Visiting Iceland in the winter is a dream – the beautiful country blanketed in ice and snow and it is peak season for chasing the Northern Lights. But with that snow comes safety concerns and additional restrictions. Whether it’s a road trip in Iceland in December or exploring in February, here is what you need to know to plan a safe and adventurous visit to Iceland in the winter.
Can you do an Iceland road trip in the winter? What can you do in Iceland in December or February?
Iceland is a destination known for exploration and adventure because of its stunning topography. But because of its geography, it is like a completely different country in the winter than in the summer. Because the conditions can get so extreme, it is incredibly important to factor safety into your planning when visiting Iceland in the winter.
Can you visit Iceland in the winter? Do you want to?
Iceland’s name might make it sound like a pretty scary place to visit in the winter. But it’s surprisingly not **that** cold and almost everything is still running. In fact, it’s the better time to see the Northern Lights and hike glaciers.
There are some things that you won’t be able to do in the winter (see puffins, take a full breath outside, drive in the mountains), but it is still an incredible time to see the country. And because it can be considered off-season, prices and traffic tend to be lower.
There are even some things that you can only do in the winter (like exploring ice caves). Reykjavik is even considered a great place to spend the holiday season.
Safely driving in Iceland in the winter
Renting a car is the best way to get around Iceland, but as you can imagine, driving in the winter can present some problems. If you are not comfortable driving in snow, you probably want to stay in the southern half of the country.
You should rent a 4×4 if you are planning on going North. It will be helpful for you to have a shovel or another implement in case you get stuck (I did many times, and also helped others get unstuck).
Insurance for driving in Iceland (especially in the winter)
You definitely want insurance for driving in Iceland, especially in the winter. I can’t emphasize this enough.
When renting a vehicle, be sure to talk to them about what is and isn’t covered under their plans. Most companies do not cover damage from wind or gravel, which are two of the biggest things to worry about driving in Iceland in the winter.
I HIGHLY recommend taking out travel insurance when in Iceland in the winter and I recommend World Nomads because many of the plans will cover winter activities and car rentals (of course be sure to check all plan details, you’ll likely have to select the Explorer plan to get CDW). If you are American and renting with your credit card, you can also check to see what coverage you may have. Learn more about that in this post about travel insurance for Americans.
Iceland driving tips
No matter the time of year, there are a few things that you can keep in mind for driving in Iceland. Ask your rental car company for the Icelandic Transport Authority flyer so you have the rules and signs handy.
- The speed limit in the whole country is 90 km/h (56 mph) on paved roads, 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel roads, and often lower. Speeding tickets are expensive and not worth it. Be careful to stay under the speed limit, especially in the main tourist drags.
- You must drive with headlights on at all times.
- All drivers and passengers must wear seatbelts at all times.
- Use of mobile phones while driving is against the law.
- Off-road driving is against the law (anywhere in the country).
- Gas/petrol is expensive and can be hard to find on long stretches. It’s best to fuel up frequently (also, gas station hot dogs are delicious and highly recommended).
- Keep important numbers handy: 1777 is the number for road conditions and 112 is the emergency number in Iceland.
- Be aware of where you are parking to stop for photos or to stretch your legs – make sure your car is visible to others and out of the way.
- F Roads are special roads in the mountains of Iceland that are only open in June and July; they have their own special rules (4×4 only, etc.) and each have their own opening and closing dates. If you want to explore F roads, you’ll need to do further research and confirm that you have the right vehicle.
A few important resources for driving in Iceland
Use this site to check the weather in Iceland, mapped for the whole country.
Use this site to check the status of all roads in Iceland. Roads will be closed per the map, but not physically closed (roped off or anything), so it is REALLY important to check the website. Conditions can change and get dangerous very quickly, so do trust the information on the site. You can even check the cameras available to see what they look like before you head out.
Safetravel.is is a great resource for all things safety when it comes to traveling Iceland and you can switch between languages.
This how to drive in Iceland flyer has good information specific to the country.
Things to do in Iceland only in the winter
There are a few things that you can only do in Iceland in the winter and they should be on any winter road trip plan.
- Northern Lights: The Aurora Borealis is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and winter in Iceland is the perfect time to catch them. There’s an entire section below on how to see and photograph them.
- Ice caves: The ice caves in Iceland are forming year-round, but it is only in the winter that they are safe to go explore. This is something you will want to do with a guide so that you have all the gear and safety precautions needed and so that you can visit the caves without leaving a trace.
- Snowmobiling: Getting out on a snowmobile is a classic winter activity and definitely less physically exhausting than hiking glaciers and caves.
