Icelandic winters are colder than one would imagine and more beautiful than one would have perceived. While Iceland is cold almost all-year-round, the winters are extra crispy and extra fun for the lovers of chills. The biggest attraction of Icelandic winters, known in the world, is northern lights hunting but there are several more things to look forward to and enjoy if you are traveling to Iceland in winters. Summer is the peak season for tourists so winters are much calmer and hence make Iceland an ideal place to be for the ones who are not an admirer of the crowd. Most of the land is covered in snow and many summer-exclusive destinations are not accessible. But come winter, other ones like ice caves and northern lights become available to hunt and explore. Snow and ice are very much available to gaze upon in summers as well but the true meaning of ‘Iceland’ comes to light only in winters. The snow-clad landscape is different than any other country which sees snow the most time and every bit worth exploring. Iceland in winters is a haven for lovers of serenity, nature, cold, and solitude.
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About Winters in Iceland
September to April is roughly the winter season of Iceland. As far as temperature is concerned, it stays somewhere between -4°C to 11°C throughout the winter season. January and February are the coldest months while September, October, and April are a little bit closer to fall and spring. Winters, even the most of spring and fall, are cold enough for you to carry some very heavy clothing and wind sheeters to ensure that you remain safe during your entourages in the peak of the cold season.
Winter season does not get much precipitation, especially in the north. The roads will still be slippery with the snow so you need to watch out when driving. Some roads, are closed for a few months due to inconvenient travel conditions and the harsh weather, but those are mainly the roads in the highlands. The roads around the Ring Road and Golden Circle are well contained all year round.
Daylight is more like a lost cause in the season and when the winter solstice is around, you only get about 4.5 hours of light on average in the whole day. And that is just the ‘day’ light we are talking about. Seeing the sun is still a rare case scenario around the winter solstice. So, most of the excursions are either going to be at night – like the northern lights hunting – or scheduled around the day. The extended dark hours of the day invite the opportunity to celebrate the festivals that include a lot of lights like several concerts, the new year, Christmas, etc.
Best things to Do in Winters in Iceland
No matter what the place or which season it is, there are always some top things that one has got to try when they visit a country. It is as if a rule, for example, visiting the Eifel Tower when in Paris. The following are some of the top things that every tourist should experience when traveling to Iceland in winter.
Hunt the Northern Lights
One sole reason for many tourists out there to visit Iceland is just for either watching or photographing the northern lights. Aurora Borealis or the northern lights is a phenomenon that occurs when solar wind enters the atmosphere of earth, getting past the magnetic field. A certain energy is released by the collision of particles in the atmosphere with the atoms in the wind which is better known as the northern lights. Different areas on the planet see the aurora in many different colors at different points of time, including red, pink, yellow, green, blue, violet, orange, and white. The colors depend on what the particles in wind collide with. For example, a collision with oxygen creates yellow and green lights in the sky.
Scientific facts and phenomena aside, these glimmering lights are one of the most beautiful natural things on earth to lay your eyes upon. There are several places specially dedicated for northern light watching but the best way to catch them is in winters, in an open area probably atop a glacier or out in an open lava field. The night needs to be pitch-black for the lights to be spotted in the sky. It is impossible in summers but winters are dark enough that northern lights are even visible from the capital city. Thingvellir National Park, Vik, Blue Lagoon, and Ásbyrgi canyon are some of the top places to catch northern lights in the country.
Visit the Winter-Exclusive Ice Caves
Winters have their exclusive activities and exploring ice caves is just about one of them. Iceland’s ice caves only form in the winters, meltdown every year as the days get warmer and form back again the next winters. Ice caves in Iceland are even more beautiful than the glaciers that house them; some are filled with glittering electric blue ice from head to toe, while others are more unconventional with black ice or azure-colored sculpture in the middle. The beauty of these places is something that you would be able to escape and the fact that they are only available to access in winters, it must be on your to-do list.
