People tend to confuse Greenland and Iceland. And, to be fair, that was kind of the point.
The story goes that when the Vikings first headed off into the Atlantic to find more lands to conquer, they discovered the land masses that would eventually be called Iceland and Greenland. They had enemies, though (I suppose pillaging and being all violent and such does tend to lead to enemies), and were afraid that those enemies would follow them to their new developing settlement(s).
So they mis-named the islands on purpose. This way, enemies and marauders would skip “Iceland” altogether and make straight for the much more welcoming-sounding “Greenland.” And, since most of Greenland is actually covered in a giant icecap and basically uninhabitable, the enemies would usually die there.
Smart, those Vikings.
Today, of course, there aren't many marauders sailing the Atlantic in search of settlements (Viking or otherwise) to pillage. But the names of Iceland and Greenland have stuck nonetheless, continuing to confuse potential travelers.
So let's clear things up once and for all: while 10% of Iceland IS covered in glaciers, it's really not a cold, icy place like you might imagine.
The cold and icy thing is probably the biggest misconception about Iceland – but definitely not the only one.
I've now been to Iceland twice in the winter, and before each trip I had people ask me why I would want to go someplace like Iceland in the winter.
So, along with reiterating that Iceland isn't actually covered in ice, let me shed some light on some of the other things you might not know about Iceland in winter.
Things to know about traveling to Iceland in winter
1. It's not all that cold
Iceland sits in the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway. You would assume that this would make for some bitterly cold winters – but not so. Iceland also happens to sit in the Gulf Stream, meaning that the country has a much milder climate than its location (and, yes, name) would suggest.
Iceland DOES get snow in the winter (especially up at higher elevations), but you're actually more likely to run into rain and strong winds than snow drifts.
This does mean, though, that you need to pack for any sort of weather eventuality is a must when going to Iceland in winter; you never know what you'll get, and things can change multiple times in one day. Waterproof layers are key.
2. Lack of roads
Even though Iceland doesn't get the harshest of winters, there are parts of the country that get dangerous during the winter months.
The part of the country known as “the highlands” in the center of the island is pretty rugged to begin with, but in the winter the roads more or less disappear and become impassable unless you have a mega-super-duty jeep, satellite navigation, and experience driving in this part of Iceland.
The roads into the Highlands effectively close during the winter months. Even if you rent a 4WD vehicle, you won't be able to access this part of the country after the end of October – so no day trips to Landmannalaugar!
(Honestly, if you have dreams of road tripping around Iceland, winter probably isn't the best time of year to do it unless you want to mostly stick to the inhabited west and south coasts.)
3. Tourism doesn't shut down
Even though some of the roads close in the winter, tourism itself doesn't slow down in the winter. Most tour companies operate regularly; everything – from hot springs and waterfalls and geysers and snorkeling between tectonic plates and horseback riding and even whale watching – is still very much a go, no matter what the season.
Most of the popular tours (Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, trips to the South Coast beaches and waterfalls) run as day trips from Reykjavik, so you don't even really need to rent a car if you don't want to.
And if you want to go up into the Highlands to see glaciers and mountains in the snow, there are companies with the proper vehicles and trained drivers that can get you there.
In fact, there are a few things you can *only* do in the winter in Iceland. Things like…
4. Ice caves! Northern Lights!
You may not see whales in the winter (or puffins, for that matter), but the things you CAN see more than make up for the lack of Icelandic wildlife. You can go glacier hiking and snowmobiling, and also see things like ice caves and the Northern Lights!
Ice caves are always forming beneath Iceland's glaciers, but it's only in the winter months that it's safe to go inside them. Tours run frequently to the caves beneath Vatnajökull (Iceland's largest glacier) starting in November each year.
The Northern Lights, too, are best viewed in the winter (generally from September to March) when nights are longer and therefore darker.
The volatile winter weather won't always cooperate for aurora viewing, of course, but winter is your best bet for catching a show.
5. Long sunrises (and sunsets)
Since Iceland sits fairly far north, this means that it has long days during the summer and short days during the winter. Hearing that you may only get 6 hours of daylight in a day may not sound very appealing at first, but winter days in Iceland are special because of the loooong sunrises and sunsets.
Especially if you love photography and the magical blue and golden light that surrounds dawn and dusk, then you'll love Iceland at this time of year.
You don't have to get up early for sunrise, and you don't have to worry about rushing to catch the golden sunset light since it lasts for nearly an hour on a clear day.
6. You can find great deals
There are so many misconceptions about Iceland in winter – and this means that winter isn't nearly as popular when it comes to tourism. This is good news, however, because it means that you can often find great deals during the darker months in Iceland.
Hotels offer discounted prices, tours aren't as crowded, and you can usually find flight deals, too.
If you haven't considered a trip to Iceland in the winter yet, perhaps it's time you did!
What to pack for Iceland in winter
You can check out my full packing list for Iceland, but here are the essentials:
Warm and waterproof layers – The weather in Iceland is extremely changeable and unpredictable depending on where in the country you are, so you definitely want to pack layers that will keep you warm and dry. I recommend a good base layer (like silk leggings and a thermal top), an intermediate layer (like a good fleece or wool layer), and an outer layer that will keep you both warm and dry (my Columbia ski pants and long Lay-D Down jacket were perfect).
Good winter shoes – You absolutely need warm, waterproof shoes for winter in Iceland. I have a pair of Merrell Polarand boots that I absolutely love. If you don’t have heavy-duty boots and don’t want to purchase them, consider picking up a pair of Yaktrax that you can affix to your shoes to give you more grip in slippery conditions.
Warm socks – You'll want good socks to go with your good winter shoes, and these Heat Holders do exactly what they promise: they keep your feet incredibly warm even when it’s really cold out. (You can also grab some HotHands for your hands and feet if your extremities tend to get cold easily.)
And, even though it’s not a tangible item, I also always recommend packing a good travel insurance policy! That way everything from lost luggage to a bad accident is covered – because you just never know! I recommend World Nomads for basic (and really affordable) travel insurance.
Who's ready to travel to Iceland in the winter?
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