- Hiking glaciers: You can hike to many of the glaciers on the southern portion of the island, but going with a tour is the best way to see them as you actually get on top of (and at times, inside) them.
As with my recommendation for renting a car, you should definitely consider travel insurance if you are going to be doing winter sports or adventure activities. With many of them being in remote regions, costs can skyrocket (in an already expensive country). World Nomads has options for adventure activities (most covered under their Explorer plan, depending on your nationality).
Here are some highly rated Iceland winter tours:
Can you see puffins in Iceland in the winter? What animals can you see in the winter?
Puffins might be the biggest wildlife draw to Iceland, but you cannot see them in the winter. Whales can be seen in the winter, but it can be tougher. Peak season for puffins is April to September and for whales is June to August. Seals can be seen year-round and in many places around the country. Here is a good guide to seal watching in Iceland (including how to watch them responsibly).
Arctic foxes are the only land mammal native to Iceland. Their population was initially impacted by hunting, but they have thrived since. They can be seen all over the country, but specifically in the Westfjords (they are protected in the Honstrandir Reserve in the north).
Domestic animals are abundant as Iceland is an agricultural country. So you can expect to see sheep, cattle and goats, and if you’re lucky, Icelandic dogs. Polar bears are a rare sighting in the country as they only ever accidentally drift from Greenland. Reindeer can be found in the east.
Icelandic horses are part of the nation’s identity. You will surely see them on your visit to the country, no matter the time of year. They are smaller in height, have beautiful manes and tend to be more social and friendlier than other horses.
Looking for Northern Lights in Iceland in the winter
Winter is the perfect season to catch the Northern lights in Iceland. Season for them is considered September through April. However, there are a few important factors when it comes to catching a glimpse of them – aurora strength and cloud cover. You want a combination of strong auroral activity and dark, clear skies.
Photographing the Northern Lights
When I was in Iceland, our guide helped us with camera settings and it, of course, depends on your camera, but here are a few basics.
- Get away from the light; you want dark skies
- Look for clear skies (otherwise you can’t see anything)
- Try f2.8-4
- Shutter/exposure 5-30 seconds
- ISO 800-3200
- Zoom out to reduce noise and shake
- Use a tripod and remote for the shutter (I Wi-Fi connect my camera to my phone as a remote)
- Practice before you’re trying to take photos in the middle of the night (this is a mistake I made in Iceland because I didn’t know how to change certain settings and it was so cold, I could barely feel my fingers)
For more tips, I recommend the detailed and advanced guide from Dave Morrow Photography.
Here are some highly rated tours to see the Northern Lights:
Regions of Iceland
Iceland is generally split into eight geographic regions, each with its own landscapes, highlights and culture. They are South Iceland, East Iceland, North Iceland, the Westfjords, West Iceland, Reykjanes, Reykjavik and the Highlands (only accessible in the summer).
This road trip itinerary will include ideas of what to do and where to stay in each of the regions and considerations for winter travel, with the exception of the Highlands as it is not accessible in the winter. If you’re traveling with children, you should check out things to do in Iceland with kids.
Iceland winter road trip itinerary
The most important thing to consider when planning a road trip in Iceland in the winter is that you will have to manage your daylight hours. With the sun coming up around 10:00 am and setting around 4:00 pm, you have to be careful with your time.
If conditions permit, you can do long driving stretches in the evening to maximize your time. But don’t bet on this because if roads close, you can find yourself stuck.
Iceland road trip map
This map has everything I had up for consideration for my winter road trip. It is best to have in your mind that you won’t get to everything on the map or your plan so that as conditions change, you can be flexible. If you are looking for things more off-the-beaten-path than this post, you can check out this list (though not all are appropriate for winter).
What to do in and near Reykjavik in the winter
Because the airport is nearest to Reykjavik, this is where you will start and end your trip and get your rental car. The city itself is quite condensed and easy to explore.
Some things to see in Reykjavik include:
- The old harbor and Harpa (the concert hall)
- Hallgrímskirkja Church (if you’ve seen a photo of
- Thermal pools (there are seven swimming pools with geothermal water, a great place to warm up and relax)
If you want to spend more time in the city, check out this guide of everything to do in Reykjavik.
What to do in Reykjanes in the winter
There are also a bunch of places to visit near Reykjavik, close enough to drive so that you can still stay in the city center. Reykjanes is the region in the southwest of the country, home to the capital and many other sights.
Gunnuhver is on the edge of the Reykjanes peninsula and is an active geothermal area. Here you can see steam rising off of mud pools. It is home to Iceland’s largest mud pool and easily accessed by a path from the parking lot. While you might see snow on the way to it in the winter, the area doesn’t often have snow due to the heat on the ground.