Tours to ice caves start opening form October or November at maximum. Several ones are worth visiting on your trip. Black ice cave of Katla volcano (open all year), Vatnajökull Glacier Crystal Cave, Langjokull ice caves with unusual ice sculptures, Svínafellsjökull blue and white ice cave and the seldom appearing Diamond ice cave of Vatnajökull glacier. The last one on the list appeared only once but it was as beautiful as they come. Ice cave tours often come as a packaged deal, you can combine them with sightseeing hiking, snowmobiling, and more. You can also book a self driving ice cave tour, perfect for anyone wanting to rent a car and drive around the country on their own.
Glacier Hiking in Iceland
From the biggest ones in the whole of Europe like Vatnajökull, Langjökull, Hofsjökull, and Mýrdalsjökull to ones which are harder than the most to reach like Hofsjökull, Iceland is scattered with glaciers that are just waiting to be encountered, with care though. Although, all glaciers are not open for a visit in the winter season. Many are closed due to harsh weather. Sólheimajökull glacier is where you will find most of your hikes happening. The landscape that you see will consist of thick ice sheets, lava veins invading the electric blue ice on the glacier, deep crevasses, and more. The best part is that you can visit many other landscapes on the same day as your hiking trip since most of them only last a couple of hours.
Glacier hiking is extremely fun and thrilling but you need to be packed properly with warm and protective layers to keep away the cold. Since Iceland is already very cold, even in summers, the winters get extra crispy and cold. Wind sheeters, warm insulated jackets, and sturdy hiking boots are the perfect way to get started. The rest of the hiking equipment is provided by the hiking company. It will include crampons, ropes, etc. It is necessary to book a guided tour when glacier hiking in Iceland.
Snowmobiling Under the Aurora
Available all year round, snowmobiling can be enjoyed on glaciers like Langjökull and Mýrdalsjökull. These tours last for about 3-4 hours and can be combined with glacier hiking, glacier lagoon tours, and ice caving on the glaciers. Snowmobiling in equally popular in both summer and winter. The summers have the charm of gliding through the snowy plains under the midnight sun and the winters come with the roaring glory of the northern lights.
Snowmobiling is a whole other level of adrenaline gushing activity especially for the ones with the hunger for thrill and love for driving. You will need a legal driving license to drive a snowmobile. A national license will work as long as it is in English. If not, then make sure that you get a translated variant for the road. It is a great way to spend the distance between your vehicles and the foot of the glacier and that’s why many tours combine hiking and snowmobiling. Depending on your preferences but ensure that you get this included in your list of activities and it will be worth every second of your time.
Take a Soothing Soak in Hot Springs
While cruising on the glaciers and searching the secrets in ice caves is a fine way to spend a vacation, one needs to let loose and relax as well. This is what the hot springs are for. Not that they are any less fun in the summers but imagine sitting in soothing warm water in a beautiful naturally occurred pool under the dancing northern lights. Iceland gets an unlimited supply of natural hot water due to its exceptional geothermal activity. The water finds a way out and makes hot springs – scattered all over the country. From smalls ones that can accommodate only 2 people or are good for just a foot bath to the ones large enough to hold more than enough at a single point of time. Popular ones like Blue Lagoon are worth the visit in every way, it’s a beautiful sight to behold with milky azure waters, contrasting black rocks and plenty of facilities like restaurants and spas but they are pretty crowded at most times and fully booked. If you prefer solitude and spontaneity, then exploring the remote springs is the best shot to get some tranquility.
Dogsledding with Siberian Huskies
This will be perfect for a family-themed activity that you have been waiting to find in Iceland. While most activities either require you to meet certain criteria or travel in a large group, dog sledding is one of the intimate activities that is done in a group of 2-4 and can be enjoyed with children as well. The sleds are pulled by strong and beautiful Siberian huskies, generally 6-8 and there is always a Musher with you on the sled to handle them. Mushers will teach you a thing or two about the dogs and the sleds while you enjoy a ride across the long-stretched fields of snow. Dogsledding is available on Langjökull glacier which is only a few hours of drive away from the capital city. The activity itself lasts for an hour or two depending on your booking so you can easily fit it into your schedule of a single day’s trip and combine with other few activities that you want to cover or can cover in the same area.
