10 Tips for Travelling in Iceland During Winter

Hail is thundering down on our car as we edge out of Keflavik airport. Both of us are a mishmash of excitement, nerves and adrenaline. I’m already snapping too many photos out of the passenger window – thank goodness Luke volunteered to drive – despite the gloomy grey sky. Five minutes into our journey and the hail is long gone, replaced by a quiet stillness. Another few minutes pass and we feel the wind pick up, followed by heavy rain. By the time we reach our hostel everything is quiet again and the ground is covered in a thick layer of ice. It only took us 40 minutes to get here, but we managed to pass through several different kinds of weather bubbles – this is the norm in Iceland.

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As darkness descends upon the city (at around 4pm), the storm begins to pick up. Clouds swirl in the sky, blocking the moon and the stars from view and the wind pumps harder than I thought was possible. As Capetonians we thought we knew wind, but man oh man the angry Icelandic wind makes the South Easter look like a light breeze. The howling is just getting stronger and stronger – rushing past our windows and trying its best to remove the roof from the building. The twinge of fear I felt earlier is getting stronger. Is this what we’re going to have to contend with for the next 11 days?

Thankfully, by breakfast the next morning the wind’s rage seems to have died down to a tired throb. “This weather is unusual,” the receptionist assures us, “but try not to spend too much time outside today,” he quickly adds. Despite his reassurance, my nerves only subside once we’re an hour or two out of Reykjavik. The clouds are lingering, but the wind has settled down. We clamber out of the car into the cold and I breathe a sigh of relief as I coo over a nearby heard of fluffy Icelandic ponies – this is more like it.

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Despite the crazy weather, Luke and I had the best time adventuring all over the South of Iceland in mid-January and we learnt a whole lot along the way. Since travelling in such a harsh environment can be a little overwhelming and scary, I thought it would be useful to list my top tips for travelling in Iceland during mid winter. If you’re planning a trip to this picturesque place I hope this is helpful 🙂

1. Invest in crampons

Unless you want to be sliding ungracefully over iced tar roads and stepping gingerly over slippery paths, crampons are essential. They are my number one recommendation for staying safe and being able to enjoy your surroundings. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, crampons are essentially small chains attached to rubber that you can pull over your shoe, making walking over snow and ice no problem at all. They’re pretty inexpensive and easy to come by – we used these ones from Amazon and they worked perfectly.  

2. Hire a kitted out car

Hiring a snow and ice-friendly car is a must. Ideally, I would recommend going with a 4×4 as well – it makes driving far less stressful and more enjoyable. We were lucky enough to drive a Toyota Rav4 kitted out with snow tires and honestly it made our trip. Driving in Iceland during winter is pretty sketchy – the roads are unbelievably narrow, there are plenty of potholes, the tar is often covered in ice, the weather is harsh and they drive on the right hand side of the road, meaning that for us South Africans everything is reversed. A good car makes all of this far less daunting – I can’t tell you many times I looked at Luke and said “thank goodness we have this car.” Also, you spend a LOT of time in your car, so it makes sense to invest in something that is safe and comfortable. Also, I’d recommend taking out the premium insurance package – if you need it anywhere, you need it in Iceland!

3. Bundle up

Iceland is pretty damn cold in winter – I know, completely unsurprising. Aside from the usual thermals, snow socks and thick jackets – hats, scarves and gloves are a necessity. I could just bare taking my hand out of my glove to take a photo, but if they were exposed to the cold for longer than about 60 seconds, they went completely numb and it took a while to warm them up again. Also, I would definitely recommend taking some kind of balaklava or snood to cover the bottom half of your face from the icy wind – especially if you’re planning on staying outside the car for any extended period of time.

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4. Take waterproof shoes

Snow, ice and an excessive amount of waterfalls mean that waterproof shoes are definitely the way to go. Luke and I both took hiking boots as they’re sturdy, comfortable and durable, but I’m sure there are plenty of winter boots that would work too. My shoes aren’t the trendiest, but they were ideal – I’d recommend prioritising practicality over aesthetics when it comes to footwear, but I’m sure there are options that offer both.

5. Watch the weather

As I mentioned, Icelandic weather is extremely unpredictable. It’s important to check the weather often so that you’re as prepared as possible. It’s highly likely that you’ll need to change your plans to fit in with whatever the Icelandic wind and rain are doing, so it’s essential to be in the loop. If the weather is looking particularly bad, download an app so that you can keep up to date with possible road closures and bad driving conditions – there are a few good ones!

6. Try to avoid driving in the dark

Aside from waking up at 3.30am and driving around in the pitch black for 3 hours in search of the Northern Lights (a story for another post), Luke and I only drove when it was light. With the sun rising at about 10.30/11am and setting at 4/4.30pm, our driving time was a little limited. Thankfully, there is a least an hour of blue light before the sun rises and after it sets, meaning that driving during that time is manageable, extending our adventure time to about 6/7 hours a day. Although it might be tempting to drive in the dark, it’s far safer and much more enjoyable to drive in daylight – road-side beauty and spontaneous stops are half the fun of an Icelandic road trip!

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7. Buy a sim card

Although it might be expensive (just like everything else in Iceland), it’s really important to have cell phone reception in case of an emergency. We saw at least three cars that had slid right off the road – if you have an accident it’s essential to be able to contact the right people. Iceland is really sparse so it’s unlikely that you’d be able to walk to get help in an emergency. Also, you need to have data in order to keep up to date with possible road closures. A sim card or international roaming is a necessary safety precaution.

8. Don’t wander too far

It’s not a good idea to venture too far off designated paths or roads – aside from the obvious risk of falling and hurting yourself, wandering too far away from the car could also mean that you’re just stuck out in the cold for too long. Keep track of where you’re going and how long it took you to get there. Unless you’re wearing proper gear, being stuck outside for too long can be a bit painful! Also, I would advise against hiking unless you are an experienced professional or accompanied by a guide. Iceland is not the place for casual mountain hikes… well, not in mid-winter anyway.

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9. Book a few extra days

In summer, you could see all of Iceland’s major sights and a bunch of gorgeous road-side surprises in about a week. I guess you could get away with the same in winter if the weather cooperates, but because it is so unpredictable I would recommend staying for a few extra days. We were in Iceland for 11 days, which worked out perfectly. The first 3 or 4 days of our trip were cloudy, rainy and really not ideal. Thankfully, the weather did improve and the last week of our trip was sunny and beautiful. You need to make provisions for bad weather – chances are, you’ll have a few yucky days.

10. Be prepared

In a way I had a very idealised vision of what travelling through Iceland would be like. All the pictures on Instagram show people posing next to gorgeous waterfalls or silhouetted against the Northern Lights. Although Iceland is unimaginably beautiful and filled with photo ops, it’s also harsh. The Instagram photos don’t show the icy wind, the drone videos don’t show the huge scary cars that push you off the road and most videos don’t quite capture the craziness of the Icelandic environment. I’m not saying it’s a terrifying place to visit – it’s not – I’m just saying that it’s important to know what’s coming!

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Whether you’re in the midst of planning an epic Icelandic adventure or you’re just dreaming about visiting, I hope this post was enlightening! I have soo many more Iceland posts on their way, so stay tuned 🙂

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Thanks for reading,

A x

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