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A Guide to Conquering South Iceland in the Winter

By February 4, 2016February 2nd, 20228 Comments

It’s another world. Wind whips over winding roads with deafening sound. No matter how snowy it gets, there’s not a ski resort in sight. Why would anyone go to Iceland in the winter?!

Because it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

If you’re used to driving in the winter or consider yourself a road warrior, Iceland as a group travel experience with your buddies can be unforgettable. It’s an easy reach from either the U.S. or Europe, almost smack dab in between. Icelandair offers free layovers too if you’re heading either way across the ocean, making this the perfect layover. You’ll be handsomely rewarded with glacier hikes, waterfalls, crashing waves, black sand beaches, beautiful cities and so much more.

snowy road in west iceland

What to Bring to Iceland in Winter

Layers are always key in cold weather. Depending on how hearty you are, you’ll want some under armor, thick socks, gloves, hats and scarves. My LL Bean waterproof jacket was also priceless. My boots weren’t as sturdy as I’d like, so having something with good grip would be best.

I found it tough to manage my larger camera with the wind and elements, so sticking to something compact might be better. I really love the Ollo Clip – small smartphone lenses for wide angle and macro shots with my iPhone. I need to invest in the special case soon too so it fits perfectly.

Weather-wise in Iceland

It’s damn cold. There’s snow, sleet, a little rain, crazy wind and freezing temperatures. In the winter, it’s also dark until about 11AM, then gets dark again around 4-430PM. Be super careful while driving in these conditions. Most roads have few cars, so it’s a matter of driving straight and paying attention.

jeep ina standoff with a car in the snow in iceland

Speaking of cars, we drove a small front wheel drive and still were fine. Feel free to upgrade to some bigger or more rugged. I’d also suggest some sort of gravel insurance or additional protection, as many of the roads are unpaved and rough. I drove manual as well, but getting an automatic car rental in Iceland is often more pricey, so keep that in mind.

In the face of Icelandic winter and road conditions, having a cozy and trustworthy vehicle makes sense. Start looking for a winter camper at Cozy Campers, with options designed for chasing the northern lights. Whether you need a standard or premium 4×4 camper, always plan for and with the weather.

Culinary Preparation

Don’t listen to all that silly nonsense about fermented shark and other smelly things. Sure it’s available, but I think Icelanders are having a great time watching tourists suffer through these ‘delicacies’ – no one’s really eating them regularly! In fact, much of the food offered is beautifully fresh, colorful and locally sourced. You’ll notice as you drive that there’s tons of commercial and residential greenhouses so there’s great eats all year round. Here’s a couple dishes to look out for:

cured meat and beetroot salad with arugula in hotel husafell in iceland

  • Really, any local seafood is incredible. A fish soup is often a popular choice on the menu, made with steamed mussels, cream, tomato and white fish.
  • Cured lamb. It’s rich and often spices, sliced thin as an appetizer. You might see foal on some menus too, but I got squeamish about it!
  • Homemade ice cream. No matter how dark and cold it is, Icelanders love ice cream any time of year. A few places in Reykjavik have great shops, and some farms will serve made-that-day flavors.
  • Hot dogs! They are crazy good there and smothered in amazing toppings. Get a loaded one with fried onions and a creamy brown sauce.

Stop and Savor

Some of the best experiences in Iceland were the ones unplanned. Anytime we saw a pit stop that looked interesting, we’d veer off the main road and check it out.

A great point of interest was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall near Vik. It’s one of the tallest in Iceland and you can hike behind it. But during the winter that can be tricky, so enjoying the views from the front are just as dramatic.christian in front of Seljalandsfoss waterfall in iceland

Nearby is the famous Sólheimasandur Plane Crash wreckage from the 1970s and makes for some pretty awesome photo opportunities. But you’ll most likely need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to it. I also got see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano just off the main road that was the reason for my canceled trip to Ireland in 2010 because of all the ash in the air over Europe. There’s a scenic farm built right at its base as well.

Eyjafjallajökull volcano and farm in iceland

Past this is the town of Vik. There’s only a few hotels, restaurants and a village there, but the coastline is unforgettable. Head down to the black sand beach – it truly is as black as coal. There’s basalt formations, caves and huge swells of waves in the winter to marvel.

black sand beach and basalts in vik iceland

One of the most memorable encounters was with the Icelandic horses. They’re known to be a super-friendly breed and are plentiful throughout the country.

Here’s a few hints to help out with meeting Icelandic horses up close:

  • Stop on a safe part of the road and use your tongue to make ‘clicking’ noises. Many of the horses will trot over to say hello. Make sure you’re not trespassing!
  • I tried offering an apple that was quickly rejected. But one eyed my bag of chips which went over much better. But only a couple, as their diets are not made of junk food.
  • Watch for muddy, slippery land and gusts of wind. And do NOT go over fences as many are barbed or even electrified.
  • Or, simply sign up with a tour experience! There are countless farms or private operators that love to take guests horseback riding or simply to meet the animals. I didn’t get the chance to visit, but Iceland also has the The Icelandic Horse Park Fákasel that offers tours, shows and everything wonderful about the breed to discover.

Final Tips:

statue near vik in iceland with mountains and black sand

We weren’t lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on our five-day trip. The first night they did show very faintly in the distance. This definitely did not ruin the experience though! Don’t count on seeing lights as the highlight of Iceland – you might set yourself up for disappointment as they can be temperamental, like any natural occurrence.

I wish we took the time to check out a glacier. Apparently while in Vik we were very close to the Myrdalsjokull Glacier but were concerned about timing and road conditions. There are many operators who will take groups year-round.

Hallgrímskirkja chuch and statue in Reykjavik iceland

Reykjavik is worth a day or two of exploring as well. We had our first Icelandic meal at the Laundromat Café and loved its quirky vibe. Also take a look at the towering Hallgrímskirkja church, built to mimic the basalts found near Vik’s black sand beaches.

Here’s the route we drove – saw tons of great natural wonders, stayed at fantastic hotels and enjoyed a bit of the capital city too.

google maps route of a road trip through west and south iceland

Have you been to Iceland? What did you think? Do you have any tips?

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Instagram @Pure_Wander.

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