity is available all year round. During winter months, you can meet herds of white-beaked dolphins and porpoises. In March, humpback whales and minke whales return to their lairs. There is also a chance to see killer whales or blue whales. In the port of Reykjavik, a few companies are offering this type of trip. Tickets are available on the spot. In March, it is enough to buy them on the same day.
On the Special Tours website, you can find a large selection of offers. I used this company while I was there.
Winter snorkelling and diving in Iceland
Both snorkelling and diving are possible in winter in Iceland. The most popular destination is Silfra Fissure, in Thingvellir National Park. Considered by many to be one of the ten best diving spots in the world. The water there has very high transparency (about 100 meters), and in the winter, the water temperature can be 2-4 °C. I took the photos below during my summer visit to Iceland, but this place is open all year round.
Diving in the Silfra fissure is possible only in an organized group, but a diver’s license is not required to experience such an adventure. Below are examples of offers where you can buy organized diving under the supervision of specialists.
- dive.is – Silfra Snorkeling & Caving in Thinvellir
- adventures.com – Silfra Fissure Snorkeling Tours Iceland
Iceland’s glaciers cover 11% of the country, and for many people, seeing a glacier is the main reason for visiting Iceland in winter.
Most trips to the Icelandic glaciers lead to those located on the South coast of the island – about 150 – 200 km from Reykjavik.
It is possible to see the blue ice caves in Iceland only from mid-October to the end of March. Many travel agents offer this type of tour. Some of them have on-site meetings and guided tours, and some of them – are full-day tours with transportation from Reykjavik. Maybe you will find something for yourself here.
Organised guided tours
- Crystal Ice Cave Tour from Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon*, explore Vatnajökull, the most voluminous ice cap in Iceland and one of the largest glaciers in Europe. You will have 45 minutes to explore natural ice caves with an English-speaking guide and learn about their formation. Meeting on the spot. 2-3 hours.
- Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and South Coast Day Trip*, visit one of the most spectacular natural wonders of Iceland, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Experience this full-day tour of glaciers, icebergs, and waterfalls with transfers from Reykjavik. Discover the black sands of Diamond Beach, the grand Seljalandsfoss waterfall, and the small fishing village of Vík. Optional hotel pick-up.
- Katla Ice Cave (Under the Volcano) Tour from Reykjavik*, discover the marvels of Icelandic nature and set your sights on the most amazing ice cave on a day tour. Katla Volcano and Mýrdalsjökull glacier combined their forces and made a breathtaking ice cave. Marvel at the many layers of the glacier to see how it had built up over time. Enter the cathedral-like atmosphere of the ice dome produced by the Katla Volcano in the Kötlujökull outlet glacier. Hop into a Super Jeep and prepare for an incredible journey in an icy land.
- Katla Ice Cave (Under the Volcano) Tour*, marvel at the otherworldly beauty of Iceland’s natural landscapes on this day tour. Learn about how Katla Volcano and Mýrdalsjökull glacier formed an amazing ice cave. Hop in a Super Jeep, strap on your crampons and step into the mighty Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The meeting place is on the spot. 3 hours.
- Ice Caving & Glacier Hiking from Skaftafell*, see Europe’s largest glacier Falljökull and explore its frozen worlds on this half-day adventure. Go ice-caving with certified, professional guides and gaze at the wonders of the frozen caverns. Meeting on the spot. 4 hours.
Multi-day guided tours
Iceland in winter is as beautiful as it is dangerous however, not everyone can feel strong enough to drive a car in changeable, difficult winter conditions. Many tourists dream of seeing Iceland in winter. They dream about being amazed by its beauty at this time of year. Many travel agencies are offering multi-day guided tour packages.
Below is an offer from Klook, which has a 3-day trip from Rekjavik. Visiting the attractions of the Golden Circle, and the South coast of the island. Visiting Black Beach, Jökulsárlón Bay, and in winter – visiting ice caves and hunting the Northern Lights. Three days, two nights, accommodation with breakfast, guided tours, and entrance tickets to paid attractions.
In the next post, you will find my “winter tailor-made travel plan around Iceland”.
Iceland, my other post
I encourage you as well to read my other posts about Iceland
- Akureyri – northern Iceland
- Diamond Circle North Iceland
- East Iceland – the land of puffins
- Golden Circle – treasures of Iceland
- Húsavík Iceland – time for whales
- Iceland – tailor-made travel plan
- Iceland photos
- Reykjanes Peninsula South West Iceland
- Reykjavik Iceland’s capital city
- South Coast of Iceland
- Snaefellsnes Peninsula West Iceland
- Troll Peninsula North Iceland
*links to the offer from Klook are affiliate