Iceland – the land of myths and folklore, scenic drives, and magnificent shows of Aurora Borealis. Also the country we can never get enough of! A couple of years ago we went on a summer road trip in Iceland and penned a detailed itinerary on planning a road trip in Iceland. But if you’re planning a winter road trip in Iceland there’s lots of additional things you need to keep in mind. Here are our top tips for driving in and exploring Iceland during winter months. Hope you find them useful and have an incredible time driving around this surreal country.
I) Pack Well
Iceland’s winter can be ruthless. Panoramas that are peaceful and stunning one minute can turn into a windy mess the next. Make sure you pack well before departing on your road trip in Iceland. We would suggest packing at least 1 waterproof down jacket or parka that will keep you warm upto -20 °C. Some other essentials include snow boots, thermals for the entire body, a few pairs of woollen socks, insulated gloves, warm hats, and ski trousers. Check out our articles on packing for an Icelandic summer and packing for the Arctic for some more tips and suggestions.
II) Be realistic and leave room for vagaries of weather
During summer months, it is easy to explore vast expanses of Iceland during a fortnight. However the same trip can take much longer in winter. This is due to two reasons – remarkably short days and unpredictable weather. Do not pen down an unrealistic itinerary when you are planning your winter road trip in Iceland. Roads close down frequently due to heavy snow and frequent windstorms can make driving tough. So take your time and try to cover short distances each day.
For instance: we spent close to 10 days in Iceland and extreme windstorms during the first two days of our winter road trip made it impossible to explore, drive, or even walk outside the guesthouse in Snaefellsness Peninsula. If you have 1 week, stick to just South and East Iceland. Keep aside at least 3 weeks if you want to drive the entire Ring Road during winter months.
III) Check Aurora Forecasts regularly
Chances are you are in Iceland during winter months to try and spot the elusive Northern Lights. Once you reach the country, check Aurora Forecasts regularly in order to maximise your chances of seeing them. You can check Aurora Forecasts online. Most websites provide a meter than measures nightly Aurora activity. Anything above 3 on this meter, coupled with clear skies means you have a great chance of spotting them. Don’t forget to read our article with 5 Top Tips For Hunting and Photographing The Northern Lights at this stage.
IV) Put these apps on your phone and bookmark these websites
There are some websites and apps that definitely need to be bookmarked on your phone whilst driving around in Iceland.
- http://www.road.is/ provides a real time update of road conditions in Iceland. Make sure you consult it before you leave your hotel or guesthouse each morning. In case a road is blocked, you can always discuss this with locals at the hotel and they will suggest alternate routes.
- http://en.vedur.is/ the official website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office provides updated information about weather conditions, accurate forecasts, and other such. Consult it to see if a windstorm or snow storm is brewing in any of the areas you might be visiting. This website also has an Aurora forecast page that is handy.
- My Aurora Forecast and Alerts is a free app that provides nuanced information and maximises your chances of spotting the Northern Lights. You can consult it at your leisure but you can also turn on the alerts on the app but do beware a lot of them are just false alarms and might have you rushing out of your bed at midnight only to see nothing!
V) Don’t be too ambitious and don’t wing it!
Mothern Nature is a force to reckon with in Iceland. Respect nature and work with her not against her. I cannot say this enough – do not be too ambitious. Days are short and roads are frequently snowed under. Make sure you read up and chart a rough itinerary before you land in Iceland and pick your rental car. Try not to take long unscheduled detours without first consulting the weather gods (via an app of course!)
VI) Pick your car wisely
We go on, and write about, a LOT of road trips. As you might have noticed, we usually suggest going for the most affordable car rental option. But not in Iceland! Opt for a good and sturdy 4X4 which is equipped with snow tyres, and heated seats. You should also ensure that your car comes with a mobile wifi device. This is handy in all countries but especially important in Iceland where the weather in unpredictable – you could need wifi to check road and weather conditions in real time or even contact someone for help in case you’re stranded! You should compare prices for cars over here but we chose to go with a self-drive package from Hey Iceland this time around, which included both the car and accommodation.
VII) Stock up on food and save some money
You will also be spending long hours in the car as you drive around the country. And restaurants in the Icelandic countryside can be extortionate and hard to find. So it’s only natural to stock up on snacks and groceries for your trip. Iceland has a number of supermarkets but Bonus, Kronan, and Netto are some that are pocket-friendly (by Icelandic standards) and popular. We would suggest stocking up on lots of groceries as your drive out of the airport. Most large towns and the Reykjavik area have tons of huge supermarkets but these are hard to find as you drive deeper into the countryside.
VIII) Spend your time choosing accommodation
Iceland has some of the most scenic guesthouses and B&Bs in the world. Make sure you spend some time narrowing in on accommodation before departing on your road trip in Iceland. The places you choose depend entirely on your preferences but we would suggest choosing a mix of quaint self-catering cottages (ideal if you want to rustle up a hot meal after a long day of driving) and guesthouses (ideal for shorter stays). A couple of our favourites include the Ytri Vik cottages in Akureyri and Hestheimar Guesthouse. You will find details of both, along with some of our other favourites, in these 2 articles: Where to stay on your Icelandic Road Trip and Our Winter Road Trip in Iceland.
IX) Don’t book Aurora Tours
You needn’t book expensive Aurora Hunting Tours unless you are staying in the middle of the hustle bustle in Reyjavik. If the Northern Lights are out to play, you will spot them easily. Just make sure you are deep in the countryside and there is no ambient light around you. Drive to a dark spot near your accommodation. Try not to look at bright lights like your phone or iPad, let your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, and then look up at the sky. You’ll spot a carpet of stars and the magical green Northern Lights.
Do check out our tips for hunting and photographing Northern Lights.
X) Experience each sunrise and each sunset
We had to save the best for the last of course! The best part about a winter road trip in Iceland is the mellow lighting throughout the day – it’s almost as if the magic golden hour continues through the day. If you’re a photographer you will love it! The sun rises only at 10 am, so you can sleep in everyday if you like. But make sure you catch every single sunrise and sunset while you are in Iceland. The sight of a bright tangerine ball of fire stretching out above a snow field is bound to leave you mesmerised 🙂
Planning a road trip in Iceland? Check out all our articles on Iceland here