After doing my research prior to our winter trip to Iceland, I had narrowed down the areas of Iceland that are still easy to reach during the winter. I'm sure there are other areas of the country that you could find tours to, but this is based off of our 5 day trip in order to maximize what we were able to see and do.
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula - Steep mountains, endless beaches, moss covered lava fields, impressive craters and bizarre coastal cliffs. . . no I am not listing the set for a sci-fi movie, this is all present on the Peninsula. Our Troll guide, Maggie, told us many of the tales and legends of the Peninsula as well. If you know me, you know that I love folklore, so this was one of the attractions for me to come to this part of Iceland. It really did have a magical feeling and the strolls along the cliffs and beaches were breathtaking, to say the least. One of the most popular photographs you will see of all of Iceland is of the majestic volcano Snæfellsjökull which was immortalized in the book “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne.
- Golden Circle - We actually didn't do this "touristy" route on our first trip to Iceland. We decided that it was a must-see this time around. The route features near the top of almost every list of things to do in the country and is listed as a sightseeing tour on nearly every tour provider's website. We opted for self-driving because it is such a popular route, the road conditions are usually well-kept. The Golden Circle consists of three equally stunning locations in southwest Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall. The Golden Circle is not a far drive away from Reykjavik, and while it was still busy, I am sure it is overwhelmingly busy in the high season, so I would recommend this for your winter itinerary. We also made a pit stop at the geothermal area of Fludir to enjoy the Secret Lagoon, definitely would recommend!
- Reykjavik - Obviously spending time in the northernmost capital of the world while you are in Iceland is a must, any time of year. Here you will find a detailed guide on what I recommend for you to see, do and eat during your time in the city!
- South Coast - We started off from Reykjavik early in the morning, using Saga Travel as our tour company. They have a western South Coast tour that drops you off at glacier walking or you can opt to continue on to the popular black sand beach, Reynisfjara. This is also something that you could pretty easily self-drive as long as you are a confident winter weather driver and the weather forecast is looking good for the day. Skógafoss is everything that you want in a waterfall; tall and wide, with straight lines and even flow of water, it looks like it was taken from the pages of a book. It’s surrounded by cliffs, covered in soft moss that’s often covered in icicles. I must say that I prefer this waterfall in the winter!
- Glacier Walking and Ice Climbing - This is obviously something very popular in the wintertime in Iceland. You can really only do ice caving in the winter season! This is something that you will need to budget for, as you cannot do it on your own and will need the proper guides and the proper equipment. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to walk on (and eat) a glacier, but it will be something that I remember for a lifetime. We climbed Sólheimajökull which is one of the more accessible glaciers.
To Drive or Not to Drive?
Should you rent a car and drive yourself around Iceland in winter? Should you opt to book with tour companies that pick you up and drive you around? Should you do a little of both?
While we were in Iceland during winter, we opted to do a little of both. We rented a car for the well-maintained city streets and the Golden Circle Route (after we checked the weather and road cameras) and opted for booking tours for the things we wanted to do and see that were further away from Reykjavik. We used Troll Expeditions for Snaefellsnes and we used Saga Travel for the South Coast Glacier Walk.
- Renting a Car
- Pros - With renting a car, you are totally in control of your itinerary and how long you stay at each spot along your route. It is also nice to have a car if you are not staying in downtown Reykjavik. You can park downtown with ease and not have to worry about relying on public transportation. Renting a car is also critical if you plan on traveling the entire Ring Road, which I would not recommend in winter. I would recommend renting a car while you are in Iceland if you (or someone you are traveling with) are a confident driver and will be in the country for more than a couple of days. You can price compare, but this is potentially your cheaper and more budget friendly option if you are traveling outside of winter.
- Cons - During winter, Iceland's weather is more unpredictable than ever. If you are not used to driving in these conditions, it can get very dangerous very quickly. We saw small rentals stranded on the side of the road multiple times. If you are not a confident driver, do not rent a car in a foreign country. They have different traffic patterns and road signs than what you may be used to so either do your research or just trust an Icelander to drive you around! If you are driving, you don't get to enjoy the scenery quite as much. I found that using the tour companies was much less stressful and more enjoyable for Danny (who otherwise would have been driving). In winter, you really need a 4x4 vehicle with winter tires.
- Booking Tours
- Pros - You have the ability to do high adventure activities that you wouldn't otherwise get to do, like climbing a glacier or ice caving! Transportation from Reykjavik is usually included, so you don't have to worry about renting a car, buying gas, finding food stops etc. You can also find multi-day tours which could be an option for you. These tours are usually operated by an Icelander, so you are able to hear more about the history and culture of the country.
- Cons - You are on their time and their schedule. If there was something you wanted to see that was not on the itinerary, you can ask, but odds are, you will have to miss it. Tours can be pricey so if you are on a budget, compare the tours you want to book with renting a car and self-driving to the locations you want to see.
What to Pack?
I go super in-depth about what to pack for your trip to Iceland here on my blog.
If you are traveling from October to March, you are basically traveling in the Icelandic winter. The Gulf Stream keeps temperatures pretty mild so while the wind chill can be below freezing, it is not as frigid as you might be imagining. It was above freezing during the day the whole time we were there. Layering is so majorly important, so pack base layers such as quick dry tops and bottoms, thermal or long johns, fleece jackets, sweaters, and of course the critical waterproof outer layer such as rain pants and a warm waterproof coat. Staying dry is one of the most important things about traveling in Iceland. I plan on packing some of those heat packs to put inside of my gloves and shoes to keep my extremities extra warm and toasty. I would suggest that you consider buying and bringing Crampons to fit onto your hiking boots so that you won't be sliding all over the ice, especially if you plan on self-driving. Don't forget your swimsuit!