Last weekend the boyfriend and I left town to explore the south coast for a couple of days including Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. We didn’t have the best weather and basically our whole weekend was turned upside down because of it. It didn’t make much difference to us because we are prepared for such things but it got me think about all the first time visitors that don’t know what they are getting themselves into when they book a trip to Iceland in winter. Don’t get me wrong, Iceland in winter can be spectacular and I would always recommend it but it doesn’t come without its challenges.
Below you will find three things I learned about traveling in Iceland in winter from our trip. Don’t get discouraged reading this though, just look at this as a preparation for your trip. Your wonderful winter trip around magical Iceland.
The weather conditions
I am born and raised here in Iceland so the ever changing weather is actually one of the few constants in my life and I don’t get fazed by hail or 50 meters a second wind. Because of this I may sometimes not understand the challenges that our weather presents to visitors that are not used to it. As a result I may also have cursorily put too much emphasis on people renting their own cars here on the blog, dismissing perfectly nice bus tours like something that should be avoided like the plague, without giving you a fair warning about what you’re about to get yourself into.
As the boyfriend and I were driving over Hellisheiði in a blind snowstorm the other day it occurred to me that we probably react differently to situations like that. By we I mean you, travelers visiting Iceland, and I the local. When the boyfriend and I are hit by a snowstorm on a mountain somewhere I find it uncomfortable but I don’t panic. I know from experience that the storm will pass and that we know how to drive in these conditions. I also know that we have brand new snow tires under our car and that we put a lot of thought into choosing them. So I’m mostly calm.
Someone who has never driven in such conditions might however have a completely different reaction and simply panic. When you are scared you take rash decisions that can be dangerous both to yourself and others around you. This, I imagine, is how people find themselves outside of the road in a jam or stopped in the middle of the road without their hazard lights making it impossible for approaching cars to see them.
Although most of the time you’ll be fine driving around Iceland in winter we sometimes have winters like this year where it feels like every week we have a storm warning somewhere with closing of roads to match.
So before you decide how you are going to travel around Iceland consider this:
- If you are not used to driving in extreme winter conditions and you don’t feel like you can handle a snowstorm or ice on the roads: Don’t rent a car!
- If you do decided that winter conditions are nothing to worry about do yourself a favor and rent from a reputable company where you can be sure the tires are good and the cars are in good condition. I know it’s tempting to save some krónur on renting cheaper cars but don’t compromise your safety.
- Before you head out always check the weather conditions and road conditions. Pay special attentions to warnings that are displayed at the top of the weather website.
- Listen to local advice! If we tell you something is a bad idea it’s probably because it IS a bad idea!
- If you encounter a road that is closed, it really is closed. Also, don’t trust your GPS over common sense, they’ve been known to give bad advice because they can’t factor in the different seasons and weather conditions. If there is a sign, a road block or a chain you have no business being there on your small rental car.
- Consider investing in a local SIM card. If something happens to you it’s much easier to help you if you can actually call for help. You can of course also use your foreign number but if the charges are really high on them it might be worth it to invest in a local card which are relatively cheap. It can also be good to have access to the weather and road condition websites on the go and data is cheaper on a local SIM.
Equipment (you know, clothes and stuff)
Although I’ve covered this topic extensively with posts about what to wear in Iceland, including packing lists and what not, I still want to mention this yet again. Although we exploit this arctic connection a bit too much (hello tourist shops and polar bears) Iceland is still on the edge of the arctic and the weather can be all kinds of crazy. Iceland is not as cold as New York City or Montreal in winter but the weather gods more than make up for it with strong winds, precipitation with more names than I can count that can all happen within the same hour and the infamous sideways rain. So the right gear is of the essence.
I’m not going to talk about bringing layers again, because if you haven’t figured that out yet there’s not a lot I can do to help you at this point, but during my recent escapades out of the city I realized that I had totally forgot to mention an essential thing to bring for your winter adventure in Iceland: spikes or springs for your shoes.
I call my springs my old lady springs because I feel like a senior citizen putting them on but no matter how much I make fun of them it doesn’t change the fact that they are super helpful and necessary even at times. I don’t use them much here in the city but last weekend during our drive to Jökulsárlón there were quite a few places that we simply couldn’t visit because of ice. I had mine with me but the boyfriend doesn’t have any so hiking to the beautiful Svartifoss waterfall for example was simply out of the question. I’m not saying everyone will need them all the time but it’s at least good to keep them in mind if the conditions call for them. You can also buy them here in Reykjavík if you would rather assess the situation before you make a purchase.
Also: waterproof pants.
Being spontaneous and booking things as you go
When I started this blog I wrote a post about how you could still travel in winter without making any reservations and let the mood and the winds decide where you would head next. It seems like this has changed.
People have been asking me a lot about ice cave tours in Iceland so I thought it would be a good idea for the boyfriend and I to try one out so I could share my findings with you. Well, the ice cave tours I found are basically booked out for the whole month of February so there was no way they could fit us in. To make a long story short we didn’t see any ice caves.
We also stayed at Vík hostel for the weekend and they were almost fully booked both nights. I remember a time where February was dead for many of the hostels so this was somewhat surprising to me. I didn’t contact other accommodation options in Vík to check the booking status there and maybe this is just because hostels tend to be the cheapest option available but it’s still something worth considering.
Finally, I wasn’t even sure whether it would be viable for me to do my tours all year round but I’ve had quite a few days this winter where everything is fully booked. Next weekend for example is completely booked out. In February! I would never have guessed this.
So what does this mean? If there’s anything you absolutely have to do while in Iceland where you know the availability is limited (like my tour *wink wink*) think about booking it in advance. And if you plan on going on an ice cave tour: book far in advance!