Bridge between Continents (and diving Silfra)
Reykjanes is home to the spot in Iceland where to continental plates meet. The Sandvik bridge is a small footbridge built to symbolize the connection between Europe and North America. If you want to see the tectonic plates from underwater, you can dive the site, Silfra.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions, but certainly isn’t the only thermal pool to visit. You need to book in advance and will not be admitted if you haven’t.
The Reykjanes Geopark is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered a geological wonder, with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge coming above sea level. A long history of volcanic activity can be seen here. It is important to check the weather because if the area is covered in snow, it won’t be a very exciting visit. It is also a good part of the country to look for Northern Lights.
Where to stay in Reykjavik and Reykjanes
Click here to check for rates and availability for accommodation in the entire Reykjavik region.
Reykjavik HI Hostel
What to do in West Iceland in the winter
North of Reykjavik and Reykjanes is West Iceland. West Iceland itself is split into five more regions. You could spend one full day exploring the Snaefellness Peninsula, or add a few more days to go inland to the Borgarnes region.
Snaefellsjokull National Park
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is about 90 km long and home to a diversity of species and topography. However, in winter, it is a beautifully coated wonderland, with the National Park as the highlight in the corner of the peninsula. The park is home to the Snaefellsjokull glacier and is definitely worth driving through.
Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland and nestled right next to some Kirkjufellfoss waterfall. Given its popularity, I would recommend getting there at sunrise (which isn’t too hard to do in the winter). You’ll also get to see the sun play on the peninsula.
Arnarstapi is an old fishing station and port, now converted to a holiday town. It is at the foot of a glacier and set on stunning cliffs. It is a good place to stop, stretch your legs and walk the path with a hot coffee, or to overnight on the trip. Nearby is the Rauðfeldsgjá Ravine, which is a narrow ravine in the cliffs south of the glacier. It is a nice hike if the weather permits, but will include walking on snow and in a small waterfall, so proper footwear is recommended.
Langjokull Glacier is the second largest glacier in the country and a great place to get outside in the winter if conditions are clear.
Gerduberg Basalt Columns
These basalt columns are a long wall of columns with an interesting pattern. It is only a 5-minute detour and worth a stop.
Whale watching in Grundafjörður
Winter is said to be the best time to go whale watching in the region. It is, of course, difficult to predict if you’ll see whales or not, but they do have a pretty good success rate. Be sure to bundle up as you’ll be out on the water!
Where to stay in West Iceland
Click here to check for rates and availability for accommodation in the entire West Iceland region.
What to do in North Iceland in the winter
North Iceland is where a winter road trip will get the trickiest. The region is known for beautiful waterfalls, seals and incredible landscapes. But as they are all covered in snow, it gets tough. But that said, it’s where you’ll get a true arctic feel and home to Europe’s most powerful waterfall.
Be sure to check the road conditions and plan accordingly. Personally, I got stuck in my guesthouse for three days because the roads were closed.
Illugastadir Seal Watching
Illugastadir is one of the best places to find seals in Iceland. However, because of its location in the North, it may or may not be a great place to find them in the winter. The peninsula is an easy drive around, and you can visit Hvitserkur on your way. You can learn more about the seals at the Seal Center in Hvammstangi town nearby
Hvitserkur is a basalt salt stack in the water off the coast of North Iceland, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula. The lore is that it is a petrified troll. Again, you’ll want to check weather. When I went visibility was so low I couldn’t even see the beach, let alone Hvitserkur off the coast?
Kolugjúfur Canyon (waterfalls)
This canyon is known as the hidden waterfall of the North. It’s worth a stop as you head into (or out of) the region. It is a wide and thundering waterfall, but as always with any hikes near canyons, it’s important to be especially careful during winter conditions.
Mývatn is a volcanic lake in the North Iceland region, and the best-known. The lake area has all amenities travelers would need, in nearby Reykjahlid. The area is also home to the Yule Lads, at Dimmuborgir. The greater Mývatn area is also home to some of the most impressive waterfalls in the country
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe and is in “Iceland’s Grand Canyon,” Jökulsárgljúfur. It is 44m tall and 100m wide.
Its name means “the waterfall of the gods” and it is a stunning waterfall right off the main road. It is interesting to see at it is wider than it is tall (12m tall and 30m wide).
Selfoss is just down the road from Dettifoss (only 1km south, 30-minute hike if the conditions permit). It is considered the second gem of Jökulsárgljúfur.
