It is not by mistake that Iceland is sometimes called the Land of Fire and Ice: with both volcanoes and glaciers, it truly is a land of contrasts. For this reason, winter in Iceland has a lot to offer, with breath-taking snow-covered landscapes and stunning glaciers. But it is also necessary to take some precautions as winter there is really no joke, and the power of nature is truly humbling.
I talked last week about the best things about winter in Iceland, but there are also some things that I wish I knew before going there, and that would have saved me time while packing and feeling cold and a whole lot of stress and anxiety there!
Cold in Western Europe is different than cold in Iceland
I know I’ll seem pretty stupid with this point, and I see the ones living in cold countries rolling their eyes in the back, but if you’re like me, and you’re used to “mild” winters with little to no snow, don’t underestimate how cold it can be in Northern countries. Turns out, 2°C in Western Europe are very different than 2°C in the Icelandic countryside, and I almost arrived there with no scarf nor ski boots…
Don’t go cheap with your car rental
Roads can be very tricky and dangerous in winter: they can obviously be covered by a thick layer of ice, and there is always the risk of black ice, blizzards and snow piling up, creating a beautiful, but very slippery white cover on the road. Add to this the strong winds and black sand that can damage the car, and you now see all the different reasons to spend a little more money to be extra safe. What you lose in money you’ll gain in peace of mind during your trip.
For our trip, we had insurance for the rental car from my credit card and, once we got there, we upgraded our tyres – they are normal winter tyres by default – to have ones with a better grip on ice and snow. From the first evening, when we had to drive on a snow-covered road during a snow storm at night, we thanked ourselves for this upgrade as we felt a bit more confident and safe.
Check the road and weather conditions
The Icelandic weather is pretty unpredictable, and it can change very quickly in the span of a few hours. Also, after long and cold nights, the snow turns to ice, making the roads very dangerous. For this reason, the roads are constantly monitored for safety and sometimes blocked when they turn into a nice and slippery layer of pure ice. Thankfully, everyone can check the road conditions on a dedicated website that is updated in real time. So, before leaving in the morning or even before venturing further out in the afternoon, don’t forget to check the roads and weather to stay as safe as possible.
Don’t hesitate to call the “helpline”
Because the roads can be closed and dangerous, a specific number is available for anyone needing help or advice regarding the road conditions. By calling that specific number you can also get general information, for instance regarding the estimated time when the road will be cleared. It proved to be extra useful not only to plan our itineraries in bad weather, but also when we found ourselves in the middle of the snow storm with absolutely zero visibility of the road, and we didn’t know how to go back to our accommodation.
Your plans will change
For all the reasons mentioned above, it is better not to plan everything to the minute and have a flexible schedule that you can rearrange in case something doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes, you might also have to skip something just to be safe. That sucks and it can be pretty unmotivating, but that will just be a reason to go back! Also, if you want to book any type of tour (for instance to see the Northern lights), it can be cancelled because of bad weather, so try to find one that will offer you a second booking in case of adverse weather conditions.
It is better to stick to the South coast
In winter, the Northern part of the island is mostly covered in snow and the weather is even more unpredictable, whereas the Southern part of it, especially along the coast, is rarely blocked. The good news is that most of the main attractions are located on the Southern coast and on the Golden Circle near Reykjavik, so you won’t miss out on a lot! On our trip, we drove along the coast all the way to Höfn then came back, and we still saw so many things!
Some things might be inaccessible
The roads are not the only thing that might be inaccessible in winter, and there are certain things that you will have to miss if you go to Iceland in winter. Two things come to mind here: the first one are the waterfalls. While you can access a lot of them, you can’t always go behind them as the path is completely covered in snow. It can be fine for some of them (we went behind Kvernufoss for instance), but not all. The other thing are some hikes or walking paths, that are not recommended unless you have crampons. We managed easy ones to see the Skaftafell glacier and the Solheimasandur plane wreck but we were basically ice skating without skates and it worked out fine only because it was all flat.
The days are short
Be sure to check out the sunrise and especially sunset times before planning a full day of exploring, as you won’t be able to see much during the night, plus it’s also more dangerous to drive with low visibility. For this reason, I’d say that going there with winter in full swing is not the best solution if you want to explore a lot, but the longer the night, the more time you have to catch the Northern Lights!
I hope this didn’t discourage you to explore this beautiful country in the coldest season of the year, but if it did, don’t hesitate to refer back to my previous post to regain some motivation! I loved visiting in winter so much and the landscapes are made so much more epic at that time of the year!