Roads in Iceland are generally in good condition, but periods of bad weather can temporarily make driving in winter in Iceland challenging.
Iceland has experienced a fast tourism industry development. The Nordic island receives around 2 million tourists per year. And it may not seem a large number compared to countries like France or Spain. But as most of these visitors decide to visit in the summertime, all at once, we’ve come to a point where tourists outnumber locals. The idea of Iceland being too rough during the winter months and that driving in winter is almost impossible, is not really true. If you are thinking about traveling to Iceland but can’t seem to decide if the coldest months are a good option when it comes to driving, then stick with us. We will let you know what it is like to drive in Iceland when the temperatures are at its coldest.
Just like most situations in life, everything has its advantages and disadvantages. The summertime has milder weather, but the prices are not as pocket-friendly and reasonable, so a bit of cold might not be that bad, right? During the coldest months, the country shows a totally different look. To me, it is like a winter wonderland. Everything is frozen, covered in snow, like a fairy tale postcard.
Wintertime usually ranges from late October to mid-April and weather can be very changeable and unstable. Most people think Iceland is extremely cold at that time of the month. The truth is, places like New York City or Canada have colder and harsher winters compared to the Icelandic one. Temperatures during the coldest months (January and February) have an average of 0º degrees Celsius (32ºF). Probably the most surprising thing is the daylight available at this time of the year. Due to Iceland’s latitude, the country has extreme changes in the light available during the day. From the almost 24h of light with the midnight sun in the summer, we go to barely 5 hours in December. If planning a trip to the golden circle or any other kind of day trips, you need to keep that in mind.
Driving during the wintertime is indeed feasible. Visitors just need to be aware of the conditions and have extra precautions. If you use your common sense, everything should go smoothly. The country is full of snow and ice, and although the plowing machines clean the roads regularly, you might still come across some ice on the way. So, what is the usual advice for these situations?
The most important one would be: check the weather and road conditions always. In Iceland, we are used to this type of weather but you might not. Driving under wintry conditions differs a lot from driving on a more stable climate. We have great tools at your disposal such as a live updated website from the Road Administration Agency where you can see the current conditions of each road on the island. That will surely help to avoid unwanted and probably risky situations. Sometimes Google Maps is not enough as it may take longer for the app to get updated.
As there might be many icy roads, you also need to drive slowly. Speeding never helped in this type of situation. If a sudden snowstorm occurs, find a shelter or a covered place to safely park your vehicle until the wind dies down.
If you plan to drive around Iceland, you probably will be renting a car. Your vehicle selection is also crucial to have a trip without any problems. Most rental car companies recommend driving a 4x4 wheel drive vehicle during the cold season. Studded tires are also a must to drive a car in winter. Make sure your vehicle does include them. Studs are not mandatory but winter tires are from the 1st of November, so our vehicle should at least have those on. When coming to Iceland in this cold period, you should add some leeway to each stop of your itinerary. Driving time is longer as the road conditions and weather can be harsh. Getting to places require more time on the road, sometimes it is not possible to keep on driving at all. So always have a backup plan, this way you can make the most of Iceland on your trip.
We already mentioned one of the best pros of a winter trip to Iceland: the prices. Everything is way cheaper compared to the summertime. Rental car rates can even be a 50% off in the low season. That also applies to hotels, campsites, and services. Places are also less crowded, there is way more availability, and the roads are there just for you!
But besides this, there is something even better: the northern lights. Also known as “Aurora Borealis," this nature’s show is a natural phenomenon that can light the night sky with bright, surrealistic colors. They have a phantasmagorical look, and that created many myths and legends within the Nordic folklore. Unfortunately, inhabitants of southern latitudes are unable to see them unless they visit places like Iceland. If you are coming in winter, then you are visiting is at the perfect time of the year! For the Northern lights you need darkness, and you have plenty of that during the wintertime. You need to mix that with solar activity and clear skies to see this great show!
The end of the summer does not mean it is the end of a perfect winter adventure. Iceland is also alive in the coldest season, and there are many activities you can practice in the outdoors. What about an unforgettable experience hiking on a glacier cave? That is for sure something very unique, hardly found anywhere else in the globe. Usual places to do glacier hikes are the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and the Skaftafellsjökull glacier in Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajöjull is the biggest glacier mass in Europe, so you can also practice snowmobiling or visit ice caves. In areas like Dalvik, the powder-like snow is perfect for any ski lover! It is considered the ski capital of Iceland so make sure to head there if you feel like sliding down the hills!
It might be cold, and the weather can be more severe. However, Iceland still has plenty of magic, activities, and options to choose from. Just use your common sense, stay updated, check the forecast regularly and you should be fine. Being prudent and wary will avoid any unwanted situations. You know what they say, one good forewit is worth two afterwits!