Aldeyjarfoss is tucked in south of the main road and one of the more stunning canyon-like waterfalls. Because of its location, be sure to check road conditions. But it was one of my personal favorites as it was covered in snow and starting to freeze over.
Hverarond Geothermal Area
The Hverarond Geothermal Area is located to the east of Lake Mývatn. It is a massive geothermal area, complete with mud pools, Sulphur crystals and a rotten egg smell.
Hlíðarfjall Ski Centre in Eyjafjörðu
The largest and most popular ski area in Iceland is in the North. In addition to alpine skiing, you can even try out heliskiing. It is home to the Iceland Winter Games and Akureyri is considered the ski capital of Iceland.
The Arctic Henge (Heimskautsgerðið) at Raufarhöfn
The Arctic Henge may look like the more popular, ancient henges in the Pagan world (like Stonehenge), but it is a modern monument. Located in the northernmost community in the country, Raufarhöfn, it is an interesting sight. Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle, you can expect very cold winds. Construction started in 1996 and isn’t yet complete. It is incredibly remote and driving in the wind left me white-knuckled; be sure to check weather and road conditions.
Where to stay in North Iceland
Click here to check for rates and availability for accommodation in the entire North Iceland region.
(central) Hotel & Guesthouse Raudaskrida
What to do in East Iceland in the winter
East Iceland is renowned for hiking and is even home to the national mountain. That means that a lot of the activities in the region are better suited for summer travel. However, there are still a few things to do and see if you’re passing through from North to South (or vice versa).
IMPORTANT NOTE!! The mountain pass between East and South Iceland regions closes in the winter. There is an alternate route; always be sure to check road statuses before heading out.
Ski at Oddsskarð Skiing Area or Stafdalur Skiing Area
Like North Iceland, East Iceland also has several ski areas to offer. These two areas have alpine skiing, but you can also find cross-country skiing in most of the villages as well.
Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss (waterfalls)
Hengifoss is Iceland’s second tallest waterfall and is located along the same hike as Litlanesfoss. They are flanked by basalt columns and are a stunning sight. Because they are a significant hike in, you will want to check the weather and ensure you have appropriate gear to get to them. It is a steep gorge and in winter conditions can be icy and the ground can break off underneath you. If you are going to do the hike, you may want to consider booking a tour. Here’s more information about the hike.
Look for reindeer and Arctic foxes
Though reindeer aren’t native to Iceland, they do live in East Iceland after being brought from Norway. They are wild, but only found in this region. The tourism office recommends looking for them near mount Snæfell, in Vesturöræfi and Brúaröræfi. Arctic foxes can also be found near reindeer.
See if you can find the wyrm in Lagarfljót
Lagarfljót is a lake near Egilsstaðir and home to Iceland’s Loch Ness. Lagarfljótsormur (the Lagarfljót worm) is an Icelandic lake monster. People have been sighting the worm since 1345. Learn more about the wyrm here.
Where to stay in East Iceland
Click here to check availability and rates for accommodation in the entire East Iceland region.
Lake Hotel Egilsstadir
What to do in South Iceland in the winter
South Iceland is the busiest region for those taking a few days outside of Reykjavik and really the only region where I saw any other tourists visiting in the winter. The road is paved and well-maintained. It’s in South Iceland where you will find many of the spots you see most frequently on Instagram, from incredible waterfalls to black sand beaches.
There are many glaciers in the region and they can be looked at from afar or hiked on, or even into the caves. You need to book tours for these activities, or bring your own gear.
The Gullfoss waterfall is one of the most visited, as it’s on the Golden Circle route visited from Reykjavik on day tours. It was designated as a nature reserve in 1979 to preserve the area. It has an interesting story as the daughter of the original owner of the land fought for years to protect it, even threatening to throw herself into it if construction of an electric plant started.
Strokkur is the most visited geyser (geysir) in Iceland, though it isn’t the biggest. It erupts about every 5 minutes, up to 30 meters in height. Nearby you will find the Great Geysir, which is larger, but only erupts about three times a day.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Glacier Lagoon is one of the most stunning places to visit in Iceland. You can visit it by foot or boat. Jökulsárlón is the country’s deepest lake. The icebergs in it are made of ice over 1000 years old. The lagoon connects with the sea (at Diamond Beach) and so it has mixed water, sea and fresh (which is what gives it its color). It isn’t rare to see seals in the lagoon year-round, but they come to the mouth of the lagoon in winter to catch fish. You can learn more about it here.
Across from the glacier lagoon is the most famous beach in the country. With black sands as the background, the chunks of glacier washed up on the shore sparkle like diamonds. These ice chunks are from the glaciers in Jökulsárlón, from icebergs over 1000 years old.