Dog Sledding Tours
Snorkeling and Diving in Winters
The best thing about Iceland is even if everything is frozen out there, snorkeling and diving sites will still be open for business. Snorkeling and diving are two of those few activities which are open all year. The most popular site for snorkeling and diving in the Silfra fissure, located in Þingvellir National Park. The water in the ravine keeps at a constant temperature of approximately 2°C which means that it doesn’t freeze even the rest of the country is below the freezing temperature. The dive in Silfra is better known as the dive between the continents since the fissure is located in a ridge created by two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the North American plates.
The equipment that you will require for diving and snorkeling is provided by the tour agencies that handle the activity. You can choose between a tour that will use a dry suit that will keep you warm in the water, or a wet suit, that will not keep you as warm as the dry suit but you will be able to swim down from the surface. The Dive Master will guide you properly through the process and make sure that you properly get to witness the underwater beauty of Iceland in actual terms. There are many more sites apart from Silfra that you can choose for your snorkeling and diving trips. The list includes Nesgjá – The Silfra of the North, Bjarnagjá lava gorge, Garður (meaning Garden) with its fantastic underwater flora, and Kleifarvatn lake.
Skiing and Snowboarding
A country like Iceland should be high on skiing and snowboarding but the fact is that these activities are not as popular as one would expect them to be. The reason is Iceland’s ever-changing weather. While the country is very cold around and it snows a lot, the snow doesn’t last for enough days to open skiing and snowboarding activities for the tourists. The rest of the time, the weather is not friendly enough to step out.
But for the skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, there are many resorts around the country in almost every part that are open for the activity in winters. Reykjavík has Bláfjöll and Skálafell, Akureyri has Hlíðarfjall, and Oddsskarð ski resort is located in the east. You will find many other small resorts in parts like Dalvík, Ólafsfjörður, Húsavík, Sauðárkrókur, Stafdalur, and Siglufjörður. The resorts in Reykjavík and Akureyri are two of the biggest ones but there are few others which are better than them. The only reason for that is that there is not much snow in these two parts of the country as compared to the other, which is the whole point of skiing and snowboarding.
A country full of glorious sites demands some time from your busy schedule for sightseeing. While some attractions are closed due to bad weather and road conditions in winter, the most popular ones are still accessible. Take a Golden Circle self-driving or guided tour when in the south. You will get to see one of the most beautiful and highest waterfalls in Iceland, Gullfoss, the Geysir Geothermal Area with Strokkur geyser throwing water high in the sky every five minutes and the biggest historical-cum-natural site in the country, Þingvellir National Park.
Head a little bit towards the west to visit the incredible attraction of the Snæfellsnes peninsula and then take a long drive in towards the north to Akureyri. Some roads in the eastern part of the country are sometimes closed for tourists due to the bad weather and so are the highlands. But there are plenty of other places you should visit when on the sightseeing expedition in the country. Make sure that Vik, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara black sand beach, Reynisdrangar basalt rocks, the Diamond Beach and beautiful nearby settlements are added to your bucket list of destinations. All these places are located on the south coast of Iceland.
Take a Super Jeep Tour
Thrill-seekers need to go on at least one super jeep tour when in Iceland no matter what the season is. These monster vehicles are everything that an adventurous soul with a love for automobiles can ask for. The good thing about super jeep tours is that they can be driven to any destination of your choice. You can simply choose to hire a super jeep instead of a tour bus or a normal car for a certain tour, for example, the golden circle, and you will be all set.
Super jeeps can be driven by self and a driver can be hired to drive for you. For a self-drive tour in a super jeep, you will need your license and experience of driving in snow. If you want to go for a guided tour in a super jeep with a driver then you will have to follow the schedule set by the agency as there can be other tourists accompanying you on the tour. However, there is no doubt that the journey will be every bit of the fun that you are expecting it to be.