Lómagnúpur is a jutting mountain and one that you can see from the road and if you’re up for a hike, worth getting to. It is a stunning backdrop for photos and if you believe the lore, the 688m tall mountain is home to a giant who lives in the cliffs and protects the country.
Vestrahorn is in the furthest southeast of the country and features jagged mountains and black sand beaches. It’s a nice spot to visit if you’re on a road trip all the way around the country. If you plan to visit, Höfn is a good place to stay nearby. If you have time, there are three main “Horn” mountains.
This is one of the glaciers that can be seen from a short hike, or if you want to book a tour to hike it. It is the most accessible glacier from Reykjavik, but it is shrinking, quickly, and some fear it only has decades to live. It is a feeder to a glacier lagoon (though not the famous Jökulsárlón).
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
The allure behind this plane wreck is beyond me, personally. But it has become an Instagram favorite. It does take a bit of a hike to get to as it doesn’t have road access, but at least it is on flat land. There are conflicting stories of whether it’s open to visitors or not, so proceed with caution.
Vik, Reynisdrangar and Reynisfjara
Reynisdrangar are basalt sea stacks, at the foot of Resnisfall mountain, near Reynisfjara beach (a black sand beach). All of which are beautiful and worth seeing, and easily accessed in the winter. The beach has been voted in top non-tropical beaches in the world. They are all located near the village Vik along the coast of South Iceland.
Skógafoss, Svartifoss, Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui (waterfalls)
The South Coast of Iceland is littered with waterfalls, and conveniently many of them are right off of the main road, so you can visit several in the same day. Skógafoss is actually visible from Ring Road and is an easy and flat walk-up (pictured).
Svartifoss is the only waterfall in South Iceland framed by basalt columns and is close to Skaftafell National Park. Seljalandsfoss is fed by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and is one of the waterfalls you can actually walk behind (conditions permitting, especially in winter) and has additional waterfalls nearby, like Gljufrabui.
Where to stay in South Iceland
Click here to check availability and rates for accommodation in the entire South Iceland region.
Like Vik Guesthouse
What to do in the Westfjords in the winter
The Westfjords are a remote region of Iceland, characterized by tons of coastline and rough roads. It is a tough area during the winter because of conditions and very little light (from November to January there are only a few hours of a light per day and no direct sunlight). So if you’re looking for darkness and isolation, this is where to find it.
Of all the regions in Iceland to consider skipping in the winter, the Westfjords would be it. Not only because of conditions, but also because the hallmarks of the region are either hard to access, covered in snow or both.
Even in winter, the roads usually remain open, but are known to be tough. It is especially important in this region to be aware of road conditions as many of the smaller roads are not often cleared.
If you are planning to go to the Westfjords, be sure you have a 4×4 vehicle with winter tires. It may be best to book a guided tour or transportation so that you don’t have to worry about driving because of how remote and treacherous it can be.
Skiing – alpine, cross country and backcountry
Tungudalur in Ísafjörður is the only ski area in the area, but it has three lifts and plenty of runs. If you’re looking for backcountry, you can do that as well, from the summit to the beaches. And lastly, cross-country is a popular way to have some time outside in the bit of light there is to be seen.
Kayak the fjords
Of course, the fjords are the highlight of the area, and the best way to see them is by water. If conditions permit, you can kayak through the fjords (just don’t fall in!).
Jeep and glacier tours
Because of the rough roads and conditions, taking a jeep tour may be the best way to see the area. You can take them to the beaches and to Drangajökull glacier
Look for the Northern Lights
Because of its isolation and position, the Westfjords are a great area to try to catch the Northern Lights. However, keep an eye on weather as it is also the area with the most snow (meaning possible cloud cover).
Warm up in the geothermal pools
If you do get out on some skis or a kayak, the geothermal pools in the area are a perfect way to warm back up. It’s no surprise that the area is home to the most pools in the country, and they’re a great place to watch the Northern Lights from.
This waterfall is a protected national monument and one of the most impressive in the country. In 2018’s winter, it completely froze over and was unrecognizable. Depending on conditions, it is accessible in the winter, but be sure to check all road conditions and ask around how it’s looking – it may be disappointing to do a lot of work to see it if it’s frozen.
Getting to the Westfjords in the winter
You can find information on the Westfjords official travel site about getting there, but you can get there by car, boat and plane. Given the road conditions, you might consider taking the bus or plane to alleviate the stress of driving.
Where to stay in the Westfjords
Click here to check availability and rates for accommodation in the entire Westfjords Iceland region.
Fjord Guesthouse B&B
Fisherman Hotel Westfjords
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